Live Active Cultures

It isn't every week that I take a drive west of I-4 into the land of Parramore, not since the last resident I know vacated the CityView apartments. So when I took a left turn on West Central Boulevard last Saturday (April 25) and found myself in a foreign city, I was disoriented: A small sliver of someplace like Miami or SoHo had somehow been transplanted into one of Orlando's least fashionable neighborhoods, at least for an afternoon. Don't worry, there wasn't a tear in the time-space continuum. It was just the return of the Pintura Project International Graffiti Conference.

Artists and crews from around Orlando as well as special guests from New York, Puerto Rico, Spain, Germany and other worldly locations gathered downtown to turn a hardscrabble warehouse complex into an enormous outdoor canvas. Approaching the event at mid-afternoon, I witnessed an amazing vista as dozens of writers, perched on ladders and scaffolding, labored furiously to turn the eastern facade of the complex into a patchwork of spray-painted Sistines.

Dozens of others were working in the courtyard that's flanked by the warehouses; the cement walls were marked ofaf into blocks of space already filled with visuals. Subjects ranged from abstracted typography (local Spec, back again for another year) and stylized urban iconography (dig the shiny silver subway trains by CERN from Germany) to surreally original cartoon creatures (Dolla's toothy skull) and photorealistic pop-culture re-creations (a frame from The Evil Dead in eerie purple hues by local Decoy, aka Brian Demchak).

I know shamefully little about the graffiti art scene, but I'm told the list of participants — featuring names like CES, T-Kid, Cope2, Break, Park and Ms. Lotus — included notables to those in the know. Me, I just marvel at anyone with the agility to wring a masterpiece out of an aerosol can without succumbing to inhalant intoxication (especially the masochists spraying indoors sans masks).

I'm told that last year's inaugural graffiti jam (which I regret that I did not attend) was split between art in the daytime and a DJ concert at night. Happily, this year's outing was more integrated and ended at sundown, with DJ Eddie B Swift delivering a solid soundscape of old-school hip-hop beats. Just as I arrived an honest-to-god break-dancing competition broke out, complete with comical B-boy braggadocio and jaw-dropping contortions. The three-round tournament concluded with the Shoguns of the Circle crew defeating Defying Gravity in a flying-limb free-for-all that looked dangerously like the cast of Step It Up and Dance auditioning for West Side Story. I admit to being one of the grinning idiots snapping pictures at cardboard-side. What can I say? It's not every day that you attend an art show and a house party breaks out.

The family-friendly atmosphere also included jewelry and T-shirt vendors, face-painting and a sno-cone seller serving shaved ice slathered in habit-forming coconut syrup. What you wouldn't find were any deep-pocket corporate sponsors picking up the tab. While the poster boasted a long list of co-sponsors (including Street Level 9 T-shirts, Pure G graffiti supplies and Rawcore Radio), the party's biggest benefactor — besides tattoo artists/hosts E.S. Baraza and Angel "Staz" Carreras and their guests — was the artist who rented his studio complex for the event.

Robin Van Arsdol — known in the art community as RV — is widely acknowledged as the Orlando godfather of graffiti art. As guests entered and paid their $10 admission, they passed through a warehouse filled with evidence of the origin of RV's reputation: The massive gallery holds ginormous canvases and sculpture featuring his signature spike-haired heads, battling tanks and Batmobile-like cars.

At the rear of the complex I found the man himself, hanging out in his lounge with DJ Nigel among an envy-inducing collection of his most cherished pieces. RV is closely associated with Keith Haring's New York—based Pop Shop, but his artistic embrace goes back beyond American pop art to include old-world European surrealism. He proudly showed me an autographed poster from überinfluential Joseph Beuys' first stateside gallery show, for which he served as the artist's assistant at the age of 24, along with a rare Man Ray drawing of Leonardo da Vinci and a preserved popsicle stick slathered with the saliva-based DNA of Dadaist Marcel Duchamp (of "Fountain" found-object urinal fame).

I'm deeply grateful RV took the time to show me his studio on such a busy occasion, as he was positively giddy at the abundance of art being generated on his property. I was also deeply confused: Why does someone who has traveled around the world, selling his work in places as far afield as Düsseldorf, choose to live in Orlando? RV moved here in 1972 after spending his childhood in Kentucky, and despite many sojourns away, he has no plans to leave. "I tell people I live in paradise," he says, when asked. "Why would I want to go?"

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