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When Graffiti is Good

Graffiti art is becoming a hotel industry design statement. Here's how.

Monday, March 29, 2010
Caryn Eve Murray
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When the time came, in May 2009, for the Hotel Erwin to announce its arrival on the trendy, eclectic shores of California’s Venice Beach, the handwriting was on the wall - in this case, the exterior wall, just outside the entrance. In fact, the handwriting was in glowing, screaming neon colors, splashed there by NORM, a local graffiti artist whose signature work gave the new 119-room hotel immediate street credibility.

The graffiti artist’s interpretation of the hotel’s logo said “welcome to the Erwin,” Venice Beach-style. And that’s just what it was meant to do.

“When we were designing the hotel it was very important that the hotel be a reflection and good partner with the local community,” said Benjamin Malmquist, general manager. “And Venice is renowned, has a worldwide reputation, for some really unique and creative graffiti art. That’s part of the culture at Venice Beach.”

Hence, hotel as canvas. Hotel as gallery. Hotel as showcase and studio.

In a number of hotel environments, graffiti is now being seen as one of the most eloquent lexicons of hospitality: Barely 200 feet from the sand of Muscle Beach and adjacent to the Venice boardwalk, the Hotel Erwin needed to establish that it was also close to the heart of its vibrant community, and chose to spell out that allegiance in the stylized tags of NORM.

“When we were designing the hotel we really wanted to tie into that culture, which is a piece of Venice,” Malmquist said.

The hotel’s rooftop lounge even offers a view of the community’s graffiti park, where guests can watch artists practice their craft in much the same way local beachgoers follow the surfers.

The way to the heart of a community, then, may well be through its street art, and Venice Beach’s Hotel Erwin is in the good company of other urban hotels in cities like New York and Chicago. In designing the Erwin, the Joie de Vivre group supplemented the local expertise of artists by drawing upon a partnership forged with JUXTAPOZ, a magazine of graffiti art.

The graffiti doesn’t end when guests walk through the front entrance, however. Photographs of notable graffiti art from other locales hang prominently in rooms, suites and corridors.

“We have a really good relationship with the creative team at JUXTAPOZ, and they helped brainstorm with the hotel,” said Malmquist, adding that the Erwin doesn’t mind one bit being known as the graffiti hotel. “That’s a big part of our identity. We are really proud of the artistic community in Venice and we have provided a unique environment in a boutique hotel that showcases their works.”

Inside the James Hotel in Chicago, the business networking lounge has just welcomed its first Kendell Carter installation into its rotating art gallery. The California-based artist, known for his hip-hop visual flavors, has a show in town throughout March, said Patrick Hatton, general manager. So it seemed fitting to support the nearby Monique Meloche Gallery by sharing part of the scene with hotel guests.

Elsewhere inside the hotel, the JBar Lounge has a more permanent installation by graphic artist Brian Graves, said Hatton. While it’s not graffiti, Graves’ works utilize some of the same elements, including the technique of words-as-art.

“I think this certainly creates conversation,” said Hatton, “and our relationship with art in the hotel is that we want to inspire memories and create conversation. That’s what I think the installation by Kendell certainly does.” It also encourages exploration of the public space, he said; guests following the trail of artwork throughout the business lounge area may also be led into spaces they might not otherwise encounter.

Carlos Castro, design director with Hospitality Design Consultants in Fort Lauderdale, FL, said the mix of urban hotels and graffiti art is a natural one, particularly if the property is a boutique hotel seeking to express its own personality and, at the same time, tickle the guests’ brains a bit because graffiti – even with all its vowels and consonants - is not an open book.

“It’s not meant to be very easy to read, it is a design element,” Castro said. “If it is a phrase that you are meant to philosophize about, it is just not going to click right away.”

Alex Calderwood, one of the founders of the Ace Hotel Group, broadens the design definition beyond graffiti, to embrace street art.

“If you go back to our first hotel, we had a handful of artists doing things for us and it just really started organically,” he said. “Friends who had stayed at the hotel said they would love to do a painting or installation – and that wasn’t even in our original plan.”

Soon, paintings by various artists, including a local street artist, KAWS, adorned that modest, 28-room Seattle hotel – and set the tone for the three other properties that would eventually follow on the West Coast and, most recently, Ace’s largest property, in New York, in May 2009. What started as a way to enhance a room with street art had become a movement.

“For the most part, all of the artists who have done something for us at the hotels are friends or friends of friends so it is very family-based, very family-oriented, and we like that community aspect. Everyone is putting their touch on the hotel,” he said. The New York hotel, with nearly 300 rooms, has a mural in its grand lobby that is a compendium of graffiti stickers compiled by artist Michael Anderson. The rooms contain a mix of works by illustrators, painters and street artists, some done on canvas, and others directly on the walls themselves.

“I think customers enjoy seeing it,” he said. “It is something fresh and new and again, it just brings a family spirit to the hotel,” not unlike hanging kids’ art on the refrigerator doors – just at a different level of aesthetic.

And, Calderwood said, for the most part, “people have been very respectful”; there has rarely been an instance of guests adding unwanted graffiti to the works that were carefully commissioned or bought.

The Renaissance Blackstone Chicago has gotten into the graffiti movement with its “Outlaw Art package”. Guests experience a show of graffiti art by renowned Brooklyn artist Kaves and by the General Manager of the Blackstone himself, Rob Cartwright, on display in the hotel’s Art Hall through September 25, 2010.In addition to a room, this package includes a book, cocktail and a custom art piece from graffiti artist Survive 185 (aka, Robert Cartwright, Hotel General Manager) of the guest’s surname or their three favorite words done street-art style.

Of course, there was that one unexpected contribution of graffiti made after a recent Harley Davidson enthusiasts’ event at the Ace Hotel in New York, Calderwood said. “There was a famous tattoo artist there and he painted something on one of the refrigerators in the room,” which was not exactly an art assignment that had been handed to him by the hotel.

But even with the lack of official commission, it ended up not becoming an issue: Everyone seemed to really like it.

“It turned out to be interesting,” said Calderwood, “so we decided to keep it.”
Caryn Eve Murray
Associate Editor
Hotel Interactive® Editorial Division

Bio: Caryn Eve Murray is a freelance writer and an assistant editor on the news desk at Newsday on Long Island. During her tenure as a business writer for New York Newsday, she covered the city's small business community for which she won the Distinguished Business Reporting Award of Excellence from the New York Newspaper Publishers Association. She has also been a feature columnist and writer and has ...
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