In From the Street: An Interview with Cycle

NYAB talks with the artist about his graffiti work and new paintings up at Ad Hoc Art in Brooklyn.

poster for Morning Breath & Cycle

Morning Breath & Cycle "Oddities"

at Ad Hoc Art
in the Bushwick area
This event has ended - (2009-02-27 - 2009-03-22)

In Interviews by Isabel Kirsch 2009-03-12 print

Like other big names in the graffiti scene, Cycle was influenced firsthand by the writers who originated the famous New York City subway train style and he became an active part of its evolution. An avid drawer as a child, he nonetheless had to find his own way into making art, rebelling against established art forms and inventing new styles in graffiti and illustration over and over again to become one of the most skillful letter benders of our time. Cycle is known for experimentation and trying new things. The vast diversity of his graffiti pieces and illustrations often confuse people into thinking that he is more than one person. Always looking for a new challenge, Cycle recently has become serious about switching out the spray can for the brush. In the past months he has been working on an art show featuring new paintings, which are now on display at Ad Hoc Art in Brooklyn. A few days before the opening, NYAB met him at his studio to see the new work and ask a few questions.

How did you come up with the name “Cycle?”

It’s from college. During anthropology classes I used to sit in the back of the auditorium with my notebook. Instead of taking notes I would draw whatever word the professor put up on the screen. When the professor was using the word “life-cycle” it just stuck with me.

Are you still doing graffiti?

I am not doing anything illegal these days, just permission stuff. I just have other things to deal with right now and other responsibilities. It’s not a good look at my age hiding under parked cars and under bushes. We are either offered commissions to paint a wall, or we just get together to paint, not always for a specific purpose.

When I say we—it’s a group of friends. The main people I collaborate with these days are the TC5 guys, and I always paint with Lady Pink and her husband Smith.

How did you discover graffiti and who were your heroes in the writer scene?

Growing up in Connecticut I noticed graffiti around ’86 during my freshman year at high school, but I didn’t start doing it until ’89. I grew up on the Connecticut-New York border, and my dad used to take me to the city to see the Mets.

Living in such close proximity to the city, it’s the New York graffiti I paid attention to. At that time (’89-’90) there still wasn’t any record of graffiti in media like books or the internet. There weren’t even magazines then! The only media record was the “Style Wars” documentary movie, which I didn’t see until later, and there was Henry Chalfant’s book “Subway Art”. Since there was not graffiti media you had to go out on the street and find out for yourself, search it out. I didn’t even know that there was really any graffiti anywhere else. So coming to the city looking at stuff, among the first people who I really appreciated were Bio, T-Kid, SaneSmith and Sento.

HummingCee
11” x 20”
Mixed Media on Wood

Have you ever been arrested?

More than I’d like, but not enough to put me on death row.

In your eyes, what are the main differences between the graffiti scene back then and today?

In the time that I’ve been writing graffiti I’ve seen it go from something local in New York, LA and Philly to every major city in the world. Europe just went nuts with it, and that’s when the graffiti media started, with the magazines, with the internet and the books. When I got into graffiti you had to get into it by seeing it. I looked up and I was like wow, I know that says something and it’s big and colorful, but I don’t know what it says and how these guys are doing it. And I crept around in places that if my mom knew I was there, she probably wouldn’t be too pleased with me, but I slowly met people and figured it out. It’s not like somebody handed me a magazine or was like “yo! check out this website.” Graffiti was simply in your environment and it had to speak to you. And then you got involved and once it spoke to you had to figure out who is doing it, how it is done and somebody had to bring you up. Now the formula is all laid out, on any website. Here is where you get fancy spray paint, every color, here is where you can order your little caps to go on the cans, here are outlines of what people did in New Zealand, etc. It’s become watered down. I don’t feel like I am part of something anymore. When I was a kid I felt like I belonged to a secret society. Nobody knew who I was or how I look. All the graffiti writers that I looked up to, I had no idea who they were, they were simply a name. The only people who knew you were your boys who you went painting with. You would always discover something new, a new place to go to write graffiti, a new person. Now you just turn on the internet and find all the information you need about any writer. It was a lot more fun when it was underground.

You are well versed in the history of graffiti, the different writers and their styles, and the whole evolution of typography. How do you see this art form evolving in the future?

The most I can say is that it’s not going anywhere. They can put up all the laws they want and arrest as many people as they want, it’s not going anywhere, it’s here, and it is here to stay.

You have a master’s degree in art, how did that play in with your development as an artist?

I went through a lot of formal art training. It was somewhat interesting: anatomy, still life, etc., but when I left class I would go back to doing my own artwork, my own drawings, the graffiti and skateboard design, so the formal art training played in only minimally. The influences from school—perspective, light and shadow—didn’t come back until later on. I’m kind of surprised how much of it I have actually retained.

Rex
68“ x 43.5“
Mixed Media on Canvas

What is art for you? Do you draw a line between graffiti and so-called fine art?

It’s all about how you want to express yourself. I don’t think there is necessarily any right or wrong in art. I choose to put graffiti in the art category. You’re creating an image, and you’re not limited to an 8 1/2 by 11 piece of paper. It’s using color, shape, form, lines, so I don’t separate graffiti and art. To me graffiti is art. Other people call it vandalism. In my mind art is very necessary. The artists have always been at the forefront of what’s going on in society. They are seeing and recording what is happening around them using whichever art form or medium appropriate to their situation.


Are there other artists who you admire or that inspire you?

Growing up I looked at a lot of guys doing skateboard graphics: Jim Phillips, VC Johnson and this guy Pushhead was doing pretty amazing stuff. I definitely also appreciated Basquiat and Keith Haring, even though some people argue that they are not real graffiti artists. In my mind they are more predecessors to the street art than to the graffiti art category. I like Haring because of the line technique and Basquiat because of the stream of consciousness kind of thing. If you want to go even further back, Marcel Duchamp’s painting “The Descending Stair Case” is one of my favorites. When it finally clicked in my head and I discovered exactly what it was, I thought it was awesome! And then there is Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Salvador Dali, Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci…

The main characteristic of street art is its transitory nature. Whatever you put out there, it can vanish within hours, get painted over or sandblasted away. Do you approach “permanent” art differently, like the canvases you’re painting?

The canvas is a different medium than the spray paint. It takes longer to do a painting than a piece on the street. A graffiti piece is a more immediate gratification. I can accomplish a graffiti piece in an afternoon, but something like this painting takes me a couple of weeks to work on. As far as becoming attached to it, or dealing with the temporary aspect of it, coming from graffiti I learned long ago to let go of it. In the end it all comes down to taking pictures of the artwork. I don’t want to hoard my art. The art I knew was always temporary and disposable. It wasn’t done for the purpose of creating a single masterpiece that will hang in MoMA. It was done for the experience. There wasn’t any financial reward for doing it either, so basically you’re just doing it for the love of the game. Even these paintings, if they disappear and I never see them again, I am ok with that.

What else is different now that you’re painting on canvas?

Painting for me is challenging myself. When I was doing graffiti the challenge came more from other people. I saw how good somebody was and I wanted to get to that level. I would see a new spray paint technique and I immediately wanted to figure it out, so I would go off on my own and experiment. Graffiti is a pretty competitive activity. You’re competing with other people stylistically and on who’s putting more out there. I got to a point where you could give me a word and a bag of spray cans and I can produce something, whatever I have in my head. I look at the colors and think about how I can use these to make the word that I am painting stand out from the rest. With the letters, I’ve drawn enough letters that I can picture different ways that they connect together in my head. I can probably do it blindfolded at this point.

Painting is something new to me and I have my mind set on how far I can push myself in this medium. There is a learning curve but in some ways the graffiti is the prequel to what’s going on here.

Kuiper Belt B.C
48” x 36”
Mixed Media on Canvas

Haven’t you been painting all the time?

Yes, I have all along, but maybe I didn’t take it as seriously as I am taking it right now. Now I see opportunities where something like this could go.

In graffiti I feel I have accomplished what I wanted to do and I feel comfortable and confident with what I have done. Life’s about evolution and growing and these are new challenges that I want to take on.

Let’s talk about the paintings you’re showing. What inspires the elements in them?

For a long time I was focused on what was going on in the world of graffiti styles and skateboard graphics. Right now I am incorporating elements that go even further back. When I was a kid I loved science fiction movies, heavy metal magazines, and the books by Frank Frazetta. I also was really into dinosaurs and Godzilla. Right now I am revisiting these things, mixed with some graffiti elements and I am rediscovering how much I enjoyed it.

You seem to be at a turning point right now…

I kind of got to a point, you know a crossroads, where I could keep staying with the graffiti, standing on a street corner at three in the morning, looking to write my name on something, wondering if I’m going to get arrested again, or if I’m going to end up in a fight with somebody. I have the choice to either keep living this lifestyle or going with new opportunities.

It’s hard to make a living like that too…

That’s the thing! Living that lifestyle you’re going to be scheming for the rest of your life to bring money in, or working some sort of manual labor job moving boxes somewhere. There are a lot of famous graffiti writers out there who work at UPS, maybe not even… They’re scamming and running schemes and maybe they got substance abuse problems. It’s like yes they’re famous graffiti writers but the flipside to that coin is they’re probably a mess as a human being.

You can’t really have a suit and tie job and be out there at three in the morning writing graffiti and expect to be up at an office by nine. And then, God forbid what happens if you get arrested or go to a hospital!

Or, I could try to take it somewhere else. Challenge myself and go a new direction.

Does it help that you are famous in the graffiti world?

Fame and recognition in the graffiti world doesn’t automatically translate into the art world. There are a lot of writers out there that don’t understand that. Graffiti is very exclusive in a way that you have to understand the culture, how to read it and how to appreciate it. The average person looking at graffiti can’t tell the difference between good graffiti and bad graffiti. While the average person can look at a painting and tell that person is painting really bad or that person is painting realistically, for example if it’s a portrait. So I am not one of these people who pretend that what I have done in graffiti will translate into the art world, just because I’m known in the graffiti world.

I am still surprised that my name is big out there. I am making this up as I go along. How I got to this point? I couldn’t tell you. I just keep trying to come up with new ideas. The visions I have in my head and what I want to produce, I’m definitely not there yet. I am still figuring it out.

MORE INFO
www.cyclewashere.com

Isabel Kirsch

Isabel Kirsch. Isabel has been writing for various pop culture publications since the early 90s. She has published around 40 science fiction short stories in the Berlin-based magazine, Style 100. She later moved into the non-fiction realm of art and culture. She has co-edited two art books with street artists WK Interact (New York) and Jaybo aka Monk (Berlin/Paris). A New York resident since 1999, Isabel loves to stumble upon new and exciting, or touching artifacts in the city. Whether it's mutilated billboards or a fine art exhibition, she feels it's worth sharing if it punctures her habitual mental patterns. » See other writings

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