Artist Interviews 2021

By Johnny Otto

Your recent show at Julien's also featured Xavier Prou (Blek Le Rat), known as the Founder of the Stencil Movement, now 70 years old. How does it feel to be in such great company as a legend like him?

It feels amazing and slightly unreal. Blek, along with my personal Mount Rushmore of street artists – Shepard Fairey, Invadr, Banksy – were and are utter heroes, ongoing inspirations, and catalysts for me even considering trying my hand at street art over nine years ago. In a “wouldn’t it be sofa-king cool?’ moment, I was motivated and crazy enough to start painting walls under the pseudonym of WRDSMTH. So to now be in shows alongside them, to call some of them friends, and to talk shop with them is just wow. WOW. Beyond wow. Yep, the wordsmith named WRDSMTH just said, “it’s just wow, WOW, beyond wow” to be in a show with Blek Le Rat. And you can quote me on that!

You've been in London, is that right? Are you working on a project or is it a vacation?

I am currently splitting time between London and Los Angeles. For me, it was a move that was a long time coming. I love it here, have family here, and have always dreamt about residing across the pond. Over the last decade+, I was residing in Los Angeles and spending long stints overseas, visiting friends and family and doing art anywhere and everywhere I set foot. I have simply reversed that now. My ties to Los Angeles are deeply rooted and my returns will be often and filled with art. The ongoing pandemic has obviously made it difficult to travel, but I look forward to getting back to a normal-as-possible travel routine. In fact, my first trip is happening in August – I’ll be hitting three cities in three weeks, the last of which is Los Angeles. Cannot wait to get back and get some paint onto walls.

Once you've seen a great deal of Stencil art, a lot of it seems similar and it can be hard to distinguish one artist from another, but you've managed to come up with a unique style that is unmistakably your own. Are you now stuck doing the same thing to keep your unique place? Is there an urge to do something different? Are you happy that your work is so easily recognizable?

I do agree that a lot of stencil art blurs together and makes it hard to distinguish one artist from another. At times, everything can “seem like a copy of a copy of a copy” (to quote Fight Club). When I was just starting – or to clarify – when I was contemplating trying my hand at street art, I spent a long time thinking about an idea that would make sense for me, who I was, and what I wanted to say with the art. I am a writer and I knew I’d want any art I’d do to be word-based. I was residing in Hollywood and I knew I wanted to say things to people there that I wished someone would have said to me when I first arrived. Things like: “Do something every day to remind this city why the hell you’re here.” “Create. Every day. And making excuses does not count.” And “Aspire to inspire others and the universe will take note.” As I contemplated all that, an image of a typewriter immediately came to mind. At first I thought I would do something simple like stickers, but the moment I realized the typewriter could be painted and the words could be a wheatpasted page, that’s when I really got excited about the idea. The idea combined the two most popular methods of street art – stencilling and wheatpasting – and it combined them in a simple and (IMO) compelling manner.

And that is what led me to creating a stencil for the typewriter. I worked hard on that image of the typewriter and if you look at it, in my infancy, I somehow succeeded in creating a stencil with no islands and, in turn, no need for any bridges. The image of the typewriter has relatively stayed the same over the years – if anything it has been simplified over time as I have taken away some elements that I deemed unnecessary. I’m a firm believer in less is more in all walks of life, and the simplification of the typewriter was something I think helped the image become memorable. The words were another thing, but I also believe in less is more when it comes to writing. I used to work in advertising, which is a major part of who I am and a major part of WRDSMTH. I write something and then polish and edit until I arrive at what I believe to be indelible thoughts and phrases that deliver the most impact while utilizing the least amount of words.

Over time I have come to paint the entire piece – typewriter, page and WRDs – as all-paint pieces obviously tend to last longer. BUT the fact that the words constantly change keeps the work fresh. I can write anything I want and explore any topics I choose, which is what has allowed the idea to endure. People always tell me that once they see the typewriter from a distance, they rush to see what the words are. Because of all this, I cannot say I am tired or “stuck” with the idea. Again, I am a writer, so I will always come up with new things to say. That’s why I’m still having fun doing what I’m doing after 9+ years. Having said all this, any artist wants to evolve and over the years I have explored different looks and feels in delivering my thoughts to the world. And I will continue to explore ideas that will satisfy me as an artist. I have a new (big) idea that I have been toying with during lockdown that is probably the biggest “evolution” for me to date. I’m excited about it. And I feel I will be ready to debut the idea very soon. No matter what I do though, you’ll always know it’s me. I’m the typewriter guy. And that image of the typewriter will always somehow be incorporated into my work.

I am thrilled that my work is recognizable. Because as you said in the question, it is difficult to stand out at times in any medium. People have told me that the image of the typewriter is iconic and that’s pretty much the greatest compliment you can give to an artist. Add in the fact that the words I write are resonating with people all over the world, and, well, that’s the goal of any writer. So, yeah, I’m pretty happy that my work is identifiable. An artist who I met when I was first starting out said something I’ll never forget. He said, “you can like my art or you can hate my art. Either of those emotions are acceptable, because you’re noticing my art and reacting to it. The one thing that I would never want as an artist is for someone not to notice my work.” There’s something pretty profound in that statement, because no matter what you do in any walk of life, you’re not going to please everyone, and you shouldn’t go out of your way to try to please anyone. There will be people that won’t like your work, but just realize that they’re noticing it and it’s having an effect. That’s something in my book.

I know that Dave Navarro collaborated with Plastic Jesus for this show. Did you collaborate with anyone? If so, what was the process and how did it feel? If not, would you like to collaborate with anyone? Who would that be and why?

To clarify, I know that Dave Navarro has an ongoing collaboration with Padhia / unfukyourself, which is Duel Diagnosis. All the DD work that was in the show and the work Dave and Padhia produced for the show and have produced in the streets is beyond amazing. I’d say they have without a doubt raised the bar on collaborations between artists.

There were several other collaborations in the Julien’s show and they were also compelling. However, I did not have any collaborations in the show. When Billy Morrison first told me about the show and invited me to be a part of it, I was just getting ready to depart to London and I was able to create several pieces for the show that was supposed to happen at the end of last year. It then got delayed for obvious reasons for several months and I think over those months the show and the idea of the show evolved a little bit to include some of those collaborations. Having said all this, I absolutely love to collaborate with other artists, but I always want it to be a meeting of the minds and a meaningful collaboration. Some collaborations I’ve seen are merely one artist’s work side-by-side with another one. That’s fun, but I think the best collaborations merge ideas and the looks and feels of all involved to create one cohesive and unique piece of work. And I have aimed to accomplish this in the past. Over the years, I have collaborated with Unfukyourself, Jazz Guetta, Colette Miller, KarPart, Ruben Rojas, Teachr, and several others.

The entire paradigm of the Art world changed during the Covid Pandemic, shuttering most galleries, ending art fairs, etc... Traditional summer is quiet for the art world, but there is currently an explosion of summer shows. How did the lock down impact you and your work or didn't it? And how do you see things changing now that most of the restrictions are being lifted?

The lockdowns were obviously a unique experience for everyone. As an artist, I didn’t think I would be doing a lot of typical work during the lockdown -- just a lot of writing and creating in isolation. I was pretty thrilled to see that even during those/these trying times, people wanted and needed encouraging words in their life, which led to me creating several works in the boarded up and often empty streets. I also did a lot of work on canvas and made some new prints available to the public. I guess it started with something I wrote almost at the onset of the lockdown, which I think we all can agree was an uncertain and pretty scary time. I wrote, “When the dust settles, we will forever know who we love, what we need, and where we truly want to be. Wait for it…”

I simply wrote how I was feeling. I then printed up the WRD in my apartment in Los Angeles, placed the page inside an antique typewriter I had (I collect them), and snapped a pic. I posted it just to feel creative and connected with everyone I was unable to see, hug, and spend time with. The outpouring was staggering. It seems obvious now, but we were and are all thinking and feeling the same things during all this and it felt really good to share my thoughts and have them be embraced, have them affect so many, and have them maybe just maybe help others get through all the uncertainty.

Over the last year-and-a-half, I also, as previously stated, worked on an idea I am very excited about and looking forward to debuting. I also did some longform writing and some work on a coffee table book I am aiming to release amid my 10th year anniversary of WRDSMTHing.

Overall, I think a lot of poignant and much-needed art came out of the pandemic and many of the boarded-up cities (especially Los Angeles) were filled with a lot of amazing art. Now that things are seemingly better and moving in a direction where we can get together and have things such as shows, I think all the work and exploration that was done in isolation will now be seen. We’re already seeing some of this. The show at Julien’s was definitely part of that. It had energy and excitement and the turnout was staggering. I think we are all looking forward to more of that. Personally, I cannot wait.

What advice would you give for any young Artist who is just starting off doing street art? What are the important lessons that you've learned about dealing with galleries, clients, or just dealing with your own insecurities, if you have them?

My advice is well documented and has also been painted onto walls – “Do it for yourself. Do what makes you happy. Do what you love. And then hope what you do resonates with others.” There’s a lot of experience embedded in those words. Often, if we’re talking about street art and individuals aiming to make their mark, people tend to imitate (as you previously stated) versus take a chance on something original/unique. Or their aim is to be “the next (insert personal hero here).” I say, don’t do that. Ever. I say be yourself. Find something that makes sense for you, something that fulfils you, your creativity, and your passion. You must thoroughly enjoy doing what you’re doing/creating on a daily basis. That’s not easy, BUT if it’s achieved, it’s bliss. And success shouldn’t be tied to one’s happiness. You need to be enjoying yourself along the way and you have to want to wake up and do what you do every single day, regardless of success or notoriety. BUT if any of that eventually follows, it’s beyond bliss.

There’s no formula. I’ve been asked “how did you do it?” But my response doesn’t solve anyone’s dilemma or personal equation. Each journey is different. And it has to be if you want to be unique and if you want to stand out. A filmmaker once said, “Talent plus perseverance equals luck.” That’s the only “formula” for success I can offer. Along with, “Create. Every day. And making excuses does not count.” Those WRDs are mine.

The focus of the Julien Auction, "Degrees of Separation” was, in part, on mental illness and how it's always been something that we should be ashamed to admit that we have struggled with. Is this something you've had to deal with in your life? Any advice on how to tackle the bigger issues...loneliness, depression?

Everyone deals with degrees of mental illness, depression, loneliness – personally and within their inner circle of family and friends. There is zero point zero shame in it – period. There are artists who have dedicated their entire careers to shedding light on this issue and I applaud all those efforts. In my work, I remain positive and aim to deliver art that elicits a momentary smile and, in turn, maybe then takes that moment and captures it, shares it, or embraces it and allows it to change the course of their present moment, day, etc. Maybe that action also has a butterfly or ripple effect and affects others. Maybe. At least those are the types of scenarios that enter my mind as I conceptualize, plan, paint, and sometimes paste.

My advice? Stay strong. Persevere.

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