Against the Stream
When talking to Jeremy Novy, it quickly becomes clear that his mind moves way faster than his mouth can ever hope to. Words and ideas come spilling out at a blistering pace, each one buried under the stampede of those coming right behind. This can be frustrating, especially since I want desperately to get at least some of them into my notebook.
I’ve come to 1:AM Gallery to learn the art of stencil making from Novy, who is widely recognized as San Francisco’s most prominent stencil artist. The class is sold-out, the U-shaped table crammed with would-be street artists listening as Novy bounces between thoughts on interventional art, queer street culture, and technical hacks for maximizing the impact of stencil design. Almost everything he says would be worthy of a conversation unto itself, but Jeremy keeps moving.
When he finally pauses for a cigarette break I get a chance to look at the envelope of stenciling supplies he has prepared for us. There are design templates and cardboard sheets of various sizes and thickness. There are lists of online font directories and pre-painted stickers. Everything is labeled with handwritten instructions. This strikes me as a considerate gesture. It would have been much easier for him to print up a shopping list and simply point us to the nearest art supply store, but that’s not how Jeremy works. He’s intent on helping others spread their own message.
Novy returns from his smoke break and we begin cutting our own stencils. We follow one of the templates that have been provided for us, but Jeremy encourages us to change them and add our own flourishes. To demonstrate, he takes a black marker to a portrait of Keith Haring and begins drawing. One by one, all of the students put down their penknives and lean in to watch Novy work. Within minutes the low-resolution print is transformed into a ghostly negative image, turning what appeared to be a piece of scratch paper into something that is, without question, art.
A few nights later I witnessed this same sneaky, magical transformation again – this time on the streets. I meet up with Jeremy in the Tenderloin, and immediately he filled me in on his modus operandi. Novy is an advocate for the queer voice in the graffiti world and many of his stencils feature sexually suggestive imagery. Not long ago Novy was subjected to some not-so-subtle homophobia at a gallery show and in response he began painting things like his lip-locked male wrestlers all over the city. Rather than lodge some sort of intellectual protest, he literally put the writing on the wall, making queer street art impossible to ignore in San Francisco.
To me this seems like a provocative act on behalf of public discourse. I’m fascinated by graffiti in large part because it creates a public forum for what I see as the most public form of art. To this point Jeremy added an interesting observation. “You know,” he said, “so many people try to equate graffiti with urban blight. That’s why the city is so aggressive about cleaning it up – even if ‘cleaning it up’ actually means leaving patches of gray mismatched paint everywhere. But to me blight is a plain city, full of drab buildings with no color or personality.”
By that point we were standing in the alley behind the Hemlock Tavern, a part of the city that certainly does not suffer from lack of color. The walls on either side of us are decorated with multi-artist murals that run the gamut of styles and color, in patches that reach all the way to the rooftops. A few blank spots are labeled “wall space” as a kind of coded invitation to other artists. Without hesitation, Jeremy set down his bag and began unloading his wares.
Jeremy quickly peeled apart the stencil set for his famous koi fish. He interrupted himself to explain some of the feng shui concepts behind the design: an even number of fish moving in a circular fashion, as per the imperial number code for prosperity, with a single orange fish for good luck. Novy was talking and moving so quickly that I couldn’t imagine anything feng shui-esque emerging from the effort, but I kept that to myself.
He pulled out what looked like a power drill – which turns out to be a cleverly disguised selection of high-quality spray paints. Jeremy explained that this was all part of the game. Despite the fact that he is commissioned to paint in private and public spaces all over the world, and that we happened to be in a pre-sanctioned locale, a lot of what Novy does is technically illegal. As such, he has to work fast and take precautions not to draw attention to himself.
Jeremy crouched on the sidewalk, whipping stacks of cardboard stencils around like a short order cook. As he sprayed layers of detail through each one, the fish began to come to life. A crowd of drunken kids staggered from the bar and gathered around to watch him work. A couple eating take-out pizza exclaimed loudly to each other when they recognized his koi. A security guard stepped out through a service door, gave us a long look and then spoke into his walkie-talkie. “Never mind, it’s OK. He’s some kind of artist.”
Having taken his class a few days earlier, I knew just how difficult it is to do what he was doing, much less to do it as quickly and efficiently. His placement of the stencils was brisk and deliberate. Even layers of paint covered the cutouts with each pass of the spray can. I was taken aback when a guy on his cell phone walked right over the koi as Jeremy was working. I suggested that the guy was an inconsiderate asshole, but Jeremy waved him off. “This isn’t my living room, it’s a public sidewalk. My art is a conversation with the city, but I’m not going to force it on anybody. It’s there for people who chose to notice and be involved.”
As if to affirm this point, a guy who had been smoking weed on the other side of the alley came up and told Jeremy about the shark he was planning to stencil. Jeremy encouraged him to get his drawing up and even suggested he place it in such a way that it would look like the shark was eating his koi. The guy appeared to be surprised by Jeremy’s enthusiasm. He sat there in stunned silence for a moment before mumbling something profound like “sharks are cool” and then moving back to his side of the street.
Before packing his gear up, Jeremy moved to add another stencil to the already crowded mural on the side of the building. The design features a strong, blocky figure reminiscent of Russian poster art from the Communist era. His fist is raised, as if to show his solidarity with a Marxist government regime. However, Jeremy has altered the design so that in his fist he holds a penknife and a straightedge. In his other hand is a can of silver spray paint. His face is covered with a polka-dot handkerchief, just like the one Novy wears in all his public photos.
The message is simple yet striking and echoes something that Jeremy said over and over again in the course of our conversations: Art is power.