Spring/ Summer 2011
Interview by Katre Laan
Dan Witz is a US street artist that has recently been described as one of the greatest artists of his generation…not that he appears to be completely aware of it; he’s far too nice for that. One of the pioneers of street art, he has been doodling away since the 1970s, and shows no sign of slowing down. His work is all about being realistic, with every piece different from the last, and always hoping to shock and provoke emotion in those that see it. His work is designed not only to shock, but also confuse, with a lot of his work looking so realistic, it’s hard to tell the difference between art and reality: it’s really no surprise he’s had his work shown throughout the US and Europe. But he’s more than a street artist; he’s done 18 books, taken part in several films, and is a self-confessed rebel, taking inspiration from punk rock. There’s a lot coming up for Dan Witz, including his 18th solo show at Jonathon Levine in a mere five months. It’s time for Mr Witz to meet IDOL, don’t you think?
“Seeing, the Clash, the Ramones, punks and graffiti bombed trains art school seemed kinda out of touch.” How did your studies at the most prestigious art schools in the U.S. shape your viewpoint on emerging graffiti scene at the time?
As an art student, right out of the gate, rebellion was my default setting. The idea was, if the world was a fucked up place that desperately needed changing, and contemporary art (and art schooling) had failed us in this respect, then it became necessary to subvert current art practices—to, yes, destroy our idols. Taking my cue from punk rock and graffiti I abandoned conventional art making and took to the streets.
Why did you get involved in street art scene? What does it mean to you?
I was attracted to doing street art back then because hardly anyone else was doing it. Originality was important to me. Also I didn’t want to spend my life making objects for rich people to decorate their homes with.
After years in the scene, how has your role as a street artist changed over the time? Do you do it because you want to or because you feel obligated?
It’s never been a strategy to get ahead for me. I still believe in anonymous, not-for-sale art as a meaningful rebellion—a genuine game changer. And I still enjoy doing it, everything about it, especially the adrenalin. Interviews like this are an uneasy obligation for me, but I understand it’s a privilege, and sometimes I end up finding out stuff even I didn’t know about myself. I’d much rather be painting though.
The last 10 years has seen a boom in street art. You are recognized for your skill and innovation. If in the early years the main purpose of graffiti was resistance, then currently it might seem that many amateurs are simply decorating cities. Would you say the purpose of graffiti has changed?
Probably. But I’m really not too involved with the “scene”, and try not to pontificate about the politics of street art if possible. Vestigial rebellion I guess…On the whole though, I’d say the energy I encounter is pretty healthy, strong enough to withstand all the inevitable bullshit and corruption.
Your first book published is called “The Birds of Manhattan”. At 2010 “Hummingbirds, 2011” was published. What role do your signature hummingbirds depict in the society? Does it symbolize anything for you?
It’s a personal symbol. I will say that the meme idea—reducing the same imagery in new contexts- can be more interesting than it sounds. It’s incredible how an outside force like time can completely alter the meaning of an image.
For the most part though, it’s unfortunate (for the sake of my so-called career), but I have a difficult time repeating myself. If I’m known for anything it’s that I’m known for not doing the same thing.
In 2010 you also released a book of your retrospective collection, Dan Witz: In Plain View — 30 Years of Artworks Illegal and Otherwise. While putting the context together, was there anything that surprised or inspired you in the process?
Yes. I had the good fortune to work with an awesome publisher: Gingko Press. To be honest I was expecting the publisher to try and keep the book small and manageable, to make creative decisions based on practical considerations. But it was actually the opposite. Those guys are in it for the love of making books, not money. It was a very cool experience.
Your work was a complete surprise at the time and still is now, how do you come up with ideas?
Usually it’s an evolution from the last thing I did. With new ideas I try and amend the failures and shortcomings of the preceding project. Every time I begin a new series, I don’t consider it successful until my previous year’s work looks painfully obsolete, which can be hard. Part of me envies artists (and writers, and musicians) that have found something they’re successful at and repeat it: it must be nice and relaxing, especially if there’s a regular paycheck involved. Unfortunately (or fortunately) most of me is horrified at living that way.
Opposite to other artists, you try to do your pieces as realistic as possible.
My goal these days is to make it seem as if a real person (or whatever) is lurking there behind the grate. To this end I use digital sampling and all the techniques of illusionistic painting I’ve learned over the years. When people encounter my stuff I’m hoping they’ll respond to the scenario, to what’s going on—I want their initial response to be shock and WHAT THE %$#@? rather than first wondering who the artist is.
In the What the #@%$? (WTF) and True Love series, the images are evocative, surreal and slightly creepy. How would you describe the meaning of these particular projects?
Primarily the intent is to give pause. On a deeper level, like many artists, I’m trying to question and supplant the nature of what we know—of what we take for granted as reality. It’s been my experience that reality, on close examination, is in fact mostly a sham, a façade. Puncture the surface and all sorts of instructive weirdness are fulminating down there. Some of it is alarming and repulsive but there is also great beauty and grace, a creative intelligence that’s busily trying to signal what’s missing from our lives. Every day we get momentary glimpses behind the veil but our brains are programmed to filter them out so we can survive (work), and not go mad with self-doubt. But, in my opinion, the current climate of complacency is a much more alarming condition. Witness George Bush.
Is there a city/country, you have not had a chance to go but are still eager to go?
Many. I’ll go pretty much anywhere I’m invited (and sponsored). I really need to visit Russia and see The Hermitage and their other great old master museums. Anyone want to go?
*What message would you like to leave the world with your street artwork?
What can we expect from you next?
I just got home from a big street art and show event in San Francisco so I’ve been drawing to get me grounded again. This summer I plan to look for new and improved paintings and street art. There’s gonna be a solo show at Jonathan Levine in July—mosh pit paintings. And there’s definitely gonna be more films. That’s been an interesting new development.
What is the most fearless thing you have ever done?
If fearless means, “Absence of fear”, then there’s nothing dangerous I’ve ever done fearlessly, except maybe when I was stupid drunk. And take my word for it: none of that’s worth bragging about.
Who do you look up as your idol?
I probably shouldn’t say—because then I’d be obligated to destroy them.