Words & Interview: Mirko Antich
Photos: Teague Muir
Hey bud, What’s Gouda, how are you?
All’s good man!
I know you’ve been putting your carpenting skills to use lately. Hows the new studio coming along?
My studio was in limbo for a while there because I was looking at other spots closer to where I live, but after scoping so many overpriced options I decided to stay and rebuild. And It’s done, where’s my champagne homie?!! I got a new spray booth and new walls to draw and paint on. There’s about another day of patching seams in the drywall but it’s pretty much good to go.
Your studio is in a pretty interesting area of Long Beach. Tell us about the questionable activity that goes on at night outside your doors.
Well things have smoothed out quite a bit over the years, but when I first moved in here about 10 years ago I was told by the prior tenant that the cops had a set of keys so they could use it at night to stake out the area. I was like… uhhh… where’s the closest locksmith! The property is surrounded by four motels, so the prostitution, drug deals, homicides and crime in general was bad. When my gate was rolled up to work on large projects girls would parade by, like a Fellini film, boas and all. They’d be like “Hey baby, whatchu workin on?” And I’d deadpan back “Are you working? I am too. If you don’t bother me I won’t bother you.”
So chances are whoever is reading this is familiar with Skullphone. But you’ve managed to stay relatively anonymous for almost 20 years. I wanna know what type of phone he is holding. How did it all start?
Haha, well that is a Panasonic something-er-other, micro sized cellphone fashioned after a cordless home phone. I think I had three of them, it took a while to remember it was in my pocket before jumping in a pool or whatnot. But uhm, ya, when I first drew the image of a skull on a phone I felt like everything I’d been feeling about my life was right there in that image. I painted about a hundred of ‘em, assembly line style, to give away at a dance party. How old was I? Was I 22? Anyway, it was raining and some ended up stuck to wet walls outside. When I saw this I had a vision of pasting them up.
From a street level you might think that the posters you put up are just printed like most work out there but it’s a little more involved than that. Craft plays a big part in your work. What’s the reason for hand painting each one vs just digitally printed? \
I’m a huge proponent of Ed Ruscha’s “Wow, Huh” rule. I don’t know if if it’s officially a rule but you know, he said something along the lines of bad art makes you say “Wow!” from afar, and “Huh?” as you get closer. And good art elicites the opposite – a “Huh?” response from far way and “Wow!” as you get closer. I experimented with all sorts of ways of getting up, but I settled on hand painting the posters with 6 ft. stencils or quick hand painted brush strokes. Because car culture is this far away thing where it can be a Xerox copy and that’s fine. I simply wanted to engage on a closer level with people where you felt the nuances of time and my hand and something real when you got close. I like to flip this script in the gallery though.
You are damn good at staying invisible. What’s the closest encounter you’ve had with the fuzz?
Cops hopefully have better things to crack than a street art case. I’m pretty respectful of where art goes, so I generally don’t have anyone calling me up or tracking me down. If you put art on a functioning business, you’re adding to their long list of to-do’s and you’re basically fucking them over. I’ve seen some crazy blockbusters go down, bulldozing right over 10 front doors. But I keep my spots on buildings slated for demolition or dumpsters or small spots along the path. I’m rarely trekking out to put a piece on functioning private property. And stay off freeways, that’s a gold ticket right into the slammer. I once put a 6 foot circle on a brick wall on the opposite side of the Burgandy Room parking lot in Hollywood – it was the side wall for a Psychic shop, and they flew off the handle because the building was a historic landmark. Ooops! I apologized when I got the messages and in the end they said they liked the art & keep up the good work. That was nice. I think the last time I had a problem with the police was a year or so ago where I was putting a poster on a dumpster facing an intersection and I could see the cops at the opposite red light. I started walking but they pulled me over and said “so you’re that famous skullphone guy.” I was like, “Whaaaaat?” When I started, cops couldn’t even figure out why someone would put something on the street that wasn’t an advertisement for a band or product or whatever. It was new and confusing to grasp. But now street art has a section in the library and barnes & noble and 3 year old know-it-alls, and cops have google on their dashboards. Anyway, street art is now both an advertisement and a product wrapped into one enchilada. Enjoy! Don’t spill any melted cheese on your shirt!
Skullphone has some undertones that deal with humans interacting with technology. When you first started putting up the skull did you think that it would progressively become more and more relevant?
Yes, for sure. I got my first cellphone in 1999 and even then people were like, why do you need that? It felt strange to be moving 70 miles per hour on a freeway engaging in conversation with someone across the country. I drew a skull on a cellphone as a self portrait, documenting my new gesture in public spaces, like an xray.
Your LED work is a lot different from what you are known for but has similar themes. What drew you to this and why the hell do you have vast knowledge on digital billboards?
In 2008 the first thirty digital billboards were installed in Los Angeles. I imagined their future proliferation changing the Los Angeles landscape, and changing how Angelenos interact with signage in outdoor space, especially with the first iphone announced the prior year – a mobile phone with internet! As a street artist, it was funny that I’d work days on a piece and yet some joe-shmoe could be up on a forty eight foot billboard at the press of a button. I placed Skullphone up on these first few digital billboards as an anchor for this change (I think there’s a few thousand digital billboards in LA now). And I immediately started mimicking this new advertising medium as highly reflective paintings with hand painted dots. It took me about a year to figure out the process – the custom aluminum panel fabrication, the mirror finish surface, the paint mixtures, the painting process. From far away they look like real LED shaped signs, and as you get closer it becomes noticeable that the dots are irregular and hand painted, and then focus changes and you can see yourself. I liked how these paintings really can’t be translated or fully understood online or in a digital photo. You have to see them in person.
What people perceive as “street art” has changed quite a bit since you started. Giant legal murals are popping up all over the world and taking the spotlight from other mediums that you see in the streets. What do you consider “street art”?
Well I’m a purist in my views. For me, street art is uncommissioned, raw and dirty, something that drudges salt and shit from the bottom of the earth. If it’s commissioned it’s a mural. And if its super pretty, well, that’s generally not for me… Lots of pretty muralists these days haha. But I do enjoy a few. It’s all a big smear now where legit street artists are offered walls from businesses and why not do it? I’ve done it. And artists with a solid studio practice see the benefits of communicating at the street level and bend into that space now too. It’s a free for all, bellisima!
Whats the next move for Calavera Telefono? What can we expect to see in the future?