Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Recontextualizing Andy Howell, or, How Can I Make This Essay Sound Even More Unappealing Than It Already Is?

Art, Skateboarding, and Life: Belated Notes on Andy Howell

Jerry Cullum

My chief professional distraction from practicing intellectual history and exploring the condition of consciousness studies consists of the need to visit more or less non-mainstream galleries, in search of two-hundred-word writeups for the entertainment section of the daily print medium.

I have, for years now, been slightly baffled by the question of where such an obviously coherent alternative aesthetic came from, in terms of skatepunk, hip-hop visuals, and many assorted other movements that are associated with, but not really part of, the greater Lowbrow movement.

Few things are more annoying to would-be art historians than art movements whose history has not been adequately chronicled. And this set of them seems particularly under-researched.

So imagine my surprise when I finally discovered, on perusing the interview with Andy Howell in the June 2008 issue of Juxtapoz, that a significant part of this international aesthetic was birthed in Atlanta circa 1991 when skateboarder Andy Howell got to know hip-hop artist Lil Jon, who worked at Skate Escape.

Howell says that in 1991 he was “fusing Sesame Street beats with GI Joe music and adding punk beats and making this weird hybrid that ended up sounding like carnival hip-hop with ADD.” Which beats all hollow the kind of cultural fusion that James Clifford was then recording in anthropological circles, but who knew?

The cartoony creatures crawling across the iconography of this mash-up (before we learned to refer to hybridity as mash-up) were enough to keep the uninitiated at bay. Heck, we hadn’t quite picked up on “hybridity” yet, even if Les Magiciens de la Terre in Paris and New York’s three-venue extravaganza The Decade Show had cued us in to the possibility that there were more ways of putting the pieces together than we had previously thought.

Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic was still a couple of years away, Cornel West was still pretty much doing liberation theology coupled with deconstruction, and nobody, but nobody, was noticing the creative output of guys working at skate shops in Atlanta, Georgia.

But Howell and Co. brought forth Ma$$ Prophets t-shirts and music that, as Lil Jon put it in 2008, “sounded really good for 1991.”

And, Howell testifies, the birth of the politically minded Zero Sophisto came about in this wise: “Zero Sophisto started as a reflection of Atlanta and us all skating the city with everyone in our crew. Skateboarding was universal. All sorts of different races and cultures together, and in the middle of Atlanta? That was an anomaly. …I started drawing graphics with crayons for clothes to make it appear as if all these political statements were coming from a kid writing them on the street in the middle of the city. I wanted to show that this new language, which I called Zero Sophisto, was being created by kids with skateboards and paint cans.” [p. 64 of article cited below]

And in the fullness of time Mary Jane Jacob brought the globally approved version of public and political art to town for the Cultural Olympiad, and meanwhile a whole movement remained underground in spite of all the declarations that “the underground” was, like, so over.
It was, but apparently the systematically overlooked was not.

And outsiders could peruse all the near-illegible little magazines (literally little…a friend remarked that the type on the tiny pages was too small to be read by anyone over thirty), and still have no clear idea what was going on. Graffiti continued as it had for decades (and still continues, wild style and the rest being some thirty years old this year), but the other meldings and fusings and gatherings-up were something else entirely. Except when they weren’t.

Howell, of course, didn’t come out of nowhere. “New York influenced me a lot. … The hip-hop kids in NY were really looking across the club at that point [“between ’89 and ’92,” he says elsewhere] and kind of nodding to the skate kids. There was no crossover, just a mutual respect creatively. It was an infant scene at the time of hip-hop kids, skaters, and street artists. It was even smaller in Atlanta at the time, but there were a group of us making beats and skating and writing graffiti. Of course my graffiti became skateboard graphics, and then started getting into some of the original art shows at Alleged Gallery on Stanton and Ludlow.” And the Atlanta music scene was birthed “even more underground, and just dirty and raw like the South was at that time. Jon actually branded the ATL sound in a way with Crunk.” [p. 67, op.cit.]

All of which would find its way, distorted and in pieces, into the mainstream media with terminology that now functions as a set of marketing tools. But there were Howell and Jon, out in front without quite intending it, and Shepard Fairey remarks admiringly, “Seeing the connection between music, skateboarding, and art, and seeing how you took creative control of the cultures you were participating in was always something that was huge for me. Especially how you were one of the first people to really embrace graphic design intertwined with illustration. You seized the coming of digital media and art really seamlessly.” [p. 67 of “You Will Be the Guest of a Gracious Host: Andy Howell interview by Shepard Fairey, Lil Jon, and Evan Pricco,” Juxtapoz vol. 15, no. 6 (June 2008), 58-73.]

On page 64, the large quote, which is all some people notice while they look at the pictures, reads “For me everything culturally, artistically, and even technologically has merged.” And it has, for sure.

Now, my actual point is fairly elementary. Howell addresses his interviewers thus: “Jon, you never thought you were going to create a new genre of music when you were listening to punk and skating; Shepard never expected to inspire a wheatpaste and stencil movement when [he] first put up those stickers in Providence; and I never thought I’d help influence the fusion of art, skateboarding, and hip-hop culture when I was rapping in my high school art class. We all ping-ponged ideas off each other over and over again, indirectly at times, which is how popular culture evolves.” [pp. 67, 70]

Well, actually, that’s how culture evolves in general, as anyone who has ever put together a collaborative art or performance piece or work of scholarship can testify. And there are loads of theoreticians whose insights could be applied to understanding the history of all this stuff.

But first somebody has to wade through enough issues of Juxtapoz to do it, and that will require a Ph.D. candidate who grew up with the stuff instead of being turned on by the idea that there were the Cantos and The Waste Land to be had instead of the Top 40 rock crap on their smalltown radio stations. It will require somebody who grew up on the far side of the dissolution of the old high-low distinctions and somebody who likes low and high together from the times before.

And to quote the prophet of my elderly generation, it ain’t me, babe. No, no, no, it ain’t me, babe. It ain’t me you’re lookin’ for, babe.


troylloyd said...

thanx for posting this Jerry.

what you bring up is an oft neglected aspect of how the cultural apparatus chugs along -- i've often been curious about the developmental aspects of subcultural development -- about the only book coming close that i've came across is Lipstick Traces by Greil Marcus -- but in particular, it's the american aspect i'm intrigued with: were Scottish lowlanders (a.k.a. hillbillies) one of USA's earlest subcultures?

& of course the African influence for without which us Yanks would be strictly four corners, like square man, square: stuckmuddy in dragsville city. i've read Leroi Jones's Blues People where he touched at the influence upon "white america" , but i feel this subject hasn't been explored deeply enough.

anyroads, what prompted my fingers to comment was that i used to skate w/ Andy H., the stratum of skateboard-sociology encodings are complex, but simple enough -- usually based upon the differing tiers of ability, being a lowgrade sponsered amatuer myself, i never actually was a part of the Andy "crew" -- he was a professional skateboarder way back then & rode for Schmitt Stix which later evolved into New Deal which was one of the earliest skater-owned board companies that would eventually revolutionize the industry.

Andy was cool because he was so naturally rad, smooth as smooth -- flowing -- in fact, his skatezine was called Fluid Motion. But, i didn't particularly like him on a personal level, he was a richkid from Virginia Beach & spoke with an uppercrust accent similar to how old-money families from Charleston or Savannah speak, on top of that he was obsessed with Morrisy (whom i despise) & even hadda leather jacket done up w/ Morrisy in best James Dean pose on the back...in short, he was a bit of an asshole -- but we were still young & i'm sure all the attention & being a professional skater atta young age went to his head, so i can understand & i've been responsive to his work as of late when i come across it.

the thing is, he was an "outsider" to Atlanta & blew in town & became a signifier for Atlanta even tho he wasn't from here -- at one time he was a vert guy (halfpipe ramps) but due to an injury he started skating street -- which was the style that would come to dominate the sport --

thus, Atlanta's own golden child Fred Reeves was somewhat forgotten about, & Fred in my opinion is the most naturally gifted skater Atlanta has ever known --

then Thomas moved his skateshop from Chesire Bridge down to LFP, Crazy Lou's couldn't take the heat & closed down -- Crazy fuckin' Lou rules!!!
i remember watching Dekalb public access channel once & there was a documentary about Lou Majors & showed him at an exhibition of his in France & it was eyesome as hell!

again i go off kilter,redirect.

sometimes it's good these things are left unsaid or undocumented --
like how i came across a book of old 80's hardcore punk flyers & from the "official" presentation of a hardcover book they had seemed to lose the steam 'n energy they had once contained, i think when taken out of context & placed inna canonical terrain, it just deflates.

like would one rather see Brian Chippendale's artwork in the original context of Fort Thunder or in some New York gallery? -- of course Fort Thunder, & Chippendale knows this all too well, feeling the need to place a sign in the window of the gallery which was representing him that said "we do sterile"

etc etc

as you may well see, yr post wasn't unappealing at all & i enjoyed the good read & was thusly prompted to think on this subject which has been backburner inner brains...

...so thanx.

are fun!


troylloyd said...

oh yeah,

my favorite elderly generation quote:

"kick out the jams motherfucker !"

from the all-powerful MC5 who were the only musicians with big enough balls to show up for the '68Democratic convention in Chicago, most eveybody else cancelled.

watching archival footage of The Who performing "my generation" has flipped my lids & still rox my sox after all these years -- it still stands, esp. in live performance form..

troylloyd said...

& another addition:

i've found a pic of Fred Reeves:

The Fred

littlejoke said...

Excellent, I don't check this blog often enough, and always forget to ask Blogger to forward comments to my e-mail.

I'm supposed to write a guest post for Bare and Bitter Sleep one of these days, maybe I should combine your splendid footnotings with this post and try again.

troylloyd said...

feel free.

any specific questions/queries, shoot me an email.

i think it's fertile grounds for the tilling.



Crazy Lou's really was the best tho, his skateshop underneath Junkman's ontha corner & going to the basement down those cool steps & sand ontha floor & vintage silver surfer comics laying around --

-- a strange thing happened when he closed the shop, he changed his name to One Being & adopted a somewhat different persona & sat out fronta Junkman's with table, reading peoples fortunes.

the machine eats the kids so fast nowadays they don't even know they're being eaten.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, how bout that guest post? Maybe you can pull me out of my current blogging mini-hiatus. (Swamped with paperwork...) I'm ALWAYS interested in this whole discussion of how various art world work in parallel, then intersect, then diverge... I've lately formed the opinion that those who disparage Atlanta's art scene should visit Art Beats + Lyrics. A heavy dollop of horse shit plus some of the most true, authentic and genius visual work you'll see anywhere in the south.

Anonymous said...

Tory Lloyd
I don’t normally reply to comments on blogs, but found your comment from a while back was a bit out of line, and completely false. So I wasn’t sure what you actually got out of writing this BS about me, or what issue you had ever had with me. True, I wasn’t from Atlanta, but Atlanta was definitely my home, and where I discovered myself and my passions. I grew up in a Virginia Beach suburb in a middle class family, and came to Atlanta for art school. Fred Reeves and Thomas Taylor were the first two skaters I met in Atlanta who would skate on the street with me, though I knew the Rancheros from past vert contests and caught up with them in pools around the city. Fred and I skated together a lot, and because of the success I had in skating I was asked to write some Atlanta articles for a mag called Poweredge as a correspondent. I did an interview with Fred for it, even shot photos of him. He always has and always will be one of the best. I made money as a pro skater and founder of New Deal and Element, but I wouldn’t call that a rich kid syndrome. Quite the opposite, I got a scholarship to a private school because my mom taught first grade there, which I left to attend public school when I started skating. I never had a leather James Dean Morrisey jacket, by the way, though I did like his music, especially the first Smiths stuff.

I was actually happy to read the article that you commented on, which had some insight. Your comments, however, sounded like an impotent child who was pissed because he didn’t make the final cut.

Sorry, and I hope things are better for you now.

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