Red Line Gallery
One Sunday afternoon in the South End, I stumbled upon a bright burst of color; in what seemed to be a large parking lot, graffiti artists were scattered around working diligently on their pieces. It was the South End Open Market, or SoWa, which hosts live graffiti. Crowds were watching as artists chatted, the air diffused with creativity. Amongst the bustle, an orange mural caught my eye--the artist, Brian Life, was explaining his piece. After listening to a bit of his story, I inquired more about his life as a graffiti artist.
OTC: What inspirations led to your interest in graffiti?
LIFE: Riding the Red Line T, I would look out the window and see huge, colorful shapes flashing by on walls or under bridges, and I’d wonder: ‘What is this amazing art?’ I knew it was something done secretly, sort of outlawed. The rebellious teenager with bottled up expression and repression that I was, graffiti was a means to release. Growing up as a lower middle class kid, there was a lot of trouble around me: dysfunctional families--including mine--racism, segregation, lots of hate and danger… graffiti was uniting, it was multicultural, anyone could write it. It was colorful, fun and positive. I saw it as an escape from the dull, the depressing, de-saturated blocks around me. The colors of spray paint and the sizes of pieces were so appealing to me. I was in awe; it seemed so adventurous to seek surfaces to paint. I was like: ‘Yes, I want to be a graffiti ninja!’
OTC: When did you begin working as a graffiti artist?
LIFE: I started writing graffiti around 1991, 1992, but even as a child I was always drawing cartoons and characters. My sister was into the early ‘80s funk, soul, electro and hip hop music. Graffiti as an art movement (or form of expressions) was still young. She would write her name in bubble letters all around her books and papers. I would see people’s names written in school bathrooms, carved into desks… Boston has a historical graffiti scene. I’m considered a 2nd to 3rd generation writer.
I was always afraid of starting because I knew a bit about graffiti culture. New writers were considered ‘toys’ and seasoned vets were called ‘kings.’ It’s sort of like rookies, or freshmen vs seniors. I didn’t want to be made fun of or dissed. I also didn’t want to be a ‘wannabe’ or be called a ‘copycat.’ I don’t know why, but this need to be accepted was very strong and limiting to me.
OTC: What is one of the coolest or most memorable moments you have experienced as a street artist?
LIFE: It’s difficult to pin a specific moment, but I will say that the coolest times occur when you are with friends out on a mission to paint together. It’s all about the adventure. The train, the surface you find to paint on--whether it’s legal or not--the adrenalin, the risk, the timing, the weather… those are the memorable moments.
Graffiti is very temporary. The surface may get painted over, or you could paint on a freight train and never see it again. So you tend to capture the process and live the experience. Of course you try to document it with photos, videos or simply vivid memories. After that, your pieces, since they are in the public space, take on a Life of their own.
I’ve been chased by dogs and cops, and kicked off my bike by a graffiti removal volunteer. I was arrested for painting illegally on Dorchester Avenue. I was sent to do community service at a local youth club, the Dorchester Youth Collaborative. For my serves, I painted a graffiti mural on the front door metal grate, legally. It was on the same avenue. The local police driving by would say, ‘that’s some nice graffiti, good job!’ An ironic turn of events.
OTC: What has been your greatest challenge in building your career?
LIFE: Finding the medium I would like to use to express myself, being true to myself as an artist, honestly expressing myself, and getting paid for this work. To be self-motivated and professional. Also, time management. I’m still trying to get that down. It’s all about planning, whether in the creation of the art or the business. You have to plan, research, plan… but at the same time not hesitate for long, there is a point where you have to trust yourself and bust it out!
OTC: How did it feel to do art with a crowd watching at SoWa? How is this different from the way in which you usually do art?
LIFE: I felt excited and inspired to be supported by the incredible crowd at SEOM (South End Open Market or SoWa). The devoted attention and support from the public was motivating! There was such a positive vibe and the patience of the crowd as they watched the entire 4-5 hours long process was inspirational. I mean, they were watching the whole time, like it was movie night! It was as if it were a sports game and they were all cheering us on to rock it! I felt great! To be honest I would forget they were watching; I got very comfortable. Some artists really get into the crowd. I mostly get into the paint. I hope my action speaks for themselves. Sometimes I’m approachable, and could reply to someone asking a question or paying me a compliment; other times I'm so centered that I may have to say: ‘Excuse me, I’ll talk to you in a bit, just gotta do this.’ Most people understand.
At SOWA I did not feel self-conscious or distracted at all--it was like we were all one. I was so focused on developing my piece, knowing the time to paint was limited to 4-5 hours. I painted two 4’x8’ wooden panels tied together as one, so the pieces was 8’x8’.
OTC: In his film Exit Through the Gift Shop, renown graffiti artist Bansky raises the question of where the line is drawn between street art as an ephemeral urban art form and commercial art. Do you think graffiti belongs merely on the street, or could it have a place in a museum/gallery?
I believe graffiti is constantly evolving from walls to trains, to planes and ships. Literally any surface can be spray painted on. I think there is a place for graffiti in galleries that sell art meant to be hung in homes or collections. I feel it can still carry the essence of graffiti, if done the right way. But you surely do experience something different when the graffiti is outdoors, free to be witnessed by anyone.
They are just different experiences. I mean, I have experienced graffiti to its full extent indoors, under the roof of an abandoned factory. I observed it in its fullness. Maybe that’s what it feels like to walk into a museum and witness graffiti hung on a wall. It’s still a surface with graffiti art expressed on it. I think it’s a matter of preference, graffiti is meant to be freeing, not difficult. Bouncy and funky not uptight and stuffy. I don’t know really. It does not have too many limits in my mind.
I cannot explain graffiti exactly in words… Well I can--in bubble letters. It’s a visual language, really, and if a gallery painting says this and speaks this language to me, I understand it as Graffiti.
OTC: Now that you are an established designer and illustrator, how does graffiti influence your other work?
LIFE:All art is design, the assembling of shapes and visual language. It’s all illustrating some theme or message. You use various media to transfer a visual into the real and physical world and out of your head… I started with crayons, then moved on to pencils, pens, markers, then to traditional mediums: paint etc. and later to cans of aerosol spray paint. I soon picked up airbrush and finally started working with digital mediums. My graffiti background is present in my illustration except in the case of commercial that are strictly in a style requested by my client.
OTC: How does street art play out in your life/lifestyle?
LIFE: I was always a Street kid, grew up in a city, hung out outdoors. I do graffiti, urban art, street art or whatever you wish to call it. Art is my Life, streets are what made me and I identify with urban development and city Life. It's definitely a lifestyle. Living it, thinking or doing graffiti is all I do. This is not a hobby, this is my soul song, my love, my happiness with all it’s pros and cons. This is how I exist, Life is Graffiti is Life.
Brian Life began his artistic journey on the streets and is now an established illustrator and designer. His art has been shown in various Boston galleries. To learn more about his art, visit brianlifeart.com.