Q&A With Primary Flight’s Chris Oh

If Art Basel changed the face of Miami forever when it made “the city where neon goes to die” its American home back in 2002, it’s safe to say that Primary Flight‘s annual open air museum and street level mural installation transformed Wynwood and the Miami Design District into the global epicenter of street art. We had a chance to sit down with PF co-founder Chris Oh to chat about the neighborhood’s history, inspiration, politics and what graffiti lovers can expect to see during Basel Week 2011:

LF: Who/ What is Primary Flight comprised of? What served as the team’s inspiration / reasoning behind launching PF?

CO: Primary Flight consists of four partners (Chris Oh, Books Bischof, Typoe, and Mike Feinberg (Business Development)). Our goal was to activate the then struggling and dilapidated Wynwood neighborhood into a thriving art district by creating public artworks throughout the neighborhood. By using Street art and Graffiti murals, we were successful in attracting a new audience to the area, as well as introducing a new audience to the art scene in Miami. We also started very organically. We had friends who, like myself, came from graffiti and street art backgrounds and had evolved into contemporary and fine artists. We thought it would be fun to get back to our “roots” and do some projects in the streets while they were in town. Personally, my crew MSG had been painting the Wynwood neighborhood for over a decade. We actually brought in the first group of world renowned artists in 1998 when I invited Loomit and Daim from Germany to Miami to paint. We ended up painting one of the most influential murals of that period and it was one of the major inspirations for forming PF.

LF: How has this movement or culture (murals/ street art) been received in your hometown, Miami?

CO: At first, it was an uphill battle. Graffiti and spray can art has had such a negative stigma attached to it that it was difficult to get property owners to agree to letting us paint their walls. Things started to change in 2005 when I painted a mural in Wynwood that caught the attention of a property developer name David Lombardi of Lombardi Properties. He really liked my mural and offered me some other walls that he owned. The city started to fine property owners with murals on their properties everyday the mural was still up. Marty Margulies, who is one of the biggest collectors in the world and a very powerful person in Miami, had a mural on the exterior of his collection and the city began to fine him as well. The way the city had murals written in its codes were the same as advertisements. Marty had our back with a huge team of his gangster ass lawyers and took the city of Miami to court over the murals. The city was so scared of his lawyers that they didn’t even show up to court. Since then the city realized that our programming (the murals) were starting to generate large amounts of revenue for the area. More businesses started to open, property values increased, and in turn tax revenue for the city increased. Once the city realized that there was a bottom line that could be generated by the programming, they gave us free range to operate in the Wynwood and Design District neighborhoods. Today Wynwood is used as a model by other cities and municipalities as a successful model on how to create a thriving arts district.

Now our programming is even more popular than the Art Basel event itself. We attract 500,000 tourists and patrons to Wynwood during the week of Basel. There are double decker buses that come from South Beach filled with tourists that come do tours in the neighborhood. There are bicycle tours, Vespa tours, and tours organized by the Miami tourism board for our murals. We introduced a new audience to the Miami art scene and it might have worked to well, because you now have people going to these art walks that are just there because its the cool thing to do and be seen at, and there is no appreciation for the art. I guess we never thought we would eventually be a catalyst for gentrification… Yeah, but the city loves it and even the people who live in the suburban areas find their way to Wynwood every second Saturday.

LF: We understand that you guys were some of the first in Miami to do murals not for the simple sake of “getting up” but also to spread awareness about local issues, etc… Were there major challenges when first introducing this new, more positive voice to the street art culture? (any challenges from peers / locals / etc?)

CO: Like I said earlier, I come from a graffiti crew called MSG and we have been painting large scale murals in Wynwood for over fifteen years. When I got involved with PF, I brought legitimacy to the organization among the hardcore graffiti and local graffiti writers because of my history and my “street cred”. It pissed some locals off at first because we didn’t invite many of them to participate, that was only because these local guys had no interest in doing anything but writing their own names in the typical graffiti manner that didn’t do anything to push the limits or boundaries of the art form… In short, they were doing the same lame graffiti that they had been doing since they started to graffiti. Once these locals realized that these international artists were coming to town and doing amazing work and making them look stupid, that’s when they decided to step there game up and realized that they could use Primary Flight as a platform to really showcase their art on an international level and that they needed to step up their game in order to compete. Ultimately the goal was to get these locals to step up their game and compete on an international level., which some of the local artists have done.

LF: What crews / artists do you (or the PF team) hope to collaborate with in the future?

CO: I think we’ve pretty much collaborated or worked with every major street artist or graffiti artist out there. We would really like to get some other contemporary artists and blue chip artists to paint some public art murals and do something that’s outside of their normal mediums and element. I would love to do a project with Ai Wei Wei, Damien Hirst, and Jeff Koons to name a few.

LF: What’s your dream destination to put up a wall?

CO: I would love to do the Great Wall of China and do a mural so big that you could see it from space. I also had dreams of doing the Israel/Palestine wall but Banksy already beat us to it. From an fine art stand point, I would love to have a permanent mural at the Louvre. Also to have a large scale mural at the great pyramids would be amazing! The juxtaposition of Egyptian hieroglyphics and modern street art would be incredible, especially because the Egyptians and cave painters are some of the earliest influences for graffiti…

LF: ‘Here Lies Georges Wildenstein’ highlights the installation of Korean artist Miru Kim, who will be naked and caged with live pigs (I hear). There’s also Typoe’s Black Sunday, another bold performance involving fire & music. Has performance art become street art, how do they correlate?

PO: Performance art can be street art if it is site specific and involves public interaction. But Miru and Typoe’s pieces are contemporary pieces. I feel street art belongs in the streets and not in an interior setting. Some street artists have crossed over into the contemporary art world but usually what they do in the galleries and museums differs from the work they do in the streets. Their are exceptions, such as Retna who have refined their street art into something that the contemporary and fine art world embraces as something beyond street art.

LF: What are you most excited about for this upcoming art week 2011?

CO: It’s Art Basel’s 10 year anniversary so they should have some very interesting programming. I’m also very excited about our group show here at my gallery. ‘Here Lies Georges Wildenstein’ is a group show that consists of a unique composition of fine artists, contemporary artists, conceptual artists, and street artists. Showing that there can be cohesion within different genres.

LF: It’s Art Basel 10th year anniversary, and if I count right, it’s Primary Flight’s 5th? Did you have any idea it would become that huge when you started it?

CO: We had no idea it would be what it has become. It started really organically and humbly. Literally just a few guys with Book’s mom’s van and a few ladders. I never imagined it would be the cultural anchor of the Wynwood Art District or be a model for other cities to use for how Art can change the dynamic of a city.

LF: What is so special about Wynwood that made it become quite the global epicenter of street art?

CO: Primary Flight. Plain and simple. Our programming and careful curation of street art opened the eyes of the art establishment and governments around the globe. We created a successful model of how Street Art can transform a neighborhood for the better.

LF: What is your favorite mural in Wynwood?

CO: I love Sonni’s Boombox, Boxi’s Hazmat Lovers, El Mac and Retna’s “Blue Angel” and “Crouching boy” murals, Escif’s text piece that says”Remember that you’re not doing it for the money”… I can go on and on. We have done over 250 murals in the district over the last 5 years, its hard for me to choose one or two.

LF: What is your favorite mural in the world?

CO: I like what Banksy did on the Isreal / Palestine wall but then again there are so many murals that I haven’t seen that I can’t really answer this question.

LF: Who’s your favorite rising star street artist right now?

CO: Retna, Blu, Vhils, and Escif just to name a few…

LF: In your mission statement, you say: “Education is key. Street Art / Graffiti has come a long way, from the back seats of police cars to gracing the walls of the worlds most important collections and museums.” Do you think MOCA’s Art in the Street will have helped your cause?

CO: Anytime you have such a well publicized museum show, it’s always very important to that particular genre because it gives legitimacy to the form by the establishments and in turn to the rest of the art world.

L’Agent Goodies…