RJ Rushmore runs the well-known street art blog Vandalog, which he created in 2008. A 20-something student currently residing in Philadelphia, Rushmore recently released an e-book entitled Viral Art, with the help of a Tri-Co Digital Humanities Research Fellowship. The book discusses communication technologies in relation with the changing nature of graffiti and street art. Rushmore has interviewed a number of prominent street artists and runs the blog while attending Haverford College. ArtSlant STREET spoke with him about Vandalog, street art, the Internet and what might lie in his future.
You mentioned you want more academic writing about street art. It seems that there’s more merging of the academic and street art worlds so I think we’re in an interesting moment.
Yeah and you know, there are a couple of other people doing it… I’m really looking forward to reading, particularly, Alison [Young]’s book because she is a professor and it’s useful to have them looking at street art. And for street artists to have this thing they can read that’s about them in a more serious manner than a coffee table book. On the other hand, I’ve curated shows in galleries and there’s a place for that, right? Just [like] how there is a place for coffee table books and Instagram and blogging and recycled images. Because if it was only academic, that wouldn’t be very productive either. [If] you’re saying this whole group of people who aren’t gonna read something academic because they’re not interested — you’re shutting them down.
There’s a bit of an imbalance. I don’t know how many friends I’ve had that have written master’s [theses], dissertations or essays in college on street art, graffiti, hip hop, those sorts of things. And then you think about the number of professors that are actually teaching it at that level and there’s an imbalance for sure.
Besides receiving the grant, what inspired you to write Viral Art?
My friend Stephanie Keller saw a couple of posts that I had been writing about street artists using the internet in clever ways, and she suggested that there might be a book in those ideas. We hashed out an outline of the book one night over a dinner and way too many drinks, and I started working almost immediately. Especially at that time, summer 2011, there just weren't enough people thinking about street art in a serious critical or academic manner. I wanted to help shift that discourse, and this seemed like the subject that I knew about and was worth writing about.
As the book came together, I realized that I was trying to save something. Street art and graffiti, the best works, are about surprising interventions. And I wanted to help show one way of keeping this kind of art relevant in an era when we're always looking at our phones: surprising interventions online. Today I was in a car riding by a freight train. I saw a piece by KATCH1. A wholecar on a freight train. Absolutely stunning. A surprising intervention. The car stopped just so I could get a better look. If I were on my cell phone looking at photos on Instagram, I would have missed it. Luckily, there was no cell reception where I was. But that's rare. So if we're going to be on our phones or laptops 99% of the time, artists should be intervening there like they do on the street, if they want to do surprising interventions.
How has the book been received so far?
As far as I can tell, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. Of course, who is going to tell me that they hated it? I wish someone would. What's the point in writing something that everyone agrees with? But I think there's a little bit of something in it for everyone. The first chapter is for the classic graffiti nerds and people who hate the internet. The middle two are for those who want to understand street art and graffiti today. The final chapter is for the dreamers who want to glimpse a possible future and be challenged. I got to a point a few months before the release, while I was still editing, where I just wanted the book out. At that point, I fully expected and was comfortable with the idea that six people would read Viral Art. In less than a month, there have been 2000+ readers. So, I'm pretty happy with that.
What was your biggest challenge in writing it?
Giving the book away for free was an easy decision, but explaining that to people has been a challenge. People expect to pay for books, and a free book either means it's not very good or there's a catch. But I what I realized is that there was no money in a print book, and so why charge the reader? Why charge someone $30 for a printed book that I might get $3 from, once the publisher recouped their costs? But I'll admit feeling a tinge of embarrassment emailing greats like Shepard Fairey and Ron English to say "Hey, remember that book I interviewed you for? It's finally coming out, but it's a free ebook rather than the print book I promised," and now I'm trying to convince potential readers that Viral Art is just as legitimate as a book published by a traditional press.
Do you remember the first piece that you saw on the street?
The first piece I saw that wasn’t Banksy or Shepard Fairey… Ben Eine. It was in London, in Shoreditch. It was this mural that’s still there that says ‘scary’ with a big, red background and bold, black text. I turned the corner and saw this and thought, ‘What the hell is that? This is crazy.’ That’s what you’re supposed to get from street art, you’re supposed to come across it unexpectedly and that’s how you get the most impact from it.
It’s near a bunch of old Banksy pieces, not even a minute’s walk away and so of course those are covered in plexiglass They’re in a sense being preserved in a museum or something insane. They're really dead, they’re inert. But to walk by and peek at the Banksy piece I know is around the corner protected by security cameras and plexiglass and to see that [Eine] piece next door really blew me away. That’s what those Banksy [works] are supposed to do but once they became part of the tourist map and the shops realized they could make money off them, they made them inert in a sense.
I noticed a lot of other articles mention your age and that you started the blog around 18. There seems to be the young group online and the older groups in galleries and collecting. Did you ever think you were too young to start the blog or talk to artists?
I think I was naive enough not to have that thought. And I'm glad, you know? Because there's this old saying that nobody knows that you're a dog and who knows who's behind the Twitter handle or whatever. People in London definitely knew that I was very young because people were reading Vandalog while I was there. They often knew that my dad had some paintings. I would go to the States and realize that people there had no idea and they were totally blown away. Not that I ever made a secret of my age, but not everyone is gong to read the about section and look at the bio.
For sure, I probably have certainly said some stupid things. I remember the first time I came across a Steve Powers [piece] and I didn’t know its history and I said I don't really know—and now I understand the work better and I think that it’s awesome to see where it’s coming from. I'm sure I've gone in and said things without the grounding I should have. But that’s street art and graffiti. It’s great that there are people out there who know things and can say, ‘Hey, Alec Monopoly is ripping that artist and that artist,’ or whatever, right? But at the end of the day if you are coming across it on the street, the artist has to make work that can be seen with no context. So maybe only in street art or something like street art would this blog work. I think you’d have a hard time with something like a contemporary sculpture blog and being 17 or 18 years old starting that.
Do you feel like having the blog and being online makes it easier to connect with people?
For sure. It's so much easier. About five years ago it was still when, yes, everyone could start a blog but nobody really knew what that meant. I remember when we were launching, I had a Flickr page for maybe 6 months. I’d been posting photos but I was not some big shot in the street art community. I was able to email C215 and Know Hope.
I hadn’t met C215 and I was able to get an interview with him for the launch of the website and that’s in a sense kind of ridiculous, right? At the time I guess I thought, ‘This is one of the top artists in the world and I’m just gonna shoot him an email and say hey, I have a website and of course he’ll say yes.’ If I didn’t have a website, why would I have thought of that?
The other thing is on Twitter as well there’s been communities that have popped up, whether you have a website or not and are a writer or not. On Instagram, I meet people who I follow and I can see they follow me or are liking my stuff. The conversations I’ve had on Instagram have been carried over into real life, whether that’s somebody that lives in Philadelphia or somebody who I meet in New York or Los Angeles—we happen to be there at the same point and it provides a starting point which is hugely helpful for me and artists as well.
Did you imagine you would be curating, writing and managing a blog while in college?
When I started the site I didn’t really have a huge dream for it or anything but I didn’t think, ‘okay, this is going to be 12 months and then I’m done.’ So yeah, I always thought of it as a great way—again, being out in Philadelphia—to remain connected to a lot of different communities. It forces me to be online where these people are. I went back to London over the summer and hadn’t been back in two years and it was great because I could come back and everyone knew I was going to be in town because were were online and they’re reading Vandalog… It’s a way for me to stay connected, really.
This is kind of a fun question. For someone just getting into street art, which artist would you suggest?
Swoon for sure because I feel she’s a big name. She’s really talented and she kinda gets the ethos of street art, the ethos that I most respect about it. She's just inspired so many people. It’s a great starting point. For something more experimental, I love to throw out Brad Downey or Evan Roth. Evan in particular from FAT Lab. He represents the shift in viral, going from using a physical location to digital locations and still intervening in public space and getting to the core of street art which is intervention.
FAILE are masters and they do this mix between digital and traditional medium works. And then I think, you know, you gotta just throw out Shepard Fairey and Banksy as reference points, right? They’re both really talented artists; even if they’re not the guys innovating the most today you can’t understand contemporary street art without understanding those guys.
Os Gemeos for South America. You can't forget there's an entire scene in South America that’s huge and that’s developed largely independently in this weird way. They got Subway Art and Style Wars and then they kinda ran with it. So Os Gemeos exemplify that really well.
What’s next for you? Are you thinking about that big question of what you want to do? Do you want to teach? Curate?
I graduate in May and I just want to stay involved in this weird area of institutional street art, whatever that means. You know, supporting these men and women who are doing a lot of work, generally illegally, and providing them with outlets that can get them some money and some attention [in ways] that aren't necessarily illegal. I work with a mural project in Little Italy, New York and that’s been really fun—and gallery shows. Because if I can curate a show and sell somebody’s painting, that’s great. Somebody got some artwork in their house but it’s also financing the artists who do this either full time or for at least more of the time.
Shepard Fairey in LA.
Shepard Fairey has said something along those lines, saying, ‘If I was working at a diner, my work wouldn’t be as good.’ But he was able to make t-shirts and do designs for Sprite and stuff. He then took those techniques and brought them into his art practice. So if I can be somebody that helps that happen more often, then great.
(Image on top: Banksy under plexiglass; All photos courtesy RJ Rushmore)