A Graffiti Tour of Miami During Art Basel 2011: Days 2 & 3

Primary Flight is Miami’s first “open air museum and street level mural installation” that brings over 200 public artists and graffiti artists to Wynwood and the Design District during Art Basel week. Primary Flight has organized and elevated graffiti/street art into a unique annual showcase of the most contemporary work of this style in the country. They provided me with a map for the murals and an email address for Dario, a Wynwood resident with particular knowledge of street art and the artists.

Dario works for a local university and is a bike activist in a city that is decidedly hostile to cyclists. I was wary of his initial offer of a bike tour of the Wynwood Walls murals and the street art scattered throughout the rest of the district. In just the past two days, I’d been witness to some of the most outrageous, inconsiderate driving I’ve ever seen. As it turned out, his offer of a walking tour worked out better for the group I was traveling with.

We met up with Dario after a disappointing visit through SCOPE Miami, the art fair that showcases work from contemporary emerging artists. SCOPE was one of my favorite art fairs in 2010; this year, the fair had participation from two St. Petersburg galleries— Mindy Solomon Gallery, and C. Emerson Fine Art. A highlight included a special project and display titled “Stuck Up: A History of Sticker Culture;” I really loved a painting from Jason Shawn Alexander & Jim Mahfood, titled “Son’s Rising,” that used charcoal, watercolor, and spray paint to express both the passage of time and the emergence of a new generation of musicians who embrace a musical style infused with a wide range of cultural influences.

“Son’s Rising” was the right note on which to leave SCOPE and meet up with Dario across the street. We soon found out that the City of Miami and property owners in Wynwood are supportive of the street/graffiti art movement. Typically, building owners agree to provide wall space for the artists, and the artists provide a sketch or plan for their work. This is quite different from the emergence of graffiti art three— almost four— decades ago, when street artists like Keith Haring and Jean- Michel Basquiat were depicting 1980‘s street culture in New York City subways. These days, street artist Shepard Fairey is designing iconic, graffiti-inspired images of Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential race; street artist RETNA is taking his stylized graffiti art indoors to a new, paying audience.

Our first stop was at a mural tagged by RETNA. His distinctive style is instantly recognizable- his tags have developed into large symbols that have evolved into their own meanings, symbols that repeat throughout his work. He uses just two or three colors. The mural we saw had a base of blue and then vertical white symbols, outlined in black, reaching from top to bottom and from left to right of the wall. Smaller white symbols were scattered throughout some of the empty spaces.

Dario led us away from the busy intersection at Miami Avenue and 26th Street and took us into the heart of Wynwood — among the warehouses, along the railroad tracks and through some of the more residential streets. As we turned each corner, a new mural awaited. Dario, a proud resident of Wynwood, was well-versed in the patterns and styles of each artist who left their tags in his neighborhood and thankfully, was interested in sharing his knowledge.

Separated by a causeway and just eleven minutes away from South Beach, Wynwood and the Design District all feel like a Miami that is much different than the one I’ve grown to know and avoid. Wynwood was once a garment district and home to a railroad switch point; small, single-family homes were littered between large warehouses and buildings. Over the years, the trains stopped running through this neighborhood. The garment district disappeared.

According to Dario, just few short years ago a developer began buying warehouse space in Wynwood and supplying low-cost studio space to artists. Little by little, this once deserted neighborhood became a destination for creative folks looking for a community of their own. As with most artistic enclaves, gentrification has been the inevitable result of this community as it experiences a cultural renaissance.

As part of the Art Basel festivities, Wynwood Kitchen and Bar hosted the “Wynwood Walls” invitational, a showcase of graffiti art for visitors to the district. This restaurant appears to be a symbol of the neighborhood’s gentrification, with graffiti art on the walls and a South American-inspired menu with prices that definitely don’t cater to neighborhood residents and artists. "Wynwood Walls" provides a great venue for art spectators to get the feel of the neighborhood’s graffiti art without having to venture into the surrounding neighborhood.

Before heading back to South Beach, we walked from Wynwood to the Design District for dinner. Miami’s Design District is home to dozens of interior design firms, contemporary furniture showcase studios, art galleries, and several fantastic restaurants. Fratelli Lyon seeks to bring its patrons “a bit of Miami chic, a dash of Italian passion and a smidge of environmental awareness,” and touts its menu of sustainable seafood, grass-fed beef, and organically grown produce. Simply put, it’s delicious. We all shared a sampling of Fratelli Lyon’s antipasti platter and the delicate Jerusalem artichoke flan lightly drizzled with an anchovy cream sauce. I devoured my freshly made pappardelle pasta with a savory duck ragu sauce.

After drinks and dinner, we headed back to Miami Beach while convincing ourselves that we were going to find something to do in South Beach that didn’t require an RSVP.

We spent some time that evening walking down Collins Avenue, looking for something interesting to do, while wrapped in scarves, bracing ourselves against the strong wind, and dodging people who seemed to be in a hurry to go nowhere. As it turns out, there is a 24-hour Walgreens at the corner of Collins Avenue and 12th Street, and an RSVP is not required, although you must be comfortable with price gouging when you need contact lens solution and cough drops.

I woke up to the faint percussive sound of two empty aluminum cans clattering around on the landing outside of my hotel room window. I pulled the curtains open to verify that yes, indeed, they were cans and not an endless loop of electronic music permanently etched in my brain from the night before. I also noted that the only view from our hotel window was the gray-colored, southern wall of the hotel next door to ours.

Miami Beach defies traditional patterns of development in that there are dozens of expensive boutique or luxury hotels lining Collins Avenue like flashy beacons of glamour and celebrity, but many of them are nestled between uninspiring, budget-friendly hotels and buildings in various states of disrepair. The entire waterfront is developed, and real estate is pricey, but there are no defined clusters of nicer hotels and cheaper hotels. It’s a seemingly endless thoroughfare of high rise hotels, condos, and retail space. So, it just makes sense to stay as far south as possible, because most of the shows and art fairs are situated close to Lincoln Road and Ocean Drive.

I went to Art Basel last year and unsuccessfully tried to see everything. This year, I decided to focus my attention on the satellite art fairs and local public art. Miami’s Design District and Wynwood are both on the northern end of Miami’s urban downtown. Wynwood, just north of the Design District, is part residential and somewhat industrial, with warehouses recently converted into eclectic artist lofts, studios, and galleries.

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