24 mei 2016

Cannabis and Street Art (sensiseeds)

Cannabis has been linked to creativity for hundreds of years. In this article, we explore the links between cannabis and street art. Have you ever found you are more creative when using cannabis, or just more confident in your ability to create? Is street art true art, or illegible vandalism? Read on!

Cannabis and street art

There are many links between the world of cannabis and the world of street art. Some are so obvious that they really don’t need an explanation; others are more subtle, and perhaps even more interesting to explore.

Staying high with STAYHIGH 149

Wayne Roberts became one of the most famous and influential graffiti writers to emerge from the fertile street-art breeding ground that was 1970s New York.  Working as a Wall Street messenger, in the days before internet which required urgent papers and communications to be ferried by hand, Roberts spent his days riding the sprawling subway system where he was inspired by seminal writers PRAY, TAKI 183 and JOE 182. Roberts didn’t have to spend time pondering his own name. Since 1969 he had been nicknamed “Stayhigh”, due to his daily consumption of around 28 grams of cannabis. In 1971 the nickname became his tag, and the following year he added his street number (following the tradition of the emerging writers) and STAYHIGH 149 was born. The final addition to what has become one of the most well-known tags in the world was a stick figure smoking a joint, inspired by the logo of popular US tv series The Saint.

STAYHIGH 149 and his smoking saint
STAYHIGH 149 and his smoking saint

The wizards and lizards of Vaughn Bodé

STAYHIGH 149 was by no means the only writer to incorporate characters into his work. Many of his contemporaries, most notably DONDI, ZEPHYR and MARE 139, adopted the characters of underground comic artist (and cannabis lover) Vaughn Bodé into their pieces. Bodé was a frequent contributor to counterculture magazines and comics. His strip cartoons featured the characters that populated worlds Vaughn created and drew as a child to escape his parent’s troubled marriage, and which his son Mark adopted and elaborated upon.

The Lizard Men, inhabitants of their own planet and used by Vaughn to deliver a damning critique of the Vietnam War, evolved from Mark’s childhood drawings. Instead of colouring books, he practiced his shading on the voluptuous Bodé Broads. The Cheech Wizard, an enigmatic figure almost completely covered by his huge yellow wizard’s hat, dates from 1957 and is perhaps the most-copied character in street art; he still appears in pieces to this day.

Like father, like son

The daydreaming kid grew into a man kept busy bringing those daydreams into reality. His artistic vision finds expression in an increasing variety of fields: illustrating, writing, tattooing, and what he calls his “spraycan art”. Mark’s graffiti has always been about the characters and their landscapes, and he doesn’t think of himself as a ‘writer’ despite (or perhaps because of) being a friend and contemporary of many graffiti writers including such greats as KEL and SEEN, as well as the aforementioned DONDI, ZEPHYR and MARE 139. It was these artists who were the first to incorporate Bodé characters into their artwork, and the quirky, charismatic wizards, lizards and women have become the most-copied figures in the world of graffiti; each copy a tribute, each character increasing the population of the Bodé universe. In 2012 Mark exhibited in Amsterdam (at which time this author met him), where it was clear that he enjoys the use of recreational cannabis to both relax, and inspire his work.

From the underground to the mainstream: graffiti, street art and cannabis

In the four decades since the beginnings of graffiti, it has – like cannabis use – seen both an emergence into the mainstream via use as inspiration, and a backlash from the authorities in an attempt to supress it. Penalties for graffiti in New York have increased from jail time of less than a week and the obligation to remove the offending piece, to felony charges. At the same time, exhibitions and retrospectives of the big names take place all over the world on a regular basis. STAYHIGH 149 came out of retirement in 2000 after being overwhelmed by fan response at an exhibition in Brooklyn and began drawing his ‘Smoking Saint’ again at the age of 50, and continued until his death in 2012.


Jean Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol street art
Jean Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol street art

The blurring of the boundaries between graffiti, street art and fine art was already underway by 1981, and the exhibition ‘New York/New Wave’ at the PS1 gallery in New York is generally accepted as the true beginning of this, at times uneasy, redefining of what is art and what is vandalism. The exhibition featured over twenty artists, including Jean-Michel Basquiat, Edie Baskin, Keith Haring, Robert Mapplethorpe, Kenny Scharf, Andy Warhol, and the graffiti artists ALI, CRASH, DONDI, FAB 5 FREDDY, HAZE, LADY PINK, SEEN, and ZEPHYR. The cross-fertilizations of style remain apparent to this day, and the subtle influence of cannabis can also be discerned. Consumption was so common at this time and among these groups that it went virtually unremarked; there were, of course, those who abstained. Most notable perhaps was Andy Warhol, who is quoted as saying, “I think pot should be legal. I don’t smoke it, but I like the smell of it.”.

In what way did cannabis influence these artists?

This question is, naturally, impossible to answer precisely. However, we can look at what has been discovered about the effects of cannabis on creativity, and even what parts of the brain are stimulated by its use, and extrapolate some educated guesses. Many artists in different fields, from visual to music to innovative technology, have given their views on how cannabis affects their creativity. Among them, the media artist Jason Silva (himself the subject of some street art!) says “Marijuana is a cognitive catalyst that can trigger heightened free-associative creativity, increased pattern recognition, and insight.” Rather than being simply his opinion, there is sound evidence thatcannabis stimulates the part of the brain responsible for pattern recognition, an invaluable tool for human survival and progression as well as artistry.

This enhanced sensitivity to patterns and colours comes forth in the rhythmic composition of the letters that compose the most striking pieces. The best writers were essentially creating their own fonts, which vied to outdo each other in terms of form, movement and elaboration, yet still had to be readable (if only by fellow writers).  A basic rule of thumb is that only about 50% of a letter needs to be visible for the whole letter to be recognizable, but this was stretched increasingly as styles have become more elaborate over the years since the first simple tags decorated the trains of the New York subway system. It could be argued that, given the enhanced pattern recognition caused by a ‘marijuana high’, the names of street artists are actually easier to read under the influence of cannabis.

The prefrontal lobes of the brain
The prefrontal lobes of the brain

This hypothesis, and that that cannabis stimulates creativity, is backed up by a number of scientific studies which have mapped the effect of cannabis on the frontal lobes. This part of the brain deals with creative divergent thinking – thinking ‘outside the box’ – and stimulation of creative drives, including pleasure, and rhythmic timing in people who create music. Increased frontal lobe activity is a measurable indicator of creativity. Cannabis, as well as enhancing pattern recognition, increases the flow of blood to this area of the brain, both stimulating and fuelling it. It is easy to see how this is of benefit to artists. Cannabis can also have the effect on many users of making them feel less inhibited, and more able to lose themselves in the creative process without feelings of self-consciousness. Those who would normally shy away from painting or drawing for fear of judgement, and definitely not describe themselves as artists, are able to enter into a more playful state of mind conducive to seeing where their artistic experimentation leads rather than having an end result in mind that they are striving to accomplish.

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