Carmelo “SNOW” Sigona is director of North Jersey based FLY DRAGON Studio (FDS). A studio venture with an urban art focus, FDS is currently developing a comic book intellectual property with plans to take it to the gaming and animation worlds. While specializing in graffiti and mural design, FDS is a fully functional studio with expertise in interior and set design, stagecraft and custom illustration.
As the mural’s organizer, SNOW now finds himself in the role as the voice of defiance in the face of public outcry to remove the Elmwood Park mural. We asked him to define his role in this controversy and how he sees himself moving forward.
SS: Carmelo, you’ve been an incredibly well known and influential graffiti artist in the Northeast for many years, your work adorns many walls around New Jersey in public and private manners. Now you’ve walked into a firestorm of public opinion and controversy surrounding the Elmwood Park mural. Is this the first time you’ve had to defend your work in such an adamant manner?
SNOW: No this is not the first time for me; this has been a life-long struggle grappling for not only mere ‘acceptance’ by mainstream society but a long battle to defend our right to freedom of expression. Graffiti art has always had a stigma attached to it and perhaps, decades ago that may have been somewhat understandable. But times have changed, and graffiti and street art have both been displayed in prestigious galleries and museums worldwide. However, the cities and municipalities have unfairly targeted artists who use this specific tool, the spray can, and paint in a ‘graffiti style’ of art. Officials in the past have said, repeatedly, that if we were using brushes or painting a ‘nice scene’, they would be willing to ‘overlook’ it and ‘let it’ stay. I realize that art is a living breathing thing, open to interpretation, but we are all protected by the right to exercise our freedom of speech, thought, and expression, most especially on private property.
SS: Would you call yourself a street artist or a graffiti artist? And personally and historically what are the differences?
SNOW: Well, I started as a graffiti artist, in the streets, so you tell me? HaHa. Historically, I’ve been more of a graff artist, but as any artisan does, I try to explore new mediums, subjects, and styles with the hope that I will grow as both an artist and a person. Personally, graffiti art has always been more about getting YOUR signature up in as many places as you can, pretty much chasing the fame and attention in that manner. Graffiti generally focuses more on the hieroglyphic-type stylization and font design aspects of art. Street art seems to be done, at times, in the same medium and often illegally installed as well. While both are prolific, in street art there is sometimes the absence of the stylized lettering with less focus on the signature itself. All and all, talent is talent and if you’re not growing, you’re decaying.
SS: Can you please give us a brief overview of the project as you saw it and as it is now perceived?
SNOW: It started out as a bunch of friends getting together for a day of painting. With all of our demanding schedules, we just wanted to do something fun, colorful, and basically abstract. I contacted John Quinn (the owner of the bldg.) to see if we could paint the side of it. He said he welcomed it. Once we started, as in any group collaborative, there were many discussions about art, family, friends, sports, and the news. The Trayvon Martin case was something we discovered we all had an interest in. That discussion concluded with the group agreeing that while JOE:01′s hooded character was his ‘signature’ thing, it reminded us of the slain teen. We ourselves all had survived the transformation from troubled teenagers to professional and accomplished gentlemen. We all wear hooded sweatshirts and all of us are not strangers to racism and prejudice. We all agreed we would shout out Trayvon on the wall and discussed our idea with Mr. Quinn. He agreed to not censor us in any way, although we did discuss that we would refrain from any obscenity, sex, nudity, or violence. Some perceive it as a sort of street memorial and others think it’s gang-related. Actually, though it has somewhat grown into the former, the latter is completely and utterly ridiculous.
SS: As you were preparing the wall were you anticipating or concerned about any official or community objection to this piece of street art in such a suburban setting?
SNOW: Despite our good intentions, that’s always a concern, especially in a suburban environment. The suburbs tend to be less accepting of anything that doesn’t form to their idea of conventionalism. However, the wall can only be seen from one direction of street traffic and at that, you have to strain to really see it. Also, some of us had painted the ‘back’ half of the wall (in a graffiti style) in 2010 (with permission from Mr. Quinn) and there were no objections to that artwork from either the town nor the residents.
SS: As you were painting the wall, were there any objections from either neighbors or police?
SNOW: The police arrived (four cars deep) as a response to a call from a resident that there were several youths painting graffiti on the side of the building. After a brief exchange with the officers, they left the scene. We explained we had permission from the building’s owner and that while we wish we could all return to our youth, we were indeed grown men, way past the age of 30 in some cases. The neighbors that walked by during the 3 days we painted the mural were all in support of it and all had nothing but positive comments and praise for our talents.
SS: The wall in question is private property, and you were commissioned to paint the wall by the property owner. What are your views on the community response that now cries foul about its creation and the decision to place it in Elmwood Park?
SNOW: Its simple. The owner commissioned us on his property. As cited by the ACLU, this is an exercise in free speech, not an abuse or violation of it. We, nor the artwork, are the problem. The problem is either the ambiguous or unconstitutionality of the ordinance (which, by the way, has still not been presented to Mr. Quinn, upon his request) or the blatant censorship of this particular style of artwork and its perceived symbolic message.
SS: As a public muralist do you believe its your duty to provoke consciousness and discussion by at times creating and throwing up work that maybe perceived as “unfamiliar” or “unwelcome” by the local population?
SNOW: Absolutely. Even the phrase itself, “being an artist” says a lot. It is in our nature, our being, to explore and sometimes see things in a different perspective from the norm. We often like to think about subjects that will stir thought and dialogue. I feel it is somewhat of a responsibility to use my artistic talents to help paint a better world. To paint a better world, we first have to recognize the challenges that are before us. Unfortunately, not all people are receptive to change or differences in appearance, beliefs, and opinions. They don’t have a realistic idea of what the process is to make a change in ideology. It’s not always a comfortable process. I suppose that’s why they are called ‘growing pains’.
SS: Do you believe it’s the very presence of a “graffitiesque” mural in the community that is the issue or is it the concept of attaching the Trayvon Martin tragedy to its creation that has people up in arms?
SNOW: It’s both. People are fearful of what they don’t know or can’t identify with. I understand this, but we are people too. Whether we choose to paint in a graffiti style or paint something that’s controversial, we have the right to express ourselves. It’s crazy to think that someone would ‘hate’ or fear a specific style of art enough to go through great lengths to attempt to ‘outlaw’ it. Why? Why is it so targeted? That’s the real question these detractors need to ask themselves. I often wonder, “What type of person really hates art?” I feel bad for such individuals. Art is not a crime.
As far as the Trayvon thing, I think people are being programmed into a dangerously submissive thought process. They don’t want to speak up or have any trouble in their community. They think the enemy of progress is questions. It’s okay for people to stand up and provoke thought or speak their mind, as long as it’s done someplace else and it doesn’t ‘disturb’ their perceived peace. This is not real peace. It’s not real growth. Therefore, they leave themselves under the control of a system that ultimately profits from their complacency and decay. This certainly isn’t the reality that one should NOT want to question or discuss.
SS: What are your plans for the future of the mural? Do you plan to paint over it? And if so, now that you’re fully aware of the community and town response to the wall, do you plan on replacing it with another mural?
SNOW: Well, as we initially discussed with Mr. Quinn, we wanted to use this space as a platform to create many different murals. Some would tackle socially conscious issues, some would remember fallen soldiers, some would be done in graffiti style, while some might be done in a more conventional means. Right now, however, we have yet to get a response from town officials. Perhaps they’re reviewing the law or rewriting it. I don’t really know. And now that this Trayvon mural has received so much attention, it has brought to light some larger issues. Issues that may, in fact, never be resolved. That being said, I believe the consensus amongst the group is to leave it for now as a matter of legal principle, on all fronts.
SS: In the end, has this become more of a larger fight for freedom of expression than just one mural facing a forest?
SNOW: Yes, I believe it has become a larger fight. It has become as much a fight to raise awareness against prejudices and rash judgments, as it has been a battle for freedom of expression. We are honored to be setting a legal precedent for this kind of scenario. We are all part of the artist community, no matter street artist, graffiti artist or whatever. We are happy to do our part to change the antiquated opinions that our art forms are unacceptable. Additionally, we don’t know all the facts about the Trayvon case, and we may never know them. However, anytime someone loses his or her life it is a tragedy for humankind. We will continue to paint and help people’s minds grow and progress toward peace and harmony.
Stan Sudol is co-founder and co-director of Guerilla Galleries (GuGa) and Rinky Dink Gallery, an established Newark curator and arts promoter as well a returning arts commentator and critic to GlocallyNewark.
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