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Internationally renowned artists, the likes of SAMO legend Al Diaz and Time magazine cover calligram designer Dylan Roscover, will descend on New Orleans November 8 and 9 to honor the 25th anniversary of Jean Michel Basquiat’s visit to the Crescent City, which was one of his last trips out of New York before he unconsciously took his life 3 months later. This gathering has another purpose- recognizing and encouraging that similar, visual artistic street talk of the 1980’s that is exploding in New Orleans with contemporary artists emblazoning their personal messages on the exterior of buildings in the Bywater community (upper 9th ward). There are no anonymous channels of money, but only the artists’ voices in a compelling visual dialogue that makes you stop longer than 140 Twitter characters to understand the real story behind the walls. No more flat-painted facades, but warehouses, shotgun houses, garage doors, and shipping containers embellished with personal messages on the exterior, giving way to compelling stories that come from within.
Rising from streets that sit below sea level are these new found graffiti artists who are leaving a colorful imprint of their transitions through life after Katrina and giving us all their points of view. From the exterior of a garage that was part home to a voodoo priestess, to the resurrected buildings that are Rice Mill Lofts, and beer-making artisans in an old warehouse, there is an abstract optimistic inescapable street sense that is spreading across the Bywater.
Diaz and Roscover are coming to teach and learn from this aspiring talent, but also to be bystanders in the unveiling of a collaboration between Brandan Odums of Project Be and Gabriel Flores: the longest graffiti mural in the south at this point, spanning almost 40 feet long. For these expressive painters it is like putting a badge of passion and honor on a tin or concrete canvas that happens to be a public wall. Brandon has already provided us with compelling imagery in a housing project, closed since Katrina, near the Bywater, where he found peace in abandoned rooms to create oversized portraits of his mentors like Basquiat. Most of the people he has portrayed are those who marry his convictions and have spoken out loudly about their often controversial political and fundamental views. It takes guts to do this and be really good at it too.
This is a very rare opportunity to have all these celebrated artists in one place at one time. The pièce de resistance is an additional unveiling of a Dylan Roscover original calligram—his personal perspective of Basquiat that will fill an entire wall in the lobby of International House, a boutique hotel with its own internal voice that embraces the underground culture of New Orleans. As Sara Ruffin Costello said so eloquently in her latest New York Times T Magazine piece – “ …the glue that keeps the town rolling is its culture.” That’s my town she is talking about and one I have watched transition into allowing its core passion finally speak from the streets. It always has, but for some reason it remained hidden to only those who could hear and see. I believe that is the unspoken reason why people gravitate to our section of the Mississippi River, because it is a soulful voice that is welcoming to all. Perhaps we can all hear this now on All Soul’s Day.