Photo by Yamandu Roos
Three things that I’m a fan of: Patta, Futura and Converse Chuck Taylors. I figure that if I’m going to be a sellout and post campaign-related bits here, it may as well be about a project that’s true to the topics we discuss here. The new Futura Chuck II (the low/Ox editions win) drops this weekend and Patta worked with Lenny to hand write translated lyrics from Dutch singer Ramses Shaffy’s 1978 hit Laat me onto 50 tees that they’re giving away with purchases of the shoes. Many have screen printed some lettering from the man himself throughout the years, but this project is a lot more personal. You can read a Futura interview with insights from Patta’s Vincent and Gee RIGHT HERE, and here’s a slightly longer version of my chat with Lenny. Good project, very good people.
Where does the Skyfall pattern that’s on the shoe originate?
FUTURA: That pattern dates back to the late 1990s. That’s when I really took to that technique. I actually did some work with maharishi in London that used it – it was on some shirts we made.
I know that you get asked to draw your “Pointman” character that was popularised by UNKLE in the mid to late 1990s — do you ever feel that you’re being typecast to a degree and put a character or element of your work on hiatus?
Sure. For the most part, wherever I’m at it’s not like I’m steps ahead of where other people are, but I’m usually ahead of where they want to put me at. But I’m very appreciative of the fan base. If I’m at an opening and people want me to sign stuff, I’m always accommodating. So if they’re like “Hey! Draw a Pointman!” I’ll do it. Back in the Mo Wax era when that was dropping and when my book came out in 2000 all of that was the height of the Pointman Futura visual graphic style and I had pulled back on that for a while. Certainly on the characters. I wasn’t consciously like “I’m stopping doing this!” So if a kid came up to me to draw a Pointman, I would. But as a body of work I’m trying to promote, no. I have this opening on Saturday in Detroit. There’s some of my atomic stuff but no Skyfall technique, plus some crane or construction elements, whatever you wanna call it. There’s a new set of characters though – they’re not derivative of Pointmen which are taken from Giger — rest in peace — because I was pretty inspired by his Alien creatures and that was the direction that the Pointman was derivative. I can draw the characters and it’s all based on what heads I give them – if I give them the oblong, pointy head everybody’s like “Pointman!” If it has a round head they’re like, “Oh, that’s YOUR characters.” So these ones are a little more advanced and hooked up. They’re certainly more worked on. So I’m also doing my variety of things right now, but I also have crossed over — I would hope — some creative threshold and I’m also trying to introduce some new stuff myself, because after damn near 40 years of creating my world, I get tired of things and bored with things and I want to see something new from me too. I feel like I’m crossing over some bridges and realising what I want to do and not what people want me to do.
Your Break train from 1980 really put your name out there and was the blueprint for this abstract, futuristic style — it’s interesting how that piece jettisoned lettering as a focal point, but lettering is something that you’re famous for.
My best friends at the time were guys like guys like Zephyr, Dondi and ultimately Rammellzee and previous to meeting those guys in the later 70s and early 80s, someone like a Phase2. I was always conscious of who held the crown in terms of style and when I returned to graffiti after my military service in the late 1970s, I just wanted to do something different. There was no master plan. I was just sort of messing around with paint and watching everyone else painting at the time. Some were extraordinary with letters or shadowing, backdrops and effects and everything revolved around the name. That’s how it was in that early era — the most outrageous forms of self-promotion.
How did your very writing style emerge — was it from having associates who were style kings?
It wasn’t that I couldn’t do letters but my hand style came a lot later in life if you will — I always had a good handwriting, but it didn’t equate to the graffiti hand style. I couldn’t write like BAN 2. There were a couple of writers from the early days before someone like José Parlá would come along who had unbelievable graffiti hand styles. Thin, chiseled letters, with amazing E’s and an S that was swirling around — the beauty of a NYC or global graf hand style. What I did was reinvent my own handwriting and I honestly don’t know how it became as popular as it did. Looking back I always thought I had a sloppy but stylistic handwriting.
What was the process for creating the shirts with Patta?
What Gee and Vincent did was interesting because they wanted something out of me that was original. Me sitting there writing five phrases ten times makes a cool gift for someone I think. One thing I hate to do in all the world of accommodating people is signing t-shirts! It’s actually a little bit difficult. The marker drags on the fabric and it’s iffy and doesn’t work. You have to hold the shirt flat and taut, but for some reason it worked with the Patta guys.
Were there any mistakes?
I don’t think any of the shirts were fuck ups. There were a couple of dragged lines but the wound up being knotted lines and they worked. I was dreading doing that but it came out really cool and I’m glad they had me do it. You’re also talking about the entering and alignment of two words. The markers were good but it was silver paint markers on black. Gee and Vincent held them and we had a board and it was really perfect. When a job or some operation goes well, it makes you feel that you did something right.
You definitely got up in Holland back in the 1980s, but had you had any dealings with the Patta crew before?
We definitely got up in Holland! But that pre-dates these guys. I’ve been to Patta though because I was in Amsterdam a couple of years back and you hear about cool stores so you pop your head in. Promotion-wise and in terms of their releases that I see on the web and their collaborations, I’ve seen their stuff. We wanted to do a release with a good European store and when someone suggested Patta, I said, “Yeah, let’s do it with them.” This was a few months ago and I had no idea what it would entail, but I’m super happy that it’s gonna happen there. It’s a great venue and I think it’s a good look for everyone. I like what they do.
What I did was reinvent my own handwriting and I honestly don’t know how it became as popular as it did
What I did was reinvent my own handwriting and I honestly don’t know how it became as popular as it did
Were a lot of rules in place within the NYC graffiti community when you painted your trilogy of trains in the early 1980s? The culture was already into its second generation by that point, wasn’t it?
Of that first generation of abstract whole cars that I did roll out — a couple in 1980 and one in 1981 — that Break train is the only one that has any sort of immortality level because of the fact that Martha Cooper got a photo. SEEN actually got a photo à la Henry Chalfont because he had a camera and was like CLICK, CLICK, CLICK as the train rolled out of the station, with a very basic camera, then forming a panoramic from four pictures by stitching them together. That happened on the first few days, but because Dondi was my main guy and Martha was kind of his personal photographer at that time, I actually painted the Break train at a place called Utica Avenue in Brooklyn that was kind of like Dondi’s personal yard, so I got his blessing. I painted it in about three to five hours and in the morning we called Martha Cooper and we told her to keep her eyes open that day because it was going to be running, so with the good fortune I’ve had in my life, Martha caught that photo later that afternoon, before they’d had a chance to scratch the windows. It was a completely painted whole car. People saw the train and were like “Yo Lenny, what is that?” because it was a bit crazy for that moment but truth be told it wasn’t totally well received that week, month or year…people didn’t what to think of it because of what history dictated — there was already an idea of what you do, like, “This is a top to bottom, this is a window down, this is a throw up…blah, blah, blah…” But my thing was that kind of like “What’s that?” I tried to explain to people that it wasn’t based on Kurtis Blow’s The Breaks because I wrote Break! People are so silly sometimes, because they only think what they think and their narrow mind can only handle one train, or subway, of thought. It was about a break in tradition and the shackles — the rules like you mentioned. I mean I understand that you’re not supposed to write over people. I get that. I get all the ethical aspects of the movement and I’m an old-timer so I really respect stuff. But as far as breaking tradition of genre and what kids are thinking painting, I was all about that. I was standing on an island and I was comfortable being on it, because I needed to be different than DONDI. He was the Style General. Lee Quinones was another one and he was my contemporary. To this day Lee is one of my best friends and I still love him so much. All of the guys from that era were style kings like you said…you know? SEEN, QUIK…there’s so many names. I consciously wanted to do something different/ Having said that, four years later, five years later, ten years later, people are like “Oh shit! That car you did!” So it took more respect over time. I think people caught up with my mind and were like “It’s pretty dope that you thought like that back then!” The advent and arrival of abstract graffiti writers or graf futurism, or any label you want to give it — that’s part of it now. A lot of people are doing the abstract thing now. You go to school and learn your English and then your script, but if you’re really into it, you adapt and you evolve and take it somewhere else. I wanted to take it far away, like, if you guys wanted to get with me, you had to get all the hell over here! Initially there wasn’t anybody over there hanging with me but eventually they decided that, yeah, it’s not a bad direction! Colour, composition and arrangement takes an importance. Now, the freight train looks really good next to everything else — that big 25 year edition of Subway Art had the train in a big double page Bronx elevated train shot and it looks incredible. It makes me remember, “Wow, what an amazing time we had running around New York City!” It’s almost unbelievable. Today, you have commercial wrapping of all these trains and it seems cheap and cheesy. Of course, we live in a world of consumerism, but when I see commercial wrapping on the subway, whether it’s Coca-Cola or Starbucks it’s crazy to me. I’m very proud of those couple of years spent painting around that time.
What was the process behind the pink train you painted in Toulouse last week?
Painting that train in Toulouse last week was crazy — I couldn’t believe that they organised that. You see walls and an exhibition space at these jams usually, but for them to truck out a train for me was pretty incredible. It turns out that Toulouse is called the ‘Pink City’ so that’s how the train wound up being pink. There’s also a vibe around that structure — prior to renovation to become the museum, it was a slaughterhouse for meat and prior to my arrival, when they showed me photos of the train in front of that building, it had a real weird Schindler’s List, The Pianist thing to me. You had the train and it was all rusted and this structure looked imposing. On the first day we set up, this woman who was helping me — an old French lady who was around 70 years old — said to me, “What is the significance of this train? It’s very disturbing.” She felt that same thing and I wasn’t in Europe for that kind of thing, but I just feel what I see. The imagery suggests something. I knew that the juxtaposition of the train and the building was unfortunate and could cause some flashbacks in some people, so I decided that this thing has to be bright and pink and crazy colours because if someone saw that it would take those negative thoughts away. It was fantastic to paint a train again — it had been 30 something years since I last painted a train. That was around 1983 and 33 years later I get to do it legally! I didn’t know where the train would be housed when they suggested it. I thought it would be on a railroad track, but where they put it really set off this whole other thing in my head. I asked, “What does this look like to someone?” It’s funny because when I was in the military 40 years ago — in 1975/76 — it was only 30 years removed from the bomb back then. I remember thinking that I didn’t want old people seeing me in my uniform off the base and having these memories. That almost guilty vibe kind of came back to me last week, but in the end I think if people had a bad thought for a nanosecond, it goes away. I was conscious of that ominous look and how it made me feel.
In that regard, did it parallel the juxtaposition between the Break train running through a broken city back in 1980?
That particular train line was the number two and the number five and those were the best train you could paint on because, essentially, they ran the longest through the New York system. They run down the top of the Bronx, down through Manhattan and all the way to Brooklyn. Only in Brooklyn and the Bronx does the train come outside. It’s all subterranean tracking in Manhattan. What was interesting is that the South Bronx was quite run down at the time and if you were on that train, riding through the Bronx six, seven stations up, all that was around it was in decay and fucked up. Those great whole cars looked so amazing outside and we loved to watch the trains inside the stations and meeting other kids around the city. Those exterior stations in the Bronx and Brooklyn are where a lot of the photos that Henry [Chalfont] took were taken, because obviously you need natural light and there’s a whole different perspective. The Break train looked really cool running through that overhead track.
Photo by Yamandu Roos
Camouflage really plays a role in your work and everyday attire — even the pattern on the shoe looks like it could be modified into a camo. How much did your time in the military in the mid to late 1970s alter your personal aesthetic?
It was everything really. 1968 was the height of Vietnam and I was 13/14 around that time. Even more recently in Iraq, when you know you’re at war you see imagery on TV of soldiers. Back then we had limited resources and exposure to this stuff — like seven, eight, nine channels of TV. The information you got was something everyone got and then there was re-runs. I was influenced by the militarisation that was going on and the fact that my father was a WWII veteran, but I was too young to serve my country if you will. I joined in 1974 and the war was technically winding down — we signed the papers in 1975. My mother was like “Look, if you’re going to join the military do it now, because it’s going to be over — you’ll get a good education in terms of on the job training and in a vocational sense.” I didn’t know what I was going to do and I wound up becoming a jet mechanic on an aircraft carrier. I couldn’t take that with me once I left the military but I actually ended up working at an airport for six months, but I was living in New Jersey and working at Kennedy Airport. It used to take me two hours to get to work and sometimes longer to get home — a four or five-hour commute to get to and from work! That was crazy so I couldn’t do it, technically, that’s how I rolled back into my graffiti movement. Camo stuff was always part of my aesthetic and I was going to different countries, doing manoeuvres with Pakistani soldiers and checking their uniforms. I was always checking uniforms. We have different flags and different camps. That’s how I got hooked up with maharishi actually. Hardy [Blechman, maharishi founder] had the same admiration for camouflage that I did — he knew that I had this book called Brassey’s Book of Camouflage and was like “Nobody knows about this book! How do you know about it?” — he told me about the book he was preparing. He seems like one of the most loving, peaceful guys and that aesthetic doesn’t mean that you’re a warmonger or preaching hate or killing. For me, even back in my neighbourhood there were people coming out of Vietnam, so I always saw guys in camo, so I knew it would be incorporated into my aesthetic in terms of shit I like. That military thing really opened up what was out there — and military life is a bit like prison in that there’s going to be a point where you’re sitting around knowing that you have 18 hours where you don’t have much to do, so you just get into stuff and learn new things. I’m not the camo aficionado, but I can look at a camo and recognise Germany, North Germany or Brit. The Skyfall thing is a pattern, but if I did it in various colours I guess it could be made into a camo.
You’ve always been very accessible online and happy to sign and sketch for fans, but you’re also in the art world, where accessibility can diminish exclusivity, and subsequently, value. Has that ever been an issue for you?
I know what you mean, Allegedly, if you’re running around in the commercial world then you’re supposed to be diminishing your value in this other world. I’ve always been in conflict with that. Because, truth to told, prices for stuff can be outrageous. A young kid might want something by me or get an original sketch on paper but can’t afford something for 20,000 dollars? Does that mean I have to run to that buyer? No. I make that decision as it arrives. It’s emotional for me. We’re having an exhibition now and there’s painting for 10, 15, 20K, but there’s prints and stuff that might be a couple of hundred bucks. If I can create stuff that everyone has access to then I’m not cutting off or eliminating anyone from being part of it. The commercial stuff — the sneakers, the watches and whatever is something that I also feel that people can contribute and participate with. I’m still trying to think of ways to make it easier and I have tons of ideas about how to make very affordable things for that bracket that’s new and wants to participate or just doesn’t have the economic situation to buy expensive things. I take it one thing at a time but it’s never been about the money. I’m never chasing money. It’s not something that’s going to change my mind in any way — my experience is that more money equals more problems, increased taxes…all of it! What I’m just doing now, moving forward, is have a way to be more inclusive for those younger people that would like to get involved and have something original. Getting back to social media, I’m on Instagram, doing it my way. I have my own approach and reason — it’s not a serious thing selling anyone anything like “Hey! Wanna buy posters, t-shirts or prints?” No. I really don’t want to be that person doing direct commerce like that. Of course, I have an exhibition and there’s other ways that my stuff can be sold, but I don’t wanna be the one hawking things to pay my rent. I’m only hoping that I’m moving to a better place where I can include more people and we’ll see. This Patta thing is going to be a good test of how Europe receives this kind of project.
My experience is that more money equals more problems, increased taxes…all of it
My experience is that more money equals more problems, increased taxes…all of it
You’ve been a longtime Converse wearer — does that make this collaboration feel more organic for you?
The Converse thing worked out great because I did have all this experience with Nike, who is a parent of Chucks now. It was a good transition for me because both brands are organically part of who I am as a person. Not for nothing, Converse pre-dates Nike and my first arrival into the brand goes back to ‘68/’69 and when I was watching those reports on Vietnam, if I looked down, I had a pair of Converse on. Cut to the early 1980s and 1990s and the crazy running shoes in the Olympics and all this stuff and then, boom, Jordan, which kind of changed the game in our culture because the hip-hop kids went there. The Nike thing came later and I decided to do a 360 — well, a personal decision — in that now that I’ve gone through 30…40 different combinations of an SB Dunk or an Air Force 1, now I’ve just gone back to my very simple black hi-top Chucks. It’s not a competition any more. At some point I just got out of that, because being a creative, a consumer, a contributor — all of the above — I realised that I want to break down some common denominators, and Converse is perfect for that. I’m very appreciative that I got a chance to work with them and they’ve been really great with me and I look forward to this continued relationship.
Photo by Yamandu Roos
As a keen cyclist and former courier, was the reflective material on the Skyfall Chuck II added for safety reasons on a bike?
It’s funny, because in each drop, we have a high and a low. The high is a better template because you have more room to put stuff on and as it turns out, I like both lows even though I always wear a high. The first Atomic lows were simpler than the high version and I think that the Skyfall lows look really, really good. That reflective thing is gonna work in the summer, at the beach and whatever, but yeah, it’s very bike friendly if people want to cruise around from early evening into twilight because light is really popping off those guys! I suppose it does give them a little safety edge. We were exploring all types of patterns and materials, just as the first had the rubberised thing. One of the good things about this collaboration is that Converse opened the book on all of their resources and technologies. They were showing me things last year that they won’t even have until 2017 — new advances in fabrics. Before anyone else runs their hands through that stuff, they let me have a look.
Your work rate after your 1989 return to art is astonishing. I only recently spotted your work in Heavy D & the Boyz’ Now That We Found Love video!
That was me and Lee Quinones that did the wall with those guys! That was random and crazy.
What’s your process for working on collaborations? You’ve been prolific with them over the years, but are there specific criteria?
I’m kind of everywhere and nowhere, and working with a brand that you associate with, rather than just grabbing a pay cheque, is good. I get emotionally attached to things — more than even things, people. So if the people that approach me from a company rub me the right way, I’m good to go. I could do it just to do it. I prefer to give it away sometimes — it makes me feel better. Of course, we get compensated for things and these days I get compensated rather well, but that doesn’t change me. I just always want to be able to take care of my kids and the people I love and myself to a degree, though I’m low maintenance! I just want to be around people that I like, so rather than being a mercenary about it and chasing things, I just organically hope that my energy will bring the right response and if I feel a bad feeling, but I’m being paid X amount of dollars, I just don’t do it.
The Chuck II has this ‘Ready for More’ slogan — does that mirror where you’re at right now?
I just turned 60 and so now I’m kind of looking at things differently. When I was 15, I was already Futura. I had a long-lens back then and most people live in the moment and they can only see the next 60 days or however their jobs or relationship will carry them. My thing was, that whatever the circumstances are, I’d deal with them, because people were doing okay with less than me. I’ve always had self-motivation because I only need the bare minimum to exist, so I’d look in the mirror like, “Hey! It’s on you to get it going and keep it moving.” So at this point in my life, I’m not chasing anything. I don’t want everything. I’m just checking my health and finding that I’m in very good health, so I’m happy. I’m at a point in my life where my children are half my age and they’re doing well — my son is doing amazing right now. I’m just adapting to whatever’s changing around me socially and hoping that I can make the right decisions moving forward.
What’s next for you?
As far as this collaboration, I think it’s going to be great, I’m very excited about the show that’s coming up this weekend, and I have some other exhibitions coming up later in the year.
Do you see all the work — from collaborations to exhibitions — as an extension of that original subway mission to be seen by as many people as possible?
I don’t really think about the stuff I’ve done. I don’t live my life by looking in the rearview. When I was 15 years old, I was looking 15 years down the road. I’m looking ten years down the road now! Where’s things gonna be at by 2020 or 2025? Where’s the world going to be with all this crazy shit happening? And what will happen to our community and the structure of this social community I’m part of as an ambassador and diplomat? But at the same time I’m promoting myself just as I did when I put my tag up, when I first tagged a subway station back in the day like, “Oh, there I am! There’s my signature — I exist.” I still get a kick out of that — there’s a double label on the Converse shoes with Chuck Taylor’s signature next to mine. That’s almost worth more than the money you’re gonna give me that I’m gonna spend on something that I probably don’t need anyway! The getting up part is the big part of my story.
Photo by Yamandu Roos