Indoor galleries aren’t the only places to see innovative, thought-provoking works of art. Some of New Haven’s most provocative pieces have long been showcased in unconventional places – on the sides of buildings, atop restaurants, on parking garages, or under overpasses.
Three prominent artists in the Elm City street-art scene, who have literally decided to paint the town, are Herve, Josh Griffin, and Magge Gagliardi. Here they reflect on their early days, share their inspirations and discuss plans for what’s next.
Herve began his journey with street art as a young skateboarder.
“It was just kind of part of rebellious lifestyle. I looked at art as an escape,” he says of his early graffiti days.
Herve’s work is found many parts of the city. From Whalley Avenue to warehouses in Fair Haven, a small “blob” character can be spotted. This is Duce. It is present throughout most of Herve’s art, and a representation of himself.
“Sometimes I just feel like I’m not from this planet, like I’m from somewhere else, so I just created a character who’s from outer space.”
Herve has explored different mediums, like acrylics, oil painting, and pastels, but always comes back to the spray paint. The freedom that he has is a huge driver for him.
It’s not an art form that is typically taught in schools. He noticed that graffiti isn’t analyzed and studied in classrooms like painting, drawing, or photography – but he wants to change that. One of his favorite recent pieces was a bus that was painted by himself, a few other artists, and kids from the area. The New Haven Department of Parks, Recreation and Trees gave them a school bus as a canvas and let it become moving art. Working with the younger generations and sharing this art form with them is something that he plans to continue. Herve hopes to soon open a nonprofit organization where the youth of New Haven can come and make their art.
“Street art has always been one of those things where people always just picked it up and did it, and sometimes it’s not necessarily legal,” he says. “But it’s a way of expressing yourself, and I feel like we live in a world where if you don’t have permission to do something, you really can’t do it. That stops the creative thirst for a lot of people because they feel limited, and to be creative, you have got to be free; you have got to be carefree.”
Something he really wants to teach people is that street art doesn’t have to be illegal. It is something that can be learned, practiced, done in free time, and a become a potential way to make money – all legally.
While Herve began spray painting illegally – as a way to gain recognition and get his name known – today, all of his work is commissioned. The nonprofit he wants to form would give artists a safe space to create the art that they want to create, and hone their skills, which may not be options in their schools.
He advises aspiring artists not to limit themselves. By putting his name out there as much as he can, he has evolved from a skateboarder with spray paint to one of the most prominent artists in town.
“GREETINGS FROM NEW HAVEN” read the Corsair building via mural in 2016. Josh Griffin has created murals as a resident artist – for the Corsair apartment building on State Street, for the Bregamos Community Theater on Blatchley Avenue, and for High School in the Community on Water Street.
Josh, also known as “Zim,” always had a passion for painting. He received his graffiti name in high school, based on the cartoon Invader Zim.
“Invader Zim came to Earth to study humans and take over the planet; he was an alien. It was ironic because he never fit in, so in turn he felt alienated, and I felt the same way. I felt alienated [in high school],” he recalls. “I was an introvert, I was a bit awkward at times and I didn’t really know how to fit in, so I drew. I just painted pictures. I kind of connected with people through art and I met a few friends in high school who were doing graffiti. We just came up with the name Zim and it grew on me.”
As he got older, the name began to take on an additional meaning for him. Z and M are the first letters of his mother’s and younger sister’s names. To him, the I in the middle represents Griffin being between the two, trying to be a good son for his mother, and a good role model for his sister.
In 2016, it was a Swedish Fish that helped solidify him as a legitimate artist. In the basement of an art store he was then working at in Brooklyn, he spray-painted an image of a three-dimensional candy Swedish Fish. The piece sold twice. At that time, Griffin was gaining more confidence in his art; for a few months prior, he had tried to quit, deterred by not earning steady pay as an artist, but he always came back to it.
“I remember taking a break for a few months and then trying to draw a picture and it came out pretty bad and I said, ‘No, this is something I don’t want to lose.’ People remember you for what you can do, and the things that you do have an effect on the way that people feel. So, if people feel good about your work, they feel good because you do good drawings, they chase that feeling,” he says.
It’s a feeling Griffin wants to keep in his art. He wants to hold on to the kid inside himself: the cartoons, the laughter, the joy. Painting gives him that feeling.
“I’d spend my last dollar on paint, just so I won’t feel sad. Just so I can paint to feel good.”
It’s a passion that has led him from just tagging the town as “Zim” to creating full murals on prominent New Haven buildings.
After heading to New York City to study animation, Magge Gagliardi quickly brought her talents back to New Haven, and the city is reaping the benefits.
“I went to the School of Visual Arts in New York to study visual animation originally, and then I decided I’d rather be the person to create the characters than to actually animate them. So, I came back to Connecticut and did illustration at Paier [College of Art in Hamden], and I have a masters in illustration from the University of Hartford.”
The tiki torches and tropical scene atop the Elm City Social restaurant on College Street was freehand painted by Gagliardi in collaboration with Collective Arts Brewing.
Collective Arts Brewing is a Canadian company that puts different art on all of its beer cans. The company puts out an open call quarterly and chose Gagliardi to be its Connecticut artist. She currently has five different can designs with the company, each sporting a different character.
In addition, Gagliardi’s own project, called “The Squatch Squad,” has been in the works for almost three years. She teaches art and digital illustration at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, which was the breeding ground for her inspiration for the series. As a demo one day, she created “the spaghetti yeti,” and it only grew from there. The lore of what is known as Bigfoot has a different name in many different cultures. She takes the different names of these creatures, rhymes it with something else, and creates new characters. Her goal is to create 20 of them; so far, she has 15.
Since these characters came into her life, Gagliardi’s art has expanded greatly. She’s taken on mural projects not only in New Haven, but also recently created a three-dimensional mural made out of aluminum cans for Austin Street Brewery in Portland, Maine.
“I do this just to be able to keep creating and keep doing this kind of work rather than having to work a job that I have no interest in. I want to keep creating my own stuff,” she says. “I mean, I’m my own worst enemy, I’m my biggest competition, I always want to one-up myself; as long as I can keep doing that, I’ll be happy.”
Finding an art studio to be rather lonely, she enjoys teaching as a way to stay connected with other artists. It’s the perfect balance, she says, of doing mural projects and freelance work, and having a weekly outlet where she can be around other creative people and keep her creativity constantly growing.
Gagliardi’s process for projects usually begins with an indecipherable scribble, that she says makes sense to no one but her, then she freehands her ideas right on the walls. The two murals she created for Elm City Social were done completely freehand. She prefers working like this so that, no matter what happens, it’s never a mistake. It’s never deviating from a solid plan; if something doesn’t look how she expected, she can just make it work.
Luckily for New Haven, Herve, Griffin, and Gagliardi have no plans of slowing down. Each of them has their own distinct style but share a passion for what they do. They are part of a larger community of artists throughout the city who are taking their art off the paper and into the streets.
Photographed by Stan Godlewski