Robbie Conal is the latest artist in our Tim Hans shoots… series, where photographer Tim Hans takes photo-portraits of street artists and we pair Tim’s photos with an interview.
RJ Rushmore: What was it like to have your artwork, voice, and likeness featured on The Simpsons?
Robbie Conal: It was like being Knighted by the Queen of England. (In case you were wondering, that’s where Great Britain used to be.)
RJ: Most street artists put up the majority of their work themselves, some are even quite protective about not allowing others to put up their work, like stickers, for them. Why do you reach out to volunteers to put up your posters?
Conal: Do they? Really? Well, “I’ll be John Brown!”
I’m always looking for a communal experience: the posters are my little way of participating in the public dialogue about issues that are important (not just to me). You know, like that rumor called, “democracy.”
Likewise, getting a bunch of like-minded loonies together at, say, Canter’s Deli, in LA in the middle of the night, talking the talk, walking the perp walk—getting up a smack of counterinfotainment on the streets together—is a bonding experience. Those are the only moments in my life when anarchy actually works and I don’t feel so alone (you know, just me and my weird beliefs and my little pieces of paper)—ha! And, of course, we get more up for more peeps to see a minor surprise on their way to work or (these days) looking for it, in the morning.
RJ: Have many of your volunteers gone from putting up work with you to doing postering campaigns of their own?
Conal: There have been a few—plus some great graff writers have joined us, rather gleefully, I might add. MEARONE, MAN1, VYAL. KOFIE, AXIS, and Shepard Fairey to name a few.
Actually, MEARONE, Shep, and I did a guerrilla street poster national tour together in 2004. It was Mear’s, Shep’s and Elizabeth Ai’s idea, not mine.
You might vaguely remember that George Bush’s mafia stole the 2000 Presidential election. That pissed Mear, Shep, and Elizabeth (and a shitload of other people) off! Kind of politicized them— in the sense that it made them pay attention to “party politics.”
They decided that they’d each do an anti-Bush, anti-Iraq War street poster —in their own styles—and take’em on tour around the U.S. before the 2004 election. Then one fine day they came and got me, as in, “Hey, kids! Let’s go get the old guy out of his rest home on the west side and make it a triptych!” And I’m very grateful they did. Called the tour, “Be The Revolution.”
We had a tour launch party at the Avalon in Hollywood, 1,200 peeps showed up, Ozomatli, Culture Clash, the great slam poet Jerry Quickley all performed. My offset-litho printer, Typecraft, Inc. in Pasadena printed up @ 15,000 full color street posters, 5,000 of each of ours—pro bono. We rocked around the country as best we could. It was verrrry interesting.
RJ: What do you think about the street art movement’s popularity over the last few years?
Conal: To be honest, I always thought it was inevitable. My idea of genuine indigenous American art forms is based on a “bubble up” theory of cultural creativity. The “American Dream,” of single family home ownership, keeping your kids “safe,” you know, away from the mean streets of, say, any “inner city” neighborhoods in any big city, pushes families into places like Pacoima, Simi Valley, Orange County, for Chrissakes! There’s nothing for young teens to do out there. “Safe”? A 14 year old red blooded American kid taken out to nowhere with nothing to do? Give me a break!
However well meaning, that’s some idiot’s idea of safe. But give a kid access to some markers and a U.S. Post Office with free mailing address label stickers and all that nowhere time . . . SHAZAM! You’ve got a budding graff/street artist! Likewise: Give a kid a skateboard (and nothing else)—what were they back in the day: a slab of wood and 4 fucked up, salvaged old clip-on roller skate wheels, right?—the kid will live on it 12 hours/day/7 days/week and be able to skate air on that thing. Stacy Peralta makes Tony Alva makes Shawn White makes that kid in Pacoima (or frickin Frozen Tundra, New Jersey, for that matter!) into a world-class creative athlete. Same goes for a kid and a bike—Simi Valley suddenly ain’t so bad. Cause there’s plenty of room for you get on your pony and work out new tricks—the contemporary equivalent of a cowboy/girl and his/her pony out on the range. Instead of becoming a rodeo champion, the kid invents The X Games!
Then there’s the fashion industry: how do you monetize a great graff piecer’s work? Put it on something a fan can walk away with. Like a T-shirt. Make bank at the same time you’re making the fine art world think it’s missing something, and you’re in it. Fine with me, pal.
RJ: The way you start with oil paintings and then turn those into poster is pretty atypical. It seems like the more typical process for activist street art would be to make something in a format that is quick to develop and quick to print (like Shepard Fairey or Emory Douglas). How did you develop your method of starting with oil paintings and turning those into posters?
Conal: I’m a painter. I went to art school all my life. When I was 8 years old—in NYC—my parents sent me to The Art Students’ League to (on 57th Street) by myself—to draw dead flowers and, you know, plants and vegetables. Some fruit—an apple, an orange—what they called “still life.” I wanted to draw naked ladies, but the administrators there told my parents I was too young. Theodoros Stamos, an excellent abstract expressionist painter who was teaching there at the time, would sneak me into the “life drawing” classes. He’d say, “OK kid, there’s your naked lady—just sit down, shut up, and draw.”
Actually, that was probably the only thing that could get me to shut up. Then and now.
When I was 13, I went to the High School of Music & Art—a public “specialty” school—pretty much just like LA High School for the Arts is now. They smell exactly the same.
From ’63-’69, I majored in art and psychedelic drugs at San Francisco State. I was an O.H., an “Original Hippie.”
M.F.A. at Stanford (’78) and blah-blah-blah…you get the idea.
So street art, postering, came after all that. But painting is still how I get my torque on the subjects I address. Like Lucien Freud said, for me, “paint is flesh.”
RJ: Although you’re an important figure in the street art movement, you don’t seem to be so pigeonholed as solely or mostly a street artist, unlike many of your contemporaries. Do you think that being an oil painter has helped you to avoid being pigeonholed in that way, or is it something else?
Conal: I’m not sure about that—it might have a little to do with it. Mainly because one of the many, many artificial hierarchical rankings in the history of the Western Art aesthetic is that oil painting is the highest form of art making. Ha! (And I start with paint, so I don’t have to prove to the art world that my choice of medium is “worthy.”)
But, to be honest, I think it’s my perspective on the world—outside of whatever specific venue my art might be inhabiting at any particular moment—street, art gallery, museum, private home, man cave, dungeon. My thought process is always political—and I’ve had both an academic and a full-on mean streets education.
Also, my parents were union organizers in NYC in the 1930’s and 40’s. My Dad was “blacklisted,” by the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950’s. That was basically for having different ideas from its august members about systemic political and economic issues, like what government’s job is; what system of government and what economic system could best (and how much it should) provide for the health, education and welfare of its citizenry.
ART has always been my most receivable way of expressing myself about issues I care about. (Meaning, you really don’t want to hear me whining about what I think is wrong with the world, now do you? You’re way better off, if you just look at the nasty portrait of the ugly old white man in a suit and tie. Read the 2 or 3 punny words. Work it out for yourself.) Democracy, with a small “d” being my pet peeve. In the sense that I miss it, want it back (the small amount of it we ever had). I sincerely think the world desperately needs it for us to survive. And I’m a wise guy. So, as for ordnance—the instruments of mass destruction at my disposal—all I got is wise ass humor, sweat equity, and an evil eye.
Photos by Tim Hans; Shepard Fairey, Robbie Conal and MearOne posters courtesy of Robbie Conal