Interview with Craig Dershowitz
Throughout your history, you have demonstrated a recognition and appreciation for graffiti. In fact, you often refer to your hummingbirds as your tag. So, we will start this interview off with a real softball question – Care to try and define the difference between “street art” and “graffiti?”
Definitely not. That’s way too broad of a question. It requires definitions-which always end up as limitations. If pressed though, I’d say there’s probably little difference in the big picture. We’re all pretty much cave painters in the end. From slightly different caves maybe.
If that question is too easy, feel free to stand on one leg, while driving a Harley and juggling while answering.
How about this. What is the difference from a historical, artistic point of view? From the perspective of a collector? A police officer?
Again, these kind of distinctions are not my thing. There’s people who want to stay up all night talking about art theory. Let them. Reminds me of the tell-me-don’t-show-me types in art school. Dry. Deadly. But useful.
Now the police-there’s a subject I think about a lot. Ok. I’m probably going to get in trouble here—everyone please don’t get excited—but I have to confess: I suspect the reason I’ve never been arrested might not be as much about the kind of art I’m doing but more because I’m white. When the cops are in their cars scanning for trouble, I don’t fit the profile, they don’t see me. A black street artist friend of mine agrees with this. He’s been arrested several times. On the other hand though, he pointed out that he gets to travel and work in more interesting neighborhoods than me.
Last year I put some of my Do Not Enter Signs up in London. Because of time limitations I had to do it in the middle of the day. And I wanted them on busy, crowded Brick Lane. My friend D-Face lent me one of his fluorescent workmen’s vests. Apparently in England, once you put one of these vests on you become completely invisible. One of the mud people. It was kind of surreal actually. Cops walked by, shop owners saw me up on the ladder. Not a word. Until I went to a semi-posh organic pizza place to get lunch. No Service. I shit you not. They apparently didn’t want lowly ‘workmen’ in there. And we think we’ve institutionalized racism over here? Thie class thing they have over there is fucking cold. I literally could not get waited on. I left. When I told my friends there about it they weren’t at all surprised.
What about from a gallery attendant?
The difference between street art and Graffiti to art gallery people? Again, not my area. I will say that a lot of the people who work in art galleries, the interns and up and coming front desk types are often very hip to whatever’s new and groundbreaking that’s going on in art. Lately a lot of them are totally open to street art and graffiti and know the players and seem to “get it”. The art dealers though, the ones that sell the art, they see it from a different perspective. How can they sell something that you can’t own? To give them credit, some of them try, but in my case it never works out too well.
Honestly, I’ve never felt too comfortable showing my street art in galleries. Integrity’s not the problem, the stuff just looks weird and subdued on a clean well-lit interior wall. Aesthetically It doesn’t work. Doing street art and gallery work isn’t a conflict for me. I know this is a contentious subject for a lot of people but I don’t see the problem. I know that a younger angrier me used to like to accuse other creative types of selling out, as if I knew the correct code of conduct for how all artists should act. But after awhile it got pretty obvious that that kind of narrow minded church lady bullshit, that art school knowing what’s best for everyone crap, is a dead end and a real creative channel closer. By the way, that’s pretty much the story of my education-unlearning a lot of really lame predjudices.
I’ve always wondered how people will walk right past street art to go into a gallery…to see street art.
Yeah it’s funny. Or unnerving. I never realized how deeply people were sleepwalking until this year when I put up the fake ventilator grates on the new condo buildings. These pieces were glaringly obvious but it was amazing how long they lasted-how little they were noticed (and removed). More than once I watched the condo people somnambulate right by, oblivious, usually absorbed in their cell phones.
I was particularly drawn to this quote of yours: “Never go over someone else’s work—unless it’s expired posters or bygone territorial tagging. This is the cardinal sin of street art. It’s as bad as sleeping with your friend’s ex.” Increasingly, graffiti artists feel as if street artists lack this very respect. Are graff guys too sensitive or is there genuine cause for such a complaint?
I don’t like being told how to behave. Part of the beauty of this kind of work is the freedom from other people’s rules. No filters. We’ve all seen how such cool and original things can happen out of this anarchy. But lousy things happen too. I guess the deal is that for the good you’ve got to put up with a lot of the bad.
Being respectful of other artists is practical. I don’t go over people’s work because I don’t want anyone going over my stuff. If someone does tag over my stuff (which happens a lot less that you’d expect), I can say, “that sucks.” But I don’t dwell on it because I know it’s random and not payback or karmic retribution.
With the amount of attention being paid to illegal work, street space is at a premium. Has New York become one giant gallery? Are there still unexplored spaces?
Yeah it’s getting kind of cluttered out there. Especially in the hipster zones. That’s why I hit The Ugly New Buildings. I have to say I’ve always had reservations about putting up street art in bohemian neighborhoods—it’s preaching to the converted. To be fair though, it’s mostly a matter of necessity. Most graffiti and street artists in NYC don’t have cars.
Your work exists in two planes, both illegal pieces on the street and well-respected fine art in the gallery. Are the two mutually exclusive or beneficial?
The two things stay pretty separate. But probably my long running career as a street artist has gotten my name a bit known. That’s handy in the gallery world. People who buy art like to have heard of the person they’re about to spend money on. Even if they’re not sure where.
Similarly, your history is one of existing in two dimensions. You attended Cooper Union but got booted for doing…um…art. You were marking up the streets in the era of Basquiat and Haring, yet were not part of their circle. You come from the Midwest, yet lived in the Lower East Side in the worst parts of New York’s history. What gives?
I’ve got a restless streak that’s always left me chronically dissatisfied. I suppose it’s where my art comes from. Not belonging. Discontented. Keeping myself outside. The truth is I’ve always wanted to be happy and loved and accepted-to relax—but it never seems to quite work out. The one good thing, the one absolutely truly dependable constant in my life is painting. Whatever happens during the day, however hard life is closing in, if I’ve made something in the studio or on the street, I’m gonna be okay.
Tell us more about the art school scene? Our readers kind of imagine it to be this big hipster pillow fight. Any truth to that?
Beats me. The truth is I hated art school. I wasn’t part of the social life there. I was in bands. When I was at Cooper Union in the late seventies and early eighties people didn’t have the option of making it-getting rich and famous young. Back then you had to be a white man in his 40’s to even get a show. This crazy-making idea of art as a way to rock-star fame wasn’t a problem we had. Our way of coping with our lack of a future was scorning ambition, thinking it a sure sign of shallowness and superficiality. For better or worse I’ve held onto a lot of my old punk attitudes—which probably helps to explain my general lack of financial success to this day.
How much more open was the graffiti scene in the late 70s or early 80s? Was the mentality similar to that of today?
I really can’t say. I never knew anyone who was doing street art back then. I mean I’d meet people now and then but we didn’t hang out. It wasn’t until the internet and the Wooster Collective that I had any contact with the group mentality.
Can you give us a little description of the Punk and live music scene? Even the drug scene – similar to what is going on today?
Musicianship is way better these days but originality seems to be a lower priority. Rock and roll has become an interpretive art, like classical music. If you’re looking to be cracked open, beaten awake, it’s available though. Amazing stuff is out there.
Drugs seem to be more under control now. People seem to have gotten a bit smarter about that.
Is there anyone you look up to in their abandon or recklessness?
Iggy Pop. Animal Collective. Rembrandt. Goya. Bukowski.
What was the Lower East Side like in the early 80s? Is there any current day comparison?
The thing I remember is that violence, or the fear of it, was a daily worry. There’s plenty of neighborhoods in NYC that still compare.
Please tell us the craziest thing you ever witnessed downtown?
Doing street art? ? Or just crazy…there’s so much. I mean I spent most of my twenties on the art punk-band circuit. Every night journeying to the end of the night. I must have seen a lot except those were my drinking days…Even if I could remember I’m not sure I’d want to…
Just the other day I was telling a friend a story about how cool it was back when the city was broke and a mess, how you used to be able to drive out on these falling down piers on the west side and sit there and watch the river go by. Cops were too busy to care, weird possibly predatorial people were lurking around but it was great place to hang out on a hot summer’s night. Once I was sitting there with a girl-I think we were breaking up—and this old car drove up and this middle aged New Jersey couple got out and started having sex right in front of us. Like 10 feet away. Buck naked. Apparently they’d been driving around (naked!) looking for a place to do this. We were dumbfounded-and definitely scared. The couple was very methodical about it, very serious, almost national geographic. After they were finished, without a word they got in their car and drove away.
It is said you have a story for every street in the city. Can I test you? Give me a story about 2nd avenue, between 11th and 12th.
Yes! Finally! Thank you for asking that. Usually they’re embarrassing or bad things though. Stories featuring me as a loser. Ok, whatever. This is another one from the eighties… A close friend of mine lived on that block. We were kind of competitive painter buddies from our Cooper Union days. A few years after graduation I went over to his place for his birthday party. It was a big deal because we were all going to finally meet his boyfriend. I remember I wasn’t feeling well and wouldn’t eat any of the special cake the boyfriend had made and I had to leave early. Everything seemed nice and friendly but I heard later that his boyfriend thought I left because I was homophobic. My friend, who knew better, out of loyalty to his boyfriend, said he agreed. About a month later, late one night, drunk, I crashed my bike on 12th and Second. Right in front of their door. Nothing serious but the cops came. I’m pretty sure I caught a glimpse of the boyfriend peeking out at me thru the curtains.
Does the time and your setting influence your art? For instance, I am thinking about the Hoodies and the Bowery.
Location is sometimes the initial trigger for an idea. Some things transplant well though. Last year I did the Do Not Enter Series in NYC then brought it to London and Copenhagen. Generally I like that ‘Think globally, act locally concept. The hoodies were the most specifically localized thing I’d done until this year’s Ugly New Buildings.
So, what is the motivation for the Gates work?
It’s the last installment in the “Kilroy Variations” series. It’s been about a 3 year run riffing on the Kilroy was here image, This is really old school. Started back in WW II. it’s the first graffiti I remember being aware of as a kid and it still blows my mind…
This summer I hit the Ugly The New Buildings in the neighborhood.
In the past few years much of my part of Brooklyn has been torn down to make way for luxury housing. For better or worse it’s a totally new street-scape out here. Personally, I don’t much care for the style of modern architecture they’ve put up: it’s sterile and so arrogantly disconnected with the neignborhood it seems like giant alien space ships have landed in the night. But gentrification is a fact of life here, a force of nature, and at least there’s some interesting new surfaces to work with. These are photo-based, heavily re-painted stickers, mounted on plastic and glued to the walls of the Ugly New Buildings. I hit the Lower East Side and East Village in Manhattan, Long Island City in Queens, and Bushwick, Dumbo, Greenpoint and Williamsburg out here in Brooklyn.
Why did we not see more Anti-Bush art?
Good question. Anti Depressants? Idiocracy?
What has become of the artist as militant? Or, artist as voice for political change?
I don’t know if they’re doing stuff that’s not getting seen or just not doing it. Me, myself, I still believe in art as an agent for change. But in my own narratives, ideas that are too specifically targeted always fail. In 2006, when the extent of the Bush Administration’s war crimes were being revealed I did my “Man of Sorrows” series. For myself. To help me deal with the vast heartache of it all. You probably wouldn’t know the piece was about that though unless I told you.
It seems as if the subject of street art is getting more local – individuals. Is there a term for this?
Not sure. DIY? Acting Locally thinking globally?
Would you define graffiti as low-brow art?
Finally, the questions we always ask:
Ever been arrested?
Not for doing street art.
And Any graff artists that you respect?
Absolutely. Everyone who bombed a subway train in NYC from 1978 on, my eternal respect admiration and gratitude to you. Forever. You blew my mind and opened my eyes and permanently ruined my life. Thank you.