Their real passions were what they did after work: Chang toured and competed with the All Ways Rockin’ Dance Crew, which he helped found. For Hill, it was art. He had begun experimenting with photo-realistic-style drawings and woodworking techniques he learned from his father, a carpenter.
“I built a sail,” says Hill, 29. “It was one of my first really nice wood pieces that had no [expletive] purpose in life but to exist.”
As they dug into the hamburgers, steak ’n’ cheeses and fries before them at Plato’s, the conversation turned to what qualifies as art. Earlier in the evening, Chang had leafed through a book that mentioned the 1960s performance artist Yves Klein. Some of Klein’s well-known pieces were made by dragging and pressing naked women covered in blue paint onto large canvases.
“When I saw it, I thought it was so dumb,” recalls Chang, 28. “Someone said, ‘It’s almost like you guys break-dancing with paint.’ All of us got silent.” He pauses. “I thought everyone was going to throw up.”
And that philosophical musing about Klein’s art has reverberated throughout Chang’s and Hill’s lives — and Washington’s — now for seven years.
Within weeks, Hill and Chang and his break-dancing buddies were gathered around a canvas at U-Md.’s art studio. As Chang blasted hip-hop from a small boombox, they threw back beers, wolfed down McDonald’s and kicked out designs. Their jeans, sweatpants and T-shirts soon became slathered in coats of acrylic.
They poured paint onto the sheet, then started break-dancing. They windmilled arms and legs, and crisscrossed their feet for hours, sneakers sliding in a rainbow of hues. It wasn’t long before they realized they could create certain patterns by using particular dance moves. “A quickstep, I know exactly what kind of pattern that creates with paint,” Hill says. “I know what air flares create with paint.
“It was like, ‘These guys are non-artists creating something that’s arguably higher than fine art.’ ” And Hill decided this art needed an audience.
But how to find it? No one had connections, so Hill started showing up at galleries — no appointments — with a binder of photos. Not surprisingly, in a world in which shows are often planned a year in advance and artists are vetted before meetings, there were no takers.
“For two months, we were going gallery to gallery,” Hill recalls. “That didn’t go anywhere. That’s not how art gets pitched. I just didn’t know.”
Rather than give up, Hill and Chang tried crashing exhibit openings and pitching venue directors and owners on the spot. Their first stop was the D.C. Arts Center, a nonprofit organization in Adams Morgan that exhibits emerging artists.