Film and TV

Stick 'Em Up: Houston Street Art Doc Debuts at River Oaks Theatre

Check out our slideshow from last night's Stick 'Em Up premiere.

Last night, River Oaks Theatre was a who's who of social media advocates, City of Houston elected officials and, more than likely, a few of the city's anonymous, unrecognized street artists for the premiere of Stick 'Em Up!, a documentary about Houston's street art scene that was almost three years in the making.

Anticipation for the film was so great that co-presenter Aurora Picture Show was forced to add a second screening and then a third after the first two times sold out.

The documentary, which leans heavily towards the side of the street artists, starts with a Picasso quote: "Every act of creation is first an act of destruction." Much of the movie thereafter is filled with footage of blurry-faced wheatpasters "bombing" abandoned buildings, ugly billboards and metal junction boxes at busy intersections. In several scenes, police cruisers and motorcycles are shown drifting by while the wheatpasters work unnoticed.

Over nearly three years of shooting, filmmaker Alex Luster captured 55 hours of material, which was whittled down into about an hour and a half. He had so much material, in fact, that he decided to focus strictly on wheatpasters in Houston. As a result, the movie doesn't even begin to address stencilers like Coolidge or painters like ACK!. "That'll be part two," he said after the film.

What the movie does address is the war between street artists and the city, and how, in some cases, the subversive aspect itself is what motivates the work.

"I'm on a city beautification process," one anonymous artist says. Another, Give Up, whose images of razor blades have covered the city for years, says he wouldn't make art if he had to do it in a gallery.

"The streets become your gallery," says street art collector Alejandro Arboleda.

City Council members Sue Lovell and C.O. Bradford, a former police chief, were in the movie and the audience, as was Sheriff Adrian Garcia. In the film, all three rail against street art as a destruction of private property. Garcia boldly proclaims that he'll arrest anyone he sees partaking in the delightful term "criminal mischief." Yet for them to show up at the theater in front of a largely pro-street art audience took some cajones. A Q&A session with the author after the screening turned into a political debate.

Lovell said the downtown Houston Public Library now offers three walls for the display of city-sanctioned street art. Yet the removal of unsanctioned art "costs $2 million a year at a time when we're having to lay off employees."

Garcia joined in the double-talk. "Everything here is truly artistic," he said, adding that the scope of the law determined what was acceptable and not acceptable.

Afterwards, Art Attack overheard Lovell telling another audience member that she owns a few pieces of Houston wheatpaste posters.

So what is art? Even the artists weren't immune to the debate. Famed street artist Shepard Fairey, creator of the Andre the Giant campaign in the 1990s and perhaps best known for his Barack Obama HOPE poster, talked about almost getting detained while on a bombing trip to Houston.

"There are places where it's perfectly appropriate to be covered in art," he said.

Give Up, who makes enough money selling his posters and other works online that he doesn't have to work a traditional job, was also questioning the nature of "art." He takes his own pictures with a film camera, photocopies them, cuts and pastes them into collages that he them blows up at the copy shop and screen-prints into large posters for wheatpasting. He was careful to distinguish himself from so-called "graphic artists" and other wheatpasters who compile their work mostly in Photoshop.

And yet, Give Up's popularity has become somewhat of a liability. During the film, he contemplates moving to a new town where he has less notoriety. He also talks about scaling back his work to small stickers and flyers.

As for the filmmakers, last night was just the first step in what will hopefully be a national promotional campaign. During the Q&A, Luster said he plans to hit the festival circuit. "We've been so caught up with making a film we haven't really thought past today."

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Shey is an experienced blogger, social media expert and traveler. She studied journalism at Oklahoma State University before working as a full-time reporter for Houston Community Newspapers in 2005. She lived in South Korea for three years, where she worked as a freelancer.
Contact: Brittanie Shey