Graffiti was once considered a sign of urban decay, the sort of thing that might keep tourists away from a neighborhood. Now, not only is it an accepted art form, but it's the subject of a new tour in one of Miami's trendiest neighborhoods, Wynwood, where legal outdoor murals by graffiti artists cover the walls near art galleries and restaurants.
The two-hour tour, which takes place on Vespas, is offered by a company called Roam Rides. It starts with a 15-minute ride from Miami Beach over the Venetian Causeway to the Wynwood Arts District, considered the mecca of Miami's emerging arts scene, and includes four or five stops to survey the area's best graffiti. The tour ends with lunch at a happening Wynwood restaurant.
Once considered a rough neighborhood, Wynwood has become a destination for artists from all over the world. Art galleries abound, and events are held here each December as part of the Art Basel Miami Beach art fair. Wynwood is also now home to one of the world's largest installations of murals by multiple graffiti artists.
"It's gotten to be so pervasive and it really brightens up the neighborhood," Kit Sullivan of Roam Rides said.
"It's so not what you would expect of Miami," said Jesse Bull, an economics professor who took one of Roam Rides' recent graffiti tours. "The graffiti has kind of added to that. It livens it up and makes it fresh and artsy, and I think that's a good thing."
Guides point out work by different local artists — such as Typoe and Tribe Called Phresh, a.k.a. TCP — while explaining the evolution of graffiti from the days when artists plastered their names on vacant buildings and train cars as a way to gain street cred.
These days, building owners give permission to artists to spray paint their designs, and these legal pieces share the walls of dozens of neighborhood art galleries and chic restaurants. They're easy to distinguish from illegal graffiti, which is often done fast, in secret and at night, with a single color or very few colors. The sanctioned murals, in contrast, allow artists to take their time, use multiple colors and work in-depth in large spaces with elaborate details.
"It's definitely a changing art form," Sullivan said. "It's gotten to the point where a lot of these guys don't even use their names at all. They just have a certain distinctive style. You can recognize it when you see it."
For example, artist Chor Boogie's signature work includes geometric elements and half-hidden faces, as well as an eye.
Major paint companies are even helping graffiti artists make the transition to a legitimate art form by donating spray paint.
" 'Graffiti' has been a bad word in America for a long time. We are trying to change that," said Jayson Moreira, co-owner of Montana Colors North America, a spray paint company based in San Francisco, which donated 8,000 cans of spray paint used to create many of the murals in Miami during Art Basel. He even helped paint a mural of Japanese girls on the side of a two-story building that was once an RC Cola Plant.
The world of graffiti has its own lingo. Artists "tag" their works with their names. A "throw-up" is a quick piece. A "bomb" is usually illegal work that is "thrown up" fast, often at night, in a place that's difficult to access. "Slashing" is when an artist disrespectfully "throws up" his names over a legal piece. A legally done mural or elaborate work that took days or weeks to complete is considered a "masterpiece."
Artists looking for a space to paint legally here may seek help from Primary Flight, an organization that has brought hundreds of artists to the streets of Wynwood.
"A lot of people don't go to museums or aren't art collectors or art-educated," Primary Flight founder Books Bischof said. "If you can take the same exact image from a street and put it in the museum, it doesn't speak as loudly as it would if it were illegally on the street corner or in a gritty part of the neighborhood."
Oscar Montes, 36, has been painting since he was a young teenager. Better known as Trek6, the artist wanted to pay tribute to his origins and the Puerto Rican community that once made up the Wynwood area, so he painted a legal mural that included a coqui, the island frog named for the "ko-kee" sound it makes at night.
Montes said he spent about $2,000 of his own money on paint — as well as hours of his time under Miami's hot sun — creating the mural.
Graffiti is changing, he said. "A purist would tell you it's gotten really soft," he said. "When I started, everything was illegal. There was (a) serious graffiti task force. They're less aggressive now because so much of it is legit."
While the artists are invited to do their work on buildings and sometimes get donated materials, for the most part they are not paid. Some predict that may change, and that the Miami graffiti community may eventually find fame and profit in their designs, the way artists like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat did in New York several decades ago.
"That generation is going to bring it to another level," said Erni Vales, who runs a studio in the arts district, "where one day it's going to be like pop art."