Brick by brick, James Gubbins is working to change the look of area streets. His canvas is the exterior and interior walls of local buildings, where he commissions artists to create graffiti murals.
The artists are expressing what Gubbins said is a universal shared trait: The desire to leave a mark.
“When we’re little kids, I’m pretty sure everyone I know wrote on a wall and got in trouble for it,” he said. “It’s like Picasso said, we’re all born artists and the problem is to keep that as we grow up. This is a natural, human instinct and Madison is missing that.”
Gubbins, who grew up in Chicago and says making graffiti helped him stay out of gangs when he was a kid, said he thinks street art should be not just in sanctioned areas Downtown. Rather, it should be visible in the neighborhoods where kids and teenagers have access to both seeing it and creating it. The West Side of Madison is one area that could particularly benefit from street art, he said. He’s hoping to work with local schools and neighborhoods to bring it there.
Spray paint is the traditional medium of choice. Gubbins’ store, Momentum Art Tech at 195 Cottage Grove Road, sells several brands of spray paint, air brushes, and traditional paint and brushes. They also offer graffiti art workshops, host events and have mural space in the back alley for artists to share. Gubbins opened the store in 2017 and began reaching out to area merchants and city officials to find walls to work on. That first year was a solid “year of no,” he said. People weren’t interested or they didn’t want to pay for the work.
“Price was a big thing for people. When you hire a painter to paint a wall, I think most people understand there’s a cost to that,” he said. “When you hire an artist to paint a wall, it’s going to cost that amount plus a lot more … People have this misconception that we’re teenagers or we’ll do this for nothing. I say, ‘Well, do you have 30 years of experience? Can you do what we do?’”
Creating murals for businesses
Originally from Chicago, Gubbins moved to Madison after serving in the Marine Corps. He worked as a UPS driver and a cab driver, got married and had children, and has now lived in Madison for 19 years. He was inspired to open the store by a childhood friend who opened the first Momentum Art Tech Store in Oak Park, Illinois. Gubbins’ friend, who uses the name Teel, licensed the store name to Gubbins and shared with him experiences of helping to invigorate the street art scene in the Chicago area.
In the past two years, Momentum Art Tech has created murals for local businesses including Food Fight, Paradigm and Promega, as well as several outdoor murals on businesses along Monona Drive. An Ian’s Pizza location at the newly restored Garver Feed Mill includes a ceiling mural created by six of the Momentum artists. They created that piece in a little more than a day, Gubbins said, although the planning took longer. The mural shows different types of graffiti lettering and styles in what the artists intended to be an “experience of urban art.”
Adam Nagy, general manager of the Garver Mill Ian’s Pizza, said the art was a natural choice because the building was initially full of graffiti.
“I felt like it was held up by graffiti,” Nagy said. “Now it’s a nice homage to what the building used to be.”
“Even people who don’t know the style, they can just appreciate it for what it is,” Nagy said. “Working with them, it’s apparent they’re artists … If it’s just somebody scribbling their initials, it’s easy to look at it and say it’s disrespectful. But I think for the true artists, they become more than that. They are creating commentary on social change.”
Urban Arts Fest
Last month, Momentum Art Tech hosted an Urban Arts Fest, bringing together more than 40 artists to paint murals along Monona Drive, East Washington Avenue and Cottage Grove Road. While all contributors are asked to follow a “no sex, no politics and no violence” rule, Gubbins and the event sponsors don’t know what the art will be.
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Some artists use the space to write their name in intricate bubble letters, the lettering art Gubbins says is one of his favorite types of graffiti. Some artists are sign painters, following the advertising tradition of using large walls for paint and brush murals. One artist used a space on the side of J&H Auto Supply to paint a portrait of comedian Chris Farley.
On an adjoining wall, Minneapolis artist Black Daze created a colorful, abstract mural.
“People don’t understand it until they see it,” the artist said. “They think it’s gonna be kids tagging or being stupid, but it’s much more than that.”
He said he recently created a mural on a building in the Uptown neighborhood of Minneapolis. The property owner hoped a mural would stop people from tagging the building. Black Daze strategically filled the wall without using any negative space, making it difficult to mark with tags.
“It’s hard for them to tag and plus, if they do tag it, they know I’ll be back the next day to cover it up,” he said.
For Gubbins and Madison area artists, events like the Urban Arts Fest are a unique opportunity to showcase their art locally. Some artists have been commissioned to create street art in other cities, but have not worked in their hometown before.
“When they grew up, Madison didn’t like street artists,” Gubbins said. “So they are floored that they can paint like this, after they were treated as gang members.”
Today’s young artists have the advantage of working in what’s become an industry of street art, he said. They can buy supplies more easily and work in legal spaces, sometimes even for profit. In the age of Instagram and selfies, street art murals have become prolific in many communities of all sizes. Gibbons mentions Dubuque, Iowa, La Crosse, and Beaver Dam as regional locales that have embraced street art.
“A lot of the reason Madison doesn’t have more street art is because they are too worried about people being offended,” he said. “That has artists scared off because the artists know if there’s something even mildly offensive — and I mean very mildly offensive — it’s taken down.”
“But if municipalities are open to it, it can be something for artists and the people viewing it to be more open to it too,” he said.
Stephanie Shea, Promega corporate events planner, said commissioning graffiti art work from Momentum is in line with Promega’s work with many artists, including a Cuban folk artist, African sculptor, photographers, a courtroom artist and others. In 2018, Promega commissioned a piece from Momentum. This summer, they worked with Momentum Art Tech to host a graffiti artist demonstration at an event, she said.
“The recent support of street art style is an extension of that idea and nurturing new perspectives that inspire our work and our community,” Shea said.
[Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the name of the artist who licensed the Momentum name to James Gubbins. The artist is Teel.]