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Stop making HENSE

Alex Brewer's fresh artistic perspective nods to his graffiti writing past without succumbing to it


MARKS MAN: Alex Brewer, aka HENSE, in his Avondale Estates studio - MAIBRI PHOTOGRAPHY AND COURTESY THE ARTIST
  • MaiBri photography and courtesy the artist
  • MARKS MAN: Alex Brewer, aka HENSE, in his Avondale Estates studio

Just off DeKalb Avenue, where the Beltline dead ends before jogging through the Krog Tunnel and into Reynoldstown, a long metal wall hugs the curve of an unpaved path. The wall is rusty with a few panels missing, its function a little unclear beyond separating one kudzu-lined dirt lot from another. The words "Hense Dose" are painted side by side in yellow and red on the wall's surface, which roughly measures 12-by-100 feet, about the size of two billboards lined up next to each other.

Two miles east on DeKalb, the facing walls of the rail overpass at Arizona Avenue are also covered in yellow and red paint — and blue and pink and black and orange and white and plenty of other colors, but no letters. Shapes collide like a massive pileup on the interstate, thick black lines crimping like bumpers under the impact of giant orb against giant orb. Beyond its style, the bright geometry is void of any signature to let passers-by know that this is also the work of HENSE, aka Alex Brewer.

Born and raised in Atlanta, the 33-year-old Brewer has spent the better part of the past 20 years under bridges and on top of billboards writing graffiti under the name HENSE. He was so prolific that he achieved what's known as all-city status for having left his mark on pretty much every neighborhood. His piece with DOSE at what is now the southern end of the Beltline's eastside trail shows its age up close (it's more than five years old) but remains a bright beacon among the kudzu from MARTA's elevated vantage point.

The City of Atlanta commissioned the Arizona Avenue mural "Float" from Brewer for 2012. "Float" was his third mural in as many years bankrolled all or in part by city money. (He also contributed murals in 2010 and 2011 to Art on the Beltline, which is partially funded by Atlanta's Office of Cultural Affairs.) It's a telling moment when a city with an anti-graffiti task force pays for one of its most recognized graf writers to create a mural for its official public art program. Supersized exterior projects such as "Float" have kept Brewer lawfully busy, and visible, the past few years as he's worked on fine-tuning an aesthetic that's as identifiable as a tag but far more nuanced in its means of communicating authorship than the five letters he's relied on for so long.

PILE UP: “Float” encompasses the facing walls of the rail overpass at Arizona Avenue. - STEVE COLE AND COURTESY THE ARTIST
  • Steve Cole and courtesy the artist
  • PILE UP: “Float” encompasses the facing walls of the rail overpass at Arizona Avenue.

On Sept. 14, Brewer's Spray opens at Sandler Hudson Gallery. It's his first solo exhibit in three years, and his follow-up to the 2011 group show Mark Making in Black and White at the gallery. Brewer's pieces in Mark Making were, like the artist, smart, compact compositions full of concentrated energy, like fuses waiting to be lit. And now, "It's like it's exploded," says Robin Sandler, co-owner of Sandler Hudson, which has represented Brewer in Atlanta for the past five years.

"For a while I wanted to keep everything subtle and muted," Brewer says. "And now I'm kind of thinking the opposite — to create something that isn't typical of what I would do in the past."

Brewer came up in the Atlanta graffiti scene of the mid to late '90s and early 2000s, a time when the city was far less gentrified and there existed a handful of legal walls, most notably the Civic Yard at Peachtree and Pine streets, that "we were really inspired by because it was a place where you could go look and see pieces and examine them and watch people paint," Brewer says. Atlanta's 2003 anti-graffiti ordinance put an end to that fun by, in part, outlawing public murals on private property painted without city approval. (The ordinance was rewritten in favor of property owners in 2006 after pressure from the Georgia ACLU.) In those days, "there were more people doing quality work," says Brewer's close friend and fellow artist BORN, the recipient of the Forward Arts Foundation's prestigious Emerging Artist Award for 2012-13. "It was much more about piecing and a lot less about bombing like you see a lot of around Atlanta in the last few years."

Those years Brewer spent working outside as HENSE were formative. He gave art school a shot early on, but left Richmond's Virginia Commonwealth University after less than a semester. "I was very young at the time and knew I wanted to pursue art but I was consumed with graffiti and what was going on in Atlanta," Brewer says. "I liked the energy of what was happening here with the graffiti scene at the time."

Brewer and BORN originally met as kids playing on the same soccer team coached by Brewer's dad but didn't become friends until they wound up playing soccer together again at Grady High School. "We both had started coming up with a tag name and we kind of reconnected as far as both being interested in graffiti, or art really," BORN says. "The art and graffiti kind of solidified the bond."

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