Hitting the ground running, day one of CARBON 2014 took us on a madcap international graffiti spraycation (with Sheryo and The Yok), showed us the most poignant 2Pac cake ever created (Patrick Martinez), gave us a keynote from the guy who literally wrote the book on camouflage (Hardy Blechman), traversed the emotional range from hilarious teenage hijinks to sombre contemplation of mortality (Jeff Soto), took us on a journey from LA to NYC in the name of creative glory and finding your tribe (Brent Rollins), gave us the behind-the-scenes view of building an unstoppable paint empire (Levi Ramsey), and let us into the world of a contemporary New York fashion success story (Mark McNairy). All in a day’s work, really.
Photography by Lester Jones at I Dig Your Sole Man.
Forum A: Art & Design
First up: Patrick Martinez. Hailing from East Los Angeles, the fine artist progressed from drawing cartoons as a child to translating those characters onto walls via graffiti in his adolescence, and ultimately fulfilling his desire to be shown in galleries with his thought-provoking and innovative paintings and installations. With a strong interest in art history and the aesthetics and compositions of previous movements, Patrick brings them into current day, with his use of everyday objects – like popular Spanish or Asian groceries – in more traditional still life setups. He is constantly inspired by his immediate surroundings, often taking snapshots of places in East LA and storing them later to become part of his visual vocabulary.
Speaking about his works with neons, including that heavily blogged about supermarket installation, Patrick says he was inspired the beauty of LA at night and wanted to remix the messages so that the signs “speak back to the passer by.” This desire to juxtapose the hard and soft has lead to the birth of bronze gangster garden statues, cute teddy bear sculptures made of melted down hand guns and the image of 2Pac painted on a sickly sweet iced cake. And, with a recent move into more abstract pieces, the evolution of Patrick’s portfolio is looking pretty bright.
Starting out at 19 and working pretty solidly ever since (he’s now “40-[indecipherable]”) Brent Rollins had a lot to school us on. Having been exposed to graphic design and typography early on, through his father’s work, Brent went about the difficult task of convincing people (mainly his Vietnamese mother) that a creative career was better than a medical one. That said, having his “freakishly skinny ankles” featured in Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing poster as a kid, is arguably the best ‘collab’ you could start with.
Beginning his career when rap magazines were in their infancy, Brent saw their unrefined design aesthetics as a challenge to present the genre in a more exciting way. His mantra of “I know that I can do this better,” would see him introduce a creativity and thoughtfulness to his first work for Rap Pages magazine and eventually throughout his career, which has included iconic album covers and packaging, book design and his current role as Editorial Creative Director at Complex.
Crediting his move to New York – and his subsequent involvement with defining hip-hop title ego trip – as a tipping point for his career, Brent stressed the importance of getting out of your comfort zone, finding your tribe and essentially being your own inspiration. “You wanna get to a point where you’re so happy with the work that you are your own inspiration.”
Jeff Soto then took us to the dark side with his career retrospective. Having been influenced by Star Wars and his parents’ love of art and sci-fi, Jeff’s work has always involved an element of fantasy and just general unnerving vibe. Jeff also has roots in graffiti – discovering it through library books and graffing for 10 years until writer politics, medium limitations and the desire to not be arrested finally caught up with him.
His fine art career then took centre stage and Jeff reverted back to his childhood inspirations of monsters and magic, whilst also heavily influenced by his own real concerns about the state of the world and his (and his family’s) mortality. Showing and explaining to us his various skull explorations, he admitted it all appeared a little depressing but assured us he’s not trying to be on a downer, “I’m just trying to get an understanding of what [death and the afterlife] is all about.”
Being a husband and father has also played a part in Jeff’s business steez, venturing into clothing and a possible comic or cartoon series to diversify his portfolio – and hopefully “help pay the bills.” But his closing words pretty much summed up his presentation – “Painting! Death!”
For the second year in a row, we were host to another street art couple, with the team of Sheryo and The Yok rounding off the Art & Design forum. Originally from Singapore, Sheryo first met Perth-raised Yok randomly at an airport, where their artistic exchange happened pretty much straight away. And because “it didn’t make [my art] look shit,” the pair embarked on what would be a long time creative and romantic journey.
Now calling Brooklyn home, the duo has been on constant ‘spraycations,’ chasing summer and creating art across the globe. With a penchant for gnarly characters and incorporating the culture of wherever they are at the time, the impeccable linework and minimal colour palettes they have become known for have made their way on to walls, ceramics and batik-style fabrics.
And with future plans to explore mask-making in Papua New Guinea – as well as a possible video vixen career for Sheryo – it doesn’t look like the team are slowing down any time soon.
Forum B: Building a Brand
Forum B saw three unique thinkers take to the stage to render their insights into what went into forming their respective brands. Their stories were fraught with difficulty and failure, but each speaker stressed the importance of passion to survive and overcome the numerous challenges inevitably associated with building a brand. The session had me furiously taking notes like a first-year straight outta high school – not only so I could write this recap right here, but to ingest the thoughts and philosophies of three dudes who get paid to do what they love.
First up, Mark McNairy’s no-nonsense approach to life was reflected in his talk, as he sat down and gave a thorough account of his early aspirations to make music, all the way through to his current place at the top of the fashion game. Hilarity ensued when he opened by saying, “I had a speech written down but my dog ate it.” This set the tone for the rest of McNairy’s talk, as he casually engaged with the audience in his conversational, idiosyncratic style. He shared his initial difficulties finding work in New York, and how when he did, he was doing stuff he really didn’t want to. (“Am I depressing you? This is building a brand – this is what it’s all about!”) While contracting at J.Press in 2005, the wheels were in already in motion for his brand, Mark McNairy New Amsterdam. I loved McNairy’s message of going with your gut, and not succumbing to The Man.
Hardy Blechman proved to be a natural entertainer, engaging the audience with his tongue-in-cheek sense of humour and cheeky self-deprecation. He went deep, discussing the notions of life purpose with a neat mountain analogy once told to him: “My whole life all I did was climb a mountain, and then when I got to the top I realised that nothing else matters except how you climb it… the journey is the destination.” This really spoke to me, and resonates strongly with his journey of reclaiming the symbolic value of camouflage, reappropriating it into a fashion icon. Blechman’s charismatic talk focused largely on the idea of symbolism, as he invoked key symbols throughout history to support his treatment of camouflage: “Things aren’t always what they seem.” Captivating and unpredictable, Blechman was a pleasure to listen to.
Capping it off, Ironlak’s Levi Ramsey spoke eloquently and informatively about the development of the brand and the difficulties it faced in its grassroots beginnings. There was something so great about listening to his anecdotes about driving a pallet of paint in his small hatchback, or how he learnt about accounting because he initially couldn’t afford a bookkeeper. He really seemed like the kind of dude you’d want to get a beer with. Now, Ironlak has a factory in China, and their products are sold in fifty countries. Perhaps even more poignant was his advice to “get out there and have a crack. Don’t end up with a life full of regrets.” As a serial procrastinator myself, and having seen Ramey’s powerful progress, this was the kind of kick in the arse I needed. Thank you CARBON.