Smooth Transitions: From opening for Jay-Z and a residency at Ann Arbor’s Alley Bar to spinning online, DJ Graffiti is in the mix
From opening for Beyonce at the Palace to dad, entrepreneur, and local DJ, and back again—this is the story of Martin Smith aka DJ Graffiti and how he made the dream of becoming an internationally renowned DJ work during a global pandemic.
Let’s start at the start—the rise of DJ Graffiti. A young man, attending underground hip-hop shows, meeting DJs, starts making his own music, performing, and carrying around a box of mixtapes wherever he goes. He starts getting recognized.
This leads to mainstream DJ gigs, which Graffiti slays, opening for a Jay-Z tour at the Palace, then a Beyonce tour at the Palace, on the bill with Big Sean, opening for Dave Chappelle at the Fillmore. He expands his territory—hitting Chicago, New York, Miami, L.A., and Detroit after every major mixtape release. Then DJ Graffiti goes international. Tours the Caribbean. Goes on a European tour with Phat Kat—part of the extended family of Slum Village and J Dilla.
And that’s when things change.
Interesting things learned during two hours of socially-distanced outdoor conversation with acclaimed illustrator and street artist David Zinn while he created Nadine Hypnotizes a Frog on a commercial property in an undisclosed location within the city limits of Ann Arbor.
PEOPLE YELL AT DAVID ZINN
In our pre-interview text exchange, Zinn revealed that people yell at him sometimes when he’s doing his thing. I think yell might be a strong word for the reaction a security guard or stickler-for-the-rules public servant or art-loathing property owner might throw his way. What’s the word for when someone locks eyes with you after staring curiously at you doing strange stuff on a sidewalk accompanied by a mysterious wooden case full of colorful things and a long pole next to you?
“Having a name on the internet doesn’t mean anything when I’m crouching on the ground,” says Zinn, whose work has been shared throughout social media and covered by Huffington Post, Graffiti Art Magazine, Bored Panda, and more. “I’m lucky a lot of people have a blind spot for weird things happening.”
What Zinn does is technically graffiti. But when it’s done on Ann Arbor city sidewalks, it’s completely legal.
Chapter 106 of Ann Arbor’s city ordinances titled NUISANCES mentions graffiti, along with outdoor storage, trash, dangerous structures, abandoned refrigerators, and parking in a drive-thru lane without making a purchase.
But there’s a sweet, sweet caveat:
“Any mark or marks on any surface or structure made without the prior permission of the property owner and made in any manner, including but not limited to, writing, inscribing, drawing, tagging, sketching, spray-painting, painting, etching, scratching, carving, engraving, scraping, or attaching. Chalk marks on sidewalks are NOT graffiti.” (ALL CAPS mine)
Zinn says Ann Arbor’s specific absolution for chalk is pretty unique. Still, technically, graffiti—and I feel like we’re damn near outlaws.
There are infinite ways we’re coping with the global pandemic -- forcing our bodies and brains to do the things we want them to (or think they should do), or giving in to surprising and unexpected forces with predictable or weird or wonderful results.
For me, some of these things include:
Social media -- and a few physical letters -- showing me what’s outside my six-foot radius. A lot of bread. Some smoked meats. Walks and nature. More bread. Needlepoint, knitting, running, lifting heavy things, a few bike rides, pets. Light drinking, heavy drinking, loud music, total silence.
You know what your body and brain have asked for in the past and what you’ve given into and given it. Pre-pandemic, my body frequently wanted tasty treats and caffeine -- and frequently got it, so why would I curb those habits now?
But my brain was also asking for something unexpected to fill the downtime between working from home, parenting some kids, staying six feet away from other breathing things I’m not directly responsible for, and eating bags of chips:
The roll call of cell-phone games I’ve played in the past dates back to Snake on my old flip phone -- but it’s a short list. Some Angry Birds. Some poker app I downloaded after reading a Colson Whitehead poker book. Desert Golfing (recommend!).
That’s it. Cell phone games aren’t in my DNA the way regular video games are, so why is it that my brain waited eight days into quarantine to get me clicking and downloading and clicking some more?