East Bay Express Reaches Out to Graffiti Artists

Urban Express-ions Project Aims to 'Pre-graffiti' the paper's news boxes.

To a graffiti writer, a yellow news box sitting bright and plain beside a bus stop or convenience store is a great temptation. But the East Bay Express has a plan to flip the script.

In September, the Emeryville, Calif.,-based paper launched “Urban Express-ions,” a project that aims to, in effect, “pre-graffiti” distribution boxes by inviting local artists to adorn them with spray paint.

Express publisher Jody Colley was intrigued when friend and Sacramento News & Review distribution manager Michael Billingsley told her about the success of his box-painting project in Sacramento. (Colley also has a special place in her heart for spray paint since, as she is somewhat shy to admit, she has worked in the medium herself.) Express account manager Mary Younkin — an accomplished painter of the non-spraying variety — signed up the artists, coordinated a collective painting day and arranged to have the finished pieces shown at a prominent gallery in downtown Oakland.

The Swarm Gallery show on Sept. 20 solidified the project’s art cred. As a DJ played downtempo music, local art scenesters munched on artisanal bread topped with olive paste (donated by a sponsor) and admired the finished works. Some artists had incorporated elements of old-school graffiti: cartoonish characters, stylized arrows and tags such as “EBX” and “Host No Ills”. One striking box depicted a solitary figure pushing a shopping cart through a silhouetted cityscape. Artist bios and photographs were tucked in the rack card slot on top of the A-frames of each box.

Colley says the goal is to eventually have all 800 Express news boxes painted and maintain a catalog of each art box, including information about the artist. “Over time, this will be an impressive collection of locally-produced art.”

Billingsley already has quite a collection in Sacramento. “Aesthetically it has been amazing,” he says. “The art on some of these newsracks has just been far beyond any expectation I could have had.”

AAN News caught up with Colley and Younkin on a recent Saturday afternoon in the steamy Express parking lot. As they spoke, eleven artists, fueled by donated beer and pizza, worked intently with their spray cans.

Explain the origins of this idea and what you hope the project will achieve.

Colley: I stole the idea from Michael Billingsley at the Sacramento News & Review. He’s the best in our industry, in my opinion — a real circulation director guru. He’s on his 70th art box right now in Sacramento. They’ve found that the community does take more ownership [of the painted boxes]. Graffitiers will skip that box.

Younkin: A lot of our boxes have been vandalized. Hopefully these won’t get tagged.

Colley: Instead of being blighted, we want these to be community art. We have new ownership at the Express and we really want to connect to the artist community more than we have in the past. This is kind of our first project doing that.

How did you find the artists?

Colley: We put an ad in the paper and local artists submitted samples of their work. Mary weeded through the submissions. There were actually a couple artists that were up-and-coming local artists, so we were excited about that.

Younkin: We didn’t get a lot of B.S. submissions.

Colley: No. We were going to do just five boxes, but we got eleven awesome submissions. This is just the beginning. We want to do a lot more. We want to go really local with it. Have people from that individual neighborhood do the box. Like if you live in that building, you do the box in front of that building. We’re not giving any guidelines for it. Just whatever people want.

Were most of the people who submitted actual graf artists?

Younkin: Some people are used to the medium; a couple people here have never used spray paint. It’s the idea of graffiti art as a fine art. We want to promote that idea.

Where will these boxes go?

Colley: Each rack shown at the party will eventually find a home in front of a local art institution, museum, gallery or retailer.

Now that these look so cool, are you afraid anyone will try to steal them?

Younkin: Actually, our distribution guy said that, but they’re chained down.

Colley: If they do get stolen, we’ll paint more.

After the boxes were painted and shown at the gallery, AAN News checked in with Colley again.

Now that the project is complete, can you reflect on the experience a bit?

Colley: I now see each of our yellow East Bay Express outdoor boxes as a blank canvas, ready to be transformed into whatever creative expression a local artist envisions.

Street racks in urban centers are often — and sometimes understandably — seen as eyesores and removed by city ordinances. [Some are] replaced by multi-unit city racks with Clear Channel billboards on the backsides of them. So it will be interesting to see what impact the art rack has. An alternative newsweekly is in many respects an edgy, smart reflection of the community it serves, and art racks are a visual representation of this.

In retrospect, what are some of the biggest challenges in executing a project like this?

Colley: Convincing your circulation director that just because the rack isn’t bright yellow, people will still see it. Knowing what to do if an artist paints something obscene — so far we’ve only had this challenge with the art our staff created. For our artists’ painting day, we put up some boards and canvas for the staff to spray paint. The boards will be used as East Bay Express office art and the canvas will be a table cover at future parties.

What advice can you give to publishers at other papers who want to try art racks?

Colley: Try to find sponsors for the art supplies and beer for the artists whenever possible.

We partnered with Montana Cans, who supplied some top-quality spray cans and tips, and also have a very environmentally friendly product. And get groups of artists together to all paint at once. It’s easier to manage, they feed off each other’s creativity, and it’s just easier to set up and clean up all at once. Keep the focus on the artists — it’s about them, not your paper. Allow them creative liberty to design whatever they want and you’ll be pleasantly surprised with the end result.

Emma Pollin is a freelance writer based in Oakland, California.

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