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Graffiti Murals Light Up Urban Basecamp

Art is a creation of the human soul, whether it’s found in pristine galleries or dirty freeway underpasses. The human desire to express creative energy burns like a flame that cannot be extinguished.

Johnny Carswell grew up in Santa Barbara, California admiring the works of artists who created with a can of aerosol paint in their hands. In those earliest years in California, the child of a Scottish-descended doctor’s family, “a white kid — fell in love with art” from the Latino graffiti subculture. The “Chicanos” of California were his neighbors and friends, and he would hang out with them, attend their enormous family birthday parties and backyard barbecues, and gather with them in the twilight hours as they created art under the freeway with cans of paint.

His friends would create on concrete walls that had a five-foot buffer between trees and freeway.

“All night long, listening to music, they would paint,” said Carswell. “The City of Santa Barbara, every month, would drive this truck down the freeway with this hose. This truck was full of white paint and they would blow it all over the murals, the ground, the trees. It was a mass whitewash of just paint. What had been painted there was interesting and beautiful, and now it was just the moon. The art wasn’t just vandalism. This was artwork,” he said.

“I was always interested by that kind of art. Frankly, that entire Chicano subculture intrigued me as well. One of the things that I respected about them the most was that right there — respect. They were very family-oriented. They had fun together.”

In the years since his upbringing in Santa Barbara, and high school in Snohomish, Carswell built several businesses, including Northland Contracting. He never let go of that connection to graffiti artists and began to track down the best of the best, asking them to recreate some of their most iconic pieces, as large as the originals, on portable murals.

On a recent winter afternoon, he was staying over in his Santa Barbara home, waiting for evening to come so he could track down a “phantom” artist.

“I call them phantoms. Some of the greatest art that’s ever been created will never be seen by the general public because it’s being done in an alleyway, places people will never go, by some talent that is phantom. You have to go find it. It’s not coming out of those alleys,” he said.

“We love these guys constantly,” said Carswell. “A guy named Miles, arguably the best character painter — just an amazing, humble artist — had come and painted for me. We became friends and he did a particular piece for me — just the most incredible piece,” at a paint party Carswell held. “He finished it for me, hugged me, and went to the airport. He died within a couple of weeks. Thank God I had 12 pieces of his or there would be nothing left of anything he had done. That’s exactly why we are doing what we are doing. This guy should not be forgotten,” said Carswell, adding that the world should know who Miles was and the impact he made.

Carswell’s daughter Gloryanne “Baby G” Carswell was planning to go to medical school when her father asked her to run the gallery.

“I realized I love these guys so much and I want to do everything I can to represent them to the best of my abilities,” she said. The biggest part of her job as the gallery manager is educating the public on graffiti and urban art.

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Her father has collected the art and the story of some of the original graffiti artists who kicked off the genre in the underground New York scene of the 1960s. Tied to hip hop, break dancing, and DJ’d music, the art of graffiti has been slow to earn the respect Carswell says it deserves. He is determined to preserve the best pieces and to shine a light on the talents that create it, and has curated a collection of original graffiti art numbering in the thousands. The “massive” collection (Carswell won’t put a number on it) is “far and away the largest collection of art of its kind,” he said.

And he wants it to be seen.

With his daughter as curator, he opened Rosella Gallery in Snohomish, showcasing the art he loves most. Now he wants a museum of the full-scale pieces, requiring an enormous place to showcase them. Carswell believes he can “tell a story with 800 paintings.” But displaying that number would require a space as large as 40,000 square feet. He thinks he has a space in Everett, but, he said, “I may have to build it. If I have to build, we are two or three years out.”

He’s committed to opening a museum in the region, he said, even though the graffiti art scene in the Pacific Northwest is a “backwater,” with few “heavy hitters like Hyper.” Hyper (graffiti artists only go by their street name) with his crew Graffaholeks created the Everett Grill & Chill graffiti project, drawing five dozen artists from across the nation to create street art. Hyper and his crew are organizing another event — Going All City Everett, August 4-7, expecting it to be twice the size of last year’s event. The Schack Art Center, the Children’s Museum and the City of Everett are engaged, and Johnny Carswell, along with Scuttlebutt Brewing and others, are sponsoring.

Julio Cortez, communications officer for the City of Everett, said the project is welcomed.

“Everett has always been a city of makers. The creative spirit is strong in Everett and you can see that walking down the street. It’s not only easy to create here, it’s welcomed,” he said.

Carswell says places like Everett will soon be on the map for urban art recognition because of the energy artists like Hyper bring.

“I think the Pacific Northwest is going to be a hub for this kind of art.”


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Ellen Hiatt
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