If Ian de Beer’s life up until now were produced as a biopic following conventional dramatic structure, it’d go something like this. Our exposition begins in Buffalo almost a decade ago, where our protagonist is making a name for himself in the US graffiti scene under his nom de guerre—Hert. The rising action occurs as Ian meanders through a stint in Pittsburgh, and a move to New York City, steadily gaining global notoriety thanks to his bold ‘90s influenced graffiti style. We hit our narrative climax in a courtroom on September 7th, where a 22-year-old Ian is being sentenced to one to three years in prison thanks to one felony charge and 69 misdemeanour charges related to graffiti.
A year and seven months pass before Ian is released, and during this time is spent between prison, a halfway house, and a county jail. Even after this time he is subject to strict parole conditions including a hefty restitution bill, a 9pm curfew, and most perplexingly—a specific prohibition on owning any materials that allow him to create conventional artworks. So we enter our falling action, as a recently freed Ian wrestles with his desire to create artwork outside of the framework of graffiti, while paradoxically being legally denied the ability to do so.
As we approach our final act, our hypothetical audience is presumably confused. Is this a comedy or a tragedy? Will there be a neat resolution, or a catastrophe? Certainly some interesting narrative points have been raised along the journey. What does it mean to be an artist? If you’re denied the conventional tools of art, can you still produce artwork? Where does a person draw the line between the legal and the moral? Is self-expression at the cost of personal freedom warranted? Unfortunately life isn’t a Hollywood film, and concrete answers to large questions are strictly the domain of the silver screen. While Ian’s case is objectively intriguing – it’s important not to lose ourselves in the cultural implications of his situation and overlook the reality of a young man who has served a sentence as punishment for a crime, and now faces the possibility of being sent back to prison if he’s found in possession of coloured pencils. We spoke with Ian over the course of several months, as he attempts to navigate his art practice under the conditions in which he’s found himself.
Tell me about your new body of work. Where did it come from and what are you hoping to do with it?
Well, the first step is getting a new studio space here in New York. When I was in Buffalo I had a studio set up, but all the projects I was working on within the space I’m not even able to show. A lot of the materials I was working with I’m not legally allowed to use. Since I’ve come [to New York], I’ve wanted to make work that was based around the concept of using alternative materials to make things that look like paintings.
The most difficult part of that is the way that my mind still works as a painter, so when I think about doing things I immediately think about using paint to do them. The stuff that I’m working on now is basically like a series of what would-be text based paintings, but I’m using vinyl in place of paint. In place of being able to use colour, I’m just ordering dyed canvas or I’m dyeing canvas myself. The other technique I want to use a little bit is fire, I use it to burn the surface of the canvas or the vinyl just a little bit.
What materials can you legally not use? What can you work with?
I’m not allowed to own or possess art-making materials, which includes but is not limited to spray paint, latex paint, oil-based paint, acrylics, water colour paint, chalk, crayons, markers and pencils. So for the most part they’ve covered most of the utensils you would use to mark a surface. I’m also not allowed to own a respirator for some reason, or any type of pesticide sprayer. I think that actually came from them going back and reviewing the list of the materials [the police] confiscated from me when they did the raid of my apartment. I’m also not allowed to own [spray paint] caps. Basically anything you could use to make a traditional painting, or mural, or piece of graffiti. As far as the stuff that I can use, I mean you can use anything to make a work of art. You can make a work of art out of literally every material. They couldn’t just say “You can’t make art,” because there would be no way for them to control that.
So the judicial system has almost forced you into thinking like a conceptual artist?
Exactly. The idea of conceptual work was something that I came up with in jail. One of the things you try and do to overcome the mundane aspect of being in jail is you start having these wild plans and dreams, you basically live in either the past or the future – but not necessarily the present. For me a liberating thing about conceptual artwork was that I could make [it] while I was in jail. I would just take a pen and pad and I would write down ideas. My mental focus for a while was on trying to come up with different types of ideas to make conceptual artwork, you get better at it and you start to realise what the mistakes you’ve been making were. I wasn’t drawing for a few years or thinking about graffiti, I was reading mostly about conceptual artwork and then writing about it. When I got out, immediately I started putting these things into effect.
I started to doing all these different experimentations with public art projects that were illegal, for me it is sort of an instinct to think of ideas which end up being illegal. One of the most interesting things you can do to get somebody’s attention is to not ask for permission to do something. It’s almost like it’s built into me to do something soon and quick and do it on my own, to go for the highest impact and most attention getting. All of those elements come from graffiti and then they were factoring into my artwork. The issue with all that was I was continuing illegal practice and couldn’t actually share what I was doing. One of the hardest things post getting out of jail was trying to figure out a way to make artwork that was authentic to myself, but also was not illegal. It’s kind of strange that it’s such a struggle for me to do that.
In terms of these new works with the vinyl, they’re text-based right?
I don’t know if you saw a while back I posted an excerpt from one of the letters I got from Danny ‘MF ONE’ Montano. He’s a friend of mine from Pittsburg, serving out a five-year sentence for graffiti in prison. He’s already been incarcerated for a super long time, and when he finally gets back he’s going to have served seven and a half years spread out over almost a 10-year period—all for graffiti. The whole time we’ve been communicating via letters, either I’ve been writing letters to him or he’s been writing letters to me during different periods of incarceration. The contents of some of the letters, not just the message that he’s trying to get across or the stuff that we’re talking about, but the way that he actually writes has a super unique quality. He developed his own handwriting—I mean everybody’s handwriting is unique to themselves, but he actually crafted his own. I’m taking text from those letters, either sections that are important to me or just random words, then scanning that into a computer and working on them a little bit with Illustrator. Then [I’m] selecting his lines to try and make some type of composition on the plane of the canvas. I’m using his handwriting as brushstrokes essentially. You’re taking what they were originally meant [for], communicating an idea from one person to another, and you’re applying it to something that’s a bit more abstract. It’s similar to taking a can of paint that was originally designed to be used for an industrial purpose, and then using that to make a painting.
It seems like in lieu of being able to use your own letters, this is a way around obstacle.
I mean, I thought of doing that. But honestly there’s something about his handwriting to me that looks more interesting and looks more fitting for this purpose than my own. My handwriting is all capital letters and it’s all at a certain slant. I know how to draw graffiti letters and stuff, but his handwriting is definitely more fluid and more practiced than mine is. I figured I would rather appropriate his, plus I get to bring the letters that we were actually exchanging. [Those] are some of the more valuable and meaningful exchanges that I’ve had with another person.
It’s still an urban aesthetic right? It’s still rooted in the city?
I feel like that’s something I don’t really have an interest in trying to shake. A lot of people try to distance themselves from their reputation as a graffiti writer because they think to make it as an artist they to. I don’t think that’s really necessary. I think that if you’re going to make quality work that’s going to be appreciated by an audience that is looking at contemporary art, you can also be a graffiti writer on your own personal time. Those worlds don’t have to mix, and you also don’t have to separate them within yourself. With graffiti, you might paint a piece on a wall and somebody can look and say “Well, I think that’s art,” and another person says “Well it’s definitely a crime, it’s graffiti and it’s not fine art,” so it’s easy for them to make the distinction. I’d rather just work with a whole different purpose for what I want to do.
I don’t think there’s much that’s interesting in graffiti that tries to legitimise its existence as artwork, because that’s a conversation that’s been happening since the late ‘70s.
I’m with you on that, I don’t even think it’s really worth discussing for the most part, I think that most people that I spend time talking to or whose opinions I hold in high regard are just over that whole talk.
You’ve obviously had a fair bit of time to reflect critically on your practice, is this part of what you were spending your time doing when you were in jail?
I’ve always spent a lot of time heavily considering what I’m doing, even when I was painting graffiti. When I was incarcerated, most of the time I would be considering what was possible with the means that I had and how to attain greater means to produce better work.
You’re opening yourself up to a level of criticism from the wider public, is that something that you’re considering?
That’s an obstacle that every artist has to deal with, there’s always going to be some type of response to your work. Some artists say that they just make work for themselves, I don’t know how that’s possible, because you could never show it to anybody.
Are you comfortable putting yourself forward as Ian de Beer now?
I feel like that never would have been an issue, the only reason I ever did that was to avoid legal persecution.
So you would have been happy to stand beside your own name back when you were painting graffiti?
I’m comfortable presenting anything under my own name. I recognise that people try and cultivate certain types of images as graffiti writers as a reputation thing, but everything I’ve put out there really is me. It’s understanding what you’re working with and who you’re working for, just because you’re an amazing graffiti writer doesn’t mean you can just catch a tag on a canvas and put it in a museum and everybody’s going to think it’s dope.
So what’s the long-term goal? Is it to transition into the art world?
That’s tough, people build up this imaginary boundary set. When people say ‘art world’ I think what they mean is “Am I going to try sell artwork and make a living from it and build a reputation as an artist?” I don’t know, I can tell you I’ll definitely make artwork. If you were to have done an interview with me in the first year I started doing graffiti and you were like “What’s the goal next?” I’d have told you “I think I’m going to kill my block, and then I’m going to kill my neighbourhood, and then I go to a different neighbourhood and try and kill that.” Eventually you’re like, “Oh shit, I had no idea but I dedicated my life to graffiti for years now and now I’m a well-known graffiti writer.” Part of you is always working towards some higher goal, but I think it’s always an ambiguous thing. The focus of my energy has already shifted, I feel like most of my thoughts are based around artwork at the moment.
Does not being able to paint graffiti come with a level of frustration?
A little bit at times, not so much the aesthetics of it or actually painting. I think it’s the social aspect of graffiti that kind of frustrates me a little bit. Most of the people that are my close friends are graffiti writers who lead a certain type of lifestyle that I just don’t have the time to be able to share with them.
I guess people who aren’t really involved in graffiti culture at that level don’t really appreciate how much it is almost a full-time way of being.
I know guys that can’t have girlfriends because they paint too much graffiti, they can’t live normal lives. The writers that I look up to the most, there’s definitely no way that they are married with kids and have a car and a house, you can’t do all that. You have to sacrifice living a normal lifestyle to be painting graffiti. You have to be out four or five nights out of a week. You can’t really get a day job because you’re getting arrested, so you end up being a career criminal and that’s a big commitment.
This story first appeared in ACCLAIM Issue 34—available for purchase in our shop.