Creek bed aeroheads
Public art project paints aerosol art in a positive light
Drive out Highway 99 in early spring, and it’s one perfect green blanket as far as the eye can see. Return a month later, and it’s nothing but faded yellow and brown dryness covering the foothills, meadows and evaporated creek beds. Occasionally, though, fleeting orange and bright-yellow dots flicker across this dry canvas in the form of the monarch butterfly—a little color painted on the scene. Or, more impressively, rushes of our state flower, the golden poppy, might burst forth in fountains of orange.
In much the same way that nature balances its drab backdrops with plenty of vibrant colors of plant and animal species, public art can bring the same balance to our concrete, stucco and blacktop civilized world by surprising us with a little color to break up the gray, such as the mismatched patches of gray covering the columns under the Ceres Avenue bike bridge.
In an effort to rectify the unappealing graffiti tagging (and subsequent gray cover-up) of the columns and to bring a jolt of color to the seasonally dried-out Lindo Channel, local muralist and arts activist Gregg Payne applied for one of the city’s mini grants. The Arts Commission approved $2,000 for an aerosol art project that would cover the columns with scenic murals.
“I saw in the paper a while back [that] a really nice [graffiti] design got rollered over,” said Payne, explaining his motivation for the project, “and I thought, ‘That’s too bad, there ought to be some place to show off that kind of work.'”
Drive along the Manzanita Avenue side of the channel, and a couple of larger-than-life yellow, orange and black monarchs already pop off the bridge from the road, an unexpected yet familiar image. It’s only a few days into the project, with a couple more to go, and the work is already striking enough to coax a few curious families with little children down into the rocky creek bottom to “ooh” and “ahh” over the first enormous bright-yellow monarch that greets you coming down the trail down from the Fifth Street side.
Standing over a table covered with a variety of spray paint cans in the middle of the barren creek bed, Payne’s six-foot-six frame cuts a striking figure. Several nervous neighbors have already called to report this tall man with long red hair spray painting the bridge, and he laughs explaining how the police who responded were “kind of nervous because we don’t run.”
Payne, who had never before done any aerosol work himself, put the word out to recruit the artists working on the project, and he says, “At first people thought it was some kind of sting operation.” He first recruited experienced aerosol artist and Butte College art major Siana Sonoquie, as well as widely known local flyer artist Matt Loomis. At Tower Records, where Loomis works, Payne also approached another young woman browsing at the magazine rack.
“I was flipping through a graffiti magazine, and all of a sudden he was standing right behind me,” explains Rosalina Acevedo about how she got involved with the project. The young native Chicagoan goes on to share that aerosol art was “the first kind of art [she] opened up to,” while she now works with mixed media on canvas.
Acevedo and Sonoquie take turns adding finishing touches to a monarch from atop a ladder, while a couple of curious kids stare up at the huge butterfly. One of them tells his mom he wants to become a graffiti artist.
Working on the opposite side of the creek is Chase Moreau, Acevedo’s boyfriend (she introduced him to Payne). It is mesmerizing watching him study the distinctive eye-like markings on the one finished wing of his butterfly, trying to mimic a mirror image of the pattern on the other side with casual swipes of black spray paint.
A 10-year veteran of aerosol art and a graduate of School of the Arts Institute in Chicago, Moreau is a little blinky as his eyes attempt to adjust from staring at yellow and black for so long. Originally from Colorado, the relaxed and talkative devotee of hip-hop culture (his moniker is Chachi, which carries over into his other passion as a D.J.) jumps all over the place, explaining everything from the special imported European spray paints that offer varieties of colors, paint quality and nozzle control, to the history of graffiti culture from its roots in New York City in the ‘70s, to its current growing acceptance as a “legitimate” art form that also has real commercial potential.
“When [people] first see graffiti, they think it’s gang stuff,” Moreau says. Just as it is the rest of hip-hop culture, the corporate world is starting to co-opt the style for marketing. This presents the graffiti artist with legitimate compensation opportunities, and Moreau’s work has not only been published internationally in art magazines, he’s also done work for both Coca Cola and Capitol Records. As he puts it: “Graffiti is starting to get its due.”
“That sphinx moth, I saw one of those and just caught him and made a sketch of him.” The moth Payne describes is a handsome addition beneath its more colorful winged friends on these columns—especially impressive since it’s Payne’s first-ever aerosol work, though he does have plenty of airbrush experience painting the signs for many of Chico’s businesses.
Originally, the artists were just going to all do their own things, painting whatever each felt would “reflect the surrounding environment.” Once Moreau put up his big butterfly, as Payne puts it, “everyone got jealous.”
“We probably had 40 different ideas that we could’ve done,” Moreau explains about the group’s process of choosing its subject matter. “This one seems to appeal to the most people. … When we first started putting the butterflies up the other day, the little kids in the neighborhood started running around in the weeds looking for cocoons and stuff, which is really cool.”
By the time this article comes out, Loomis’ cascading golden poppies will have their orange, and along with the rest of the monarchs and the sphinx moth, they will add a completed new mural to Chico’s public art collection. Payne hopes that it will be a catalyst for even more aerosol art pieces. Motioning toward a bridge in the distance, he says "We eventually want to do a little aerosol gallery right down there on the overpass underneath the freeway."