Less an Invitation and More a Demand

Lobster Boyz Ceramic House

Last fall, while taking a walk in Vineyard Haven, I noticed that several of the pedestrian-crossing signs had been augmented. One of them had been given an octopus-like mane of hair, and was carrying a trident. An image of a wind turbine had been applied to another. Later that day, while driving to Chilmark by way of Middle Road, I spotted a red heart on a deer-crossing sign.

Near Lagoon Pond Bridge, no longer up

Near Lagoon Pond Bridge, no longer up

Intrigued, I decided to find out more about these doctored signs. (Last summer, as part of our “Found Art” project, MV Arts & Ideas published a photograph of a mermaid-crossing sign on Seaview Avenue in Oak Bluffs.)

The following day, Arts & Ideas received this email: “We are a pair of guerrilla artists who have been at work on the Island. If this interests you, we would be happy to talk to you more about it.” The email was from the “sign guys,” and yes, I took it as a sign.

“What sets us apart from other people who put work up is that we’re not painting,” explained one member of the duo who call themselves the Lobster Boyz. For the past four years, the Lobster Boyz have been applying adhesive backed vinyl to street signs and installing ceramic tiles in public spaces across the Vineyard. “I think of it as public art. I think that street art is kind of the trendy term for it. It’s not graffiti,” said the Lobster Boyz that I spoke with on the phone on two occasions (I will refer to him as LB1 going forward).  “We sort of stand in a tradition of people taking public spaces and rearranging them and giving them back.”

Street art: once enigmatic — the words “Kilroy was here,” along with a simple drawing of a sausage-nosed head peering up over line representing a barricade, started appearing on walls and military machinery during World War II.

Then problematic — graffiti became the symbol of urban decay in New York during the 1970’s, as the city struggled with rampant crime and fiscal instability. Former New York City Mayor Ed Koch once said, “It is a scourge, and those who do it should be scourged.”

Now a global phenomenon  — street artists have name recognition, think Shepard Fairey and Banksy, who has been named one of the 100 most influential people by Time Magazine.   

Historians of the modern street-art movement credit “TAKI 183,” arguably New York’s most prolific tagger during the 1970s; Jean-Michel Basquiat, who spray-painted his tag “SAMO” on walls across the city before finding fame; and Keith Haring, the man who popularized Pop Art on the street, and curated the first gallery show for street artists; with planting the seeds that pushed a publicly maligned art form (few called it art back then) into the mainstream. These days, it’s not unusual for street artists to have websites. There’s a TV show called Street Art Throwdown (on the Oxygen network), and street art festivals around the world have become popular tourist attractions.

Google “street art on Martha’s Vineyard,” and the results range from a street with an art gallery to the Art Cliff Diner. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist here. If you avert your gaze from the crimson sunsets in Menemsha, you may discover stenciling, tagging, stickering, and spray-painting among the thistles of the State Forest or the alleys of Oak Bluffs.

West chop

West Chop

And there are the road signs.

“The work is set along people’s journeys. It’s not a destination in itself, obviously. It’s along a route that somebody is going to take to go home, or to their job, or to get groceries,” said LB1. “One of the great things about doing work in public is that it has a short, really mercurial life; anything can happen to it, and I like that aspect of it.”

Street art shows up like an uninvited guest at a party. Sometimes it is embraced for its clever commentary and quick wit; occasionally, it simply goes unnoticed, and other times it is reviled and escorted to the door. Defacing public or private property, even for art’s sake, is illegal in most communities. “Modifying traffic control signs can distract from the intent of the sign,” explains John “Jay” Grande, Tisbury town administrator.

“I’m not going to make a legal argument for street art,” said LB1, “but there’s a certain boldness to doing work on the street that everyone should experience.” He added, “I love some of these people who are out there taking down the system with witty one-liners. I think it’s great that people write on walls. I used to teach a college poetry class, and I used to encourage my students to write on the walls.”

The road signs provide a preinstalled canvas outside the confines of a gallery, and an audience of the unsuspecting. “The whole world is your gallery,” said LB1. “I have an active imagination. I walk around and project things onto my environment, then I go home and put it on paper, and eventually put it up.” While the work is installed swiftly, they choose their locations in advance. “We’ll pick a spot, and then I spend days thinking about it,” explained LB1. “They’re all site-specific, so I’ll look at something, and I usually do a bunch of sketches, and then we get these giant sheets of adhesive-backed vinyl. You draw it on that and then you cut it out, or you paint it and stencil in the layers.”

Vineyard Haven

Vineyard Haven

Street art of any type, including children’s chalk drawing on the sidewalk, stretches the concept of canvas beyond what’s available at the art supplies store. It

West chop

West chop

invites the public to be a participant. Perhaps it’s less of an invitation and more of a demand. It pushes buttons, enrages, provokes. Messages span from subversive to hateful, obscene to humorous. Recently, a British man who calls himself “Wanksy” started painting phalluses around potholes in an effort to expedite their repair by public officials.

Skirting the law is part of the allure. The Lobster Boyz do their fieldwork by starlight, often while drunk. “You have a short amount of time to do it, and you’ve got to be in the zone when you do it, ’cause you don’t want to mess up the image. You have to be a little bit of a monk about it, and get into the mindset where the work is the only thing that matters, but once you’re done, you have to get out of the space as quickly as possible,” explained LB1.
The Lobster Boyz want to remain anonymous; however, LB1 told me they are both working artists in their 40s, and have family ties to the Vineyard that stretch back generations. “I have a great deal of love for the Vineyard,” said LB1. “It is not destructive impulses that lead us to do these things. We are both driven by an affection for the place.”

While some of their signs are intended to amuse, the Lobster Boyz have become increasingly interested in using this public forum to make a statement. “We have long conversations about things that affect us. Our social consciousness is in the work,” said LB1. A wind turbine often shows up on the signs they target. “Everybody has climate change on the brain these days,” LB1 explained. “The wind turbine is a symbol in response to climate change. We want to engage the public in a way which draws them in.”

A Lobster Boyz ceramic installation

A Lobster Boyz ceramic installation

Over Memorial Day weekend, the Lobster Boyz installed seven individually numbered, screenprinted ceramic tiles of houses, their most ambitious and issue-driven project to date. The tiles, approximately 8 inches by 8 inches in size, were discreetly set in locations around the Island, including Up-Island Cronig’s, a cement barrier wall at the East Chop Beach Club, and at the Bank of America at the Triangle in Edgartown. I asked LB1 to write a statement about this latest initiative. Below is an edited version of what he sent:

“In the past 30 years we have seen the Island we adore overrun by McMansions and despoiled by money. Martha’s Vineyard, rare home to the sweeping majestic outdoors, has gone under the knife of the sweeping crappy indoors. Added to that, a lot of the good people who gave the Island character can no longer afford to live here . . . Into this housing crisis, wade the Lobster Boyz with our own development solution – Vineyard Affordable Homes.  Each of these seven homes were custom built by a Lobster Boy and at $100 per square inch, they represent the vanguard of affordable housing on the Island. . . ” 

    While researching this story, I started noticing and hearing about additional graffiti and street art. Some of it seems intentionally destructive. Did someone really have to spray paint their tag on the air conditioner grill of an Oak Bluffs shop? Mocha Motts and Hang Five stickers seem to be slapped on to just about everything. Is that necessary? I did appreciate the sticker of a cigar smoking gaucho which is posted on several walls and I was intrigued to see images from well-known Washington DC street artist Stephen M. Cummings on several signs and utility boxes in Oak Bluffs. Local graffiti artists have also claimed several abandoned shacks around the island. One is a former campsite washroom hidden deep in the woods of Oak Bluffs that is now a collision of bold images and testimonials. I was able to track down one of the people whose work is on the building, who explained,      “You should never bomb a clean wall. We always look for places that are beaten up or abandoned. You paint on it and you kind of bring it back to life.” The shack is  a collaborative project, a synthesis of similar styles and sensibilities, far from the work that is being shown on the walls of local galleries. The interior is littered with empty spray paint cans, broken urinals, and more imagery. These words are scrawled on one wall, “When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace.”  Is it art, vandalism or idealism? It is there, hidden in plain sight, for you to decide.

Detail on abandoned bath house in the Oak Bluffs Woods

Detail on abandoned bath house in the Oak Bluffs Woods

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