As a professional photographer, Eddie Colla spent 15 years shooting for the New York Times and countless other publications, ad agencies and record labels. “I didn’t change careers intentionally. I was just sort of taking a break from photography, and I started working with images differently. I was burnt out on photography. There were aspects to the business that were frustrating. Except for the New York Times, a lot of what you do as a professional photographer is lie,” he said. He caught national attention after posting his Barrack Obama images during the 2008 presidential election. Colla’s stencil and screen print images are often oppositional pieces evoking strong political and social connotations. Last year Colla was one of four artists asked to paint a promotional mural for Fruitvale Station, a film based on the real life story of Oscar Grant. It’s about a young unarmed black man who was handcuffed, shot and killed on an Oakland train platform by Johannes Mehersle, a white transit police officer.
Colla wanted to do the mural in Oakland, but the filmmakers wanted it in San Francisco since the incident was a volatile issue in Oakland. Locals were reportedly rioting near the station after the former transit police officer was convicted of involuntary manslaughter. The artists and filmmakers were also having creative differences over the mural’s art direction. The film’s director Ryan Coogler told him that his image was “too dark and negative.” Coogler wanted something positive. On Colla’s site, he said that he was required to not show any images of a gun, anyone except Oscar, or anything referring to the trial or Oscar’s murder. After constant debate Colla dropped out, “It was so hypocritical,” he told the LA Times. “[The director] didn’t want the mural to be about Oscar Grant’s death — but that’s what the movie was about. That’s what happened.” What’s unique about Colla, unlike career-minded artists that temporarily do “street art” as a seedling to getting into galleries, Colla has been at it since 2005. He’s a self-made artist and entrepreneur that found a way to unabashedly express his views without compromising his work’s integrity.
In a Warholian interview he referred to street art as a “beautiful democracy” that offers pedestrians alternative images, as opposed to the monotonous visual dialogue surrounding consumer products. When TMG asked him about his art-making process, he said, “Sometimes there is a very clear, straight forward idea, and I just have to execute it, and it’s fairly quick and it’s over. Other times, I have nothing, and I sit in the studio fucking around with things, most of which will never see the light of day. Sometimes after a while I fall ass backwards into something unexpected and just kind of follow that path where it goes.” Colla’s work explores the diverse psychological impact of an oppressive authority. Affliction and rebellion are prominent themes. The recurring girl in some of his work wearing a green hospital mask and gloves is a vehicle for exploring human exploitation and environmental alienation. Selling fish keeps her head just above water. “This is her life,” surviving a shrinking space between the wealthy and the poor. Riding her bike to avoid public transportation protects her weak immune system from potential health threats. “If you want to achieve greatness, stop asking for permission,” a bandana-masked woman stenciled. Holding “greatness” in one hand, a spray can in the other, she voyeuristically stares back at the viewer, not to inspire, but to dare you to do what you’re scared most of doing. In our interview Colla talks about ignoring outside voices to enjoy the process of making art. He also touches on Walmart selling his work without permission, how he co-founded his store Loakal with owner Loretta Nguyen and a lot more.
What’s the difference between getting up on a wall and putting your work in a gallery?
Getting up is much simpler. You go out with your friends do the thing and it’s over. Whatever happens after that is out of your hands. It’s much more straightforward. You can’t control it, you just put it out into the world and then it’s not yours anymore. Putting work in a gallery is much more involved; there are a lot of other responsibilities to it, financial and otherwise.
What first inspired you to do street art?
I’ve always liked the idea of art being more public and accessible. I also like that it can reach people who would rarely, if ever set foot in a gallery. It’s also more immediate. Preparing for a show is slow, you schedule something months in advance, plan, promote, write a statement, etc. There’s a lot more investment. If you’re putting stuff on the street you can have an idea, execute it and have it in front of people almost instantly. It’s a great way of getting ideas out fast. That said, I think there is also another aspect. Filling spaces. Sometimes I see a big gray wall and think “That would look better with a picture on it”
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?
It’s true. It hasn’t really affected my decision process though. There are all these aspects to things and if you start to focus on every detail it often sucks the life out of it. If I start to over analyze street stuff, it becomes less fun.
The internet has allowed artists to spend more time on work for galleries while their street art (stickers, posters, wheat pastes) is work 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?
It’s all changed. I used to put stuff up just to put stuff up. It wasn’t a business, I wasn’t in galleries, there was nothing to buy. As soon as there is some product, something to buy then it’s advertising or a brand. I think that’s an unintended consequence of how our economy works. A “brand” is an intangible asset based at least partially on name recognition. As soon as you have some recognition then you are a brand. The idea of a brand has become very valuable almost more valuable than actual assets. A company may own property, machinery, inventory etc.. Real assets. Yet the companies most valuable asset may be its name. Which has a lot to do with marketing, sales and consumer habits.
People have been so over marketed to, that I think it’s really changed people’s perception of how ideas and images are presented. There is a skepticism out there (and it’s reasonable) that everything that’s presented to you has the underlying motivation of getting you to purchase or participate in something that creates value for someone else. Even if an artist were to say ‘I don’t want to be a brand, I’m not going to sell anything, I am only going to put work on the street,’ that could be viewed as a marketing strategy and if it were successful it would create a demand and a scarcity. Eventually someone would step in to fill that demand. Some third party would start to create reproductions or products and profit from that artists work. That’s the world we live in. So you become a brand as soon as you generate some interest. I think we’ve gotten so far past the point of controlling this that the only real question is this: If you are even marginally successful who is going to profit from your success, you or some other entrepreneur?
At the end of the day you can’t make good work thinking about all that shit. It’ll make you’re head spin. So yes it’s changed my approach. Now I have to get to a place where I am not thinking about any of that and simply working from instincts. That place is harder to get to than it was before but it’s still there.
Recently you got involved in a copyright infringement case against Walmart for selling your work online while crediting Banksy. The giant conglomerate is also selling Banksy’s work, but his art isn’t copyrighted. Walmart can technically sell his work without permission or financial obligation. Can you talk about your case? If not, what’s this experience been like so far? Did you ever imagine one of the biggest corporations in the world would try to make money off your hard work, not only without paying you, but crediting the wrong artist?
There are two important aspects to this. The first being, this happens all the time to all kinds of artists. For the most part it goes on without much resistance or consequence to the infringer. Companies know that most of the time they will get away with it and the rest of the time it will be very difficult for most artists to bring a case against them. Many attorneys won’t take a case like this on a contingency basis because they are not profitable enough. So unless you have five grand or so laying around, you’re out of luck. Even if you have a strong case you could potentially spend $5,000 to be awarded a settlement of $2,500. From what I’ve learned the best defense is to be diligent about copyrighting things in a timely manner. By doing so you will not only have a much stronger case but also the defendant will have a much greater financial liability and be responsible for all attorney’s fees and court fees.
The second aspect that I find disturbing is the idea of a company like Walmart getting into the business of selling art. If you look at the horrible effect Walmart has had on the music industry (they are the largest music retailer in the country), it’s not hard to imagine how negatively they could affect art. I know that idea sounds crazy. Walmart having any sort of impact on how art is made, reproduced and sold sounds farfetched. Obviously though, they see an opportunity to make money here as evidence by the five pages of Banksy knockoffs on their site. A company like that has the power to change the way markets work, and art is a market.
Can you talk about fiftyseven-thirtythree? How did it start? How’s it going? What did you learn from working in the apparel industry?
fiftyseven-thirtythree came out of that break I was taking [from photography]. I started screen-printing shirts and stuff for my friends. I had friends who worked at the Hieroglyphics warehouse and they had a real press and dryers and all the gear. I got access to that space and then I started making a lot more stuff. I made way more shirts than I had friends and it just started piling up around the house. Finally my girlfriend said, ‘you have to get rid of some of this shit’ so we started selling them. That was almost seven years ago. About a year and a half ago we opened Loakal, a store and gallery in Oakland. The store carries over 100 local independent designers, including fiftyseven-thirtythree and I’m curating the monthly shows there as well.
In the age of information overload and social media, how do you think interacting with images has changed?
It’s been diminished. Things are digested almost instantly and it’s on to the next thing. Attention spans have shortened and people’s appetites have increased. Back in the day if you saw one or two movies a week that was enough. With things like Netflix it’s possible to watch six movies on a Saturday or three seasons of a show. We go through it so fast I think the impact is lessened. It’s all very fleeting. I feel like I continually reach my capacity and then I am numb. For instance I might look at Facebook and in my feed will be some really dope painting, and I’ll be engaged, excited and/or inspired. And then there are five other great pieces followed by another three etc. There is a lot of good work out there, but at some point you’re just on empty. I reach a point where I have no more amazement left in me. At that point it wouldn’t matter what you showed me, it would have no effect.
Ideas and images get consumed and discarded faster than they can be created. There is this sort of gluttony. What’s next? What’s next? It goes past the point of enrichment and ultimately can just leave you constantly unsatisfied.
“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.
Cover photo by Steve Rhodes