David Gerena’s show, History Of Graffiti Pt 1, is displayed now at Cincinnati Art Underground in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. It chronicles his early work in street art and graffiti through his current oil on canvas works in a style he terms figurative graffiti.
Gerena, who grew up in the Bronx, is considered one of the pioneers of the graffiti art movement which began in the early 1970s, largely in Philadelphia and New York City. He famously painted at the ROXY NYC nightclub in the Chelsea neighborhood , one of the earliest meeting points of both graffiti and hip-hop culture.
History Of Graffiti Pt 1 showcases Gerena’s progression as an artist – from a teen creating tags and graffiti in the Bronx and Manhattan to his portraiture which utilizes traditional material such as brushes and canvas, through to his current fusion of figurative forms depicted with spray paint color and ink marker lines on canvas.
Included in History Of Graffiti Pt 1 are hands-on displays of the limited tools teens in the late 1970s developed to make graffiti. Felt from school blackboard erasers were rigged inside plastic deodorant cases and the material was then saturated with ink to create a rudimentary wide marker. The markers would leak ink, which led to the ‘drip’ style of lettering associated with graffiti art in the 1970s and 1980s.
Featured in the show are ink on paper mockups of subway cars with designs for lettered graffiti art as a concept for possible works. These heavily feature the ‘Bubble Letter’ style so strongly associated with early graffiti art. Gerena only painted two trains in his career, instead focusing on murals, which distinguished him from many of his contemporaries.
“Untitled” from his recent ‘compassion’ series highlights his new figurative graffiti style. The use of exaggerated drip marks from both the ink lines and spray paint bridge his earlier street created art to his current style which uses stylized figures and cup images to comment on human compassion.
“Sign of the Times” is inspired by Prince’s 1987 album and song of the same name. Like Prince’s work, Gerena’s piece comments on AIDS , heroin abuse, and gun violence. Royal purple and lavender spray paint comprise a clear nod to the late musician, while his figures and graffiti style line and color work plant it firmly in the realm of street art. Keith Haring is also an obvious influence on Gerena’s figures, with their strong stylized lines and simplified forms. They are almost Haring’s ‘Radiant’ figures in repose, Gerena’s contribution to Haring’s comment on the AIDS crisis in New York of the 1980s.
Gerena’s career, from the street artist monikered KAOS – to the gallery shown artist working on canvas, traces the trajectory of his maturation. In some ways his works mirror the progression of street art generally and graffiti art specifically, but History Of Graffiti Pt 1 documents a biographical and artistic journey more than an overview of the genre. Yet it is in that sense that his show is better understood and ultimately more satisfying.
History Of Graffiti Pt 1 runs through November 24
Cincinnati Art Underground
1415 Main Street
Cincinnati OH 45202
–Will Newman is a free lance writer and musician living in Cincinnati