Twenty years ago, the hip-hop triad of graffiti, rap, and breakdancing still had the shine of new. These art expressions were raw and energetic --- its purveyors had mystique. The artistry was there; few in the mainstream recognized it as that.
Rochester had and has its share of graffiti writers. One of them, Change, started to get noticed in the mid-'80s. Suddenly his tag and his murals were showing up all over the city, from North Winton Road to the Broad Street Bridge to Genesee Valley Park. It seemed like he'd go anywhere, tag anything.
"There's this buzz about this 'Change' person. It's got to be a 12-year-old black kid," says Michael "Change" Maier of his Rochester career. "I kind of like that colorblind nature of the wall. You can't tell who's behind the painting."
Change is, actually, a white man. He lives in Milwaukee with his family. He has a fulltime design job. And he still writes.
In high school he had admired the pencil tags he saw around Franklin. But it wasn't until he was in college and saw the 1983 documentary Style Wars that he found what he wanted. He went out and painted his manifesto under East Henrietta Road, along the Canal, in foot-high letters, starting out, "If this were Egypt or Ancient Mesopotamia we'd decorate the walls instead of leaving them gray and blank."
One of his favorite venues was Genesee Valley Park. "For me it was this great intersection of the suburbs and the city, the whites and the blacks," he says. "At night no one was there and in the daytime it was full of people. It was my gallery."
He tracked down another writer, Pose2, after seeing his work in an art gallery. He found him airbrushing T-shirts at All Day Sunday in Midtown. Change --- decked out in his finest punk gear --- had to show his book to prove who he was. The two formed a crew, learning that they could find legal venues for their art. At one approved painting jam in 1986 in Genesee Valley Park, Change got caught in the middle of a scuffle and a stray punch broke his jaw.
"I always had this question: Am I disrespecting somebody's culture or not?" he says. "In some crazy way, after that I felt legitimate."
Change stopped writing after he left Rochester in 1990 and didn't pick up the cans again until 1995, when he spotted a familiar face at a mall airbrushing kiosk in Philadelphia. Pose and Change started painting again, traveling to different cities' graffiti jams, where a collection of artists converges on a legally approved wall.
In his return to graffiti, Change has become, in a way, an activist. His voice has been given a kind of sanction. He speaks the word-on-the-street, dangerous rumblings kind of truths that graffiti artists have been writing on walls for decades; now he can speak through press releases and in roundtables addressing graffiti culture.
"Graffiti is a loaded term," he says. "It gets into people's headspace, it affects their safety zone. It means ghetto and poverty, chaos." But still: "You want people to respect your property when they may never own property," he says. "You're not even meeting them halfway."
He still loves writing because of what it can achieve outside of a canvas. "You can go out and say, 'I am,'" he says. "It's being able to do something bigger than yourself. It goes back to painting on caves."
Change and Pose2, along with several other artists both local and out-of-town, were in Rochester on Saturday and Sunday, July 9 and 10, for an approved painting day behind Village Gate Square. www.changerous.com, www.pose2.com.
--- Erica Curtis