Arts and Entertainment

Graffiti guys come to MUSEO

Denis Zimmermann
Denis Zimmermann's 'Pharrell in America,' the artist uses ink and paint marker on paper.
— image credit: Photo courtesy of Denis Zimmerman

“He’s ‘all city,’ man. He scratched ‘back to back’ in Berlin, ‘end to end’ in the New York subway, ‘backjumped’ his way through Seattle and created some incredibly fly ‘heaven spots’ in the most radical places I’ve ever seen in Tokyo!”

That is a smattering of the language of graffiti artists.

“All city” means the artist’s work is recognizable throughout a city; “back to back” is when the artist covers one wall completely; “backjumped” is a quickly executed panel usually painted on a temporarily parked train or a running bus; and a “heaven spot” — also known as “hitting the heavens” — is when an artist paints a piece in a hard-to-reach spot like a rooftop or on a freeway sign. Heaven spots are risky for the artist and may lead to death (or heaven), but have the benefit of being hard to remove and can bring instant notoriety to the graffiti artist.

Modern graffiti art is associated with the spray-painting street artists of New York City and the hip-hop culture that was born out of rap, DJing and break-dancing.

But rendered words and pictures on walls has existed since ancient times.

The word comes from the Italian “graffiato” which means “scratched” and refers to the inscriptions and figure drawings found on the walls of ancient ruins such as the catacombs of Rome or Pompeii.

Now graffiti can be any graphics applied to a wall and, depending on the viewer, is seen as either the freshest form of art or vandalism.

Here on Whidbey Island, you’ll probably never see a “tag” in a heaven spot and you won’t catch many artists “bombing” a wall, but thanks to the MUSEO gallery, a group of graffiti artists and other artists influenced by the form have put together “Outside The Lines.”

The show opens Saturday, Feb. 7, with an opening reception from 5 to 7 p.m.

It will feature the work of John Sarkis, Paul Sarkis, Denis Zimmermann, Yale Wolf, Derek Yost, Clark Sarbaugh, Jeff Conner and Jayson Smith.

John Sarkis is a 20-year-old Whidbey artist who opened Jack’d Skimboards in 2003 with three other young men.

You may have seen the beautifully hand-painted boards on the island festival circuit. The boards are popular with young people who use them to slide athletically along the shallow waters of the beach at low tide.

They are also popular with older folks who appreciate art but, rather than ride them, like to hang them on the wall.

The boards are made at the Jack’d Skimboards’ Clinton warehouse, where the crew designs, shapes, handpaints and varnishes them.

It was one of those skimboards that caught the eye of MUSEO owner Sandra Jarvis. She bought one and became interested in Sarkis’ art, and the idea for a graffiti show was born.

Sarkis said definitively to Jarvis, “If you want a graffiti show, I’ll give you a graffiti show.”

Sarkis’ deft hand at painting came out of an interest in art at a young age.

He credits his brother Paul, an avid Seattle graffiti artist, with giving him his first set of graffiti alphabets when he was 12.

Since then, Sarkis said he writes, draws and paints on anything he can get his hands on. Paul’s influence was indelible, and Sarkis speaks of his older sibling with respect and gratitude.

“My brother really influenced me a lot,” Sarkis said. “He’s the reason why

I learned to make art.”

Now the younger Sarkis makes as much art as he can when he is not creating skimboards.

“Graffiti art is connected to the whole hip-hop culture, ya know, DJing; it’s all about self-expression and doing things in a different way,” Sarkis said.

“It’s useless to create the same thing over and over again. Graffiti art is rebellious.”

It’s that rebel flavor that Sarkis was thinking of when he chose who to invite into the show.

Sarkis said the “Outside The Lines” artists are all doing their own thing, and though the art may not be a “throw up” on the side of some building, all the work is created with the modern influences of graffiti in mind.

Zimmermann, of the island graphic design company Zimmermann Studio, said John Sarkis fires him up. Sarkis sometimes apprentices at the studio and said he’s learned a lot from Zimmermann.

Zimmermann said the influence goes both ways.

“His fresh approaches help me to expand what I’m doing. He charges me up and gets me excited about opening up more to collaborative energies,” Zimmermann said.

“I’ve been doing this since 1995 when I got out of design school,” Zimmermann said.

“I’m not doing street art, but I’m inspired by it. I want to connect to the context of the time so my work is alive in the moment.”

It is the rawness of the form and the unfiltered self-expression of graffiti that inspires Zimmermann.

It’s as Sarkis explained, that the media used is not important. Stencils, alphabets, spray paint, pen and ink, acrylic, oils or silkscreens; it doesn’t matter what you use, there are no rules.

Zimmermann said he works on pushing letter forms, hand-drawing sometimes with markers and then using the computer to modify everything with a conceptual twist.

“In graffiti art the idea of branding is important. My broad aesthetic, use of flat colors and use of the digital medium is a kind of self-branding, like a tag,” Zimmermann said.

Zimmermann said those self-branding tags come from his history; images he grew up with, such as Japanese superheroes.

Sarkis, too, said his childhood plays a part in what falls on the page. He mentions comic books and, of course, the exotic world of his city-living DJing older brother.

“Graffiti art is mind-blowing,” Sarkis said. “People here don’t usually get to see this kind of stuff. I think it’ll be amazing.”

“Outside The Lines” runs through Sunday, March 1. For info, call MUSEO at

221-7737 or visit www.museo.cc.

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