Ron English has built an illustrious career by adapting and subverting the imagery that populates the cultural landscape. The hyper-colour paint that’s splattered across his sneakers speaks to the urgency with which he creates his appropriations of the bloated mascots that dominate our lives. You can find Ron’s imagery on clothing, album covers, and in replica vinyl toys – in addition to the countless canvasses and murals that he’s produced relentlessly over the three decades of his career. Besides his status as a legend in the art world, he’s made an indelible mark on the popular culture psyche through his twisted depictions of the imagery that saturates our day to day lives.
True style classics are hard to find. Of course, there are the exceptions that manage to transcend the fickleness of trends and emerge as wardrobe staples that traverse generations and subcultures without losing their allure. The Converse Chuck Taylor All Star is one such staple, a classic sneaker that’s inspired countless individualsfor almost a century. Capturing the imagination of creative’s from all walks of life, the humble All Staroffers a blank canvas for self-expression. With that in mind, we spoke with six individuals from a widerange of creative disciplines about their journeys, both physically and professionally.
You first moved to New York in the ’80s, how much has the city changed since then?
It changed from being Downtown Beirut to being Disneyland. My block, third street between C and D, was patrolled by a drug dealer carrying an Uzi. The drug dealers were up all night, playing loud music, blowing up cars and motorcycles and executing the competition. My morning walk to work involved sidestepping overdosed drug addicts; my return home late at night involved dodging bullets. The police avoided my neighborhood and my block in particular was off limits unless they were doing a raid. As for illegal street art in the East Village it was generally tolerated. I was once caught painting a wall by the owner of the building, who called the police on me. The policeman responded by cursing out the building owner for wasting his time, He didn’t even give me a second look. Of course I didn’t mind all this because it kept the neighborhood affordable.
Has that change been mirrored in the art scene, how have you seen that progress?
The biggest motivating factors in the creation of this new artistic renaissance we are currently experiencing are the new tolerance (actually love for) street art by communities around the world. The paints are now created to facilitate large-scale artworks rather than the painting of lawn furniture. And probably most important, the internet, and Instagram. Artists have always been inspired and motivated by the other artists they are exposed to, now exposure to other artists is a global phenomenon and the quality of the art is reflected by the connection.
Did you witness the progression from subway graffiti, to mural graffiti, to street art over that period?
Yes. First there were the taggers marking their turf. Then the taggers starting getting artistic about their letters, started embellishing their stylized invented monikers with characters –evolving the practice into an art form. Then there was the infiltration of art students, [including] myself and Keith Haring, that took art out of the subways on to the streets – away from the stylised lettering to open ended artistic expressions.
You’re an extremely accomplished painter, what drives you to refine and master those techniques?
Being a street artist means watching your art come and go before your eyes. I have the desire for direct and immediate communication but I also have a more deep desire to speak more eloquently to the ages. This is accomplished by painting. Knowing something will be around for thousands of years drives one to make it worthy of its place in history.
That idea of mixing classic approaches to production with modern iconography is a central tenant of your work, what about that juxtaposition do you find so compelling?
Everything is connected and making those connections helps one see the big picture. Everything is true, especially contradictions.
Do you engage in popular culture on a direct level? Do you have any cultural guilty pleasures?
I like everything and everything makes me feel guilty. My most direct engagement with pop culture is my clothing brand, Popaganda. I literally have to create images people are willing to wear on their chest.
Where has your career as an artist taken you that you never expected to go?
Everywhere. At its best art can be an all-access passport to the world.
For more in the series: