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Despite its moniker, D.C. art collective AM Radio doesn’t broadcast its message: To experience the group’s work, you’ll have to catch it live. The nine artists and resident DJ behind AM Radio (short for Artwork Mbilashaka, “without a doubt” in Swahili) paint their street murals in front of actual audiences, crowding a canvas with multiple artists and emerging a few hours later with a vibrant, five-by-seven landscape—one often dotted with corporate logos.
Since launching in 2004, the collective has found some key supporters for their urban art project: People trying to sell stuff to an “urban” demographic.
In one mural, Muhammad Ali’s right hook overshoots a floating Adidas logo; an Atlas figure hefts a globe of Current TV-marked television sets over his head; an entire Baltimore interior is converted into a Scion-stamped mural; a Heineken bottle wears a cowboy hat.
Finished works usually end up in corporate headquarters—one hangs in Heineken’s Stamford, Conn., office, another in Toyota-Scion’s Glen Burnie, Md., office. But a mural’s price tag, which runs between $3,000 and $5,000, reflects the live process as much as it does the product-placement product. “I like to think of it as an interactive billboard,” says AM Radio marketing rep Gerald Watson. “The audience watches this blank canvas turn into this piece of art, and at the end, they feel that much more connected to the brand.”
“It becomes a dance,” explains AM Radio member Wesley Clark of the collective’s artistic technique. “You’ll have five people on a canvas at a time, snakelike, dipping over each others’ shoulders, dancing, moving, sliding. It looks like early break dancers. There’s a lot of pop-locking going on.”
At first, Clark says, the whole enterprise didn’t make much sense. “I didn’t want to be a part of it, initially,” he says. “I didn’t really understand the live-painting thing. I didn’t understand how it would be marketed or why people would be interested in it.”
Aniekan Udofia, an Adams Morgan artist and fellow AM Radio member, agrees that the urban art technique didn’t initially have much local support. “A lot of crews had started doing live painting around the country, but it was new to the area and new to us,” he says. “As far as I know, nobody was doing it around here before us.”
Though AM Radio finds inspiration in cars and beer, they insist they’ve still got street cred. “We have half a dozen African-Americans working on this, and we’ve got some white cats on this team too, but the overwhelming feel of it is going to come from that particular experience,” explains Rodney “Buck”
Herring, founder of Mosi Design and self-described “big dog” behind the group. “There’s more chutzpah. There’s more anger in it. It’s rougher around the edges. Some people call that ‘hip-hop’ nowadays.”
Translation for corporate clients: “Using the environment and the African aesthetic as inspiration, AM Radio breaks canvas and concepts down to their root….AM Radio can incorporate any theme visually such as ad campaign elements, apparel, accessories, footwear, endorsed celebrities, lifestyle elements, slogans, regional landmarks, and company logos.”
This isn’t the first time that corporate entities have appropriated urban art to achieve hyper-local advertisement. In 2005, “guerrilla marketing” firm GoGORILLA launched a “sidewalk campaign” that illegally stenciled promos for HBO’s Rome on District streets (The District Line, “Sidewalk Sale,” Oct. 21, 2005).
Since 2004, AM Radio has given the legal hip-hop treatment to such brands as Timberland and VitaminWater. But the artists behind the collective—Udofia, Clark, Herring, PJ Herring, Jamal Smith, Perry Sweeper, Rashad Cuffee, Feijado, Tyler Luck, and DJ 2ToneJones—can get even rougher than their B12-fortified commissioned works would suggest.
Udofia compares his personal artwork to AM Radio’s this way: “The only relation is that sometimes, there is paint,” he says. “I have my own views as an artist. I deal a lot with social commentary. A lot of my stuff wouldn’t be taken well if I were creating it for a corporate client.” In Udofia’s painting and illustration, pop culture gets a more subversive treatment. In one piece, Angelina Jolie casts a fishing rod into the continent of Africa; in another, a Middle Eastern boy clutches a soccer ball while an American waiter serves up a grenade on a silver platter.
“You have to know how to differentiate between the two,” says Udofia of walking the line between corporate commissions and personal vision. “The AM Radio piece, that’s what the client wants. They want the Heineken bottle, so we do that. I
don’t think, ‘Oh, I should revolutionize the Heineken bottle,’ because that’s not what my aim is. I’m not trying to change the way people think about beer. Plus, it would be a breach of my contract.”
AM Radio’s sponsors hope that grafting some urban grit onto their products will hook in younger consumers. Akil Waite, self-described “event architect,” began promoting AM Radio in 2005 after seeing its Scion-sponsored post-Katrina mural, which depicts George W. Bush with devil horns and quotes Kanye West (“George Bush doesn’t care about black people”). “The piece they did for Scion was so moving that I took a picture of it with my cell phone. And I still have it on my cell phone,” he says. “The great thing about AM Radio is that they can be very political or very corporate but at the end of the day, they speak to the audience.”
Scion regional manager Mike Wirth says Scion’s not worried about the West quote. “We are apolitical, so any message in the work is the expression of the artist,” he says. Scion does have one preference for their art events, though. “Typically, they include the car.”
Clark, whose works include more AM-friendly abstract cityscapes as well as a less marketable American-flag-splattered lynching series, says, “When I was young, I said, ‘I never want to use my art in this manner.’ But me painting a Heineken bottle is me being able to paint full-time as an artist.” Adds Udofia, “This is not something that I have to do constantly. If I were to draw Heineken bottles as my personal art, I think that would suck. I would rather work at McDonald’s before I did that.”
Herring says that the key to hip-hopping around Heineken is in the technique. “It’s about hearing what the client wants and still expressing ourselves. We can do that through the paintbrush, though paint strokes, through color theory,” says Herring. “That is not a problem.”
Still, the corporate success has at times overshadowed the personal commentary. “We get flack from a lot of artists, and it’s BS,” says Herring. “They’ll say, ‘I don’t do that because I’m trying to get my message across.’ Every cat out there always says they hate so-and-so until so-and-so cuts them a check. I have to make a living. I have to feed my family. I mean, I don’t have a family to feed, myself, but I’m just saying.”
For Udofia, apparel, footwear, and endorsed celebrities are fair game for both promotional and ironic purposes. “All art is an instrument of war,” he
says. “There is no such thing as ‘corporate art.’ The fact that we even have these companies hiring us tells you how far our work has come. We’ve come a long way from being the starving artist in the corner.”
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