Search

SHEPARD FAIREY INTERVIEW BY DAN LEVY

SHEPARD FAIREY INTERVIEW BY DAN LEVY

PHOTOGRAPHY BY DAN LEVY AND JON FURLONG AND COURTESY OF SHEPARD FAIREY

Shepard Fairey is many things to many people and his art is recognized all over the world by unsuspecting masses and fellow agent provocateurs. To us, Shepard is a skateboarder, a friend, and an inspiration to what is possible when you operate with tenacity and intention. Much like skateboarding’s ability to alter architecture with performance art, Shepard has been able to change the narrative and redefine landscapes with his art. Read. Obey. Skate. – INTRODUCTION BY DAN LEVY

How’s it going? How are you doing?                    

I’ve been staying busy. I have a bunch of projects happening that I’m excited about. How’s everything with you? 

This is the last interview for our 30-year anniversary issue. Shepard, this is your life. Should we just go for it?

Yeah. Let’s just dive in. 

Okay. You’re not only an artist, you’re also a DJ. What’s the first song you put on when you’re kicking off a show?

Well, it depends on the crowd because I DJ to a lot of different kinds of people. A skateboard crowd might listen to Black Flag, Public Enemy, Kendrick Lamar, Bob Marley and The Clash, so I can weave my way through a lot of stuff I love. There is a song by The Streets called “Let’s Push Things Forward” which has a great bass line. It feels like The Specials mixed with something a little bit more contemporary. That’s a good opener because it sets the philosophy right out of the gate. Let’s push things forward. Even if I’m looking back with music, a lot of it was about shaking things up, which I think is good inspiration for your next move in the future. You can look back to look forward. Sometimes I open with the first bit of “Iron Man”, which is a slower, heavy song and then I go right into “Boyz-n-the-Hood” by Eazy-E because that’s also slow and heavy, and it just flips the styles, but people know both of those songs. It’s like, “Whoa, whoa.” It just depends on my mood. 

When you’re DJing your art shows, are you soundtracking the energy that you want people to receive via your art?

When I’m DJ-ing one of my art shows, a lot of times I’m playing stuff that ties into the themes in the show. Just like the art has to be an appealing visual first and then that helps to carry the message, a song has to be appealing sonically before you’re going to care about what it has to say, so I take the same approach with the music as I do with the art. 

SHEPARD WALL RIDE

That’s a dope answer. What was the first punk show you went to? 

It was the Circle Jerks in a high school gymnasium in Charleston, South Carolina in 1986. Growing up in Charleston where no cool music ever came, that was a glass of water in the middle of the desert. Punk rockers from all over South Carolina came and it was really a fun show. I have loved the Circle Jerks forever. At the beginning of 1984, when I first got into skateboarding and punk rock, the third album I got was Circle Jerks Golden Shower of Hits, which coincidentally has a Glen E. Friedman photo as the cover, which I had no idea until years later.  

What is your favorite skate team? 

Attitude-wise and image-wise, I loved the Alva team because it was all the people that seemed like they would break in somewhere to skateboard and not give a fuck. They were a lot surlier and a lot of them were heavily into punk rock. There is also the fact that the Alva team was birthed by Tony Alva who, with his style, attitude and taste in music, is a major cultural wellspring, in and of himself. My second board was an Alva Hosoi and my first t-shirt I ever bought with my own money was the Alva with the claw marks through it. I liked the Powell team too, especially Lance Mountain and Steve Caballero. I liked the Bones Brigade because Cab had ill style and was a really good skateboarder and I loved Lance because he seemed funny and relatable. I felt less self-conscious about not being an amazing vert skater and getting more into street skating in ’84, ’85, and ’86 as street skating was developing, because Lance was the guy at the beginning of the Bones Brigade Video Show that was skating in between spots and doing the acid drop off the roof and little tricks off the curb cuts. When Future Primitive came out, it was Guerrero. He was the street guy that had great style who could ollie well. I was following him in the mags and I liked his vibe. I was split between those two teams. There were other skateboarders that I loved, but I didn’t necessarily love the team they were on. Gonzales was a favorite and he was on Vision. I liked Vision for about 20 minutes and then it was like, “Vision is getting corny.” There were always good people on the Santa Cruz team. The skateboard that I learned how to tic tac and do 360s on was a Santa Cruz Steve Olson that was left in my driveway by my friend. I was like, “Oh, man, what good fortune for me that my friend didn’t care about your board as much as he should have.”

What’s a band you wish you saw?

I wish I’d seen the Clash. The Clash are probably my all-time favorite band, just because the band that broke things for me was the Sex Pistols. I loved Agent Orange because they did the soundtrack to SkateVisions, the first Vision video. When I discovered the Sex Pistols, there was more anger and attitude and there were also the visuals with the Sex Pistols. It was a quick leap from the Sex Pistols to the Clash because the Clash, on their first album especially, were emulating the Sex Pistols. The amazing thing about the Clash is that they just kept evolving and taking on different styles that they were inspired by, whether it was American rock n’ roll and the style of Chuck Berry or it was throwback stuff or reggae or stuff coming out of New York like Grandmaster Flash and Chic. They just did it all and, in the end, none of it sounded like a desperate attempt to be relevant. It all sounds like the Clash. I really wish I had gotten to see them. When they broke up, I was only 13 years old and living in South Carolina, so it wasn’t gonna happen. The silver lining of growing up in South Carolina was that the skate and punk rock scene was very small. It was maybe 50 people that lived all over the place. If you linked up with somebody and they had records you didn’t have, you became friends out of absolute necessity. You worked for access to skateboard magazines and records, so my love of a lot of things that ended up inspiring me and helped to form my identity, there was a lot of work that I had to put into it. I felt that much more pride that I had accumulated knowledge of a lot of different music and skateboard culture because it was so challenging to get a hold of it. 

“When I’m DJ-ing one of my art shows, a lot of times I’m playing stuff that ties into the themes in the show. Just like the art has to be an appealing visual first and then that helps to carry the message, a song has to be appealing sonically before you’re going to care about what it has to say, so I take the same approach with the music as I do with the art.”

I wonder if that is where you developed your unbelievably insane work ethic. 

Well, I think that there’s a lot to be said for a fear that you’re never going to be cool and you’re never going to have a girlfriend and, for some bizarre reason, thinking that being an independent-spirited skate punk rebel is gonna help to find you friends and a girlfriend, which maybe was delusional.  [Laughs] That was highly motivating, so my work ethic might have stemmed from wanting to be loved and liked by not just anyone, but by people who had some backbone and courage. 

As skaters, our entire existence is based on that. When you’re riding a skateboard, you have to visualize and believe you can pull something off, and it’s all courage. 

Of course. Before I could even flat land ollie, I had been acid dropping off of things that were waist high and then I decided I was going to do it over a set of steps that was a little higher than that. It was 1984 and I was riding a Sims Bert LaMar Lead Sled board with Gullwings and City Streets soft wheels. The thing weighed 30 pounds, and yet somehow I had the confidence that, “If I go fast enough, and bend my knees properly, I’m going to clear the steps and make it.” There is a lot of faith in trying things that you never tried before. If you don’t have that, you’re not going to be a skateboarder. You’re definitely not going to be somebody that takes risks doing graffiti or street art either. 

Absolutely. That was 1984 and that was the beginning of when we started to see video of things that were possible, so you were right in the cut of not even knowing if things were possible yet, right?

Oh yeah. I had a friend who I saw in his non-skate gear hanging out with Blaize Blouin, the only pro skateboarder to come out of Charleston. Blaize was legendary, but I didn’t know him. This guy, Hank, I’d see around downtown and he was always kind of a hater, but I love him. He’s a good dude and he still skates all the time. The Hangar from Charleston, when they closed it down, they moved it out to Hank’s house. Shannon Smith knows Hank well. Hank saw me sizing up these stairs and he was like, “You’re not going to be able to do it. Just look at the geometry of it. It’s not going to work.” Then I did it. My little sister was with me and she was like, “Neh, neh, neh! He did it!” It was pretty funny. When someone tells you that you can’t do something, you’re that much more determined to do it. 

Hank Biering still has the Hangar Bowl. 

Yeah. It’s been like 29 years since the skatepark closed and he still has that bowl. 

SUICIDAL BOARDSLIDE

Let’s talk about Blaize. When was the first time you met him and saw him skate?

I met Blaize with Hank, in ’84. Blaize had a 9-foot-high ramp called the Rasta Ramp. It was 8 feet with a foot of vert and it was 24 feet wide. I hadn’t ridden a ramp over 5 feet high, so this ramp was bigger than anything I’d ridden. I had seen pictures of Blaize in a scrapbook at one of the skate shops in Charleston, so I knew that he could do big airs and handplants and stuff already. I was 14, and he was only a year older, but he was already doing all that stuff. I remember running into Hank and he said, “You should go out to Blaize’s. Take the Nye Street bus like you’re going to Charles Towne Landing and then it’s off to the side. You can see the back of the ramp from the street.” My friend Barry and I went there and they were having a warm-up for a contest and there were a ton of people there. We could hear the noise of the ramp and it sounded like thunder. Then I saw Blaize do a backside ollie to axle like three and a half feet out and I turned around and started trying to head the other way, but Blaize saw me and goes, “Hey, man, the gate is open. Don’t worry about the dog. He’s friendly.” I was like, “Oh, no, we’ve been spotted. We can’t leave now.” So we went in and I watched all day. I didn’t say anything to anyone, because what might have come out of my mouth may not have been cool. I just wanted to soak it all up. I watched all these people riding and there were some really good dudes. In six months, I had gotten better than my friends, so I was starting to feel fairly confident, but then I went there and it was a reality check that I had a long way to go. At the end of the day, when it was getting dark, everybody went inside or left, and my friend Barry and I went and started fakie-ing on the ramp. By the time it was dark, I could fakie up to the coping, so I was determined. Then I learned how to drop in on a six-and-a-half-foot ramp that a BMX dude had. Then I was ready to go back to Blaize’s and drop in. Within two months, I went from not knowing how to fakie to dropping in on Blaize’s ramp. Then I was learning rock n’ rolls and sweepers right after that. I could do rock n’ rolls and sweepers on smaller ramps. Hank was really encouraging then. By ’85, after I had been skating for a year, I had proven that I was not just a trend, fad-driven skateboarder and I was actually serious about it. Hank was always the “keep-it-real” police and he still is. There was this dude, Keith Durden, who was really good. Shannon is still friends with him and I still see him now and then. He was about 25 and he could do alley-oop backside airs three feet out, great layback grinds, handplants and big frontside airs. I remember Keith looking at my Converse, which were held together by duct tape and he goes, “Those shoes are trashed. You’re not getting any grip in those. I’m going to take you into Blaize’s room. He has shoes scattered everywhere. What size are you?” I said, “I’m 9 1/2.” He said, “Blaize is 9 1/2 too, so you should grab a pair of Blaize’s shoes to ride in.” The fact that this dude that was so good compared to me and was also older, was trying to look out for me, and considered me not just worthy of being heckled, but was like, “Let’s find you some better shoes,” that was a big breakthrough. That side of wanting to prove myself and be validated by the older skaters and just my love of skateboarding, was all I cared about. It was a total addiction and I loved every bit of the culture that went with it. Blaize’s ramp was called the Rasta Ramp and it was the very first time I heard reggae in my life. Later on, I realized it was Ini Kamoze and Sly and Robbie and Bob Marley and Steel Pulse. I was paying attention to the music and Rasta was the word they would say a lot and that was the name of the ramp. Then I went to the record store and I started looking through stuff. I was such an idiot kid and so insecure that I wouldn’t ask about the music where they say Rasta, because I would sound dumb, so I looked through every single record. Finally, I see a tape called Rastaman Vibration by Bob Marley. It was as good a place to start as any, and it’s still one of my all-time favorite records. It’s one of Bob’s flawless masterpieces and I just happened to land on that. I’d been listening to Black Flag, Bad Brains, Agent Orange, Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Misfits and Minor Threat, and it was all great stuff but, at Blaize’s ramp, there were older dudes that were listening to Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix and Motorhead. Then skateboard culture was a gateway to this other stuff. When I was kid, I was like, “Punk rockers seem like they have a strong orthodoxy. I don’t know if I can break away from that.” These dudes were like, “Hey, man, why don’t you take a look at the dudes from G.B.H.? They’re wearing Motörhead shirts. If that isn’t a good enough endorsement for you, you can suck it.” 

“When I was kid, I was like, “Punk rockers seem like they have a strong orthodoxy. I don’t know if I can break away from that.” These dudes were like, “Hey, man, why don’t you take a look at the dudes from G.B.H.? They’re wearing Motörhead shirts. If that isn’t a good enough endorsement for you, you can suck it.” 

Amazing. Skateboarding’s soundtrack is not just one thing. [laughs] 

Yeah. It builds organically and you’re figuring out what you like. Blaize’s ramp and scene was a real gift for me in terms of accelerating my development. 

When did Subliminal Projects come into it and become the name of your gallery? 

Well, Blaize won the Amateur Nationals in 1989 and went pro for G&S. It seemed like he was going to have a career like other people that we admired whether it was the Bones Brigade or newer people turning pro like Jeff Grosso. Blaize basically missed the window of opportunity to have a good career as a vert skater because, by 1990, vert skating was dying and street skating was all that anyone cared about. Blaize and I stayed friends and I have to give the guy credit. Blaize was always an early adopter on everything cool. He was one of the first dudes I knew who was playing Public Enemy and Portishead and Massive Attack. Blaize was all over it when the Phillies Blunt rage happened, which was done by Gerb, Futura and Stash, GFS, which stood for Guaranteed Fresh Shit, or Gerb, Futura and Stash, or Guaranteed Fresh Smoke. Blaize said, “This is not a skateboarding thing. It’s streetwear.” I had never even heard that term before. They were doing these things that are inspired by music and graffiti and smoking weed and car culture and all sorts of stuff. Blaize was always into new stuff and he was the one that told me about Mo Wax Records. In ’94, he came to visit me in Providence and we went to New York for a few days and he went and hung out with Futura, and then he went to the record store and found Futura’s rap record that he did collaborating with the Clash, which was a pretty obscure thing. Blaize always had this hunger for new cool stuff. When Blaize started working with me in ’94, his career as a pro skateboarder was over, so he helped me screen print. Alternate Graphics was my print studio and I was printing t-shirts with the Andre the Giant stuff and my Alternate Graphics t-shirts. Blaize said, “You gotta make a skateboard video because that’s gonna be your outlet to show other creative things that you’re doing.” At that time, in the ‘90s, skateboarding, appropriation and remix were   everything. We were all listening to the Beastie Boys and Tribe Called Quest and hip-hop that was all about sampling. Blaize was like, “What’s going on right now is just a different version of Andy Warhol.” I was like, “Maybe.” It’s not that I was a slouch creatively. I had lots of ideas, but I didn’t have that Malcolm McLaren style confidence about selling it. Blaize was like, “This is gonna be the greatest thing.” He was a good salesman. He would big up things and enroll people in the idea. It was infectious. I give Blaize a lot of credit because he talked about art in skateboarding and he would say, “Look at what Aaron Rose is doing with the Alleged Gallery. Look at how people are responding to Mark Gonzales’ work and Chris Miller’s work and Thomas Campbell’s work. What we’re doing is similar and we should make it official. We should say that art is not a background thing in skateboarding. Art is a foreground thing in skateboarding.” That was how we came up with the idea for Subliminal. Instead of having a skateboard brand where pro riders had models, it was artists that had models. We had a team and every single artist that we had was a skateboarder. Thomas Campbell had his own board that was his art. He’s not a pro skateboarder that was going to get attention in the magazines, but he was authentically living the culture. It was the same thing with Phil Frost and Mike Mills and me and Blaize and Andre Razo and Dave Aron. That was the concept with Subliminal and, for every board that we made, we made a fine art print, a t-shirt and a skateboard. That was the full picture to say this is legit as a t-shirt and this is legit as a skateboard, but it’s also legit as an art print that somebody is going to frame and put on their wall, like they would put a Keith Haring piece on their wall. 

Wow. That was in ’94?

We started it in ’95 and we launched our first real collection in ’96, but it was brewing in ’94. We had chosen the name in late ’94. 

SHEPARD FAIREY SELF PORTRAIT 1988

How did you choose the name? 

Art had always been so in the background that it was subliminal in a way. Even though you could look at a lot of the art, like what VCJ did for Powell or what Jim Phillips did for Santa Cruz or Pushead did for Zorlac, which is such strong art by really talented people, yet nobody was talking about that. 

That wasn’t part of the conversation in the ’90s. It was more about, “You just did a 360 flip? Salman Agah just did it switch!” It was about trick progression for most people. Art wasn’t in the forefront. You were ahead of your time. 

The other component was that, with the rise of streetwear and brands like Fresh Jive and X-Large and GFS, the art and design and nods to culture beyond the world of skateboarding became relevant in skateboarding. There were plenty of people that only cared about tricks, but, all of a sudden, skate  culture, which used to be pretty tribal and to itself started to overlap with hip-hop culture and streetwear culture and graffiti culture. It always overlapped with punk culture. That was largely because someone like Pushead had the “Pus Zone” in Thrasher where he was talking about The Misfits and Metallica and his band, Septic Death, or because Brian Brannon had articles talking about stuff. The horizons started to expand and you could say that maybe Shut Skateboards was one of the first doing the whole New York graffiti street life thing. Then Shut became Zoo York and Zoo York is named after a graffiti crew in New York. There is a major hip-hop tie-in there. All of a sudden, it was cooler to be into hip-hop than punk rock. I always had my feeling that it’s all about just claiming some sort of avant-garde currency when most people aren’t committed to one genre or another. It’s sort of a manufactured fight, in a way, but that’s what everyone does to claim their superiority culturally. It was fascinating to watch it happening in the ‘90s. When we started Subliminal, we were onto a good idea, but it was ahead of its time, so it failed miserably as a brand. In 2003, I wanted to expand what the gallery was doing. We had been BLK/MRKT, which was the name of our design agency, but I had split with my partner. Studio Number One was the new design agency name, inspired by Studio One in Jamaica, and Public Enemy #1. I was thinking of how things had evolved in art culture and skateboard culture and I was like, “Subliminal Projects is going to be the name of the gallery because now the influence of all these music subcultures and skateboarding in the fine art world is really obvious, and the influence of the fine art world in all those other areas is really obvious, so the cross pollination was well underway.”

That’s a trip. In skateboarding in the ‘90s, with punk rock and hip-hop, you could be into both. Skateboarding has always threaded the needle. I saw punk rockers go to their first Tribe Called Quest show and be blown away. Hip-hop was just as punk as punk.

Totally. 

“At that time, in the ‘90s, skateboarding, appropriation and remix were everything. We were all listening to the Beastie Boys and Tribe Called Quest and hip-hop that was all about sampling. Blaize was like, “What’s going on right now is just a different version of Andy Warhol.”

When did Blaize leave us?

Blaize passed away in September ’99. Unfortunately, Blaize had developed a drinking problem and he ended up dying drinking and driving. He was an intense person and also a very competitive person. When Subliminal failed, I think he was depressed and it sent him into a downward spiral. He was very talented and he did a bunch of graphics for Flite Snowboards. I was making my living as a graphic designer after Subliminal and Alternate Graphics failed. Blaize wanted to do some of that, but he hadn’t learned how to use the computer yet. I guess it was challenging for him because he was living in Charleston again and he didn’t have anyone that he could really apprentice with. I think he had time on his hands and was depressed and drank too much. 

When did you move to California?

I moved to California in ’96. Blaize and Alfred moved to California in ’96 too. The other person that was working with Subliminal was Alfred Hawkins who later did a bunch of stuff for Elwood and Aesthetics. He worked at Element for quite a while too. Alfred is from Charleston also. I had set it up so that Blaize and Alfred would work with Ryan who ran Dawls and Drawls Clothing, and he was going to do Subliminal. Ryan did it for about a year, and didn’t put much money into it and then pulled the plug on it when it didn’t do well. By then, it was out of my hands. I was still a participating artist and I did new graphics for it, but they never came out because Ryan decided it wasn’t worth his while. That left Blaize stranded in LA with no job, so he moved back to Charleston. Alfred stayed and worked for Dawls and Drawls as a designer and then left to work with Sal Barbier. 

Do you remember the first graphic design job that you were hired to do? 

I did stuff before I left Providence for local bands and things like that. The first big thing I did was in ’89. It was the same summer that I made the Andre the Giant has a Posse. There was a clothing company called Jobless Anti-Work Wear out of Providence. I did this Jack Nicholson design taking a still from The Shining where he breaks through the door and says, “Here’s Johnny!” I typed out “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” just like in The Shining when he’s typing that and that is his entire manuscript for his book. It’s just pages and pages of that. So I printed that in red under a Xerox degraded Jack Nicholson face where it felt really punk rock and you could see the type through the face and underneath it, I put the Jobless Anti-Work Wear logo. The idea was that too much work would make you go insane. It was a simple concept, but I think amusing for young skateboarders. So I submitted that to them and I even printed the samples for the tradeshow for them and they took them to the tradeshow and got a lot of orders. Within a year, I was doing a lot of different designs for Jobless. Ironically, my job was working for Jobless. The summer of 1990 that was my job for $5 an hour working for Jobless. 

OLLIE 1988

Classic. You have done some big company things and there’s a juxtaposition there. 

When I was trying to do everything in skateboarding and streetwear, one frustrating paradox was that the thing I care the most about seemed to care the least about me. I was struggling to make any money. In fact, a lot of the people that were supposed to be my homies that I was working with ended up not paying their bills or stringing me along on stuff. When I had the opportunity to work as a professional graphic designer, and still do my own work in my free time, nights and weekends, and earn money from people like Levi’s and Netscape, I did that. When Netscape was the dominant web browser, I did the Netscape Mozilla logo with the dinosaur in ’97 and that thing was everywhere. 

Wow. That was the first big web browser.  

Yeah. It didn’t pay a crazy amount of money, but it paid a lot better than stuff in skateboarding. 

Was there an “Ah ha” moment to the fact that your work was being globally seen? 

Well, I knew from the viral nature of the Andre the Giant Has a Posse sticker and the Jobless Jack Nicholson shirt that things can reach a lot of people that come from very DIY grassroots sources or they can reach people from using corporate machinery that has a really wide reach. I started to think about things like why the Sex Pistols signed with Warner Bros or why The Clash signed with Epic. Then I heard this term “détournement”. It’s a French term that means hijacking the machinery for your own benefit.  I was looking at what I have called for many years ‘the inside outside strategy’. It’s punk rock, do-it-on-your-own-terms, if the system doesn’t give you any options, but if you can infiltrate the system and change its culture for the better from within and use its machinery to disseminate your message and your imagery, you’d be a fool not to do that. Sometimes I was doing that by working with bigger bands that were on record labels or by using my aesthetic in a movie poster for Man On The Moon, the Andy Kaufman biopic. Andy Kaufman was very subversive. I did a street campaign for that and it was my art getting out there and being paid for by Universal Pictures supporting a guy that was the ultimate prankster. I was looking at all of these things. The fascinating thing was that a lot of the people that worked within a corporate environment saw how I had two tracks going, doing graphic design work for companies, but also doing my own stuff, and they liked the idea of supporting the outside work I was doing. A lot of people that work within a corporate-structured environment are looking for opportunities to be rebellious. For years, I couldn’t make a living off my own art, so doing corporate design work was giving me an opportunity to develop my skills. I was doing creative work where I was practicing and getting better and using clients to test new techniques. If I liked the results, I’d bring that technique to my own art. It was helping me improve as an artist while I was doing a job that was about paying the bills. 

“When I started skateboarding, every ledge was looked at differently as was every set of stairs and handrail and embankment and pool. When you have that mentality, even if there is a security guard and you can only get two runs in, you’re gonna do it. I brought that to street art and it was a totally logical connection and transition to street art.”

As skateboarders, we look at the world as a canvas, and repurpose our environment. You also repurpose the environment when you do public street art. What has been the scariest thing that has happened to you besides being arrested when you’re out there doing street art?

You’re right. When I started skateboarding, every ledge was looked at differently as was every set of stairs and handrail and embankment and pool. When you have that mentality, even if there is a security guard and you can only get two runs in, you’re gonna do it. I brought that to street art and it was a totally logical connection and transition to street art. Also, with skateboarding, you’re doing a lot of stuff where you might get hurt. I racked myself on plenty of handrails and got up and did it again. When it comes to doing street art, street art is about visibility and repetition and ubiquity, but it’s also about daring. When I started doing a lot of climbing for street art, I started doing pull ups every single day so I could climb up stuff that is not easy to climb and I could get to roofs and different places on buildings where I could put something where it would be difficult for other people to get to. The sketchiest stuff is when I’ve been up on top of a building where there is an elevator shaft with a 12-inch lip with a surface where you can put a giant poster, but you have to go out on a 12-inch-wide lip. While you’re wheat pasting stuff up, glue is falling down onto the ledge and it’s getting slippery. I’ve done it on a four-story drop and, if I had slipped, I was dead or definitely broke many bones. I’ve climbed pipes on 100-year-old buildings where you don’t know if that pipe is going to hold, but that’s my route up to a roof because there is no fire escape or staircase. Going up and then getting there and doing my thing on this blank billboard or this spot up on a roof that is really visible and then going, “Now I have to go back down the same thing.” Going up, you can at least see where you’re going. I’m really lucky that many of the risks didn’t result in something worse. I cut my finger once on the edge of a metal billboard and the slice was so deep you can still see it. It’s a three-and-a-half-inch gash that went down to the bone in my finger. I was up on a roof and it took a lot of work to get up there, so I took out stickers and taped the cut closed and finished the billboard and then got some butterfly bandages on it. I should have gotten stitches, but I didn’t feel like going to the hospital. It’s a lot of stuff like that, but none of it has been any worse than anything that has happened to me skateboarding. I was happy to resume skating the moment a grapefruit-size hematoma subsided. I couldn’t wait to get back on my skateboard. Some of the things that happened to me doing street art, where I’ve gotten hurt or arrested, it’s the same thrill as skateboarding. This is what I love doing, so I’m not going to stop doing it. After my first daughter was born in 2005, I did start to be more careful about climbing shaky stuff. It would be stupid to leave my kid fatherless because I did something reckless. 

What you didn’t say is that you were going to stop doing art in the streets.

No. I’m not going to stop that. I’ve been arrested several times since my kids were born, including in front of them once. 

Wow. How old were they?

They were ten and seven.

How did you explain it to them?

They knew that I did a lot of illegal street art and they always had a lot of questions like, “If people know that you’re the one that makes the Andre the Giant sticker, even if the police don’t see you, can’t they come to your house?” I’d say, “No because I make free downloads of a lot of my images so that anybody can make the stuff so the police can’t say that I’m guaranteed to be the only source.” They were like, “Ah, okay.” 

OBEY WATER TOWER. PHOTO © JON FURLONG

Are your daughters into art?

They both were into art. Our younger daughter, Madeline, draws really well and she is taking an art class now. They don’t give it enough sustained focus. When I was a kid, there was no Internet or YouTube or anything to distract me. My art was my distraction from doing homework. After I memorized all of the current issues of TransWorld and Thrasher, then I would make a Minor Threat stencil or a Misfits stencil. My kids don’t have the same incentive, because they have a lot of options. They are both creative. They were both into skateboarding for a while, especially Vivienne, and it was really fun. We would go skate a bit, but she lost interest. She was a really good DJ for a while too. She learned how to beat match and mix very quickly and I showed her a lot of different tips. I also gave her my music collection and explained what songs worked well together and she picked it up so quickly. They both also did fashion for a while and were really good at it. Vivienne is going to NYU in the fall and she is going to be studying psychology and nutrition. Madeline is into theater, and she’s usually in two plays every year. 

Were you ever into drama or theatre?

No. To me, getting up on stage in front of people is terrifying and the idea of remembering lines and using an accent was the antithesis of what I would want to do. I have a lot more courage to speak in front of people and be a bit entertaining or theatrical now, but, when I was a kid, I just wanted to fade into the woodwork, other than my wardrobe. 

You just did a show called the Art of Protest featuring your art and other artists who challenge systematic corruption including Nadya of Pussy Riot, who is also on a global stage and has received death threats, scrutiny and support. How have you felt the brunt of resistance from the people that you protest with your art? 

Well, there have been actual death threats to me. When I did posters criticizing the war in Iraq and criticizing George Bush, because of the xenophobia that was created by 9/11, there were people that wanted to simplify things in a really unhealthy way and say that, if I had a problem with George Bush or the war in Iraq, I was siding with the terrorists.  There are a lot of ignorant assholes in the world, and I’m not going to be shaping my life around what they want because they are the problem. I’m trying not to get killed by a vindictive redneck. At the same time, I’m not going to let them shut me down just because they send me an email saying, “You should be burned in an oven like Hitler burned the Jews.” 

“When I started with the Andre sticker, it started as an inside joke with some skateboarder friends, but because it was a mischievous, disruptive presence, it made people question it and, in the process, it made people question imagery in public space in general. It was like the first domino to fall.”

Whoa. That’s heavy. 

Yeah. That stuff is upsetting, but sometimes realizing that the work is getting out there and taking people out of their comfort zones is good. There is lots of keyboard courage out there and it does reveal how misinformed and angry people are. I like living in California, which is pretty progressive, but it’s easy to forget that there’s a lot of ignorance and anger to be combatted and encountered in the world. I make the art I make to create a counter-narrative to a lot of bad ideas that I see out there that are the agenda of someone who is trying to divide people for their own benefit or the agenda of a corporation that doesn’t want you to think climate change is real because their whole business model is based on carbon. This means I’m going to encounter hostility from people who have bought into a false narrative. They will turn around and say that I’m brainwashed by George Soros. I try to make my statements very thoughtfully and I do a lot of research. I might never change a lot of people’s minds but the important thing is that I do change some people’s minds or I create conversations that lead to people evolving, even if my one piece of art is just a starting point and not the tipping point. 

Having your art on a billboard is a way to change the conversation. Is that how your Andre the Giant art mission started? 

When I started with the Andre sticker, it started as an inside joke with some skateboarder friends, but because it was a mischievous, disruptive presence, it made people question it and, in the process, it made people question imagery in public space in general. It was like the first domino to fall. Once I realized that something unexpected in public space had people asking questions, I asked myself, “How can I make this more intentional, more topical, and keep evolving it?” There has always been a one-sided conversation between corporations with a capitalist agenda and a public that is looked at as just consumers and spectators. What about when you insert something that says, “Maybe this can be a two-way conversation and the expression and human benefit are sometimes more important than moving units and exploiting people purely for profit.” Maybe there is value that other people will see in that, in the same way that I see value in that. 

PREVENT POLICE BOREDOM… SKATEBOARD.

That’s interesting. I talked to Kirk from Metallica and they have made it to the mountaintop, as have you, as far as being a successful globally recognized artist. At the end of the day, Metallica are four dudes making music and trying to make a difference in the world with their art. In the maelstrom of your successes, have you ever lost your focus on your art?

[laughs] The hilarious thing to me is that business is the thing that I’m least interested in, and yet, after many failures, I’ve started to learn enough to mildly succeed, keep things going and keep the wheels on, and keep the lights on. As you do things, you learn. Even though I wasn’t trying to get better at business, I started dating someone who was good with people, my wife, Amanda. She helped manage me and helped my art and business. Now people look at where I am and say, “That guy is a sell-out. He just did art for the money.” I’m like, “No. I failed my way to the top pretty much.” I just learned how to do things well enough to survive and that alone, because I was so passionate, driven and prolific, provided a basis for income. I had a little bit coming in from posters and a little bit coming in from clothing and a little bit coming in from art shows and a little bit coming in from graphic design, and all those things coming together, it started to coalesce into something that you could call successful. I’m not apologizing for succeeding because having success on your own terms that adhere to your principles and your belief system, I don’t think that anyone should look at a creative person who achieves that and say, “They shouldn’t have done that.” I would rather see the creative people that I admire succeeding and having more influence in the world than all these people that are just doing things for the money and don’t care about how they impact the world negatively. I care a lot. I’ve never lost focus on the art as the primary thing, but I have tried to be smart about business. For example, when I started my clothing line, in its current iteration in 2000, I partnered with people and did a licensing deal. A lot of people said, “Oh, you’re not going to have creative control.” Well, Amanda and I structured the deal so I would have 100% creative control, but I wouldn’t have to be packing boxes and calling skate shops and trying to collect money and doing all the things that are a nightmare that take time away from me being creative. Before that, I did all that stuff, whic was very stressful. So I try to make smart decisions about my businesses where I’m still making things that I’m proud of but, if I’m partnering with people or working with employees, which I do, those people are understanding the mission and helping to push everything further. That’s leaving more space for me to focus on what I think is most important: making art and graphic design and working on the causes I believe in. 

I love that. Congratulations on all of your success. The intention of the question was I think it’s an important point for people that are going through life and trying to pursue their passions that they should not lose that desire to pursue their passion. 

Ah, yes. There was a time in 1996, when I was about $40,000 to $50,000 in debt and, when you have no money and no credit, that is a huge debt. You can’t get somebody to rent you an apartment, you can’t buy a car or buy a washing machine. You’re fucked for the most part. I got very disillusioned at that point because I had been working extremely hard. I’ve always been a hard worker since I was in college. I was lazy in high school, but I was not lazy about skateboarding. [laughs] I would have been CEO if that had been my job. Despite all the effort, I was failing and I had become disillusioned because screen printing is hard manual labor and I didn’t want to do that all day every day, but that is how I was earning a living. Nobody supported the brand stuff I was working on by myself or with Blaize. I had to take a second and say, “Do I want to try to keep doing this stuff or do I want to try to get a job where I don’t have to think much and I can decrease my stress and climb out of this deep hole I’ve dug for myself with debt?” Luckily, Andy Howell believed in what I was doing and he brought me out to San Diego to work for him managing production for Sophisto and allowing me to produce my own stuff. He only paid me $1,500 a month, but it was a stable thing. I was very frugal, so I lived with my girlfriend who between the two of us, we could afford rent and I had all sorts of side hustles. I needed to regroup and I would say to anyone who is struggling, don’t give up. Just figure out how to live resourcefully because, ultimately, creative things are good therapy. They are good for your spirit, but they don’t convert to something that is going to make money instantly. Having some patience to achieve critical mass and get some traction is really important. Being frugal and tenacious is really important. 

“I started to think about things like why the Sex Pistols signed with Warner Bros or why The Clash signed with Epic. Then I heard this term “détournement”. It’s a French term that means hijacking the machinery for your own benefit.  I was looking at what I have called for many years ‘the inside outside strategy’. It’s punk rock, do-it-on-your-own-terms, if the system doesn’t give you any options, but if you can infiltrate the system and change its culture for the better from within and use its machinery to disseminate your message and your imagery, you’d be a fool not to do that.”

That’s great advice. I think people see you sometimes and don’t understand that it took you decades to get where you are. They just see you and Obey and Andre the Giant and think you’ve always been huge. They don’t understand the path. Arguably, has that been the best part for you, the journey? Or has it been the response globally to your work? Which one lends more value to you?

I don’t know. I’m pretty typical in that I don’t trust adulation, but I trust criticism. [laughs] A thousand nice comments might have an ulterior motive, but one criticism is totally sincere, and I take it to heart.

That is awesome. [laughs] On that note, let’s talk about your process with murals and paints. What types of cans did you used to use and what cans do you use now? How has the progression of the technology of spray paint affected your painting? Do you use old stock or what do you use nowadays?

You know, it’s funny because, when I started, I was mostly just getting flat black Krylon to spray paint stencils, whether that was on the street on electrical boxes or lamp bases in New York. That was the cheapest paint, and it performed pretty well. I never considered myself a graffiti artist. I loved graffiti, but spray paint technology was low on my list of priorities. Then I had friends who did graffiti tell me, “You can spray paint your stencils faster if you use a fat cap because that puts more paint out.” I was like, “Okay.” Anything that accelerates the process so I’m not hanging out in the open in New York City with a stencil in my hand is a good thing to do. Gradually, I learned how to switch from the stock tips on spray paint. It wasn’t until about 14 years ago that I started painting a lot of murals with spray paint because, before that, I did most of my murals with wheat pasting. Even though I used spray paint in my studio, I was still using all the brands you could get from Home Depot for the most part, like Krylon or Rust-Oleum. I was using house paint for other things and screen print inks for other things that were parts of my process. When I started to paint a lot of murals, there is a brand called Montana. There are actually two Montanas. One is out of Germany and one is out of Spain. Montana, out of Spain, I developed a relationship with them. I really liked their color range and the performance of the paint, so that’s the paint that I’ve been using now for 14 years. 

SMITH AT ALTERNATE GRAPHICS

Wow. As far as wheat paste goes, have you seen any developments in adhesives for putting up stuff? Has any of that changed?

Sadly, there hasn’t been a lot of change in that. More than 20 years ago, I innovated using regular wallpaper paste by mixing in clear acrylic. Regular wallpaper paste is not meant for outdoor use. It’s great because you stir it, and it becomes gelatinous and it spreads really nicely, but after a lot of heavy rain over a year, it starts to dissolve. When you add clear acrylic, it is a polymer that solidifies when it’s exposed to air, so it goes from water-soluble to plastic, which is not water-soluble. You mix acrylic into that wheat paste and it forms enough of a waterproof layer that it makes the wheat paste a lot stronger. So I’ve been using clear acrylic medium mixed into my wallpaper paste for all these years, and a few other people that have caught onto that. Some people still say, “I was in Paris, and there is a poster you put up ten years ago that is still up. How is that possible?” Acrylic. Nobody has come up with a formula that you can buy pre-mixed. A couple of people have tried, but it’s such a small audience. You’d think that every city I go to there are posters pasted up everywhere, but it’s still not enough to support a unique brand doing that. 

They still use wheat paste for movie posters here in Venice and I think of you every time. It’s cool that you came up with the idea to add acrylic to wall paper paste. I was lucky enough to catch you in the wild recently painting The Pierside and you were on this huge lift. How much does weather and stuff like that affect you when you’re doing these huge mural projects? 

That’s the main thing. You can’t paint murals in the rain because the water on the surface affects how the paint lays down, and I’m using a stenciling method where I’m spray mounting 3×4 foot sheets of paper directly to the wall, a few at a time, and cutting the stencil on the wall and then removing paper like a stencil and spraying and then removing the rest of the paper after it’s sprayed in, so water will make paper soggy, and you can’t cut it properly. Wind is also a huge factor because, if you’re up on a window washing rig and there are gusts of wind while you’re trying to lay large sheets of paper down, the large sheets of paper are catching wind like a kite and it’s really challenging. We’ve had to paint in windy conditions before and you would think that once a piece of paper is spray mounted down to the wall, it’s good, but we have had 30 MPH gusts of wind come and rip an entire sheet off the wall that’s already been spray glued down. Then it’s flying away, which that means it’s potentially gone, and we will have to freestyle in that section. Because my work is very graphic and there are a lot of precise clean lines, it’s a matter of going in with masking tape and doing a lot of that. It’s not ideal. Also the wind will blow the window washing rig, from side to side frequently, which can be a little sketchy. We’re up there wearing harnesses and we’re clipped into safety lines and we’ve never had any issues other than sometimes the motors going out, and then we’re stuck up on a window washing rig until somebody goes and resets the fuse box so we can go down. We’re just hanging out eight stories up on a window washing rig, and can’t go up and can’t go down. [laughs] A couple of my crew had to repel off of a water tower that was 100 feet tall in Dallas. The little elevator that we were using to go up this water tower, when I came down to look at it from the ground to see if we needed to make any adjustments, they noticed that the wire holding the elevator was fraying. It was ready to snap, so the other guys had to repel down. 

MUHAMMAD ALI MURAL AT THE CHESTNUT STREET YMCA IN LOUISVILLE, KENTUCKY.

Wow. Good thing they noticed it. 

Yeah. That could have been really dangerous. I sort of look at all of these things like we are being as careful as we can. There is always the possibility of accidents, but it’s changing the landscape by doing these huge pieces on buildings and water towers where people are cruising around and they don’t have to go to an art gallery or a museum. It’s just interacting with them in their daily lives and it’s prominent. The effort and the scale of the endeavor really translate to the viewer and somebody goes, “Wow. This person did something significant here. This is an artist that did this. This isn’t Coca-Cola that did it. This is a person that did this.” A lot of my work is about empowerment. It’s about reminding people that we might be at a disadvantage compared to forces on the scale of the government or large corporations, but I built my thing from a $4.25 an hour skate shop job, so anybody that says, “Oh, you are like Coca-Cola now.” It’s like, “No. I’m not because I don’t think like Coca-Cola and I came at this from a place where I may be handicapped by every practical standard, but I’m not going to let that stop me.” It’s purely hard work and a lot of rule breaking that has gotten me to where I am. When you look at these murals that are on a large scale, it’s a straight line back to the first 3×3 inch sticker. This is a progression. Nowhere between that sticker and $4.25 an hour and that mural did I inherit a bunch of money or win the lottery. It was just steady progression through hard work. 

Well, your 3”x3” sticker led you to be the first artist to ever do a three-dimensional installation at the Eiffel Tower in Paris. 

Yeah. I’m the first artist to do a three-dimensional installation at the Eiffel Tower. 

That is cool. You are impacting other countries all over the world. Where do you get the most criticism and where do you get the most admiration for your work?

Around 2003, France was tough because George Bush had rechristened French fries, “Freedom Fries.” A lot of people in France, as soon as they knew you were American, thought you were a pro-war cowboy. I like explaining to people that there are a lot of good things about the United States and many things that are unfortunate. Rushing into war for no reason was really an embarrassing thing that I was against, and I could demonstrate to people that I agreed with them. It was a dumb idea then, and it’s been proven now that it was a dumb idea for lots of reasons. I always look at hostility as an opportunity to have a conversation. There are tough people in the media in France, England and Germany, yet I feel like I have great supporters in all of those places. I don’t look at one place as all supportive and another place as all negative. It’s a mixed bag everywhere. I find that sometimes the superficial cultural aspect of why one place seems to be embracing or rejecting what I’m doing is there, but under that everywhere deals with issues of humans having fears and insecurities and the desire to be cool and validated and all of that. I just try to look at people on that deeper level instead of getting distracted by the superficial stuff. 

Rad. Let’s talk about media for a second because you had your own media outlet, Swindle. What was it like to be on the other side of the media? It’s one of my favorite Jello Biafra quotes, “Don’t hate the media. Become the media.” 

That’s similar to another slogan which is “Be the Revolution”. If you want to see things change, be part of changing it. Being the media is interesting. Media is such a vague general term that it means a lot of things. If the idea shapes the information shared with people and the narratives people follow, you can participate in that process if you really care about what is being focused on. For me, doing Swindle magazine with Roger Gastman, who started While You Were Sleeping graffiti and street art magazine and now does Beyond The Streets shows and has the Control Gallery over on La Brea, I liked working with him   because we both had an interest in art and politics and fashion and streetwear and all sorts of creative culture and music. We were super happy to join forces and cover all those things in ways we thought weren’t being covered by other people or at least cover them with our own slant. We did pieces on the Bones Brigade and interviews with Malcolm McLaren, Steve Jones, Billy Idol, Henry Rollins, Space Invader, Faile, and Banksy. We were the only publication to get an in-person interview with Banksy leading up to his Barely Legal show. It was a great interview and a great issue of the magazine. Doing a magazine is really difficult, as you know. You want it to be beautiful and you want it to be well-written and there are a lot of moving parts and a lot of people who have talent that they want to be compensated for. Ultimately, you have to bring all of that to brands that are going to advertise and to a public that you want to pay for the thing and hope that they see the same value that you put into putting the thing together. I found a lot that you are building something and hoping people come to it and then want to continue supporting it, but many times, people take things for granted. They don’t want it to go away, but they would rather get things free, whether that’s advertisers or readers. We had advertisers that would say, “We want to give you clothes for your next fashion issue and, if you run the clothes in there, we will advertise in the next issue.” There was a lot of manipulation like that and carrot dangling that didn’t pay off. I think, in the end, it’s important to look at the value of shaping the cultural conversation as a reward in and of itself because if you’re looking for financial reward, you might end up feeling under-appreciated at the very least. Roger and I did Swindle for about four and a half years and then it was just too much of a struggle because the internet made everyone feel like they deserved to get all content free.

AMANDA AND SHEPARD AT PIERSIDE HOTEL MURAL IN SANTA MONICA, CALIFORNIA. PHOTO © DAN LEVY

What was the thing that you learned the most from doing a magazine? 

Here’s the thing that I think is valuable for the sake of Juice readers. I will pivot to Marshall McLuhan and the slogan that the “medium is the message”. When you have Instagram and Facebook, which are driven by people consuming small snippets of things quickly, almost like flipping the dial on your TV set and not giving anything longer than four seconds, I think that having a magazine where there is a deeper conversation and you can really get a sense of what’s driving people philosophically and learn their history, then if all people rely on is social media, that stuff goes away. If magazines go away, there is a deeper story-telling component and a deeper historical component that more or less goes away and that is absolutely tragic for anybody who cares about doing things that will have enduring relevance. The Instagram mentality is about minute-to-minute and it’s so whiplash-inducing that it makes people very anxious. There is proof that people trying to derive their self-esteem and self-worth from staying current on social media are stressed out unhappy people. Having things like Juice and other magazines that go deeper on topics is really, really essential to the development of culture that is richer and deeper. 

I appreciate that. Every single page has to be worth killing a tree to print, so every word counts and we pack it, as you are aware. You deal with different papers and inks and you are very environmentally conscious so how was your decision tree when it came to paper quality and page count?

When I was doing Swindle from 2004 to 2009, I was environmentally conscious, but I didn’t think much about the environmental impact because our print runs weren’t that big. Interestingly enough, I was already thinking about my screen prints and offset prints, both of which are printed on recycled paper called French Speckletone. The reason it has speckles in it is that it’s made of a lot of different papers that are ground up and then reconstituted, so you get these flecks of different colors, which I think enhances the visual quality of the paper itself, and it’s also more environmentally responsible. I use cotton rag paper for my fine art prints, and cotton is sustainable. Everything has environmental impact. Shipping paper in a truck or airplane has an environmental impact. Spray paint is not environmentally friendly, but there is no other tool to substitute. I’m thinking about these things all the time, so I pay into a lot of things like tree planting programs that are helping offset carbon dioxide, but just being alive means you are contributing to environmental impact and leaving a carbon footprint. You do the best you can. A lot of corporations are working on campaigns to put the responsibility back on the individual so that they don’t have to take dramatic action because the scale of what they do is enormous. If every citizen in the U.S. decided to change their light bulbs to more efficient ones, it still wouldn’t offset much of the bad behavior that Koch Industries has in their practices. If you regulate Koch Industries, who are notorious for giving to Republican campaigns, making Brawny paper towels and a zillion other things and want no regulation and they do a lot of things that are terrible for the environment, it would be great. If you could get everyone to vote for people that would regulate Koch Industries, that would be a much bigger step to solving problems. 

“We should say that art is not a background thing in skateboarding. Art is a foreground thing in skateboarding.”

What can people do to educate themselves to get where you’re going? 

There are several ways. I am part of the League of Conservation Voters and they send out their recommendations on candidates based on environmental records. They will also inform you about the most environmentally unfriendly brands. Of course, there is plenty of information out there about the fact that ExxonMobil had their own internal research about global warming and climate change and they’ve known since around 1980 that burning gasoline was a major contributor to global warming and they hid that evidence. Are you going to be able to find a gas company that you can support that is less offensive in terms of climate change denial and their deep-pocketed efforts to suppress science and deny science? Maybe not, but in other industries, there are alternatives. I think it’s just a matter of people doing their own research. However, saying something on social media that’s signifying that they are woke or virtuous, if that’s not accompanied by researching candidates and voting for people who actually regulate industries that do the damage on a large scale, then fuck off. 

You’re one of the few people that I know that show up for people and causes, more than just ‘thoughts and prayers’. What is most important in your philanthropic efforts and what results do you hope to get when you contribute? 

Well, it’s just shaping the world into one that is healthier for my kids and everyone else and maybe me too. I look at things like we are all connected. I might feel like my taste in music and my sense of humor are superior to some people but, generally, I think that there’s a lot of unhealthy hierarchy in the world and not caring about what’s happening to other people. You should always think about what if the roles were reversed. I don’t like the terms charity or philanthropy too much because it makes it sound like I’m bragging about being a do-gooder. You could almost say that what I’m doing is selfish. If these things make the world more pleasant for a lot of people, then that is more pleasant for me too. If it’s more just for everyone else, it’s for me too. I look at it more like conscious capitalism, where I’m saying, “I have to earn a living and I’m making these things that talk about issues that, hopefully, are for the greater good. Now how, with the revenue that it generates, am I going to put my money where my mouth is and make the world one I’m happier with?” Hopefully, it’s a harmonious or symbiotic situation in that what I’m saying and doing are all pushing in the same direction. The big causes I care about are all the classics. It’s supporting democracy and making sure that people have access to voting and that democracy works for everyone and not just rich   people. It’s protecting the planet and doing things for organizations concerned with the environment and climate change. It’s doing things for racial justice and gender justice so that people who aren’t male and aren’t white have the same kinds of opportunities. There are so many things that deserve support and attention. The big challenge is deciding what goes where. I usually base that on the content of my art. I’ve done art around racial justice and I give to Black Lives Matter or the Equal Justice Initiative or the Southern Poverty Law Center. There are things I’ve done around economic support for people most impacted by COVID at the beginning of COVID. I research the organizations that I work with and sometimes I give to multiple organizations that work in the same zone because they do important things. On the environmental front, I work with Greenpeace. I work with the NRDC, and I work with 350.org and I’ve worked with the Sierra Club. I’ve worked with Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch on human rights stuff. It’s going to get embarrassing if I go through all of the organizations that I’ve worked with and given money and art to. It’s just an organic extension of me authentically living what I’m talking about in my art. 

BAD BRAINS MURAL IN NYC.

Your art is in the world and it does tap those causes. You are not exploiting these things. You are enhancing these things. 

Well, the amazing thing is that I’m in a luxurious position. Even when I was pretty broke, if I did something that was cause-oriented, I would try to give something to it. Now I am in a position where I can build in money that’s going to go to a cause in the process of selling a t-shirt or a print. There are a lot of people who are not in a situation to do that or are working in an industry where margins are so razor-thin that adding something charitable means they will no longer be able to succeed. I remember being a kid, and my mom always bought Newman’s Own popcorn and salad dressing. I was like, “What’s the story with this?” She said, “Oh, he’s rich enough from acting that he can start a brand where they give the profits away to causes. The brand has done so well that they keep expanding to different categories.” I was like, “It is possible to survive in capitalism and do good in the world.” I looked at it as the thing to try to achieve. If you’re creative and not an asshole, you can be creative about surviving and helping other people and not just enriching yourself even more than you were. 

This lends itself to another topic with Pussy Riot and the atrocities that are going on in the Ukraine, and your fundraising for those types of situations utilizing NFTs. What has been your journey with NFTs? I read that NFTs are not very environmentally friendly, so can you speak on that? 

I’m glad that I get to straighten out the record on that. NFTs and the blockchain and the metaverse all have value. The blockchain is valuable in that it allows people to track a digitally tagged item with total transparency. You can’t bootleg things on the blockchain because the math is too complex. That is also the reason that, initially, it used a lot of energy. Having something tracked as it bounced around lots of different computers meant that it was impossible to corrupt it because it was too complex, meaning there was a lot of computing energy being used, but that’s been overhauled with Ethereum, so it doesn’t work off of the proof of work anymore. Now it uses proof-of-stake, which is very safe, but less complex. Now the energy intensity of an NFT is down to 3 cents worth of electricity. It used to use 100 times that. There were all sorts of exaggerations like, “Minting one NFT uses as much energy as Scandinavia.” This was never true. It’s just what   people were saying. The way that I look at the NFT thing is that there are a lot of people who can’t afford traditional art. It is too expensive. They also live a lot of their social lives and cultural lives online with other people. NFTs are like collecting art prints. It’s the art that they are going to collect. They want to be able to say that it’s a unique piece. A lot of  people collect art because they like the image, but they also like the bragging rights of ownership. I have issues with art as commodity rather than art as visual and ideas that can be free or expensive and it still has the same philosophical value. That aside, I think the great thing about art, for charity purposes, and the blockchain and the NFT world is that you can produce something that raises funds quickly without a lot of overhead or upfront costs. That money can be transparently seen going to where the person claims it’s going because the blockchain is transparent. If I raise money with Nadya with Pussy Riot for Ukraine and we make NFTs, you can see that the money is going to the organizations that it’s legitimately going to. When there are problems with getting traditional money in war zones, anywhere someone can convert crypto currency into money, as needed in that place, it’s also very valuable from a logistical standpoint. 

“It’s not that I was a slouch creatively. I had lots of ideas, but I didn’t have that Malcolm McLaren style confidence about selling it. Blaize was like, “This is gonna be the greatest thing.” He was a good salesman. He would big up things and enroll people in the idea. It was infectious.”

Let’s talk about Artificial Intelligence and the effect it’s having on the art world. 

Well, I look at all these digital tools as opportunities. Every generation of artists has embraced new tools and innovations and good artists use them as a way to accelerate and improve their process, not dictate their process. Whether that is mechanical printing or Warhol using screen printing or Leonardo DaVinci using the camera obscura pinhole to get accurate proportions of a still life or an outdoor landscape scene onto a canvas, someone somewhere was saying it was cheating, but you can look at DaVinci and say that he was maybe one of the greatest artists ever. Other people could have used that same cheat and they still would have sucked, relatively speaking. AI is just the newest iteration of how people can accelerate processes and, if it’s serving their own vision, it’s not going to allow other people to do the same thing. I haven’t used any of it yet because I haven’t had time to experiment with it. I’ve seen people experiment with it in a lazy way where they just put in a couple of prompts and it spits something out that looks like an AI fusion of two things. It might be amusing, funny or intriguing, but does it really count as a unique creation or as art? No. A lot of things don’t. I’ve seen other people use AI where they are bringing together so many different sophisticated takes on art and their own vision that it’s got a little bit of the style of Picasso and a little bit of Courbet and something imagery-wise that wasn’t even in existence when those artists were alive. Now this has become its own thing. There is an artist that has been doing these things that I find really beautiful. You wouldn’t even know they weren’t paintings. This person is spending as much time refining AI as most artists would painting a canvas. Somebody will surely say, “This isn’t legitimate because a computer was involved.” There are going to be other people that say, “Wow. This is phenomenal.” I find many hang-ups that people have ironic because art is about pushing boundaries and moving forward, yet people go, “I agree with all that as long as it’s oil on canvas painted with a brush.” I’m like, “Actually, you don’t really believe in that.” Warhol was controversial at the time. Monet was controversial at the time. Monet goes, “Oh, the invention of the camera means that I don’t need to paint in a way that’s trying to look like a photograph. I can actually let the marks of the paint itself be part of the picture where it has this dual function of an expressive mark that also, when you squint your eyes, is representational because now satisfying what something looks like and how you remember it, you can take a photograph. All of these things are just part of the evolution of what artists do and what they prioritize and what they consider exciting aesthetically or necessary aesthetically. Monet didn’t consider photo realistic work necessary aesthetically, after the invention of the camera. The way I will probably use AI is as a tool in the step of generating reference imagery that I illustrate from. I illustrate based on reference imagery, sometimes from photos I’ve taken, or sometimes I collaborate with photographers. Sometimes I splice together older found imagery from things in the public domain or I license things from photo licensing sites and still put a haircut from one thing on a face from another and a jacket from another and then I illustrate it and it looks seamless as if they are all from one source because I have my own style of illustration that allows me to fuse together disparate elements in a cohesive way. Is AI going to be a major game changer for me? Most likely not. It might make me more efficient in coming up with reference imagery. With all of the tools, the computer and the internet, I used to have to go to the library and look through books and Xerox things and use that as a reference. All of the digital tools that have been developing over the last 30 years have helped me become more efficient and prolific as an artist, but they haven’t changed the aesthetics of what I do. 

WAVE OF DISTRESS

That’s a good point. What are highlights of your recent projects?

I got to work on the Santa Cruz 50th and reinterpret Jim Phillips’ Corey O’Brien. The original graphic is a total masterpiece that can’t be improved on. You just have to do something that, hopefully, people will consider a successful interpretation. That’s like, for me, when Led Zeppelin got me to do a few record covers for them. They have a strong visual legacy   already and you have to be reverent to the history, but what an honor to get to do that. I love being irreverent about the wrong stuff, but being reverent to the right stuff. 

That’s crazy. You’re a skateboarder and you get to play with art for Led Zeppelin and Billy Idol and the stuff that we all grew up ingesting. It trips me out. 

We talked earlier about my first concert, which was the Circle Jerks and I’m friends with Keith Morris now and his band, Off! In 2014, they wrote a song called “Learn to Obey” inspired by me, and they had me do the cover for the 7-inch of it. These full circle things where I get to work with heroes of mine, and they treat me like a collaborator, it’s the ultimate validation. People that inspired me to become the person I am, if what I put out they respond to, it’s a strong indication my interpretation of their inspiration was meaningful. That helps to counterbalance being hated on a lot and being a lightning rod. When the people I admire like Henry Rollins or Keith Morris ask me to do art for them, it’s great. Black Sabbath got me to do several projects with them, designing their box set and a final tour t-shirt. I did the t-shirt that was their top t-shirt for that tour. Things like that are incredible. I’m also not just into nostalgia. I’m always into creating new things, so what do I have coming up? I have shows in Amsterdam, and murals in Singapore. I’m doing a big Muhammad Ali mural in Louisville, Kentucky, at the YMCA where he grew up boxing. Muhammad Ali was an amazing athlete and conscientious objector to the Vietnam War and very outspoken about racial politics and civil rights. These are amazing projects to get to work on. I’m always doing new things with Obey Clothing and we do a lot around street-level culture, music and skateboard culture. With what I’m doing with my art and with the brand, I get to tap into all the things that shaped who I am and have that defiant youthful spirit. 

FOR THE REST OF THE STORY, ORDER ISSUE #79 AT THE JUICE SHOP…

Follow Us

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Translate »