While in town for Basel Week Miami, AM had the pleasure to spend some time with RISK who was painting new murals in the Overtown area, many of which were collaborative pieces. We also had the chance to set up an interview with the respected LA-based writer and talk a little about his work, his views on graffiti as an art form, his influences, his deconstructive color wash technique, as well as about the new video by Todd Mazer released today on MOCAtv. Check out the video and the questions & answer below…
Arrested Motion: For the benefit of our readers not yet familiar with you, can you please tell us a little about yourself and your work?
RISK: My name is RISK. I’ve been painting graffiti for 30 years. My work is very diversified, ranging from traditional letter-based graffiti focusing on the aesthetics of letters to the “Beautifully Destroyed” series which is derivative of the colorfield painters and has no letters at all.
Arrested Motion: MOCA wanted us to interview you regarding your new video on MOCAtv detailing a skid row mural you were involved with in Los Angeles. Can you explain the project to us and what made you get involved?
RISK: It was an easy decision. It was downtown where I spent much of my early art career. I spent years in and on those streets. I’ve had the opportunity to meet a lot of extraordinary people as well as some very unfortunate people who have made an everlasting impression on me as well. To put it simply, I owe them. I owe it to LA, I owe it to Downtown, and I need to give back as much as I can. It is a great place for me to paint the “Beautifully Destroyed” series which is all about evoking emotion through color. It is great to see people transformed over the progression of the mural. Some of the local residents were hostile toward the project as we start, and by the end they were happy and felt uplifted. It is a very satisfying feeling.
*EDIT* This mural is part of the Skid Row Freewalls Project.
Arrested Motion: Also on the topic of the MOCA – it has been over a year since the historic Art In The Streets exhibition closed its doors. What impact, if any, have you seen it have on the public perception of the art form and has it changed your career path in any way?
RISK: The detectives harassed me relentlessly, arrested my crew mates, and cost me a lot of money. Also, Jeffrey Deitch got a lot of flack yet the all time high attendance record was broken and a whole new demographic was introduced to the Museum – no good dead goes unpunished…. I think it was necessary for everything that happened to have happened to elevate us to the next level. It had a great impact on the public – people are sheep, 1% are leaders and 99% are followers. It was very bittersweet to have critics and the public come forward to say Graffiti or Street Art is an new art form and it is here! Yet, we’ve been doing it over 30 years. It took a MOCA show to sway their perception. I am very grateful for Jeffrey Deitch being a leader, not a sheep. Deitch and co-curators Roger Gastman & Aaron Rose stood up and changed the guard so to speak. It helped not only me but graffiti artists as a whole. As far as my career path, nothing has changed but I believe a lot of the road blocks are gone and more easily overcome due to the “Art In The Streets” experience as a whole…
Arrested Motion: I think that some artists want to make a distinction between gang tagging / vandalism and street art / graffiti as an art form. Do you think it’s fair to expect public perceptions to change on the topic if many of the artists in the movement still do illegal works and what could still be construed as vandalism? How do you walk the fine line?
RISK: I don’t ask amnesty or leniency for anyone who breaks the law. It’s that simple – if you break the law, your subject to pay the price. Therefore, everyone needs to be comfortable with themselves. Everyone needs their own morals. People make a clear decision on what road they want to travel. There are good apples and bad apples in every arena. No one should judge graffiti artists as a whole. Some artists may be vandals and some may not be. You can be against illegal graffiti but you can’t condemn all graffiti artists as vandals, or all graffiti artists as taggers, or taggers as gang members, etc… It’s like saying Americana’s beloved NASCAR should be condemned because all NASCAR drivers run moonshine and condone drinking and driving etc… The simple fact is things that may have started at one place have clearly moved on and progressed. So yes, I do expect the public’s perception to change on the topic.
I personally have been forced to not do any illegal graffiti in Los Angeles. It is impossible for me to paint illegally in Los Angeles at this time without being caught. I have had detectives and police call me, text me, and contact my attorneys on numerous occasions letting me know they are waiting. I think it’s an incredible waste of taxpayers’ money. There is real crime going on out there. But it’s not my job to tell them how to do their job, just as clearly they are not qualified to be art critics… Me personally, if I am out of the country and decide to paint something illegal I guess I would think about my personal morals. My morals would be you would have a hard time arguing that I didn’t make something I painted look better. If I painted a piece on a dilapidated wall scribbled with tags, I would sleep good at night, yet i would fully be aware of the consequences….
Arrested Motion: There are quite a few artists that Arrested Motion covers that have their roots in graffiti but have fully transitioned to gallery artists. What is it about doing work in the streets that still draws you to it after all these years? What about it still holds importance and value in your life and career?
RISK: It’s just my canvas. I grew up drawing and painting on the streets, so it’s where I naturally gravitate to – like a fish water, animals to the jungle, etc… I think it’s really important to stay on the streets because as graffiti artists, you are trained to adapt to your surroundings/surfaces and to be spontaneous. I think it’s like a training ground and you need to work out to be fit, so to speak… It is really sad to see people pine away in the studio. The studio is great and it’s something you earn but you should never forget where you’re from or you’re just an actor not an artist. Your DNA is what makes you and if the streets are where you’re from, then that’s a necessary part of you… I guess the equation works opposite as well – many artists or creative people should probably spend more time in the studio and less time in the streets…
Arrested Motion: These beautiful deconstructive color washes that you have been working with on murals seem to be a recent development relatively speaking when looking at the length of your career. Is it a new thing first of all? And, how did you the idea come about and what is the thinking behind it?
RISK: The series is a few years old. As young writers pioneering the graffiti scene in Los Angeles, freeways were our answer to subway trains in New York. In New York, all the commuters rode subways. The writers were making social commentaries to the public on big steel canvases. We were the same youth striving to be heard here on the West Coast. In Los Angeles, all the commuters drive on the freeways so we were making our mark via urban expressionism on these big cement canvases along the sides of the freeway. The thing we had in common was the need to get up, to be heard, and/or seen – to force society to recognize us and what we had to say or contribute.
Now, keep in mind to be heard you don’t have to write political messages. A splash of color can speak a thousand words on some mundane dilapidated building or surface. It’s kind of funny when I think about years of painting these elaborate pieces with all these interlocking letters, etc… I was always entranced with the final picture as a whole – the color on the surface. The total coverage, or piece placed strategically on the sprawling urban jungle. And now, I have started a series called “Beautifully Destroyed” It is a wash of color on these specific totally mundane items. Even transforming traditional paint jobs (ie: a house or a car to a wash of color). I have traveled thousand of miles on these intertwined freeways and streets painting these interlocking pieces… It’s like I’ve traveled artistically thousands of miles to get to my destination of figuring out what I want to express… I’ve finally figured out the deconstruction process that leads you to a refined final project…
Arrested Motion: You mentioned in the past that when you started at a young age, the West Coast scene was barely developing and there weren’t many mentors to model your work after. In a way, this was a blessing in disguise as you were able to produce your own style. Fast forward almost three decades – what artists are you influenced by today and who do you feel is doing the best work, both in your crew and outside of it? What else are you influenced by, be it music or film or anything else?
RISK: I am influenced by different things daily. Not necessarily artists specifically, sometimes strokes or colors influence me. Music, movies, all of the above. My daughters influence me greatly – watching the purest form of thought to surface in them. Lately, works by Leon Berkowitz and Gene Davis are blowing me away. I’ve been doing these striped colorfield pieces with neon words on top and I’ve come across these guys’ pieces that were done before I was born and they are so similar it’s spooky. Also the movie The Cool School – everyone on that movie has influenced me for a very long time. Not only the art, but the movement. I see a similarity in all he guys at Ferus Gallery with the MSK crew as a whole… What goes around, comes around – I guess its true, nothing is invented only reinvented….
Arrested Motion: We have watched with interest your collaborative pieces with another artist whose work we respect – Nathan Ota. Can you tell us a little about the past history with him, the present work you are doing with him, and future plans you have with him artistically?
RISK: Painting with Nathan is always great. It brings me back to when I was a kid, full of energy and eager to learn. Nathan and I were both in art class together. We had a great love for art and we were obsessed with this new art form – “Graffiti Art”. We couldn’t get enough, the sky was the limit. And now, we’re still the same – we get in the studio and just want to learn and explore new styles and techniques. The only difference now is we’re teaching and/or inspiring people along the way. Nathan is a professor at Otis and he often invites his students to the studio. We have plans on doing some large outdoor murals this year as well as having our next show overseas.
Arrested Motion: Are there any future projects or shows you would like to share with your fans?
RISK: Lots of stuff to come, too much to list, and I don’t want to jinx it! Follow me on riskrock.com. Thank you! It’s truly appreciated!
Discuss RISK here.