Savannah’s on the verge of something big. The change looms thick in the air, from the switch-up in November’s election to the strong surge of activist groups to the spike of violence and crime that’s putting pressure on the tourism industry.
If ever there was a time to explore the tragic beauty of our city through a series of graffiti-inspired art, this would be it.
Michael Mahaffey’s show, I Really Wanna Lose Three Pounds, at Gallery Espresso this month isn’t just about Savannah. But combined with the dearth of public art here, Mahaffrey’s love affair with the city runs as an undercurrent through the exhibit and shows why graffiti is needed.
The title is a reference to Mean Girls and Regina George’s vanity. Mahaffey first heard it from an ex and was confused — “What are you talking about? You’re fine!” he said at first — and felt it fit the theme of the show.
“I love beauty and fashion, but I love exploring that dirty, sad part of it, and also that kind of sad existence of being such an attractive person but never feeling thin enough,” Mahaffey explains.
A DC native, Mahaffey came to SCAD for film and video but graduated with a degree in fine art portraiture. Less than twenty-four hours after graduation, he headed west.
“I was here for four years for SCAD and I couldn’t wait to leave the second I was done,” he recalls. “I really liked it here, but I also knew it wasn’t what I was about at that point.”
He spent some time in San Diego, but after coming back to visit, he knew something was missing.
“There were a few months where I felt like every art show I went to looked like a Banksy ripoff, and everyone seemed really proud of themselves for doing something you could see at the gallery next door,” he says. “I just thought, what is the point of all this? I came back, and everywhere I went, [Gallery Espresso] or Foxy, there were people knitting and drawing and writing, and everybody was learning and collaborating. It was so much more inspiring than the bullshit I was seeing out there, and I fell in love with it.”
That’s around the time Mahaffey made the switch from art-deco portraits to stencils and spray paint. The paintings he made were time-consuming and expensive, costing as much as $150 to be framed, and the prices had to be sky-high to yield any profit.
“I just started having a lot of fun making stencils out of everything, and when I started doing that, it changed everything,” he remembers. “It really stuck. It was fun to play around with and versatile. And I can do different versions of things. If somebody sees something they like, I can do another one until I break the stencil.”
The fast turnaround for graffiti pieces means that Mahaffey can make relevant pieces and get them out fast, whereas portraits take a while to perfect and finalize.
Thanks to that speed, graffiti has long been a way for people to express themselves with art, though it’s not quite the same as artists hanging their works in galleries. Public art, like graffiti, literally puts the art on the streets, in public, where everyone can see it. Everyone from students to transients to elected officials.
Mahaffey recognizes the town’s history as being a major influence in not having a stronger public art scene and cites the “red tape” keeping street artists away. While it might be a little oxymoronic to hang graffiti pieces in a gallery, the subject matter spurs conversation just the same.
The strongest piece in the show features the Bird Girl holding a gun in one hand and a tray of drinks in the other, playing on her welcoming outstretched arms. As part of the installation, a cross made of red lights hangs above the canvas.
“None of it is meant as a slam on Savannah; I live here for a reason,” he says. “But it’s also a statement. I wanted the religious aspect. What’s the point of living in a beautiful city if you can’t walk around in it? When people are shot at a bus stop downtown, clearly things are out of control.”
Not all Mahaffey’s pieces deal with deep social issues, though the theme of tragic beauty is present in each piece. One painting is an image of a woman in a miniskirt and stilettos holding an alligator on a leash with the phrase “I may be crazy, but that doesn’t mean I’m wrong” lightly stenciled in the background. Another is of Kate Moss with red beads flowing from her nose, symbolizing her cocaine addiction.
However, the pieces into which he injects a deeper social commentary pack a powerful punch. “Blue Liberty” depicts a glam Statue of Liberty holding a baby whose speech bubble contains Arabic lettering.
“I went back and forth about it,” Mahaffey admits. “I wanted to make a comment on the importance of acceptance and helping out other people, regardless of their background. If you have something someone else needs, maybe it’s time to give them a hand and ask questions later.”
He’d had the image in his head for years, but the Syrian refugee crisis late last year pushed him to create the piece.
“Arabic was used just because it’s such a complicated region; there’s so much turmoil that we seem to have with that part of the world, so I wanted to pair those two together. White glamour, female figure, so much Americana mixed with something a little bit less understood.”
Like “Blue Liberty,” all the pieces make the viewer think and maybe even reconsider their perspective. After all, as Mahaffey says, “If you’re gonna put your stuff out there, try to make the world a better place.”
For lovers of art with a social conscience, I Really Wanna Lose Three Pounds is required viewing. It remains at Gallery Espresso through the end of February, and the opening reception is Feb. 12 from 6 – 8pm.