Vandalog Interviews – Retna

Photo by DoubleKf

One of the best examples of the grey area that I love between street art and graffiti is Retna. The artist that I most wanted to watch paint last year at Primary Flight was Retna. I remember seeing one of Retna’s faux-marble sculptures at Primary Flight’s Blue Print For Space show and thinking “Damn, he needs to do that in real marble and I’d want one in every room of my house.” One of the first pieces of graffiti that I saw upon arriving in Philadelphia last month was an piece by Retna. For the last year or so, Retna has secretly been climbing toward the top of my list of favorite artists. His art works equally well indoors or outdoors, alone or in collaborations. He deals with subject matter ranging from politics and spirituality to fashion and street culture, but he doesn’t feel all over the place because it’s all part of a continuing push to bring things to a new level.

Recently, Retna took some time to talk to us here at Vandalog for this exclusive interview. And if you enjoy this interview (and even if you don’t for some reason), I highly suggest that you check out the September issue of Juxtapoz where Jeffrey Deitch shares his thought on Retna (excerpted here) and Retna is interviewed in-depth.

This is the first in Vandalog’s series of interviews in anticipation of the Moniker International Art Fair. Retna’s work will be shown at the fair in New Image Art Gallery‘s booth. Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll be posting more interviews with a number of artists involved in Moniker.

How did you become interested in graffiti art?

My first encounter with graffiti was when I was a kid—I remember going out in my backyard and seeing a group of older guys hanging out on the roof a couple houses away writing gang blocks. At the age of 8, I was fascinated and already trying to imitate what they were doing. I was immediately attracted to the art form of graffiti and wanted to know how it was done, so I started practicing writing letters and eventually developing my own style.

How did your affiliation with MSK and AWR come about?

It begins and ends with my oldest group of friends.

Something that has always intrigued me about your work is its unique use of the Latin alphabet. Where did the idea to incorporate this technique in to your work originate? Was this style something you were already familiar with or did you have to learn it from scratch and adapt it?

The incorporation of text in my work is a direct result of my graffiti background. It’s become my way of bridging the gap between graffiti art and fine art. My style of writing is something that I have created and refined over the years by taking inspiration from various sources including Egyptian hieroglyphics, Old English calligraphy and traditional graffiti writing.

Photo by Lord Jim

When you’re creating a piece that incorporates this type of lettering how often are you actually creating an encoded message, rather then just using the font purely for aesthetics?

Although some may see the text as aesthetically pleasing and merely as symbols, I never write random letters. All my pieces can be decoded into full messages and words that translate into English or Spanish.

Photo by Revok
Photo by Revok

Creating murals by yourself or with others seems to play a very big part in what you do. One thing I’ve noticed is your consistency in collaborating with EL MAC. How did you guys meet and what is it that keeps bringing you back together for these awesome collabs?

Mac and I first met about ten years ago when we were painting side by side at an art event in Mexico and then we were reintroduced about five years ago—that’s when we completed our first collaborative mural. Our work garnered such a positive response that we realized that we had a strong synergy and we’ve been working together ever since.

Retna and El Mac. Photo by anarchosyn
Retna and El Mac. Photo by Hargo

How has L.A. Influenced your style since you were first introduced to the mural culture at an early age?

I was born and raised in Los Angeles so I grew up watching all the other great graffiti artists and muralists, and aspiring to be like them. I want to do the same for others—I want to create work that’s so awe-inspiring that it motivates others to get into art. I would love to be a footnote in someone else’s career and hear that they were inspired by something I created.

Lets talk a little about the latest installation you did over at the Rivera & Rivera Gallery, where you created a floor-to-ceiling installation piece. What was it like working on such a large scale?

I have worked on some large-scale murals before, so that was not a challenge for me. However what I did find challenging was, visualizing the piece on a three dimensional scale. The piece at Rivera & Rivera was the first time where I incorporated additional elements, like fabric, to my painting to create a truly interactive installation that fully engaged viewers.

Photo by Unurth

What was the inspiration behind the Desaturated exhibition? It seemed quite fashion orientated. Is this something you’ve become interested in as urban art and fashion seem to have merged together rather quickly.

I don’t think I’m into fashion all of a sudden because it has merged with urban art; I’ve always admired people who have dope style. That includes people from all over the world and their style, whether is unique to them or traditional according to their heritage—if it looks good, I’m going to like it. The same goes for the images of the Desaturated exhibition, I wasn’t as concerned with what they were wearing as much as I was about what the overall image looked like.

Photo courtesy of New Image Art Gallery

And finally, what does the future hold for RETNA? In regards to your work, new projects and any other personal aspirations you have in life. Is there anyone you’d like to give a shout out to?

I can’t say I know what the future holds. The only thing I am focused on right now is making new work and continuing to do what I do.

Be sure to check out more from Retna by visiting his official website here

Photos by Unurth, Hargo, anarchosyn, Revok, Lord Jim, DoubleKf and New Image Art Gallery