On urban streets, advertisements and utilitarian signage invade your gaze. They dominate the cityscape, framed in strategic locations, orchestrating visual complacency. Through their individual brand of marketing, San Francisco’s street art mainstays David Young V, Eddie Colla and Hugh Leeman have helped change people’s perception of public space. Their work reflects San Francisco’s counter culture, and the anxieties and inequality that plague society. Just as a multinational corporate ad campaign is plastered along the route of heavy foot traffic, these three seek to spotlight what they think is ignored. The way they post their work on the street is what makes them similar, “Wheat pasting is something less popular in the Bay Area than it is in other cities. So when someone does it here you notice it right away. Since the three of us were getting up consistently at the time, we soon decided to start working together. Since all of our work was pretty graphic in nature it was pretty easy,” said Young. On February 7th, 111 Minna Gallery had a reception for the new works of all three. The show simply titled “New Works,” runs through March 29th. Although they’ve repeatedly collaborated and continue to do so, this is their first time showing individual work together, highlighting the divergence in their execution and artistic expression.
Young’s pen and ink portraits and symbols reflect a dystopian futuristic world. The fragmented past challenges the survivors of a post-apocalyptic world to fill in the blanks with invented folklore. His work focuses on the idea of believing in something that you don’t totally understand, in order to get from one exhausting day to the next. It’s an ever-encroaching hostile environment, a police state run be a nation of rivaling tribes. Early in Young’s career he focused on detailed ink figures based on movie and comic book fantasy characters. He spent two years exploring cubism and abstract expressionism, but after a while he started to frequent Babylon Falling, a San Francisco bookstore that specialized in revolutionary concepts and art. The bookstore owner, Sean Stewart, introduced him to the pioneering French street artist Blek Le Rat. From there it was on, “I had become more involved in street art as my work evolved into a very simplistic military theme. I spent a lot of time at that point wheat pasting images of soldiers all over the neighborhoods of San Francisco and additional cities I would travel to. My work then was strictly pen based, then photocopied to all sizes over and over again.”
His silhouettes of soldiers evolved into more complicated two-dimensional figures. There was a lot less negative space. He started incorporating a mix of “post apocalyptic, technological, community, religious and linguistic elements.” Color crept into his geometrical compositions. He started experimenting with different ways of applying paint, and using stencils and three-dimensional objects. Gallery instillations became transformed realms, giving viewers fully realized visions of what his characters have to live through. By this time he was painting murals through out the Bay Area and getting up at widely different points on the map, “Guatemala City, Antigua, Edinburgh, Miami, Austin, San Diego, Los Angeles, etc.” Young credits Babylon Falling for inspiring his career, “My first solo exhibition was held there. That show steered me in the direction for everything I am doing today professionally and conceptually.” We interviewed Young late last year just after he came back from Central America. He was preparing for Epilogue, a collaborative effort with Colla and Leeman that took place in Los Angeles, read more. Here Young discusses his creative process and the evolution of art.
Can you describe your art making process from conception to completion?
I’ll keep this one simple and to the point. The first step is to have models photographed in different regalia and scenarios. I use those pictures as reference. I then contrast the pictures to a sharp black and white, and project the image on to paper. I do a detailed tracing of the face and a basic tracing of the body. I then add in all other details from my imagination: clothing, assorted gear, tattoos, compositions, symbols and several other details. For the larger drawing this process can take up to a few weeks.
For my 3D objects: replica firearms, helmets, assorted gear. I purchase these items, sand them down, clean them, prime them, then paint them. Once they’re fully painted and all the detail work is clean, I sand and steel wool them to scuff them up and to make the object look used and worn. Then I paint in certain details again, then rust them with a solution I have.
How does your approach to making work for the street differ from making art for a gallery?
Getting up on walls provides an immediate gratification and it allows me to get my work seen at a faster rate. I can also do this anywhere I travel, which I like. Doing a gallery show and installation takes several months to a year of working and planning. Those projects are larger and expensive. That provides a different gratification for me, and also forces me to evolve and rethink my strategies in order to evolve into the next project. Most of that work is done at home behind closed doors, while the street art allows me to venture out and explore my environment.
The approaches to making gallery work and street work differ in some ways. Generally with a gallery show, I inspect and measure the space and make work according to that environment. I spend a significant amount of time and money preparing for that project, paying attention to every little detail meticulously, whereas with street work, I scope out several different locations and make note of them.
I do spend a good amount of time preparing the work. However, once it’s finished I am somewhat less concerned with its final presentation. That allows me some leeway and freedoms. When I am outdoors ducking in alleyways, hopping fences and getting dirty I am less concerned with smaller details. I can rip a piece, put it up a bit off center and get it dirty. I am generally less concerned with the “artistic value” of the work and more concerned with getting up as fast and efficiently as possible. Allowing mistakes alleviates stress. So long as the work is up, looks decent enough and is seen by others, I’m satisfied. By the end of the night I’m dirty, my heart is pumping, I’m stoked and its feels good. It’s a different kind of rush.
Some street art looks good in a picture online, but disappointing in person. How has documenting your street art affected what pieces you put up and their placement?
To be honest, not really. I have yet to put of a piece simply because I think it’ll look good in a photo. If I end up taking a photo of it after, it is a nice surprise if the photo looks good. It’s an even nicer surprise if other people take pictures of my work and post them online.
The first couple of years I put work on the street I rarely photographed anyway. Most of my documentation from back then was from what I occasionally found of my work on other peoples flickr and facebook pages.
The internet has allowed artists to spend more time on work for galleries while their street art is work (stickers, posters, wheat pastes) that’s reproduced and used multiple times, acting as a brand. How has this changed the way you look at art? Also, has it changed the way you approached your own work?
When I first got into street art I saw ‘getting up’ as a form of artistic expression, getting seen as much as possible and also an adrenaline rush. Although people were talking about the differences between street art and graffiti at the time, I saw little difference between the two. People would say street art is an artistic and social expression, while graffiti was more based in the ego because of its use of names and letters. I personally see little difference in either, it’s all ego when you get down to its foundations. I just think ‘graffiti’ artists are far more genuine about this in most cases and truly “don’t of a fuck.” Despite my own opinions and concerns with graffiti (as opposed to what is labeled as ‘street art’) at least it’s honest about what it is in nature.
In most cases street art is advertising for artists. Its goal is to make the artist more popular so people buy work from their gallery shows and give them bigger commissioned projects for more money. Sure, there is the need or want for artistic expression, but its primary function is advertising. I think “street art” was once a term used for illegal art or something that “counteracted” advertising. Today though, the majority of what is recognized as “street art” is on legal sanctioned walls, often paid for by private businesses and corporations. That is totally fine in my opinion. I’d personally rather be paid for my work then not. However, I think the idea of viewing “street art” today as something rebellious, counter culture or “against the system” is false and misleading. I think people want to attach themselves to something viewed as rebellious or “against the norm.” I think people find some kind of identity or even social or career benefit from this. However, they tend to attach themselves to these “rebellious” things long after they’re already popular. Once that fad is over or no longer beneficial (usually financially) they’ll move onto something else. Most of these people when confronted with a truly rebellious action will either scowl, turn the either way or attack it.
In the age of information overload and social media, how do you think interacting with images has changed?
On one hand everything is more accessible. You can see what people are up to all over the world in pretty much real time. However on the other hand, it makes everything more and more transitory. I noticed that people’s memories are diminishing as a result. They are also becoming more and more desensitized and spoiled. You can put on the most massive and elaborate project for all to see (literally – with the internet now), yet a month later few people will even remember it and less of them will care. People are always on to the “next thing.” In some ways I think this mentality is destroying us. It seems that nothing has much value or appreciation anymore. It’s not dissimilar to technology and other products. For instance, a new technology hits the market and people will wait in long (even overnight) lines to purchase this product, knowing full well it’ll be “obsolete” or ‘worthless’ in a few months to a years time. They’ll even sell this product on Ebay for three times its market price the day after it comes out. It’s not like this product is only available for a short time, any of these people can simply go to the store and purchase it the next week without the lines and hassle, but they have to have it “now.” Skip forward a few months and this product (technology especially) is now “obsolete.”
You’ll start finding this same product in goodwill or discarded on the street simply because the newer more “innovative” “revolutionary” product just hit stores. It’s ironic that these same people complain about war, class struggles, the deteriorating environment and dwindling resources. I think this thinking is probably more common in San Francisco than other places, but I could be wrong.
I feel in many ways art is going down this same direction. It’s already become a commodity. It will only be a matter of time before it becomes disposable like everything else. Before this happens it’ll become shallower in nature (much like a lot of its viewers). By the time it becomes completely devoid of meaning, you’ll start seeing it in dumpsters along with laptops, Ipods, cell phones, CD’s, fully functional televisions and baby diapers. This is the true legacy of our society, why should art be any different.
“The Revolution Will Be Advertised” is a three part series featuring artists David Young V, Eddie Colla and Hugh Leeman. They currently have a three man show at 111 Minna Gallery. The exhibit runs through March 29th.