Let's get this out of the way up front — graffiti culture long ago made the leap from the streets and into the mainstream. Today, it's commonplace for art galleries to feature street art-inspired exhibitions, figures like Shepard Fairey and Banksy have gone from being regarded as vandals to being fine artists, and, somewhere, you can buy a T-shirt emblazoned with a graffiti-style graphic print for $39.99. So no matter what you think about the merits of appropriating a culture for mass consumption, in 2015 a reality TV show centered on street art on Oxygen, of all places, isn't all that shocking.
Such is the case with Street Art Throwdown, a TV show that premieres Tuesday, Feb. 3. You know the drill, because you've watched a million of these types of shows already — a fresh-faced cast of young artists competes in a series of challenges, a panel of three judges lays down harsh critiques, people get eliminated, tears get shed, and a cash prize of $100,000 and a certain degree of celebrity is ultimately awarded.
Representing Michigan on the show is Kristin Adamczyk, a 24 year-old Sterling Heights native who has called Detroit her home for the past three years. Talking by phone, Adamczyk says she started studying graffiti as an art student at the University of Michigan, and creates her own street art as "SpecialK" in addition to working as a freelance artist, designer, and model. In fact, Adamczyk says it was her modeling agency that suggested she answer the show's casting call.
"I describe myself as a hustler," Adamczyk says, even though she adds that she initially blew off the show. "I saw a casting call on Craigslist, just because I'm always looking for freelance jobs and stuff. I wasn't 100 percent sure it was legit — you know Craigslist," she says. She applied after her modeling agency brought it to her attention again, and a few Skype interviews later Adamczyk was off to L.A. for a month of filming.
New York-based artist Justin Bua serves as the show's host, as well as co-judge and executive producer. (It should be noted Bua has his own Detroit connection, having done background art for Detroit hip-hop group Slum Village's "Tainted" video). In archetypal reality TV host fashion, his critiques can be scathing, and the first episode sees Bua constantly grilling Adamczyk on the iffy anatomy of her paintings, which Adamczyk says were a challenge to work on without reference. She says her critiques from art school prepared her for handling it, though.
"The judges do a really great job of being real with us, telling us when we're doing great but then also not letting us get away with being lazy or being mediocre," she says. "Sometimes you need to hear that."
She adds that critics in the street art world can be equally as caustic. "People will go around and dis your art. They'll cover it up or write 'this is stupid' next to it," she says. "So I think even the way the judges critiqued us was reflective of the street art world."
The show's challenges, or "throwdowns," engage contestants in both physical and artistic competitions. In the first challenge, Adamczyk and her peers had to sprint a quarter-mile, climb a fire escape, and paint a billboard in a time limit. Perhaps more athletic than her peers on the show, Adamczyk reached the top of the fire escape first.
We ask if "SpecialK" has any pieces up around Detroit that we can see, illicit or otherwise, and Adamczyk admits she sticks to commissioned work. "I don't really run around Detroit and put up my name everywhere," she says (and at one point during our phone call, a publicist butts in to assure us that Oxygen acquired all proper legal permits for everything tagged on the show). Adamczyk does say that she has a mural up on the Dequindre Cut, and has artwork featured in the We Have a Dream show currently on display at the Inner State Gallery as well.
When asked if the show could be accused of taking an outsider's approach to street art, Adamczyk agrees that it could be an issue, but thinks in the end the show will do more good than harm. Going into the show, Adamczyk decided that if she won the $100,000 she would give it all to Detroit Public Schools for art programs. "I think the show is definitely taking something underground and showing a side of it and opens the conversation of, 'Is it showing the right sides?'" she says. "I think the contestants, we are really raw and really street and a really great representation of these communities all across the country."
Street Art Throwdown premieres at 9 p.m., Tuesday, Feb. 3. View more of Adamczyk's art at kristinadamczyk.com.