Art: People in Process is a series where we interview public, site-specific, and social practice artists in the New England area. I’ll be talking with them not only about their *amazing* art, but also everything that contributes to the mystery of their process - their lifestyle, their artistic process, and life during and between projects. More about the vision for the blog here.
- Alexander Golob
This interview is the result of a conversation between Alexander Golob and Cedric Douglas on October 22nd, 2019 in Westwood, MA. The interview is primarily edited by Rachael Schwartz. __
About Cedric Douglas:
Cedric Douglas is an artist and designer who integrates graffiti ideology into design and advertising. His work is inspired by everyday life idioms and the subculture of guerilla, or street art. He uses this approach to express his social views on the world.
One of his many public art projects, Douglas is the Creative Director of The Up Truck, a mobile arts lab created to engage residents of Uphams Corner in Dorchester, MA. Douglas has been an artist-in-residence at Northeastern University and Emerson College.
How did you start off with doing art, whether it's social intervention art or some other medium or intention? How did it evolve into what you are doing now?
I would say my journey started when I was first introduced to graffiti, back in the 90s, when I was an adolescent - I was 13, 14 at the time. [I had two uncles, both of whom were graffiti writers, though I learned primarily from one uncle.] My uncle, the one that [primarily] taught me, his name was Des, and my other uncle, the one who is older, was named Vex. [Des] kind of gave me my first graffiti name, and taught me [all the way through High School].
The other way I learned about graffiti was magazines. There was a magazine called Subway Art (1), and it had all these trains from New York, all over the different boroughs in New York, that are [spray]painted. [I remember] One train said,” Stop the bomb” - it was a social commentary on bombs and the cold war between the US and Russia. I was really touched- I thought graffiti was just putting your name on trains, I didn't know you could do a social message. Then, I was trying to figure out how my graffiti could do that, but I never could figure out how I wanted to do it. I wish I tried harder, actually.
There were, of course, other examples- there was a train that said “Merry Christmas, New York.” I call it a social train, but by that I don't mean it was a political train- it's just “Merry Christmas, New York.” And you’ve got to think, at that time in New York City, everyone hated graffiti. They hated it, and the trains had it all over, even though the trains are dirty. [People] thought that they shouldn't be allowed to do this, but then someone did something nice, like Merry Christmas - in nice typography, letter forms, with snow on top - it’s just something cool. And, to this day, the train looks great- like it could have been done now.
Those things I experienced made me feel so blown away. I like that they have a social message to them. I didn't really know what it was, or what it meant, at that age, but I liked that it wasn't just a name, that it was something more. It made me feel good, and I thought maybe there is something to this social conscious work, because it was impactful!
I actually wasn't [thinking of] going to go to college.
When I was in high school, I did graffiti, but I had an art teacher, Mrs. Leed, who said to me “You're a talented artist, you should pursue this!” I scoffed at her, I was like, “Yeah, right!” I didn't really know. I didn't have family that pushed me, or said that I should go to college. So I didn't take it seriously, but [when I did art,] she liked it and people liked it, but it was whatever to me. I didn't do it because I wanted anything out of it, I just liked doing it, and it was a way I could like escape from other shit I was having problems with.
So after I left high school, I just kind of worked. Eventually I went to community college, finished, and then I left there. [In community college,] there [were] all these graffiti writers there, so I still kept on doing graffiti writing. While I was there, I used to run into this friend of mine, who I went to high school with, who was also a graffiti writer. He told me he was going to college for graphic design. He's told me I should look it up, that it's very similar to graffiti.
I didn't really believe him, I used to joke “You’re going to school for graffiti?!” [I didn’t realize the connection, but] graffiti is about taking your name and creatively making it unique, or animating it, giving it personality - which is the basis of typography. You take the letter structure and give it meaning, to communicate, or mix with other things to have meaning. In graffiti, it's very similar.
[When you do graffiti] you're [unknowingly] learning about composition, learning about color - all these formal elements of what it takes to be a designer or an artist, but you're learning on this subculture that is kind of unorthodox and has its own like rules that are very flexible, and kind of rugged. You're painting in the freezing cold. And if your thing sucks you’re gonna get beat up for it... You get beat up if your thing sucks, like, that's stupid, but it's true. You'll get beat up if you're not [good]. So it’s this kind of street culture, but mixed with art, which is usually really laid back and relaxed. With graffiti, you had to get something done fast, so you have to create something fast, and think fast. Those skills are very good to have in other parts of your life.
[I finally] looked it up, and realized it aligned for me - I really wanted to get better at drawing, and I wanted to learn about design.
Eventually, I decided to go to college [at MassArt] for [graphic design,] the same thing [as my friend George], because I liked what he was doing. The irony of the situation is that one of the first big murals I did in Boston was at Northeastern, and he was the head of design at the time. While I was doing [the mural], we had a big meeting, and he was there. It was so weird because he is the reason why I went into design, even though I'm not even doing design right now. I don't think he knew - I actually told him recently that he inspired me to go to college for design.
Douglas' mural at Northeastern University, "World of Innocent Wonder"
After community college, I actually moved to Savannah, Georgia to go to SCAD (it’s like a Harvard for art school, and I hated it, it is the worst school ever). I ended up going there for motion graphics - animation, like in commercials or in sports, video game graphics - I just love letters, form, and color, and shape, and so on.
It was while I was in Savannah that I met all these graffiti writers, and it is actually where I got really good at graffiti, because I was doing graffiti like every week, doing something new, painting a lot, all while I was going to school. When I was in Savannah was also the first time I started doing portraits. When I was down there, my final assignment for a class was regarding kinetic color theory, and I did a portrait of Leonardo da Vinci's, the one with the baby, but I just did it with spray paint on a piece of panel. When I brought it in to the class, and the whole class was shocked that I did that with spray paint. This is before all those nice spray paints, I used Krylon and Estonians, hardware, store-bought paint. I mixed my own colors, this is on the stove and when the freezer by old school technique, and I got colors I needed to make it. That was the first time I painted a portrait.
[Unfortunately, I had to drop out of SCAD because I couldn’t afford it. ]
Then, I moved back to Boston and I went to MassArt to study graphic design.
Since the beginning of MassArt, my work started having social impact. I did a poster series that actually won the All-School Show, which is for the designers. For each major, you have to submit work, then they pick the best work, and win an award for it. You might get a little bit of money for it too…? [I don’t remember all the details.] But you get an award, and my poster series won the All-Schools Show! I was a junior, or a sophomore, and I beat all the seniors and stuff. Needless to say, they weren’t too happy about it. But, to this day, I present and I show those posters.
But when I was at MassArt, I didn't want to do anything [with or] about graffiti, because it’s kind of a crutch. Black kid is doing graffiti stuff - kind of cliché. So I was like, I'm gonna step out of my comfort zone and not do any graffiti, no design products. I tried to stay away from it but for my degree project I was able to bring in the philosophy and ideology of graffiti into the process because in researching places, you got to know where to put things - which, you could say, is street art.
How old were you when you finished the MassArt program?
I don’t remember exactly, I think it was like 2011? I was in my early 30s or late, 20s, I forget.
So, when you graduated MassArt, what did your life look like? How did you make that transition to doing art stuff full time?
[I mean, I was already kind of doing the full-time art thing, even when in school. ]
Obviously, I was working a nine to five job on the side to supplement income, but I was also doing gallery shows. I had a solo show at MassArt, a solo show at another gallery, because I knew that I was a painter, too - one of my paintings even won an award! I was working, doing live shows, doing design work, doing socially conscious work, and so on. I saw the connection between them all where other people didn’t. There was no “you should just be a designer” [at that time], I [just] found a way to connect it all. So even back then, in college, I realized how those worlds could connect.
It's funny because that's a model that a lot of street artists are using now, but I saw that model for myself, too, before I knew it was a model that existed. Except that no one does socially conscious stuff - it's very unusual I think, though it's becoming more common. There's only a few that I know. Only the top street artists in the world are doing that. JR does socially conscious work, Banksy does socially conscious work, Shepard Fairey; those are top three in the world. But other people, they mostly just do like beautiful murals, which to me is whatever. I want to do something that's going to resonate beyond, I don't want to just paint murals, like everyone else.
Of late, I really haven't focused on the gallery world so much. I wish I did more, and painted more, and showed more; but that's something to come in the next couple years. [It would be ideal] if I was painting murals, doing socially engaged work, doing talks, and then sold like five paintings for the year - it would balance out pretty nicely. But I'm not focused on that so I'll do like one show a year. If I was doing like six or seven or eight, it could be more evenly distributed, and I could be in the studio more. That’s what I'm thinking about in the future, but it's hard to do everything.
Would you consider yourself a public artist, or a street artist?
I mean, I identify with all of the above- I call myself a social intervention[ist] [artist], because all my work is designed to make you think differently about things that are going on in society. They’re interventions. And I don't just like painting the walls. There's other things that go beyond painting a wall. I wouldn’t consider myself just a mural artist or a street artist. But I'll do it to play the game, because it's gonna sell. So yeah, I’m a street artist. I mean I guess I mean, ‘street artist’ is not even really a thing, because it's really graffiti artist, it's just the evolution of graffiti and street art. People wanted to do [paint] things, not just do letters.
How did you get into doing what you're doing now? How did you realize you wanted to do this very specific type of art, socially conscious art? Was there a defining moment or experience?
It was not even that simple.
When I was in college, I wanted to work in advertising at the biggest ad agency in New England, Arnold Worldwide. We went there to visit, and I was very engaged by it. My teachers told me I would be really good in advertising, that my creative brain and advertising would be a good match. I was already looking into advertising, because I [was very struck by] the truth campaign stuff - remember those anti smoking ads? Really amazing ads - it was like guerrilla marketing. It was really impactful stuff, for a social cause. So, when I was in college, I said “How can I get into advertising?” Turns out, there's a thing called the ad club.
So I volunteered for the ad club. All the ad agencies used to come in and do projects with the club members. During a project, [the ad agency I was working with] somehow found out that I painted - I don't even know how they knew, maybe I showed them something on my phone? I can’t remember. But they were like “You painted this??? We're going to hire you.” So they asked me to design the Hatch Award backdrop thing - it's like the Massachusetts Oscars for ad agencies. Obviously, I was totally down to do it! I got to paint the backdrop! I still have pictures of that, it was fun. I met all these people. I was so excited, I got to meet all these people, and have a foot in the door. So, instead of just me passing out flyers being a puppet, I end up getting contracted, paid jobs through them. So, I [kept saying] “Yeah, you know, I'm gonna be doing advertising, so I'll be seeing you in a couple years” they'd reply “oh you're gonna be good! This is awesome!” That was my junior year in college.
And then, the guy who started Arnold passed away. His name was Arnold Rosoff. The reason they call it Arnold is because he didn't want to call it Rosoff, because he was Jewish and, at the time, no one would go there because it was Jewish. So he changed it to Arnold, and he started get all this business. Anyway, the ad club held this award ceremony, hosted by Arnold himself, and it’s called the Rosoff Awards. That year, his family asked me if I could paint a portrait of Arnold, because they saw the other work I did. I couldn’t believe it.... I don't know if I could do this!
I said yes - And I'm glad I did. I painted a portrait of Arnold Rosoff, the founder of Arnold! Keep in mind, this is all happening while I'm doing all this design stuff, doing gallery shows. All I could think was, this is gonna get me a job at Arnold’s. The awards were at the JFK Museum, it was my first time going there, and I had to suit up for that. The president of Arnolds gave the portrait to the family. I don't even know if they still have it, but it was one of my best portraits. To this day, I'm like that was a good portrait. And I got it done in the nick of time, because I had to study for classes.
Douglas and his portrait of Arnold Rosoff
A year later, the next summer, I got an internship. It was so because I did that, of course. While I was working on that portrait, I met this guy Maurice, who works for Arnold's, who said “if you want to get you a job here someday, we'll get you an internship.” I submitted some stuff and I got an internship [*snaps*] like that.
The experience was good and bad, but it was [overall] interesting. I worked in this department which was really high pace, and like I didn't really connect well with the lady that [I worked under.] One of the highlights of my time there was a project where they got all the interns to a team up and and create a project, and our project came in second. And the lady who worked with me then was very impressed.
While I was interning, I had a friend who worked there, and he showed me a bunch of different projects he had - he was working on the Panasonic account. And he showed me some of the stuff they were doing. I thought it was cool, but I wasn't sure if I wanted that, because it's fun working there but you kind of do sit at a desk, and you're creating all this stuff for like all these corporations and you get paid a lot of money to do it, but it's just a yin-and-yang type thing. So, based on that internship experience, I was not sure if I wanted to work in advertising.
[Something else that was unappealing about the job was that] all the people I knew that worked in ad agencies had to constantly be jumping around from place to place, because if you lost an account, you lost your job. It was really cutthroat. If you worked on McDonald's account, and McDonald's said “we want to go to a different ad agency.” -- They cut all those people. Or, if you lose Rockland Trust, McDonald's, and Dunkin' Donuts, it’s your time to go, because those are like billion dollar accounts.
Also at that time, my uncle Des passed away, the one who taught me how to do graffiti. So when he died, it made me reflect about what do I want to be remembered for, what do I want to be known for when I die? I’m going to die some day - do I want to be known for doing Panasonic's commercial backdrop? Or do I want to be known for helping 10 people get off opiates, or I helped save 10 kids from getting shot in the street? I rather be known for that. And the money thing’s going to even out.
You called it social impact, a clear subcategory to public art, but how did you become a social impact artist? Can you tell me about a project(s) that were really defining for you?
Two projects come to mind. First, I started doing a socially conscious project about Hurricane Katrina. I created a motion graphics piece that showed the process of what happened, and how the levees broke.
The other project was my degree project. Every senior year, you have this thing called Degree Projects, where you pick a subject that you really like [and do a project of choice]. That was a really defining project for me, because the dopest thing about that class and that project was that it was the first time we could do whatever we wanted. For every other project we got in class, you were fed a problem, and you had to solve it with some constraints. For this project, we had the freedom, the flexibility to pick whatever we wanted.
People did all different stuff, but I did a thing playing off those posters [I mentioned before]. I did something about gun violence, because youth gun violence super high. My project was regarding how to “retrack” them (getting kids on the right track), and how I can connect them to something that inspires them and engages their creativity. For example, I was inspired by graffiti - it kept me out of trouble (even though at the time it was an illegal activity- I did get arrested two times for it), but it was keeping me out of [more serious] trouble because it occupied my time with creativity. So I wanted to create something that could occupy the youths’ mind with creativity - “retrack” them into the correct direction.
For the project, I purchased over 200 hundred water guns, and I put them in buses, where kids would be. And attached to the water guns were tags - like the toe tags for when you die, that they put on your feet - saying “your name could be on this line.” Like, if you die, your name could be on this line. Flip it [the tag] over, and it says “or your name could be on this rhyme - ZooMix, a youth program for you: dial this number.”
It [was intended to] lead kids to these creative places where they can delve into and be around mentors that are going to inspire them. That was my dream project - designing a whole system for it and how it would work. And then doing kind of guerrilla marketing for it. I designed retrack t-shirts, designed tags, business cards, all of that. I actually went out and did it, and it was super successful.
That project changed everything because, while it was a lot of failure, when it worked I was like, this is it.
Could you tell me a little about a role model in your career?
It was while I was at MassArt that I met [and was taught by] Chaz. [Chaz [Maviyane-Davies]](https://boston.aiga.org/event/and-still-i-rise-chaz-maviyane-davies/) is an international poster designer from Zimbabwe. Just google his name, he’s world famous for doing socially active posters. He was trying to encourage us. He was the only teacher that would show us his work all these teachers we had they would just be like we did design, they would never show us what they did, although they were teaching it. On his first day, he said “I'm Chaz, this is my life story, and this is my work.”
So in Chaz’s class, he pushed us, he was a tough teacher. He made students cry. He would tell people to leave to leave if they didn’t do the work. I got caught only once doing the work, and he put me in check real quick. He embarrassed me, and then the next week I came with the work, but he was a good professor.
When you're designing something, and you aren’t able to convey what you were trying to do, He could tell exactly what you intended. It's almost like he walked in your brain, read all the books in your mind was like, “this is what you were trying to do - change that, move that, move that over, and if you would have made that a little bit big and added something... Ooh, that looks nice!” And then you'd be like “Thank you, Chaz! That’s what I was gonna do - how did you know?!”
I feel like [having him] was an experience, it wasn't just having a teacher. He also inspired me to want to do stuff like this [socially active work] right away. Plus, he was the only black professor that I had while I was going to Mass Art. So that was another cool thing, this [seemed like] a future for me because he's a designer, he did it. I don't know any other designers that were black, or whatever so I felt like “that world exists, Chaz did it.”
That connected me back, through my experiences, to thinking about graffiti, to the subway art book with the trains, to the “Stop the Bomb” and “Merry Christmas, New York” trains. Design doesn’t have to be about creating beautiful pamphlets and websites, it can be about, social causes and making people see the world differently. And that's what he [Chaz] used it for. It was really good to have him.
I was stuck but Chaz helped me out because he could see what you were trying to do.
The tough part about working on my career is that I've pretty intense about not taking projects where I'm not paid, almost out of principle more than anything else. That being said, of course, I'm not made of money or infinite resources. It's tough though because I know for a fact that I've lost out on opportunities because I wanted to get paid. I always wonder if I missed out on an opportunity to get my name out there.
How do you go about pricing a project, and when (if ever) do you do things for free? How do you discern which is the right choice? How do you know when to walk away? How do you know if an idea is good, or bad?
I think it depends on the project. You have to scope the project.
There are certain projects I'll do where I'm not getting paid, or for low pay, which I do when I have a strategy where it's going to lead to a larger, more valuable opportunity, like a longer-term partnership.
That being said, I'm really strict on doing unpaid/low paid work. I'll say, “I can't do it [at that price, but] I can find one of the high school students that I work with [to do it].” The immediate response is always “No, we don't want a high school student.” They’re seeing a disaster in their heads- high school kids, trying. Joke’s on them either way, because I know some nasty high schoolers, but they don't know that. I think a lot of it is because of how I'm approaching it, my strategy, and how I'm talking to them.
Me saying “I’m gonna get you a high school student,” leading them to respond that they want “professional” work because they’re having CEO’s there, and then I insist on getting a high school student to do it because I can't do it for that amount. [And then,] sometimes, money falls out of the sky. “Oh, we found money and we want to hire you.” Not always, but often- nine times out of ten. “Yeah, we don't have the budget but we could do this” “I can't do it.” But I know; Massachusetts is a very wealthy state. Don’t lie, there’s money. I know there's money, everywhere, always - so don't say there isn't because there is. That's why I'm like, “can't do it.”
Then, of course, there are contexts in which I will price very high, because I know they have money to hire. For example, ad agencies drop millions of dollars per year on projects -- you don't even know how much money goes into that stuff. So, when ad agencies reach out to me for projects, you know I’m going high.
[In terms of knowing when a project or locaiton will be good,]
With Lynn (Massachusetts), I knew that was going to blow up. I lived in Salem for a short period of time, and I was always struck by how amazing the place would be to paint. And Lynn is right next door. It's a city-type area, it has these beautiful walls, a lot of cool restaurants - I knew if anyone ever did anything here, it was going to be successful. So it's just, you know, there's certain areas of design where it's going to be successful. And the walls, they just had the walls, too.
Now in terms of your current practice, what's the blend of work that do you are doing? 30, 40% murals or public art stuff, and then like another portion is social intervention, or community engagement work, and the other part of that is education? Also, how do you usually get your work?
I do a little bit of everything, but right now it’s mostly murals.
Depending on the job I'm doing, the only problem is when I want to travel to different countries, I’m not going to be able to. Currently, I have so much flexibility - if I want to go to New York for the day to get inspired, I can do that. And I don't look at it as like me being lazy, it’s inspiring me to work and create. Checking things out there is gonna inspire me to do something amazing. Taking in life, trying out new stuff.
[In terms of how I find work,] everything is all word of mouth right now. I wish there was a way to promote. Anytime people do a mural festival, do a wall, it trickles down to other people getting paid. You know, getting opportunities. I get a lot of inquiries about murals and stuff, but it's because somebody saw someone else's mural, or they saw another mural I did. It helps everyone that's doing the type of work. pushes that whole experience, [in] public art. [But you can’t really actively promote.]
I don’t even have a real website - I used a host site, something called Carbonate, and threw some work on there, but there’s only like 2 projects on there or something. I don't have anything else on there. And I don't know, I get people reaching out all the time. I think it's social media, because a lot of those people that recruit for companies check social media to find artists and stuff.
I don't think [social media] is sustainable. I'm trying to figure out something else to add to that it's more sustainable because it’s going to die soon. So a lot of my interest is through street art. You gotta have something else going on. So I might try to find something that's more stable, just to balance out.
Do you feel like you know about your mural project or projects in advance?
Are you calendared all the way up through like a year, or six months or so?
I know friends that are like that, not me.
I have some things that are lined up for 2020, a couple projects, potentially some international stuff. But I'm working on setting up projects for the future now. Before I came here, I was trying to work on going to Morocco to do a festival; I’m also working on trying to go to Greece. I don’t know if they’re gonna work out, but I'm trying to work on those for next year.
I think a lot of artists struggle with balancing the idea of being their own boss and trying to make a living, versus spending time on being with their ideas and creativity. How do you feel the impact of the ebb and flow and uncertainty of the next project impacts the art you make, or the creative process in general? Can you tell the blog a bit about your plans for The Up Truck, your personal work, and maybe a project that you are working on currently?
Yeah, I mean that's a big problem.
I'm doing stuff that I like doing, to a certain degree, but I'm not spending all my time on my personal projects, the development of my own style.
My Street Memorials project is a big one that I’m really passionate about, but this year I haven't done anything for it. This idea actually came from my time with the Up Truck Mother's Day project. We thought, what if we gave mothers roses, a simple gesture. And then, when we did that, I saw some guys giving out roses at the red light, and we actually gave them a rose! I thought it was hilarious that we gave them Mother's Day roses. That idea kind of lingered and, I think I was just like walking down the street or something, when it hit me: what if the rose wasn't just a beautiful rose with a beautiful message, but a beautiful rose with a serious message, in juxtaposition? What if the roses had tags with statistics on them? What would that look like? [It’s projects like this that make me] wish I could do more of that work, and gallery shows. I think that work needs to be seen, it needs to be in our faces and now it’s just sitting in my studio. If only I could dedicate more time…
From Douglas' project, "Street Memorials"
From Douglas' project, "Street Memorials"
So for the NAS Creative Community Fellowship program, I've been trying to find ways to merge all that, so that it’s all part of the Up Truck, my mural’s a part of the Up Truck. I'm trying to find ways to connect everything and have the Up Truck be a moving vehicle that talks about all these different things. And that's the next level of what I want to do with Up Truck.
I'm trying to figure that out. I mean, the biggest challenge for the work that I do is that sure, I can do stuff as an independent artist, but I feel like having a business to run things through, like Up Truck, is the best way to do it, but you need a team to help you do that, like a financial advisor and a project manager.
I just want to be creative. I'm not good at replying to emails and contacting people. I'm terrible at that. I want to find someone that can do that stuff, and then I could do Up Truck work, and my own personal work, and combine it. That's one of the biggest challenges right now: getting the team and the money to get it going again. Right now it’s stuck sitting in the shop.
I saw the evidence of it recently when I was in New Bedford. I was there to do a bunch of intervention before the mural that I did, and I did it without the truck. I set up a table and I was doing stuff, and it was really difficult. I think if the truck was there it would be a lot easier. It has presence, and it has music, and it's a sculpture in itself. It's inviting for fun and play and interaction, and it invites curiosity. “What is that thing? Who's doing that? What's that music?”
I think that’s something that I miss since I haven't been able to do my own personal work with the truck. The truck has so much potential and I have a lot of ideas around it, like doing an artist in residency involving the truck. An artist with a concept and initiative that they want to do, partners with a community partner, and they use the truck to do their initiative.
What is one big way you feel the art world is changing? What do you think the future of the art world holds?
Obviously, the way the world used to be and the way the world is now are different. Back in the day, there was this whole Industrial Revolution-type thinking: if you’re a button maker, then that's your job for the rest of your life, to make buttons. Or put a bumper on a car - you’re a car bumper maker for the rest of your life.
I think that type of training and thinking has changed a lot, and people see the beauty of multiple disciplines. I think that's a new thing, and the birth of creativity. Even with things that people love the most, and are part of their every day - creative ideas like Facebook, Wikipedia, or Airbnb - it’s industrial designers and artists that created that.
I think that's the future of things: people seeing the relationship across disciplines, the connections. People like Theaster Gates, for example - I didn't really know his work too much, but I read about it - he's crossing sculpture, painting, community, crossing all those lines. I saw him talk once, and he talked about the power of that.
There’s that saying, “Jack of all trades, master of none.” I think that the concept [of only being good at one thing] is getting old, I think it’s dying. The more skills you have, tied with creativity, puts you in a better position in today’s world. If you look at the advertising world, a person who's a creative director pulls inspiration and influence from film, print material, physical things like sculpture, interventions stuff, and uses it to do their job. They call it experience sharing. So, a good creative director can handle a lot of those worlds and give art directors advice, direction and advice to handle any situation. In fact, I think the advertising world is a good model for public artists, and for people that are doing public work or social impact work.
These worlds share with one another, and steal from each other. I see ads stealing from street art concepts all the time. And now advertising is creating meaningful work to connect [with customers] to sell a Samsung phone, or creating meaningful work to sell an idea to help people think. In fact, in the advertising world there's a thing called “brand experience,” which is very similar to community engagement or social intervention, to make the experience of the brand more personal.
An example that comes to mind, from a project at Arnold’s, was to advertise Carnival cruises. They had kids tell their stories about how they thought the future of the world looked, and took these stories and put them into the world’s largest children’s book. They put the book open, for people to flip through it, in Central Park in Manhattan, but it was all stories from those kids from the boat cruises to promote Carnival Cruises, to promote the brand experience through community building. It's selling Carnival Cruises, but you wouldn't think about it, you would go and experience: “look at this amazing book! This is so cool!” So advertisers are actually trying to employ community engagement and empathy.
One last question I want to ask: If you could make a change in policy, or attitudes or something, that you think would be really helpful to your practice, what would that be?
I don't know. I don’t think there’s any policy things affect me personally that I can think of offhand. But for some of the objectives that we have, for social causes, I can see something. One that jumps is gentrification and displacement, and you know rent control is a great [policy]. You know, it's a complicated thing too, cuz if you own, you also want to help people to have knowledge so they can think about buying property, to not displace [people]. So that would be one.
But me as an artist... I mean the percent for art, it’s usually, like, garbage. It's usually like only one person gets that, so if that was even higher that would be great.
I guess there’s only one big thing I can think of. With traveling to different countries in the world and seeing how other people do things, you go to Montreal, other parts of the world, they embrace creativity. It's part of the culture. So you'll go somewhere, a coffee shop, some place, and cool things are happening, experiences, and art, and it's because people appreciate it, it's a culture.
For example, I think Boston has a sports culture. I love sports, but at the same time, I feel like that's pretty much the only culture you could use to define Boston. What is the culture of Boston? You wouldn't say some artistic place. Paris is history and art; it’s the first thing you say. So creating policies that allowed people to benefit from doing creative things, [that’s something I would change]. So if you did something creative, you got a benefit.
Like a little league arts program or something, something to engage even children, in the same communal way that we do with sports. Or an Up Truck! Have a fleet of them, and once the structures were built, to have them in different cities. I would love to help someone put Up Truck in Oakland, California, and I’d fly there to teach them how to do it.
[This is based in truth.] When I started Up Truck in 2014, I had people reaching out to me asking how to start their own mobile thing. They actually created a thing in Cambridge, at the Cambridge Community Arts Center, they created an art bus based off us, with our feedback.
And in Philadelphia! This lady came all the way to Boston to consult me to start a FabLab in Philadelphia. There's a bunch - another one is the Beat Bus (I actually painted it) doing music on it. It popped up right after like we did the Up Truck.
[A policy with this would be great.] Sometimes, with developers, they might say that if you build on an vacant lot, they'll give you like a tax writeoff or something. So like, how can you write something like that, but for art. For example, at Rockland Trust. They are closed for the weekends. Say the top floor is an artist studio, with nice lighting. Do we get some benefit from this, some tax break? Because they look at artists who are going to help change communities into being more creative. So, in a space like that, if, say, they have the artists in there and they’re doing adult painting, you can see it. You can walk by and see it.
That’s another one: spaces for artists is a huge thing. Right now, I happen to have space, so I’m not thinking that it’s something I need, but artists are gonna leave Boston. My studio is in South Shore for that reason. The rent is going to go up soon, and people are going to move to Rhode Island, to Detroit, and it sucks for Boston. So that’s a policy that needs to happen soon. Or yesterday. They’ve talked about it a lot, the mayor’s talked about it, but… who knows if and when it will happen.
The text of this interview was edited for accuracy and concision.
1 (found under question 1) Subway Art Magazine is either now defunct or its name was misremembered. While no trace of it was found on the internet, similar magazines are linked here, for visual reference: StyleFile, Flashbacks, as well as a book by the same title, new edition released in 2016: Subway Art.
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