Gallery Welcomes Hip-hop Heavyweights

Winnipeg Free Press, September 2, 2009

ARTS&LIFE, Graffiti Gallery hosting sultans of spray paint.

Gallery welcomes hip-hop heavyweights

By Morley Walker

graffiti pop art legend

You’d think they were royalty the way they’re being treated.But American graffiti gods Cey Adams and Erni Vale, in Winnipeg for a exhibition opening Thursday night, carry a lot of weight in a certain subset of visual art.

“They’re bigger than the Governor General for us,” says Steve Wilson, executive director of Graffiti Gallery, which is hosting the two sultans of spray paint.

“These guys hang out with Russell Simmons of Def Jam, Beyonce and all the stars of hip-hop.”Since the weekend, the pair has been busy preparing a massive three-wall mural to be unveiled in Graffiti’s 11th anniversary show, Hip Hop International: The Global Impact.

They have agreed to talk about their methods at the end of Thursday night’s free public opening.“It’s fascinating to see how something small that started in the five boroughs of New York has spread all over the world,” says Adams, 47, whose first name is pronounced “Say”.

“Here it is 2009, and people are still exited about it.”

The musical genre of hip-hop (often called rap), employing heavy beats and rhythmic vocals, started in Brooklyn, NY, in the late ‘70s with African-American youth. It is inextricably linked with graffiti and breakdancing, and has largely been embraced by suburban culture, though it’s still seen as a voice for the disenfranchised, including Winnipeg’s aboriginal population.

Adams, based in New York City, gave up writing graffiti in the mid-’80. He has since become a powerhouse in hip-hop design and merchandising.

His credits include album covers for such rap acts as the Beastie Boys and Run DMC. He designed the logo for comedian Dave Chapelle’s TV show.

The Los Angeles-based Vales, 44, has become famous for his large-scale 3D-slyle murals. Like Adams, he has influenced thousands of young artists.

“These guys and their buddies were the first to paint subway cars,” Wilson says. “When they were growing up, they started the whole breakdancing culture.”

Their connection to the Graffiti Gallery came about a few years ago after Vales came here with a friend he had made from Winnipeg. She took him to see the gallery, and since then he has worked with Wilson and artistic director Pat Lazo on a number of projects.

“He’s a patron of the gallery, just like the Governor General,” says Wilson.

Adams says he can’t get over how far his youthful ideas have traveled.

“It’s great to see people dedicated to the same style and work ethic we had in the early days,” he says. “And grown-ups are organizing it!”

In 2007 Gov.Gen. Michaelle Jean paid high profile visit to the Graffiti Gallery, becoming a patron of the non-for-profit organization which has earned plaudits for its programs designed to empower inner-city youth.”

Adams says organizations like Graffiti have taken the art form into the mainstream.

“In our day we were all illegal,” he says. “There was no structured system. Today you have all these other outlets. What’s their excuse for writing graffiti illegally?”

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