Tribeca Resident Mirrors the Origins of Human Expression on Buildings Across New York City with His Graffiti
Senior Never Stops in Pursuit of his Artistic Passion
Photo courtesy of Robert Janz
Looking across the landscape of New York City and seeing all the graffiti on our buildings could lead to a rather low born opinion. The idle minds behind the scrawls carry a mentality not much more evolved than those of a Neanderthal. 86 year old Robert Janz of Tribeca counts himself among NYC artists who add to the scenery and would not only consider the critique a compliment but sees the perception as pretty insightful.
"It mirrors the origins of art—the beginnings of human expression," he said.
The fierce little predators he superimposes on the abundance of graffiti laden posters in our city do amount to more than a scrawl, though, but Janz definitely doesn’t discount the spray painters who get there before him.
On the contrary, Janz credits them with elevating his ancestral instincts to a passion. “I decided that the walls that are covered with graffiti—they look like jungles. So I thought I would put an animal in there, and now I really enjoy all the time spent doing it,” he beamed.
Making an excursion out of this just about every day, it's pretty good work if you can get it. But the wall bound easel he puts to use all over the city definitely doesn’t adhere to any city arts program. The same goes to the paycheck that would go with it.
Still, he doesn’t deny himself. “The most satisfying thing in life is to do the thing that you love,” Janz asserted.
Either way, even the caveman knew he had to keep more than his etching tools sharp to keep his stomach full and dimly lit dwelling warm. “It’s also satisfying to be able to pay the rent,” said the Irish-born American.
The occasional residency and exhibits at galleries provides enough recourse to maintain the struggle of keeping up with the first of every month. With that in mind, he's now looking to achieve a crossover between this passion and the pragmatics of survival.
Janz has now digitized his canines. In this, he hopes there are galleries who would have interest in showcasing the bite of his public painting, which usually draws a crowd. “People stop and take photographs while I’m painting so there is interest,” Janz said of his misdemeanor mischief.
As could be expected over the course of the last six years, sometimes the attention is unwelcome. On several occasions, the cops have confronted him and warned him that he’s vandalizing public property. As quick with his tongue as his brush, he rationalizes that the posters are already covered in spray paint.
Failing that, he appeals to the light blue side of their tough NYPD exterior. “I’m an old man trying to stay young,” he reasons with them.
In the end, since hauling an 86 year old man away in cuffs never looks good, they plead with him to not let them catch him again. It probably also helps his case that the paint he uses will fade away after a few days, which opens up another avenue to this enigmatic artist.
"I was always interested by the philosophy of transience. The world disappears, I might as well make art that disappears," he revealed.
This first occurred to him with the high tide, growing up on the beaches of California. "I would draw with a stick, the waves would wipe it away and I would draw it again," Janz remembered
The sequence of the process was enamoring and led him to be carried away with a group of Zen friends. That moved him onto Japanese poetry and eventually went Pan-Asian to the Chinese Book of Changes. Each six line poem has 64 variations, he said, "So I started carrying six sticks around with me and arranging them."
In turn, Janz took pictures of his stick creations, which led to a show and later a Fulbright Scholarship to Spain in the early 60's. "As soon as I got there I realized I never wanted to leave," Janz said.
When the scholarship ended after two years, he eked out a living over the next six years by selling work to tourists. Thus, he continued among a group of young people who were transfixed by Mountains of Almeria, which overlooked the straights of Gibraltar.
There he came across the stick figure drawings of the ancient peoples. His interest peaked, he built upon the transient beach drawings he had done as a kid. "I would draw with water on rocks, and the photographs of these drawings led to a show in London," Janz recalled.
It also brought his semi vagrant life in Spain unhappily to a close. “I bombed out, I had to take a teaching job that I was offered in London,” Janz lamented.
But it wasn’t being bound to a curriculum and office hours that cast such a shadow on his life. “The problem with London is the weather. It’s a cliché but it’s the truth,” he said of the long years he spent in England
Fortunately, he did manage a three year reprieve by winning a Scholarship to Germany in the early 70s. There, one rather omnipresent wall screamed out for meaningful artistic adornment, and Janz made the most of his primitive inclinations. “I did a series of drawings on the Berlin Well,” he asserted.
Forbidden to write on the wall—even on the good side—he covertly rushed up to the wall to express himself over a five day period. Drawing a fist first, he opened up each finger as the week wore on. “I called it project unclenching,” he said.
The problem was that as he erased and opened up the fingers, the tips of the fingers were out of his reach. Needing to gather up boxes to finish off each extension, he said, “The police came and pulled me down.”
This tenuously putting himself in position of being deported. But the cops actually liked what he was doing, and he was able to finish. Doing what he could to end the cold war, he came back to New York in 1979 to visit friends and ended up staying.
Back here, he did well as long as the gallery up the street that promoted his work did well. “Toward the end of the 90s, everything shrunk, and it became very difficult,” he said.
Of course, the near collapse of world capitalism that almost sent us all back to the stone age made things even worse. On the upside, it has at least run concurrent to his instinct to populate over posters, but the daily doses must come in shorter time frames these days. “I am spending more time in the studio now," he said.
Fortunately, a June exhibit in Brooklyn that he's putting together should help ease the pain. And so goes the never-ending, shifting human story between artistic passion and survival. One which Robert Janz isn't planning on fading out of it anytime soon.
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