Is street art the next big thing in the NBA?

October, 23, 2012
10/23/12
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Kevin Garnett]Courtesy of Public Works Department This Kevin Garnett backboard, by artist Chris Stain, is one of the pieces in the "Art of Basketball" collection.
In the 1970s, when rap music was just taking off, legendary DJ Afrika Bambaataa of the Zulu Nation outlined the four pillars of hip-hop culture: MCing, DJing, breakdancing and graffiti writing.

Today, while most of these elements have gone mainstream and already been integrated into NBA entertainment, one pillar has yet to fully reach the sports masses.

That would be graffiti and street art, and the Public Works Department is looking to change that with its "Art of Basketball" project.

Since 2010, through a licensing agreement with the NBA, the PWD has featured a growing collection of NBA-themed pieces by leading graffiti and street artists from around the world. Their work includes player portraits, canvases expressing elements of the game and official NBA backboards transformed into works of high-impact art -- all representing hoops culture from streetball courts to the pro hardwood.

"Our passion is graffiti, street art and the urban landscape, and then coupled with sports and fashion," PWD curator Billi Kid told ESPN Playbook. "For the last two years, we've been focusing on 'Art of Basketball' because we feel there's so much meat on that bone. Hip-hop and basketball come together well, and the NBA really supports what we do."

Kobe BryantCourtesy of Public Works DepartmentKobe Bryant piece, by Chris Stain.
The project debuted two years ago in Miami at Art Basel, the world's premier art show for modern and contemporary work. A collector immediately bought 16 of the 35 backboards.

In 2011, new art pieces were again on display at Art Basel -- where Chris Bosh hosted a party for PWD -- and appeared in Los Angeles at the Staples Center during the All-Star Game. That's also where Dwyane Wade's foundation auctioned off a backboard for charity.

Then, just last week, "Art of Basketball" arrived in New York City.

The exhibit, which is at Pop International Galleries in NYC's SoHo neighborhood until the end of the month, includes portraits and NBA backboard artwork of some of the league's best players: Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Kevin Garnett, Blake Griffin, Dwight Howard, Dirk Nowitzki, Paul Pierce, Derrick Rose and Wade.

In addition, the exhibit features NBA images, such as the league logo, and general furniture made out of the actual 2011 All-Star court.

The artists, who hail from NYC, Miami, Los Angeles, France, Japan and other countries, include Kid, Ewok One, 5MPH, Jack Aguirre, Mr. Brainwash, CERN, The Dude Co., David Cooper, Cope2, Bill Fickett, Rene Gagnon, Joe Iurato, Shiro, Skewville, Chris Stain and UR New York.

Dwyane WadeCourtesy of Public Works DepartmentDwyane Wade piece, by Billi Kid.
Kid, whose specialty is portraits capturing a "pensive, looking-to-the-future moment" -- he recently made a personal one for Jay-Z -- said there is a direct link between his fellow craftsmen and NBA players.

"Basketball is basically an urban sport," Kid said. "And a lot of the people that are in the graffiti world have the same history as a lot of players. In fact, some of them played streetball and have a love for the game. They come from the 'hood and they found something that they're passionate about, that they dedicated hours and hours to executing -- and, in a sense, it becomes a way out."

The artists were in attendance on Oct. 16 during the exhibit opening, where they mingled with guests, including Salvatore LaRocca, the NBA's executive vice president of global merchandising.

LaRocca helped get "Art of Basketball" off the ground due to a longtime friendship with Fickett, who is -- along with his daughter, Hayley -- one of the PWD's partners.

Back in the late ’70s and early ’80s, through his company Salem Sportswear, Fickett was the first designer to print T-shirts with NBA players' faces on them, most notably Larry Bird's. That not only caught the eye of the NBA, which led to a licensing deal, but LaRocca's as well.

From there, Fickett and LaRocca stayed in touch through the years, eventually leading the way for "Art of Basketball."

Carmelo AnthonyCourtesy of Public Works DepartmentCarmelo Anthony piece, by Joe Iurato.
The spark for the project started when Kid and Fickett hit it off at Art Basel in 2009. While Kid was a seasoned curator hosting graffiti and street-art shows, Fickett had vast experience in the licensing game. They decided to produce some projects with graffiti artists, including one that involved reinterpreting Charles and Ray Eames' historically molded plywood chair and showcasing it in a Barneys New York window in an exhibition called "Eames Inspiration."

After lunch one day, Fickett showed LaRocca the chair, and the NBA exec was inspired. He suggested Kid and Fickett create a collection featuring NBA backboards, and then "Art of Basketball" was set in motion.

"To me, that was like, 'Oh my God,'" Kid said. "The backboards are the canvas of the game. The NBA really loves what we're doing with the art category, which is interesting because the NBA within their licensing department doesn't have an art category per se. They have memorabilia and, of course, they have sportswear. We certainly are in conversations with the NBA. We have a cool and hip approach towards them, so they want to introduce what we're doing to their license partners and start the conversation."

Since 2010, PWD has created 52 original backboards -- which are provided by Spalding -- as well as portraits and paintings. Their goal is to sell 180 backboards, which are priced between $23,000 and $36,000. The PWD team also would love to get its hands on actual historical courts, like from the old Boston Garden, and expand beyond Miami, L.A. and NYC.

"The big plan would be to have 'Art of Basketball' potentially in many stores in the major basketball cities," Kid said. "Right now, we don't have a brick-and-mortar. We're just basically curating with the artists and building a relationship with the NBA. So we'll see where it goes."

In addition to the success of "Art of Basketball," Kid said that the growth of graffiti and street art through pop culture and social media has inspired him to think bigger than ever. He credits Shepard Fairey, who designed the famous Barack Obama "Hope" poster, as well as Banksy and Kid's own artist, Mr. Brainwash, both of whom were featured in the 2010 film "Exit Through the Gift Shop," for increasing the exposure of graffiti and street art.

Derrick RoseCourtesy of Public Works Department Derrick Rose backboard, by The Dude Co.
Thinking long-term, PWD wants to expand into fashion, and it already has started designing prototypes featuring scarves, silk ties and pocket squares. It plans to do a test launch in December during Art Basel, then look ahead to fall 2013 as the official launch date for its accessories line.

"I think the art is a little highbrow, but it still has that street culture, the sexiness and the danger," Kid said. "If we're successful with the art, we think we can get into the luxury category."

While they're in Miami at the end of the year, they're also going to unveil a special Miami Heat collection called "Art of Basketball: Heat Wave," celebrating the team's recent championship.

Kid remembers first meeting Wade and Bosh in Miami last year and hearing them talk about how the PWD pieces capture the colorful and athletic aspects of the NBA. The experience provided Kid just another reason he believes his creative world has such a strong presence in basketball.

"The game is an art form," Kid said. "I'm not a big sports guy, but basketball is one of the most artistic games. It's almost like a ballet. There's a lot of skill. It's a very graceful sport and not as rough-and-tumble as football and as slow as baseball. There's a lot of emotion, and so we think that's a beautiful link. It's a love for game and a love for art."

Dirk NowitzskiCourtesy of Public Works DepartmentDirk Nowitzki piece, by UR New York.
See more 'Art of Basketball' artwork at the Public Works Department website.

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