Inside the Spinello Gallery on the city's Upper Eastside, a life-size plastic skeleton stands at the entrance, its arms crossed over its rib cage. The skeleton wears a pair of size 8 1/2 Supra kicks, a heart-shaped medallion, and a black bandanna over the bottom half of its skull.
"The bandanna is to hide its identity," says the man known on local streets as Typoe. "I think it's important when people don't know too much information. Everybody loves a little chase. He's standing tall, letting you know, 'I'll be doing this until I croak.'"
The unusual self-portrait is part of a new exhibit that celebrates the work of one of Miami's most infamous graffiti rats. The exhibit, titled "I Want Typoe So Effin Bad," brings the raw energy of the mean streets into the Spinello Gallery, which is located in a Fifties-era apartment block on 82nd Terrace, a few buildings off Biscayne Boulevard. It marks the first solo show for the 20-something artist known as Typoe, who refuses to give his real name.
"I Want Typoe So Effin Bad": Through March 31. Spinello Gallery, 531 NE 82nd Terr., No. 3, Miami; 786-271-4223, spinellogallery.com. Wednesday through Saturday noon to 5 p.m.
"I worked my ass off," the ever-defiant Typoe crows. "I approached the gallery space as a classroom to teach people about my experiences, about who I am."
Many of the exhibit's sculptures explore religion, violence, and women and are dosed with a subtle sense of irony and an undiluted penchant for laughs. The sculptures are mostly found objects the artist subverts to create iconic images that affect the viewer like bullets grazing the scalp.
Typoe's ode to his crew, The Cat's Pajama's, which boasts 16 members nationwide, is a powerful piece simply titled TCP. It's a bobcat's skull bearing gold spray-painted fangs resting on a blood-red pillow with brass knuckles lying next to it. The feral display bristles with a sense of imminent danger. It also hints at the cat-and-mouse game he and his crew constantly play with authorities trying to nail them during their graffiti overtures.
"Originally I wanted to use a cat's skull for the piece," Typoe says. He scoured his urban neighborhood looking for a fresh piece of feline roadkill to create a tribute to a member of his crew who wears a cat's skull on a necklace.
Typoe found a dead cat but had trouble decapitating the furry, putrid stiff. "At first, I tried hacking off its head with a shovel, then a knife. Finally a razor did the trick, but it was fucking disgusting. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone."
To strip the skull of its rotting flesh, Typoe placed it in a cage and dropped it in a lake, hoping fish would nibble it clean. But when he returned, his trophy was gone. Bummed out, he settled for the bobcat cranium he found in a fossil shop. "It's funny — when you don't need it, you see roadkill everywhere. But when you go on a crazy search for a dead cat, you can't find one," he laughs.
He says the skull-and-brass-knuckle sculpture symbolizes the unbreakable bond he shares with his crew members. "It represents how we ride for each other and have each other's backs. It's not only about what we do but about being friends for life."
Typoe points to a series of sculptures he says convey a sense of the uneasy alliance between street and fine art. Grenades is a series of three metallic cherubs balancing what appear to be Carmen Miranda headdresses above their brain pans.
The angels are painted white, and attached to them are actual World War II-era hand grenades that have been hollowed out and painted gold. The artist has added leafy metal fronds to the ornaments to make them look like pineapples.
"Pineapples are the international symbol for hospitality, but the word is also a nickname for grenades," Typoe explains. "The sculptures kind of say, 'Welcome, I'm going to blow you up,'" he chuckles. But he is dead serious when it comes to his thoughts about where graffiti belongs.
"I don't like to mix fine art with graffiti. Graffiti belongs on the street. This may be my first solo show, but I don't need anyone to give me a space to show my work. I'm going to take my own space to create when I want to, and no one can do a fucking thing about it.
"Here in the gallery, it's more about a narrative I'm creating about what's going on out there on the street and nothing more."
For Typoe, religion has always been the turd in the punch bowl, and several of his most arresting pieces reflect a strong disdain for how people's beliefs can lead to conflict or war.
"Artists work with religious iconography all the time," Anthony Spinello, the gallery's owner, observes. "But there is something pretty relevant about how Typoe approaches the subject.
"For me, several of these pieces with biblical references are iconic. It's one of the strongest and most cohesive collections I've seen by a young artist."
In FTW (Fuck the World), Typoe gives the big "Redeemer" an unnerving overhaul. The artist took a crucifix with an image of Jesus and altered it so the Christ figure appears with a handgun strapped to his waist and an assault rifle slung across his back.
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"Ever since I was young, every time someone brought up religion, it lead to controversy or fighting somehow," Typoe sighs. "I'm a positive person and hate any sort of negative vibe. To me, organized religion is a big joke. These fundamentalists that are always arguing how people should live amuse me. I try to focus on what's inside and on my family and friends instead."
Another sculpture that drives his point home is LOL, displayed on a pedestal against an eye-blistering bubblegum-pink wall. It depicts the Virgin Mary with beady eyes and a clown nose.
In a separate room, a sculpture of hundreds of spray-paint can caps creates a rainbow jumble titled Confetti on the gallery's sparkling terrazzo floor. Typoe collects the caps during his travels or from other graffiti artists who have mailed them to him from across the globe.
"They represent artists coming together and is almost a collaborative effort," he says. "It's all about networking and a lifestyle. I can go anywhere in the world and stay with other graffiti artists for free. When it comes to loving what we do, there are no beefs or differences between us. I paint on the street every week, and sometimes I have to do it every day."