Dope Graffiti since 1987 member of the famous COI Crew, founder of the Crewest Gallery, Man One is the man! Let's meet this gifted Los Angeles based artist.
Interview by Cyntia Erickson aka "Art without Audience" for the FatCap Team
Man One - Aerosol and Mixed Media
Man One is also the founder and director of Crewest Gallery, the premiere street/underground art gallery in Downtown's Gallery Row District of Los Angeles.
FatCap : Do you remember the first time you did graffiti?
Man One : I don’t remember the first wall, but I remember the first time I did graffiti, and it was on a RTD bus, back in the day of rapid transit. I was 15 or 16 years old, and a friend gave me a marker. I know a few weeks later I started doing stuff on walls, but I can’t remember what the first wall actually was. I know I did a bridge early on, and there was a big earthquake in LA at that time. One of the buildings got condemned and the earthquake broke the building in half and I did a big piece there.
FC : Have the reasons why you painted twenty years ago changed from today?
MO : My reason for painting has definitely changed over the last 20 years.
When I was a young kid, I wanted to paint just to get myself known. I wanted to get up. I wanted people to see me. I wanted the thrill - all that kind of stuff. Now so many years later, I paint because I want to say something. I want someone to react to what I am painting. It’s more about making a statement now rather than just the thrill of doing it.
FC : What is your perception of street art now, versus 5, 10, 20 years ago?
MO : To me street art has been this phrase that has been coined to make artists look cool when in fact they are just designers or creative people who really don’t know the culture of the streets. They go and put their stuff up just to be hip or cool, and now they are called “street artists”. To me, graffiti artists are the original street artists, because as a graffiti artist you have to know the community that you are doing graffiti. You have to know about architecture and how a piece of art or graffiti will look on a certain building. You have to know about gangs how they operate. You have to worry about the cops and heroes, people calling in on the cell phone, snitching on you. You have to take all that into consideration. So me to the graffiti artist is the original street artist in my book. True graffiti artists know the landscape and know how to maneuver within it.
FC : How has community perception changed over the years?
MAN ONE: The perception of graffiti has changed over the years. I don’t think it has changed 180 degrees yet, but there has been some change. For example, when I first started, if you were doing graffiti, you were in a gang. That was how people looked at you. Like if you were in LA doing graffiti, you must be in a gang, and you must be carrying a gun - up to no good. Over the years, people have begun to understand that there is just not gang graffiti but also artistic graffiti and these guys are artists. The difference is that we are creating art that talks about expression and culture as opposed to gang graffiti that mainly talks about territory. There has been some change, but we are not fully there yet. There are still a lot of people that consider all graffiti gang associated, and that’s just part of living in LA.
FC : How is the graffiti movement different than other art movements in history?
MO : The Universal Code. Artists in Los Angeles know the same code that exists in Spain, London, or in Brazil - it is the street code. Even though the streets of LA are different then the streets of Mexico City there is this common code and a code of ethics that we all believe in. It gets transferred from artist to artist. It was done orally before. We passed on traditions to younger artists and so forth. Now with the internet, it’s global. If I want to do a mural in Paris, it’s one email away and I have a place to stay, a place to paint, and instant street credibility over there. It’s really a global brotherhood.
I know there have been other art movements in the past that have had a global impact but I don’t think there has been so many participants in one movement. I don’t know how to estimate how many people are doing graffiti, in LA alone there are tens of thousands of graffiti artists and that is just one city, it has to be millions that are painting graffiti art worldwide. I don’t know another art movement that has been so large, so intense, and so global all at the same time. To me graffiti is such a unique art form, and that is partly why I love it.
FC : Do you consider yourself an activist?
MO : Yes, when I decided to go from doing graffiti as a hobby and turned it into a career, I knew I had to stop doing illegal graffiti because I knew in the end it would only bite me in the ass. Eventually when you start making money at something people are going to try and bring you down. I also started the gallery which I knew would make me a target for law enforcement, for political agendas.
I knew I had to come clean, I knew they were going to come after me try and close me down or simply just try and infiltrate what I was trying to do. They have tried that, and now I have become a spokesperson for graffiti. I talk to them about the importance of providing art for youth, and how graffiti is a method of getting youth out of a bad situation or a bad environment. Working for the US Embassy, the State Department has sent me to Panama to work with youth, and show them how to get out of their struggles through art. I have gone to many countries and done the same thing. People can see the importance of doing something in a positive way even though it may have started out in a negative form. You can turn it into a positive. So by doing that I have become a sort of role model for younger kids.
FC : Your most recent exhibit is entitled A Decade of Graffiti Spirits what was the theme?
MO : In my 10th solo exhibit "A Decade of Graffiti Spirits" focuses on figurative acrylic and aerosol paintings on wooden panels. These paintings involve my colorful and bold trademark character creations coined, "Graffiti Spirits" as they are super imposed onto fields of spray painted tags and layers of paint. The underlying tags in the paintings are negative statements of culture, politics, and overall social angst. The characters painted are meant to be a positive force of creation overcoming the negativity behind them. These characters depict the spirit of the artist as he pulls himself out of the negative environment by means of his graffiti background.
FC : Will you walk through your creative process for your most recent project the DTLA Artist at Large?
MO : I had this idea that I wanted to do a mural in this part of downtown where there are buildings going up with these lofts, developments and all this stuff happening. Money flowing through downtown like crazy right now and homeless people are continually being shoved out of the way and in a lot of ways the homeless people in downtown just exist in skid row, which is where our gallery is based basically on the edge of skid row. People are just being pushed away and no one knows their name or knows their faces or cares about what happens to these people.
Having been here so many years it is sad to see that the politicians don’t really have an answer or a resolution on how to deal with the homelessness in downtown.
So this being our 10th anniversary for Crewest for my gallery, I wanted to do a mural that made a statement about not just our 10 years here but about the many years of these invisible voiceless people that are just called “homeless” people.
One of the guys that I actually know was this homeless artist that they called the Downtown Artist At Large. I’ve known him since I moved here and got to know him over the years and I asked him if it was cool if I did a mural of him.
FC : Is your work inspired by life, an image, or your own imagination?
MO : My work is inspired by a number of things, definitely in inspired by what is going on around me, in terms of social issues, in terms of things that are going on having to do with Hispanic culture especially in the U.S., Immigration issues, political issues so there most of my themes are based but then the images I come up with I think come out of my imagination it is way that I blend the two together my reality and my environment with my imagination the two for me are just as important.
FC : How did getting a formal education in art help you to express yourself better?
MO : Getting a formal education and going to college getting my degree really helped my expression in a way I couldn’t have learned on the street. It is a weird thing, because there are things I learned on the street that I could have never learned in college, and things in college that I couldn’t have learned on the streets. Having done both it gives me a really good arsenal to make a living doing what I do because at school I learned things about color theory and art history and able to study how other artists made a career.
Doing their art and was able to pick and choose those things I saw from those artists that were important to make a career in my own way but it was the basis of what I was doing. Getting a formal training has been really important to me in those aspects as well as having a piece of paper that says you are a college educated person. It has enabled me to knock down a lot of the misconceptions about what a graffiti artist is; they can no longer say you are just some random kid off the streets doing graffiti because you’ve been educated. You can talk to people on their level whatever level there at, come in and speak to them on a professional level with a professional attitude and they have to take me seriously because they know that I understand what I am talking about. At the same I understand what is going on in the streets, so it really gives you this ammunition to use to your benefit.
FC : You recently collaborated with Mear One how did that come about? And is there anyone else you would like to work with in the future?
MO : Recently I did a piece with Mear, it was more like working side by side we did it for Brit Week event in LA, worked with Ben Eine from London and Inky. I worked with Mear One before but never with Ben Eine or Inkie,so it was cool they were good guys to work with. Over the years I have collaborated a lot with other artists, I enjoy doing that I think it is a natural thing for graffiti artists to work together. Whenever I have a chance to work with people I always jump at it. Unfortunately nowadays I don’t get to paint on the streets as much as I would like to because I am busy doing other work so when I do get an opportunity to paint I usually want to paint my own thing.
FC : Can art that doesn’t last be considered art?
MO : Yeah, I mean just because art doesn’t last doesn’t mean it’s not art. Performance Art doesn’t last and that’s art. The thing about graffiti is it’s always evolving but people think then because it is so ethereal that that’s the only way it exists but when I do a graffiti piece, whether or not the city is going to buff it or anyone else goes over it I always imagine it is going to stay up forever. So when I do a piece I want to do the best I can, make a statement, make it clean, make it crisp whatever. I have all intentions of it staying up forever. Usually it doesn’t but that’s not something I can control. You have to have that attitude that it will stay up, that’s the way I look at it.
FC : What is the best advice you can give kids that are just starting out with their graffiti?
MO : The best advice I can give kids that are just starting out with graffiti on the streets is to do what they are passionate about, not to take “no” for an answer. I remember growing up people always told me that I couldn’t make money doing that, that there was no future in graffiti and here I am all these years later and this is what I do full-time; I paint graffiti and make a living, pay my bills, raise my family just through my graffiti art. Even my parents early on didn’t believe me, my friends didn’t believe that but I think you have to be persistent and just know what you want to do in life. Doesn’t mean everyone is going to make a living doing graffiti but why are you doing it? You should have a real reason for doing it, whatever it is that you are doing. If you are doing graffiti for the right reasons then it will satisfy that part of you. The other part I tell young kids is depending on where you live to be very careful because in Los Angeles it is a felony to do graffiti and if you get arrested, 3 felonies and you can do 25 years to life. I know graffiti artists that have done prison time, I am talking about 4, 5, 6 years in prison for graffiti. Is it really worth it? You have to take that into consideration, you don’t want to throw away your life over some stuff that’s not worth it. If you are going to do your art and if you think that’s the way you got to do it, the way you should do it then you have to be willing to take the consequences that come with it. In LA for example, it’s no joke and you get some serious time for doing graffiti.
FC : How do you curate your gallery?
MO : They way I curate exhibits at Crewest is really two ways; artists that I already know and are friends of mine that I want to show in the gallery or artists that I respect and admire and I want to invite them to show in LA. Sometimes artists reach out to me and want to show, if their artwork is good and I like them, I will invite them. I think 90 percent of the time I am reaching out to the artist. I am looking for specific things like originality, history, knowledge not only of their own artwork but of the movement. Sometimes I don’t even show graffiti art, sometimes it is a whole different type of artist that I show because I feel they have a connection to the street or to the urban environment that makes it worth showing here.
FC : What advice would you give someone who is just starting to collect this type of art?
MO : With any type of art form collect what you love. Don’t collect because it is going to become a commodity- you’re not buying stocks here. You are buying something that you are going to live with, interact with on a daily basis. When you wake up in the morning you going to see that piece in the hallway or in the bedroom. Some of my best collectors are the ones that buy strictly on what they love. They see a piece that moves them, they don’t have to know why, they don’t have to explain how it moves them but if it moves them then they want it. To me that is the best type of collector you can have. If someone is just buying a piece just because they are the hottest thing right now, how long are they actually going to hold on to your piece? They are just going to hold on to it until they can flip it, like they were buying property. To me art is something that gives you life and that feeds your soul why would you want to flip that?