25 years ago one of the only places to buy Mark Gonzales’ art was at a storefront on Ludlow Street in Manhattan.
If you were a patron of the Alleged Gallery Gonzales’ art was cherished, but vastly undervalued. According to the art space’s co-founder Aaron Rose, who told Hypebeast in 2018, ‘You could’ve bought a Mark Gonzales piece for like $25 USD. Nobody would buy them.’ No one wanting Gonzales’ art is a hyperbole—plenty of his fans wanted to own his work but Rose’s point is that the audience then were mostly young, broke skateboarders, many of which congregated at the Beyond The Streets exhibit in Williamsburg, Brooklyn on Wednesday, July 17, 2019 for the adidas Skateboarding x Mark Gonzales x Harold Hunter Foundation Art Benefit.
Already an icon in 1995, Gonzales and his peers—many of which are represented in the over 100-square-foot exhibit—pioneered a style of art that drew from disparate yet familiar sources. Graffiti, skateboard graphics, pop art, high art, low art, album art, cartoons, comics, advertising, typography, imagination, and experience informed what has coalesced under the quite shitty moniker of ‘street art.’ While Rose is correct that the monetary value of the Beautiful Losers was not yet established in the greater art world, its salience was paramount to those absorbing and being influenced by it. Gonzales offered a more direct view of Alleged when I asked what he remembered most about the gallery saying, ‘Just washing people get drunk and trying to find themselves and people trying to connect to something.’
At an event hosted by rapper Cam’ron with music supplied by legendary DJ Stretch Armstrong, many queued up to purchase the 50 basketballs Gonzales customized for the event for $500 each—much more than the $25 Rose mentioned but relatively affordable for an artist of his profile. There were also some paintings from Gonzales’ personal collection priced upwards of $5,000; also moderately tagged for what felt like friends and family.
Gonzales stood near the auctioned items wearing pants embellished with stencils, many of which appeared on the 50 white basketballs to his left. He spun them on his finger and posed as if he was against a seamless light up with strobe lights for a Slam magazine photoshoot. One ball in particular featured line work similar to the late Keith Haring, whom Gonzales met at a nightclub in Paris. The ball even bore Haring’s signature. ‘He was very positive,’ Gonzales said of the artist. ‘He told me to channel what I was feeling into art and to use art as a way to channel my feelings.’
Gonzales has used anything from white men’s briefs to porcelain statues shaped as praying priests as limited backdrops for his art, so why basketballs? One would assume it’s the instant connection to both the streets and New York City culture, but his answer was more active. ‘I wanted to see the artwork bounce,’ he said emphatically. The brief explanation drives to a deeper point. We can romanticize and intellectualize skateboarding, graffiti or punk rock, but these accidental arts are not art, they’re urgent activities that offer a rush, not necessarily of adrenaline—save that for the energy drink sect—but of creative impulse that doesn’t need to be dissected. With several pieces in the exhibit calling back to that innocence—specifically the technicolor subway trains of ‘70s New York that gave many world-wide fame, I asked Gonzales what he’d do with free reign to paint a bare 6 Train. ‘I’m not into bombing,’ he said. ‘But if I had to do it, maybe I’d bomb Picasso’s Guernica, like, reproduce his painting.’
While Gonzales visual output is intentional art, it’s also an extension of a freeform spirit that exists for the directness of energy and movement. As Genesis P. Orridge told me in an interview in 2014, quoting h/er late partner Lady Jaye, ‘When you wake up in the morning, why be the same person you were yesterday? Why not try being someone else?’ As a fan of Gonzales’ work and output since the ‘80s, I can surmise that the idea of not repeating himself is a constant. While his high-profile status in skateboarding has basically been equally ongoing since the ‘80s, there was a short period after his groundbreaking part in Blind Skateboards Video Days where he stepped away from pro status to pursue art. In the early-’90s there was no currency in being a skateboarder who produced art, but Gonzales again was motivated by creative impulse not medium. He occasionally shows up in magazines and some lucky patrons claimed they purchased paintings and collages from him on the street. ‘I did sell art on the streets,’ he said. ‘I was trying to sell to ordinary people, not skaters—not that skaters are not ordinary. I was trying to lose my attachment as skateboarder.’
Gonzales walked around the high ceilinged space with artist and designer Eric Haze, stopping at a wall covered in iconography created by Craig Stecyk III, a pivotal figure in the language and marketing of modern skateboarding. The trio share a thread: what they do is endemic to themselves and recognizable from afar. Stecyk, Haze, and Gonzales all channel personality with lines, animating each stroke and character with honesty not pretension. This is precisely why Beyond The Streets resonates with people—it’s not an excuse to attend skiied out pop-ups in crushing humidity (Art Basel, Miami) or walk the concrete halls of the Armory Show, only to leave with a few selfies. Those events are fine. They generate money and celebrity and hopefully get some good people paid.
Like the Lower East Side, Williamsburg, Brooklyn was once an undesirable location, rife with gang violence, drug trade, prostitution, and whatever trope associated with destinations most white people don’t want to necessarily inhabit but would love to gentrify—we know this. But the presence of not only the show curated by art historian Roger Gastman—who himself comes from skateboarding, hardcore punk, graffiti, and is in his early 40s—but the idea that art can exist outside of the antiquated power structure we’ve collectively accepted is massive. Aside the hulking condominiums, boutique hotels, and bistros that line the East River waterfront, on a night where flash floods wetted many of its attendees, adidas Skateboarding, Gastman, Cam’ron, Stretch, and the 100+ artists and friends celebrated the memory of NYC skateboarding legend Harold Hunter in a space that symbolizes more than any singular event or moment. Historically, when the fuck has an athletic brand backed art in this capacity and enabled a pop-up gallery that sprawls two floors of a high rise, housing artists that tell the story of the past four decades, including one who designed a campaign poster for the first African American President of the United States?
It’s that big of a fucking deal.
So, is a permanent street art museum that far off? ‘No, I don’t think there will ever be a [street art] museum,’ Gonzales replies. ‘But, I’m certain art from the street will continue to integrate into the museums.’
That irreverence is central to Gonzales and the pulse of the exhibit is simple: there’s nothing if you aren’t cultivating the next wave. Gonzales does this, Beyond The Streets does this, and Hunter’s namesake foundation does this. In speaking about the Harold Hunter Foundation specifically, Gonzales explained its significance saying, ‘It gives kids the opportunity to experience and see new things beyond what’s around them. The ability to travel to new places is one of the greatest learning tools.’