The Wonder of Urban Folk Art - Street Week


By Tanya Silverman

The Brooklyn Bridge. Photo courtesy of Jeroen van Luin.

The ground floor of 101 Smith Street in South Brooklyn is divided into two sections: one for body ink, Brooklyn Tattoo, and one for gallery shows, Urban Folk Art.

Heavy metal music drums and tattoo guns buzz within the Brooklyn Tattoo half, where BTR meets Adam Suerte, the gallery’s Head Curator.

Stepping right over to the adjacent Urban Folk Art (UFA) room, several vibrant, thick-textured paintings of Mike Sorgatz’s recent “Six Bridges” show hang on the walls–along with some of his smaller, flatter, more focused prints of single subjects: pie a la mode, cartoonish portraits, crushed aluminum cans. There’s even a freestanding printing press that Sorgatz constructed himself out of a car jack.

“He built his own easel which is ridiculous,” Suerte says of Sorgatz. “As his artist statement says, he likes to get his hands dirty.”

Also standing in the middle of the room is a white wooden wall that’s covered thoroughly with marker-drawn graffiti tags. Suerte tells BTR that the section of wall formerly functioned as a portable slate for hanging up other artwork. During one of their graffiti shows, the gallery covered the wall with paper for people to tag, but eventually, taggers began removing the material to write straight on the surface.

When the wall was out at a later show, several iconic graffiti artists started tagging it, some of whom have been big in New York since the ‘70s and ‘80s, like Quik, Trike, and Dr Revolt (designer of the Yo! MTV Raps logo).

“We like to show old-school graffiti artists,” Suerte explains his curatorial choice. “A lot of graffiti nowadays is done by art-school grads who choose to become graffiti stylists.”

UFA pays tribute to older graffiti names, he says, who sometimes did not make it as big in past years. Giving such artists a voice at their venue works to represent the roots of graffiti art through a deeper historical vantage point.

“It’s all about paying your dues and not just choosing it as an artistic [medium],” Suerte says, adding that the older approach symbolizes a “right of passage as you’re growing up” in the city which manifests in later years.

Graffiti is a notable theme at UFA, as is the Brooklyn Bridge. Suerte, who grew up in South Brooklyn, professes his lasting connection with the suspension structure–if his life were a play, he says, the Brooklyn Bridge would hang as its backdrop. Sporting a tattoo of it on his neck, Suerte’s many memories range from biking across it as a child to drawing graffiti on it in his teens.

Today, Suerte depicts the Brooklyn Bridge in his own illustrations, pictures, and tattoo work.

Appropriately, the “Six Bridges” title of Mike Sorgatz’s show referred to same local landmark; a bright six-sequence scheme of its towers is posted on the back wall.

Sorgatz later tells BTR that he deemed the Brooklyn Bridge a good thematic fit for his UFA show–its image was one of his own first prints, which duly matched the gallery’s greater connection. The “Six Bridges” sequence he presented was a hybrid of two artistic mediums: printing and painting.

“The design is based off of the original bridge prints but it’s cut out of plywood–so it has an extra dimensional quality–but it’s the same image repeated on all of the panels which relates to the multiple nature of printmaking,” he says.

“Across the Plaza” by Michael Sorgatz. 2011. Courtesy of Michael Sorgatz.

Regarding the featured canvas paintings, Sorgatz says crafting them involved a process between “abstraction and representation.” As a base, the artist used distorted digital photographs of street scenes, making sure the original images became “degraded” enough to dilute distracting details. Reducing them that way allowed Sorgatz to conjure a “really dynamic environment” where he could unleash spontaneous artistic activity through what he termed was an unplanned, improvisational “emotional response.”

The artist utilizes a diverse array of tones, “applying paint with palette knives, spatulas, and whatever is at hand and seems appropriate at the time–including brushes.”

Sorgatz embraces the freedoms offered by his hands-on approach; he tells BTR that when he builds his own canvases and frames, he feels less limited. Plus the process lets him mentally prepare for his prospective work.

He considers UFA a welcoming and supporting place to display his prints and paintings.

“I like that they show a range of work and present it in a way that’s much more accessible to the public than a regular white box gallery,” he says. “They’re completely professional and yet people seem much more relaxed and willing to engage with the work in their space.”

Though Sorgatz’s “Six Bridges” show has come to a close, additional artwork celebrating the theme will be going up May 23, for UFA’s Fifth Annual Brooklyn Bridge Anniversary event.