Interview with Chris Stain

Photo by Luna Park

If Chris Stain isn’t already in your street artist repertoire, this is someone you need to know. Baltimore bred and current New Yorker, Stain transitioned from graffiti writing in his early days to the stencil portraits and paste-ups that have made him known around the world today. The beauty in Stain’s work comes from his ability to capture the soul and often overlooked tenderness of the urban world.

1. Describe one of your first experiences with graffiti.

I got into graffiti after seeing the movie Beat Street in 1984. The only type of paint my friends and I had was Testors model car paint. The cans were small and you couldn’t get far with them but it was easily concealable.

We all lived in rowhomes in Balitmore so our main targets were houses on the end of the block because they had the biggest open wall space and traffic on the main streets could see our work. We also wrote in the alleys behind the houses as well, decorating the backs of peoples cinderblock fences. Once the neighbors caught on to who was writing all over the neighborhood we moved on. We really had no idea what we were doing. We mostly just wrote our new chosen aliases in a form of cursive and printing that we combined. Like the beginning of anything new it was incredibly exciting.

2. You’re an art teacher. Do you know if you’ve [accidentally] influenced any students into doing outdoor/illegal work?

I don’t think so. Any of the students who have shown a strong interest in graffiti or stenciling I have tried to get them involved with some of my legal murals. I knew a few who work on wood and cardboard outside using spraypaint. But I’m sure it’s very tempting to cross the line. I have explained to them the implications of arrest and how much of a waste of time it is being locked up. Unfortunately there are some aspects of society that glorify jail time which make the whole criminal lifestyle seem desirable and acceptable. If that lifestyle is all you have that’s one thing but if you have a choice it’s better not to blow it.

3. In reverse, has teaching influenced your own artwork?

The students have influenced my work a great deal. They bring so much to the table as far as their personalities and backgrounds and the cultures they grew up within. Since my main subject matter is people I just drink in everything the kids have to offer. We do a self portrait project in class where I photograph the students and they trace a line drawing from it. The line drawing is used to produce a film for screen printing. Some of the photographs come out so well that I use them in my own projects. When I took this photograph of Willem I knew I wanted to use it right away. He had so much character and pride of where he was from I just had to use it. The tattoo on his hand read’s “90’z” which is the area he lives in in East New York. For me the photo sparked a whole new set of ideas that I incorporated in a large stencil that I painted in NYC and Miami.

Willem (rubylith)
Willem (mural)

4. What inspired the last thing you made?

I just finished cutting a new rubylith the other day. It was a portrait of sorts of Gil Scott Heron. Until recently I have shyed away from pieces focused on famous people. This is mainly due to the fact that I didn’t want to capitalize off of their fame and try to make my work seem more attractive because of whose face was in the picture. With that said there are a few artists, writers, and musicians, who have truly inspired me that I wanted to pay some sort of homage to. I was fortunate enough to meet Gil Scot Heron after one of his performance’s in Manhattan. Of all his work the song Winter In America has probably struck me the hardest. I made 3 pieces based on that song. The new piece is more of a homage to Gil himself and his body of work. I appreciate most how he used his creativity to express inner city life and all that comes with it. Also if it wasn’t for the combined effort of himself and Stevie Wonder, Martin Luther King Day would not exist.


5. Last thing that made you laugh?

The last thing that made me laugh was running into the Atlantic Ocean on January 1st with my friends Kevin, Todd, Callie, Heather and Eric. We did the Polar Bear Plunge at Coney Island then hung out for most of the day. It made me realize that it’s not all bad times, that there are good times too. Although they are both temporary the good times help you get through the bad a little easier.

6. How do you choose the people or subjects of your work? 

I mainly work from photographs either ones that I take or one’s that I find. What I look for is emotions in the picture that speak to me in a way I can relate to. For instance I came across a photo taken by Boogie of a boy carrying a baseball on his shoulder. Now, It’s very possible that the kid was coming home from playing ball but for me it reminded me of what it meant to carry a baseball bat when I was a kid. It meant that you didn’t have to take crap from the older kids who felt like kicking your ass just because they could. For me it was a picture of a kid who wasn’t going to take crap from people anymore. So I re worked in a background and went for it.

Photo by Boogie

7. Any tattoos/scars? What’s the story?

I have too many tattoos with stories to mention. Instead I can tell you about my first tattoo which was done by Sweet Chuck in exchange for painting his club in Ohio. The image was drawn way back when I was in High School by my friend Flite from Philadelphia. It reads OUT TO LIVE in a graffiti style wreath. That was the name of our crew back then. I didn’t get the tattoo until 10 years after I graduated. Some scars too, both external and internal. For better or for worse they made me who I am today. I am certain there will be more tattoos and scars in the future.

8. Childhood heroes (real or fictional)?

It started with The Beatles, then Kiss, Ozzy, Grandmaster Flash, Run DMC, Rock Steady Crew, Futura, Dondi, Revolt, Zephyr, Seth Tobocman, John Fekner, Kathe Kollwitz, Martha Cooper, Ezra Jack Keats… 7 Seconds, Black Flag, Minor Threat, CRASS. So many people have influenced me up through my adolescence it’s hard to list them all. But the people who have influenced me most are the people I have been closest to. People I’ve worked with, lived with and worked for. Friends.


9. One thing you’d change about the world.

I’m still working on myself. If I can change myself I might have a chance at other things.

10. Worst/strangest experience with art?

In my 7th grade art class we were asked to make a calendar for the month of our birthday. As far as I can remember there weren’t any specific guidelines other than that. So I made a calendar filled with b-boy characters, graffiti, subway cars, buildings, and a big boom box with music notes floating out of it.

The teacher seemed to hate it. He said, “What does this have to do with anything?” I was crushed. It had everything to do with me and what I was into. From then on it’s been screw you to these “art” teachers. I make it a practice to try and not dump on people’s dreams even if it’s not my thing.

11. Best experience with art?

Just painting and making new friends. I’ve been lucky to have been able to travel and see new places and experience new things. Thanks to everyone who has made that possible for me. Thierry made a little video documenting a good time we had in Paris a few years back.

12. Plans or goals for 2012?

I want to try to share what I do with my kids more. They are getting old enough to start to mess around. On that last piece I just made, my son helped cut out a few parts. He came down to the basement when I was working and sat on my lap and wanted to get involved. I thought yeah, why not? Why didn’t I ask those guys if they wanted to try something sooner. I’d also like to do a few zines. Kevin, Josh, and I already have something planned called RESIDUE which will be a compilation of creative works in writing, photography and other arts by a variety of people that we are in touch with. Besides that I am continuing my studies at City College in Harlem for an Art Ed degree, teaching art part time in Brooklyn and Queens, and making new work whenever time is available. I have a few shows scheduled, and a residency coming up over the summer. My book Long Story Short will be released in the spring through DRAGO press as well.

13. Anything you’d like the world to know about yourself?

Nah, not really. I try to say it all with the work I produce, whether it’s stencils, graffiti, writing, teaching, or photography. Thanks for your interest. Thanks for your time. Cheers.

Images courtesy of Chris Stain