Rahmaan Barnes was 13 when he got into graffiti. He went from drawing comic books and airbrushing T-shirts to making magic with a spray can, the city his canvas.
Then the law took notice. "At 17, I was caught with a few friends, writing on a CTA bus shelter," he says. "I was writing my name with a marker, and suddenly there were three paddy wagons and a sergeant there."
The name he was signing was Statik, his tagger's moniker. He spent a night in jail and, on the advice of a public defender, pleaded guilty. The sentence: 70 hours of community service, two years' court supervision—and a felony conviction that's still on his record.
The run-in with the law didn't stop him from using a spray can to make art. "It just made me smarter about the way I was doing it," he says. But it had two other significant effects: It cemented the artistic identity he was forging as Rahmaan Statik, the name he vowed to put on every piece of art he made for the rest of his life. And it set him on a mission to help make aerosol art—especially the big murals he loved—legit in the eyes of the law and fully respected in the galleries.
He says neither has happened yet.
Statik, whose degree from the American Academy of Art is in Web design (with a minor in oil painting), is a computer-savvy Pilsen-based commercial artist and teacher, with a continuing itch to put paint on walls and a style that blends his classical training with a graffiti aesthetic. In his 15-year career, he figures he's produced 250 public murals.
You can spot the piece he did for the Chicago Cultural Center's exhibit "Paint Paste Sticker: Chicago Street Art" from a mile off. A glowing, richly detailed spray-paint version of an oil painting by Caravaggio, The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, Remix is the odd fellow among the work of more than 30 other street artists and uncounted sticker makers and public-art-project participants. Apart from the tagger's logo and signature at the top and bottom, it looks like it wandered over from the Renaissance galleries at the Art Institute.
Statik says he wanted "to create an argument that real art—Renaissance art, baroque art, the pinnacle of art—can be done with a spray can." He used "the exact same technique that Caravaggio used: chiaroscuro. You start with a dark surface and pull the light from it. I painted the whole thing black, then began to render the figures on top of it."
This was not accomplished with your garden-variety spray can. Statik uses specialty paints that spray under lower pressure and through finely tuned nozzles. Even so—and especially for anyone who's ever wielded a can of Rust-Oleum—it's a stunning display of virtuosity.
Statik chose the Caravaggio as his subject to "push the limit of what you can do with a spray can," but also because this image, with Doubting Thomas probing Jesus's wound to test its reality, is relevant to his experience. The Remix is an underdog piece, he says: "I'm saying stop underestimating the work that people are doing with a spray can."
And stop throwing the book at them, he says. In Chicago, birthplace of the official Graffiti Blaster program (which offers free, ostensibly prompt elimination), city law classifies graffitiing as a misdemeanor, but tagging government property can still get you charged under state law with a felony.
"I have a criminal record that still follows me and has kept me from getting jobs," Statik says. "Instead of ruining a person's record for the rest of their life, make them pay for the clean-up job. Give them a heavy fine, charge them with a misdemeanor, maybe. But not a felony. Not for marking a wall. It's overkill."
Statik is one of several artists in the exhibit who'll talk about their work and lives Saturday in a free program, "Chicago Street Art Stories." "Paint Paste Sticker" closes January 12.