It is an unusual thing to feature at a fancy museum gala: graffiti. But Ogden Museum of Southern Art is doing exactly that with this year’s Magnolia Ball (June 11), which celebrates the museum’s exhibition, “Top Mob: A History of New Orleans Graffiti” (June 6-Nov. 6). The show centers on the New Orleans graffiti krewe Top Mob, exploring graffiti’s role in drawing attention to urban blight and gentrification. Guest curators Gabriel Alexander and Nicole Hershey talk about the exhibition.
What are some things people should look out for in this show? Nicole Hershey: It is remarkable because it’s the first of its kind in New Orleans. Never before has a retrospective of an entire krewe been on display in a museum context. In addition to a collaborative exterior mural on the side wall of the Ogden, the exhibition will also feature a narrative photographic timeline showcasing the evolution of style within Top Mob, as well as various other writers from the region as it relates to New Orleans. Each krewe member will have their own “hall of fame” piece inside the museum containing work representative of their personal style.
Gabriel Alexander: In addition to all of the local artists, we have artists coming from Atlanta, Los Angeles and New York, all of whom got their start here in New Orleans.
What makes NOLA graffiti distinctive? GA: Top Mob was established in 1984. In the ’80s, New York graffiti and the film Style Wars made a big impression, and in the early ‘90s Los Angeles style was a major influence. The classic NOLA style is legible letterforms that flow together with a funky ease. A similar style can be recognized throughout the Southeast, especially in Atlanta and Miami.
What got you interested in graffiti? NH: I’ve always enjoyed street art but never knew how to ‘read’ graffiti. In 2014, I was involved with ExhibitBE, where I met many writers whose tags I saw around the city. Once I started to understand the code, I was privy to a dialogue that surrounds us but is foreign to most. Because it can happen anywhere, anytime and get covered at a moment’s notice, there’s a certain excitement and urgency about graffiti that doesn’t exist in many visual art forms.
Graffiti is still misunderstood by most people. What does it mean to you? GA: Graffiti by its nature is socially rebellious and the message is in the act itself. People wonder why or how the artists go to such lengths just to write their ‘name,’ while keeping their identities mostly anonymous. It is in a sense one of the most free forms of visual expression because it doesn’t have boundaries or require permission. Graffiti adds color to the landscape, bringing attention to urban blight, and plays a part in the gentrification of metropolitan neighborhoods. It’s an outlet for voices and talent that might otherwise go unheard and unseen.
For more information on “Top Mob” and the Magnolia Ball, visit OgdenMuseum.org.