Bates, “Alphabet Soup — Better B — Blue”


Buckshot Gallery, Santa Monica

by Jeanne Willette



If there is an international language for the visual arts, it is graffiti, the language of street art. One can travel the world and encounter, on any given street, on any available wall, the distinctive graphics of the outlaw artist. Over four decades, the typography of the streets has become codified into instant recognizability, universal linguistics for artists who prize their freedom as outsider artists. One of the veterans of street art, Bates, who hails from Copenhagen, has been painting the walls of the world since 1971. This spring he is having his first solo show in America, where we can see his distinctive signature Wildstyle, translated from the wall to canvases, bearing titles such as "Once in a Blue Moon." The status of the graffiti artists in Europe is very different from that of American artists. European street artists receive commissions, invitations to enrich blank walls; while American counterparts are frequently regarded as vandals. For a European, remaining unknown is a choice. Bates is always photographed from the back, keeping his face hidden, mainly for privacy purposes. Where he comes from street artists are celebrities and he is a rock star.


Bates, “Alphabet Soup — Better B — Blue,” acrylic, enamel, spray paint, airbrush and markers, 32 1/4 x 38”.


Bates is a writer, which separates him from street artists such as ROA, the Belgium street artist who paints on city walls and buildings the animals who live (uneasily) in urban areas. The art of Bates is based wholly on words, interspersed with the occasional pop culture character, and, although the typography is old school or classic the graphics are complex and intricate. His style, which is precise and sharp, is crafted from cutting lines, a controlled technique best left to a veteran. Although the span of his bombs is usually mural size, Bates works from a small sketch held in the palm of one hand and sprays with casual assurance, a practice referred to in the painting "Stylish Red." His own name is often the centerpiece of his practice and the five letters are restyled and rewritten, endlessly reinvented. It is not unusual for Bates to write his name in bubble letters, the oldest of old school, going back to hip hop days. But the style that made him famous is pure Wildstyle, usually laid on the wall back to back. The angular diagonals of the Bates signature, featuring stylized drips, are intricately intertwined.

Technically he is a tagger, but his throw-ups are very rich, going far beyond the usual two colors used in America. For a street artist, moving off the walls and on to canvas is a considerable leap, out of the streets where freedom is dangerous but complete, and into the gallery, where the space is small and confined. In America, such a move is often interpreted as selling out to the system, but in Europe it is very common for graffiti writers to “do some canvas,” as Bates puts it. From early in his career, Bates would rehearse a design on canvas before executing it on a wall.


As Bates explained in a 2015 video, he has been exhibiting in galleries since 1985. But his canvases tend to be mid-size, an awkward space for a spray can. Only recently, since the development of a new generation of markers, which are easier to use in a confined area, has Bates been able to develop writing on canvas in a way that doesn’t tame the Wildstyle, the artist is clearly enjoying the precision of the markers, as seen in "Paper Flies.” Asked why he chooses to live in both worlds, he replied, “My background is being a graffiti writer. After painting 30 years in the streets, you stop to wonder and think how much are still up and alive today? … It’s only natural you want to leave something behind!” His burners, often showing fade on the fill, are compelling pieces that have attracted world-wide attention. Bates has fame, his Ups are everywhere.