Dan Witz video on ANIMAL

Published on April 21, 2014

Meet Dan Witz, Street Art Pioneer

By Andy Cush |

In the late 1970s, Dan Witz began painting hummingbirds on walls around downtown Manhattan. The work — created illegally, with acrylic paint and brushes — so predated any notion of “street art” that the term hadn’t even been codified yet. It was years before artists like Keith Haring would attract a mainstream audience to the format, and decades before the likes of Banksy and Shepard Fairey became household names.

Now, Witz is 56. He has a young son, and, soon, he’ll be married. Street art is an international phenomenon, with superstar artists regularly drawing top-dollar at auction. And he never stopped putting up work. “I just kept doing it because I like doing it so much,” he tells ANIMAL while driving to install a new piece along the Downtown Brooklyn waterfront. “On a nice day, on the weekend, I would just go out and do art, like someone else would go out and play tennis.”

(Photo: @Dan Witz)

It would be easy to pass one of Witz’s pieces on the street without noticing it. Lately, they’re designed to fit naturally into their surrounding landscapes, so that an image of an air vent or a barred-over window might initially be mistaken for the real thing. On closer inspection, however, shadowy figures are always lurking behind the industrial architecture: hands claw to escape; eyes gaze out sullenly; lovers kiss, unaware of or indifferent to their imprisonment. ”It’s very illusionistic. You’d walk right by, maybe 50 times, until you happened to look up and notice. ‘Oh, there’s a dude. Oh, it’s a piece of art,” Witz says.

The artist creates his works ahead of time in his Williamsburg home studio and places them around the city in broad daylight, wearing a bright yellow road worker’s jacket and hardhat. The installation process, which involves a hammer, nails, and a power drill, takes a little longer than Witz would like, but the conspicuous getup allows him to hide in plain sight while he works. Before leaving to install the Downtown Brooklyn piece, however, he had some doubts about his skinny jeans.

“Cops are a little too smart,” he said with a chuckle. “They scan and they see something a little weird, and then they know something’s up.” Over the years, Witz has run into the police while working more times than he can count, but he’s never been arrested — something he chalks up to a combination of his honesty about what he’s doing, the potentially complicated process cops would face in booking him, and, the possibility that some of them actually enjoy his work. The police, Witz says, are “basically art critics.” Graffiti writers, purely vandals in the law’s eyes, wouldn’t get the same treatment.

ABC No Rio 2011

Unlike some of his contemporaries, who are content to make a living selling paintings that simply place their street motifs on canvas, Witz maintains a studio practice that’s wholly independent from from his illegal output. For the past 15 years, he’s been making what he terms “academic realist paintings” of mosh pits at hardcore punk shows, depicting figures that writhe with all the virility and drama of Heironymous Bosch’s crowds — but instead of clamoring for a shot at Christ before the crucifixion, they’re pummeling each other to the music of Vision of Disorder or Agnostic Front. Witz’s solo show “NY Hardcore,” which runs April 5-May 3 at Jonathan Levine Gallery, showcases these paintings.

“I’m an academic realist painter, but I’m living in 2014, so I’m not going to be painting Roman soldiers invading, or some gothic baroque composition, like the rape of the Sabine women,” he says, referencing a Roman historical scene that was a popular subject for Renaissance painters. “The highest aspiration of an academic realist painter are these big group figure paintings, and I’m using the hardcore scene as my subject.”

(Photo: Aymann Ismail/ANIMALNewYork)

Witz is well-versed in music — in the 1980s, he spent time in a band backing the experimental guitarist and composer Glenn Branca, alongside such art-punk luminaries as Thurston Moore, Lee Ranaldo, and Michael Gira — but he considers himself an outsider to the hardcore scene. When he goes to concerts to take the photographs that eventually become his paintings, however, he feels welcomed. Despite the fact that he’s an “old guy” who’s there as a voyeur, he says, “there’s a strange, established etiquette of the pit, and somehow that includes helping me out. Maybe it helps that I have tattoos.”

If there’s a disconnect between Dan Witz the rebellious street artist, intent on giving away art for free, and Dan Witz the realist painter, exhibiting his works in a Chelsea gallery, that doesn’t give him any conflict. The money Witz makes from sales allows him to continue putting up street pieces, and each setting is suited to working through a particular set of ideas. Just like Rembrandt made etchings and paintings, Warhol made prints and films, and Degas made sculptures and pastels, Witz says, he works in the studio and out in public — in this case, on the side of the road near a construction site.

Ultimately, the Downtown Brooklyn piece goes up without a hitch. Aside from a security guard at the construction site, who watches Witz for a moment before walking away, no passersby even notice what he’s doing, and in minutes he’s back in the van, heading home to his family.


RSS Feed

Dan Witz video on ANIMAL 4/14

Dan Witz in The Village Voice 4/14

ARTINFO interviews Gary Taxali 2/14

Complex features Jesse Hazelip 1/14

Michael Leavitt in Daily Mail 12/13

Blek le Rat in Village Voice 10/13

Jason deCaires Taylor: NBC Today 10/13

Pose + Revok on The Huffington Post 7/13

Olek in The New York Times 6/13

Brett Amory studio visit on AM 6/13

TIME video on Yarnshaw by Olek 6/13

Parra cover story in Graffiti Art 6/13

Souther Salazar in Elephant Mag 6/13

Souther Salazar in Carousel Mag 5/13

Aakash Nihalani video on ARTINFO 5/13

Aakash Nihalani on ARTINFO 5/13

Artinfo reviews WK 360 3/13

Olek in The Huffington Post 3/13

Parra in April issue of Juxtapoz 3/13

ARTINFO on Olek, The End Is Far 2/13

TIME Magazine interviews Olek 2/13

Artforum review mentions Olek 1/13

How & Nosm on ARTINFO 1/13

How & Nosm: Huffington Post 2 1/13

Wired features Haroshi 1/13

Aakash Nihalani: Storyboard 12/12

How & Nosm video on VICE 12/12

INVADER in Miami New Times 11/12


How & Nosm: Huffington Post 1 11/12

ARTINFO covers How & Nosm 11/12

How & Nosm on 12oz Prophet 11/12

Judith Supine in Huffington Post 9/12

Jerry Saltz reviews Détournement 8/12

Invader in The Miami Herald 8/12

NEW YORK TIMES — Détournement 8/12

Jason deCaires Taylor in NYTimes 8/12

Adam Wallacavage's T for T Mag 5/12

CNN article on Louie Cordero 5/12

Kevin Cyr feature in Juxtapoz 5/12

Adam Wallacavage in T Magazine 4/12

EVOL feature in April issue of PAPER 4/12

NEW YORK TIMES features Kevin Cyr 2/12

Jeremy Geddes in Juxtapoz 2/12

Adam Wallacavage on Phrequency 1/12

ELLE interviews Natalia Fabia 1/12

Huffington Post features Natalia Fabia 1/12

NYLON features Natalia Fabia 1/12

AJ Fosik review: The Brooklyn Rail 12/11

Jason DeCaires Taylor-TheTelegraph 11/11

Jason DeCaires Taylor-TheGuardian 11/11

Jason DeCaires Taylor on BBC (2009) 11/11

Jason DeCaires Taylor on BBC (2011) 11/11

Sam Gibbons interview-HiFructose 11/11

Josh Keyes New American Paintings 11/11

Brett Amory on Huffington Post 9/11

Mike Leavitt review on ARTINFO 9/11

Mike Leavitt in New York Magazine 9/11

Olek review on ARTINFO 8/11

Olek in Wall Street Journal (2) 8/11

Olek in Wall Street Journal (1) 8/11

Olek in the Village Voice (1, 2, 3) 8/11

Olek in Newsweek/DailyBeast (1, 2) 8/11

Olek in Hi-Fructose 8/11

Olek on CBS News 7/11

Brett Amory in Hi-Fructose 7/11

Miss Van on Bullett TV 6/11

New York Magazine features Olek 5/11

Ray Caesar in Huffington Post 2/11

Ray Caesar in A Magazine 1/11

Sandberg in New American Paintings 1/11

AJ Fosik in Hi-Fructose 12/10

Alex Gross in ADBUSTERS 12/10

Jonathan LeVine on AIR radio! 12/10

Dan Witz — Wall Street Journal 11/10

Jim Houser in Hi-Fructose 10/10

Alex Gross in Juxtapoz 9/10

Blek le Rat in New York Times 9/10

Dominguez collection on CityArts 8/10

Viva la Revolucion at MCASD - ongoing press coverage on AM 7/10

Jeff Soto cover feature in Hi-Fructose 6/10

Dave Cooper feature in Juxtapoz 6/10

Louie Cordero in Asian Art News 5/10

Sandberg in EMPTY Mag 4/10

Date Farmers in PAPER Mag 4/10

JLG and James Jean in Whitewall Mag 4/10

NEW YORK TIMES—Full Page Feature 3/10

NEW YORK TIMES—Interactive Feature 3/10

FLAVORPILL slideshow of JLG 3/10

JUXTAPOZ profiles Jonathan LeVine 3/10

Josh Keyes review on Fecal Face 1/10

Audrey Kawasaki review on Fecal Face 12/09

AJ Fosik in TOKION 11/09

Jim Houser write-up on Fecal Face 11/09


Invader and WK exhibitions : featured in The Village VOICE 7/09

Invader - TOP 10 : featured on Flavorpill 6/09

Invader - TOP 10 : featured in AM-NY 6/09

Mark Dean Veca review in THE Mag 6/09

NEW Website Launch! 6/09

Sandberg interview - Beautiful/Decay 5/09

James Jean review on Fecal Face 1/09

SHAG review in NEW YORK TIMES 12/08

Jeff Soto's Incredibly Strange Creatures 7/07

Shepard Fairey Is All Grown Up 7/07

Ten From TWI-NY: 7-11-07 7/07

Obedience 7/07

Splashing the Art World With Anger and Questions 6/07

As Street Art Goes Commercial, A Resistance Raises a Real Stink 6/07

Someone To Splash Over Me? New Shepard Fairey Flicks 6/07

The Baird Jones Review - Shepard Fairey Speaks About Arson Charges 6/07

This gag sure stinks: Artist turns up nose as bomb ploy flops 6/07

Good Shepard 6/07

DJ scratches ‘bomber’: Keen-eyed spinner may have caught ‘Splasher’ 6/07

‘Giant’ guerrilla artist busts out with ‘E Pluribus Venom’ 6/07

E Pluribus Venom: New Works by Shepard Fairey 6/07

Shepard Fairey and Souther Salazar at Jonathan LeVine 5/07

Supertouch Blog: Street Currency 5/07

Photos: Vitche, Fosik, Haber and Kehoe 5/07

WhiteHot Magazine: Ruas de São Paulo 4/07

MTV Magazine Features Ruas de São Paulo 4/07

Adam Wallacavage: Pheelin' It In Philly 4/07

Jonathan LeVine Triple Feature 4/07

Boleta featured on Folha Online 4/07

Jonathan LeVine Featured on Nylon.com 3/07

Manuel Bello Interviews Dalek for Fecalface.com 3/07

Tags of Brazil 3/07

Ruas de São Paulo: A Survey of Brazilian Street Art 3/07

Ruas de Sao Paulo 3/07

From Ruas de Sao Paulo to New York City 3/07

Gothamist Interview with Highraff 3/07

The City Is Their Canvas 3/07


Blog de Guerrilha 3/07

Kboco expõe em Nova York e na Bienal de Valência 2/07

As ruas brasileiras invadem Nova York 2/07

Choque Cultural expõe em Nova York 2/07

TimeSquare.com on Ruas de São Paulo 2/07

This Week In New York 2/07

Flavorpill: Ruas de São Paulo Bulletin 2/07

Auction Today to Support Brazilian Street Art 1/07

Ruas de São Paulo: Online Art Auction 1/07

Ruas de São Paulo: A Benefit Art Auction 1/07

Juxtapoz - Issue #72 January 2007 12/06

Life In A Bungalo Digest -Shag 11/06

Camille Rose Garcia Interview 11/06

Lifelounge on Jonathan Weiner 11/06

Crown Dozen 9/06

Flavorpill NYC 9/06

Life in a Bungalo: Doze Green -The Left Hand Path 9/06

NY Arts Magazine: Doze Green - The Left Hand Path 9/06

Socialpest- Doze Green: The Left Hand Path 9/06

RES Alert: Doze Green - The Left Hand Path 9/06

ArtInfo.com: Interview with Jonathan LeVine 8/06

The Drama Magazine 7/06

Life in a Bungalo - Adam Wallacavage: Il Lume Della Piovra 7/06

Roberta & Libby Artblog: Adam Wallacavage - Il Lume Della Piovra 7/06

.ISM Quarterly 7/06

Adam Wallacavage: Il Lume Della Piovra 6/06

TheStylephile.com - Adam Wallacavage: Il Lume Della Piovra 6/06

Jonathan LeVine Gallery | 529 West 20th Street and 557C West 23rd Street | New York, NY 10011 | Open Tuesday through Saturday, 11am to 6pm | 212-243-3822