April 27, 2008 - Honolulu Advertiser

Echo painting

Opposing forces create visual innovation

By David A.M. Goldberg

From a nonjudgmental perspective, the endless cycle of graffiti's application and erasure is a unified entity. Call it echo painting. As an interactive system, it involves two opposed species of painter: those who apply ("write") graffiti and those who erase ("buff") it.

As a totally accidental public collaboration, the results certainly aren't beautiful in the traditional sense, but they express an aesthetic that has been explored by individual contemporary artists at a previously unimagined social and physical scale.

The strength of echo painting comes from its demonstration of the creative possibilities that emerge from the union of opposing forces, transcending issues typically associated with its component parts: freedom, morals, order and even "graffiti as art."

Writers and buffers toil in anonymity and invisibly. The majority of graffiti is entirely deserving of erasure as it displays little of the technical and stylistic expertise seasoned writers call "can control." The buffers display equally underwhelming and undisciplined painterly efforts, frequently preserving the form of the graffiti as they obliterate its content, sometimes tracing every stroke of the offending tag.

Thus, two mediocre expressions collide to produce an unexpected source of visual innovation: vast irregular patchworks based on an institutional palette of tan, pink, putty, gray and green.

In echo painting, the sustained yet muted notes of the original violations reverberate through the steady accumulation of layers. Though a freshly painted wall of solid color is meant to represent a tactical victory by law and order, it is also a clearly legible record of failure.

If echo painting were recognized as abstract expressionism, it would follow the stream of sanctioned art history that carries Robert Rauschenberg's collages, the "edge paintings" of Sam Francis, and the urban-industrial textures of Hawai'i's own Erika Leuke and Marc Thomas.

Viewed in this context, echo painting is arguably an impressive accomplishment: barely-structured painting events organized into coherent structures of color and form that are visible all over O'ahu, particularly along H-1 from Hawai'i Kai to Waikele. At the speed limit, echo painting becomes visual noise. But slower speeds yield a different perspective.

In the crawl of rush hour on H-1, echo paintings are the backdrop for the greenery of plants marooned in the architecture of the freeway. Where Nimitz Highway runs below H-1, beams of rush-hour sunlight rendered solid by vog and exhaust frame the layered squares that adorn each pillar of an 'ewa-bound retreat.

Viewed at a standstill, the edges of the paint blocks are ragged, strokes are unfinished, and the ghosts of old tags are sometimes plainly visible behind unintended watercolor effects.

Hawai'i's everyday urban environment, framed by the auto windshield, is a true gallery. If the car and its graphical embellishments are expressions of macho, cool and hiply indifferent local individuality, then the lack of respect for the powers that be conveyed by these murals by the criminal and the negligent is a perfect complement.

This little conceptual invention can stand, because in Hawai'i, graffiti and its counterforces needn't be understood in the terms established by the Mainland. This, by the way, is a quiet function of all rear-window memorials and assertions of ethnic pride.

Hawai'i graffiti is a cultural import, like the way a youth wears a hat or breaks English according to music videos and "urban radio." It is, therefore, not a "last-resort" means of expression for economically oppressed youth, and not sign of civil society's impending collapse.

This makes authority's response to graffiti as weak as the reasons most writers typically give for doing it, the aerosol techniques they display, and the performance of those tasked with the job of erasing it.

If we as citizen viewers are willing to reclaim our vision and "see for ourselves," echo painting can frame something beyond our own typical expectations.

Echo painting is not meant to be viewed as an end in itself, or even a permanent or formal artistic concept. However it is an unexpected aesthetic manifestation of urban processes born from conflict and local constraints that can easily represent what will inevitably come out of other social collisions produced by rising energy costs and collapsing economic structures.

To recognize echo painting is to see a strange sustainability, cultural innovation and honest expressions of 21st-century life in Hawai'i. Take a look and let it be an inspirational hint at post-political investments in true locality and unexpected collaboration.

David A.M. Goldberg is a cultural critic and writer. He is a lecturer in art, art history and American studies at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa.

Vineyard Boulevard near H-1 onramp and Palama Settlement.

Photos by Jessica Oshita


UH-Manoa student Noura Khoury-George's video uses Honolulu echo painting to address issues of war and politics. An audio collage of Bob Dylan and George W. Bush accompanies the visual links. Khoury-George makes connections between the incomplete coverups of the buff and post-war political rhetoric.

Vineyard Boulevard detail. The additional texture is the result of fire. Contemporary abstract painters intentionally make use of similar tactics, integrating mistakes, drips and foreign materials into their canvases.

Nimitz Highway pillar detail. Note the incompletely spray-paint mark and the show-through of previous tags. These minor openings set up the next echo in the collaborative cycle.