The murals on the streets and in the courtyard looked great. Yet, as visually arresting as many of these murals were, there was something about their appearance here in Miami that echoed the hollowness of the "pop-up" bar, Max Fish, that had come down from New York for the week. The Lower East Side bar had recreated an exact replica of itself in a previously abandoned storefront in Overtown just for the week of Art Basel. Similarly, "Wynwood Walls" was a "pop up" event that obscured the fact that the neighborhood had already long been famed for its illegal graffiti walls. Local graff heroes like CROME and CROOK had faced serious prison time for their art. Earlier in the year, a member of the notorious Miami graffiti crew the MSG Cartel died when he fell off a sign onto Highway I-95 while throwing up a tag. In this context, the new murals were corporate street art.
The cynical bait-and-switch in Miami's stated goal to improve the city's fortunes through hosting international art fairs was embodied neatly in Fairey's work in Miami during Art Basel. His wall on NW 2nd Avenue was protected by an armed guard, 24 hours a day. I caught up with Fairey while he worked on another mural on N. Miami Avenue. He stood on a bucket and applied wheat paste while he held forth on the moral purity of street art. "People from Miami who have never seen my work before will be able to check this out," he told me. "People aren't intimidated by street art. They don't need to go to a museum or have the right credentials for interpreting art to view it. If they don't like it, they can just go up and tag it!"
"So why does your new mural have its own armed guard?"
Fairey stopped what he was doing, got down off the bucket, and looked me in the eye. "Look," he said. "That wasn't my idea. That's Deitch's [Deich Projects'] thing. If it was up to me, you'd just leave it up. If people tag it, you clean it off. But the mural is on panels, and Deitch wants to keep it clean because they're going to move it later on."
In other words, Fairey's public street art for "Wynwood Walls" wasn't really public at all. It only appeared to be public. But after the fair was over and the art world public had gone home, it would be moved indoors, possibly to a new graffiti museum, where it would be kept permanently or perhaps even sold.
SUSHI AND SHANTYTOWNS
Art Basel's quest to absorb Miami's street authenticity into its vortex continued a couple of blocks away in the middle of Midtown Miami Center, where New York/Miami/Tokyo Brazilian-Japanese fusion restaurant SushiSamba had spent $130,000 to install its own graffiti art show, Graffiti Gone Global.
Midtown Miami Center is a classic failed Miami real estate venture, at two years old an already fading outdoor mall. Its newly-built condos remain nearly half-empty, and many of the storefronts have never been occupied. (For Art Basel, Photo Miami hosted its photography exhibit in the storefront left vacant by the departure of Circuit City). "Graffiti Gone Global" reimagined an enormous, empty retail space by adding a shambling 25-foot-tall replica of a favela, a Brazilian shantytown – what the catalog called, "the infamous self-constructed housing units of the mountainsides in Brazil." The towering model favela, covered in graffiti pieces, was surrounded by a two-dimensional cityscape of panels with photos of old Brooklyn storefronts, upon which the graffiti artists had also painted. Oddly, this fusion of fake New York and Latin American slums most evoked the feel of the temporary art fair outside on the real Miami streets. The program explained happily that "the favela installation will not only be used as a backdrop for works of art to be installed, but will also be sold as separate units — some even bearing a signature graffiti piece ... allowing the viewer to see graffiti in its more natural setting."