Artist Aaron De La Cruz has been busy. Real busy, having recently painted at Pow Wow in Hawai’i and a recent show in Hong Kong along with a solo tour at the end of the year, not to mention commissioned murals in between. While once a kid in Fresno, writing names on the wall for pocket money, with a determination to outdraw his big brother, Aaron’s work has gone from strength to strength, and is in demand worldwide. The artist talks to us about space, dissecting letters and a certain fondness for threes.
You grew up in Fresno, how was that?
That was dope man, growing up in Fresno was probably actually one of the best things that I could do. I pay a lot of tribute to Fresno, I obviously still talk about it a lot. It was really a mixture of country and ghetto at the same time. It’s this weird mixture of open space but at the same time there’s really no hardcore urban hip-hop scene. You’re kind of country or more on the ghetto side, or you’re kind of like a little preppy person.
There wasn’t really that much mixture in terms of integration of people. You do your own thing, or be your own person, especially for myself because I found myself in this weird grey area, all my homies were doing all this gang shit, but I was just kind of like ‘nah’, I chilled with them and stuff like that, but used the graff as a way of getting out of that shit.
For sure. So that was still definitely a part of your upbringing. I guess when you’re growing up in an area like that it’s inescapable, huh?
Exactly man, because you know like, it’s just really weird, you’re so close to these other big cities, Los Angeles and San Francisco, but then it’s just so far away in terms of culture. Fresno definitely does have its own flavour in terms of writers. The whole art scene itself, I didn’t grow up with it, I didn’t have any artists in my family, none of my friends are artists, you just do whatever you can to get by and not get anybody pregnant, pretty much! From being a teen growing up, all my friends were just having kids, doing bad shit, and stuff like that, but you know, luckily enough, I made the right friends, just kind of progressed out of that shit.
It kind of became a way for you to distract yourself from the gangs and from getting girls pregnant. When did that creative streak first strike you, how old were you? What were your earliest memories of going ‘ok, this shit’s kinda cool’?
Honestly man, as clichéd as it may sound, from as young as I can remember I’ve always been into art. The first time it really blew me away, where I knew, honestly man, it was graffiti. I had an older brother, he was like seven years older than me, and I must have been around seven years old, so my brother was around fourteen. We used to skate a lot, breakdance and shit, so I used to tag along, do the same shit but not as good obviously. When I was a kid [he] took to the side of a freeway and fucking drew this big ass batman logo and then wrote our last name De La Cruz under the batman logo, and I was like ‘This is badass’.
I just grew up being a badass kid, I used to run the streets late at night, just like a little badass mischievous kid and when I saw that, I was like, ‘Oh fuck, this is awesome’, it’s like art, but it’s illegal and stuff like that so, from that point on, I always tried to draw better than my brother because my brother was always artistically inclined, I was like, ‘I’m gonna draw better than this fool, I’m going to draw better than him’, so you know, it grew from that into always being involved in graffiti.
At the time, it wasn’t the whole hip-hop graffiti scene, it was more that we had all this open space and land to play with, so it evolved from that. Obviously as I got older it was graff magazines and stuff like that, but at a younger age it was pretty much just competition with my brother, trying to be better than him, this guy was like seven years older than me.
And with your early stuff were you doing more traditional work? Was it about playing with letter forms?
Yeah so, probably like the age of eighteen or nineteen, I was doing the traditional throw ups and pieces and tags and stuff like that. I got really involved in writing other peoples names because as a kid, I was 12 or 13 years old, and people were coming up to me in school, like, ‘Yo, I hear you do graffiti, do my name!’ and so I was like, ‘Alright, cool’. My whole life I’ve always been a little hustler selling shit, everything from lollipops, to bike parts, to spray paint cans, and so I was like fuck it, if I’m going to start drawing peoples names, I’m going to start selling them.
As a kid, I was making like $5 a name, on a weekend I could easy make like $50, $60, just doing this for fun. I got tired of writing my own name over and over and over, the name that I was going by at the time. My style that I have now found, what I was doing was actually taking the letters apart and dissecting them; like breaking pieces off of an ‘S’ or pieces off of an ‘N’ or a ‘J’, and putting it back together. So you’d have this shape made up of part of an ‘S’, part of a ‘J’, an ‘L’, and I was more interested with the space in between the letters. So it was a mixture of tags, tagging for me is kind of the same thing, where you want that perfect tag, where the space looks right and all that sort of stuff. What I’m doing now, very much roots from that.
So to move onto the current work that you’re doing, I never really look at it and see any letter forms in themselves but you’re right the shapes are extension of elements of letters, so that’s really the idea behind where your compositions are now at, is it?
Yeah exactly, so it’s definitely from the composition of positive and negative space and the movements that I’m using when I create those big patterned shapes that I do. Growing up I did a lot of work for my father around the house. A lot of stuff that I do has that manual work, so whenever I do my pieces, those patterns kind of remind me of when I used to have to help tile. Those are little things, keepsakes that I have with my family or with my dad.
When I work with black lines, which is my main medium of choice right now, the simple medium of just using a marker, at an early age, the simplest form of just using a tag. Now it’s taking that same simplicity and minimalism in terms of mediums and just pushing it as far as I can in terms of the amount of space I can cover.
Is it also in terms of being able to really highlight the composition as well because you’re not allowing there to be any other embellishments to take the focus away from that raw composition?
Exactly. There’s been tons of trial and error. I’ve been doing this style, playing with the compositions and the line weight for ten years now, so I obviously made some mistakes. I’ve mastered it enough to be where I can knock it out fast, I can back away from it and there’s no clumpiness, there’s not an area to where the viewers eye will go to one point, I’ll be able to float it across nice and evenly.
I’ve noticed that, when we were in Hawaii watching you work at Pow Wow, we could sort of see you step back, look at a wall then come back at it then boom it was done and the composition was very clean, and evenly spaced, like you said, you always seem to find a very good balance of both positive and negative space, and as you said it seems like one of the most important decisions is where not to put things as much as it isn’t. How is that creative process, when you’re actually dong it, do you even think about it? Or is it now at that point where you can just kind of let your arm go and it’s sort of intuitive?
It’s very intuitive. I don’t do narrative pieces. I’ve done stuff where there has been an image of a face or something like that but it’s more about a space, it’s felt, it’s very much felt. I do sketches and doodles in my sketchbook, but whenever I do the actual piece, I don’t really have anything planned out. I have a feeling for the moment, there are reasons why I do certain line work and certain patterns for certain reasons because I do sneak certain objects and images in there, not all the time but sometimes, but it’s definitely based off pure emotion during that time.
With those elements, those things that you’ll sort of sneak into a piece, do people pick up on those? Or do you find that it’s usually for yourself?
It’s more for myself, but there have been times where I have included some images that you can tell. It’s in some of my earlier work, which I’ll probably bring back into things later on. For instance when I was at Pow Wow, I decided to do one piece on one side of a wall that incorporated triangle patterns. I saw triangles being used a lot in Hawaii on different things, so just incorporated that into one of my patterns. I do work in a sequence of threes, there’s always like a boom, boom, boom, I’ll have three circles or three lines. [I bounce around with the number three a lot.] I don’t sign a lot of my pieces but my last name’s De La Cruz, three different syllables. That’s one thing that kind of keeps it interesting for me. It’s an element of surprise for myself that keeps me on my toes.
In terms of progressing your work now, where do you see yourself taking it within the next year or so?
If you had asked me this question a month ago I wouldn’t have said gallery shows at all, I told myself I wasn’t going to do any gallery shows but obviously that’s not the case. I would like to get into textile design, and maybe even some furniture as well. Even just working with structures and space because that’s one thing that I find very interesting in furniture design. Obviously I work on a lot of wall space, interior and exterior, so now I’ve started looking at spaces. I see textile design as a market which is open, it’s something new for me, it’s one thing I’m interested in seeing how far I can push these patterns that I am doing into whatever direction they may be. I would love to stay working on the street as well but just have that midbrow area where I can bounce from the street, into somebody’s home and maybe to a gallery.
Is that important for you to always have a presence on the street in terms of your practice?
Yeah it is for the simple fact that growing up I never stepped foot into an art gallery until I was about twenty years old, that was around the first time I took an art class, so for me, as a kid, that’s what I was exposed to, the walls, people’s names written on cement, it’s free, it’s easy, accessible, it’ll be there one day and maybe gone the next, you walk by this wall every single day and then suddenly boom. I like that. I enjoy seeing that and I enjoy being the person doing that as well.
It’s a way for you to keep your work out there and educating a new generation. So what have you got planned for this year, what can we expect?
For this year there’s a group show coming up next month, April 15th, in Hong Kong at Above Second Gallery, so that’ll be myself, along with Samuel Rodriguez. I got a small show here in San Francisco this month, after that the next big thing is the solo show this October in Hawaii. I have four or five interior mural commissioned pieces I’ll be working on here in San Francisco.
How do you approach those mural works? Do they tend to give you a brief or do you find they’re pretty open?
Luckily enough, everyone’s been hitting me up just saying do whatever you want to do so, it’s pretty much up to me. People have been calling me up asking ‘do you make wallpaper?’ ‘no’, so people are like, ‘could you do our wall?’ I have to be careful of where I’m doing it. I don’t want to do it for a company I don’t feel strongly about.
Is that important, making sure that if you’re doing your work for someone who’s values you trust?
I think so, I feel that there is a soft spot in my heart that will make or break a deal depending on who they represent. That’s the way I was at first with the galleries, I don’t like the way some galleries are run, because they’re bureaucratic in terms of representing some people not others. You try to meet the right people, but at the same time you have to support yourself as an artist. Which again is why I love working out in public areas, it doesn’t really belong to people. You’re not representing certain organisations or a client or whatever it may be so your just doing your own thing, saying ‘fuck it’.
So you’re living in the Bay now, how’s that influenced your work, living up in northern California?
I think the one thing its allowed me to do is really look, digest, just kind of take in what everyone else is doing and kind of not do that, you know what I mean. So whereas before, in Fresno, I might have worked on a piece then I’d use their stuff as influence or copy their colour scheme. Now I can see first hand when it’s fresh. A lot of times artists do think on similar wavelengths, especially growing up around graff artists. You know people have ideas all the time on different sides of the planet and can be working on the exact same idea. Same thing like when people look at my work and compare it to Keith Haring’s work.
I used to kind of take it personal, like, that sucks because I’m really trying hard to do this and people keep comparing it and then people started comparing me to like, Paul Klee, these other artists that were kinda doing the same things. I’m sure they probably told Keith Haring ‘oh your stuff looks like Paul Klee’s stuff’, and I had no idea who Keith Haring was until somebody saw my stuff and said ‘oh your stuff looks like Keith Haring’, and I saw it and I’m like ‘oh shit well, I really shouldn’t be doing that’ or ‘don’t do that again’, so that was a good thing for me to really look at him and go well I see what they’re doing, so I just don’t do it that way, you know what I mean ‘cause, I think that artists do have this like innate thing inside of them that causes certain ones to work certain ways which you find comfortable in their own way of working.
It seems to me that one of the biggest struggles an artist tends to have with their career is trying to work out what direction they want to take their work. Would you say that is one of the things you struggle with?
You know, I guess, to be honest I haven’t had that problem yet because I’ve been fortunate enough to apply my patterns or designs, or whatever you want to call it, my art, onto many different surfaces, whether it be shoes or clothing or walls whether it be like a piece of wood, whatever it may be, so in terms of like direction I haven’t had that problem yet, but who’s to say it won’t happen next year or two years from now, where I have to find a new direction. I would say one thing, that you asked what I had planned in the future, I am obviously thinking about three-dimensional and stuff like that as well which will come down the line.
Sculptural stuff or more sort of utilitarian stuff in terms of furniture or is it just really open?
Yeah it’s just a thought at this point. It’s funny what you ask about direction because I have all these people who approach me with ideas for my work. Somebody who does animation or somebody who does video or a furniture designer, like all these people will approach me like ‘it’d be cool if we did this or did that’, it’s awesome that these people can see my work in a different light. Some of it I take in my stride, and I think ‘hey we should work on that together’ or some, obviously I don’t want to do. I haven’t had that problem yet of where to push my work. I’m letting it take on its own direction, which is kind of the way my work is. I’ve been fostering this style and I’ve been working on it for the past ten years, now I’m able to work really fast I’m just going with it.
*UPDATE* Aaron De La Cruz has been super-busy since this 2011 interview—exhibitions, collaborations, more Pow Wow and a just-launched jewellery line. The images above are taken from the artist’s current show, Some Thing Else, which is now on at Known Gallery until the end of this week.