From ancient Greek provinces to subway trains in New York, where there are people who have the desire to express themselves, there is graffiti. What was once seen as scribbles by rebellious kids, however, has joined the mainstream: a colorful, two-dimensional rendition of someone’s name on the side of a building goes from vandalism to fine art when that piece appears in a gallery.
For artist POEST, graffiti is free speech, and something he has made for most of his life, even during 13 years at a job on Wall Street. The 40-something Brooklyn artist, who does not reveal his legal name, has continued to flourish in Atlanta, his home of seven years.
POEST’s paintings are featured through Sepember 25 with graffiti artists WON 2, SHIE 1, SB ONE, DR. DAX, VIPER, WEB 1, BASER and Frank Morrison in Mason Fine Art Gallery’s Outside In, which he co-curated with the gallery’s owner Mark Karelson.
It has garnered POEST attention from a paint company, which sent him a box of 40 spray paint cans to use in future work. His own successes aside, he wants the togetherness and camaraderie that he felt with the other artists while curating the exhibition to come through to the viewer.
ArtsATL: How did you first get into graffiti?
POEST: A family friend was a graffiti artist, and he started taking me with him when he painted. There was this area where there were all of these artists, and as it got dark, on a few occasions, the police officers would use their flood lights, so the artists could finish the work.
When I started doing this [in 1986], I was barely in junior high. There were times when I would skip school for a week straight and ride the train to the end of the line writing my name on every train window with a marker.
ArtsATL: When did you realize you were good?
POEST: When I was a kid I knew I was nice, because the elders were looking for me. By ’92 I was well-known in my hood, and that let me know I had something as far as my hands were concerned, but the artistic motivation didn’t come to me until I moved here.
About seven years ago, I had taken a break, but then I wound up being mentioned in an article on a blog called Bombing Science. The guy named me and 13 other writers as being responsible for putting hip-hop in the ’90s. That let me know I left an impression.
ArtsATL: Where did you get the name POEST?
POEST: It was originally Post NB, because when I was a kid there were these letters that were sprayed on the side of the construction sites in Manhattan that said “Post No Bills,” as in playbills for upcoming Broadway shows. I started writing it, but there was a gentleman uptown whose name was Post, and it’s a respect thing that if someone more senior than you already has a name, you change yours. I didn’t want to be Post 2, so I stopped writing for a while to reevaluate my name.
I grew up around a lot of Spanish people, and whenever they called me, there was this “e” sounding syllable after the “o” in Post. One day, I told them to spell it how they pronounced it, and it just stuck. I came up with a definition for it — positive outlook equal superior tactics — and I ran with it.
ArtsATL: Talk to me about graffiti terminology.
POEST: You have writers, style mechanics, letter technicians and bombers, but the art form that most people express disdain for is the bomber. That’s where they go and write their name anywhere. I started as a bomber. The fact that you’re going to drive your car and go “How in the hell did he get up there?” That’s awesome.
ArtsATL: How did the exhibition come together?
POEST: Mark reached out to me, because someone he knew told him about me. He wanted to do a graffiti exhibit, and after I met with him I told him that with me, comes these people. I wanted to incorporate artists who I felt had not gotten their just due.
Web 1 has been one of my biggest influences; this man has been painting since the ’70s. SB One is the head of one the most influential train crews in America. Won 2 is one of the most prolific bombers this city has ever seen and is going to see. Frank Morrison has taken graffiti and put it in his paintings in a very sly way; he incorporates it into all of his backgrounds. I appreciate and am proud of all of these gentlemen and all that they’ve done.
ArtsATL: Do you make a distinction between graffiti and street art?
POEST: There’s a great difference between graffiti and street art. Graffiti is the art of typography. The core of what we do is lettering. Street artists do whatever imagery comes to them at the moment. The characters in street art are great, and get to the hip-hop aspect of it, which is cool.
ArtsATL: The pieces that you created for the Outside In exhibit contain song lyrics, mostly hip-hop. Do you always include music in your work?
POEST: Hip-hop informs everything that I do, and I love the message in it. In one of the paintings in the exhibit I wrote lyrics from Eric B. & Rakim’s “Follow The Leader” and in the other one “Heaven or Hell” by Meek Mill. There’s a piece in the exhibit that doesn’t have hip hop lyrics at all — it’s a Chris Daughtry song.
ArtsATL: What is hip-hop to you?
POEST: I call it the smoke signal of the ghetto, and it’s very necessary. When you look at the history of writing on trains, people wrote “save our streets” or “help us,” and that message is being lost today. Someone has to care, because our children are still dying and we’re losing future leaders. That’s why in everything I do, I am going to put in something that sparks the brain.
ArtsATL: What motivates you to keep going, even with the risks?
POEST: I don’t believe craft should be considered a crime, because it’s a victimless crime (if you want to call it a crime at all). It flies with free speech to me. I’m beyond high-risk things that would get me arrested, but these younger writers need direction, and it’s worth it to me. There are a lot of kids in Atlanta who concentrated on this, and stopped doing the wrong things, such as selling drugs. This has allowed them to feed their families, and if more people took the time to take in what they’re looking at, instead of turning a blind eye, it would help a lot more people. I tell them: express yourself, be good at it and make some sense of what you’re doing.