Big Apple Graffiti Inspires Israeli-born Neuroscientist

Instead of sinking into depression after a sports injury, Yoav Litvin began talking long walks through his adopted city and photographing street art. His book, 'Outdoor Gallery: New York City,' documents his journey.

Yoav Litvin

A few weeks before the scheduled publication of “Outdoor Gallery: New York City,” which documents contemporary street art in that city, the author, Yoav Litvin, called his publisher to verify that the printing was on schedule and that copies would arrive in time for the launch party. Only then did Litvin learn that the print run had been suspended because one of the works, by a street artist known as Gaia, depicted a Greek or Roman god emerging from images of Chinese and Thai currency. Since the book was being printed in China, the printers had to obtain permission from the Beijing government.

Printing was approved two weeks later, and copies of the book, which was published in April by Gingko Press, reached their destination. “That only shows how much power there is in street art,” Litvin said in a video conversation from his home in New York. “Money is a very important thing in art too. More than the flag,” he adds, smiling.

His decision to publish a book about street art came about almost by accident. Litvin, who was born in Jerusalem 38 years ago, has a bachelor’s degree in biology and East Asian studies from Tel Aviv University. He worked on his graduation project in biology for a month at the university zoo together with two professors from Hawaii. He completed his doctorate in psychology and neuroscience in Honolulu, specializing in anxiety disorders, depression and the behavioral models of people suffering from these conditions.

After completing his doctorate he moved to New York, where he has been living for the past five years. During that time, he did postdoctoral work at Rockefeller University, conducted research and taught. He began working on the book two and a half years ago, after injuring his neck playing squash. “My game partner hit me in the face with his racket with all his might. Suddenly I was in a situation where I couldn’t play any sports at all, after I’d been very active: running, marathon training, squash and more.”

Instead of sinking into depression, “which is something I study,” he adds with a smile, he decided to go walking, 10 to 15 miles a day, on weekends when he wasn’t working. Only then, in Brooklyn and Queens, did he fall in love with street art, as he took photographs and uploaded them to Instagram. “As time went by, I started noticing artists and artwork. At the same time, people who liked the photos I took started tagging the artists in them, and that was how I got to know the artists behind the works. Very slowly, I started going to gallery openings, and that was how the personal connection began. I enjoyed that a lot. Ask anyone who photographs and documents street art — the discovery is a pleasure. You may know where you’re going to find a new work, but suddenly you discover a work by an artist you know. It’s just like running into an old friend on the street.”

In the introduction to the book, Livtin calls New York City the biggest and most diverse outdoor gallery in the world. The book, which he says was born out of his love for New York, its people and its streets, has 240 pages, divided into 46 chapters — one for each of the 46 street artists, 34 men and 12 women, that it showcases. “There are fewer women than men, albeit more than there would have been had the book been written 10 years ago,” Litvin says.

A work by LunarNewYear and OverUnder. Photo by Yoav Litvin

The works appear in the book cover a wide spectrum of themes and subjects, he says: social commentary, empowerment, pride, beauty, truth, humor, sorrow, the abstract, the wonderful, the absurd, the bizarre, the grotesque and, finally, the surrealistic and the imaginary. Each chapter opens with a quote from the featured artist on street art in general, the artist’s personal style, New York City, his or her work processes and sources of inspiration.

“I included every artist who interested me,” he says. “I tried to be as unbiased as possible and to document what was happening now, over the past two years. New York is the mecca for street artists today, and in the end this is a local book. That’s why every artwork has an address — so that it can be connected to the place, but also so that it can serve as a historical reference when a 20-story building is constructed there in another ten years.”

A work by Toofly. Photo by Yoav Litvin

What can we learn about street art from the book?

“It’s hard to define street art, and street artists, in a single sentence. Each began for a different reason. Each has a different motivation. For example, the street artist known as OCMC (Oh Captain My Captain) began creating street art when his grandmother died and he wanted to portray her face through his work. Cope2 (whose real name is Fernando Carlo), one of the longest-working and best-known street artists, began by tagging subway cars in the 1980s. Still, the picture in the book that I like best is the one of a work by Enzo and Nio (Enzo Sarto and Nio Gallo), an artist duo who produce a great deal of political works. You see the girl with the Uzi looking right into the lens, and opposite her is a man with flowers in his hand, looking down at the sidewalk as he passes by on his way home from work. That happens in life, too: The artists look at reality and critique it while the rest of the people function a bit like robots.”

A work by Icy and Sot. Photo by Yoav Litvin

Does the book contain a political message?

“We must remember that fundamentally street art is still an illegal act, rebellion. Social rebellion, rebellion against the art establishment, rebellion against the corporations that have taken over the public space and filled it with advertising. Street artists say, ‘Why shouldn’t we fill the street with art?’ It’s a rebellion against what society values. Because of that, I call graffiti nonviolent resistance. Yes, it’s vandalism, but it’s not throwing Molotov cocktails. You have to pass a lot of gatekeepers to exhibit in a museum or an art gallery. Illegal art bypasses them, allows much more freedom than the establishment does and the result is the most interesting and socially-aware kind of content. If you want to know what’s going on in society, go out into the street and look at the street art.”

A work by QRST. Photo by Yoav Litvin

What interests street artists in New York today?

“Many artists deal with gentrification and support the community that is struggling against the forces that are making that happen. The artworks do not have to deal with that directly. Sometimes the creation of street art is enough. On the other hand, there are places where it has become totally upside down, places where street art has raised the value of real estate in the area, and as a result the artists find themselves having to move. It’s tough to live in New York. It’s become a city for rich people.”

How do you think street art in New York is different from street art in other places?

“The whole range of street art is here, and there’s history that doesn’t exist anywhere else. This is where it began. Seeing street art in New York is like going to the opera in Italy. There’s not a graffiti artist on earth who won’t tell you that New York is the place where he wants to work. “London also has powerful artworks on buildings, but there it’s all legal, done with a crane and with permits from the police and the city. It’s different. And there’s also the matter of the Internet. There’s a wild demand for street art on the Internet, with Instagram and Facebook pages that have millions of followers from all over the world. It’s gone from subculture to pop culture — that didn’t exist 20 years ago either. For the first time, the Museum of the City of New York has an exhibition that recognizes street art as art [“City as Canvas”]. All the mayors of New York fought against that in the past — Ed Koch, Rudy Giuliani — and now, for the first time, it’s being shown at the Museum of the City of New York, which recognizes that it’s true American art.”

Courtesy
Yoav Litvin
A work by Jilly Ballistic. Photo by Yoav Litvin