PROFILE - April 2013
By Marcia F. Brown | Photography Winky Lewis
South Portland native Mike Rich riffs on graffiti's coming of age.
Just off Free Street in downtown Portland, the 1,500-square- foot PORTLAND mural sprawls across the back wall of the Asylum nightclub. A wry send-up of a vintage "Greetings from" postcard, the vibrant mural is the brainchild of South Portland artist Mike Rich, known as "TooRich" in graffiti circles. A team of eight artists (Rich, Learn, Turdl, MWM, Lerk, Esko, Lack, and Link) each took on a letter of the city's name, which swells beneath the iconic image of Portland Head Light. An aerosol paint can stands in for the lighthouse, rays of white radiating from its nozzle. A community fundraiser helped pay for the supplies, and it took the team a month to turn a scarred eyesore into what has become a popular local landmark.
Birthed on the tough streets and in the urban ghettos of America's big cities, graffiti art may finally be earning itself a seat at the table of contemporary art appreciation and debate. But to Mike Rich, self-proclaimed "Maine's first graffiti artist," that trend toward gentrification is a double-edged sword. "Graffiti is better than art," Rich posits. "The act in itself is important. It takes courage and planning. It's pure expression, and no one may ever know you created it. It requires sacrifice. I was making art when I was 11—I started doing graffiti to get away from art."
To better understand the dichotomy of graffiti as both a demanding fringe art form and one increasingly embraced by community leaders and the arts establishment, I sat down with Mike Rich on a cold, sunny January morning to discuss his art as well as his lifestyle as a working carpenter, father, and professional graffiti artist.
It was 1983 when PBS aired the television special Style Wars, a documentary about graffiti art on subway cars. Rich remembers being enthralled by the streetwise artists, the quasi-military night maneuvers in the subways, the speed and stealth that produced the brilliant spray-painted graphics. "The outlaw image was very attractive to me," Rich admits, "but I also thought, Wow! They're making this beautiful art when they don't have to. No one knows them. They're gone, but it's there, in the morning." Rich loves the informality and the anonymity of the form. He likes that no one will review it. "You paint it and you may never see it again," he says approvingly. When the Howard C. Reiche Community School in Portland's West End held a graffiti competition, a young Rich saw teenage teams from New York and Boston "making awesome art." "They were like gods to me," Rich recalls. "I knew that's what I wanted to do."
At 38, Rich is in many ways as mercurial as the art form itself. Wearing jeans and a zany graphic T-shirt that reveals arms covered with impressive tattoos, Rich moves around his small studio with a youthful, compressed energy. He's known for painting large surfaces fast. You get the feeling he doesn't sit still anywhere for long. At the same time, Rich is the father of two boys, Che (7) and Joe (12), and earns his living as a home builder, working through the Maine winters to allow himself time to paint outdoors during the summer months. He has lectured on graffiti art at the University of Southern Maine and at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art (CMCA), during his solo exhibition Spray Therapy. Constantly exploring new ideas and aspirations for his own work, he has developed deeply personal and complex theories on the role of graffiti art in modern society.
Graffiti's visual roots are derived from tagging—what Rich describes as "the art of vandalism." "The first time someone spray-painted letters and then outlined them in a second color—boom!" As more elaborate graphic elements were added, graffiti evolved into a recognizable style. Rich enjoys the narrative potential of graffiti and incorporates sly, often witty text and imagery in his murals. He has always been a style writer, exacting about the quality of his graphics. Rich says he never went for quantity of coverage or for property desecration. He celebrates the form as a kind of modern typography that can be traced back to hieroglyphics and cave painting. With its many styles of lettering and personal signatures, Rich thinks graffiti may well be the last bastion of handwriting.
As a kid, Rich says, he tagged "maybe just to have a voice, just to be seen." He thinks most adolescents who start tagging do so as a form of self-assertion, to put down a claim. "You paint your symbols—your tag—on something and it evokes a kind of ownership. It's the American dream for the disenfranchised."
Twenty years ago, Rich was living in the Munjoy South neighborhood of Portland when he slipped into an abandoned warehouse next door to paint its walls with 15-foot-tall images of his favorite group, the 80s hip-hop trio the Beastie Boys. The space ultimately became the hops and barley storage room for Shipyard Brewery, and on a recent tour of the factory, Rich was "blown away" to discover his mural still on the walls. "It was incredibly validating to think that they saved it," Rich says. "The space is climate controlled, so my mural is sort of preserved in this giant sarcophagus." Shipyard's owners were equally pleased to meet the creator of their vintage graffiti and hired Rich to paint a company vehicle and a massive Shipyard mural at the Gridiron Restaurant and Sports Pub in Lewiston.
Rich concedes that much of his early work can't be attributed. For decades, graffiti has danced on the edges of the law. But times have changed, and communities are now inclined to sanction and assist talented muralists to create large-scale artwork in dedicated public spaces. Rich's friend and fellow artist Ryan Adams works with the Maine Center for Creativity (MCC) to identify wall spaces that are attractive candidates for artwork, and MCC tracks down the owners to ask their permission. According to CMCA director Suzette McAvoy, her organization's work with Rich led to the CMCA's sponsorship of a wall at Wynwood Walls in Miami. (Every year, Wynwood, a once-blighted warehouse district, becomes the canvas for a monumental display of street art and graffiti, transforming desolate street fronts into a vital arts hub.)
At this stage of his career, Rich wants to use his art for positive messaging. He has gained national attention for his involvement with the nonprofit "Dunk the Junk," a program for school kids that combines elements of street art, hip-hop, and basketball to combat childhood obesity. Rich leads an interactive school assembly during which he live-paints a customized mural that encourages kids to quit sugary drinks and junk food and instills awareness of good eating choices and nutrition. Dunk the Junk's founder, pediatrician Kevin Strong, says, "Mike is fast. Very fast. He can come up with a mural scheme and paint it in a few hours. His characters come alive, and his lettering is tight. Young audiences are fascinated by Mike's graffiti—how the colors explode on the wall—and, of course, graffiti's mystique of danger and rebellion. Mike is also passionate about the mission, and that is probably what makes his relationship with the kids so special."
Over 28 years, Rich has designed tattoos, T-shirts, cutouts, shadow boxes, new-age typography, logos, album covers, and book jackets. He has painted murals—both brushed and sprayed—portraits, commercial trucks, signage, and residential decor. A "green wave" of rolling surf identifies a Maine Standard Biofuels tanker truck in Portland. Two boozy lobsters lounge in a "hot tub," cocktails in claw, on the Maine Lobsterbake Co. food truck in South Portland. Augusta's Migrant Health Program's mobile medical unit can be easily identified, in any language, by its colorful panel of farm workers in green fields of apples, blueberries, and potatoes. The art form has an astonishing range of applications. The front stairway of a private Camden residence boasts a stunning Rich design of bright ribbon-candy-striped risers sliced by glossy black treads. It makes going upstairs look like climbing a rainbow.
While graffiti art is migrating out of the shadows, some part of Mike Rich wants his art form to remain marginalized. He knows it's a delicate balancing act to uphold the anti-establishment roots of graffiti while reveling in the greater public acceptance, exposure, and purpose his art now enjoys. "It's not the easiest route I could have chosen as an artist," Rich says. "So much planning and strategy go into it. But when I can be a catalyst for change, or when this beautiful stuff appears where no one expects it—that's the magic. That's what keeps me going."
MIKE RICH: MIKERICHDESIGN.COM