Stevio...LA LA Lovin' It?

I'm British-born Chinese from Bristol, UK. I’m LA-based. I’m a hip hop aficionado. After 15 years in London I moved to LA to pursue a new career and outlook on life.

Back in the 80s I was a DJ. In the 90s I contributed to the world's first street style exhibition at London's Victoria & Albert Museum. In 2011, I had my first interviews published. Today, I’m keeping busy with music, art, photos and writing.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

#UNleashed Magazine: "Branded Street Art" #ArtInTheStreets

2011 brought a seminal museum art show to Los Angeles. "Art in the Streets" promised an encore in New York's Brooklyn Museum, but quickly lost support and was cancelled.

I was fortunate enough to be chosen as art curator for a style magazine, called "Unleashed." Over a period of a few weeks in 2011 I wrote four articles based on interviews with the street art movement's finest - Fab 5 Freddy, Futura, Nick Walker and Patti Astor.

In the past, I've published two of the stories here on my blog: a history of street art and the business interests in street art. Now I've decided to publish the remaining two articles from my interview with Tats Cru's BG183. Let me know what you think in the comments.

"Branded Street Art" by Stephen Pang
(permission to republish kindly granted by UNleashed Magazine.)

Banksy, Shepard Fairey, Keith Haring. Each of these artists developed their own distinctive, identifable art style that turned every mural into an explicit branding exercise that the marketing textbooks describe as “the process of creating and disseminating the brand name.

”These brand messages, although not commercially motivated, are used to convey a thought or idea to anyone willing to stop and look. Unlike art in museums or galleries, these images have a direct impact because they surround us as we go about our daily lives – like ambient art. Street art appeals to an influential, but elusive, demographic. Brands want to co-opt and harness this energy and authenticity that street art brings with it. Each time a brand connects itself to street art, it ironically, dilutes its value as a channel of communication.

To learn more about branded street art, UNleashed spoke with two leading players from each side of the fence. For the artists, TATS Cru of New York, a prolifc “illegal” graffiti crew from the '80s that transformed itself into a pioneer of graffiti advertising murals. And, to represent the corporate brands, UNleashed reached out to Scion, Toyota Motors’ diffusion car marque.

UN: TATS Cru is recognized as the graffiti mural kings and paints every year at the Graffiti Hall of Fame in Spanish Harlem. When did TATS Cru formalize itself as a mural company, rather than a graffiti ‘bombing’ crew?
BG183 (TATS Cru member): When me, Bio and Nicer started the [mural] business, we landed a Cola-Cola contract. That was through Chico from the Lower East Side. He was also painting advertising a year or two before us. He had Camel cigarettes and Cola-Cola. But, he couldn’t paint in the Bronx because we [TATS Cru] had that territory. We were already doing memorial walls and mom and pop stores...

Coca-Cola by Tats Cru, 1997 (not the first Coke mural)

UN: How did working with brands affect TATS Cru’s approach to mural painting?
BG183: At the time, we didn’t know whether we were a sign company, an advertising company or artists-for hire. We took every [commission] that came in. During that time, a lot of companies were doing graffiti advertising, but real people who grew up with graffiti knew it was fake. So, why not hire a company like us [TATS] to create a win/win situation? We were basically in advertising - a sign company. But we didn’t know that…we thought we were bringing the graff’. When we got down with Coke it opened our eyes. We needed to think like them. People are still buying Coca-Cola to this day, so there has to be a reason. In 1996, a year or two after the Coca-Cola deal, we got [a contract from] ABC Carpet and Home, one of the biggest carpet stores on the east-side. Even though we were working for Coke we were still broke…we didn’t know how to price the work…we thought $1,000 was a good price.

UN: Why was graffiti popular with advertisers during the mid-90s?
BG183: Companies couldn’t put up billboards because they were getting defaced by vandalism and graffiti. So,the way for advertisers to come into our neighborhoods…we had a gimmick. If you used us to make them [adverts], they didn’t get defaced. In the early '80s, TATS Cru had 12 members who fought with other graffiti artists and stole their paint. We had the reputation that whoever messed around with us would get beaten up. So, no one would touch our work, including our advertising work…so we could guarantee our work. Although, I remember we painted eight adverts for Hummer. The two in Brooklyn, in the Williamsburg section were defaced by activists – they wrote ‘Bush, Gas, Oil.’ It wasn’t an anti-graffiti thing, it was because…a Hummer is a gas guzzler! They destroyed it, we fixed it, and they destroyed it!

Tats Cru x New York Mayor Bloomberg, 2010

UN: How did TATS Cru become the self-titled ‘mural kings?’
BG183: [The advertising murals] became a performance piece. As we painted, people would ask ‘Wow, how did you guys paint that logo?’ At the same time it gave us a lot of skills in the graffiti game…not many can imitate the work we do…there are only a few in the world.

UN: In the '80s there was the downtown graffiti art scene that Fab 5 Freddy, Dondi, Futura were part of. Where was TATS Cru in that mix?
BG183: Those guys started in the early '70s, but we started in the '80s. They were already in the graffiti game for seven or eight years and people like Crash and Phase were painting canvases. Our mission was writing our name for fame, painting subways, getting chased by the police. Our focus wasn’t painting in galleries, but we did go to some galleries back in the Bronx, like Fashion Moda. We were 16, 17 years old and had no fame, no props. These guys already had books published, [like Subway Art with Henry Chalfant and Martha Cooper.]

Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc. launched the Scion brand in 2003 as a more youthful, entry-level car - the median age of a Scion driver is 30 - the youngest in the auto industry, with a whopping 72 percent of those owners being Toyota virgins! Scion has consciously avoided expensive, mass-market advertising, preferring to build favor and credibility using grassroots marketing, including employing the appeal of street art. To understand how Scion integrates street art into its successful marketing strategy, UNleashed spoke with Jeri Yoshizu, Scion’s sales promotions manager in charge of lifestyle and social media marketing.

Scion by Tats Cru

UN: Scion refers to street art as urban art. Is there a difference, and if so, what? Do you distinguish between street artists' media (graffiti/aerosol, wheat paste, stencils etc?) Does it matter?”
Jeri Yoshizu: We call it street art to not limit it to graffiti. It encompasses the large category that includes stenciling, etc.

UN: How and when did Scion decide to build street art into its marketing strategy? How did the Scion Installation idea develop, and did the initiative change direction during planning and execution?
Jeri Yoshizu: We built it into the launch of the brand in 2003. It started as a simple exhibition at The Los Angeles Auto Show. We had more than 20 artists painting on the Scion XB. It included David Choe, Kenton Parker, Saber, Mister Cartoon, Revok, Krush, Dez Einswell and others. It was very successful and also initialized relationships with artists that we have continued to work with for years.

UN: What is the appeal of street art for Scion? How does Scion balance the possible illegality of street art with its own brand values?
Jeri Yoshizu: We focus on the positive aspects of art, and not only street art. We work in video, graphics, mixed media, etc. The appeal is based on the types of artists who are making a life through art. We are not working with highbrow artists, as that is not our target market's interest.

UN: How did Scion shortlist the artists chosen to participate out of the hundreds of notable artists?
Jeri Yoshizu: [Requiring artists to be] positive and open-minded tends to shorten the list. We work with people who want to make something happen.

UN: What do you think Scion brought to the street artists who participated in the initiative? What do you think Scion gained from the collaboration with street artists?
Jeri Yoshizu: We gave them a paycheck. They have to pay their rent. Eat. Have a life. Scion's job is to make sure that they feel good about working with a corporation, without feeling taken advantage of. This is key to our initiatives. We know we are a corporation selling cars. I want to dispel any negative outcomes that can typically result by supporting the artists and helping them to develop in the commercial area. Our gain is great relationships while watching their careers grow.

UN: What are the marketing objectives? How effective has street art been for Scion's marketing objectives? How does Scion track and measure effectiveness?
Jeri Yoshizu: Street art, and executing the Scion initiatives consistently, has brought brand recognition and apositive reputation for the brand. I measure success through feedback from the artists.

UN: What's next for Scion and street art?
Jeri Yoshizu: Video.

Copyright 2011 by Stephen Pang/UNleashed Magazine.

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