Monday, September 22, 2008

The Super Art Fight Experience, relayed by John Marra:

Photo courtesy of

Live mural painting (legal or otherwise) is an indispensable aspect of Hip Hop culture. Most memorable and intimate shows have (or ought to have) at least one artist improvising large-scale pieces alongside its musical acts and in full view of the crowd. Both artists are given the chance to showcase their work to new group of potential fans, an artistic community is strengthened, and the audience gets the chance to watch two live acts at once. Everyone wins.

I found it surprising to hear that MC Chris, the self-proclaimed “geek” rapper, cut the Super Art Fight debut from their slot opening for him at the Ottobar in June. Even after the S.A.F. team brought their performance to the upstairs lounge, MC Chris trash-talked them and their whole idea during his set. He made a cameo as a demon named “MC Pee-Pants” on Adult Swim’s Aqua Teen Hunger Force, but he’s not into the idea of local comic artists and illustrators drawing robots and monsters fighting on large canvases. Go figure.
Jamie Baldwin pits her Skulls against Michael Bracco’s Hearts.

I didn’t know what to expect when I went down to the Ottobar on Friday. I’d just heard that there would be some live painting and Michael Bracco (who won a well deserved B.O.B. for his comic Novo) would be doing some of it. That was good enough for me. I’d only seen one flyer for the event posted, and I’m glad I hung on to it.

Super Art Fight goes like this: for every bout, artists are each given a pile of markers and thirty minutes to cover the four joined pieces of 2’ x 3’ canvas with representations of their individually assigned themes. Between rounds bands play on stage and the artists sell their books, sketches, t-shirts and craft at the merch area upstairs. The whole thing feels like one part rock show, one part Kaiju Big Battle, one part comic convention.
Chris Impink and Garth Graham

S.A.F. co-creators Jamie Noguchi, Rosscott Nover, Marty Day, and Nick Borkowicz met, as most comic artists do these days, on the internet and comic-con circuit. The two hosts and six artists each have their own web comic, and have been collaborating for years.

“This just seemed like the next logical step,” Nover told me before ordering his pint so he could gesticulate excitedly. “We met on the internet, we hung out at conventions, and we wanted to do something bigger. We know all these really great people who draw or play music but we’d never done something all together and on our own like this.”
Nick Borkowicz and Jamie Noguchi during the final battle.
The bands Karmelas Game and the Headwounds may have been co-billed for the night, but the show definitely belonged to the artists. Round three, the final round of the evening, was about as epic as it could get at something like this. Noguichi and Borkowicz were presented with twelve canvases and a full hour to draw, but their themes were chosen at random by the digital “Wheel of Death”. Suggestions like Orthodox Jew pirates, ninjas dancing the Thriller and gaggles of Star Wars references may elicit eye-rolling from some, but S.A.F. is a showcase of talent-under-pressure, and watching Borkowicz (apparently a tattoo artists) handle his non-sequitur topics with such ease was really enjoyable.
Noguchi rags on Borkowicz’s Luke Skywalker.
The real joy of S.A.F. comes from watching the processes of the individual illustrators as their pieces unfold and the canvases fill. Each round began with the artists working on opposite ends of the canvas until they got up the nerve to cross and attack the other’s work in a visual equivalent of an MC freestyle battle. But by the end of each round, though, the competitors were collaborators, going into mini-huddles to decide where or what to draw next as a team. The audience members packed shoulder to shoulder and stood on tip-toe for the three rounds, cheering, booing and chanting. Color commentary by hosts Nover and Day kept everyone’s ears occupied over the droning Matrix-style techno, but their wired mics kept them stuck on stage and, occasionally, fishing for something to say. Maybe they were just as engrossed as the rest of us.
Noguchi and Borkowicz’s finished piece.
To his credit, MC Chris inadvertently laid the groundwork for another Baltimore niche-scene with devoted fans and a lot of potential to grow. The Ottobar feels like the perfect venue for an event like this, with the bands-on-stage, artists-on-floor setup. I wasn’t into using randomly selected audience members to judge the winner of each round. Again, I recognize that S.A.F. is full of talented people and this seems fair, but why not take the freestyle battle route? Something as simple as screaming loudest for your favorite would engage the audience that much more. And waiting for a band to set up after watching a fast paced art battle is a minor gripe, but I’d like to see the next S.A.F. (slated for this December) handle the music/art a bit more seamlessly. That will come with time, as will the possibility for other artists and musical acts with more variety bringing in other crowds unfamiliar with Super Art Fight. The cartoonists will get away from their lonely drafting tables and tablets to perform for a crowd, the bands will find new fans and potential flyer and album art designers, and the audience will stumble home with the satisfaction of seeing something pretty unique. Everyone wins.Day, Borkowicz, Noguchi, and Nover bring the night to a close.