Editor’s Note: This is part of an ongoing series of stories that have been published on saratogaliving.com under the shared heading of “What’s Going On,” tackling subjects like the black experience, systemic racism, police brutality and activism, among other related topics. Read more about the series’ chrysalis here, or catch the first story in the series here.
If you happen to walk down the alleyway between Union Hall and Putnam Market in Saratoga Springs, you’ve seen it. You’ve probably caught a glimpse of it on a Northway overpass or on your bus ride through Albany or under foot, while walking around Troy. That “it” is street art, a medium that has exploded in popularity both in the US and around the world in recent decades. Because it’s technically illegal—unless it’s been sanctioned by a local government as part of, say, an urban renewal project—street art is mostly created by anonymous artists, most of whom work under an assumed name, with pieces ranging from written messages and political statements to portraits, collages and optical illusions.
For some street artists, the medium is a way to get important messages out to a wide range of potential viewers. Think of street art pieces like advertisements: You can post your piece on a wall next to a bridge in eyeshot of thousands of people who pass by it daily; or position it in a heavily trafficked spot that could be viewed by millions over time. Of course, it’s all about location, location, location—and whether or not the piece will survive a deep-cleaning by your local department of public works.
The art form found its first set of eyes in the 1960s, at that point mostly “graffiti,” with artists “tagging” walls, buildings, archways and the like in big urban centers such as Philadelphia and New York City (if you take the train down from Saratoga to Penn Station, you’ll still see a number of colorful tags on the concrete walls leading into the station). By the ’80s, the art form had transformed into more recognizable, cartoonish forms, with stencils of people or animals joining the tags. And by the ’90s and ’00s, the art form had hit the mainstream, with street artists like the UK’s Banksy and US’ Shepard Fairey rising to prominence and even becoming the target of modern art museum exhibitions and fine art collectors. Banksy, whose critically acclaimed works often come in the form of satirical, political or social statements, stenciled onto brick walls or other nontraditional canvases, had a piece sold at Sotheby’s for $1.4 million, and just after the hammer fell, an alarm sounded, and the piece self-destructed. (Another such painting by the artist was viewable for several months on a wall in my old neighborhood in Brooklyn before it was painted over.)
Maybe the most important aspect of street art is that anyone can do it. You don’t need to have been the apprentice of a famous artist or gotten a degree at Skidmore College to make it happen. You could just be a normal-looking guy from the Capital Region, who wants to make an artistic statement. One such street artist, who grew up in Saratoga and has been making street art for more than a decade down in Brooklyn, is Blanco. (Full disclosure: I’m friends with Blanco’s alter ego, but will refer to him by his street artist name throughout this story.) Besides Saratoga, Blanco has lived all over the US, in places such as Texas, Wyoming and Massachusetts. “I credit my early years in the conservative hotbed of Amarillo, TX with forging my outlook and understanding of the world as a reaction to the inequality and racism I witnessed there,” he said. He went on to study anthropology in college, got his masters in history and spent two years living and teaching English in Mongolia in the Peace Corps, before settling in Brooklyn.
Blanco first started working on street art about 14 years ago. “At first, I was doing a lot of United States Postal [Service] stickers, where I’d put a stencil on a sticker and put the sticker on different places. Then, it kind of got bigger and bigger.” While Blanco has often used portrait photographs of his friends as the starting point for a piece—my wife and I have been featured in a few of his works over the years—in recent years, he’s been photographing people in different poses or holding specific objects like books (he likens this to the symbolism one might find in a Renaissance painting). He’s also been working on a series, entitled All My Friends Are Immigrants and Refugees, for the past four years, which is, without question, his masterwork.
If you’ve ever lived in New York City or an outer-borough like Brooklyn (me included) for an extended period of time, you’ll know that making friends with people of color and with ethnically diverse backgrounds is easy. Not that it’s impossible to do so in Upstate New York, but when you live in a city like Saratoga that is 90 percent white, it’s a lot more challenging to find people that don’t look like you to hang out with. (Certainly, it helps that 37 percent of New York City’s population is immigrants, too.) The city is very much a microcosm of the world. And given that Blanco, who is a white man, has befriended many people who are the children of immigrants or refugees, he wanted to highlight this fact through his work, giving them a voice and helping to tell their stories. “It is my hope that my work can confront social issues and provide comfort and solidarity for people who are overlooked,” he has said.
Blanco, who works mainly in formats such as multi-layered stencils, linoleum cuts, acrylic painting and more recently, digital illustrations, will often post his art up in public places, affixing it to the sides of abandoned or vacant buildings, using wheat paste. (In other words, the pieces can withstand months of being in a specific place—10 months on average, he’s noted—but can also be taken down quite easily.) “I enjoy putting my work up in the street, because it allows me to operate outside of the confines of the mainstream art world,” he’s said. “This allows me to speak to social issues freely and engage with an audience where they are.”
If you’re wondering, throughout the years, Blanco has found “free” wall space in the Capital Region, pasting his work everywhere from Watervliet and Troy to right here in Saratoga. (He tells me he hasn’t pasted anything in the region of late.) While he certainly doesn’t call the Spa City home anymore, he does still visit the area frequently. And from time to time, he’s seen it rear its ugly head. Just a handful of years ago, he was up from the city with his girlfriend, a black woman, and two Bangladeshi friends, one of whom works at the United Nations. “We were leaving the Target in Saratoga, and we were just walking to our car, and a woman was backing out,” says Blanco. “There were four of us, and I was walking ahead, and when she drove past [the other three], she said, ‘You don’t belong here.'” I wonder if it’s that sort of incident that has kept Blanco forging ahead with his All My Friends series. “Yes,” says Blanco. “Since 2016, there has been a way that immigrants and foreigners have been portrayed and treated that’s been a change from what I thought was the way that the United States treated people…a definite change from how I was brought up to treat people, and I find it problematic and I want to speak up about it.” So he does it through his street art.
It’s not lost on me that today is November 3, Election Day in the US, so I ask if Blanco has used his art for overtly political purposes in the lead up to today’s general election. Just two weeks ago, he tells me, he was roaming around the city pasting other artists’ posters in the city, some of which were urging people to get out and vote. “There were five different artists that had posters that you could download and put up,” he says. (He also took the time to paste a few of his own pieces around town, too, for good measure.) And what of the pandemic? Has it cramped his style at all? I ask. Blanco says that, like everyone else, he was locked down for those first few months, only making quick trips to the grocery store and the park across the street, and not doing much else. But there’s been a sad irony that’s come out of the pandemic, regarding Blanco’s ability to do his street art. “As depressing as it is, there are more boarded-up buildings now, so there are more places for me to put art,” he says. “It’s not something I’m encouraged to see, but that’s the reality of the situation.”
To follow the progress of Blanco’s All My Friends series, follow him on Instagram.