Tech-Art: Soul for Technology

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Conversation: With Luna Park January, 2021

(Leon Reid IV) Luna, you're a graffiti/street art photographer and I'm a former graffiti/street artist. That means both of us have probably trespassed too many times to count, so let's both start this with a good story of a situation when we've been confronted by somebody while doing our thing and weren't sure we'd make it out safely.

(Luna Park) Anyone who works in the public space inevitably has unexpected encounters with the public. An incident that took place one afternoon a couple of years ago comes to mind. I was out for a walk along the industrial waterfront in Red Hook when I came across a new piece of graffiti along the back wall of an empty lot. There conveniently being a gaping hole in the fence, I slipped in for a closer look. No sooner had I taken a few pictures, than a car screeched up to the edge of the fence and a very angry man emerged. "WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!!", he demanded. Mind you, as he hadn't identified himself in any way and had worked himself into a rage, I was in no rush to approach him. I calmly secured my camera in my bag and explained I'd just taken some photographs. "DON'T YOU KNOW YOU'RE IN DANGER?!!" he shouted. Standing in the midst of an otherwise enormously empty parking lot, the only danger I could identify was him.


Luna Park

Photographer Luna Park: "My personal favorite color combination is red and black."

"WHERE ARE YOU FROM?!" he continued. "Brooklyn," I countered, cautiously approaching him and the hole in the fence. "YOU CAN'T BE IN THERE" he pleaded, perhaps finally recognizing I was no threat to him. Rapidly deflating, he stepped aside and let me exit the lot. "Did you paint that? Do you know who did that?" he asked. Of course I knew damn well who'd painted the piece. But I pretended to not understand the situation and certainly didn't let on that I knew anything about graffiti. I even played the concerned citizen, suggesting he ought to fix the giant hole in the fence. And as soon as I was back on the public sidewalk, I beat a hasty retreat.

(Leon) Sounds like that dude had been waiting for you there all day! This happened a while back but it's super vivid in my memory. Not long after I arrived in NYC I linked up with a local graffiti writer named Bills. We met at Pratt institute where we both went to college. He took me down into the subway tunnels for the first time and also we hit some spots on the LIRR. Anyway, one night he says he knows a guy up in the Bronx who can show us a good rooftop spot to hit on the 2 or 5 line (I can't remember which). We get up there, meet the guy and we proceed to scale the building. It's one of those rooftop walls that you have to walk over a bunch other connected buildings to get to. We start painting and everything is going well, the elevated train can be seen and heard nearby. At some point I look back toward the direction we came from and 4 homeboys are approaching slowly. I can't see their faces, only silhouettes and they're carrying baseball bats. Caught me completely off guard. Once they approach us, Bill's man starts talking to them. I can't hear what they're saying but the tone sounds smooth enough for me to relax. What I figure is that dude had to ask these guys permission to paint the wall -illegally mind you- so we proceed to finnish up. No more than 10 minutes later somebody heard a noise that causes a panic in all 7 of us. We start bolting and I'm following Bill's ass cause he brought me here. While we're making our way off of the building a pit bull starts raging behind a fence, barking jumping, growling, the whole 9 yards. It's not able to get us but it's pissed. Long story short, we make it back to Brooklyn in one piece.

Luna, you mentioned that you had a basic interest in photography before focusing on graffiti and street art. Tell me a bit about what you were photographing before this shift, and the steps that led you into your investigation into this art form.

(Luna) I must have gotten my first, super basic, film camera at about age 10? By the time I got to college, I graduated to my first SLR. I was strictly an occasional photographer, typically only taking pictures while traveling or on special occasions. A roll of film would have gone undeveloped for months at the time. I made the jump to digital in the early 2000s. Looking back, so many things came together around 2004 and set me down the path I'm on today. Through a library science article on "Web 2.0" - what we call social media now - I learned about this new photo sharing site, Flickr. Because the idea of cataloging digital photographs appealed to the librarian in me, I immediately signed up for an account. Around the same time, I stumbled upon an image of a woman glued onto a door and became cognizant of street art. I uploaded the image to Flickr, added it to a street art group and soon learned the work was by an artist named Swoon. Even though I had been living in New York for more than 5 years at that point, I hadn't really found myself. And I most definitely would not have called myself a photographer or an artist. I started spending more time on Flickr, soaking up all I could learn about street art and graffiti. My curiosity piqued, I was motivated to go seek it out and photograph it. It snowballed from there. The more photos I saw online, the more photos I took offline ... the deeper I was drawn into a culture and a community.

My earliest street art photos were pretty bad as I had no clue about framing or context. But a steady diet of more superior graffiti photos motivated me to do better. The more obsessed I became, the more I started to feel an obligation to capture the work in a way that not only respected the artists, but also reflected my enthusiasm for the subject matter. I walked all over NYC - ended up in places I would have otherwise never even knew existed - and somewhere along the way, several thousands of photos in, I found my stride.

You've had a pretty interesting trajectory as an artist yourself, Leon. Has artmaking always played a role in your life? How did you get to where you are today and what were meaningful markers along the way?


Hound Photograph by Luna Park

Hound photograph by Luna Park

(Leon) I can't remember a time when I wasn't making art. It's always been a part of who I am. I'm thankful to have appreciative parents and friends who've encouraged me on my 41 year creative journey. I started writing graffiti because it just seemed the most exciting thing I could be doing at 15 years of age. It involved every aspect of spirit, body and soul. Also, graffiti is a very social endeavor. As you know, writers bomb in pairs and sometimes groups. There are hierarchies, collaborations and rivalries. Graffiti just checked off so many adolescent boxes that it was irresistible. Roughly speaking, my graffiti period (under tag name VERBS) begins in Cincinnati in 1995 and ends in NYC in 2000. My street art period (under alias Darius Jones) begins in NYC in 2000, travels to Europe and back then ends in 2005.

Every 5 years or so, my approach to art changes. It took me a while to understand why, but I've realized that this change is the result of a developing human being who sees the world differently -as most of us do- with the passage of time.

I'm quite sure I saw your Flickr account before meeting you in person and quietly being thankful that the culture has a photographer willing to capture the moment in an exhaustive scope. But do you see yourself as one who catalogues NYC's vast inventory of graffiti -the good, bad and ugly- or are you subjectively selecting what it is that should be photographed?

(Luna) As a human being behind the viewfinder, often making split second decisions on framing I couldn't even articulate if I tried, I think it's unavoidable that the output of my photographic endeavors be subjective. As a graffiti consumer, if you will, my tastes are highly subjective and much like your approach to artmaking, these have developed over time. Even if someone were to attempt an undertaking as monumental as photographing every single piece of NYC graffiti, what would be the point of that futile exercise? Especially given the ephemeral nature of most art on the street, any attempt at a definitive record would be doomed to fail. I've long since given up on trying to capture it all, because that's not possible anyway.

For the most part, I focus my energies on tracking down and photographing those works that interest me most, but also remain open to serendipitous encounters. Capturing those elusive and unexpected moments is the high I'm after, it's what drives me out onto NYC streets day in and day out. The longer I've been documenting, the higher the bar has been set as to what impresses me. Frankly, I'll be the first to say there's an inordinate amount of crap, derivative street art and unexceptional graffiti out there. I'm not ashamed to be opinionated about my likes and dislikes. If everybody liked the same art, what a boring world it would be.

I would be remiss in not discussing the role social media has played, not only in educating me about street art and graffiti, but also as the primary vehicle for my work to be seen. As someone who is, on the one hand, very online, but on the other hand firmly rooted by my experiences out on NYC streets, I'm very aware of how social media can be manipulated to make impressions and skew perceptions. You've removed yourself from social media entirely, am I right? Yet you've also taken it up as the subject of your more recent work. What is it about social media that both repulses and attracts you?

(Leon) The internet has played a huge part in getting your work out there -and my work as well. Flickr created an initial online community for you, Wooster Collective did the same for me, exposing my street art to an international audience. I like how you told me recently that with a camera in your hand, you begin to have a heightened awareness of the environment. In the same way you as a photographer, hunt for exceptional street art, I think it's my job to interpret what I see in the world with my own two eyes.

Several years ago I stopped posting on social media, then removed my content from the major platforms Twitter, Facebook/Instagram altogether. This was not a creative development but rather a personal one. Back then, my wife became very sick. Our daughter was 4 at the time so my role in the family changed. Major life changes allow you to see the world differently.

One day during this difficult period, I'm riding the bus to my studio. Because I've done this a zillion times, I reached for my phone to start scrolling. But on this particular ride I couldn't access my phone, either the battery died or I didn't have it. I glanced around the bus and found that I was the only one looking at other people, everyone else was staring at their phone. Add to that, every pedestrian I saw on the street was on their phone too. I remember thinking "My God, we're all under mass hypnosis" Something about the obedience to this object really disturbed me. It's like what you just said, if everyone is doing or liking the same things, not only is it boring, but critical thought is impossible.

My current work reflects the look and feel of the information age. Through drawing, painting, collage and sculpture I play with the icons and symbols that appear as tiny little graphics on our devices. I manipulate their meaning and try to make them say something different. I also try to bring attention to the damage that an unregulated technology sector has done to American society. The captains of the tech industry will always present a sugar-coated version of their impact on society. But truthful societal criticism has always been the job of artists and philosophers.

(Luna) An unregulated technology sector, drunk on its burgeoning surveillance capabilities, is a huge problem indeed. No longer is religion the opiate of the masses, it has been usurped by the dulcet ringtones of the ubiquitous smartphone. What is truly outrageous is how social media apps have purposefully been designed to be addictive, to keep us permanently in their thrall, doom scrolling our lives away on our smartphones. For what purpose exactly? So we can be sold more stuff we don't need?


Slavery by Design Artwork by Leon Reid IV. Photo by Luna Park
Slavery by Design Artwork by Leon Reid IV. Photograph by Luna Park

(Leon) I have a philosophical if-a-tree-falls-in-the-woods question for you -and no- I didn't make this question up after watching Black Mirror! Let's say that since early childhood, or whenever you were able to distinguish past present and future, you were told that every single moment of your life would be recorded. Your life's footage would be stored in the cloud for instant access free of charge. You go through life as any normal person, experiencing both joy and pain, occasionally checking to see if your recorded life is there -and it is. By the time you reach mid-life -50 let's say- the recordings are gone without a trace. Would you be able to remember the important events of your past?

(Luna) This question relates to the attention economy because what our society is currently experiencing is a media environment that bombards us with so much information, we've become incapable of processing it all. We have by necessity become numb to the horror of it all. Forgetfulness is a convenient by-product of this process, though it's been a creeping phenomenon. I'm old enough to remember once knowing all my friends' phone numbers by heart. I even knew all the state capitals! It sounds silly, I'm sure, to those generations who have grown up with the expectation that the internet is always on and that the answers to all life's questions are always a Google search away. But to finally answer your question: without a digital crutch, I'd like to think I would still be able to remember important events. Imperfect as it is, memory is far more than just RAM or GB. Memories can be triggered by our senses, by places or even feelings. Our lives are a journey, not a sum total, and as such they are unquantifiable. I believe we carry our most cherished memories within our hearts and souls and, barring some trauma, they can never be taken away from us. But maybe that's because I'm an optimist. On that note, let me ask you another question: In these dark times, what gives you hope? And what do you hope for as an artist and a family man?

(Leon) Well in terms of optimism, the sun stays out longer just a bit longer each day now that we’re past the winter solstice. That gives me hope. Along with the orange glow of the brick buildings in my neighborhood contrasted against the blue sky, to me this is beauty and truth at once.

So Luna, before we go, just a few parting questions for you:

Graffiti or street art; which do you photograph more?

Texas Photograph by Luna Park
Texas photograph by Luna Park

(Luna) These days, definitely more graffiti. My enthusiasm for a lot of street art these days has waned. That someone, for example, immediately printed out and pasted up the recent Bernie meme is exactly the kind of unoriginal street art that drives me nuts.

(Leon) Have you noticed a resurgence in graffiti and street art since the pandemic?

(Luna) Oh, most definitely! There was a huge explosion of graffiti during the lockdown last spring. With all the storefront gates down and streets deserted, NYC became a graffiti writer's paradise. And as the economic impact of the pandemic took its toll, there were plenty of boarded up storefronts to paint as well.

(Leon) You're a color person right? What is your favorite combination of colors?

(Luna) Yessssss, I feel very strongly about color! My personal favorite color combination is red & black.

(Leon) Tell me about your project Art In Ad Places.

(Luna) In a nutshell, Art in Ad Places is a marketing campaign for ad takeovers. Essentially we hoped to show that a world with less advertising is not only possible, but within everyone's reach. We started the project in 2017, installing a new poster by a different artist in a phone booth once a week for a year. The project has continued on a more ad hoc basis since then, but the end is unfortunately in sight as the city has finally started removing phone booths. As long as there are still phone booths, we'll try to squeeze in a few more ad takeovers before considering other options..

(Leon) Thanks so much for this conversation Luna -really appreciate it.

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