While city birds sing and traffic swells and murmurs, Street Artist ROA shows BSA how his great unsung animals are made.
One of ROA’s new Brooklyn birds (photo © Jaime Rojo)
The eagerly anticipated arrival of one of Street Arts’ spray can naturalists in New York was begun with a marathon 15 hours of painting of two walls in Brooklyn that in the early morning hours of today.
Energetic and excited to be here fresh from a successful show in London at Pure Evil Gallery, where he sparked great interest with his loud-speaking silent animals inside and outside the box, the down-to-earth realist ROA began his NYC tour with two incredible gifts to his host city. With days to go before his first New York solo show at Factory Fresh gallery in Brooklyn, it only seemed natural to ROA to get up strong on BK walls before heading inside to knock out new pieces.
“Brooklyn Free Style” was the word ROA decided to describe the approach he had yesterday to his work – a nod to the hip-hop culture of creating on-the-fly as well as the sometimes chaotic path a day in Brooklyn can take for a jet-lagged Belgium who didn’t really know where his new walls were, let alone what they would look like. Just like you might expect from a former graffiti/skater kid who still listens to Public Enemy and Suicidal Tendencies to keep balanced, this guy only wants to hit higher more difficult walls than the last time, and he does.
As we saw throughout the day, a bit of chaos is a natural environment for ROA and one he relishes creating within – embrace the imperfect world. He likes to take what comes flying at him and deal with it with dexterity and an intuitive flow. Our day included rented cars, roaring trucks, ladders, chairs, bricks, soil, plants, trees, a monstrous cherry picker (thanks Joe), pleasant sun/punishing sun, high winds, dark skies, blowing rain, flying garbage, old vines, utility lights, fat caps and thin, good paint and bad, rollers, a harness, utility lights, hand-rolled cigarettes, and some of Brooklyn’s best family biz food.
Like a wild willow sprouted from a patch of SuperFund soil in an abandoned industrial city lot, ROA bends and twists and re-configures effortlessly, ultimately standing strong no matter what flies his way. His credo is to find inspiration in adversity and yesterday he made obstacles seem effortless – welcoming the challenge, incorporating design issues and moving forward. It makes sense that his chosen subjects are the animals that get overlooked, are many times missed, yet persevere despite man’s dreadful determination to destroy.
In this first of a two-part interview, ROA talks to BSA about his approach to his work and his animals.
ROA: I’m not really prepared, but I have a lot of things with me. I have a lot of cans, caps, things with me so I can decide what I want to do at the point at whatever point I am in the piece.
Brooklyn Street Art: A little Brooklyn Freestyle
ROA: Yeah a little Brooklyn Freestyle.
Brooklyn Street Art: How did you decide on this particular bird today?
ROA: I think because of the shape of the wall and with the stuff that is in front of it, it makes sense. It is really important when you enter a place that the animal looks at you. If not, it would not the same dynamic. Also it is not necessary to fill up the whole wall – it is filled but it is not filled.
Brooklyn Street Art: It genuinely occupies the rest of the wall without really being there.
ROA: Yeah. That is not always possible, sometimes you have a ladder, sometimes you do not have a ladder to reach, some times you have a pole, some times you do not. What you make all depends on what you have and how high the wall is.
Brooklyn Street Art: So that is one of the first things that art students learn about : how to recognize and deal with positive space and negative space compositionally. A lot of your work definitely utilizes the negative space surrounding it.
ROA: Yeah, I think it grew by doing so many walls. In the end you begin to feel how something should be on a wall. It’s logical when you are a little kid and you begin painting graffiti and you have six cans and a wall and you just start right there. As you paint more and you paint bigger you begin to see the thing in its totality. I think placement is kind of important for the piece. But it is also the possibilities that exist that tell you what you can and cannot do. It’s always depending on the possibilities. You can see immediately what it should be, and you see what is actually possible. If the two come together then you’ve got the perfect situation.
Brooklyn Street Art: So you do what you can with what you have.
ROA: Yes, I think that is the main rule. And the wall is part of that. In a way, the wall tells you what you should make.
Brooklyn Street Art: You do tend to favor more difficult surfaces instead of smooth flat pristine surfaces.
ROA: Yeah, I like texture: I like when a wall, or an area, or a building tells a little bit of a story. It is sometimes really boring to paint on a wall that is just one color. It is always better to start from something that is interesting. That is probably the same reason why I don’t paint normal canvasses. There is not a lot of inspiration. But if you’ve got some dirty materials, it’s got a little bit of the story already. In that way it is like the walls… The shape and the textures tell you immediately what the possibilities are. There’s always more than one way.
Brooklyn Street Art: Do you have any animals at home?
ROA: Yes I have a cat and a turtle. The turtle was a gift from a really good friend of ours and the cat chose our home as its home so that’s how the cat came. At a certain point she was there and she didn’t want to leave so she stayed. We had moved to a new house with a basement and we were there for a month and I decided to check out the basement and I left the door open. At night we were watching TV and the came in. I thought it belonged to one of the neighbors so I put it outside and the next day she was back in the basement. So probably she was living there for a long time before us. We moved to 3 different houses and she moved with us and 10 years later she is still our cat.
Brooklyn Street Art: Did you ever do a portrait of her?
ROA: No. That’s not true I did some sketches of her – her form, a study of a cat. But I never painted her on a wall or something like that. I think animals like cats, even though they are powerful and beautiful, when you draw them you you can end up really easily with something that is a clichéd image of them. I have done an image of a cat with its skeleton inside but I’m always a little bit scared of doing cats, dogs, tigers – you know what I mean?
Brooklyn Street Art: Have you seen the cats that C215 does? He does those pretty successfully while avoiding “cute”.
ROA:Yeah, it’s true. The way he does it is not like a postcard or a cheesy album cover from the 80’s, you know what I mean? Anyway I like to paint unpopular animals. In a certain way I think it’s nice to paint animals that people expect.
Brooklyn Street Art: You also like rats…
ROA: I like rodents. Birds and rodents. Without having made a choice, I feel really good painting birds and rodents.
Brooklyn Street Art: Do you feel like you are telling their story?
ROA: I’m definitely representing for them. That’s for sure. Regarding their “story”; I don’t know what they want to be told. If you could ask a bird what they are thinking about what I’m doing…. Definitely people eat chickens, pigs, and cows but they are not so familiar with the animal itself. They know it as food and these animals are more useful animals in a “product” sort of way so I think it’s good to confront people with what they are eating or what they are not familiar with. But I leave it more for people to see what they want in the animal. There is not a message – maybe for myself but it should not be seen that way. It’s just nice to do animals that are not typical. A lot of people hate pigeons and rats but I like them a lot. I think it is fascinating that certain animals really did not die out because of humanity but instead they use humanity to survive. I think it is interesting to see birds making nests in old buildings.
Brooklyn Street Art: They persevere..
ROA: in spite of our total f*ckups and global destruction. So I think it’s really fascinating – more than our cats and dogs that are totally domesticated as pets.
Tune in tomorrow for PART 2: Amazing images of ROA’s giant second Brooklyn piece and we talk about his start as a graffiti kid, how he transitioned to street art, and why we may be entering the “second wave” of street art.