Super Sonik

Graffitist Caleb Neelon is a street survivor
By GREG COOK  |  February 18, 2009

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HATING THE HATE: Boston’s cultural conservatism is going to bite the city in the ass, says Neelon.

Slideshow: The art of Caleb Neelon.

When Caleb Neelon talks about how he got hooked on graffiti, he often recounts a trip he took to Germany with his mom in 1990. The Berlin Wall had fallen the previous November, and the then-13-year-old kid was captivated by the notorious landmark's graffiti-covered remains. 

"It ran the whole spectrum," Neelon remembers. "It was toilet humor and cries for freedom, and dick and fart jokes." He was also taken by the power graffiti seemed to have: "[It] struck me as this acid that ate away [at the Wall] until it was open."

Returning home to Cambridge, where he still lives, Neelon took up graffiti himself. His work tends to be more folksy, less flashy than typical street art. In part, it's because he's drawn inspiration from traveling the world, and tends to use local paints — in places where spray paint is either terribly expensive or deficient or both. But it's also his imagery: jaunty polka-dot bulls, birds, clouds, and bejeweled psychedelic mountains. It resembles something from a child's homey patchwork quilt.

Gingko Press just published a survey of the 32-year-old Neelon's career: Caleb Neelon's Book of Awesome: Murals, Gallery Installations & Street Paintings from All Over the Place. It's a pictorial biography running from drawings he made as a boy, to a giant mural of a bull in a boat that he painted in Honduras in 2004, to recent gallery exhibits.

"Artists like Caleb are taking what they've done in the past, and taking it to another level, turning it around and doing something new with it," says Justin Giarla, who has shown Neelon's work at White Walls, the San Francisco gallery that he co-owns. "Caleb is taking what he learned in street art and then doing it with a paint brush. He's a lot more painterly than other street artists."

Along the way, Neelon has also become one of the preeminent authorities on street art. At 19, he began contributing to graffiti magazines, such as 12oz Prophet and On the Go. These days he mainly writes for Swindle, Print, and Juxtapoz. In 2007, he was one of the co-authors of the lavishly illustrated tome Street World: Urban Art and Culture from Five Continents (Abrams), featuring shots of, among other things, Thai punk, lavishly painted Pakistani trucks, and Providence concert posters.

"From the time that I've been into this," Neelon tells me about his passion for street art, "it's gone from something that has been this tiny little culture to Shepard Fairey doing the Time 'Man of the Year' cover. Can you possibly get bigger than that?"

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Rally time
Like many others, Neelon began in graffiti by assuming a name (Sonik) and tagging with marker and paint on walls. In the '90s, as graffiti expanded to include the stickering and postering of street art, Neelon expanded his repertoire, too. He painted cartoony birds, crustaceans, and hamburgers on wooden signs that he bolted into the extra holes on sign posts around Greater Boston. "The holes were there waiting for another sign," says Neelon, "so I'd use those. I always intended those to be a very friendly project." Between 1996 and 2002, he says he put up 700 of them.

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Related: Slideshow: Street, studio art from Caleb Neelon, Graffiti gone good, Cambridge author Caleb Neelon traces graffiti's hidden history, More more >
  Topics: Museum And Gallery , Painting, Visual Arts, Revolving Museum,  More more >
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