Last month I was pleased to participate in an exciting un-conference that took place at the University of Pittsburgh. Sponsored by Pitt’s Global Studies Center, the Global Academic Partnership Conference: Beyond Crisis Creativity: Imagining New Futures Through Art and Youth Activism brought together artists, scholars, and assorted urban interventionists from Pittsburgh and around the world for a dynamic international dialogue.
The first event I was able to attend was a screening of Style Wars, a classic documentary on early hip hop culture that provides street-level perspective of the burgeoning graffiti scene in 1970s and 80s New York. This was my first viewing of Style Wars and it clearly belongs in the pantheon of essential visual archives of urban subcultures.
The screening was followed by a discussion with Shane Pilster and Max Gonazales, two prominent Pittsburgh graffiti writers and arts educators. I’ve been familiar with different aspects of their respective works for nearly the entire time I’ve been in Pittsburgh, but this was my first opportunity to meet them. During dinner that evening I had to restrain my overenthusiastic impulses to ask about the Pittsburgh graffiti scene and quiz them about various local writers whose names I’ve noticed over the years. I also got to them that I live next to one of their recent mural collaborations in the South Side that they completed last summer.
The next day began with a panel on the theme “Creative Industries and Urban Development in Global Contexts: Tourism, Gentrification, Heritage Work, and Social Justice Advocacy in Urban Arts.” I was delighted to get to meet my recent collaborator Ricardo Klein from the University of Valencia who was attending remotely from Spain, and to make the in-person acquaintances of Ligia Ferro from the University of Porto and Amanda Boston who joined Pitt’s Department of Africana Studies this year.
That afternoon featured a visit to the Carrie Furnaces, a national historic landmark and relic of Pittsburgh’s industrial heyday that is a locus of post-industrial reuse and arts initiatives. This was another example of a local site which I was long-familiar but had never previously visited. Before touring the grounds our group assembled in a massive warehouse space. Prior to the area’s redevelopment into a historic and cultural site, this space was a derelict and decomposing shell which attracted urban explorers and adventurous graffiti writers. Today the building has been renovated with a new roof and lighting, and the walls are covered in paint from both invited muralists as well as regular contributions from the arts workshops that are hosted in the space.
The rest of the grounds are impressive for the awesome post-industrial relics as well as the variety of artwork that has proliferated on the site.
Before leaving we were invited to try our hands at applying spray paint to the walls in the art workshop space. This was yet another first for me so I gave it a shot. After writing my name a few times I declared that I had exhausted my imaginative capacity. Some of the seasoned writers asked if I ever doodled, and when I replied in the affirmative they recommended that I just try some designs that I would typically scribble on a piece of paper. So I came up with this alien/spaceman figure. (I also painted the heart with arrow seen to the right of my name in the photo below, and was commended on my hand control…I did think the heart turned out well.)