Friday, August 3, 2012

Alphabet Soup: Angrily Beating Conformity

Papoose's Alphabetical Slaughter is a powerful song where each verse uses only words beginning with one of the 26 letters of the alphabet. At first, it seems like a disjointed, poetic exercise in excess (and it is). Papoose's rapid delivery and Kay Slay's screaming throughout doesn't help one understand there is much more there but after a closer listen, you realize that Pap is telling a story. Not only is he bragging and threatening (the point of most hip-hop and important in its own right when done well) but he is also providing some education, knowledge, understanding and uniting the strong, potent voice of street music with the conscious reality of underground MCs.

ALPH, your LandLord, is a similar mix of blind force and eyes wide open intelligence. His work is sweeping, grand,aggressive, demanding, inaccessible at times and, yet, always democratic, intelligent and meaningful. The cliche is that there is no progress without struggle, ALPH proves this.

But, to focus on this pain is pleasure idea is to miss the real point of ALPH's work. He is there, as you will read in this interview, to invite his audience to question and re-think that which they were convinced they once knew. But, more importantly, ALPH is there to constantly think and re-question what he himself knows. From graff to street art to tattooing to waxing philosophic on this here blog, Alphabet Soup is in constant evolution and growth both artistically and, if I may make such a bold statement, personally as well.

Give me your name and social security number.

Alphonse Abeto a.k.a Alphabet Soup a.k.a. ALPH. I'm not fond of my government appointed number but I sign with a 13 a lot.

You do realize that I am going to ask you questions dissimilar to anything you've been asked before and unrelated, mostly, to your art, right?

I have known you for a long time Mr. Dershowitz and I am counting on it. I'm going to give you answers dissimilar to anything you have ever heard.

Why do you write on things? I mean, seriously, what do you get out of it?

Right off the bat my reasoning for doing graffiti would be compulsion, aggression, primal instinct, fun, ego, etc. The reason really ranges anywhere from a dog pissing on a hydrant to a deep mental/psychological compulsion to a political point of stealing back stolen land. Recently I have been a fan of the broken window theory. Writing on property that is not mine proves to me that the state is not in control and that I am real and life is mine to do what I want with. Honestly, its my therapy.
To really get into it... I believe that graffiti and the people who are compelled to do it suffer from a psychological disorder. I am guilty of this. Whether it is depression, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or some form of Tourettes Syndrome. The fact that there was a huge cultural explosion in the 1970's that has spread to every corner of the world compelling people to write a fake name on other peoples things is not criminal issue, its a mental problem. It dates back to people living in caves. You don't treat addicts with fines and prison sentences. You don't treat the mentally retarded with jail time. You don't send chronically depressed people to work camps. Why would you treat first time offender teenage graffiti writers with 2 year jail sentences? People don't realize but is the norm these days. Graffiti is a compulsion that deeply effects those who suffer from it. It forces them to defy death, face lengthy jail terms, alienate themselves from their families and loved ones, lose all desire for money an possessions all for the sake of getting over. I like to call it Alphabetitis. That's just one theory though.

And, since you write on things and now you are tattooing, how am I to trust that your goal is not to vandalize my body?

My goal is to push myself further as an artist. I have had my own body covered with tattoos, as a vandal I would be a hypocrite if I didn't. I have spent more than half of my life drawing on things that are not mine, if I couldn't take the step to change my own body or personal surroundings then I feel my illegal work would lose some integrity (I'm not saying that's why I am tattooed but it certainly makes sense looking back). I believe that personal sacrifice is important and that takes the mental edge right off of any hang ups or reservations you might have about permanently altering your bodies appearance. I can't really speak much about the tattoo industry, only the experiences I have had thus far. I have logged a lot of time on the receiving end of a tattoo machine but not the other way around. Ask me that question again in a few years.

In both tattooing and graff, there is this crazy pull between traditional and progressive. Where do you stand?

Traditional. At least in the sense of knowing what has been done before trying to do something that is truly yours. Knowing the rules before you break them and respecting your elders. I believe that both of these are extremely important in graffiti and tattoo culture. Not everyone agrees but that is where I stand.

There is also a pull between street art and graff. Again, where do you stand?

I started doing graffiti in a traditional sense when I was very young and have always been drawn more to it. When the street art fad came around I was going through some graffiti related legal nonsense and was already expanding my own idea of getting over. It had all been done before but posting bills, doing wheat pastes, drilling panels to buildings, painting streets and side walks were a way to get over with out feeling like I was going to get locked up on a probation violation. It's a cop out, but that's where my head was. It's a lot easier to talk your way out of postering than piecing and at the time the risk wasn't worth it to me. So with that said, I really pushed myself in the street art world and because of that I have an enormous amount of respect for the people that put in work the right way. When it comes down to it though there were way too many people that came out of the wood work as "street artists" that should never be allowed to draw on anything except a cross word puzzle. Even the worst tag or scribbling in a bathroom stall is better than some of the most accomplished street artists.

Should art be a tool of politics?

To me political art is corporate art is advertising. It's up to both the person creating the art and the one viewing it I guess. To me the infamous HOPE poster looks just like the KFC slogan with the profile of Col Sanders (That isn't a racial statement. Look at the images, they look the same and they are advertisements). I believe that art can and should be political but not as a propaganda machine. Go pick up the book The Art Of Dissent. Its all mind blowing political poster art and to me really illustrates the difference between the two.

How about your work. Is there a ideological purpose or construct behind what you do?

Currently my work is politically driven but holds no real message. When I was going really hard with posters my work was more satire. There were some statements here and there but it usually was comparing art or graffiti to the sex crimes or assaulting the American judicial system. never in a way that was forcing opinion but rather inviting distrust or curiosity. Currently I am a little obsessed with repeating 3 lines of four letter words with stencils, stickers and tags (ALPH ABET SOUP, ALPH DONT CARE, ALPH DOES BLOW, LAND LORD ALPH) and often the outcome is political or religious (ALPH DONT VOTE, PREY ALPH PRAY). The beautiful thing with graffiti or street art is making the passerby second guess an opinion they already had or create a new idea or emotion they were not currently experiencing. Be it a burner or a crappy stencil, inviting the every day Joe Schmo into your world even just for a split second when they discover something you did is where I really get off on it all. So, my work may hold some small messages here and there but the real intention is to invite question.

Religion and sex each play a strong role in your work. Go on, explain.

What else is there? That's all there is to it. There are only two reasons most people get out of bed in the morning and its one of those two things.
The porn ads I have painted and used in my street work started as a joke but kind of led me to an epiphany. The comparison of artists to sex workers. Graffiti kind of bridged the idea. Graffiti and the American porn industry both really found their calling in the mid to late 1970's. New York City was the epic center for both cultures. Fast forward to the 2000's and the recession and there was a huge resurgence in the sex industry. People turning to the streets for money. Simultaneously the housing crisis and abrupt stop of construction of commercial buildings led to an explosion in street bombing by Graffiti artists. Both are taboo cultures that lead people to secret lifestyles. They are also effects of the broken window theory. That, and its hard not to feel like a whore when you spend all your time, money and energy creating work that will most likely bring you nowhere.

The sex crime statistic painting plays directly to personal experience. Being convicted and sent to jail for one act of graffiti, I spent more time in jail than the man convicted of sexual assault on a person very close to me. Our court system has their priorities backwards. The upside to it is I sold that painting at a show supporting my legal fees for the same case, so it kind of came full circle.

What is your take on Artists 4 Israel?

I fully endorse it. I do not use my art for political purposes but view my contributions to A4I as humanitarian work. I am proud to take part in their projects and in doing so my art supports the people of Israel no matter what religion or political stance they may hold.

Do you support Israel's right to exist in peace and security?

I support any nations right to exist if they do not call for the annihilation others. This is a small list. With out a doubt I support Israel's right to exist.

What is your perception of Israel and how do you think that perception might change were you to visit?

Honestly, my view on Israel changes frequently but my support never waivers. My entire life and even just this week I have seen Israel as a political tool for American politics. Unfortunately, that is what it has been to me for a lot of my life. I'd hope that my experience in the country, should it ever come to be, would help separate the idea of Israel as a political puppet and allow me to experience the good and bad cultural highlights with out heavy handed politics telling me what to think.

Currently, a lot of groups are asking artists to boycott certain countries, groups or things they dislike. Do you consider this a form of censorship? Is it acceptable?

I do not see it as censorship and it is perfectly acceptable, but that's not to say it isn't bigotry or foolishness. That's where graffiti is so beautiful. If I don't like it, I can cross it out. Boom. Everyone know your stance and you can make your point. The art world is so touchy and the advertising world is even touchier. Burn 'em all. If you don't like my work or my opinion, cross me out or come find me. I like to keep things simple.

I ask because as a graffiti artist and tattoo artist, you have an understanding of art being "restricted" - what is restricted art? Why do people try to control creation?

People feel the need to control creation because they fear what they do not understand. Plain and simple. For whatever reason I am attracted to graffiti and tattoo which are very much in your face and easy to be frightened of. To me it is the most pure and blunt way of showing that your work can not be controlled. (And for the record, I'm not sure I could be called a graffiti artist any more. Lets just say I'm a vandal. I also am certainly not a tattoo artist but rather I aspire to take that path as soon as possible. Can't force these things you know).

Explain the tattoo apprenticeship process. Is there something similar in graff?

My learning process for tattoo so far could not be described as an apprenticeship. I just happen to have a very good friend with the patience to show me what he knows and to tell me when I am fucking up. In a traditional sense, learning graffiti and learning tattoo are extremely different. In graffiti there are no mentors and its taboo to copy anything. In tattoo you find a mentor and copy copy copy. The psycological aspects and actual execution of the work are very similar. In my experience you get really messy trying to make something look clean. They both take an incredible amount of body control and physical exertion. When it comes down to it the line work and colors are also very similar and if you cant read it from across the street you did it wrong. And they absolutely both take up your train of thought 24 hours per day.

I know that you did not go to art school. Do you miss it? How do you way education vs. talent and other factors?

The only art classes I ever took were in grade school. I graduated from high school and just went straight to my vice, graffiti. No college. That's not to say I didn't get my education though. In graffiti you have to be resourceful and I got a lot through that mentality. I went to classes on a regular basis with friends enrolled in SCAD and snuck my way through Mass Art and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts for about 2 years. Only got led out by security once but thats all it took to get banned. I do say I am self taught though. Vandalism has always been my vice but I have been involved in fine art since I scratched my first tags and I have always found ways to pursue what interested me. Be it photography, print making, paper making, tattoo, whatever. Talent is hard to fine tune but you cant fake passion. I show regularly in galleries, sell work on the side to the few collectors I am lucky to have caught the interest of and manage to keep the street separate from the tattoo separate from the design work separate from the gallery separate from the stuff that makes money. You dig?

Tell me more about being led out of art school class in cuffs.

No cuffs involved. Just a photo at the front counter saying "Not a student". Kind wish I had a copy to frame. I'm a student, I just don't go to school to learn anymore.

How many times have you been arrested for graffiti? Would you do it again?

Twice. I would and probably will do it again. My wife might leave me though (editor's note: shout out to MFace, stay hiding the mops) so its something I try to avoid at all costs. I certainly would not classify my self as a writer but I catch tags daily. Whether its a scratch, sticker, mop or roller, it has to be up.

What else would you be willing to do jail time behind?

Family. Not just blood related. People who know me know that you're down for life unless you really fuck up.

You know the artists we have brought to Israel - they good or bad? Do we rep the game correctly?

The trips to Israel organized by A4I have show cased some of the most important people in graffiti culture. That is absolutely undeniable. Given, some of them I wouldn't personally have picked, but that's not to say they didn't contribute what they needed to. In the small amount of time that each trip was organized the people behind A4I have really pulled some strings to make things happen. I am very much looking forward to what they can produce with a proper budget and an army of interns. If I picked the bill for the trip though you might have to hire some more lawyers. Just saying.

Who should we bring on the next trips?

JURNE, FONSE and KEGR for their unique and playful styles. Local favorites KEM5 and JIMBOE because they are style master generals. The usual heads from SMART CREW because they would flip something really good as a production. and ADEK and NEKST just crush everything else out. I'd love to bring Shepard fairy just so we could sit him on the plane by NEKST so we could see what would happen. (editor's note: We all know what would happen). Jeff Soto, Faile, Swoon and Os Gemeos (edtior's note: Yo - Os Gemeos, we met at Tuff City last year. Call us).

We have been lucky to avoid any fighting on our trips so far. Do you think that graffiti has evolved beyond that machismo?

With the groups Artists 4 Israel has sewn together, I am amazed there has not been any beef. I believe that the opportunity that A4I has provided these artists and the experience itself is just so much to take in that any personal qualms they might have had become obsolete. I stress about a lot and have as many problems as the next guy but if I wound up at the Dome of the Rock, painting the Security Fence or working with kids suffering from PTSD due to consistent threat of rocket attacks, I'd be pretty quick to forget about my own petty beefs.

In graff and tattooing, there is a lot of sacred space...describe that.

Despite the public appearance of being low brow , degenerate, criminal practices; graffiti and tattoo art are extremely sacred things. Along with music they were the absolute first forms of art. Drums, cave paintings and tattoo have all been found with the earliest traces of civilization. The blood runs deep. With all the secrets of the trades aside, I find an incredibly deep passion for all three that I have no way to articulate with words.

What else is sacred to you?

The freedom to express myself, the safety of my family and the elders that came before me and allowed me to be.

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