2012 marks the 10th year for Subsurface, a collective of some of the best graffiti artists from across the nation. This year, they’re going big; it might even be considered their coming out party, complete with celebrity artists, panel discussions, gallery showings and after-parties.

In addition to the complete makeover of the two Near Southside buildings on Palmer Street that have been home to the event since 2004, five additional walls are slated for painting in the Fountain Square area. That means more artists and many more cans of paint.

Last year, anywhere from 750 to 1,500 cans of art-quality spray were used during the three-day paint fest. Big Car Gallery and iMOCA have signed on as sponsors.

An estimated 40 to 50 artists, or “writers,” as they refer to themselves, are scheduled to attend. Crews from Chicago, Cincinnati, Kansas City and Portland have already been assigned wall space, in addition to several high-profile teams from across the state.

Dave Chino, former graffiti editor of The Source magazine and a world-renowned graffiti artist and documentarian, will fly in from New York to take part.

“This is without question the finest collection of talent that we’ve ever assembled,” says Dan Thompson of Fab Crew, a major organizer of Subsurface. “I don’t think we’ve yet created the event that we want to show people. This year I think could be it.”

The pre-history behind the annual gathering began years ago when Thompson and fellow writer John Moore, aka Gems, began attending similar events in other major cities.

“We went to a thing in ’98 called Paint Louis that was like nothing we’d ever seen,” says Thompson. “This wasn’t the East Coast, or California. This was smack dab in the heart of the Midwest. And because there was no other event like it, everybody was there. All of the guys we’d heard of or seen work from in graffiti magazines were painting. The vibe was amazing. It’s been our dream to do something on that scale here in Indianapolis ever since.”

Plenty of color

The American Tent and Awning building at 205 E. South Palmer St., along with the Koch building across from it, have been ground zero for the Labor Day paint party since 2004. The site has transformed an otherwise nondescript near Southside neighborhood into a colorful backdrop frequented by photographers, video crews or merely the curious for prom photos, music videos and any project that has an edgy urban feel. It’s an ever-evolving landscape; no panel is sacred. Some artwork may last only long enough to snap a photograph to prove it was once there. It is not unusual to find a solitary writer or out-of-town crew at work in the dead of winter, adding some new vision, stylized signature or random squiggle over the top of someone else’s.

Then, on Labor Day weekend, Subsurface crews return in mass to wipe everything out with a coat of solid base paint and transform the entire brick canvas once again.

Attendees of this free event will be exposed to a wide variety of styles and combinations of color, from complex “wild style” lettering to full-scale visionary murals. Metal Fingers (MFK), a crew comprised of top-notch writers from across the nation plan to incorporate oversized photorealistic portraits into their artwork.

Developed over years of trial, error, influences and practice, each crew and individual has worked to carve out a style that can be recognized as their own.

According to Thompson of Fab Crew, style is “like an accent in speech.”

Fellow artist Gems relates it more to an individual fingerprint. “Each one is unique,” he explains, “like a snowflake.”

The Fountain Square area is a major focus this year as the annual jam seeks to expand its presence. Local team Fab Crew plans a large-scale mural of oversized moles riding coal cars through an underground mine on one sidewall of the Koehring building located on Prospect Street. DF Crew, one of the most respected graffiti teams worldwide, has been assigned prime wall space in the area. Metal Fingers will also be painting in Fountain Square.

What goes on each assigned panel will be at the discretion of each artist or crew. The amount of space allotted can be anywhere from a few square feet to half a block long.

An after-paint-party will be held Saturday night at White Rabbit Cabaret, where several local acts will perform. And a one of a kind sketchbook containing hand-drawn original artwork from most of the participants will be raffled off as part of the evening’s festivities.


The vandalism connection

Graffiti in some form or another has been traced back thousands of years, but a real explosion came out of New York in the mid-1960s. Some say this came about as teens scribbled on train cars to see their names and street numbers travel across town. As this grew in popularity, more elaborate and stylized signatures developed as ways to stand out from the pack. Others trace the roots to vandalism or gang tagging of territory.

Over the years, the artwork has become more creative, exploratory and ambitious. Its embrace by current hip-hop culture only solidifies its relevance.

Nonetheless, the roots remain in the vandalism, and the graffiti community makes no serious attempt to run from it.

According to Thompson, “Most writers aren’t purely out to destroy. Nonetheless, the true essence of graffiti is in the vandalism. There is no writer out there that got good without tagging or bombing or illegally piecing something somewhere.”

Timber, one of several Subsurface attendees from Cincinnati is more blunt.

“I don’t care how many murals you paint, or how many pictures you sell. If you didn’t pay your dues, you’d be shunned by the graffiti community. You’d just be considered a clown.”

Many of the writers attending Subsurface enjoy successful careers in commercial art, design and books. Some have held major art gallery showings. Thompson, along with Fab Crew partner Ben Long, produced two murals for the 46 for XLVI Super Bowl project and continue to be a presence in other large-scale local community projects.

Yet the warehouses, bridge underpasses and train cars many associate with the lifestyle remain the training ground where new talent go to pay their dues, develop personal style and hope for discovery.

Cincinnati’s Timber feels society fears graffiti because it signals a loss of control. Where some see art, others see anarchy.

“I’ve never been one to believe that just because someone has a million dollars, that they have a right to control what is acceptable, what constitutes beauty and what does not,” he says, “Art should be free to everyone; art can’t be owned. People in power see graffiti and they don’t understand it. And because they don’t understand it, it scares them. It scares them because they realize there are people out there who think different than them. If they can control what we see, then they think they can control what we think.”

Like a round of golf

Other writers, like Ish Muhammad from Hammond, take a more laid back approach. He likens painting to going out to play a round of golf.

“You’ve got your diehards and then you’ve got your weekend golfers,” he says. “You get your group together, get out your set of clubs and you go play a round, You get points for style, palette choice, difficulty. Some courses are more difficult than others. It’s all unofficial, you know. This ain’t the Olympics.”

Muhammad has been a well-known figure on the graffiti scene for over a quarter of a century. Members of his crew, CISA (Crazy Indiana Style Artists), are considered pioneers. He’s held major gallery showings and works within the community placing large murals to brighten depressed areas with art reflecting playful and positive viewpoints. But even after almost 30 years in the field, he admits to going out occasionally for a little “re-appropriation of space.”

Mark Ruschman, a curator at the Indiana State Museum and University of Indianapolis, feels that competition among writers may be one reason that graffiti manages to be viewed as current and fresh product, even after years in the public eye.

“These guys constantly push themselves to create new and exciting pieces,” he says, “competing not only against each other, but also against themselves.”

Ruschman sees excitement and a raw energy in the image, commenting that graffiti reflects many of the values he associates with folk or outsider art: “born not out of an academic environment, or for financial reward, but out of desire to create and an appreciation for the genre.”

Subsurface members have worked to change graffiti’s negative image.

“People from the neighborhood come out every year to watch us work,” says Gems. “It brings the community together. They’ve come to view the event as something that belongs to them, something that they enjoy showing off to other people. Artwork that belongs to everybody, which means it also belongs to them.”

Event details

Friday, August 31

Artist Meet & Greet and Photography Retrospective, curated by Ish Muhammad. 7-10 p.m.,

Big Car Service Center, 3819 Lafayette Road.

Gallery Show Featuring Dan Thompson and Bill Long. 4 - 6 p.m., Christel DeHaan Fine Arts Center, University of Indianapolis, 1400 E. Hanna Ave.

Saturday, Sept. 1

Live Painting throughout Fountain Square and off South Meridian, featuring: DF Crew, FAB Crew, Higher Level Art, Metal Fingers, Momentum Art Tech, Crazy In Style Art, Like One and more. 8 a.m. - 8 p.m.

SubSurface Official After Party with live music from TopSpeed, Proforms, Echomaker, Pope Adrian Bless & Salazar. Doors at 9 p.m., show at 10 p.m. White Rabbit Cabaret, 1116 Prospect St.

Sunday, Sept. 2

FAB Crew panel with Dave Chino, moderated by Ish Muhammed. 6 - 8 p.m., Christel DeHaan Fine Arts Center, University of Indianapolis, 1400 E. Hanna Ave.

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