Art Battles turns Wynwood's Eazy Street Gallery into a war zone

On a recent Saturday night at Eazy Street, six artists square off for the main event as a DJ spins old-school and techno beats loud enough to blow the roof off. While more than 100 young professionals, hip-hoppers, skate punks, graffiti rats, and hipsters cheer and shake their asses, a buxom brunette, scantily clad in a retro lacy pink and black corset and panties, passes out drink tickets for the bar.

This is not your typical Wynwood opening that caters to the stuffed-shirted, anal-bleached, and Botoxed Second Saturday collectors. Since opening their space during Art Basel this past December, Colombian-born painter and photographer Edgar Velazquez and his partners have made a concerted effort to draw an eclectic crowd to their events on nights when Wynwood would otherwise be desolate. At the Eazy Street Gallery, the focus is strictly on urban funk and edgy street art.

"We want to be different and give young, up-and-coming talent a place to show their work," says Velazquez, who runs the space with his uncle, Juan Velazquez — a tattoo artist at Universal Tattoos in West Dade — and Crome, a local graffiti legend and the self-styled capo of Miami's nefarious MSG Cartel. "Our goal is to add some fresh spice to the local gallery mix and bring new audiences in."

The trio recently scored a coup when Eazy Street was selected as the launch pad for the 2010 national tour of Art Battles, a live painting competition showcasing emerging street artists who vie for prize money and the chance to exhibit their work in a gallery. After Miami, the paint-slinging scrums are scheduled to move on to Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Dallas, Seattle, Las Vegas, and New Orleans.

Founded by New York artist Sean Bono in 2001, the interactive shows feature live music and audience participation and are part of a burgeoning live art movement nationwide. Bono says his goal is to knock art off the museum pedestal and drag it back to the alley, where it belongs. Bono's creative battles royal often turn into a rollicking underground party after the painters are done competing and lay their brushes down. To date, nearly 100 of these high-wattage, gladiatorial-style events have been staged across the United States and even featured on MTV.

On the Eazy Street stage, Jeff Dekal, Svetlana Kepezhinskas, NF Romero, Kazilla, Julie Friel, and Andrés Correa are ready to rumble. On the gallery's walls, an exhibit of the artists' recent paintings offers an early preview.

Dekal, a 25-year-old local who frequently does live painting shows at bars such as Transit Lounge and the now-defunct Circa 28, displays several images reminiscent of old Eerie comic book covers or Frank Frazetta's Vampirella character.

Newborn depicts an erotic scene of a blood-sucking ringer for a young Liz Taylor initiating a red-eyed Sophia Vergara clone into the realms of the undead. Self Destruction, another of Dekal's cartoonish images, exudes a hardboiled pulp-fiction vibe. The tawdry composition depicts a square-jawed mook having his teeth busted off at the gum line by a vicious pistol whipping, as a woman clad only in a thong cowers frightfully in the corner.

NF Romero also snares the peepers with his Primal Drive, a painting of two monkey-headed humans humping doggy style, the female's face contorted in a menacing snarl. Scrawled over the image is the phrase "Fuck now, ask questions later."

The art smackdown unfolds in two rounds, with the six artists taking their places in a semicircle at the far end of the gallery. Each of them stands in front of a blank canvas on an easel, awaiting the theme of the evening — "The Sexes" — and instructions from Bono to paint something reflecting the male or female gender.

Each round of the competition will last 45 minutes, with a 15-minute interval. The artists will be handicapped during the first phase and allowed to use only one color, randomly chosen by audience members.

Dekal is given green and spends the first 45 minutes creating a smear on his canvas that looks like a bottle of absinthe has spilled across the surface.

His competitors feverishly attack their canvases, but Dekal shrinks back from his painting and paces in circles, like a twitchy featherweight before a big bout. The surrounding throng begins to smell blood in the water.

"I felt there were too many restrictions and that by limiting us to using only one color at the beginning, the organizers were keeping us from allowing the work to develop fully and let it be all it could be," stammered the shaken painter, who likened the challenge to seals performing at a water park attraction.

Nearby, NF Romero, working with a Halloween-orange palette, quickly outlines the image of a cat-eyed minx lassoing a devilish imp. Next to Romero, Andrés Correa, a dyslexic Colombian artist and a veteran of the frenzied dustups, paints what looks like one of Giorgio de Chirico's surrealist landscapes depicting featureless mannequins lolling about in a town square.

With the second round underway, the dueling artists are given free reign to use their full arsenal of colors and tricks of the trade. Correa soon begins wildly flicking globs of paint bare-handed on the canvas as the crowd cheers his money shot.

Kazilla creates what appears to be a portrait of Neytiri from the movie Avatar. The Russian, Kepezhinskas, meets the bell with a rainbow-hued abstract landscape.

Dekal finally comes to life and shows some moxie with a drippy rendition of a Cruella de Vil-esque hag that puts him in contention right before the match ends.

But it is Julie Friel — with her rendering of a horned, skirt-clad, anthropomorphic figure and a toothy alien robot sporting Dr. Denton pajamas — who takes the Miami Art Battles crown.

"I try to organize these events like a poetry slam and also kind of like the Iron Chef competitions," Bono says, noting he hatched the live art showdown concept with friends in his Brooklyn apartment when he was 18 years old in order to gain street cred.

"Now we have several production companies talking to us about a reality show for cable TV and have begun documenting all of our battles for a full feature-length documentary."

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Carlos Suarez De Jesus