Hemispheric Conversations Urban Art Project: Celebrating Histories of Industrial Labor and Potential Futures of Ecological Abundance

In this issue's Global Public Art column, Caitlin Bruce discusses her Hemispheric Conversations Urban Art Project, which connects post-industrial cities across the US/Mexico border and offers new ways of producing and engaging graffiti and mural-making.

The Carrie Furnaces are the remains of a blast furnace site where minerals were combined to create pig iron, the base material that is refined into steel (Figure 1 and 2). Though the original footprint of the site was about the size of an entire neighborhood, what remains is the massive curved furnace, the power house, an ore storage facility, a wall that originally protected a line of train tracks and a train car and lift itself that used to ferry the raw materials over and into the furnaces. But what used to be a site of activity, near-constant noise, and density is now a place of relative quiet where birdsong is sharp, interrupted by the soothing toot of freight train horns that pass in front of the furnaces, and activities are presided over by a giant sculpture of a deer head just below the furnace mouth.

Figure 1. Permission wall. Carrie Furnaces, Rankin, PA. May 8, 2019. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce.
Figure 2. Carrie Furnaces, View from graffiti wall. Rankin, PA. May 8, 2019. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce.

The Furnaces are a significant site for debate, public memory, and attachment for multiple publics, especially because they are one of the largest site of industrial patrimony in Allegheny County. Scholars have traced the ways in which the Furnaces serve as a site for memory, forgetting, and identification.1Jonathan Veitch, “Colossus in Ruins: Remembering Pittsburgh’s Industrial Past,” Public Culture 10, no. 1 (1997): 115–134. Less has been written about the role of the arts in the Furnaces dynamic and evolving form.2River of Steel Arts is the branch of Rivers of Steel, a National Heritage corporation, that manages the numerous art programs that are run in the furnaces with Chris McGinnis as chief curator. Such programs include Alloy Pittsburgh, a site-specific biennale, the Festival of Combustion, a number of exhibitions at the Bost Building, where the Rivers of Steel archives and museum are housed (also the site of negotiations during the Homestead rebellion), and the Urban Art program, run by Shane Pilster. Pilster is one of my collaborators in Hemispheric Conversations Urban Art Project (HCUAP).

In this month’s Global Public Art column, I will be discussing a project on which I serve as a lead organizer, Hemispheric Conversations Urban Art Project (HCUAP, pronounced “hiccup”). HCUAP was founded in 2016 by myself and artists Oreen Cohen and Shane Pilster. We have since been joined by artist Max Gonzales. HCUAP seeks to create platforms for conversation and education about urban art production (graffiti, street art, and muralism, among other genres), and to explore aesthetic and historical connections between post-industrial cities. Beginning in 2016 we have sustained three years of programming that focused on the intercultural exchange between the post-industrial cities of Pittsburgh, Chicago, and León Guanajuato Mexico. Urban Art covers a broad range of topics and issues. We activate dialogue through a combination of educational outlets: public debates, day-long symposia, and parallel public-facing research with art production residencies and a series of youth art workshops. This approach forges a collaborative approach to making and advocating for the amplification of urban arts and artists as positive mechanisms for imagining and reimagining urban space.

In Spring 2019, we had a number of activities including a public lecture by School of the Art Institute professor Nicole Marroquin, a book launch, and five Youth Street Art Workshops (You.SAW). For this post, however, I want to discuss the artist residencies that we offered and how our guest artists negotiated and responded to the history of Pittsburgh’s industrial and ecological environs.

The Urban Art program at Carrie Furnaces is an art production and education program. Pilster runs tours of the graffiti at the site and curates the permission walls, providing space for visiting artists to paint legally. When Pilster, Oreen Cohen, and I formed HCUAP we made the Furnace walls part of our network of sites. HCUAP offers youth street art workshops, public conversations, and short artist residencies. On HCUAP and the Furnaces see: Caitlin Frances Bruce, “Hemispheric Conversations Exploring Links Between Past and Present, Industrial and Post-Industrial through Site-Specific Graffiti Practice at the Carrie Furnaces,” Contemporaneity: Historical Presence in Visual Culture 7(2018): Online, DOI 10.5195/contemp/2018.236

It is here that I sat with four artists, two of them HCUAP artists in residence, as they worked in a production (a graffiti mural) on the wall of the furnace facing the Iron Gardens, a set of minimalist gardens, curated by Rick Darke, which highlight the slow return of nature to a site that is deeply contaminated by decades of industry. Soviet, Smear, Bel2, and Kart painted in the hot sun with a profile of the top of the furnace just visible above their pieces. First outlining their names, then filling them in with a few colors, and adding detail, highlights, shadow, embellishments, and characters (images) to some; our only interruption was the noise of Quantum Theater’s rehearsal for King Lear.

Figure 3. Bel2’s Piece. Carrie Furnaces, Rankin, PA. May 10, 2019. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce.
Figure 4. Kart’s Piece, “Mesik,” Carrie Furnaces, Rankin, PA. May 10, 2019. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce.

Our guest artists were Victor Ayala Kart from León Guanajuato and Bel2 from Chicago. Both have had long careers as graffiti artists and also have done significant legal graffiti work. Legal graffiti might sound like a contradiction in terms, but it is not. Legal graffiti includes permission, commission and festival events. Each of these elements has a range of inclusivity, temporalities, and relative structuration or freedom. Permission walls are spaces where the wall owners have given their agreement to let writers (graffiti practitioners) use the walls, sometimes with restrictions on content, at other times with none. Often a crew (a collective of writers) will curate the wall, functioning as gate-keepers. Permission walls also include spaces that have been designated “Free walls,” spaces where anyone can directly go up and paint on the wall. Commission pieces are contracted works, usually for pay, that are generally more restrictive in terms of theme. Festival events are when writers are invited to demonstrate their skill, usually on a competitive basis, during a delimited time period, usually of a few days. As a result citizens, commercial entities, and government agencies play different and shifting roles in the context of legal graffiti.

Bel2 and Kart were visitors, but had done preliminary research and gone on tours of the site to better understand its history and context. Such education is evident in their work. Bel2’s piece– her name in metallic hues with three figures of steel works climbing, pouring, and stirring molten metal – functioned as an homage to the labor that went on for decades. It is also quintessential Chicago style—large, solid letter, straight from the City of Big Shoulders. Kart’s flatter piece that read Mesik with curls of flame and geometric detailing, reminiscent of pre-Hispanic temples, pointed to the kinds of combinations and cultural homages that occur when artists get to install their work in a new place but with the desire to share some of their background and identity.

As I’ve discussed in earlier posts, León Guanajuato has had a legal graffiti program since about 2002, though it was formalized and publicized more from 2010 to the present. In Chicago, Illinois there have been different forms of legal graffiti, first in Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) sponsored jams (festivals), permission walls (like the walls along the 606 walking path), independent graffiti festivals like the Meeting of Styles, and commissioned walls (like the downtown Big Walls project that was cosponsored between the city and Columbia College). In this post I’ll first discuss Bel2’s work, and then Kart’s.


Bel2 has been painting since 1990. She explained that her style has changed over time, but is influenced by her mentors, Kane One and Dedzo. The former was a graffiti class, the latter was a tattoo apprenticeship. Bel2 has worked with youth for a number of years, and I first met her at MOS 2014 where we talked about some of the tensions and challenges of legal graffiti. She also is co-organizer for Splash, an annual all-woman painting event, which has run for five years.

For her HCUAP residency, Bel2 did research before arriving in Pittsburgh. She explained:

“Yeah and I was so excited as soon as I started watching the videos on it… the tour and the history that they were giving and just how its so many people working. And so when I was painting I wanted to kind of bring that out in my piece by making my letters kind of look like shiny steel…which I think I got kind of mixed up a little with the steel, iron, all of that, but, and having workers there so I added two workers— which could represent anybody, you know, because they all wore the same uniform, and so I wanted to put at least two people on there, poking through my piece, so that the hot metal would come out and so I really wanted it to represent the hard work that happened in there. Because there was so much hard work. And so many crazy hours were worked there. It’s like they lived there. It was crazy. So, I was thinki ng a lot about the history and trying to push all that through my piece.3Bel2, Personal Interview, May 10, 2019.

Her focus on history is notable, because it is one of the elements of site-specific art—art that is responsive to the history of the site as well as the identity and experiences of the publics that use the site.4Miwon Kwon, “One place after another: Notes on site specificity.” October 80 (1997): 85-110; Douglas Crimp, “Redefining site specificity.” On the Museum’s Ruins (1993): 150-186. Of the experience of spending time at the Furnaces she reflected:

“… it was overwhelming. It was really, really, dope. Just walking the grounds and knowing, because I had done some research so I knew what certain spaces were meant for already, so walking through them and actually seeing it…just something in the atmosphere there was like a ghost city kind of because so many people were in there at one point, that space was up and living. Hardcore. All day and all night. So to be there now where there was [almost] nobody there it was a little like tripped out. But I really liked it because there was so much history there and you are getting to walk the same space that so many people did and so many different cultures it was really surreal. It was really dope… All this hard work went into it. And then I found out it was the smallest one [furnaces], too. And I was like oh shit this place is huge, and it’s one of the smallest ones. It was a really cool experience.5Bel2, 2019.

Bel2 focuses on the acute disjuncture between the density, noise, and activity of the furnaces during the peek of industry, and its current environs which are more empty, silent, and ghostly. That it feels haunted is not a joke—industry was brutal, and many died on site or offsite due to the danger of the work.

The theme of labor is important as well. Graffiti is the product of industrial technology and economies but also uses postindustrial landscapes as canvas. Many demonize or stigmatize graffiti as “vandalism,” without considering the labor that goes into it. Bel2 contextualizes this:

“It’s hard work and it’s a lot of dedication. You go up to these walls and see these pieces and people might just be like “Oh, its just graffiti.” But if you walk up closer to it you can just take so much out of it. Whether it be the little little details you don’t see until you get up close to it. So I would hope they really approach it and really kind of absorb whats there and think about like “Damn, they took time to paint that.” And how many colors were used. Whereas if you just walk away it just looks like this and that, right? But yeah, I would hope that people see it as a mini installation…you were there, right? Estaba caliente, hacía calor, [it was hot out] right? … So, creating these pieces its hard work. Some people might just think oh you just go up on a wall and tag and its whatever. But no. I busted my ass, I sweated my ass off, I almost had ticks on me! And that to me is a dope experience. I don’t mind any of that. That is what I am going towards and I know these spaces are that kind of space. And that, too. That we are willing to get into the kind of nitty-gritty. To make that wall look fresh. I would hope they see it’s a lot of hard work. You have to be fully dedicated to starting and finishing whether its raining, its muddy, its humid, its whatever it may be. So I would hope that they would consider that it is a lot of work that goes into these things. Not just some quick action. That and can control. Sometimes people may think ‘anybody can do that,’ but like, well, try it. [laughter] Or don’t. I would hope they take away a good feeling about the piece especially I incorporated workers in there so they would be like, yeah, this space was full of a lot of work and people and its being reflected on them.”

Endurance, attunement, and labor emerge as key themes for Bel2 both in the content of her piece but also the context of her artistic practice. Legal walls are pedagogical spaces where writers learn to hone their craft, but also where publics gain literacy about graffiti culture and community.


Kart, too, was interested in the history of labor in the site, but also how the Furnaces historically, and in the present, are at the crossroads of global flows and ecological processes.

Kart has worked with different government programs in León since about 2006. He was hugely influenced by one of the early writers in León, Nickis, who was a pioneer in his openness both to letter-based graffiti and image-based work. Nickis was also an early advocate for legal graffiti walls. Kart initially only received paint from the municipal Youth Institute during the 2010-2012 administration, and then worked at the Cultural Center of Guanajuato from 2013-2015 working with youth and doing a number of workshops. From 2016 to the present he’s been part of the team called Muraleón which is the legal graffiti program run out of the current Youth Institute administration. His work is protean but runs the gamut from the popular 3D letter style that has come to Mexico by way of Germany, but also more illustration-based work in aerosol paint as well as oil and acrylic. In terms of themes he is very interested in what he calls “arte visionario (visionary art)” that reflects the visions he experiences as a participant in temescal or sweat lodges that are part of the indigenous culture in Mexico.

Since he was traveling from further away, he spent a few more days in Pittsburgh than Bel2, so that he also painted a mural with local artists in Millvale which was titled “Pachamama (Mother Earth)” and a painting of a deer in an abandoned CVS in Homestead as part of River of Steel Art’s Mon Valley Creative Corridor First Friday Series. While his work on the Millvale Mural and the CVS mural were image-based (Figure 5 and 6), the Furnaces was letter based (Figure 4).

Figure 5. Kart piece. Former CVS, 8th Avenue, Homestead, PA. May 5, 2019. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce
Figure 6. Pachamama Mural. Millvale, PA. May 10, 2019. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce.

Kart elaborated on the choice to do a letter-based piece and his use of the name Mesik instead of Kart:

“I think the space has an important role. It has a lot of history in Pittsburgh, a place that comes from lots of work and is now rusted—but when I was there I was imagining how it was with so many people there. Many workers from many parts of the world were there. The space was magical, marvelous. To see the entire history of human beings on the earth in one place. So, in this intervention I did something a bit more free with letters because it [the space] has a lot to do with graffiti. Because I always like to do something a little varied…this let me play with what letters should look like, because the artist should always fight and also with their ego so that they can explore things…in these letters that I did here I tried to make them really fluid, that they flow.6Kart, Personal Inteview, May 12, 2019.

Like Bel2, Kart points to the role of labor as well as international flows, and the kind of energetic traces that remain in the space. He also emphasizes how graffiti is part of the industrial and post-industrial identity of the space since it became a site for guerilla intervention in the 1990s and also an ideal spot for watching painted freight trains go by.

As part of a cultural exchange residency, however, Kart also used the site as a place to tell stories about León and Mexico by using the name Mesik, not Kart. He explains:

“The people that speak the Nahuatl language in my country tell a story about a person who was Mesik—he was an important being in the history of Mexico/Tenochtitlan. He was a spiritual guide in that land for a long time. I like the story a lot because the name of our country, Mexico, comes from him: Mexichuītzilōpōchtli. Perhaps this idea was something important for me because my other artist name is something that is very public and commercial and so changing the name to Mesik is something a little more intimate, for people to know only through the work, not my physical presence. Or, to know Victor in a more intimate way, not as commercially. So Mesik means this. So the letters say “mesik” and they are really fluid and geometric…that that’s what flowed.”

The geometric shapes are deliberate: they reference pre-hispanic symbolism that can be found on pyramids and other built spaces, and the tongues of fire lapping along the top of the piece also refer to the power of the furnaces themselves. He adds:

“The idea was to represent a bit from my country and my culture through symbols. Subliminal. The texture they used was really strong and created a message. So, it creates a bit of Mexican style. Not just my style: I am borrowing it. It has a symbology like the Greeks that symbolizes infinity etc. Fire is an old symbol for life. It is what flowed. And that’s my message for Pittsburgh artists: that they flow, that they are free, that they experiment with techniques through this urban art program.”

“Flow,” is an important term in graffiti culture. It is not just about movement in the moment of creating the piece, but also the resulting style and energy that results from the piece. It is related to a larger philosophy where evolution is also a privileged term—it is a culture that prizes movement. In debates about legal versus illegal graffiti, many writers characterize legal graffiti as a kind of loss of freedom. Here, Kart is emphasizing that there is stylistic freedom available even in permission contexts.

With the “Pachamama” mural Kart reflected on the ecological abundance of Pittsburgh, that we are a place with fertile ground, lots of greenery, and ample rain. In the Furnaces, too, he makes an oblique reference towards the kinds of creative abundance available in the site, if one puts in the labor to find it.


As with our first residencies in 2016, having Bel2 and Kart in Pittsburgh to reinterpret its postindustrial landscape helped frame those sites and their meanings in new and different ways. Themes of work, endurance, and abundance emerged both in conversations and in their work, and those themes will be refracted and reframed in later urban art tours that Pilster leads, in the work of artists who are influenced by their pieces, and in the ongoing transformation of the Furnaces themselves. If, as I have argued, the Furnaces are a synechdoche for postindustrial Pittsburgh, the Urban Arts program is also a synecdoche for the different creative pathways available to Pittsburgh’s denizens. Some of the works engage with the history of the site, other use it as a platform to mourn or celebrate lost heroes in graffiti culture, and yet others are playful experiments with form. It is the plurality and dynamism of the site that makes it a fecund place for thinking about new futures and reinterpreting the past. Flow, grit, and evolution.



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