Victor Reyes is a San Francisco based artist that grew up in California. Raised on a diet of Californian graffiti, it wasn’t long before Reyes started to make a name for himself. These days he reps AWR and MSK worldwide, painting massive pieces that show a natural propensity for both scale and composition as well as a deep understanding of style. We caught some time with him to talk about his recent community based projects, and the future of the graffiti movement.
So Reyes how’d you get started in graffiti?
I got into it because I saw a really cool painting that a guy Tyke AWR did, he lived in my neighbourhood in SoCal. So my first real introduction to graffiti was seeing AWR graffiti, that’s how I got into it.
When did you get serious about it?
I was serious right off the bat when I was like fourteen, but I didn’t really build up any momentum until ten years later realistically.
How did you get down with AWR?
We just grew up in the same neighbourhood, and you know SoCal is like big but small. Back in the Nineties the scene wasn’t as big as it is now, so when you met people in it you just kind of grabbed on to them, especially if they were into stuff that you were really into. It just became my network and my family, just people I’d look to for guidance and friends that I’ve had for years and years.
How would you describe that Californian letter-style from the Nineties?
Well it was really dynamic, it was a lot different from the funk letters of the East Coast. It was more representational of a maverick style based on punk rock and gang lettering, real fringe stuff that has a different look to the really soft sign painter fonts or the classic type fonts from New York. It was really different, and it had something about it that really drew me to it as a kid. It was like a ‘Do Not Enter’ sign or something where you’re like “I gotta go in there”.
How did your personal style evolve? There’s not much else out there like it.
I mean my whole reference for graffiti is the people for AWR, and even though my stuff isn’t a carbon-copy of the stuff from AWR the way that I use colour and space and lay waste to whatever canvas I’m working on is definitely an AWR/MSK trait. I’m really into classic reference as well, a lot of my work is based on Eastern drawing and design, even like Seventies artwork. I really reference everything except graffiti to make graffiti.
So obviously you grew up visually aware?
Yeah, I think the thing I saw when I saw really great AWR graffiti was that this is not like anything I’ve ever seen. I remember having this conversation with my parents and they were like “Oh you don’t want to be a starving artist”. You know that industrial age mentality of be a doctor, be a lawyer, be a businessman? I just knew that the world needed this, it needs this as a visual language.
A lot of your mural stuff seems to be very community oriented. Is that something that’s important to you?
I think so, I think of great muralists which isn’t necessarily the function of graffiti, but it’s definitely given me the footing to be able to handle large space. I like the idea of sending a message back into a community, where maybe they don’t have much money and you can do a mural for the kids in the park or the school and they’re not kicking there soccer ball against a dirty wall. Art was a really good compass for me as a kid, so if I can put that out there it might help some kids out and encourage them to go and do likewise.
Was getting involved in the Detroit Beautification Project an extension of that?
I think that’s one thing that the people in my crew really have in common, they understand that the kids really are the future. It’s really important to guide them and be a positive role model for them. Whether that’s through doing good work in their community or by signing their blackbooks, because these kids look up to you. My biggest demographic for my audience is adolescent guys, like fifteen to eighteen and they might want to be like you or just be in your crew and they have a lot of stigma about what that’s like. They meet you and they expect you to be some badass, and sure why not? That’s true to a certain extent, but you also want to be a positive role model for them. I think that’s what the Detroit Beautification Project was about, and I think that’s what a lot of my personal artwork is about. Being a role model in the community works both ends of the spectrum; it’s not just one aspect.
What was it like being involved in that project? What’s it looking like down there in Detroit?
I have a history with Detroit, I’ve got a friend who’s lived there for twenty years as well as my boy Revok who lives there, he’s totally changed the face of that city in a really short time. Detroit needs help; it’s like a total third-world American city. I’ve been going there since 2006, so the locals already know my work a little bit just from it being there in contrast to what’s already there. So being asked to go there and do a project for the community was really exciting, because when I first went there that was my initial impulse. But at the time the movement wasn’t there, the industry wasn’t there, and there wasn’t enough traction with my own personal work and my group of friends.
Now six years later there is and it’s already happening, that’s planting a lot of great seeds for the community there and it’s letting them know that their city matters. It’s one of the least robust economic epicentres in the country, and it’s basically been wasting away for sixty years. Murals are a weird kind of luxury item that you see in really nice neighbourhoods, or in a nice beach community. It’s something that people don’t necessarily equate value to, but if you get a quote from a muralist they’re really expensive to do a huge buildings. You’re looking at a fifty to hundred thousand dollar buy in for the square footage, and we’re able to do that for three or four thousand dollars and they’re more relevant to the community. These are graffiti murals that are bridging the gap, and I think it’s really interesting for the kids. They don’t so much get that contemporary art stuff, but this their language, this is the people’s language, and they really get into it and it raises the quality of life.
Do you think projects like this are marking a shift away from the graff scene being an insular community to something that’s more approachable?
I mean that’s kind of already been done just with all the street art shenanigans. That’s so benign and publicly well received and I think that graffiti writers are hip to the fact that they have so much more to offer artistically. There’s such a segue now because of that that I think it’s easy for graffiti writers to stop vandalising for a minute and turn their attention to a project. I mean most of these guys are paid professional commercial artists, so if they put their minds to it they’re pretty heavy weight. Graffiti writers know how to take space, they know how to work in a community, they’re not going to alienate the locals. These are street kids who are grown up adults working professionally. You get a street artist out there and it’s like a square peg in a round hole, but these guys know how to talk to people. They are the art of the people, not the street art that’s easily digestible by mothers and socialites everywhere.
I think it is good what’s happening there, and I think there’s a thing happening their that’s going to be the second act of the whole street art phenomenon, where it’s going to be the real graffiti in the context of murals that is going to have the loudest voice. You see that stuff with Steve Powers and his ‘Love Letter for You’ and it’s just so much stronger than that benign fluffy fake stuff. There’s actually a real thesis there that’s intertwined with American folk art and graffiti, and you see that and it’s really beautiful. I think that’s what is starting to happen, people are starting to champion their own cause.
You’ve worked in galleries as well; do you feel comfortable in that environment?
It’s all right. I’ve worked in some galleries like Known Gallery, where it’s my family’s gallery and it’s great and totally different. I think people forget about galleries as a retail space, It’s the same as stepping to Macy’s or even a Wall-Mart for some of them. It’s products; it’s what people can buy and what they can afford. It’s an interesting world, and it’s kind of a dangerous world at the same time. Because making art and making graffiti and making products aren’t all the same things, sometimes you can let the market dictate the end result and I think that’s the pitfall of working in a gallery. At the same time, real established galleries create scenes and they create movements and they get behind artists and it’s great to see that. I think there’s a lot of saturation in that world, there’s a lot of people chasing the same dollar. So one would be wary to make that the be all and end all.
Where do you see this whole movement heading?
I think it’s just going keep going in the same direction with some obvious mutations that people probably don’t foresee. I would stay off TV that’s for sure, because TV just ruins everything, that’s the pop culture grinder. I think more and more positive community work is definitely the direction I’m going in, as opposed to working with corporations and making corporate art money. I also think that it’s just the tip of the iceberg of everything, you’ve got people writing books about the last forty years and doing museum shows about it and that’s just the beginning. I think rolling out it’s just going to get refined, and people are going to realise that this is a great American folk art akin to jazz and blues. It’s the characters and their artwork that make up the fabric of this American tapestry that’s blanketing the world.