Some of the most striking works of Oklahoma art are wrapped around dank drainage tunnels or stretched across train cars. Most people never get to see them, but the annual "Made You Look" art show shines light on a style pinned to the shadows of the city.
"We started out just trying to unite the graffiti artists here in Oklahoma and bringing their art form to the public and having it in a gallery setting, rather than on someone's building or on the highway," said exhibit coordinator Nick Samsel. "The first year, we started out in the back of a bookstore. The attendance was over 700, the place was packed, and we were stunned by the turnout. Second year was at IAO and it was bigger than we thought again; 2,200 people came through the door."
MAKESHIFT PLYWOOD WALL
Saturday marks the third year for "Made You Look," and the 2009 event at Bricktown Live, 103 Flaming Lips Alley, is expected to draw an even larger crowd. In addition to the pieces displayed inside the venue, from more than 30 Oklahoma graffiti and street artists, a makeshift plywood wall will line the alley from Oklahoma Avenue to Mickey Mantle Drive, serving as a large-scale canvas for a public art installation evolving throughout the day.
"We're trying to promote the graffiti culture more in a positive light," Samsel said. "You always see it on the news in a negative light. Every year, we try to get it bigger and let people know that's it not just vandalism."
The 7 p.m. show and all-day outdoor installations are open to visitors of all ages. While the show centers on the active and exhibited art, there will also be a breakdance battle and local hip-hop and reggae-inspired music acts, including DJ Diverse, DJ D.L., Jabee, Shaun Boogie, Hungry Under Stress, and The Suspects. "Made You Look" itself takes its name from the title of a song by Nas, a platinum-selling New York rapper.
While it's not possible to exhibit the original chunks of concrete and metal that typically host graffiti, there will be small-scale representations of artists' work on canvas and other flat surfaces, as well as photographs and designer toys, like Kidrobot Dunnys.
"This is the only art form that was started by the youth, by kids, and what unites it all is just getting your name up and your art seen," said Kidrobot founder Jason Riggle. "A lot of the kids don't know they can get into galleries, so they just go do it wherever."
The diversity of the street art might be surprising, as most stereotype it as crude tags defacing public property.
"When people hear the word 'graffiti,' they think a lot of the gangster stuff," Riggle said. "It means so many different things "? graffiti art, that's just what it's labeled. Some people just want to vandalize stuff, but other artists focus on the art itself and do it where it's allowed to be done."
All of the "Made You Look" artists have lived in Oklahoma or are current residents that are involved in the local graffiti culture.
"This is basically the only avenue for graffiti and street artists in the state of Oklahoma," Samsel said. "Oklahoma is one of the last states to really embrace it as an art form."
FREE GRAFFITI CLASSES
Dusty Gilpin, co-owner of Tree and Leaf Clothing, is another participating artist, and his company will have 100 shirts available exclusively at "Made You Look." He recently held free graffiti classes at a local library to teach teens about using street art in a legal way for artwork and graphic design.
"Graffiti is like a forbidden fruit of art," he said. "People see it and they don't know what they means, but they're interested in it. When you put it in an environment like an art exhibition or show, it gives outsiders an opportunity to approach it and they're not in a drainage ditch or in an alley."
"Made You Look" is also an opportunity for positive exposure, which illegal artists rarely receive from their work.
"The thing about graffiti, if someone paints a ditch or a wall, they're not going to get any credit for it or any money for it," Gilpin said. "Illegal graffiti is completely anonymous and you're spending money on art supplies that are going to be cleaned up by the city or faded by the sun. 'Made You Look' actually gives them credit for what they're doing."
While "Made You Look" only comes once a year, Samsel, Riggle, and others hope that a year-round space will one day be established for legal graffiti art in the metro.
"Most major cities have a designated area for graffiti," he said. "I'm not saying that it's going to stop all graffiti, but what we're pushing for is a spot where they can express themselves and not worry about going to jail.
"Police will say the same thing "? all graffiti artists aren't bad people; we don't all go and destroy property. We go to work, we hold 9-to-5 jobs. Graffiti is not going to go anywhere in Oklahoma City, and they can either embrace it or keep fighting it."
Made You Look exhibits at 7 p.m. Saturday at Bricktown Live, 103 Flaming Lips Alley.