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Street art, hot off the presses

By Al Matthews
CNN Headline News

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Girl, by PS, New York, from "I NY."
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(CNN) -- Even in a culture mecca like New York City, some capable artists and designers feel the need sometimes to flee the pressures of the market and take to the streets to paint the pulse of the city and the scene.

It's called street art, and in some places, it's also called illegal.

I'd like to whet your appetite for street art with a review of two books. The first, "Street Logos," is new and widely available, and the second, "I NY," is less recent and self-published in an edition of 1,500.

"Street Logos" by Tristan Manco (Thames and Hudson) is an accessible street art review. Manco distinguishes the graffiti that grows from hip-hop culture -- the tags and spectacular spray can lettering that many people know (and sometimes resent) -- from street art, a younger movement that traces most easily back to superstar New York artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring.

This book states that hip-hop graffiti grew from a language of "tags" and cryptic letters into "pieces" that approach the scale of murals. If street art evolved from graffiti, then it rode piggyback on the freshness of the graffiti underground, but opted for scribbles, sketches and cartoons instead of lettering.

Contemporary street art also embraces a wider variety of methods, including stickers, stencils, posters, printing techniques, mosaics, adhesive tape, even welding. And it's worth noting that some writers distrust the term "art" because it implies connection to a more privileged gallery system. But "graffiti" and "street art" are also used interchangeably, and both are often illegal.

"Street Logos" is a worldwide romp. Manco says he is "connecting dots" across the world, which is a good way of admitting the book makes no attempt to be encyclopedic. And a complete and up-to-date account is probably impossible.

(A previous column reviews an online attempt).

This is highly selective, high-quality stuff, with a global reach that offers down-home flavor to a worldwide readership. With its snappy surfaces and writing, "Street Logos" is nice.

Kelly Burns and his book "I NY" (4 AM Press) offers much less of the writing that Manco uses to set out the history of what's what. Burns' postscript is personal and philosophical, the slightest bit gloomy and tattered. He ponders the fleeting currencies of street art's success: local fame and endorphins, plus jail and community service.

"I NY" is a single-photographer effort, which sometimes gives it the unwashed scent of an obsessive's compendium.

The book sleeps in the embrace of New York City -- one of the art world's most influential cities. Both the city and the book are jammed with "graf," which is the secretive scenery most familiar to artists, skaters, smokers, maintenance workers and the rest of the rooftop subculture.

I like to thumb this book from the back, for the stuff saved for last: graffiti welding, painted stones, tools of the trade and such. There's even a Magritte riff -- "This is not a taxi" -- because sometimes a cab is really just an unsympathetic cop.

Its work-first design gives "I NY" a lower-budget, documentary feel, but the book is stylishly printed. For skills without frills, "I NY" is a treat.


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