Realist painter and pioneering street artists Dan Witz has been at it since he was an art student at the esteemed Cooper Union in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Transfixed by New York City’s graffiti covered trains in the late 70’s, he started painting detailed hummingbirds on public walls, taking up to two hours to complete each one. He was a punk kid playing in garage bands completely absorbed by the culture, back when CBGB’s was turning out rock Gods and the city’s subway tunnels was a playground for would be writers. If he’s not producing hyperrealist paintings or kicking it with the fam, he’s out on the streets of just about any given city around the globe, pasting his “WHAT THE %$#@? (WTF)” series on inconspicuous spaces. They look like realistic people, prisoners, patients, detainees or animals lurking behind grates. Dan is an invisible force to the uninitiated and an unsung hero to those that know him. He’s also a humble soft-spoken man that welcomed me into his Brooklyn studio.
This interview took place exactly one year and eight days ago, when I flew from Tokyo, Japan back home to Orlando, Florida via New York City. I originally interviewed Dan for Hi-Fructose. Strapped for time to transcribe our conversation while traveling, I held onto the audio and virtually forgot about it until Jonathan Levine Gallery announced Dan’s solo show to reveal fresh installments of his Mosh Pit series on April sixth. After taking flicks of his studio while talking about gentrification and how people can afford hella over priced New York City, let alone completely flipped and reconstructed Williamsburg and Harlem, we kicked it on record. Dan talks about why he painted hummingbirds, where he gets his ideas from, what kind of art interests him, and having a family. During this time my wife was six months pregnant and I was anticipating fatherhood. We talked about what it meant to be an artist and have kids. Everything changes.
What inspired hummingbirds? Did you view it as a form of subversion?
Yes, I decided to do those after being at art school for a few years and really not liking what I saw in the commercial art world. The museums and galleries seemed very exclusive and elitist and kind of boring. I did not want to be on that kind of career path back in the 80’s. What I really liked was punk rock and graffiti, especially the trains, which were just getting big in the early 80’s (the full car pieces). I also came of age thinking that art was not a career or a way to make a living. It was more of something you were passionate about. It was like an agent for change. You made art to change people’s minds, to make people look at things differently and stuff like that. It occurred to me to, “Why don’t I go out on the street.” I didn’t know anyone like me doing that. All I knew were the kids doing graffiti and there were a lot of punk bands who put up cool posters and that was kind of like art, so that’s where I got the idea. And the idea of the hummingbirds was that they were really pretty and sweet and that was very subversive back then. Beauty was subversion because everyone was doing dense theoretical…you know anything that had to do with what they call retinal, you know Duchamp. It sort of ended the dialogue on realist painting pretty much. So that’s what I liked and that’s what I did and I saw it was universally disliked by people in what I thought was the art world.
What writers inspire you?
It’d be more like lyrics and songs. People like Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan. I’m more interested in film, music and literature than I am in contemporary art, definitely. I get most of my ideas outside of thinking about art.
What do you want people to take away as far as when you look at your career?
I don’t try to tell people what they should get from my work. I don’t have a packaged message for them. I make the type of art that I want to see and I like art that makes you a little uncomfortable. Like the mosh pit paintings, they’re supposed to invade your space, make you off balanced a bit. I like art that makes you wake up a bit and see things differently than you saw before. I respond to stuff like that. I like the subway trains coming into the station fully painted, illegally. I like stuff that comes from outside the sort of conventional systems. People who climb fences and do this at night illegally, that really appeals to me. I like things that are ill mannered. I like people who don’t care about what you think of them, who aren’t trying to please you. I think that’s where the shift comes you know, when cool shit happens.
When I was in school I had friends that were really into the punk scene. You remind me of one of my good friends who was really into The Clash, Stiff Little Fingers, Conflict and what I see is like…I’m a hip-hop kid, but I see the parallels. So how did it work with you when you were doing street art back then and even up until now, since you’re doing something that’s totally different from the trains; although they inspired you.
I was doing an anti-tag. They were doing big tags, my little hummingbirds were an anti-tag cause they were so small and they took so long to do. I was being rebellious even against graffiti back then. I knew I wasn’t a graffiti kid.
Did your [Witz’s and writers’] paths ever cross?
Oh totally, all the time. I’m sure I know Crash. I definitely know Daze. We would show in the same galleries. It was total respect back and forth.
Did you find that it was a lot tougher as far as going out [with the possibility of getting into conflicts with writers], or did you go out during the night and paint?
Yeah, no I never had a problem with anything like that. You know there’s certain adequate of the street. It’s easy stuff like don’t go over someone else’s stuff and I did that. I don’t think they resented me at all. May be now there’s resentment because there seems to be two warring camps between graffiti and street art, but I was before that. Frankly, people like me were so below the radar that nobody really gave a shit. Another thing is I never made money off of it. When money comes into this, that’s when people get crazy. So there was never that with me and there still really isn’t that much with me, so I’m able to travel pretty easily through both worlds.
What’s the difference between sitting here painting and doing street art?
The going out on the street and putting these things up illegally without permission is a lot different than making paintings. To me it balances out staying home and being calm and patient and mindful and delaying gratification, cause I’ll go out and stick three of these things up in a day and I get instant gratification. It satisfies my need to make art like the things I described before. It’s the risk and adventure and adrenaline. I like art that has some physical risk to it.
For artists who are coming up, who have the same spirit you do, and given that you’re older and settled with a family, what’s your advice for young artists?
Well, I would give them really bad advice cause this is what happened to me. I don’t know why it worked out for me. I can only think its because I was lucky, but my advice is to do what you’re really good at and fuck everything else. I could’ve tried to be some art gallery artist and played that game and get a job teaching and been one of those people, but I would’ve pretty much sucked at it. I was just like, “I can’t do that. I suck at it.” Those people didn’t want me anyway. I just said, “Fuck it. I’m going outside I’m doing what I want to do. I’m doing what makes me happy. I’m doing what I’m best at and then the crazy happened, years later everyone sort of got interested in what I was doing. It’s really bad advice, but I’d say just do what you’re really good at and see how it works out. It worked out for me and I hate telling younger artists, “may be it’ll work out” cause probably it won’t, but at least you did what you had to. I always figured this: I didn’t want to be some old dude like I am now and be filled with regret. I think that would suck worst than anything.
As far as me being settled with the family, it doesn’t make any difference. I’m out on the street figuring out how to get past the cops. I’m 55. I’m all over the world doing that now, that’s the only difference. I’m older now so you know I fly on airplanes and I didn’t use to cause I was too poor. Now people will bring me places, but I still do the same shit I used to. I just bring the kids with me, which you could do man [laughing]. Take’em on the plane, it’s fine. It’s not a big deal. We go every where together. My kids have been to Europe like five times already in just the last year and a half. We’re going to Berlin next month. We’re going to Rome in September, it’s crazy. That’s what we do. Nothing changes.
Full photos of the studio visit: