It’s Who You Know…RJ Rushmore aka Vandalog

18 11 2009

It’s two months ago, and I’m meeting American street art collector and tour guide RJ Rushmore, known online as Vandalog, at the Bean in Shoreditch. I’m late, as usual, so we’ve texted, he’s gone to run a few errands and will meet me in a few. I want to meet him because I read about his Street Art Tours and I think they’re worth promoting.

RJ is 18, from the Chicago suburb of Wilmette, just 20 minute drive from Palatine, my own John Hughes (RIP) suburban home town. He’s been here for 4 years. That means he started here when he was a freshman. I get a kick out this. I get a coffee and sit down on the bench outside, guessing at which hoodie or hipster will walk in to educate me on the Urban Art Scene in London.

Cool dude after cool dude saunter past, none stop, none are RJ.

Then, a skinny guy neither hoodie nor hipster approaches and asks if I am Jessica. Sure enough I catch that Midwestern accent…RJ asks me if I’d like anything else to drink, he’s just going to grab an Earl Grey tea.

It takes my eyes a minute to adjust to the crumbling of my expectations – this guy isn’t the cool dude I am expecting. He really is a young, high schooler… Well, I’ll have a chat with him, it’ll be nice to reminisce with someone from Chicago for a bit, I think to myself.

RJ knows he’s not what people expect.  “I like golf,” he offers. “I considered studying computer programming,” he continues. He’s still considering it even,  though he might minor in Art History.  This whole leap into the street art scene, in fact, started when his dad brought home a piece of street art ‘to seem cool’, and continued as a way to get out of taking an art class at his American High School in London. His task was to organise an educated tour of graffiti in East London for his fellow students. They ate it up. Their moms wanted tours. Suddenly, the tours were in thelondonpaper and everyone wanted them.

So how does RJ know so much about street art? He and his dad collect street art together, he explains, and it becomes clear that they have a much closer relationship than one normally has with their dad at 18. The interest turned into a shared passion, and RJ started his blog – Vandalog, which led to an internship at the Black Rat Pres Gallery (where he later takes me).

The longer I listen to RJ tell his story, my impression shifts from one of a bit of shock and disappointment to one of absolute awe. I’m really enjoying hanging out with him, he’s one of the most genuine and intelligent guys I have met in a long time.

He educated me on the history of the street art movement in great details, all the while namedropping pieces he has bought or artists he knows personally and has even done some work with.

I learn that some street art I’ve always been partial to is by Shepherd Fairey – world famous, in part for his Obama poster fame.  Yet another, albeit slight, Chicago connection. He can show me Fairey’s latest piece, he says, it’s just gone up at Cargo down the road. We’ll head there after he finishes his tea.

In fact, he can introduce me to Sarah, over at Black Rat Press, who’s the real expert, he says. Without her and his internship work at Black Rat, he’s never be able to run the exhibition he is curating at the Village Underground.

Stop. Reverse. Huh? Did an 18 year old just casually and self-depreciatingly drop into the conversation that he is curating his own urban art exhibition at one of the coolest locations in London?

Oh, yes, he tells me, at the Village Underground. In November. It’s called The Thousands. It’s going well, he says, it’s mostly just a challenge to get that and the book finished at the same time. The book is called The Thousands: Painting Outside, Breaking In. He’s launching it at the exhibition.

Who’s your favourite artist, I ask him? His all-time fav would have to be Swoon for what she does outdoors and in the gallery, though he’s loving Burning Candy in London, in New York City, Skewville, The ADHD Kids and Booker are all being very innovative and you can’t ignore Banksy, he adds.Banksy is always pushing things to the next level and staying fresh

I try to be cool, I ask him if these large scale exhibits, like the Banksy vs Museum in Bristol and even his exhibit are not turning street art into the mainstream, negating the very spirit behind the work. Isn’t that selling out, I cleverly ask…

RJ sees nothing wrong with it all. Street Art on the outside of the Tate Modern or exhibitions like his, he explains, could be seen as selling out or as gentrifying the art-form, but that is a necessary side effect of something much more important. Promoting street art to a wider audience, getting it in museums and generally making sure that the larger art community accepts it are all part of making sure that this art-form is preserved for future generations.

Work on the street is ephemeral and only lasts in photographs. If MoMA buys work by Banksy, future generations will be able to see it, and street art is an important enough movement that some of it deserves preservation. And as for Banksy versus The Bristol Museum, he adds, that show got 300,000 from around the world to visit a city museum in just a few months! Banksy did something that had a massively positive impact on the city of Bristol and got a bunch of people interested in art.

That’s quite a lot of notches for his belt, and all accomplished in his gap year before he heads off to study at liberal arts Haverford College in Pennsylvania.

Watch out college. RJ’s coming to town. His self-depreciating and genuine style will knock you off your feet. I know I’m smitten.

The Thousands starts tonight and runs through Sunday. Check out http://thethousands.wordpress.com for details and make sure to check out http://vandalog.wordpress.com for RJ’s online Street Art nuggets of knowledge.

Buy the book  here: http://www.dragolab.com/en/books/catalogue/the-thousands

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