“It was an honor to be a part of history. The rest is history.” Spray paint artist Chor Boogie (www.chorboogie.com) is hanging out amid spurts of December rain in Clarion Alley, standing before his mural debut in the heralded Mission community art space. But he’s talking about a different piece, on a different chunk of creative community space, in a city halfway around the world: The Eyes of the Berlin Wall, which Boogie painted on an actual section of the Berlin Wall and was reported to have sold for 500,000 euros this fall.
The real story is a bit more complicated — and perhaps speaks to the uncertain position in which street art finds itself. After all, we’re at the close of a few years of pop culture re-ascendance, during which Banksy made a stencil art photographer of every major city tourist and that are ending with Brazilian muralist Blu’s commission of a massive mural facing a World War II memorial by Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art that was subsequently whitewashed when he painted a wall of coffins draped with dollar bills.
What is street art’s role today? A form once used by inner city youth to reintroduce their stifled voices into their surroundings is now heralded in the upper echelons of the art world and hipsterdom alike. Still, many so-called street artists are getting stuck in stale, reductive modes of being presented to the public — stale because many do public art as a form of getting known, fluidly moving back and forth between the corner and the gallery. What are we to call these artists?
I know one name for them: Chor Boogie. After a tough youth spent tagging in San Diego, Boogie, borne on the wings of a technique and style that pushes the capabilities of the aerosol can (he never paints without it) has achieved artistic notoriety. His low pressure, inverted style of spraying and rejection of stencils and other tools gives birth to kaleidoscopic psychoscapes — but why don’t we let Boogie describe Boogie?
“A surrealistic expressionism of a street romantic voodoo. Emotional landscapes of a melodic symphony through color therapy — that’s my style in a nutshell,” he tells me, pointing up at the twisted face-in-purgatory that he recently completed in Clarion, a piece that extends a full foot above the boundary delineated by the alley’s mural collective and onto the high priced condo above.
Boogie has painted at the Beijing Olympics, done portraits for Hugh Hefner and Jay-Z, has vast, stained glass-cosmos murals all over town, and gallery shows up and down the coast. His name gained widespread recognition when some kids tried to steal a few of his cans while he painted a Market Street mural in late 2009. He chased them into a dark alley and was stabbed twice. “I didn’t feel it at all because I was drawing,” he says, despite one wound landing an inch from his lower intestine.
His distinctive style may have been what drew the fateful attention of Patrice Lux at Berlin’s Stroke Urban Art Fair. For two days, the German art collector had scrutinized Boogie while painting at his festival booth. Boogie had no idea who the guy was. “He was studying my every move — finally, he walked up to me, asked me what my name was, and asked me if I’d like to paint the Berlin Wall. He took me up to his studio and he had a piece of the wall with Michael Jackson painted on it. I was like, ‘You want me to paint over that? Because I will!’ I think he thought it was kind of cool to have an American artist painting over this American pop star.”
Boogie was signing up to paint on a piece of graffiti history. When first erected, artists came from around the world to cover the western side of the wall in color, often working under the ominous gaze of East Berlin patrollers who kept the eastern surface sterile. “Artists risked their lives painting that wall. You went there at night and painted quickly,” says James Prigoff, an international street art photographer.
But by his visit in 1985, Prigoff was underwhelmed by what he saw. “It had become a funny zoo,” he remembers, tourists gawking at East Berliners and tagging the wall with shout-outs to relatives in Des Moines.
Although Keith Haring and Quick subsequently created memorable pieces on the wall, Prigoff thinks the site’s sociopolitical significance has shrunk. “Chor Boogie is a great artist, he deserves all the attention he gets. But [his painting on the wall] doesn’t do anything for me in the context of art. There are a lot of walls in the world, and that’s just one of them.”
Not everyone agrees. Lux tipped off Die Bunte Zeitung, one of Berlin’s major newspapers, that he would be looking for 500,000 euros for the piece of the wall Boogie had painted — dwarfing sales of individual wall pieces in the past. The day after the article ran, they had an offer. The piece still wasn’t finished. After that, Boogie had an audience of 100-plus people watching him complete his cash cow.
Back in San Francisco among the streets he’s helped to make more beautiful, Boogie’s not sure what’s going on with the deal — and perhaps almost as important, all that cash — vagaries of “contracts and commissions,” he says. Improbably, he’s washing his hands clean of the matter, for now.
“What’s the next one?” He smiles, possibilities dancing across his face. “The Great Wall of China!” He’s joking, but the future for Boogie — and street art in general — will invariably include larger canvasses.
CHOR BOOGIE’S URBAN OSMOSIS NYE OPENING PARTY
Fri/31 7 p.m.–late, free
1141 Polk, SF