Little Ricky thinks Anna Wintour is someone important whom people consider significant or iconic in popular culture, which is already a humorous supposition. In his multiple street iterations of the fashion editor, he has dressed her as a sheep in Chanel, as a sheep in boxing gloves with Andy Warhol (replacing Basquiat), as an American Express fashion gladiator in stickers and wheat pastes on the Streets of New York.
Each tiny episode of his ongoing SHEEP series may bring a perplexed smile to the average person who is looking at them while waiting for the traffic lights to change. In the case of the Wintour character preaching and prognosticating and posing, an insider joke that appeals to the fashion gatekeepers in this city, of which many have self-appointed. The question you may ask is, who’s the sheep, who’s the shepard.
A Street Art icon/brand in the making, Little Ricky’s talisman-woman of a candy pink sheep character inhabits the new strata of 20-teens Street Art that reflects the ease of social media commentary here grafted onto actual walls, the fascination we have with visually sampling pop cultural references, and the time-honored practice of lampooning with absurdity. A California-based Gen X Street Artist with uncommon discipline and work ethos in his practice, Little Ricky has been studying, developing, archiving, formulating his campaigns in the Street and gallery for the better part of a decade now.
in New York to sample the late-summer fragrance potpurri of pot, urine, and Italian
sausages on the streets of Lower Manhattan, BSA had an opportunity to chat with
Little Ricky one night when we were gallery hopping with a buddy. He talked about new art on lightposts and
guard-rails, the nature of his one-off comical creations, and his deep desire to
launch a Keith Haring show here next year using his ewe-inspired interpretations
of Harings work and life.
Brooklyn Street Art:We’ve seen many Anna Wintour pieces recently by you on the street. How does the muse find you? Little Ricky: I never imagined that I’d be spending a year working with Anna as my muse. It’ll be weird once the year comes to an end. But I know that SHEEP will continue to surprise me and Anna will most likely keep popping up in my work. The connection will always be there.
She can find me on IG. But, since she doesn’t have a personal IG account, I hashtag her name #ANNAWINTOUR and I tag @voguemagazine. Maybe one of her PA’s will get the word out to her. A few months ago, I even sent her a large pink manilla envelope with a SHEEP zine/bio and stickers too. Whether she ever received it is another story. I don’t expect to hear from her, but I have a feeling that our paths may cross at some point. Either way, our stars are crossed, at least in my head.
Brooklyn Street Art:People are sheep, aren’t they? Little Ricky: I’d like to think that we’re all sheep but without the negative connotations. Sure we can all follow along with the masses, or maybe not fit in, but at some point we all crave to be ourselves as we are. At the heart and soul of SHEEP is that we’re ALL different. When Alexander McQueen referred to himself as a ‘pink sheep’ I understood that he was making a comment not only on his sexuality, but more importantly on the idea that he was different from even the black sheep. Reading that sentence in his biography altered the course of my life and is what inspired SHEEP.
After 51 years of life and almost 7 years of working on the series, I’ve learned this. (See if you can follow along or if it makes some sense) Being born is what we ALL have in common. Yet at that moment no one ever has or ever will be identical. In one moment we’re connected and different at the same time. We then spend a lifetime searching for meaning/purpose. The secret- to learn, embrace, and honor all those many little things about ourselves that make us…ME! When we do so, we go back to that moment of connection. So yea we’re all sheep finding our way back to an essence of being.
Brooklyn Street Art:Can you talk about your feelings toward Keith Haring and the impression he and his work made on you? Little Ricky: I feel a deep connection to Keith. It goes beyond being inspired by him. I feel him alongside me like he’s guiding me along. I first came across his work in the late ’80s. The simplicity of his images struck some magic in my soul. They still do. They felt familiar. Until now, I didn’t realize that Keith’s passing in February of 1990 coincided with my coming out the month before. Weird! Maybe he passed the torch along. My first boyfriend who I met in January of 1990 even drove Keith around SF the year before. I wasn’t into the art scene in any way, but I started taking art classes while at UC Berkeley. I imitated his lines and figures, but there was no ‘me’ in what I was creating.
With SHEEP, almost 30 years later, I can see his influence in my work, always will. But now I know, that I’m creating a world of my own with a little touch of his magic. It’s been an effortless process. For that, I give some credit to Keith. When the idea for SHEEP came to mind in 2013, I didn’t know what I’d be creating. I purchased a toy sheep and started doodling. After a while, a shape took form and it looked familiar like I had seen it before.
Thinking about this now, I realize that it was like finding my own Haring ‘baby.’ I wasn’t looking for it, but when I saw it, I knew it was the beginning of everything. P.S. Last year in May, I did a 31-day study I called SHEEPDOG. Each day, I painted an image combining Keith’s dog and my SHEEP. I was surprised that I hadn’t thought of it earlier. It was magical seeing it evolve.
Brooklyn Street Art:Recently Dusty Rebel has been traveling around the world speaking with and filming Street Artists from the GLBTQ community. Why is it important to know if a graffiti writer or Street Artist is GLBTQ? Little Ricky: As I get older, labels have become less important. I jokingly tell my sister that I’m the ‘+’ in the GLBTQ+ If I’m to label myself, it’s definitely queer over gay. I like qweirdo even better! When I started the series, I assumed the street art community was a bunch of heterosexual males. Other than the names Bansky and Shepard Fairey, I knew nothing about it. Knowing that the SHEEP were queer, I felt some hesitation about how the community would embrace them.
Unknowingly, I’d even censor myself so that they weren’t too ‘gay.’ That all changed after the Orlando shootings when I was reminded of the importance of living out loud and proud. But once I started meeting the artists, I came to find out that no one cared about how I identified or if the sheep were gay or not. All that mattered was that I was getting up and they loved what I was doing. Meeting all these artists, queer or not, has been one of the greatest parts of working on SHEEP. So, it’s not so much about knowing who’s queer or not, because in the end, we’re all doing the same thing. But thanks to Dusty, there’s a new found community.
Once I started, other than HomoRiot, I wasn’t aware of anyone else. It took me a few years before we eventually met up. Now, I have a new community of peeps that I get to call friends. I’m excited to meet many more along the way. I feel grateful to Dusty and all his work. He’s shedding light on an untold story and the many artists who often go unrecognized. It’s like the M&M commercial- we do exist!
Brooklyn Street Art:Which city is more fun for Street Art right now? Little Ricky: As much as I love my beloved city of LA, I feel like I’m living ‘in’ art when I’m in NYC. Art’s everywhere! Aside from SHEEP, walking is a great passion and there’s no better city than NY to combine my two loves. When I was there recently, I put in 20 miles in one day. The opportunity to paste-up SHEEP is everywhere and anywhere. LA’s different that way. Even though I do walk a lot and I paste-up wherever I go, it’s not the same. It’s very random. Plus you’re not going to see my work whiledrivingaroundd. SHEEP is definitely for the pedestrian and NY is the perfect place. Initially, I thought my little SHEEP would get lost in it all, but came to find out that New Yorkers do pay attention while walking.
When it comes to the queer art community, street or not, I often wondered if my work didn’t fit in because it wasn’t erotic or specifically depicting a ‘queer’ image/message. But I now know, that regardless, they’re queer and they’re pink! It’s in the heart and soul of the each SHEEP. Whether this is conveyed when coming across my work is not as important as the feeling you have when seeing them. Feel the JOY!
Brooklyn Street Art:In what way is your work political? Is it commentary? Critique? Little Ricky: This was a tough question. I don’t see it as being overtly political or even commentary. There are some pieces that may be so, but overall they’re expressions of joy. I keep it simple. If you smile or laugh out loud when finding my pieces on the street, I know I’ve done my job. I often laugh out loud when creating them. There’s such silliness. For example, the idea of Anna Wintour as a pink sheep in roller skates makes me laugh. When I began the series, they started off as ‘gay’ sheep and now they’re more a symbol about a feeling.
I’ve always felt different, it goes beyond my sexuality. As I age, I feel more and more different. And the more different I feel, the more connected I am. So the SHEEP being out and about, regardless of the character or message, are a symbol of that feeling that we all feel. Being different, feeling different is a beautiful thing!
A unique private/public protest/memorial to raise awareness since 2005, the founder of The Pansy Project has planted the namesake flower, in some circles a pejorative term against gay boys and men, in thousands of locations around the world to commemorate a place where violence or intimidation toward LGBT people took place. Where it is difficult to find a good place to plant or to buy live pansies the gifted illustrationist simply paints one.
Understated and symbolic, the political and personal Street Art act bears witness to the brothers and sisters and others who society fucks with because they don’t fit traditional expectations of gender conformity. After nearly a decade and half, Paul says he will keep doing this work until it’s not necessary. You’ll probably need to help.
Recently we spent time with him on his visit to New York,
watching him plant pansies and asking him questions about his practice.
Brooklyn Street Art: When we think of monuments to historical events we often place them in locations that correlate with things that happened there. Can you talk about the similarities that this act of planting an ephemeral flower has to huge hulking brass statues in recalling our feeling and our memories?
Paul Harfleet: When I began to think about how to respond to my experiences of homophobia on the streets, I became interested in the particular nature of my memories of these attacks, they were rapid and fleeting and therefore I felt my response should be temporary and non-permanent. It felt archaic and overly municipal to begin making ‘permanent’ memorials to my own relatively minor attacks. A small unmarked living plant would add to the conversation, the flower could live and grow as I do through my experience. A tiny pop of color, unsanctioned by the city would reflect my own apparently illicit position in the urban environment.
I’m interested in how ‘permanent’ memorials became invisible over time*, their meanings sink into the fabric of the city, they become street furniture, their significance evaporates over time, unless they’re re-activated by an occasion or anniversary. Particularly when flowers are placed at war memorials, this and floral road-side memorials are echoed in The Pansy Project.
exact location was loaded for me, so it was essential that each place
should be altered by my intervention, it’s this that transformed how I
remembered the streets. The ritual of planting a pansy has become a
performative reparation on the street.
Brooklyn Street Art: Do you know of someone else who was inspired by your project and began a new one of their own?
Paul Harfleet: It’s difficult to know if and how my work has inspired others. I know that people have planted pansies to mark their own experiences of homophobia and I’m aware of some students that have made very different work that has been informed by The Pansy Project which is humbling.
am aware of other actions that explore homophobia, I was touched by the
work of Nando Messias, “Sissy’s Progress” is a performance where the
artist revisited the location they were attacked with a marching band,
though I don’t think they were informed by the project, I enjoy the
absurdity of the response to homophobia, which in itself is an absurd
reaction to difference.
Brooklyn Street Art: In the US we have had a serious and fiery debate about historical memorials that glorify a period of racism, a sort of glorification of figures who championed racism. How does our perception change when we learn about the significance of location and events that took place there?
Paul Harfleet:This has been an fascinating debate, it challenges the idea of a memorial becoming invisible*, this is an example of the memorial being re-activated by context. I think it’s invaluable to have these discussions. It’s a shame that the debate seems to be so binary; keep or destroy. As an artist I would be interested in reinvigorating these memorials rather than removing them.
The fact they celebrate the achievements of a racist society should not be forgotten, it should in my opinion be remembered and challenged through art and education, small additions or amendments to these memorials could re-contextualise their meaning, there is an opportunity here to allow these memorials to a racist culture to become something that acknowledges the behavior of previous generations and act as a warning to future ones. We only have to look at the fragility of human rights at the moment to know how important it is to retain knowledge of previous injustices.
Brooklyn Street Art: When one considers the long period that this campaign has persisted, you may wonder how Paul Harfleet continues to have enthusiasm for it. Do you ever lose interest? What inspires you to get back to planting pansies after you discontinue for a while?
Paul Harfleet: I’ve been working with The Pansy Project for almost fifteen years, for me the repetition is vitally important for how the work is read. Everyday someone is experiencing homophobia or transphobia, whether it’s micro-agression, government sanctioned or the most violent of murders, it’s always happening, so I feel I have a responsibility to continue using my art to highlight this injustice.
I’m not completely altruistic, I do have to maintain my own interest, through the project I’ve explored various ways of working from garden, jewellery and merchandise design to the writing and illustrating of a book; Pansy Boy that reveals The Pansy Project in a completely different way, most recently I’ve been exploring painting the pansies on walls where homophobia has happened.
All of these actions keep me interested. I am always trying to take the ‘perfect’ picture and document my work in new ways. I’m inspired by artists that work in very similar ways their whole careers, Sean Scully speaks about repetition; ‘I want to express that we live in a world with repetitive rhythms and that things are existing side by side that seem incongruous or difficult.’
Brooklyn Street Art: New York has an incredible story in the modern LGBTQ rights movement. Can you tell us about one of the places in New York where you planted a pansy that was particularly meaningful to you?
Paul Harfleet: My visit to New York was incredibly important for me, unusually I funded this visit myself. I usually wait until I’m invited by a festival or for an exhibition, though I wanted to be in New York during the fiftieth anniversary of Stonewall. I first came to New York in 2006 to plant pansies for the Conflux Festival.
These were the very early days of the project, some of the photos I took then were bad, since then I’ve gotten better at taking the pictures so I wanted to re-plant and document the pansy I planted at the Stonewall Inn to properly mark this historically significant location. Though I also planted new pansies, it was moving for me to plant one at Christopher Street Pier for Marsha P. Johnson, their life and death was complex and seeped in the injustices of time. This seems even more significant in America today when black trans women are so under threat.
As I write, we await the decision by the US Supreme Court on working rights for trans people, the fact that there’s even a discussion about this is an anathema to me. To quote the hashtags; Trans rights are human rights, we’re not equal until we’re all equal. In the US alone there has been 19 reported trans women murdered in 2019 alone – It’s staggering and heartbreaking.
was also fascinated by the queer history of Brooklyn as described by
Hugh Ryan in ‘When Brooklyn Was Queer’. I love the picture I took of the
pansy I planted under the Brooklyn Bridge to mark the multiple stories
of homophobia I heard about in his book, the quote comes from the
complaints of local residents of how the Brooklyn Promenade was being
used by men for cruising; “Misbegotten Pansies” was just such a perfect
quote for this planting.
I do more now is make a film about the places I visit, this has the
ability to explore more of the story of each planting and helps share
the project to new audiences, I’m working on a New York film now.
Ultimatelty I adore each planting, they all mean so much to me as they
all contribute to the entire body of my work.
Paul Harfleet’s short film ‘The Pansy Project Canada’ will be shown at the Inside Out Film festival in Ottowa, Canada in October and his work will feature as part of the Homotopia Festival in Liverpool in November. For more information visit www.thepansyproject.com.
a 1927 essay, acclaimed Austrian philosopher Robert Musil famously
declared, “The remarkable thing about monuments is that one does not
notice them. There is nothing in this world as invisible as a monument.”
Artist, Street Art festival curator, now muralist. Shai Dahan has hel a number of roles related to the graffiti and Street Art scene since his teens. Born in Haifa, raised in LA, Dahan lived shortly on the East Coast before he pulled up stakes and moved to Sweden a decade ago to raise a family with his wife.
There he did something you don’t see a lot of artists do – he provided a huge platform for others to succeed by starting the “No Limit” Festival in his new hometown of Borås. We had the opportunity to be there a couple of times and witness the camaraderie and quality of a well-curated festival in a part of the world unaccustomed to large-scale public art, each time executed with finesse and near-zero drama.
Now he’s visiting New York for the first time in years and bringing his favorite muse, the Swedish Dala horse – a symbol that helped him meet HerRoyal Highness Queen Silvia of Sweden a few years ago, by the way. We spoke with Shai while riding the lift with him last week just before he headed back to Borås.
BSA: This is the first time you painted a large mural outdoors in NYC since you participated with a group of other artists painting at the racetrack in Queens. How did it feel to be back? Shai Dahan: It is incredible. Since I have lived here I always wanted to do something large. Even after moving to Sweden, I would see some great murals go up by Shepard Fairy, Kobra, Connor Harrington and I always thought “Wow. That has to be such a great personal accomplishment”.
To me, it’s very personal. I left for Sweden in 2010. NYC has been the biggest influence on my art. A lot of people would ask me who is my biggest inspiration, like Picasso? or Rembrandt? or someone more modern? but the reality is, it’s this city. The graffiti on the roller gates. The stickers on the doors. The Krink on the post office mailbox. This is the largest outdoor Street Art gallery in the world. Turn any corner in the LES or Soho or Tribeca or Nolita and you can find an Invader piece or a Buff Monster Ice Cream or even a wheat-paste from someone random.
This entire city is a giant gallery. So to come back to add to it is such an honor. Especially since I left for Sweden, and spend the next 10 years building a professional art career painting the Swedish Dala Horses and becoming known in Scandinavia for that, to return on the 10-year anniversary to bring my horse to the city that inspired me, its nothing short of poetic.
BSA: The Dala horse is a beloved icon in Sweden. Yours, big and red, looms large in the Lower East Side. Is this a gift to the Swedish expats living in New York? Shai Dahan: Its a gift for NYC. From me. This city gave me inspiration, friendships with amazingly talented artists and curators and writers (BSA shout out!), that I still maintain to this day. This city got me my first art show at the Grey Dog Cafe where I hung a bunch of skateboards in 2007. It’s the city where I took part in amazing projects like Mom&Popism, The Underbelly Project, the NY Ad Takeover and it’s the city that let me find my true talent and skills.
So, in a way, I wanted to give the city a gift back. Give her something for everything she’s given me. Swedes, of course, appreciate it (it’s been in every single major newspaper back in Sweden since Saturday Morning and even the Swedish Mission to the UN posted it to social media) so clearly, it hit a soft spot for Swedes around the world. But for me, its something more romantic than that. It’s gifting a horse to New York City.
Brooklyn Street Art: You have been painting for a bit while among your subjects is these horses. Have you noticed an improvement with your technique and style since the first horse you painted back in Sweden? Shai Dahan: God yes. But that is good. I almost feel like I am not technically a “professional” artist because that would mean I mastered my talent. I don’t believe I have. Clearly, my horses have improved in the last 10 years but I would be ignorant to assume my horses won’t continue to improve. You can always improve. But on that subject, it is fun to see my horse collection around the world. From the city of Gothenburg to the islands of Stockholm to a big city like NYC and even in the middle of the forest in Southern Sweden; My horses have a way to find a home anywhere they go.
A lot of people ask me “Why horses?” my usual response is that I am terrible at painting cats, but the truth is that horses have been used in art for centuries. The famous Napoleon Crossing, the Whistlejacket which hangs in the London Museum, you had paintings of horses in battle and war, with kings and generals. We have sculptures in Europe and here in the US with these giant masculine horses.
The horses, throughout history, have always been used as a heavy masculine symbol. But my Dala Horses, they are shades of Red, sometimes Blue or Purple. They have soft “Kurbits” patterns (Scandinavian Floral Symbols) on their bodies. They take something big and strong and give it a soft and almost feminine display. It is something that takes the original Dala Horse and moves it forward; Reinvents it or reinterprets what it means to paint horses.
Brooklyn Street Art: You organized a very well-curated urban art festival in Boras, Sweden and your participation has come to an end. Can you tell us what big lessons you learned from this experience that could be useful for other people who embark on organizing street art festivals? Shai Dahan: It’s important to approach curating festivals in the same way I approached my art career. It should never be about money. Never about fame. The sole driver for doing a great festival is to do it for your city. The people.
There is this old Greek proverb I love and used for many years as inspiration that says “Our Society grows great when we plant trees whos shade we know we will never sit under”. Basically saying, if we create and make and do things that is good for our society, even if we won’t personally be around to see its long-term effect, it is still worth doing. That is how I approached this festival. I put the city residents as a priority. I wanted to be sure that the murals we do will have years if not decades of inspiration, and joy for them.
Perhaps 20 years from now, a six-year old girl who sees these murals will be inspired to be the next Faith 47, the next Maya Hayuk, then I’ll feel like I did a good job. At the end of the day, life is what you paint it.
You can see the rupture, the built-up cells of swollen tissue around it, the soreness festering, never quite healing.
Hope is in BedStuy studying the internal topography of external scars, and
gathering materials to map it in an atlas.
relationship between physical scars and geopolitical ones are obvious once he
lays out the similarities for you.
I will be doing is eventually finding scars that resemble the shapes of borders
and creating a re-imagined map of The Israeli/Palestinian region and it
includes its participants – the only criterion is that they need to be people
who are living in the region.”
An Israeli Street Artist with an appreciable international collectors record for his illustrative metaphors of brokenness and healing, the artist is embarking on perhaps his most significant new body of work – and not surprisingly it is about the body, and the body politic that is intimately familiar with pain.
a project called “A Human Atlas” which focuses on the
analogy between human scars and national borders,” he says as he illustrates on
a tilted wooden desktop and signals toward the small works pinned to the wall.
“So I have been collecting and documenting testimonials about scars and people
sharing the stories behind them; with different anecdotes and personal
reflections on them.”
Here in Brooklyn, one is far away from the Israeli/Palestinian rupture, yet often cheek-to-jowl with it. One owns the deli on the corner, the hat store across the street is owned by the other. In a city where 800 languages are spoken, the strife between just two factions is mollified inside a world collection of cultures and the daily roar of all these voices.
The sensitivity necessary to become an artist can be both a blessing and a curse, and often you can see it personified. A man of letters, his work on brick street walls and billboards has often been literary, if necessary, reflexively cryptic – coming from a part of the world so gripped by a continuous war that the air itself can feel thick with hostility. Intentionally or not, the wounds and the scars are always on display.
With the air conditioner rumbling as a low thunder around your conversation in this BedStuy brownstone, he tells you how the project is materializing as he studies the scars of others, perhaps comparing them to his own.
“I’ve been documenting and photographing the scars of people and collecting the stories. I still haven’t gotten around to figuring out how the artworks will actually be…” There are raised reliefs and pencil sketches floating beneath the text on the wall here at the BedStuy Residency. There are the tight and precise monochromatic illustrations using his now-familiar nomenclature of severed limbs, bodies contorted in a singular dance, white flags and doves and non-sequitorial glimpses of prose.
made a conscious decision not to decide on what I wanted the project to be. I
just started by meeting people, which is still going on,” he says as he
describes the organic process that he is taking, letting the end game reveal
itself to him.
“With time I realize that it needs to be a book,” he says. “The information that is usually written in an atlas will be comprised
of the stories that they share. And there will be maps and different mediums.”
It occurs to you that just as Street Art is an external expression that reflects the psychological, emotional state of the society back to itself, the mapping of cities is a tour of our common internalities. Know Hope appears to be looking for a physical way to trace the ruptures in his region with a desire that in the process, he can bring common healing. But first, he is studying the topography of the region and the nature of the wounds.
BSA: Before you told me about this project, minutes ago, I was talking to you about how you have arranged the furniture and your art materials in this residency space and how this place was conceivably tracing a map inside your head and consciously or not you have arranged things because they matched the map. You were saying that you moved the table in a certain direction and distance because it “felt better”. You can’t quantify it. So when I think about the scars in the maps – scars or something that we want to be healed and maybe the process of tracing them – it’s like you are saying if that person could walk along that fissure, that wound, that rupture it might help heal, I don’t know.
Know Hope: Yeah and I think that there is something about wanting to take these separate scars and separate individual experiences and mend them together to create something collectively.
BSA: To have the common shared experience…
Know Hope: The idea is – the spark that is the initial metaphor – is that scars and borders share a lot of similar traits, common traits. They are both a product of circumstance – something happens to you or to a body or to the land. A war and a wound happe either by design or accident or an act of violence or through surgery.
At this moment it all comes together, this falling apart. You can see how Know Hope knows, and how the Atlas will become an important reference for our time.
kind of develop this long-term relationship with the scar or the wound that
ends up becoming the scar.”
Both celebrate the power and expressive ability of the letterform and
yet each appear as entirely separate pursuits. Uniting them requires
understanding both very well, contemplating their friction, their
possibilities, and a lot of negotiation.
Since 2007 Niels “Shoe” Meulman has been investigating, experimenting
with, enraptured by this pursuit. From thousands of hand sketches in his black book
to the full-body immersion techniques of creating across large walls and
floors, using paint and brush by the gallon in premeditated/subconscious all-inclusive
gestural choreographies. Shoe knows how to stay in the moment.
It’s this elevating together of disciplines that reveals their contrasts;
awakening the inner conflicts and core strengths, parading them on view.
He discovered the perfect transmutation here in Brooklyn. It was that
night of art-making with Haze that was a turning point..
“We both decided to go to the art store and get a whole lot of tools and stuff and just started working to see what would come out,” he says as he glances out the 1st floor brownstone window at the pile of recycled cardboard in the tiny courtyard. 26 years as a writer from Amsterdam who had met his New York graffiti heroes like Dondi, Rammellzee, and Haring, Shoe had pursued a career in advertising, and was still in love with fonts and their power to communicate.
“Without a commission, without a brief,” he remembers. “And like that – my
old passion, calligraphy, mixing with graffiti, just came out!”
Shoe says he created “calligraffiti” and he ran with it: developing a
body of work around it, writing a book about it (Calligraffiti), collaborating
with a growing number of artists who also had an affinity for the penmanship of
an artful communication modality that spans centuries.
He has developed brushes, tools, techniques, opened a gallery in a
garage (Unruly), covered surfaces from cars to museum walls, finished three more
books (Painter, Abstract Vandalism and Shoe is my Middle name).
It was as if he had finally decided at 40 that it was okay to be an artist, and
he left advertising to dedicate himself fully to his craft.
“Because my dad is also an artist- maybe I was finding the right moment
to be an artist,” he says as he shows you a stack of many papers from the art
supply store, and he contemplates why he had hesitated for years. It’s not that
he was concerned about competing with his father, but the stakes were high. Speaking
of his father, he says, “I think he was thinking ‘if you’re going to be an
artist you better be a successful one’ – because being a struggling artist –
that’s the worst!”
Additionally, he thought that before he could call himself an artist, he
should have something substantial to show. “It also felt like there was
something more profound to it,” he says. “I always thought that to be an artist
you have to have life experience and have some knowledge and purpose to bring
to the table, you know?”
Whether wide tip, wide brush, or wide cap, the bending letters are cryptic and stern in their old-worldliness. Fluid and stilted, wild and ornate, gilded, in black, in iridescence, in silver and gold. The additional layers of ink burst violently with destructive force in the swipe, the slash, the bash. The splatters are sometimes built up like an aura that glows around the cavorting dark letters – as if bruised and pummeled, their damaged and moistened epidermis now sweating black blood, infusing the air with a miasma of industrial soot.
With broad interests that delve into abstract, into wordplay, even poetry, this moment is the clarity in early morning fog on a quiet street in old BedStuy, now rumbling with the sweet sickness of gentrification. The residency that brings him here is so named to recall history and to look forward, offering a respite for many a visiting Street Artist.
“I didn’t really have a plan when I came here but, like many times, I come up with something on the plane like the day before – and of course it’s brewing in my head.”
He points to a couple of handled black plastic shopping bags that he has tacked to the wall. With a capacity to recognize and understand his own emotions and the emotions of an era, he has connected to the pleasantry printed on them “Thank You for Shopping With Us!”. It’s not just the sentiment that captures the late 1970s design hand, for him, it’s the upbeat openness and lyrical bending of the letters and lines that attract him.
The letters are sweet like cherry lip-gloss on a rollerskater in hot
pants in Central Park. Suddenly you are flipping through the pages of Eros,
Fact, or Avant Garde, a relief of melodic line and sexual liberty.
“Thank you for shopping!” he exclaims like a fan. “That’s so New
York for me; that’s exactly graffiti – that 70s Herb Lubalin look,” he says of
a time when magazines were so head-over-heels in love with new type treatments
that they might feature a 2-page spread of it entirely just for you to salivate
“It’s free,” he says, perhaps reflective of the liberal sway of social mores and the swinging romance that advertising had with the Baby Boomer’s ‘me’ generation of the seventies. It’s a phrase rooted in consumerism, cities were in the last throes of an ample middleclass America who had cash and credit to shop with. That fact contrasted with the suffering of a bankrupt NYC – a spirit that inspired train writers as well, even if used as critique.
“I think the whole graffiti scene that started here had something to do with this sort of lettering,” he says. “It came from that freedom that you could see in advertising. The type design was so good.”
For now, this month-long residency is a reprieve for Shoe, a time to
examine and relax into the spring that gradually warms New York and brings rose
blooms to the bush in the small front yard of this residential street. His new
sketches from his black book contain pithy barbs, hidden meanings, pop-culture
references, and life truisms drawn in what he might refer to as a monk-like
“I’m not religious. I don’t follow any religion and I don’t meditate but
I like this idea of knowledge and introspection,” he says. “This is where
Chinese calligraphy comes in and you are reminded of the medieval monks and all
kinds of calligraphers”.
A congenial host, Shoe shows us walls full of new pieces, individual words or phrases on a large variety of papers, textures, and stocks. He describes his inks with as much enthusiasm as his personal relationships, which are sometimes as tumultuous as the intense splashes of midnight here. You can see there is definitely work being done.
“That knowledge comes from that kind of introspection. The influence of Japanese and Chinese calligraphy comes in because at that time if you were by yourself writing…. Those monks either wanted to be enlightened or were enlightened in some way; it’s a search,” he says.
Queer artists and writers in the graffiti and Street Art scene have always been present but like everywhere else in the culture they were more or less bullied by peers to deny it or keep it hidden. It might strike you as ironic or even hypocritical that a subculture of people who feel largely marginalized would propagate another layer of rejection onto their own peers, but humans and clans can be mysterious. And we don’t forget that it was the fags and drag queens who fought against the police in 1969, and who ultimately won through sacrifice, persistence, and collaboration – despite the odds.
As attitudes slowly change in mainstream society, LGBTQ+ peeps with aerosol cans, stickers, stencils and wheat-pastse are also using graff and Street Art to bring their issues to walls around the city. Today we talk to two artists – Homo Riot and Suriani, along with photographer, film maker, and social activist The Dusty Rebel, who organized their own wall this week to collaborate in saluting one of those Stonewall queens who fought back, Marsha P. Johnson. Even after this new piece was vandalized, the crew simply went back to work to put it up again. The accompanying text and probable title of the piece is “Pay It No Mind”
BSA: Dusty, you’ve been thinking about this wall for Pride for a long time now. The Dusty Rebel (Daniel Albanese): For over a year and a half, I have been traveling around the world filming my documentary about the global Queer Street Art movement. Very little attention has been paid to the topic, which I find curious since so many street art pioneers were queer. In my exploration, I have found that many queer-identifying street artists primarily install their work without permission and it’s often more subversive- which stands in contrast to the growing dominance of muralism.
This wall is actually the kick off to a series of Queer Street Art that will be coming to NYC for Pride Month. I have partnered with Art In Ad Places, Keep Fighting NYC, and other community based projects to create a queer alternative to the overwhelming flood of corporate pride events. While not part of Reclaim Pride Coalition’s inaugural Queer Liberation March on June 30th, I was inspired by the activists who have organized to bring the “Spirit of Stonewall” directly to the street, and who are keeping the focus on the continuing needs of the LGBTQ+ community
BSA:What’s the genesis of your idea for this installation? Getting walls in NYC for artists to paint free of charge is almost impossible. How did you manage to get this sweet spot? The Dusty Rebel: Because it’s seems rare that queer artists get to paint overtly queer legal murals, I wanted to find a way to bring one to New York City. Several months ago, I contacted my good friend Steve Stoppart, and asked him if I could have his wall on Houston — just one block over from where Keith Haring painted the legendary Bowery mural in 1982. Immediately, he said yes and told me I had permission to do anything I wanted. We have no corporate sponsor, so the wall is totally funded by all of us chipping in as a community.
Once I had the wall, I immediately
reached out to Suriani and Home Riot — two artists I have known for years, and
who’s work had inspired me to start my film.
BSA:Almost as soon as the piece was completed someone defaced it. What was the message they tried to send by disrespecting the art and the artists? And how did you respond? The Dusty Rebel: I know street art is ephemeral, and I also know that work that is unapologetically queer is especially targeted. So I knew it was coming, I just didn’t expect something that big and that fast in less than 30 hours. We made this piece as a community, for our community. We really wanted to start conversation about the issues that LGBTQ+ people face, and to honor the memory of Marsha P. Johnson and the Stonewall Riot. To have that important conversation cut short felt like a punch in the gut
In terms of how we dealt with it – we
knew who it was, so we reached out to him and explained why the mural was
important. He said he wasn’t motivated by homophobia and apologized. And I get
it. I’ve known enough vandals to understand that sometimes when your bombing
you’re not necessarily thinking about what you’re hitting. But we had planned
for something like that, so we were ready to “pay it no mind” and to restore
BSA:How did Homo Riot and Suriani approach the collaborative aspect of the installation. The Dusty Rebel: We began planning this wall over seven months ago. I told them I wanted it to be a celebration of queer liberation and make reference to New York’s history. While they are familiar with each other’s work, neither had met in person. Both artists have very different aesthetics. Homo Riot’s work being more homoerotic and aggressive, while Suriani’s is a colorful exploration of gender. So I knew it would be a challenge, but I also knew they would take the collaboration seriously. This wasn’t just two artists who were slapping their work next to each other. They listened to each other and compromised, without compromising their artistic voices. So, I’m very proud of them and the wall they created.
BSA: Why do you think it’s important to have queer perspectives in Street Art? Homo Riot: Street art is egalitarian. It’s open to all and its consumption is not restricted to a particular class, creed or level of education. And because it’s ubiquitous in our current environment, it provides opportunities for queer and marginalized people to be visible. In urban environments, queer art becomes part of the landscape and our presence hopefully becomes part of the collective consciousness making way for acceptance and inclusion. In small towns and long stretches of interstate, representations of LGBTQ+ art are important for those members of our community who are isolated and may feel alone.
BSA: Why do you think it’s important to have queer perspectives in Street Art? Suriani: I think it is important to have queer perspectives in all kinds of art or environments. Street Art is a space of free self-expression. It happens in public space, so it is accessible to everyone. Queer culture traditionally occurs in closed spaces due to the repression and violence LGBTQ+ people have suffered throughout history. Expressing our values and points of view to a larger public might spread awareness of our existence and help our communities in our fights for equality in terms of acceptance and rights
The official art world is already aware of these issues as we can see with the Brooklyn Museum’s current exhibition “Nobody Promised You Tomorrow: Art 50 Years After Stonewall“. The problem is that only a very limited percentage of the population has access to museums. Urban Art is part of the city, it comes to people instead of waiting for people to come to it. Our message is directly visible to everyone who’s out there in public space: Inside of that resides its main power.
They designed the Ritz, the Vanderbilt, the Ambassador and the Biltmore hotels in Manhattan, along with townhouses for the Astors, the Yacht Club, and apartment buildings on 5th Ave and Park.
They were also architects on the team for Grand Central Terminal, that Beaux-Arts centerpiece of Gotham with its high marble walls, majestic sculptures, and lofty domed ceiling.
Also, Whitney Warren & Charles Wetmore designed the Casino Building here in Asbury Park, New Jersey a celebrated historical magnet for thousands of tourists escaping the heat and seeking buffeting breezes. The soaring glass paned windows may remind you of Grand Central, but also of that illustrated postcard on the cover of the Bruce Springsteen album, and of colorful resort town living.
If you had been promenading through this public thoroughfare that connects Ocean Grove to Asbury Park when it was bustling in the middle of last century, you would have seen Skee-Ball machines, bumper cars, games of diversion, and hot dog vendors. Now a cavernous yet sometimes ornate cave from yesteryear, you will feel the soft ocean breezes and hear the call of the seagulls echoing inside the casino throughout the day, and sometimes the night.
You’ll also see 5,760 pieces of colored yarn hanging from the beams above, forming a shape-shifting brick of radiating color that appears to levitate. The brand new installation by Street Artist Hot Tea is lifted and pulled and choreographed by the ocean air, dancing to the sounds of waves crashing, emulating the currents of the sea. 17 rows define the physical boundaries, but your imagination can go much further with it in a matter of minutes.
“One of the focal parts of this piece is about how people interact with it,” says Hot Tea (Eric Rieger) as he unbundles 153 containers of yarns he prepared in his Minneapolis studio and suspends them above.
“Hopefully they’ll take that idea of interaction and, I know this is a big ask, but maybe they’ll take more time talking to someone face-to-face. That’s the larger idea behind my artwork and that’s why am so passionate about doing work in public spaces because I want to alter peoples experience. I want to create more intimate experiences for people who aren’t expecting it.”
“I love the beauty of this movement of the color next to the decay of this beautiful historic building,” says Jenn Hampton of Parlor Gallery who organized the project after many conversations with the artist in the last few years.
This is the first installation of its kind for the Wooden Walls Project that has brought many Street Artists to paint murals here on the boardwalk since Hampton began it in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. She says that part of her process is working with the artist and partly with the people who live and work in this seaside area who may think of public art as limited to statues or murals.
“You have to educate a community of people who may not understand installation art,” she says, and while you watch the arduous process of Hot Tea and his assistant overhead for a few days, you’ll have an opportunity to hear a variety of commentaries from people passing by. On one of the sunny May afternoons a tourist from out of town is so enthralled that she returns during the night time to see how it was progressing and befriends the artist with compliments and bromides during the challenging windy passages.
One gent who identified himself as a Vietnam veteran was sure that the art installation was probably “gay art” because of its rainbow color range. He wondered aloud abrasively to anyone who happened to pass by about gay art and the lamented lack of Straight Pride celebrations, among other observations. A pair of bicyclists stop to engage with him about art in general and this piece in specific but soon appears to withdraw. Before zipping away they take turns yelling up to the artist to say that they like the installation a lot.
“You know it’s interesting with my artwork,” Hot Tea says during a break from the installation. “I have noticed that people of all ages and from all different ethnicities have some sort of say when it comes to my work. Like when I did the piece in the Williamsburg Bridge called “Rituals” it was anyone from little kids who were four or five years olds just immediately responding to the work – just a gasp or a shouted word.”
“They could be young adults or adults on their commute and they were slowing down on their way and that was what I was experiencing with this piece. The kids were gasping and pointing and telling their parents to look up. And then there were young adults who were saying that it was calming and relaxing them and then these older people who stop and say that they’re having an experience with this. They say that this is making them think of the space in a new way.”
“Hot Tea’s piece brings me an immediate feeling of peace and presence,” says Angie Sugrim, a producer with Parlor Gallery and the Wooden Walls Project. Her loyalty to Asbury Park is palpable while you speak with her and it is clear that this installation has affected her meaningfully. “I love how it changes according to the way I choose to interact with it. It’s like a river, though it is constant, it is always changing. I like the feeling of connecting with the piece as it undulates, and following its movement as though it was connected to my own psyche and consciousness.”
“Hot Tea has taken this journey with me for the last
five years and I cannot say enough about how wonderful he is to work with,”
says Hampton. “Watching how driven he is in his process has been amazing.”
He talks to us about the logistics of unveiling his idea to the public. “I’ve tried it where I just drop the whole bundle and try to separate it with my hands but there’s no way to get the yarn to drop individually and it just looks a lot cleaner if you drop it one by one,” he says, “It’s more time-consuming but the end result is much cleaner. All in all from conception to execution I would say it was about three weeks to execute this.”
With roots as a graffiti writer, Hot Tea has created his own niche on the street with yarn – surprising many peers while he is designing and mounting these space-altering large installations for large and small clients around the world, particularly in the last half-decade.
He says that this one in Asbury Park has been unique because of its proximity to the ocean and the impact of the natural elements on the movement of his piece. He says the effect has also affected him aesthetically and emotionally – and he hopes passersby will similarly be moved.
“I think when you are looking up from the bottom you can appreciate the mechanics of it and during the day the yarns are flowing with the wind and more attention is drawn to the color because the wind is moving it.
It’s more of a kinetic experience I think; That’s how I experience it and this whole thing is more about just the experience. Color is a huge part with my work but a lot of it is about creating a lasting memory that people will subconsciously remember when this piece is gone. I hope that happens”
The endgame of vulture capitalism. The implosion of the corporate culture. The subtle differences between public housing and private jailing. The melting of the ice caps.
However you have wished to interpret the work of Spanish sculptural street artist Isaac Cordal over the last decade, you probably thought he didn’t hold much hope for our future. Or us. But he says his work is more a reflection of what he sees, and he presents it will a subtle humor.
After a recent visit to his ceramic tiled and flourescent-lit artist studio in downtown Bilbao, we realized that his public art darkness is at least as hopeful as it is critical. All around the studio he has created a variety of rehearsal spaces, vignettes, and theatrical scenarios or displays with his figures interacting with other objects that he collects along the way.
It is at least as entertaining as it is educational. His sad characters and formal scenes of concrete dystopia are also humorous in their unlikely repetition, their utter lack of comfort, their repurposing of common objects as dire ones. His critiques of consumerism, environmental degradation, militarism, corporatism merging into fascism are sometimes couched by his own understated humor and attitude of childlike play as well.
Not that people were chuckling as they encircled the austere and degrading urban jungle scene he constructed in the Spanish capital for the Urvanity 2019 showcase in the courtyard of the Colegio Oficial de Arquitectos de Madrid. The tribal clusters of bald men in suits were situated above, partially submerged in, or up to their chins in gravel from a bombed out lot, perhaps churned rubble created by a drone.
But did the art crowd also see the two
businessmen carrying a stretcher full of wheatgrass? The absurdity is a relief.
Are they rescuing a rectangular slab of nature? Possibly cultivating it for
farming? Blissing out on a wheatgrass juice cleanse to counter the martinis and
And what about these new human-faced pigs gathered around, looking for a trough? He presents the human/animal hybrids without comment under electric lights that glitter warmly across the compound. They could be a metaphor addressing attitudes or behaviors. They may also be a glimpse into a law-free amoral future where any new life-form you conjure can be sequenced and produced.
A graduate in sculpture at the University of Fine Arts near his hometown in Galicia, he also studied conservation of stone crafts and trained in London at Camberwell College. He was a founding member of a digital art community called Alg-a.org, a heavy metal guitarist in a band called Dismal, and a publisher of a fanzine called Exorcism.
As you learn these details about his life in the 90s and 2000s, you gain a greater appreciation for the powerful work of a guy who has emerged uniquely on the global street art stage with his Cement Elipses.
As hard driving electronic drums, bass, and cryptic lyric loops pounding from a radio on a shop stool, we witness the fastidious artist at work in the tidy studio area in this converted warehouse on a dead-end block. As he circles the center island in his overalls looking for the appropriate steel bit or resin mold he bobs gently to the beat, skillfully switching attachments on his drill and hand-designed vacuum device.
Here is where you see the craftsman at work; carefully attentive, problem-solving industry in play, possibly more at peace while he is creating than when he is left to think too much. He picks up a pink pig figurine and begins the plastic surgery, the fine reconstruction; a gentle whirring, a whittling away of snout and a defining of chin-line.
The result is rough and unrefined, proportions not sweet. He blazes through these final actions and presents his new hybrid man-pig, a satisfied glint flashing by as he blinks. The drill whirrs downward and he sits on the stool for a minute to flip over the figurine a few times and inspect it.
BSA:I imagine sometimes that people must think that you are walking around with a cloud over your head – but you’re not really. You’re a happy person who thinks seriously about the world and its issues.
Isaac: It’s not that I am choosing the topics. It is something that came by default. It is my personality. Also I make this work because I do not like the kind of society that we have now. I think about all the improvements that we have from our new discoveries – and I don’t understand what the reason is that we have all of these situations and problems. We should be a smarter society and more just.
We can find water on Mars but we can’t feed people here – what’s the reason for this? Why is our only worry about how we can have more and more and more? In that sense probably in my work it is like that because I don’t understand what we are doing, or our idea of progress. I say ‘Wow, it’s incredible that we cannot work on a common welfare.’ So the work is probably a reflection of what I do not like.
BSA:Do you think your work is conceptual art? Isaac Cordal: I don’t think so because it’s pretty direct. It’s not codified. It’s very easy to understand and with conceptual art there is a semantic idea, meanings. It’s more of a movement of art.
BSA:So you been doing this project using cement for maybe 15 years? Isaac Cordal: I don’t know maybe the first one was in 2005. Maybe before because I have some others that I made in cement that maybe go back 1999 it’s crazy how fast time goes. Because it was in 1996 that I started to study fine arts at the university in my hometown in Galicia. I also went to stone-carving school for five years. We were like slaves there because we were working with big stones – but I learned quite a lot because I learned to do more in terms of carving and modeling clay.
It was quite an experience for me. Most of the school was nice because it was more conceptual or theoretical – and it was interesting for me to learn more about contemporary art.
BSA: How do you feel about this time of your life as an artist? Isaac Cordal: The future for me I think is a little uncertain because every day is like a new year. I’m laying in the bed hiding behind my covers just looking over the edge. You say, “Oh my God another day that you have to prove yourself, do your projects.”
There are different venues and situations for artists but I think it is a kind of battle, a combat that first starts inside of you and after splashes onto others – your family or maybe your girlfriend. It’s not easy. It’s quite complex. I’ve had so many friends who were studying with me and they were talented but they couldn’t live their lives in this manner. It is a little bit uncertain. People may prefer to have a proper job. For me, probably not.
BSA:Do you have a sense about how people see your art? Issac Cordal: We have to deal with so many fears that this society is selling to us and it seems that you have to think about them. I think the people can understand my work very easily as it is very simple and representative.
BSA: What perceptions or reactions do you think they are having when looking at the “Yard” installation, for example? Isaac Cordal: The “Yard” is kind of a reflection of ourselves on a small scale. The topics are a little bit pessimistic but perhaps people can see it as a sort of reflection. They probably think about the topic that is suggested behind the installation.
BSA:Did you feel a sense of tension, given your worldview about politics and power and privilege and all of the societal structures we work within – your politics are so strong. How do you decide what to manifest? Isaac Cordal: I don’t want to do real political art. I think it is quite complicated. You have to be very clean. When you do political art you cannot make mistakes. In my work I am more interested in creating a reflection of what I see through the window. Sometimes I think I’m only speaking about myself. We are a reflection of the society and the society is always growing and evolving so probably as an artist we have to grow too.
The Italian textual conceptualist and urban/suburban public space instigator
ELFO has lodged his complaint on a wall against the misinformation that forms
our perceptions. The humorous one-off screed caught our attention so we asked
him about this low-fi textwork that seems decidedly Duchampian, with a nod to
BSA:Duchamp challenged conceptions of the art world with his “readymade” pieces and many a critic called him a fake. Your commentary references the “fake news” meme favored by the right wing news and politicians. How did you make the connection?
ELFO: Currently my work is returning to this message. I want to speak of the world and the history of art in ironic and contemporary way using contemporary terms. I chose Duchamp because his artwork changed the world of art. Duchamp is perfect because he played with fake identity and the critic system rendered him as a fake. He changed the rules of art, for me and many artists.
BSA:What role should art play in this world of “fake news”?
ELFO: In this world of fake news, art probably is a big fake – if it does not reflect society as a mirror.
BSA: Do you think art should always reflect our society like a mirror?
ELFO: The problem is not fake news in this world – it’s the human brain. Art must speak about serious issues like pollution for example. This is the next subject I’ll address since I have been looking at it for a long time.
Berlin streets are regularly teeming with the Vox Graffiti in shouting chaotic profusion – and have been for decades. The bubbling laughing raging hordes proffer a visual conversation that often roars, and you’ll have to yell to get your voice above the rest.
1UP and Berlin Kidz are two of the graffiti crews who reliably blast out their viewpoint, each with a uniquely unmistakable cadence and flair. This week one gilded the urban stage while the other was transformed upon it by British guest star Fanakapan with a ringing whoop, and with the angelic welcome of Alanis at the entrance, the Frühling party of Berlin is in full bloom.
Set upon a newly opened urban arena in Kreuzberg (thanks to the demolishing of a building adjacent to it) the actual bubble letters that distinguish the guileful Londoners’ letter style now rise above the rubble with multi-colored glee. Spelling out the 1UP letters in a way they never could, his interpretative take is framed by two runners of Berlin Kidz translation of Pichaçao-style colored cryptic tagging.
“As one can imagine this was just to good to be true,” says Sam Walter of YAP Productions, the organizers and facilitators of the lift and permissions. “Yes we did have problems with a security and also police since we had no official paper which gave us permission for the wall – but we got a couple of confirmations via phone calls,” he says with all the reassuring confidence of a Cheshire cat .
Together with the rest of the steel-spined-velvet-clad YAP posse, the 1UP crew and Fanakapan were celebrating on this vast muddy lot ringed in concertina wire as the sun set one night this week. Word spread quickly and the reunion at the wall felt like 50% Graffiti God magic mixed with 110% adrenaline helping everyone ignore the psychotic spring weather that warms you one minute and converts you into a popsicle the next.
The original motivation for the collaboration is based on an one-year-old idea between 1UP and Fanakapan, says Sam, “bringing those beautiful, shiny, giant 7-meter “1UP’ letters. These are young artists who take on a lot of risk to push the graffiti culture beyond its boundaries.”
“No animals, plants or 1UPs were harmed during this production,” quips the charismatic cultural curator and YAP team member Denis Leo Hegic as he texts process shots of the wall to the squad as the secret/public wall goes up.
“1UP carries the zeitgeist of Berlin out into the world like no other contemporary collective. The DNA of the crew is rooted in the streets of Kreuzberg, but the group also developed into a global family,” he says. The statement is only partial bravado, as a serious graffiti head in many cities will be able to tell you a rooftop, elevator, or train line that they’ve seen hit by the amorphous and amazingly anonymous crew that seems to shape shift and reconstitute itself – evidenced here where their enormous tag is painted by another artist entirely.
BSA: Is this a tribute piece to 1UP or is it a collaboration? Denis Leo Hegic: It’s gravity graffiti. Collaborative and collective work is already included in their spirit “one united power”. Fanakapan managed to portray it in such a powerful and gravity defying way and gave us the largest 1UP letters hovering weightlessly over Berlin. 1UP is a ubiquitous tag in Berlin. You can’t help but be aware of it.
BSA: Did the authorities take any interest in visiting the site when Fanakapan was painting the tag, perhaps thinking that it was actually 1UP painting? Denis Leo Hegic: We had quite an interaction with the local law enforcement. However, all the officers that appeared on site were being alarmed by other people and did not come on their own initiative.
BSA: How did you get permission to paint on this wall? Denis Leo Hegic: Through the intelligence of many. We managed to thrill lots of good, curious and courageous people who made everything possible: from a large wall in the center of Kreuzberg to the entire production. Fanakapan was extremely motivated and he literally blew those balloons up the wall.
BSA: Previously there was a building in front of the current wall. Now the whole wall is fully exposed, showing fully the long-running Alanis angel piece. Was any consideration given to the Alanis piece while planning the 1UP piece?
Denis Leo Hegic: Absolutely. I hate when some people say “curating a wall” or “curating a mural” – that’s such utter nonsense! How can one person possibly “curate” one single painting on one single wall? However, this wall succeeded to curate itself naturally. It’s a great composition with the two vertical stripes by Berlin Kidz on each side of the piece and being held by the Alanis angel from the ground. With Fanakapan’s addition of the 1UP bubble tag it became a marvelous “Kreuzberger Mischung” (Kreuzberg Mixture).
BSA Exclusive Announcement and interview with the director and the star of
Documentary by Selina Miles
BSA is proud to announce the world premiere of Selina Miles’ new full-length documentary on the life and career of New York photographer Martha Cooper at the Tribeca Film Festival next month. Separated by four decades and an ocean or two, the Australian film director and the American photographer – each of whom has garnered serious respect in the myriad subcultures of art-in-the-streets with phenomenal storytelling abilities and an innate sense of timing – together land a remarkable film capturing life as a street-shooter, making the multi-chaptered story sing.
It is a fascinating visual sweep that illustrates the unusually gratifying paths that this ever-curious ethnologist charts on the streets (and below them) worldwide since receiving her first camera from her father at age three. The film is a well illustrated collage of a remarkable 70 plus year span showcasing Coopers’ 6th sense for people, urban culture, and burgeoning subculture. Viewers get to see the huge variety of interests she has investigated with amiable warmth and academic rigor – from the Peace Corps in Thailand to tattoos in Japan to graffiti train writing in New York to the daily lives of people in her native Baltimore.
With ample interviews and vintage video footage never seen before, “MARTHA: A Picture Story” follows Ms. Cooper across continents into the streets, through tunnels and over rooftops to provide illustrative background contexts for her decisions, her driving motivations, and her pure determination to succeed as a professional photographer – despite man-made and societal adversity.
We’ve been very fortunate to see this diamond of a
documentary up close, and we can say that MARTHA is legitimate crowd-pleaser.
spoke with Ms. Cooper and Ms. Miles for this auspicious announcement day about
the new movie:
BSA: Your personal and professional history has often been about overcoming challenges and pushing aside barriers. Is there one new challenge you have gone beyond to participate fully in a documentary about you? Martha Cooper: Well like most photographers, I’m more comfortable behind the camera than in front of it especially when speaking. I can’t say I’ve gotten good about overcoming being filmed, but I tried hard to give good footage.
BSA: One of the challenges of being a doc filmmaker is the number of hats you have to wear – sometimes perhaps feeling like you have to do everything yourself. What did you discover about your preferred role/s on a film? Selina Miles: Making a documentary is certainly a dynamic job and requires a mix of technical, social and creative skills. Learning from a photojournalist with 50 years experience such as Martha has been a wonderful experience. I started my career in video making by mucking around with friends making graffiti videos and shooting street art festivals, and the DIY spirit of both of these art forms really gave me an advantage on this project.
Not all directors know how to shoot or how to edit, but thanks to these early experiences I do know a little about all of these disciplines. Being able to just grab a camera and shoot, or to edit my own little concept videos was very handy in getting the project off the ground. That being said, being able to employ an amazing editor like Simon Njoo and having the mentorship of producers like Jennifer Peedom has also been a dream come true and really helped take this film to the next level.
BSA: With the new documentary many people will learn about a more dimensional photographer than the one they most frequently associate with the name Martha Cooper. Why is this important? Martha Cooper: I’m often called a graffiti, street art, or hip hop photographer but I don’t put myself into those categories. I would like people to understand that the common denominator in my choice of subjects is art in everyday life. I’m always looking for examples of how people are creative in their everyday lives. Graffiti is just one of many different examples.
BSA: Is there a special approach or formula that one tries to follow when making a story like this for a more general audience. Selina Miles: I think that the interesting thing about this story, in particular, is that it explores a subculture that is so misunderstood by so many people. Everybody has seen graffiti and has an idea of what it is, but I still think that few people really understand why it exists and where it came from. There’s so many tropes and ideas about graffiti and those who practice it that are just plain wrong or oversimplify a very complex idea. It’s been an enjoyable and interesting challenge for me to unpack the facts and rules of this subculture as I see them, and step them out in a way that somebody completely new to the culture can understand and appreciate Martha’s story.
BSA: Your photos capture a time and a moment and a technique of creation, but also often the more atmospheric and cultural energy of the street. What has drawn you time and again to capture this to share? Your own curiosity? Martha Cooper: Not exactly. As you know, I like looking for things and collecting them. Photography is a challenging quest and taking a good photo is the reward. The nature of what I’m questing for can change according to time and place but in general, the world is more interesting to me if I have a camera. The possibility of photographing something makes me look at my surroundings with a keener eye than I would without a camera.
BSA: Martha stood on the shoulders of feminists before her, yet blazed some paths that were very much her own – frequently without support. What is one lesson a younger person may take from Martha Cooper when they watch this movie? Selina Miles: Marty often says that people today don’t understand what it took to survive as a freelancer in earlier decades, especially as a woman and I completely agree. It’s a common thing that you hear but it’s very true, we are lucky these days to live in a world so connected and relatively accepting of all kinds of races, ages and sexes. That being said, there’s always going to be a frontier, and I hope that young people watching Martha’s story will be inspired to push beyond that frontier in their own way, and not be held back by anybody’s expectations of who or what they should be. And do it all the time with a smile and a sense of humor!
MARTHA: A Picture Story.
Premiering at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival,
which takes place from April 24 – May 5th. Public tickets will go on sale on
Tuesday March 26 at 11am ET. Tickets are extremely limited and we recommend
purchasing tickets early.
“Graffiti ain’t something you do, it’s something you live,” says the text above a wildly lettered REVS piece in a 1996 photo taken in El Paso. If there is a New York graffiti/Street Art icon that you would identify with a credo like this, he’s definitely one. Self-secreted away from the limelight and distrustful of many of the characters that are on the graffiti/Street Art “scene” today, REVS is nearly a New York folk hero, despite appearing to be completely firm in his anti-establishment, anti-commercial views – rooted in punk and hardcore music and those values that helped form his sometimes shape-shifting character since the the 1980s.
Today it is a rare moment for BSA to publish an exclusive interview with an anonymous and articulate thinking man and writer whose practice we consider to be an important lynchpin between graffiti and what would later be called “Street Art.” The scale of his massive roller tags with sometimes writing partner COST, the series of personal ‘diary’ entries that number into the 200s in underground tunnels, the replication and repetition of tags and messages through new print methods, the move to iron sculpture soldiered to the streetscape – each of these moves broke a mold and expanded the definition of art on the streets in some way.
New York author and respected Hardcore music and graffiti documentarian Freddy Alva is publishing the second edition of his book “Urban Styles: Graffiti in New York Hardcore”this month, where he gives you the full account of personally meeting with and interviewing the elusive writer/artist/musician – a generous portion of which we bring to you here today. Mr. Alva tells us what it was like to meet with REVS and speaks of the illuminating and wide-ranging REVs interview that gives details and perspective behind the lore in his evolution with aesthetic street expression in a way that is rarely heard. Our thanks to both of these folks for sharing their stories with BSA readers.
Intro from Freddy Alva
When I first started to write my ‘Urban Styles Graffiti In NYHC’ book in 2016; the first person on my list that I wanted to interview was REVS. I’d been a big fan of his output since the late 80’s and I knew he came from a Punk/Hardcore background, which made him an ideal subject to highlight the synthesis and crossover of these vital NYC subcultures that went on to have such a worldwide cultural impact. I managed to get a sit-down with him through mutual acquaintances & traveled deep into South Brooklyn to pitch my book. He was a bit distant at first but warmed up as he found out I used to book shows at a place one of his bands played at in the early 90’s.
As I laid out my vision for the book and the writers that I was planning on interviewing plus images that I wanted to highlight; he patiently listened and towards the end politely declined to be included as he preferred to keep his story underground and maybe I didn’t quite correctly explain what the final product would look like but he did agree for a couple of songs from his early 80’s band Adam 12 to be included on a compilation I was planning on releasing simultaneously with the book. I left Brooklyn a bit dejected but respected his decision & figured that was it.
Flash forward to when the book came out in early 2018 and I
got in touch with him again to return those Adam 12 songs that I used &
also to give a him a copy of the book to see what he thought of it. He called
me up the very next day saying how much he loved it & if there was any
chance he could still be included. Fortunately, the book quickly sold out and I
was planning on expanding the 2nd edition, as there was a chapter
that was left off the first time around, plus correcting typos and fixing some
of the photos so to add a REVS interview would make this the definitive
Like I stated in my intro to his section; people that follow
him might not be as aware of how much his experience in being a Punk Rocker has
really impacted all of his art in such a profound fashion. It’s unheard of
these days, in what’s called the street art world, to have an artist of such
magnitude and influence like REVS eschew all and any attempts to commercialize
He will never sell you one of his works, there won’t ever be
a gallery exhibition, he will not do any commissions and forget about any
merchandise/marketing related to him. One need not look any further than the
defiant, middle finger, fuck you to the system attitude espoused by American
Hardcore bands like the Dead Kennedy’s or the Do It Yourself ethics of
subversive English Punks Crass; all resonating in his work throughout the
years. I seriously consider him one of the last great NYC artists from the 20th
century that got his start and influence from two rebellious subcultures that
are near & dear to my heart. I feel fortunate to fill in some missing
pieces, giving a more nuanced picture of who he is and why his art comes out
the way it does.
~ Freddy Alva
What was your next tagging name? The very first name I had was SATIRE and I probably got that from the Monty Python show on TV. I didn’t know what it meant, had no fucking clue, but I wrote it on an abandoned house with this kid that wrote RED and lived on my block
At what point did you start writing REVLON? That started in 1983. After writing SIRO I might have been ME2 for a few weeks, then it was KIRK, took some bullshit tags in the village with that, nothing particularly good. I was hanging out with this guy D-ROCK, he was in a band called Cooker, known before as Weed or also Sacro 13; all the same band. He used to write and we would go on missions and also go to HC shows together all the time. He had a dope dancing style, kind of like John Watson. We were hanging out in my hallway one day and I went to the bathroom, saw this Revlon shampoo bottle while taking a piss and picked it up.
What can I tell you? I was young and stupid, I had so much hatred in me. I hated every fucking thing. I stuck with that for a while because I developed a good one line tag. It’s a horrible tag I know but I love animals and hate animal testing so this I again one of those contrary things that I’m against what the name stands for, like Adam 12. Another tag of mine is SHIESTA and once again I’m the complete opposite of that because I don’t shyster with people. I don’t like shysters, there is always this duality that goes with me.
Did you do any burners on trains with the REVLON name or get down with any crews? Yeah, we used to go to the 4th Avenue layups, the M yard, RR layups in the city. We also went to the ‘Dead Yard’ in Brooklyn on 39th street. Me and my partner NB were hitting tunnels pretty extensively in 1983. I never joined any crews.
At what point did the REVLON name transition into REVS? That happened in 1987. We were painting at King Kong’s cave in Brooklyn where the N train goes to Coney Island. I was doing a wall with LAW and EROS from Staten Island, plus my partner at the time, KAB, and NIKE from DESTINY crew. I did a REVS because REVLON is a such a horrible stupid fucking name. I abbreviated it and put a Z at the end because I was sick of REVLON. By 1990 I was a nowhere guy, like that Reagan Youth song, “Go Nowhere”, that was me. I just threw the rule book out the door and didn’t give a flying fuck about making straight lines in graffiti. I just wanted to destroy like Johnny Lydon and I never looked back because I feel that I’m in my groove.
It’s interesting this transition happened when graffiti in NYC changed after the train era and new techniques, like wheat paste posters, in street bombing became more prevalent. You are associated with that, tell me about it. I was walking down Houston near Mercer one day and saw some stupid poster for a Tom Cruise movie and I was like; ‘Fuck this, I’m gonna do my own thing’. I figured it out, got wheat paste and started going out solo, putting my posters up in the Village. This is in 1990 or maybe 1989 because I had my first girlfriend in 1988. She was Porto Rock and wasn’t hearing about any of this graffiti shit. I couldn’t be a bum, had to dress nice and take her to dance clubs like 10-18. That was fun, going to places like The Palladium, got to do what you got to do sometimes! She actually ended up running away with a sailor and moved to Hawaii. I was like; ‘Fuck this, fuck everything’ once again. I started doing these crazy sloppy rollers with the wheat paste because everything at that point in graffiti was so meticulous in 1990. Perfect straight lines, right angles… I was like; ‘nah, I hate everything’.
People must have have thought you were putting up movie posters when you went out. How did you hook up with COST? I would do low spots like doorways and one day I saw COST hitting all the backs of the ‘Don’t Walk’ signs on the street and I knew him since like 1985. He was putting these 8 ½ x 11 inch ‘Hello My Name Is COST’ posters and I was doing 11 x 17 inch ‘Who Is REVS’ posters. I ran into the dude from Videograf and told him to give COST my number.
Where did the idea to do rollers come from? I think LAW and EROS used bucket paint for their piece at King Kong’s cave but they did it as fill-in material. The concept of “John Loves Mary’ written on the side of a bridge with house paint also influenced me but I took it on steroids. I’m a white dude that likes tools, got to use tools, it’s part of my nature. I can physically do some stuff but I’ll always settle for doing something smarter not harder. I got an extension pole, like 24 feet long, for the roller me and COST did. We did our first roller on a parking lot by Duane St, right on the roof. It was a brown roller on a tan wall.
COST is a straight up graffiti dude, he’s a bomber, that’s what he knows how to do. Don’t ask him to draw anything. He can probably do a piece but he’s great at throw-ups and tags. He’s not into abstract work, but when we did that roller a lightbulb went off. We blew up the whole spot, no one could go over us. It was a sloppy roller but to his credit, he’s a very neat guy and meticulous. He cares about perception, wants to get feedback. I don’t care, just don’t go over me, say whatever you want. He was like; ‘Yo Rev, we got to make these things neat, make them clean and everything’. I was like ok; I can go with the flow so when we started doing that’s when it really took off. We started hitting everywhere and these things look pretty good, almost semi-pro lettering, kind of like a stencil.
I know spray cans are easy to rack, but how did you get all these gallons of paint and wheat paste? Wheat paste was cheap. I always worked, been working since I was 11 years old so I had money for buying wheat paste. We found on Reade St. an old paint store that had like a gazillion DOT (Department Of Transportation) yellow standard buckets and I bought every single one for like a dollar a piece. This is the DOT yellow that I used before meeting COST. I ran Houston and Broadway with a DOT yellow piece. We also used whatever we found in the garbage, didn’t care it was oil based, we are not painting someone’s house but just blasting as much as possible. We found Photo Backdrop paper in Soho and started doing what we called street paintings on them, then gluing those up. They were 4 x 6 feet tall. We started doing street paintings where you paint the doorway and then take some shoe dye, put purple in the dye, then do my character. COST was doing his stick figures thing and we ventured out to the outer boroughs as well.
I imagine you guys started garnering attention as far as this is something, it’s not like traditional graffiti from the 70s/80s. What did other writers think of it? Writers didn’t like it. COST came up with the idea of getting a toll free phone number and then got his grandmother to record some foul language messages, insulting people. People were like; ‘What is this shit? That ain’t Graffiti!’ When dudes saw one of our rollers outside of, like Tower Records, or in Soho, they’d be off balance not knowing what to think. All their shit in the bottom didn’t mean anything anymore.
It’s ironic because traditional art theory people would look at this as some kind of performance art and graffiti writers would say what is this? They would say what is this toy shit? How come you’re not using spray paint? Regular people would call up and ask what is this about. It was mysterious but we were just two graffiti guys.
I was tracing the origins of the whole ‘Street Art” moniker and arguably; a lot of it can be traced back to what you guys were doing then Oh yeah it can. Street art has been around for a while but they didn’t really call it that, like the dude that put the shadows up everywhere. Then it was the ‘Kill Your TV’ guy. We started calling it street art and now it’s a bad word, at least amongst graffiti writers. It’s not a bad word for the people making money off it. I don’t call it graffiti anymore but “Greed-Fitti.” Once you throw money into something it has a way of making things go weird. All these dudes are selling things because there’s no real graffiti anymore. They took away the trains, buses, handball courts, the parks. Guys play with the tunnels now, RD and SEN 4 have the fire hydrants but we’ve got virtually nothing. Maybe some overpass by the freight trains. All of us still have the itch and being grown men now, we could do a good job. Everyone has a family with mouths to feed so they’re selling everything and calling it graffiti but it’s only graffiti when it’s up.
When did the rollers and wheat pasting era come to an end for you? Me and COST would argue a lot. We’d have these crazy discussions because we were together so much and have way different philosophies on life. I had to put my foot down otherwise he would have printed t-shirts to sell in Macy’s or something like that. One day we were wheat pasting and it ended up with us saying ‘Fuck You’ to one another. We went our separate ways but cops were trailing him because he was putting up a lot of stickers. Whenever we’d do a roller, he’d bring cans and do throw-ups. I didn’t want to do that because I don’t like spray paint anyway, but love tagging.
Is that when you started your series in the tunnels? Yeah, any motherfucker can write on a piece of paper but graffiti needs balls. The best graffiti guys have balls and talent, that’s dudes like ZEPHYR, SEEN, BAN 2. Some guys can get up but don’t have the talent. The tunnel thing was a case of I don’t give a flying fuck, I’m going to do whatever I want to do, don’t care who sees it. It’s not in book form, just made that shit up as I went along. I can’t spell. I was going with bucket paint and a ladder all painted black, clothes were black, pole was black. I used the best quality paint I could get my hands on and did 235 of these series. I didn’t get my groove on.
At what point did your steel sculptures come about? I don’t call them sculptures, more like metal pieces. DIVA used to call them weld-ups. I come from the working class so I build stuff. The first weld-up I did was in 1990 and it was a cage that I installed in Soho with railroad spikes and some epoxy on the bottom. It ran for a couple of months and then I did another one by the cube on St. Marks. It was an oil can that was for the Gulf war in 1991. Me and CZ, who I used to write with, humped that thing from my third floor apartment on the Lower East Side.
I started to get more into welding
and even when I was hanging with COST I would tell him to get a book to get the
concept of welding. He was like, ‘Nah REV, it’s not the right time.’ He doesn’t
come from the working class, has a different background. I got down with my
union and started getting better at welding, practice in anything will make you
better. I got balls and you combine that with being good at something; this is
the shit I’m into. I love getting into steel with a grinder and a torch. It’s
so easy to get a rechargeable grinder now but they didn’t have them back then
and now everyone is forty years old. Fifteen year olds ain’t fucking with that
but grown men know a little bit about tools. You can lose your shit once you
weld something. They’ll cut the fence down and go for the easiest part of your
piece, just take it down. That’s where I’m at, trying to device ways to make it
hard to take down and they’re looking for ways to stop me.
I remember at the time
you and COST were doing stickers and the 12” cover cover seemed an extension of
that as the cover looks like one giant REVS sticker
I can see why you say that but the
cover wasn’t a sticker, it just looks like one. That’s the difference between
me and COST. The 12” was a personal thing to me not some kind of mass media
campaign. I didn’t give a shit about becoming anybody. That’s the great thing
about the Adam 12 guys, none of us wanted to become anybody, that’s why I like
those guys. Other dudes like the Greed-fitti guys always want to become
somebody, they want to be the next Andy Warhol, Keith Haring or Basquiat.
That’s the problem because the
Greed-Fitti guys don’t come from punk. They don’t come from ‘Fuck you, stay the
fuck away from me’. I’m not left wing, I’m not right wing, just stay the fuck
away. That’s the punk I know and grew up on and when things started changing in
1984, it was disheartening. The machismo, why have violence against your own
people? As Jello (Biafra) says; ‘Thrash a bank if you have the balls’. Why fuck
with your own kind, back then everyone got along except for maybe there was a
hippie or two that got beat up at CBGB’s.