A deep dive with NTEL

NTEL in Philadelphia. Photo by Steve Weinik.

NTEL is one of my favorite Philly graffiti writers. From stickers to throw-ups and extinguisher tags to beautiful pieces, plus sculpture and other methods of getting up, is one of the most versatile and unique writers in the city. That’s why I’m so excited to include his work in ALL BIG LETTERS, which opens today at Haverford College’s Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery in Haverford, PA. NTEL also has a solo show coming up next week at the Deep Space gallery in Jersey City, NJ. With these two shows approaching, NTEL and I thought that it would be the perfect time to chat about art, politics, philosophy, and his unique approach to graffiti. Enjoy!

RJ: Does the title WORLD WAR FREE, or the upside-down flag on the flyer, have anything to do with the fact that the show opens just one week after Trump’s inauguration?

NTEL: Unfortunately, it was not a conscious pre-conceived link to Trump’s inauguration, specifically. It was just a perfect little accident, which sadly would have been just as relevant regardless of who ‘won’ the election. The title, upside-down flag, the color palette of the works, and the Philosophies behind them reflect a variety of issues, locally and globally, that add up to the senseless actions like, electing a racist, ignorant, short-tempered, bully/pussy, sexist, greedy, scared, Narcissist into one of the most powerful positions in the World. The absolute worst part of it is that we as a People, are the ones who hold the most blame. Americans should feel even more responsible, because Amerikkka is often the original engineer of the lifestyle trends, violence, and legislatures that become so popular, World-wide. We let them get away with their Black Coffee Briefings, and never hold them accountable when they breach the laws of Man, Morals, or ‘God’. We allow them to frighten, confuse, exhaust, and overwhelm us into accepting The Christie’s and The Trump’s of our Society. We literally and figuratively buy into what they’re selling from the Capital to Corporations, which only encourages their behavior. It’s all of our faults.

The title, WORLD WAR FREE, is an evolution of WORLD WAR THREE. It is the next stage. WWIII has been going on for years, ‘informally’ through globalization and exploitation of the World’s peoples and resources from biased, mis-used politics, greed, ‘smaller’ wars, injustices, and disregard for Culture. Even though there have been no declarations, or structured movements, or open references to a WWIII – proper, the actions of our policy and product makers over the past few decades have had the same effect. Global Alliances. Social and Economic Abnormalities. Destruction. Hatred.

RJ: You’re a relatively anonymous guy. What inspired you to create a show that’s basically a timeline of your life? Are you starting to shed that cloak a bit?

NTEL: First off, no, I have no intentions of hanging up my cloak. I will keep myself, and my secrets, a secret for as long as the people around me can keep a secret. Even though this body of work is based on the story of my Life, it was constructed as to keep key details private. Some names, faces, dates, and locations have been changed to protect the innocent guilty.

RJ: How did you develop your rather unique vocabulary that mixes military lingo, philosophy, hip hop, radical politics, survivalism, a healthy paranoia, and food justice? What took you from writing a name to using that name as an anchor for education and political expression?

NTEL: My vocabulary, be it with a paint stroke, train-of-thought, or written word, began at an incredibly young age. It was then molded, broken, enlightened, and re-affirmed throughout my childhood into my adult years where it was eventually more refined. I come from a long line of Military Service, and I was born on a Government Installation surrounded by barbed-wire with a Chemical Warfare Preparedness bag by the front door at all times. My Mother was a Weapons Safety expert, handling large munitions for Bombers and Fighters. She was into Music, Antiques, History, Charity, and Motorcycles, and stuff. My Father worked on covert Re-con Aircraft, or Spy Planes, and continues to serve. He was always an Outdoorsman/Survivalist, Cook, Builder, Farmer, Adventurer, Politician, etc. He is currently working with some of the latest Drone programs. Because of his clearance, I wasn’t made aware of my true birthplace until I was about 7. Our household was broken, violent, and alcoholic, and Dad walked out the same year that both my Parents were called to serve in Operation Desert Shield. I’ve moved every few months to 2 years my entire Life, and I was raised (literally) all over the World, in Cities, Farms, Villages, Embassies, Airports, Institutions, Installations, and Detention Centers. I’ve been a foreigner, a minority, and an Immigrant. Where I grew up, Martial Law, and bomb threats were common place. Tanks, Hum-V’s, and heavily armed personnel roaming the Streets was normal. I’ve seen high-ranking Officers and young dependents alike, commit Suicide. I’ve been arrested by Rogue OSI Agents. I’ve seen friends killed by Nazis, and watch Police and Firemen take advantage of underage intoxicated girls. I’ve seen Amerikkka’s Foreign Policies play out first-hand, and have heard the opinions that other societies have about Amerikkka. I’ve been directly impacted many times. I’ve seen all the double-standards. I’ve learned to say Hello and Goodbye, even to my Parents who left us to serve countless tours (no matter our Age) from The Gulf War to the current ‘War on Terror’. More importantly, I’ve experienced just as much beauty, and kindness, and miracles, through all of the PTSD and family therapy. I’ve seen the truest love, loyalty, and sacrifice. I’ve learned to forgive. I’ve learned to Hunt, grow Food, think free and survive in Police States. I’ve learned to put trust in the Universe, and fight for a better cause.

This is where my current Philosophies stem from. This is the Environment I grew up in, and the influences I had. This is where I learned how to ride a bike and play sports, and write poetry, play Music, steal, do Drugs and get away with Crimes. This is where I grew into an Artist and a Graffiti Writer. Growing up this way was hard, and emotional, and confusing, but it also gave me great perspective, and empathy. All of the environments that raised me, the people in my Life, the things I’ve done and been forced to do. It has all contributed. Everything I’ve ever Painted or Written down has stemmed from actual personal experience, and conclusions thereof. These words and images are not for entertainment purposes only.

For me, Philosophy, Social Justice, Political Expression, and everything else came years before writing my name. With so many interests at a young age, a hunger for Life mixed with a rebellious creative Soul, and the blessings of being subjected to many different points-of-view, I knew I wanted to do a lot of different things when I grew up, and ‘BE’ more than one person. I want(ed) to be an Artist, Designer, Philosopher, Thinker, Psychologist, Architect, Politician, Porn Star, Philanthropist, Author, Poet, Filmmaker, Revolutionary, Naturalist, Biologist, Farmer, Gangster, Engineer, Sports Hero, Fireman, Astronaut, and then a Graffiti Writer. I fell in love with Graffiti as a pre-teen, and I also saw it as a great tool to help further my Dreams. Graffiti makes everyone a One-Man-Marketing-Campaign, and through it I try to show people my Creativity and Theories. I’ve always hoped that it will then offer opportunities outside of Graffiti and Art alone, where I can contribute to Society on a much larger scale, continue to have new experiences, help people, work with new mediums, Design, Build, Destroy, start a Revolution, run for President, and make World Peace.

RJ: Your contributions to ALL BIG LETTERS are, for a couple of reasons, different from just about everything else in the exhibition. How are you hoping people will react when they see your installations?

NTEL: After 18+ years of pursuing an ‘Art Career’ and 30+ years of creating in general, it is (thankfully) hard to consider the reactions on the other side of the finished work. Of course I want to invoke a reaction or feeling, and naturally people feel better when their work is accepted, so it’d be cool if everyone likes it, but it would be just as cool if they don’t. I think about myself, and the Art and Graffiti Gods only, when I create. For those that are familiar, I am hoping it’s not too boring, and for those who see if for the first time, I hope they are interested and excited, and realize Graffiti can take on dozens of forms. I hope it inspires them to make Graffiti, using unconventional methods, and I am of course also hoping that these simple little installs may lead to bigger complex projects.

RJ: Most writers stick to spray paint, rollers, stickers… a certain preset handful of mediums and tools. Even when COST and REVS crushed it with wheatpaste in the 90’s, other writers never really took that up. But you use all sorts of tools that most writers would never consider. What sort of reaction do you get from the graffiti community when they see you installing sculptures on walls or Toynbee Tile-like works at crosswalks?

NTEL: I’ve always been inspired by, and have had tons of admiration for those two for pushing into an alternative medium during that era in the States. Graffiti is a hard Culture to break of its so-called ‘traditions’, and still be respected, especially in Amerikkka. Luckily, I began writing in Europe where their Ideals about what Graffiti is, and techniques involved, were allowed to be a bit more abstract and inventive. I believe this contributed a lot to my alternative methods of Bombing. In addition, I’ve always been interested in materials and Architecture, and being creative and different, and (hopefully) inspirational, even if people don’t like it. I’d do them anyways. So far, no one has seemed to mind the installs, tiles, and other randomness… at least not to my face. It’s been all positive feedback and support.

This acceptance is, I think, at least partially due to a crucial step that a Graffiti Writer must take no matter what forms they wish to practice, and that is to earn and maintain the respect of the Spray Community within Graffiti Culture. Nowadays, Graffiti’s fans, participants, and classifications are varied, and I think it’s relatively easy to gain positive feedback overall, but if we are talking about the opinions and reactions of the purist Orthodox Graffiti Community, then I believe you must Bomb prior to, or simultaneously while doing Installs or Posters, and whatnot. Graffiti can take on many forms, and there are many sects within the culture (Cleans, Freightheads, Sticker-bombers, Pasters, Tag-bangers, etc), but pure Graffiti began illegally with paint, and proper respect to those foundations should remain, especially if one wishes to gain true admiration from the Orthodox Community. So, if you have skills and a reputation with traditional Bombing, don’t disrespect other Artists, pay your dues, and your ‘alternative’ Graffiti is dope, then I think you can pretty much do whatever you want in the Streets without receiving negative vibes.

ALL BIG LETTERS opens January 20th at the Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery in Haverford, PA. WORLD WAR FREE opens January 27th at Deep Space in Jersery City, NJ.

Photos by Steve Weinik and courtesy of NTEL