Interview with Alan Ket a raw graffiti artist, founder of Stress Mag and worldwide graffiti consultant.
FC: Where are you from Ket? Tell us about your beginnings and your discovery of graffiti.
I was born in Jackson Heights, Queens where I lived till 1978. I moved to Miami for a few years and came back to NYC (Brooklyn) in 1982. Coming back to NY was great. There was a huge change in culture because Hip Hop was not present in Florida the way it was in Brooklyn. By the time I was in 7th grade back here in NY I was a fanatic. It was things like Mr. Magic’s Rap Attack radio show, DJ Red Alert, and college radio that got me juiced up. Not to mention hanging out in the street, seeing pieces all over my neighborhood, and hanging with b-boys. This all got me open. I mean I moved back to Williamsburg, Brooklyn which was all Puerto Rican and Hasidic Jewish. So I got down with the Puerto Rocks and that was it. Next thing you know I was practicing back spins in the communtiy center around the way.
I began to paint trains when I was forced to take them to go to high school. I finally met real writers in High School that put me up on writing and how and why it was done. At that point I started motioning insides like any other toy. I rode the D, 5, 6, 2, J, and M lines so that is where I first fell in love with it. That was 1985. I really started going to lay ups to paint in 1987 when i was 16. I simply started because the stories I heard where so cool and sounded so exciting. Prowling around tunnels, stealing paint, and getting up was like being another person. I wanted that. I needed an escape from the reality of my boring and crappy life at home. Writing was the perfect escape. Trains were just a natural place to do it. I wanted to be famous like the guys I saw up going to school: NET, BONES, BET, WADE, ROACH, SEEN, ODIN, BUF, GO4, PJ, KNOW, WEB, STRES, SWING, REAS , CHINO and so many others. I wanted to see my shit when I got on the trains.
FC: What crew do you rep?
Graffiti shows that there is life in a city where people feel bold enough to express themselves in public.
FC: You painted all over the world in different cities. What 's your best graffiti memory?
The best memories are those that involve good friends and getting over. Most recently it was benching trains in Copenhagen and seeing so many bombed trains. There were hundreds of cars covered with panel pieces, throw-ups, etc. and it made me happy. The trains had another layer of importance and they looked great.
FC: You created From Here to Fame LLC, a book publishing, content development and art agency. Can you tell us more about your books?
It is basically something that started out from conversations and meetings with Zebster and Myre (Paris). Zebster was launching a book publishing company and wanted my help. His company is From Here to fame publishing and I incorporated a company in the US with the same name to have the same identify in both places. The idea is to create media that supports our culture (hip hop) and educates while building a sustainable business model. It is a work in progress.
The books that I have worked on are:
Hip Hop Files by Martha Cooper some research by me and marketed in the USA by me.
This book is a look into the photography that Martha Cooper shot in the Hip Hop and Writing world from the late 70s until 1985. This shows the time period when Hip Hop and style writing went mainstream thru films, television, exhibitions, and tours.
Sento: The Fantastic Partners written by me.
This is the biography of the infamous Bronx based artist Sento who as a train painter influenced generations of writers.
Part One: The Death Squad written by me.
This is a biography of the living legend Part One of TDS crew. The book documents the life and art of this man who has been painting for over 35 years.
New York City Black Book Masters compiled by me.
A look at famous writers from New York City and their drawings. It includes very rare drawings from Dondi, Noc 167, Boots 119, Victor 161, and many others.
Cubabrasil by Stone - Here I wrote the introduction.
A fantastic mural project in Cuba with artists like Stone, Neon, Cemnoz, Won, Nina, Vitche, and Os Gemeos.
FC: This structure created great documents about history of graffiti, it's important to control it and be sure that the right people get coverage. You made a tremendous job documenting the graffiti movement, but on the other side you are one of the most active graffiti and urban culture ambassador. You've worked with famous brands helping them to understand the codes of the movement. Brands who want to use street culture for their communication and sometimes don't fully get it. How do you keep the right line between both sides? It must be difficult sometimes?
Keeping the right line involves educating the brands that hire me. It is never easy and sometimes they want the easy and quick way to do things but I always stress and force them to recognize the real people behind the movement and hire those people. In addition if they are going to make something from this they need to give back. My work with the brand Ecko was like this. It started by going to the smallest details and changing the corporate website to say that he is not a writer and educating the PR people to getting them to agree to invest in sponsoring real Hip Hop events to hiring real writers when possible. Of course there was much more but this is a quick example.
FC: More than a active writer, and a gifted publisher, you are also known as an defender of prisoners rights and a fighter against police brutality. You created a program with Rickers Island Prison, you are one of the Founder of Black August... Can you explain what this is about, for those who don't know yet?
In the 90s I was fortunate to work with a group of friends at Stress magazine who were all about social justice. As a result we became involved in all types of different projects and programs that fed our spirits and gave back to our community and people. This type of love and activism was visible in the pages of our magazine and we just turned it outwards. In Riker's Island we had a friend (TRIM TNC) who was an old writing friend and who had access to make things happen. He was part of our extended Stress family and we came up with the idea of having events there to stay connected to the inmates that are part of our community and in turn figure out a way to decrease violence there. Whenever we were going to have an event (and we did many) there woukd be no violence for weeks or months leading up the the event. The concerts were supported by musicians who understand how terrible it was to lose one's freedom and they performed for free. We had Wu-Tang, DITC, Fat Joe, Big Pun, Smooth the Hustler, and many more perform. We also donated thousands of magazines to keep people informed of what was going on in the outside world.
The Black August Collective came about in the same way. Old high school and college friends were part of the Malcolm X grassroots movement and this was a way to raise money for political prisoners abroad. We at Stress were about this type of movement and became involved at the beginning to ensure we raised the money and created programming that would get people out. It was a great success and continues till this day although I am not a part of it any more.
Gill Scott heron performing at Black August
Mos Def at Black August
Stress posters of Jay-Z in 1996
Press badge for 7th annual Cuban Rap Festival in 2001
FC: Why have you been arrested in 2006? And why did the police confiscated all your pictures and contents for your next books? What is the situation now?
I am a convicted criminal after having negotiated a deal with my lawyers to have the city drop 11 of the 14 charges. I agreed to plead guilty to three felony counts in order to please each of the 3 prosecutors of my case as well as take large fines, probation, and community service.
FC: What was your role for the Foundation Cartier exhibition " Né dans la Rue". In France everybody was surprised that a firm like Cartier get intrerest into graffiti, as much as we were surprised by the thalys event ...
I was the graffiti consultant on this project. My role was to curate and organize the historical aspect of this exhibition. I was able to locate and collect important pieces that tell the history of New York's movement and have them presented. It was a great project to be a part of and was a joy for me since it is the type of work and investigation that I am already doing for myself anyway.
FC: What’s your taste in movies and books?
Thinking movies, documentaries, and crime films. I just saw Burnt Money a film about a armed truck heist in Argentina in 1965. It was great.
As far as books go I love learning and I love great works of fiction as well. I am currently reading Rules for Radicals. The last great non-fiction book I might have read was the Brief and Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. It was a wonderful book.
FC: Favourite quote?
It is better to die on your feet than live on your knees. - Emiliano Zapata
You must be the change you wish to see in the world. - Mohandas Gandhi
An idea that is developed and put into action is more important than an idea that exists only as an idea. - Buddha
FC: Name an artist (or many) whose work you respect and admire.
I respect and admire the work of the artist Banksy simply because it is for the general public and points out some of the problems we have in society out in the real world. His public art provokes people and the power structure and challenges us to think about situations that are unjust. I also admire many other artists like Os Gemeos, Nunca, Blu, Barry McGee, Steve Powers, and Futura.
FC: If your style was a music band or a song? Which one would it be?
FC: How do you organize your paintings? Do you do sketches before? Do you have any “gimmick", characteristic or paint habit?
Sometimes I do sketches sometimes not. It depends on the situation but more often than not I just freestyle and have good results. My best paintings are the ones that I have done with no outline and just had a good result as a reaction to the people I was painting with. I make it up as I go along even with the colors. I think I am pretty loose when it comes to painting.
FC: What was your most adventurous and dangerous graffiti?
I don't know but there have been times when I thought I was going to die. That really sucked.
FC: How do you choose your images and where they are placed in the street?
I just paint wherever I can.
FC: What’s the characteristic of a Ket piece?
Old school Brooklyn flavor.
FC: In which way do you want your art to evolve?
Perhaps on canvas one day when I have time for it. I would also my street pieces to get more elaborate and smarter. Perhaps more accessible to the general public. I have started to do this type of work in the past years by moving away from my name and writing statements instead.
FC: Tell us about the meeting with the Vandal squad. What do you think about this Book?
The book sucks and is junk. These guys were all lying in the meeting and acting like righteous cops meanwhile they lie to the judges and anyone else they have to in order to send a kid to jail. They are despicable.
FC: What makes a good piece?
The flow of the letters, good color scheme, and original style (bonus).
FC: Does Graffiti make you free?
yes, it always does.
FC: Why is Graffiti scary?
People have been brainwashed by political propaganda and the media to believe this. It is not an natural reaction.
FC: Did your views on Graffiti change over time?
Not so much. I think I still feel the same way for over 20 years.
FC: How do you see street-art in 10 years?
Becoming more and more popular.
FC: Who’s the owner of the street?
We all are. the public!
FC: Why do you think brands want to use graffiti? Do you think it's just a temporary fashion trend?
I think they use it because its cheaper than hiring a huge firm and because it is a language that youth understand.
FC: What do you think about the idea developed by Rime in this post :
Brands and Firms use to consider graffiti artist as minor artist that don't deserve the same respect than the same kind of artist who use brush instead spray cans...
This is a damn shame and artists need to turn down jobs when the pay is not right and just.
FC: What are your worst and best habits?
Worst - working too much
Best - getting up early
FC: Your favorite time for painting?
Anytime but when people are not around
FC: Your favorite colour ?
FC: A list of words that represent Graffiti (unlimited).
Loose, free, political, illegal
FC: Describe a typical day of Alain Ket
Wake up, stretch, walk dog, eat, listen to news, check emails, work, make love, rest, sleep.
FC: What are your plans for the future?
More books, study more, teach, sell art, start a new business.
FC: What do you think about hype?
It makes the world go round.
FC: What's your real goal?
FC: Any words of wisdom?
Love life and enjoy every minute of it.