As New Yorkers trickled to the polls in record low numbers to cast their ballots for a new Mayor this past November, a constant theme emerged in the campaign ads and news articles released in the run up to the election; New York City was rapidly becoming a tale of two cities – a city for those who could afford to live here and treat it has a lavish playground and those who were finding themselves priced out.
While NYC and all of its diverse neighborhoods and ethnic communities are familiar with the divisive effects of gentrification, none represent the current state of the cities current love affair with capitalism and consumerism quite like Williamsburg. The neighborhood -now synonymous with hipsters, once was a patchwork of Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and Hasidic Jews that found their apartment buildings inundated with artists, musicians, filmmakers and fashion designers as rent soared in the Lower East Side across the East River in Manhattan. As trendy coffee shops, boutique clothing stores, art galleries, tattoo parlors, and an endless range of restaurants flourished around Bedford Avenue, Williamsburg earned a spot in almost every guidebook’s “must-see list” while visiting New York City. The artists and creative types who helped forge Williamsburg’s culturally hip status found themselves forced to pack their bags once more and relocate to neighborhoods deeper within Brooklyn, like Bushwick or Bedstuy as Wall Street brokers and investment bankers populated the newly constructed condos that now dominate Williamsburg’s water front.
The comments former Mayor Bloomberg made last October in response to an epic exhibition, Better Out than In held on the streets of NYC by British graffiti artist Banksy eluded that graffiti is “a sign of decay and lost control.” The notion that graffiti indicates a city in decline seem at odds with what is currently happening on the streets of Williamsburg. Despite the massive scale of urban development and renewal, the huge influx of wealthy investment bankers has done little to curtail the use of the neighborhood’s streets as an active canvas by street and graffiti artists. One street artist in particular has captured Williamsburg’s cultural shift with his gender and genre defying wheat-paste figures. El Sol 25 has found a strong connection to the neighborhood and places the majority of his work with-in the boundaries of the neighborhood.
El Sol 25’s figures hang on walls and lurk in recessed doorways like life-sized specters created from a collage of dissonant images. Like the neighborhood’s culturally diverse inhabitants, El Sol’s figures are composed from a mash-up of racial and gender identities that logically lack cohesion, but aesthetically blend the individual elements together in a way that prompts people walking by his work to reflect on their own personal and social identities from a different perspective.
One of the first figures I encountered from El Sol 25 was Big Chief. Big Chief stands tucked away in a small recess on one Williamsburg’s iconic storefronts – a dilapidated barbershop with a large American flag draped in it;s dusty windows. With his tight pants, dinner jacket, and civil war styled mustache, the figure could easily blend in with several of the people walking up and down Driggs Avenue, where he keeps a watchful gaze. A closer examination of the figure reveals a small African-American male cradled in Big Chief’s arms partially obscured by a large wine glass. It looks as if the small figure is pleading for help. It is a haunting image. And much like El Sol’s juxtaposition of images, Big Chief stands on the corner of Driggs and North 6th, a relative newcomer on the block, hands bowed in supplication as he greedily takes his glass of wine, impervious to the suffering of those around him. I decided to see if I could contact the artist and ask him about his work, and thankfully he agreed to answer a few of my questions.
Can you take me through your process: the moment you have an idea for a piece, how long you spend with the piece, how long it takes you to create it, how you select a place to hang it?
I’m currently sitting on 3 years’ worth of collages that will be painted and pasted up slowly. All with different themes and explorations so I take my time, usually only scouting for different spots – until the spot tells me what to paint and when to paste it.
I read your interview with Brooklyn Street Art back in 2011. You mentioned that you find inspiration for your work everywhere; walking down the street, music, magazines . . . do you feel like your current work has been inspired or informed by other street artists? If so, which artists would you say have influenced your work the most?
I would say that I’ve learned most about placement and timing from other street artists that I admire. My work is extremely procedural and I’ve learned to select locations that I feel help to accentuate the work and vice versa. Like playing match maker. The piece only needs to have the wall understand its message or story. And in return the wall can sometimes help hint at the hidden messages moods and themes for the passerby. Timing is also key for me. Giving myself time to spend with each piece takes me through a journey and in the end I’m better able to understand how to best care for it and find it a proper home. All street artists teach me about timing and placement. Whether they are doing it right or wrong.
Your work is hand-painted. . It’s really labor intensive and the end result is really beautiful. I’ve read that you say you have a “very specific attachment” to your work and that the relationship you have with your work changes throughout your process. I’m curious what it’s like walking away from a piece once you have put it up on a wall. It seems so vulnerable – to other graffiti artists who want to tag it, people who want to try to steal it, down to the weather which slowly starts to work on the piece once it’s up. What’s that like for you, walking away from something you’ve spent so much time on and poured so much of yourself into?
I get a lot out of my time spent painting the pieces so it’s easy for me to let them go once we’ve had our exchange so to speak. I’ve also been lucky that my work has been able to last without much damage from writers or other street artists. I think mainly because I try not to go over anyone unless there shit has been dissed or has been damaged beyond recognition. That helps a lot. The longer my work survives the more connected I feel to the work and their locations.
Do you revisit your pieces often?
Have you ever engaged with someone looking at or photographing one your pieces before? Can you tell me what that was like?
I always observe but rarely ever engage with the viewer. I’ve been asked to be photographed while pasting but I always politely decline. People are usually very friendly and respectful given the illegal nature of the work.
What is your creative/artist process like when you are preparing a piece for the street, compared to a gallery?
The streets will always be my main focus but the collages really tell me what to do with the imagery. Sometimes it’s perfect as just a collage in a frame. Then sometimes later on after I’ve sold or given away an original I’ll decide to make a painted version for a show or a street piece. It’s a constant fluctuation.
You’ve spoken about some of your collage figures being ” multi-gender, multi-race, multi-everything, because [You] don’t want to speak to one specific demographic.” and that you like posting your work in Williamsburg, because “you’ve got your Puerto Ricans on the block, your hipsters on the block, your old Polish ladies on the block, and everybody in between and they are all appreciating the work . . . It makes me feel like we are not as separated as we like to think we are. We are actually all together.” With the demographics of Brooklyn changing all the time, more money, more gentrification, I’m wondering how your notion of deconstructing labels and identity, or redefining issues of identity in Brooklyn, has changed over the last few years?
It’s all changing more and more everyday but that has only pushed me to make pieces that have multiple meanings and tell multiple stories to a multitude of different people. Although I primarily pick spots near where my brethren and I spend a lot of time, the increase in the boring squares moving to New York has motivated me to spend more time in other parts of Brooklyn and Manhattan looking for different secret spots and inspirations.
I read on juxtapoz.com that while you were in El Paso, Texas you were arrested while putting up some of your work and ended up spending three days in jail. I’m wondering what it felt like to spend time in jail for putting up art?
Getting arrested for any reason is shitty but at the end of the day I’m a grown ass man who knows very well what the consequences are for this lifestyle so I can’t ever cry about it. Besides if it wasn’t illegal it wouldn’t be as much fun.
Does the element of illegality or prosecution affect you as an artist in any aspect?
You mentioned that you want to do a legal wall; do you have any plans to create a large-scale mural in the near future?
I only want to paint letters with cans legally. I have no interest in painting any of my figurative stuff on legal walls. I’ll keep painting letters on legal walls as long as I keep finding people willing to let me do so, but I have no plans or desires to let that be at all what I’m known for. My heart is still true to illegal work.
Why express yourself through street art?
I express myself constantly. Street art just kind of happened on accident after dealing with graffiti abandonment issues. It was a way for me to take the original sentiment I came to know through graffiti to the next level. I abandoned graffiti after years of arrests and life complications so I needed a way to get up that was more meaningful to me personally and had a larger impact on others around me.
What or how do you define street art?
I don’t define street art. I let others try.