Interview by Brian Katz
From Bozack Nation Issue #002. April, 2003
—What made you take your art to the streets in the first place? (what year, etc.) Is this while you were at Cooper Union?
Okay, The story goes…I started making street art back in the late 70’s at Cooper Union. I’d recently arrived in NYC from the mid-west; I’d spent a year at RISD but the east coast and the city were still intimidating. It didn’t take me very long though to become pretty much underwhelmed by what I was seeing in the commercial art world. Gallery art then was cool and minimal, dominated by middle aged white men showing inscrutable, intellectually pedigreed objects in pristine white rooms. Plus, most of my art school colleagues were fashionably dogmatic—under the spell of various elitist theory texts which seemed to me obviously exclusionary, and worse, dull.
At the same time, New York City was spinning totally out of control. In the clubs and alternative spaces there was all this howling punk music and edgy performance art going on. On the streets, train bombing and break dancing were hitting their peak. Being a kid, being a typical art student, naturally favoring anarchy and rebellion over the status quo, for me, going the art school route-grad school, teaching etc.—seemed absurd. A future being a Serious Artist gossiping and networking and merchandising art works that would “dialogue” successfully with other competing neo-whatever types, who, let’s face it, didn’t much like me and my spiky haired realist painting ways anyway, was clearly not even an option. Ya gotta go where it’s warm, so I moved outside and me and my friends all started bands and I began experimenting with street art.
—How does using the street as your canvas influence your art (or vice versa)?
Each influences the other, but in the end it all comes out pretty much even. True, certain technical advances in the digital realm brought on by the needs of some of my outdoor projects have had an impact on my studio work. And no doubt things I’ve learned at the easel have enhanced my street stuff. Each feeds the other—makes the other grow I think, which is crucial for maintaining and sustaining not merely a sense of progress, but that all-important-momentum. We’ve all seen so many others go stale.
Also, I think working out doors for so long, especially in the “non-permissional” realm, lends me a certain outsider status, an attitude of defiance and independence which shows up elsewhere in my life, creative and otherwise.
—How important is location and placement? And how do you go about choosing spots?
Location is influenced by several factors. If there’s a target audience or neighborhood like I wanted for the Hoodie’s or the Hummingbirds, then there’s that; if there are particular textural requirements, like the graffiti and psychedelic surfaces the trompe l’oeil series interacted with, I’ll pursue that—wherever it is. Choosing a target can be purely self serving as well. For a couple of years, knowing I was headed out here to live, I made a ring around Brooklyn: exploring different neighborhoods.
One common factor I’m consistently attracted to is the idea of non art types being exposed to my work. With this in mind I’ve avoided most artsy neighborhoods, or the artsy parts of artsy neighborhoods. The critical factor in all this is the motorcycle. Except for the hoodies (because I needed a ladder), I cruise everywhere on my bike with whatever equipment—airbrush, airtank, 4×5 camera, whatever, in the saddle bags. I can see more on a bike, park it anywhere, make quick getaways. Sometimes I think people leave me alone cause they’re intimidated by the bike (even though it’s an old and humble BMW), and even though I’m hardly a “biker”, I’ve accumulated a good number of tattoos over the years.
In the WTC shrines that obviously had to be where it was. The star vectors just seemed to resonate. Originally I wanted all the installations to be on actual site-lines from ground zero but in the end that wasn’t practical. Also, after the Brooklyn Ring, to ratchet up the challenge, I wanted to more specifically explore letting a map (a random structure) dictate the rules of play.
Another criteria for location scouting is how much I can get away with. Although, over the years, I’ve developed almost Ninja like invisibility, I’m mindful to minimize the risk from police and doormen. Being white helps here. Another choice I make is not to hit spots that look like it might bug someone too personally—a clean door to someone’s house etc. Also, I don’t ever touch any other artist’s work. I’ll go over territorial tagging but only if it’s sunk in-if it feels like I’m not stepping on anyone. Mostly, other artists extend me the same courtesy.
—You continue to paint traditional canvasses as well. Do you still exhibit in galleries? If so, are they 2 seperate universes (ie. does that world recognize your street projects)?
Yeah. I exhibit, make my living. The two universes are pretty separate. Artists name’s can have something called a “buzz”. Apparently the buzz crosses the line but that’s about it. Buyers rarely do. And my friends and support network usually divide between the street and easel camps. Galleries don’t seem to know what to make of my street photos. They try occasionally but in the end it just seems puzzling to them. I’m usually lucky to break even on my street art projects.
—A lot of your art seems to be fun or have a sense of humor. Aside from the obvious, what was the inspiration behind the rather poignant WTC candles? Anything specific?
For about a week after September 11th, every night I lugged my large format photo equipment to Union Square Park and photographed the shrines. I wasn’t sure why, I didn’t have a clear idea or project in mind, I guess I was just groping in the dark, doing my best to process the unimaginable like everyone else. One thing I did know: every time I put the hood on and the tiny flickering candles materialized on the glass, I felt something, some kind of a connection to all those poor extinguished souls.
Like all my projects, the inspiration was a complicated intermingling of hunches and timing. I look back and marvel at the luck I had at resisting some very tempting bad decisions. This piece is definitely my favorite. It’s the cleanest, and by far and away the most effective (for me). Sept. 11th re-set my thinking-it reminded me that making art and especially making street art is not all about me.
As far as the humor goes—I personally am repelled by Serious, and especially inscrutable hi-art public art. I think any art-works in public should be publically accessible. Period. Things that don’t—and there’s a lot of them—are a nuisance and alienating and cause the public to (rightly) blanket condemn all art and ignore it out of hand. Humor, realism, whimsy, are techniques I use to provide access. Illusionism (that parlor trick with the airbrush shadow) is my current favorite. Any kid, any person, can get some level of access if you let them. It doesn’t mean that you’re dumbing down your work for some dullest common denominator. The pieces of mine that succeed have levels way beyond the entrance access. Meanings I couldn’t have predicted. That’s why I think the WTC piece is successful.
—My personal favorite project is the “hoodies”. Were you really trying to call attention to heroin spots with those?
Not so much as call attention, or seek awareness from the outside, but to leverage a…a…what?—a poetic cipher? I don’t really know-actually, I have to confess, I still don’t know. It was the early nineties, the lower east side was a mess-street-life was chaotic and brutal and there was no recovery in sight. The hoody image was abstract to me. An instinct.
And it wasn’t just about drugs. HIV, crime, intolerance…a plague of hopelessness and despair. Big time grim reaper stuff. A tough time in my own life too.
—Which of your projects is your personal favorite? And would you say you are still most strongly identified by the “birds” project?
The WTC shrines is my favorite. Absolute grace throughout that entire incredibly complicated process. Like a dream it was. I still can’t touch it.
The birds got the most attention. Which when you consider that was my first big project, and my exposure has pretty much dwindled down since then, you might consider it ain’t exactly an accident. Don’t get me wrong: I like attention. I like people to know about these things, and it helps my name when I make a rare stab at a public commissions, but I’m definitely wary of the corrupting influence too much publicity can have on me. Yes. I’m probably most known for “The Birds of Manhattan”.
—Any thoughts on how street art has changed in the time you have been active? Any other street artists that stand out or have made an impression on you?
Street art’s the same. Technology has amped up the noise a bit, especially sticker-wise, but the attitude’s been remarkably consistent this past 20 odd years. I’ve always loved the risk takers—starting with bombing trains, to these days, the big breaking and entering climb a roof stunt roller pieces. To me that’s so extreme, so over the top, that it pushes me to keep topping myself. Unfortunately, danger, or risk, seems to be compulsively attractive to me.
—What should we look out for next from Dan Witz? Do you see yourself retiring from the streets anytime soon?
Not sure what’s next (or not sayin’). Definitely not retiring. In the end here it’s just like the beginning—it’s all about listening for what’s gonna ring true. Still though, just being out there, doing the deed (and getting away with it), there’s still no better feeling-I can’t imagine I’ll ever feel more fulfilled making art.