BreckCreate: Graffiti artists demonstrate ‘improvisational energy’ |

BreckCreate: Graffiti artists demonstrate ‘improvisational energy’

A studio potter by trade, Malcolm Mobutu Smith has found a way to incorporate the influence and inspiration of hip-hop culture and graffiti art into his work and teachings as a professor of ceramics at Indiana University.
Special to the Daily |

Breckenridge Arts District preview

Schedule for Saturday, Sept. 27

9 a.m. — Demonstration: Unloading of the Pit, Kiln Yard, free

9 a.m. to 4 p.m. — Encaustic Painting Techniques, instructed by Victoria Eubanks, Hot Shop, $100, plus $30 materials fee

10 a.m. to 4 p.m. — Flash! Woodfiring with Chris Hosbach, Kiln Yard, $5 per piece

Noon to 1:30 p.m. — BZZZZZZ: Drawing for Kids, instructed by Samantha Madden, Quandary Antiques Cabin, $5

Noon to 2 p.m. — Demonstration: Felted Vessels, with Marlene Gruetter, Randall Barn, free

Noon to 3 p.m. — Clay Tile Project, led by local ceramic artists, Ceramic Studio, 125 S. Ridge Street, free

Noon to 4 p.m. — Exhibit: Woven Illumination Installation by Elise Brewster, Tin Shop, free

Noon to 5 p.m. — Demonstration: Graffiti Art, including graffiti artists Malcolm Mabutu Smith and East, between Hot Shop and Breckenridge Theatre, free

Noon to 9 p.m. — Exhibit: Works on Paper by Ben Pond and Photography by Liam Doran, Breckenridge Theatre Gallery, free

1 to 4 p.m. — Fast Abstract Landscapes, instructed by Suzanne Jenne, Fuqua Livery Stable, $50

3-4:30 p.m. — Splash Paintings, instructed by local artists, Quandary Antiques Cabin, $5

3-5 p.m. — Demonstration: Free Motion Sewing, with Monica Cowing, Randall Barn, free

4-6:30 p.m. — Handbuilding with Clay, instructed by Michelle Woods Pennisi, Ceramic Studio, $45

5-7 p.m. — Demonstration: Raising a Bowl: Silversmithing, with Kim Harrell, Hot Shop, free

6-8 p.m. — Experimental Monotypes, instructed by Theresa Haberkorn, Randall Barn, $25

6-8 p.m. — Poetry Out Loud, led by Kimberly Nicoletti, Fuqua Livery Stable, free

8-10 p.m. — Demonstration: Red Hot Reduction: Raku Firing, led by Michelle Woods Pennisi and Chris Hosbach, Kiln Yard, free

Workshop prices include all materials, unless otherwise noted. Space for classes and workshops is limited and is first come, first served. For more information and a schedule for Sunday, Sept. 28 events, visit .

Three artists with three different artistic styles will unite under a common banner when the Breckenridge Arts District hosts a graffiti demonstration on Saturday, Sept. 27, outside the Hot Shop on the district’s new campus.

What was initially envisioned as a competition will now be an exhibition, an opportunity to witness the spray can-control techniques that graffiti artists cultivate and watch spontaneous art come to life under the deft movements of each participant.

“Art doesn’t just have to be about something deep or meaningful, it doesn’t have to have some obscure reason,” said James “East” Foster, a world-class graffiti artist and one of the three can wielders. “Art can just be good to look at, fun to do, a way to guide yourself and spend the day.

“This art is approachable. People who paint it are oftentimes approachable, and most of the time, we do this simply out of enjoyment. We are artists, we enjoy being artists; we enjoy doing the art that we do. I hope it can break down some walls between what people perceive as graffiti and graffiti writers.”


East calls himself an “Illiana” native, growing up in the Chicago suburb of Evanston before moving downtown as a teen.

“That’s where I got my exposure to a lot of the graffiti, just riding the subway back and forth and seeing rooftops that are painted,” he said of Chicago. “Not all of it was done by graffiti artists as we know them today, but abstract artists, street artists. I was already interested in hip-hop, break dancing, and when I realized these were married worlds, I just kind of dove in more deeply.”

As a latch-key kid, East said he was on his own most of the time and was constantly out and about in the city, and though he wasn’t old enough to drink or get into a club, he was oftentimes wandering around until 3 a.m., people watching and city walking.

“That kind of constant interaction of people, crowds everywhere, lights and sounds, when you grew up with that, it’s something you have to be exposed to and involved in,” he said.

It’s that involvement, that connection to the world around him and constant inundation of energy that attracted East to graffiti and really fit his personality.

“You have to really be committed, it’s full dedication,” he said. “You can’t just, like in studio, sit there and piddle around with the paint and wait for inspiration, work on this or that and see what direction you’re going. It can take weeks or months to get the right direction for a painting in a studio.

“It’s much more transient, it has to be done quickly. It involves full body. You can’t sit around in a studio holding a brush. You’re carrying a backpack full of supplies, and depending on whether it’s legal or illegal, you could be climbing up buildings and billboards, carrying a weapon for self-defense.”

East said he hasn’t necessarily pursued graffiti as a profession or as a career, it’s just something he’s done for 32 years, and when you do anything for that long, you begin to form a following and become noticed.

“I’m not politically involved with my graffiti art,” he said. “I don’t use it as a platform for any kind of stance for politics, religion, social issues, whatever. The root of graffiti is based on one simple basis: Get your name out there as much a possible.

“Putting graffiti out in places in the city, albeit illegal or legal, a place that normally doesn’t have art, interacting with your environment to create art, is so much more appealing to me than creating art in a studio environment.”


A studio potter by trade, Malcolm Mobutu Smith has found a way to incorporate the influence and inspiration of hip-hop culture and graffiti art into his work and teachings as a professor of ceramics at Indiana University.

“I find that the aesthetics and improvisational energy that drive and motivate graffiti art is connected to the same energy that we try to instill in our students in the academic pursuit of art training,” he said.

Smith also was drawn to the culture of graffiti as an urban youth, becoming a practitioner of beat boxing and creating his share of illegal art before following the path to academia and an 18-year teaching career. He said what attracted him to the art form is the raw energy that is embedded within it.

“They gravitate to wanting to make something and put it out in the world, for themselves and by themselves,” he said of youth who are drawn to the art. “That is the core of all creativity. It’s expressed in this way that’s so controversial in its guerilla tactics, but it’s dazzlingly well executed.

“There’s a rigorous subculture of critique with graffiti, break-dancing, beat boxing. It’s developed its own criteria for excellence, and it’s just a different location than the kind of excellence we try to mitigate through grading in the university setting. There are maybe even harder scriptures on the street to put something out there that dazzles.”

Smith said the underpinnings of some of the things that inspire him in his clay work have to do with the same aesthetics of graffiti art, the way forms move in and out of each other, overlapping, using lots of color; those things play a part in how he finishes the clay sculptures that he makes.

“Hundreds of thousands of young people are pushing the form every single day,” he said of graffiti art. “I want to be part of that, talk about it, and I want it to exist in my work, that kind of energy.”


Joe Suta, owner of Nightmare Snowboards and Future Shock snow and skateboard shop in Frisco, also got his start in Chicago when he was about 14 years old, sneaking onto the subway and destroying other people’s property.

“I’m not really involved in graffiti anymore,” he said. “I was a graffiti artist for many years. I was the resident artist for Threadless, and they had me painting three murals a week for five or six years straight.”

Though he doesn’t advertise his artwork as graffiti, which he said by definition ruins property to stake a claim, learning to use spray paint and graffiti techniques are tools he now uses in his artwork for Nightmare, creating fonts and logos for decks.

“You’re utilizing it as a tool,” Suta said. “I look at it as interpreting how I want the final product to be, any means necessary to get the product done. Some might not interpret my style as graffiti because the line is cleaner; I’m just using the skills that graffiti taught me to use.”

When he approaches his panel in the Breckenridge Arts District and begins his piece, Suta said he won’t come with anything predetermined and won’t really think about what he’ll be creating until it’s in front of him.

“That’s something else graffiti teaches you,” he said. “You prepare with letters and an alphabet, learning different styles, but once you’re there it could be a whole different change of course, the word isn’t right or the wall isn’t right. I never really have any sort of idea, I just see what’s going on around me and get that feeling.”

Suta said graffiti art goes hand in hand with the snowboarding and skateboarding culture because both are constantly moving, adapting and evolving.

“You can’t get stuck in one spot,” he said. “You have to be a part of what’s next or put yourself where you want to be. With skateboarding and snowboarding, you’re always on that constant search of what’s the next cool thing, inspiring thing, the next moment that’s rad. You can build roots but then you are stuck there, you have to be able to branch out and move.”

Beyond just the preview event in the Arts District, Suta said he hopes the demonstration will show the community that there are a lot of spaces in town that could be more colorful and artistic and that graffiti art is a vibrant culture that could be pursued more extensively in Summit County.

“Graffiti comes completely from a youth movement of taking space and making it their own. What else is a 15- or 16-year-old going to do?” he said. “They have no real outlet that’s on the level that an adult can see, so they take up space, make a name for themselves. It can be really beautiful or ruin someone’s day. It’s a language that’s only spoken between graffiti writers. We celebrate what it is, where it comes from, the truth of it, so one way or another, it will be interesting.”

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