“I hope no faggots look at me,” said the young man to his fellows. They were bar hopping through late-night Capitol Hill, strangers in a strange land. Funny thing: One faggot was looking at him — an angry one, local poster (and tattoo) artist John Criscitello. “I was like, ‘What are you doing here?’” he says.
Criscitello — middle-aged, lanky, more ink than flesh — offered this anecdote as an example of the drunk, out-of-town brats who are reportedly ruining the Hill’s nightlife — and believed by some to be behind increasing gay bashings. But the best in art comes from the worst in life. Criscitello turned this experience into a poster: a dude-bro swigging a brewski beside the words “No faggots better look at me.” Other pieces include drunk Kardashian lookalikes proclaiming “WOOO!!” and a sign informing would-be dilettantes that “WE CAME HERE TO GET AWAY FROM YOU.” (“You have the rest of the whole world,” Criscitello adds, referring to straight supremacists. “Try going to a club in Snohomish and doing some PDA with your [gay] partner, and see how that goes.”) After a Jagermeister mural at 12th and Pine was interpreted by many as glorifying homophobic violence with the tagline “Relive the Night You Became Legends On Cap Hill,” Criscitello responded with a “Legendary” dick pic.
Calling out gentrification is an overriding theme in his work, whether he is mocking rich kids who spend their Saturday night slumming on Cap Hill or tech yuppies occupying the neighborhood’s swank new apartments at Sunset Electric. It’s not that rich people aren’t welcome, he says; they just need to occasionally leave their gilded bedrooms and walk among the common people. The Hill has become a “young, straight kids’ drinking destination,” Criscitello said. “It’s like Mardi Gras every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night. It breeds this sort of malaise in the people who actually live here.”
Though his work usually debuts along public thoroughfares, Criscitello says he doesn’t really think of himself as a “street artist” so much as a producer of “public art without a review.” And, also, a businessman. “I’m an artist and I’m old,” he says. “I’ve been doing this since the ’80s. I do this for political motivation, but I’m also a business. I like to eat.”
“I’m a capitalist.”
He’s not the only one. Just a couple blocks away from Criscitello’s studio is the Hill’s new supplier for street artists — or, as curator Liz Suman calls them, “contemporary artists.”
Combine a hardware store’s paint section with an art gallery, and you’ve got Art Primo: the Hill’s, uh, primo outlet for street art supplies that opened on E Pine earlier this year. The day I meet with Suman is the last for the surreal oil paintings, decorated skateboards, and “Only Death Is Certain” biker vest which line the walls around us; by the time you read this, a new sticker-themed show will be up. A projector perches overhead, and a winding staircase ascends into a second floor. In and behind glass counters, a legion of spray paint cans and paint markers are assembled like rainbow soldiers.
“They are obviously working toward the world of fine art,” says Suman, referring to both her clientele and her contributors. She’s quick to distinguish the work Primo displays from graffiti: while the quick-’n-dirty world of illicit scrawl has influenced contemporary art, she says, that world has transcended its roots, combining greater craft and more labor with a “narrative quality” that distinguishes serious work.
This distinction is not embraced by Criscitello. High art/low art is “a twentieth century thing that was wiped away in the ’60s,” he says. In today’s post-postmodernist art world, traditional categories are scrambled beyond recognition. “You’re not [lowbrow],” Criscitello says, “you just don’t want to read a book. You’re fucking lazy.”
Capitol Hill Arts District Celebration
Saturday marks the launch of the new Capitol Hill Arts & Cultural District, a campaign to promote the arts, artists, and art venues in the neighborhood. CHS wrote here about the program and its long road to existence. On Saturday, you can join the party and head out open houses around the area:
Capitol Hill Arts District Launch
Hugo House 1634 11th Ave
Doors open at 11 am
Speaking program at 11:30 am
Hear from Mayor Ed Murray; Councilmember Nick Licata; Office of Arts & Culture director, Randy Engstrom; Capitol Hill Housing Foundation Director, Michael Seiwerath and artist Amanda Manitach. A new group artwork curated by Amanda Manitach, demonstrating the vitality and vibrancy of Capitol Hill, will also be unveiled.
After the program, many Capitol Hill culture locations will host open houses in the early afternoon.