Caroline Caldwell is a student, artist, dancer, photographer, DJ, and all-around troublemaker. She enjoys classical music, film and literature, as well as science and culture studies. Caroline grew up on the outskirts of Philadelphia, where she developed an interest in urban culture, dance, and graffiti writing at the age of fifteen. When she was kicked out of a high school art class a year later, this interest grew to include street art. As it turned out, most art looked better on brick walls and train stations then in classroom closets. Enthralled by the idea of visually modifying public space, Caroline soon found her way out of the science section and into a culture that did not seek approval, that was not created for anybody and yet exists for everybody.
I just discovered a list on my phone of headlines for fake/satire street art articles that I wanted to write a few years ago, but never found/created a satire art site to pitch it to. So here they are:
Non-native Street artist had a lot to say about gentrification
The difference between street art and graffiti, according to angry graffiti writer
Street artist priced out of own neighborhood
Blogger recently discovers women are also artists, decides to “put them on the map”
Local mom discovers “possible Banksy” which is clearly signed by other artist
Man does first piece of graffiti, immediately makes Instagram
Why bodega tribute murals are the realest shit on the street
Local artist with no street presence commissioned to do “graffiti” in new barber shop
[Famous Artist who I won’t name] paints pretty woman’s face from NEW angle
Instagram famous street artist discovered to have only painted one wall repeatedly. “The internet enabled this”
First ever graffiti group show happens for the 300th time
Small town overwhelmed by years of street art festivals “we have no more white walls”
Shepard Fairey indecisive about personal stance on political controversy
What if the real Banksy is “friendship”?
Shepard Fairey peer pressured into collaboration: “sometimes it’s easier just to do it,” he says quietly.
I’m bored. You’re bored. Punk is dead. Cowabunga ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
PS, Shepard, I think ur great. I know u can take a joke.
Today we’re posting an interview that RJ and I conducted, but which we’re conflicted about. It’s an interview with Justin BUA, host of the upcoming tv show Street Art Throwdown, which premieres tonight on Oxygen.
Frankly, the show makes us a bit sick. It’s a contest/reality show like Project Runway or Work of Art, but with a focus on street art. Commenting on the show, some of the most respected people in the street art community have said “Don’t know whether to laugh or cry” (Martyn Reed), “Can we call it over now?” (Raymond Salvatore Harmon), and “Fuck this fame hungry ‘like me’ mainstream culture desperate for peer acceptance. … Any person who thinks this is art – fuck you too- it’s not. … Do not confuse fame with talent. Shame on The Street Art Throwdown, Justin Bua and Lauren Manganaro for selling out this culture” (Artist asked to remain anonymous). Okay, so we haven’t actually seen the show yet, but from the casting call, online video teasers, and common sense about reality tv, that all sounds about right.
Our negative visceral reaction left us wondering: What the hell does BUA think he’s doing? So we asked, and it seems like he came back with some honest answers.
RJ and Caroline: How do you respond to prominent members of the global street art community who suspect that Street Art Throwdown will be an exploitative dumbing-down of the contestants and the culture?
It would be nice to know who those “prominent members” that you are referring to are? Because there are many “prominent members” who are actually appearing on the show like Ron English, Mear One, OG Slick, Lady Pink, Claw Money, Jules Muck and others who thought this was a great idea and not an exploitative one. This is TV, a collaborative medium, so there are always concessions. That being said, the good of making this into a TV show out weighs the bad for me. The good is that this show gives a platform for a beautiful art form that the majority of the world views as vandalism. Most of America thinks the average street artist is a hooded vandal lurking in the shadows tagging on public property with no artistic veracity. This show is a good educational tool to showcase not only the skill sets of the contestants but their unyielding necessity to paint. Also the captive TV audience, who might never get a glimpse at a true master artist like Mear One will get the opportunity to see how powerful his craft and other judges and competitors artists skills are.
There are many artists, who I consider prominent, who have done various commercial projects that many would consider “exploitative” like Shephard Fairey’s Nike campaigns—Nike is considered by some an exploitative corporate conglomerate monster. Futura 2000’s collaboration with the alcohol company Hennessy, and the list goes on… Most artists I know, including myself, have done work for “the man” whose companies’ integrity is suspect. Artists need recognition and there is no bigger and mightier podium than Television. There is a difference between “selling out” and having an actual say in the discussion. I respect debate more than I respect shutting people down when you don’t agree. This show furthers a debate and let’s people in instead of locking them out.
Does Street Art Throwdown maintain the illegality that is practically inseparable from graffiti and street art? Is that important to you?
There is clear distinction between Street Art and Graffiti. Street Art was birthed from Graff… So is this show illegal? No. This show is called Street Art Throwdown not Graffiti Art Throwdown. This is not a Graff-centric show. There is Graff repped, but this is Street Art in the context of a television reality show. There are realistic aspects of the culture like the physicality of the high-octane challenges that mimic life as an artist on the street as well as the time constraints that represent what it’s like to paint fast and furious. This is not a documentary about street artists painting illegally. But it is the first of its kind as a competition reality show that is just one part of a sometimes trangressive practice.What an artist does on this show does not affect a street artist or graffiti writer painting a wall and making their mark or co-opting or interacting with public space. This show highlights one aspect of those complex realities and personalities that people posses as they move back and forth between criminal acts and law abiding and creative forms of expression… like we all do. We are too complex to be reduced to just one aspect of what it means to be a street artist, and I am showing the most visually stunning side of this world.
What is your own relationship with the law and law enforcement?
Used to be not the best ever, but I have learned that there are good cops and there are bad cops, but I have been unlucky with respect to my personal interactions with the law. I hope this show will ask people to realize that street artists and what they do are just as complex and diverse as cops’ lives and actions. We need to take a step back and let individual action and expression tell its own story. When we do that we may actually get along a lot better as a society based on experience and respect instead of generalization one way or another.
You’re a well-known commercial and fine artist and you wrote graffiti at one point, but Oxygen describes you as a street artist. What is your connection to street art?
I started on the walls and in Black-Books back in NYC, but these days I paint on my easel. I did a 20-foot mural the other day in Los Angeles but for the most part I keep my painting in my atelier and paint with either acrylics or oils. That being said I am a documentarian because of my understanding and appreciation of graff, street art and art. I was the first artist to ever paint a narrative of a Graffiti artist prowling in the Ghost Yard. (The Ghost Yard also known as the 207th street Repair overlooking the Harlem River.) I made this image, entitled, BUA 420, into a poster, massed produced, for the world to see, experience and appreciate. In my painting entitled “The Artist” I document those nascent moments of the historically significant graff artist. This painting represents an era when we had to paint. When there were no advertising companies recruiting street art, where it was a pure culture. By naming my painting “The Artist” I am I circumventing any pre-conceived notions of calling him anything other thanan artist. Thereby giving him more significance. By naming him the Artist it challenges the naïve idea that graff writers can’t be artists. So am I being recognized for bringing the narrative of the street to the traditional art space of the canvas? I hope so, and I am humbled by my role in the “street art” movement on what ever level I am being recognized for it.
When the casting call for this show was announced and agents began reaching out to well-regarded artists to apply, the general response that we heard was along the lines of “No way in hell am I applying for that.” What was the applicant pool like? What qualifications were you looking for?
Whatever you heard sounds… 23% true. It’s funny how everyone comes out of the woodwork to hate and throw shade and pretend like they’re noble artisans that would never do anything commercial. They say stuff like “I would never audition for Street Art Throwdown” but in reality those same people will do a fast food commercial in a heartbeat because they don’t care that animals are killed, the food is poisonous and the workers are treated like shit…They just wanna get paid. The reality is that people came out in record numbers. I was actually shocked how many people came forward for an unproven season 1. Now it is also true that some artists, some of whom are very good friends of mine, sidestepped away from the opportunity, mostly in fear that they would be shunned by their peers. Culture is complex and this street art culture is no exception, so I respect the dialogue but not the wholesale criticisms that lack any sort of self-reflection.
Now what qualifications were we looking for is a great question. The honest truth is we were looking not for the best artist in the history of the world. We were looking for raw talent that could be forged into steel. A diamond in the rough. These kids are good, some could be great one day with hard work and dedication, but there was an undeniable shine to some of them that was unadulterated. Some exceeded my expectations and some fell short of them, but all of them were hard workers and that’s the most important thing. People love to criticize and call some of these kids “Toys” but this was a painting military boot camp of sorts that made these kids face their fears and take on new challenges as artists. They became better artists because of it. It’s like my training at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. It was nasty, intense and full on. Painting with some of the best figure painters in the world. Training with high level perspective teachers and getting deep into light logic and color theory while being über competitive with some of the best painters in the world. Did this make me a better artist? Fuck ya, and it was worth it.
I would love to see some of these haters jump into some of these challenges, and to be honest I had some heavy hitting street artists that wanted to do it but freaked out at the eleventh hour because they got cold feet. Some just straight up told me they needed way more time to paint than we were allotting for and they were terrified that they were going to be embarrassed on national TV. This is an honest and respectable emotion, but some of those same people that were afraid are some of the people that are talking smack. That’s unfortunate because I know that it doesn’t come from a place of authenticity but rather from a deep sense of fear.
The common assumption is that most street artists are men, but in Street Art Throwdown, 60% of the contestants are women. Why do you think that is? Was that a coincidence based on the applicant pool, or was a conscious decision, possibly related to the show being aired on Oxygen?
It’s a heavily female demographic network. You can Google that in 5 seconds so that’s an obvious fact, but I think you guys will agree that there is not enough recognition for female artists out there, and we know some of the ones that are painting are seriously burner. My good friend Mad C is one of my favorite artists out there. In my opinion she’s one of the top street artists in the world. So by putting so many women on the show I think more woman will get recognized for what they are all ready doing and will truly get more into the game. My prediction is that Street Art Throwdown will single-handedly change the face of Street Art and there will be a massive shift of woman believing that they can do this as a career… Watch out guys! Truth be told, woman already have a better sense of color…
From the teaser, it appears that at least one of the challenges in the show is to create an advertisement for a globally-recognized brand, and ads for Street Art Throwdown have appeared on the New York City subway. How would you characterize the relationship between street artists, graffiti writers, and the advertising industry?
How layered and ironic is it that the MTA would buff all the old cars in the subways back in my day and I’m talking about historical pictorial masterpieces done by the likes of LEE, DONDI AND SEEN. Then the second iteration of change in the “war on graffiti” was adding the graffiti proof trains in the late 80’s, and now they are doing ads wrapped around the train in the same way. This is just so ironic. Yes it’s fitting for my show to be wrapped around the train, but I also really miss the days I was getting on the 1 train on 103rd St. and I would see a wildstyle TRACY 168 tag and a SKEME painting… The advertising companies “own” the space and the graff writers define the public realm and interact with space in ways that are more potent then advertisers. But we all know who learned what from whom. Advertisers would only know how to use subway spaces by watching graffiti artists do it first. So I am at both end of this history.
Why impose rules on an art form that, in promotional footage, your own contestants define as having no rules?
This is entertainment. In gymnastics should there be rules? It’s just kids doing flips and who should judge that? Why should they have rules at the UK Bboy Championships? Or Battle of the Year? They are all great B-boys with different styles… The answer is simply because you need a system to analyze and judge. I know every artist is great and no one should be judged and we should all love each other and listen to John Lennon’s “Imagine,” but this is life and it’s harsh out there. Street Art Throwdown is in many ways no different than real life. It’s a metaphor for life. Besides ask a graffiti writer about rules and he or she will show you a list a mile long of do’s and don’t’s about everything from a proper letter to appropriate placement for a tag.
What would happen if the winner of Street Art Throwdown had to “throwdown” against Banksy?
Well would that really be fair? Doesn’t Banksy have like 12 artists painting for him? The winner is only 1 person… So they better bring a gun to that knife fight.
Thanks BUA. We took this as a fun/weird joke. On the one hand, we didn’t want to give airtime to a mainstream, commercial network to push their product, especially when that product is the sugar coated commercialization of an art form that we respected for challenging the consumer industry. On the other hand, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to engage in a critical discussion, and maybe have a laugh along the way. At the end of the day, we respect BUA for being serious and engaging us, even if we disagree. Street Art Throwdown premieres February 3rd on Oxygen. We’ll still be hate-watching.
Between Brad Downey and Fra Biancoshock, sculptural interventions are some of the more interesting things happening on the street right now. Toni Spyra is an Austrian based German artist, whose work involves the impractical modification of public space. His indoor work is equally cheeky, and reminiscent of work by the Dufala Brothers. Hoping to see more from Toni!
Just in time for the holidays, I am thrilled to announce the release of the first book from the elusive artist stikman, entitled SIGNS, published by my new art book project Dirt Worship Publishing. For over two decades, the anonymous artist stikman has plastered his character on the pavements and walls of major cities and small towns across the US. Finally, there’s a book celebrating a selection of this elective artist’s work.
SIGNS documents a collection of stikman’s art on street signs across the United States, highlighting the huge variety in stikman’s work like his innovative methods and materials, clever placement, and diverse references from folk art to fine art. “stikman has retained his freshness by constantly reinventing his iconic character, unafraid to experiment with new mediums and configurations,” says graffiti photographer and blogger Luna Park.
He has gained something of a cult following among street art enthusiasts and pedestrians alike. “When I stumble across a stikman, I feel as if I’ve found a treasure,” says legendary street art and graffiti photographer Martha Cooper.
Typically, finding a stikman in the wild is a feat of chance. A few eagle-eyed photographers have made his image accessible to the masses. And now, for the first time ever, stikman and Dirt Worship Publishing have compiled a selection of his work in an official book.
You can get your copy of SIGNS in time for Christmas by placing your order through The Vandalog Shop anytime before December 18th (for domestic orders only). The standard edition is available for $30, plus shipping and handling. A limited edition deluxe version of SIGNS, limited to just 75 hand-embellished copies and featuring an exclusive inkjet print on archival paper (6.5” x 8”), is also available for $50 plus shipping and handling.
DEGA Films consistently does an outstanding job in their documentation of New York street artists. Their series Wild In the Streets covered NDA, Enzo & Nio, Jilly Balistic and Mr. Toll. The series comes to a close with two new episodes featuring ELLE and Royce. In conjunction with The LISA Project, these two episodes will be screening at 8:30pm Sunday, September 28 in Little Italy under Ron English’s Temper Tot mural (on Mulberry St between Canal and Hester).
What impresses me about DEGA’s work is the production quality and the creativity that goes into their shots and cuts. When it comes to capturing illegal work, the videos I’m used to seeing tend to look like this, with quick cuts and a shaky camera. Or the standard time lapse video with a dub-step song in the background. Legally speaking, perhaps it is more comfortable to shoot someone putting up illegal street art versus graffiti and that’s definitely a discussion worth having. But for now we’re just going to focus on the quality of DEGA’s product.
Elle’s episode really highlights the diversity of her street art methods, showing ad busts, rollers, extinguishers, marker tags, wheat pastes, stickers, and so on. The creative direction was interesting, by showing Elle transform through various “looks”, and thus breaking the stereotypical hip hop characterization of graffiti writers.
I’m really into the fact that Royce’s episode begins with a butt crack about 15 seconds in. I’d like to think of it as a statement: street artists are assholes and DEGA isn’t here to dress up that reality for you. It is a testament to DEGA’s commitment to the honest portrayal of street artists. Revealing the butt is an attempt to reveal the humanity behind these anonymous artists, how they are just regular people, carrying out their days with no time for petty concerns like the height of their pants.
Royce’s video is a cool look at his approach to interacting with his visual environment. He takes it in stride, without having to creep around at dusk. Whether this is how he always works is not clear, but the episode inspires a feeling of ‘second nature’ to Royce’s tactics.
Though the Wild in the Streets series has come to a close, Vandalog is excited to see and share with you what DEGA has in store for the future.
A blend of violence, motion and power, WK Interact recently completed this ~400 ft (144 meter) long mural at Paris’ Geode. The wall is a fitting tribute for the 70th anniversary of D-Day; a day that marked a critical turning point in WWII, which initiated the liberation of France. A war which WK’s grandfather fought in.
Barcodes wouldn’t have been around at the time of D-Day, but I find their inclusion among the amalgamation of numbers, blueprints and acronyms as symbolic of the depersonalization of soldiers in the process of programming them to be killing machines.
A slight clarification on the headline: UK wordsmith Mobstr is making his debut indoors with his upcoming solo show “Sex, Drugs & Painting Walls”, opening May 15th. He may be working legally, but you can expect the same cheeky subversiveness that we love him for on the streets. Mobstr was nice enough share some of his thoughts with Vandalog. Though he did not divulge any details of his sex life or drug experimentation here, Mobstr did assure us that he tries to answer all (sensible) emails from fans, if that’s what piques your curiosity.
Caroline Caldwell: In your ideal world, would painting walls be legal? If so, would you continue to do so or would you need to find a new method of being subversive?
Mobstr: I think so long as advertising visually dominates our urban environments something has got to be said for the importance of graffiti competing with it. If I am truly honest I am not sure if I would carry on doing what I do if it was legal as, for me, it would lose its edge. Now that street art has gained credentials a lot of legal work is possible and the big mural stuff seems to be dominating the scene. However, these large mural pieces you see popping up around the world aren’t street art for me. It’s the little subversions which interact and play with its surroundings that I define as street art. An analogy would be calling taggers street artists; they don’t play the same game. That is not to say I don’t like the large mural stuff, they are the obvious and needed realisation of the urban environment. The area of Shoreditch, London is filled up with art on walls. It is fantastic but it’s the stuff which was done in the dead of night that captures my attention.
Caroline: What’s your relationship with the street art community beyond the people who see your work on the street? Do you communicate with fans or participate in any dialogues online? Are you interested in other work that’s going up around the world?
Mobstr: I look at pictures online but beyond that and what I see out and about I have no interaction with the street art community.
I make a point of answering every sensible email I get. If you are appreciated for what you do, then you owe something to the people who appreciate you. Unless you have no desire for the world to see your creations then that audience is part of the reason you continue on.
Caroline: Why did you choose now to have your first solo show? Also, why did you choose to have a pop up show when you probably could have worked with any number of galleries?
Mobstr: I actually started to put this show together a few years ago however I realised I was far more interested in painting out on the street so stopped work on it completely… I had an outdoor addiction to feed. The decision to start work on it again was very fluid. I wanted to see this body of work amassed under one roof and it felt like the right time. I decided to do the show independently simply because I like to be independent. It also means you have 100% control over how it goes down which is something that is important to me.
Caroline: Do you feel that you’re addressing a different audience with your indoor work?
Mobstr: That depends on who comes down to the show.
Caroline: If you were allowed a free full-page ad in the newspaper, what would you do?
Caroline: How important is documentation to you?
Mobstr: Very. It is almost as important as painting the actual piece. Depending on the efficiency of the graffiti removal team sometimes the only proof a piece existed is in the memory of mine and that of the graffiti removal team but most importantly in the documentation.
Caroline: One of the interesting things about the art in this show is the frames you’ve chosen for your canvases. Why did you choose elaborate frames for work which even describes itself as minimal?
Mobstr: I am glad you picked up on that as there is a little bit of structure behind the framing. In general any work that is a critique of the art world comes in an ornate frame. I also used ornate frames to exaggerate the message or absurdity of certain pieces.
Caroline: What can people expect from Sex, Drugs and Painting Walls?
Mobstr: I see it as a direct translation of my street stuff into an indoor environment. I think the body of work can be generalised as a critique of art, attitude and culture, punctuated by some general musings. I called it sex, drugs and painting walls not because it contained any of those three things but simply that it has a good ring to it. Also it summarises nicely what I’ve been up to for the last 12 years.
A few days ago, an anonymous person painted over two new walls by Broken Fingaz Crew in Hackney Wick, London. Both walls featured curvaceous women engaging in sex with skeletons, which the person buffed black and brandished with the words “Kill all men”. BFC responded to the defacement by altering it to read “Kill yourself” and adding “Why so mad? Give smile pussycat!” Broken Fingaz then shared the incident on their Facebook, sparking a surprising and intense response from their fans that has me questioning Broken Fingaz, their art and the people who enjoy it.
I have been a huge fan of Broken Fingaz for a while now. We’ve covered their work on Vandalog over the last few years and I cite them as a personal inspiration for my own art. Skeletons interacting with the living and sexualized women have been two prominent (although mostly separate) themes in BFC’s body of work. Over the last several months, Tant and Unga of BFC have developed a new, highly sexualized body of work. With their SuperSex series, BFC painted people having sex with various animals and a skeleton (which I covered for Vandalog here). The SuperSex series was predominantly women and animals, however they also included Unga’s fat male character, which led me to believe that the series was coming from a place which was inclusive of both men and women. In their more recent series, the crew has been painting women copulating with skeletons in massivecolorfulorgies. There’s one fat male figure slipped into one of the pieces in the series, but spotting him is like a game Where’s Waldo. My issue with this more recent work is not that it is sexual (though I could see why people might find it problematic in public spaces), but rather that it portrays only women as sexual and never shows women in a non-erotic manner. It’s a simple matter of equality.
I would be open to the idea that these images were painted in an effort to honor the feminine figure, not to merely objectify it. After all, the women are whole people and the men are depicted as skeletons, arguably neutered objects. Yet within the context of their larger body of work, these latest images emphasize BFC’s unequal portrayal of men and women. When men appear in their work, they are typically clothed in formal attire, or are humorously unattractive on the few occasions they are naked. Women are rarely shown in any other setting than a sexual one. Their fans and this anonymous protestor are not interpreting this as honoring women, and BFC’s comeback to the protestor doesn’t support that idea either with dehumanizing jibe “Give smile pussycat!”
I’m not saying it’s wrong to show women in a sexual setting, but to only ever show them in such a way reduces their role to merely erotic creatures. One very easy solution to this: paint women in formal, non-sexual settings every once in awhile. Might not be the perfect portrait of equality, but it’s one way to show that they hold men and women with equal respect.
Defacing two walls and writing “Kill all men” over BFC’s work is not a route I would promote, but the dialogue it provoked is important. Much like the commenters on BFC’s Facebook, my knee-jerk reaction was to write this act off as an overly-aggressive reaction from a radical feminist. In all likelihood, “Kill all men” is a derivative of the Twitter hashtag that was turning heads last month, which feminists were using as a space to vent their experiences with misogyny. Yet in closer consideration of this particular incident, this person isn’t saying anything that BFC didn’t say themselves first. Why should we take offense from the statement “Kill all men” when this was written on top of a BFC mural that literally depicted a group of dead men having sex with women?
To this act of vandalism, BFC’s responded with “Kill yourself!” and “Why so mad? Give smile pussycat!” Even if we give them the benefit of the doubt and say that this response is comedic ribbing and graffiti bravado in response to being capped, their response incited a slew of sexist and objectifying responses on Facebook, with commenters calling the anonymous vandal(s) a “fucking slut”, “stupid hoe”, “fags”, etc.; which is all a bit ridiculous when you consider that these terms being used as insults are in defense of an artwork depicting women in a way that fits stereotypes of whore-ish/slutty behavior. One commenter said, “Must be one of them ‘broken-b**ches’ … Doesn’t shave under the arm-pits, yet goes to pole dancing class every monday and thursday…”. A female commenter said, “I guess they don’t like drawings of girls fitter than them”. This is exactly why portraying women (and only women) in an exclusively sexual manner becomes problematic. These comments were not made by BFC, but some their supporters, yet would these comments have been made if these fans had felt that BFC were strong supporters of women’s rights?
Curious how our readers feel about Broken Fingaz’ response to this protester and their fans’ subsequent response to the back and forth.
Animal just released this fantastic interview with Judith Supine. This actually isn’t the first time Supine has shown his face but the video is still great. I love how cheeky and honest he is. For a man who didn’t speak until the age of seventeen, he’s quick to offer his blunt (and spot on) critique of the art world.
His solo show Golden Child opens at Mecka Gallery on March 29th, and he has worked with the gallery on the release of two prints (one which is already sold out, and another which will be available at the opening). For more of Judith’s unbridled banter, check out his other recent interview on 12oz.
Logan Hicks is a forefather of the stenciling medium. With a background in printmaking, Hicks helped pioneer the use of multi-layer stencils to create strikingly complex portraits of urban environments. While many artists are satisfied with two or three stencil-layers to create images, Hicks has used up to 15 in a given piece. He is also known for his documentation of his adventures through the labyrinth of tunnels and pipelines in various cities around the world. Recently, he began incorporating figures into his pieces; contrasting hard architectural details with the softness of female figures floating through water. Hicks continues to explore the creative potential of stencils and the content they are able to illustrate.Tim Hans met up with Hicks last summer for our continuing series of photo-portraits of artists by Tim, and I interviewed him in anticipation of his upcoming solo show “Love Never Saved Anything” at 154 Stanton Street in New York City, opening March 7th at 6:30pm and running through March 19th (open 11:00am-6:30pm daily).
Caroline Caldwell: How did you get started exploring the tunnels and sewer systems in cities around the world? What interests you about it? What are some of the dangers? Any good stories?
Logan Hicks: Moving to NY is what really initiated the push the notion of going places that are ‘off limits’.
I grew up in the country, so I can remember checking out abandoned houses and stuff like that, but never really thought much about it. it was curiosity to see what was beyond the facade. When I moved to Baltimore, I poked around more and that’s when I came across the book ‘The Mole People’ which started me focusing on the city under me. Later I moved to San Diego, Los Angeles, and ultimately New York which is what firmly entrenched me in the idea of exploring places. Especially New York. To me NY has always been the quintessential city. It’s hard not to become amazed by the layers of the city.
I didn’t really know that there were communities of like minded me before moving, but I just ended up becoming friends with few people who shared my sensibilities. I suppose the default title is ‘urban explorer’ but I cringe at that title sometimes. To say you’re an ‘explorer’ sort of oversells it, but I guess saying that you’re a ‘really curious guy’ doesn’t really roll off the tongue. I just like checking out places and I like hanging out with the people that I explore with.
One you’ve managed to check various tunnels and buildings around the world though, it fuels the desire to see even more. Once you see what one subway system is like, you want to see the others. You want to see how it was made. Where it runs too. what is past that dark curtain at the end of the platform. Once you stand on top of a building crane 50 stories up, you can’t help but look up and want to get onto another. Part of it is that you just want to experience the rush. Part of it is that i just like to get away. As social as i am at times, i’m still an introvert at heart. I like to get away. To be unseen. To find quiet pockets of the city to go to. it helps keep me sane.
Stories? I’m sure there are a few, but the most memorable one was when I was exploring a tunnel out in Los Angeles with my good friend Jordan. We started walking into this round tunnel. It was maybe 8 feet wide. We walked in about 25 feet when I think I see something up ahead. Jordan was behind me so he didn’t see it, but I said ‘hang on’ and i yelled out ‘is anybody there’. After a second or two of silence a voice cracks the darkness with ‘yeah’. We were a bit startled cause it was just pitch black ahead and here this voice was up ahead out of our field of view, even with the flashlights on. I ask ‘you mind if we pass?’. “no” he says then follows up with ‘you ain’t got no camera do you?’. I’m a bit nervous at the question wondering if he’s going to mug us but I realize that it’s probably just some homeless guy who doesn’t want to be photographed during his lowest time. I say ‘yeah, but we aren’t taking pictures of people, just tunnels”. he gives a quick ‘ok, come through’ and we start walking. As we get closer we start to make out his silhouette, then as we get even closer we realize that there are actually two people. One standing, one sitting. The guy we talked too was butt ass naked, standing in the middle of this tunnel smoking crack not giving a fuck. There is no tunnel large enough to feel comfortable in as you walk past a naked man smoking crack. I had my hand on my knife the whole time and he ended up being fine. his friend was sitting down in the drainage tunnel letting the water pour over him as he smoked crack. I couldn’t help but think to myself, what is more crazy – us seeing two grown naked men smoking crack in a random tunnel – or the fact that they saw these two guys walk into a tunnel with a camera and never come back? That was probably the most odd experience I’ve had.
Caldwell: Your upcoming show will have a much stronger focus on the narratives of each piece and exploring themes such as old sailor’s superstitions. Can you talk a bit about this?
Hicks: Yes, the new work has evolved away from the architectural works that I’m known for. In the past I’ve worked from a more passive standpoint in my work. the architecture in my work was often contemplative, still, reflective. It was more of an internal thought. But last year though ended up being a fairly turbulent year for me. I had a string of bad luck that just tainted my daily life. Everything from finances, relationships, legal issues, personal happiness – everything. I was trying to salvage a few things in my life when I had a conversation with a friend of mine who said “at least you’re doing what you love”. I replied “Love never saved anything though”. That is the title for the show I am having in March – “Love Never Saved Anything” I started working from a more emotional point instead of intellectual. That is what led me to underwater photography. A good friend of mine in Long Beach offered a pool and herself as a model, so I took the opportunity to explore the medium. I fell in love with it. The drifting, weightlessness, floating model was sort of how I felt internally. It just felt like it was the perfect way to capture what I was going through – adrift in a sea of uncertainty. From there things just came together. I was connected with a great fashion designer out of Chicago who made dresses specifically for the next series of underwater shoots and I kept down that path. Along the way I came across various sailor traditions and superstitions and I was intrigued. There are so many obscure and odd traditions like ‘don’t cut your nails or hair on a ship’, or don’t talk to a redhead or you should shed a few drops of blood before boarding a ship for the season. There are hundreds of them, and some of them are more vivid than others, but I started to realize that these superstitions dealt with the same exact thing that every human in the world worries about – life, love, fortune, happiness, death. It’s the circle of life. It was the same thing that I was going through. So it just felt right to use these nautical traditions as a jumping off point to illustrate my own struggles. It has more of a narrative with these sailor traditions sort of providing the framework for the imagery for the work.
Caldwell: You’ve used the internet in conjunction with your art making for a number of years. You were active on some of the first internet forums and online dialogues about stenciling. Today, you make yourself a presence on social media so that people are able to observe a good deal of your artistic process. Would you say this has had any affect on the work you put out?
Hicks: It does. I think that especially when you have a technically demanding medium such as stenciling, the more you can educate the viewer on how you create the work, the stronger you make it. The aim is to help the viewer see the process and evolution of the work, from idea to execution. Ultimately it’s the work that needs to stand on it’s own, but it’s helpful if people understand how you arrived at the final result. So in that sense I find the communication critical to seeing the big picture. Ideally you hope that people can connect with every aspect of your work – the idea, the process, the execution, the medium, the story behind it, etc. For me it’s important to show people that the results of my work are not happy mistakes. It’s important that people see that you’re striving for something and that I’m working and working towards that vision. Seeing an obscure idea in your head morph into a physical painting is an interesting process.
Caldwell: To what degree do you allow your work to be left up to interpretation?
Hicks: If you’re making work that is so narrow in it’s scope then I just don’t think it’s very successful. I try my best to stay away from specific definitions. I might use a specific story, metaphor, experience, or tradition as a starting point for a painting, but it’s never the backbone of appreciation. It’s the inspiration for it.
If you need a story to go along with a picture, then I kind of feel like you’re more of an illustrator or story teller, but not a fine artist. Artwork is most successful work is when the viewer can connect with. If you’re telling the viewer what to believe, then what’s the point of making work in the first place? Successful art is nothing more than a mirror that allows the viewer to see themselves in. It’s a language that allows you to speak from your point of view that can convey the emotions that you’re feeling. So when I approach my work I try my best not to be so literal with the meanings. If you’re feeling a bit depressed, there are ways to imply that in the work. The colors you use, the strokes of color, the composition, the expressions of the models, even the title of the piece etc But if you have an artist who says “this piece of art is about when my dog Squeaks died and i was super sad, so i made this piece of art to remember squeaks” you just feel like their using art as therapy and you’re the unwitting ear that has to listen to them drone on about their life. I try to make work that speaks to the human condition. the cycle of life. Life, death, happiness, love and fortune. That is the pinnacle that drives most every decision we make.
I try to think as little as possible when I paint. Sometimes you need to think with your hands if that makes any sense. You just need to feel your way around the canvas.
Caldwell: Do you think the street art scene is becoming formulaic, what with the seemingly abundant amount of legal walls, festivals and group shows, or is this still an authentic progression?
Hicks: Street Art is dead. The corpse of street art has wandered the streets trying to find a new label to wear without any success. The original actions, motivations and effectiveness of street art died long ago.There is some phenomenal work that is still produced that could be classified as street art in the fact that it’s art that is on the street, but I think that people trying to still claim that ‘street art’ is revolutionary or subverting the gallery model on it’s head is idiotic. Originally street art evolved because there was this in-between group of kids who didn’t do graffiti, but they didn’t fit into the gallery system. So they found a gallery – the street.
However, when a subculture or movement becomes self aware you can’t claim that it’s pushing the boundaries really. Once you’re self aware, then people start trying to define it. They start to impose these imaginary rules, protocols, and ideas. So now you can say that ‘this’ is street art, but ‘that’ isn’t. These days you have kids paying 40k a year going to art school trying to emulate what evolved in street art decades earlier. You have real estate developers that use street art as a handshake to the surrounding community to ease the transition of gentrification. You have street artists claiming that they’re raging against the machine while wearing Louboutin shoes at the opening. Street art has become a parody of itself. I’m not saying that the work isn’t good, but the definition of street art as an overall movement is antiquated.
If you look at artists like Aryz, C215, or Swoon, and you just think ‘that’s great art’. You don’t think ‘they are good for a street artist’. Good art should be timeless. But you look at some artists and you try to imagine them 50 years from now and the work doesn’t hold up without the street art label to carry it.
The definitions and classification of artists is something that artists shouldn’t concern themselves with. Artists should just make art. Labeling yourself limits how people perceive you. It limits the potential that you have. I’ve been included as a street artist over the years – and maybe I am – but I’ve never embraced it because I never want to feel limited. I just want to make art and I don’t really care if the tight jean fix wheel hipster likes it, or the 80 year old trust fund manager likes it. My focus is just making art that conveys the ideas and vision that I have. Labels and it’s definition is best left to others.
Caldwell: If you weren’t an artist what might you be doing with your time?
Hicks: Crime or drugs or laying in a grave rotting. There has never been a plan B.