Tell me a bit about yourself. You were born in Chicago but have spent the majority of your career living in New York. Why did you make the move? Do you see yourself ever leaving New York? If so, where would it be to?
After growing up in a nice safe suburb of Chicago, I moved to NYC in 1978 to go to art school, Cooper Union. Back then, sexy squalid downtown seemed the obvious place for a kid like me to gravitate to. And it was nice that Cooper Union was free. This town can be tough, but I fell in love with it and still love it: even after 30 years I feel I’ve barely scratched the surface (literally). I guess like most people I’ve always assumed I’d leave one day, move somewhere with trees. But since 2002—when I was evicted from the lower east side and emigrated across the river to Williamsburg—life became a lot easier, and even more productive. Which is the important thing.
How do you feel living in New York has changed over the years?
When I got here the city was a chaotic mess. Bankrupt, burnt out, hopeless. Just going for a walk to buy cigarettes was an adventure. Random violence and paranoia was normal, something we accepted and adapted to. As a young artist, surrounded by the seeming collapse of civilization, having any ambition for the future, or trying to channel one’s creativity into “success” in that climate seemed pretty ridiculous. Since no one was buying, selling one’s self wasn’t an option, so making art and music became a very free and personal affair. The gallery world was not at all relevant to my life. I’d dutifully trudge off and see whatever we were supposed to see (those soul crushing Whitney biennials!) but this was an exclusive community: young artists were not welcome (unless, maybe, you were sleeping with someone). Back then you had to be in your 40’s, know and please the right people, be toeing whatever line was the movement de jour, and preferably be a white male to have a show. These days it’s a much wider and more various culture here. It’s true, on the down side, there’s so many more artists clamoring for attention, and it’s gotten stupid expensive to live here, but at least there’s a chance young artists can participate, and that makes it a lot more interesting.
How has life in the city colored your work and your attitude to it?
For the last thirty years I’ve basically been wandering the city dreaming about what I want to paint. I’m one of those artists who gets their ideas from their everyday life. And since I’m not the most intellectual guy, my inner everyday life just isn’t that interesting. Which is why I depend on my environment for ideas.
What is your perception of street art today, both locally and internationally? How do you feel it and the people who make it have changed since you first began doing it yourself?
To me it’s both bizarre and totally understandable how it’s exploded into a worldwide art movement. I distinctly remember, back in the 80’s and 90’s, wondering why more people hadn’t gotten onto it. Now though, I mean, it’s so out of control, and so passionate, and for the most part the energy is so positive—I’m amazed. As far as the people who are doing street art now, I suppose there’s a bandwagon crowd and all, the usual thing, but there seems to be a healthy group of artists who are sincerely interested in developing a bona-fide art-form for the public commons.
Tell me a bit about your experiences working alongside artists like Haring and Basquiat compared to the artists you surround yourself with today.
I have a terrible allergy to name dropping. And I don’t hang out with many artists these days. Back in the 80’s I had a career in galleries, and had a circle of artist friends. But I found it made me insular, and competitive, and left me operating at a very limited level. Fortunately for me, because of the evolving nature of the street, the work I do these days has me constantly adapting: I’m always trying to keep up, which, on an organic level keeps the work changing—which keeps me uncomfortable and never too sure of myself. Which, for me, (fortunately and unfortunately), seems to be a healthy thing.
What was the first street piece you ever did? Where was it? Can you tell me about the experience?
In 1979 I painted about 40 hummingbirds in lower Manhattan. An experience I’ve never recovered from. Every year or so I do another street project and I don’t think I’ll ever get to the bottom of the possibilities I stumbled upon with those birds.
For me, the power of what you do is rooted in its subtlety, an uncommon quality for street art. This is particularly true of your current body of work, Dark Doings. Can you tell me more about what underlies this work? Where does the name come from?
Every thing I do is a reaction to the last thing I’ve done. Last year I put trompe l’oeil occupied grates and vents on the Ugly New Condo Buildings out here in Williamsburg. The characters behind the grates had to be subtle enough so the pieces wouldn’t be instantly spotted and removed. This strategy was suggested by the year before’s piece where I did interventions on Do Not Enter signs here and abroad. The more sneaky and integrated the imagery, the longer the piece would last. This year with the Dark Doings, I’m trying to exploit our collective tendency towards sleepwalking by inserting outrageous things right out there in plain view that are also practically invisible. My goal is to make obvious in your face art that 99% of the people who walk by won’t notice. Eventually when they stumble upon one or find out about it I’m hoping they’ll start wondering what else they’ve been missing. The dark doings behind the glass came from an out and out epiphany I had recently in Amsterdam’s red light district.
You once said, “I don’t like that a lot of art you see is devoted to not connecting with people… I err the other way and make things a little too easy and accessible.” What would you like people to experience when they look at your work? How would you like them to react?
For years I engaged in a pretty standard street art message-in-a-bottle type dialogue. Lately though I’ve been amping it up. When people come across my new stuff, ideally I’d like them to be jolted, physically shocked, maybe even jump a bit and scream, “HOLY SHIT!” or, “WHAT THE FUCK?!!” then have a nice aesthetic roller coaster ride through all sorts of levels of inquiry that ends with them deciding not to pry the piece off the door. One of the least important things I want the viewer to wonder is, ‘who did this’?
Where do your interests in portraiture, physical space, light and darkness stem from? These qualities prefigure in much of your work.
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been mesmerized by old master paintings. Not so much the imagery but the presence, that brief miraculous moment of transferral to the painting’s space—that down the rabbit hole alternate reality. A lot of art students start with realism as a jumping off point to their own more personal expression; I stuck with it though. I’ve never gotten over the thrill of creating the presence of real light and space on a flat surface. Lately, especially with the Dark Doings series I’ve added a deeper use of photoshop to my process and am presently totally freaked out and overwhelmed by the vast possibilities of this medium. I’d call it as heavy and important a tool as oil paint.
You have mentioned in the past that one of your primary inspirations is music. Whose work particularly moves you?
Yeah, listening to Johnny Cash, or Iggy Pop, Animal Collective, Steve Reich, Dylan, My Bloody Valentine—whatever comes up on the shuffle, seems to be the thing that I can rely on to keep me on track—from getting too insular and esoteric.
Do you like to read? If so, what writers inspire you? What have you read recently?
I am a reader. Fiction mostly. I grew up with Bukowski and Kerouac; Nabokov, Salinger, Sartre, Algren, but lately I’m happiest with the late 19th century early 20th stuff. Tolstoy and Chekhov; Jack London Conrad, stuff like that. I had a recent Beat revival which was pretty exciting, especially, Dharma Bums. Lately it’s been all the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings I can get a hold of. I think she’s terrifically under rated.
What is something people who do know your work would never guess about you?
Honestly, as far as I can tell, people don’t seem to spend much time wondering what I’m ‘really’ like. When people who don’t know me or my work meet me and find out I’ve had a long career doing free anonymous street art, they almost invariably say something like,“Wow, that’s great—but how do you make a living?” The answer, that I show ‘real’ art in galleries as well, always seems a bit disappointing to them, like they were hoping maybe I was a tattoo artist or a ventriloquist or something.