Pose is a graffiti writer with two decades in the game. The Chicago born writer has witnessed firsthand some of the definitive moments in the subculture’s recent history. From the emergence of the Clean Train movement that shook Chicago’s transit system, to the explosion of street art that brought discussion about the place for graffiti firmly into the mainstream. He recently made a whirlwind visit to Melbourne as part of the Cooper’s ‘After Dark’ project, we caught some time with him over a few patriotic beers to chat about his involvement in the scene, it’s development, and what the future holds for the culture as a whole.
When did you get started?
Around ’92, something like that. Back then I never thought that I’d still be doing this shit. Most of my friends who I started with aren’t, and I definitely never thought I’d be getting opportunities to fly around and paint with other people. It’s a totally different world now, things have just sort of blown up and opportunities are endless. I’m stoked man, ever day is like a freebie right now.
When did you get down with MSK guys?
In 2006 or something like that. I’ve known a lot of the guys for a while; it’s a small world. A lot of those guys have been pushing it really hard for a long time, so as like-minded individuals you kind of end up painting together. Guys like Rime I’d met and painted with a bunch, and we’ve always been in a lot of different crews along the way. I feel really privileged to be in MSK, they’re like the only people I know who feel exactly the same way that I do about this shit. We all sort of support each other. Everyone is really progressive and they’re really pushing the envelope, it’s fresh.
Like you say, this scene has really blown up in the past ten years and MSK have always been at the forefront of that movement with projects like Detroit etc. Where do you see it heading?
The States had this humongous street art boom that was like totally different, all the writers hated it and it was a pretty big deal. I’ve seen a lot of it going on here [in Melbourne], I’ve snapped a lot of pictures of street art just ragged. We went through a lot of that, but I think when you get into your thirties and older if you want to continue to do this stuff and push the envelope, then you need to expand your vision and learn from what happened with street art. These guys came in and they were being really effective on a different level, it opened up a lot of doors in a weird way. And now as street art is kind of dying off, the original wave of it at least, you’ve got a lot of writers who have adopted a lot of stuff and decided to blur the lines. In my opinion saying “Well graffiti is this way, and it has these rules” is contradictory, you’re supposed to break rules doing graffiti. That’s how it originated, and it’s our job especially to be semi-intelligent and start putting that original lawlessness back into it and push it to a new realm.
I was speaking to Reyes the other day and he mentioned that he sees this new wave almost as a continuation of an American Folk Art. That’s something that there’s been a big pickup in the past couple of years, tying back into this muralist tradition.
Yeah, that’s one of the sick things. You get to a certain age and one guy might go all right fuck it, I’m gonna draw from this mural tradition around me. I mean we’ve all got different influences, and myself in particular I’m gonna draw on some street art stuff. I’m going to draw from everything I know and grew up on and what’s been around me, sign painting, comic books, and use it in the same way that I used letters as a kid to create a persona. Now I’m incorporating other elements, whether it be from traditional mural art and all these other things and using those elements to just kind of further push it and grow a greater persona outside of traditional graffiti lettering.
Do you think what was happening during street art created a push to start referencing stuff outside of the culture?
Yeah, I think that’s the other thing. No one really wants to say this, but I’m happy to say it, in a weird way it kind of opened your eyes to see that maybe I’m chasing my tail a little bit by only staying self referential. See I have all this other stuff to bank on, sign writing, pop graphics, skateboard design, and it’s like why would I hold off and keep that in another realm? That was one thing that I consciously tried to do, saying I’m going to use all of it and instead of walking away from graffiti and going into just gallery stuff or just illustration. I’m going to take the whole thing with me and try to put it all together. I think right now is super exciting, and I can’t wait to see where it’s going. You’re just going to see more and more of that. It’s fresh; this is the most powerful movement happening right now.
Do you think that culture is changing because graff culture has always been so closed off? It’s always been for writers by writers, whereas street art forced that into the public. Do you think that’s a good thing?
To be really frank, for someone like me it’s way better now. This is what’s given me the opportunities to do all these things that I want to do for the rest of my life, and make a living and paint all over the place with a bunch of people that I respect. But I think if I was a kid growing up now I’d probably be worse off, I spent most of my life as a traditionalist, but that’s the way that shit works. The more it gets accepted and becomes mainstream then the more these guys are going to push and go more hardcore and more underground. To me it’s jut a natural cycle, and in that respect I think it’s just going to push the whole movement harder and faster.
Is that where you think the whole clean train movement came from? As a reaction to that commercialisation?
There’s that. I spent most of my life as a clean train writer, I mean the third piece I did was on a clean train. I was able to watch it grow from this is what we do because this is out my window, to kind of this is blowing up even harder and harder in the States almost at the same time as street art was. So I guess I always saw it as a sort of combative thing. As things get more commodified those kids are just going to go crazier. I mean obviously Europe has a huge part to play in the clean train movement, and I have some of my friends and family who are some of the most active in the world in that scene, but that’s not where I am right now, I was happy to walk away from it when I did because I’m still here and not in jail. In the same respect, you’ve got to look at the whole and I’m a realist and I like to come at all angles of it. I like to look it as a whole, not as “Oh that’s bad, and I’m doing this now”, I think that stuff is amazing. I think that’s where a lot of the power is in these sub-movements, the clean train writers and the traditionalists. I’ve got nothing but respect for those guys, that’s where I’m from.
Do you find yourself having constant arguments with your peers?
I mean my friends and I bust each others balls and shit, but you can bust balls and then when someone is locked up and they need money or someone to look after their stuff then I feel fortunate that I can look my crew. So I can lend them money or take care of them while they’re locked up or whatever the case may be. I mean we bust each others balls, we’ve got people who have done the work and have a strong stance or reason for doing what they’re doing and being where they’re at. I think there’s an underlying respect there, and that’s why I feel privileged with guys in my crew and guys that I know because they might not take the same path that I took, and I might not take the path that they took, but there’s still respect there.
Do you think there’s more pressure nowadays to justify yourself than there has been previously?
Probably, but in the same respect I actually feel less pressure. Personally I’m not sweating it, it doesn’t affect my actions. I got to a point where I was thinking that if I’m doing something because of what a scene or a group of people or even my crew thinks, then I’m pretty much exactly the opposite of a writer. I’m here because of what I am and what I learned, I came into this to break the rules and do whatever I wanted. So I feel like really justified in that, and pretty solid that for six years now I have been making consciously different decisions and haven’t sweated it. I don’t look on the internet, I don’t read graffiti blogs, I don’t need any reason to alter what I’m doing when I know what I’m doing and I feel proud of it. History is getting written as we speak.
So you’ve been through Asia recently, that seems like more and more of a graffiti destination. What’s behind that, what’s going on?
In certain places like Bangkok for instance there’s a natural need, like if you want to paint then you have to go to a place where you an actually paint. There’s a real blurring of the lines as far as between what you can do and what you can’t do there as well, you can figure it out for yourself. If I walk out on the street in the morning in Chicago and start trying to paint then I’m obviously going to get arrested and it’s going to be ridiculous. Whereas if you’re in Bangkok or Thailand you can walk around and figure it out for yourself. If you want to you can probably just go and tag on anything, or you can have a quick chat with somebody or throw them the equivalent of one US dollar and then bang out a huge wall. It’s just a more open place, and a breeding ground not just for bomber kids who want to write every single day and night, but for creativity. I mean if you can just hop a plane and go and get busy somewhere else, there’s no reason to sit in your city.
What’s it like painting in a city that doesn’t have that culture of graffiti? These places haven’t followed that Western evolution from New York or Philly.
It’s refreshing and interesting in as far as you do go to a lot of place that have literally just adopted that New York style, or like MSK from this era and this is what we were raised on. What I like is when something is created out of an experience regionally.
Do you think regional style culture still exists?
I think it’s still there in places that haven’t been reached yet, on a smaller scale. That’s what’s cool about places that haven’t just adopted styles. In certain countries that probably has to do with the fact that economically it’s tough to say “Hey, I’m going to go and paint everyday”. But there’s beautiful shit like Sao Paulo, what’s going on there is fucking incredible. It’s harder to do now because the world is so small because of the Internet.
And the pixação in Sao Paulo had the precedence of a culture that’s evolved almost parallel to subway graffiti.
Yeah, but I still think there’s places out there that haven’t been reached yet. Or people might bring it to them in a different way than just Subway Art did. Like a writer going out there as an expat who says “Hey, I can get busy out here” and that’s going to affect other people. Like El Mac, if the first thing some kid experienced was a huge, beautiful Mac portrait, and seeing him do that in spray paint, it’d be pretty mind-blowing to see where that kid is going to take that five or ten years down the track.
It’s something that’s always struck me as funny that when you travel to places like China, you see local writers painting Western letters with an Eastern influence. They’re not painting characters; they’re painting New York letterforms.
Yeah, it’s a trip. It’s pretty bugged out. But again man I think that’s the positive thing, that’s why I feel justified in trying to be progressive and take what we have that’s based off of New York and Philly’s history and push that realm of tradition a little bit. A lot of the kids I meet now, I mean I’ll have a show and instead of just tagging a million blackbooks and it being all about graffiti, a lot of those kids want to talk about all kinds of shit. These are traditionally what you’d think of as backpack kids, but they want to talk about art, they want to talk about illustration, all sorts of stuff. I don’t know if that’s right or wrong, but it’s definitely interesting.
See the Cooper’s ‘After Dark’ project here.