MILLVILLE - Leon Rainbow pulled a can from a box with at least a dozen others and started to spray the outline of an eye on a plywood board.
Urban Art, he said, taking a break for a moment to replace a nozzle, is very much rooted in culture and community. Artists are taking the formerly street-centric medium and turning it into fine art - showing their work in galleries and museums - with a nod to the past and a dedication to pushing the form.
Rainbow is one of several artists whose work is featured in the Urban Art exhibit showing at the Riverfront Renaissance Center for the Arts on High Street, right in the middle of the Glasstown Arts District.
The show was developed over 18 months by co-curators Liz Nicklus and Debra Miller as an effort to expose city youth to an art style they are more likely to enjoy seeing.
One, Nicklus said, that they could relate to.
"We have an urban population here that's not being served," she said. "A common complaint I hear is that the arts district has nothing for us. I wanted to bring in something that the kids can understand.
"Who wants to look at sailboats and rural scenes when this is where we live?"
The art in the exhibit ranges from elaborate tagging, which Rainbow calls the root of Urban Art, to abstract sculpture, stencil works and ornately constructed urban portraits.
The show runs until Oct. 10.
Rainbow said the form has roots dating to the 1960s during the Pop Art movement. He mentions names like Andy Warhol and Robert Dowd and shrugs it off when asked if people are surprised by his knowledge of art history.
"Only if they're ignorant," the 33-year-old Trenton resident said.
The truth is, Rainbow said, urban artists, those at the top of their game, know their history and use it to help them define their art. Graffiti can mar a neighborhood, he admits, but there are plenty of artists out there making it their preferred medium.
There isn't a country in the world that doesn't have a great graffiti artist, he said.
"People think you just get a can of paint and go out there," he said. "You can, but whatever you do will look like a mess.
"You have to know what came in the past. There are street artists who are working in Renaissance styles right now. We're not all dummies, we're not all juvenile delinquents."
Trenton and Philadelphia have become epicenters for Urban Art. Both cities have a large number of murals, many of them created, often in collaboration, by people such as Rainbow.
His work has been legitimized by its commercial appeal.
Rainbow said he has been commissioned by Louis Vuitton and other companies to create original work for them.
Another displaying artist, Will "Kasso" Condry, has been trying to gain influence for Urban Art. Condry is part of a group, which includes Rainbow, that has painted murals throughout Trenton.
The group is called SAGE, or Serious Artists Gaining Exposure, and has helped get the men invited to do public projects and have their art featured in galleries such as the Renaissance Center.
Nicklus said the center is dedicated to serving the public by presenting every variety of art it can. Art is art, she said.
"There are artists, and there are technicians," she said. "An artist can make a piece of art out of trash on the street."
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