SEEN interview

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Graffiti artist SEEN, aka Richard Mirando, was tagging subway trains and spraying whole throw-ups back in the 70s when graffiti art was just starting to emerge in galleries. Along with his friends and contemporaries – which included Basquiat and Haring – he ran with that movement and started exhibiting in galleries, but still continued to race down the streets of the Bronx with his crew, bombing trains into his late 20s.

Now in his early 50s, the graf King has evolved to become one of the most prolific writers in street art spheres, and ahead of his first show in Hong Kong Post No Bills at Opera Gallery in September, Ysabelle Cheung speaks to him just as he’s finishing up his superhero painting series in Las Vegas…

When did you first pick up a spray paint can?
Years ago, back in the 70s, as a kid, you used the spray paint can mostly to paint your bicycle. Your parents would have spray paint cans in the garage or the basement, but they would use it to paint the lawnmower or the patio furniture. For me, I would use the spray paint can to paint my bicycle. So I’ve been using spray paint since I was very young, before I was even allowed to use it, at the age of eight or nine. When I turned 11 years old, I started to spray paint for graffiti purposes.

How did that feel – your first graffiti attempt?
I don’t know how to describe the feeling, but it was something that I wanted to do, because I’ve seen it in the streets and I’ve seen it in the subway cars, and I wanted to do it. When I did it the first time, I guess you could say it felt good because I kept going back again and again. I would have to say that it was a good feeling.  

You mentioned that you weren’t allowed. Was it the authorities or your parents that were banning you from using spray cans, originally?
Well, once my parents found out, it was my dad that would put his foot down all the time. He was the boss of the house, and he made it very difficult for me to have spray paint around the house. I’ve been punished. I’ve been hit as a child for doing it. Especially when somebody came and reported to my mum or dad that I had scribbled on the corner of their wall. My art did suffer, and it hurt. As the years went on, I used spray paint as a tool for work. I painted motorcycles and cars, so I didn’t get into too much trouble for having paint cans around my work area or my home. But my dad always broke my chops about when I was going to stop whenever he saw something on the street. I continued painting on the streets well into my 20s, and it was a very difficult time for me, because I had to deal with my dad all the time. Sometimes I wouldn’t even want to see him because I knew he was going to yell at me.

 

What are the craziest things that you’ve done or experienced when it comes to your graffiti art?
You’ll sit here for hours if you want me to tell you stories! One of my all-time favourites was when I came out to California to paint the Hollywood Sign in 1984. Before I went, I got two plane tickets: one for myself and one for a friend of mine. I told him we had a mission to go on. We climbed the front of the mountain and once we got there, we waited until dark. I started to paint three letters on the ground – 2 Ls and the Y were on the ground. Suddenly some lights switched on and, before we knew it, there were police helicopters flying over us. They were shining their lights down on the mountains and behind the sign. It was a real big mess, and we hid in these bushes for at least an hour before we had the guts to come out. We started painting again but I only did a quick fix up and left the rest of the paint on the mountain. The next day, I went back to take a picture of it, and there were workers there because they were cleaning up Hollywood. It was a scary experience, doing that. I thought I was going to get arrested before I could go back to New York. That was 1984. I was the only person to paint the Hollywood sign, as big as it was. Other people scribbled on it, like, ‘John loves Mary’. Until this day, that Hollywood sign has really big security cameras so mine was the biggest. It was a really big ordeal for me.

What are your impressions now of the times back then?
Years ago, you had to be careful. There were street gangs in New York City back then. Painting on subway trains back then, you’d end up in all these different neighbourhoods and meet different people. In New York, it was mainly White or Black ethnicities. Being white doesn’t really work out too well in a Black or Hispanic neighborhood. You might get beat up because of that.

 

 

How has graff art progressed since you started tagging?
When I was growing up, you couldn’t even get certain paint caps to make your paint go well. Today, there are companies that are producing paint solely for graffiti purposes. Years ago, when I was painting, I had to take a can of paint out of a hardware store, and then I had to go to the supermarket, or a different aisle, and take the spray cap off the can so it would work better. Or, I would have to widen the spray nozzle so it can spray better.

Today, I think it’s got a lot easier. It’s true that people can actually go to jail for graffiti as the laws are much stricter, but it’s also a lot more recognised and people get more permission to do things like this. Graffiti artists now aren’t even hitting the streets. They might go straight to canvas or they do it through the computer in graphics.

The talent out there is really amazing. Some of these people out there doing graffiti-style work – it’s truly amazing what you can do with a spray can nowadays. Years ago, this was not possible. Today, it has gone to a whole other level. It’s changed so much since when I was growing up.

 

 

Back then, were you and your contemporaries aware that you were on the brink of a new movement?
I was just doing my thing, and I was not aware of the rest of the world. I really tried to keep to myself and my graffiti art at that time. Mostly, the times that I painted, I would have painted by myself. Then, the world changed and everything changed with it. You might say that it’s been glorified, in a way. There is, however, the downfall because you lose the mysteriousness about it. If I had to go backwards, I would try to keep it the way I had it in the 70s, which I thought was the best time. Today, going out on the streets to paint – I don’t have much interest in that. I prefer to stay in the studio. I paint the same things that I painted on the walls or in the subway in terms of style, but I prefer to sit back and relax, and do it at my pace. I don’t have the pressure to look over my shoulder now.

You exhibited next to Warhol, Haring and Basquiat in a group show back in the 80s. What experiences and memories did you take away from that time?
There were so many shows and events back then when everything started to happen. It was like one big party. I can’t even describe it. Nobody felt like they were better than anybody else back then. Haring and Basquiat, those guys were really insecure and it was just one big mix. [There are] other guys that you don’t even hear about now that didn’t break through the rubble. Back then everyone was equal. We danced around the world over night. It was amazing, but I don’t know how to describe it. It’s so great to see your work hung there, and then know that you all hung out together when it just started to happen.

Since those days, graffiti has evolved from street to gallery. What’s your opinion on bringing street art inside?
I was already showing my work, even in the 70s, in galleries. It’s kind of the same thing for me. There’s no ‘Is it better? Is it worse?’ All I know is that I painted in the streets, but at the same time, I was also showing it in the gallery. I do like that it’s still growing. It’s still touching more and more people as days and months go on. I like that people find it, and find it interesting. Back in the day, it was all about getting your name out. The more you got your name out, the more famous you get. For me, for it to go out there and be more accessible, I like the idea.


Credit: Olivia De La Borie

Let’s talk a bit about the show that you’re bringing to Hong Kong, Post No Bills. Why superheroes?
Well, I’ve tried to make my name with different styles of lettering. There’s the wild style that’s harder to read for the average person to read. There’s the bubble style that’s used to get something around really fast and quick. I always tried to use a readable style for people to see my name, even if it was a readable wild style, I make them all blocky so people can read it when the trains pulled in. I didn’t just want the artists to see it, I wanted the average person who rode the trains every day to see my name. So they didn’t forget me, I always put a character. A comic book hero, a superhero, or a cartoon character. When I painted whole cars, I always did characters because even if you miss everything else, you’ll know the character of the day was a Mickey Mouse or the Incredible Hulk. I always did that, and that was important. That affected me in my childhood. As a kid, I was a product of the television. My mum put me in front of the TV to keep me quiet, so I’m sitting there watching cartoons all day. I also always had comic books as a kid to keep me quiet. With a paper and pencil, pens and crayons, everything came together. I started to paint and draw these cartoon characters. That’s how all these characters still live in my work today. Now, I’m doing an entire series on the Superhero end of it. I’m having fun with it, and it all goes back to my childhood.

Is there a reason why you chose these particular characters?
I only paint the characters that I like. If I don’t like them, then I won’t paint them. You could twist my arm, but chances are it really isn’t going to happen. You can beg me, and maybe one day, if I have the time and I really like you, I’ll make you one like that. Honestly, I have to like him.

Who’s your favourite superhero?
One of my favourites is The Incredible Hulk. I’m actually painting one of him right now that’s driving me a little nuts in the heat. Yesterday was hell, especially working on him. Before I get to a certain level in my painting, I have to finish all of the sections. I don’t like leaving sections alone because it’s harder to come back to it. While I’m in the groove, I have to keep going with it. The Hulk smashed me up pretty good.

Credit: Olivia De La Borie

Do you have a mission?
I’ve always painted my whole life. Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve never stopped painting. I’m lucky to have the opportunity to keep doing it. Do I have a mission? No. I’m just being me, doing what I like to do. And I have the opportunity to do it. Today, I’m painting, and I have to live from it, but it’s really great that I’m blessed that I’m able to paint and do what I like to do for my life. There’s no mission. I’m just lucky enough to paint everything and live off that. I’m just being myself, and bring it to the galleries to show it off. I’m a real simple person.


Rapid Fire Round

What’s your favourite comic book?
Casper the Friendly Ghost.

Spray can or Sharpie pen?
Spray Can.

Banksy or David Choe?
I’m going to go with Banksy for this one.

How many tattoos do you have?
Way too many.

Who’s your harshest critic?
Myself.

Who is your most adoring fan?
I’m drawing a blank.

What are you most looking forward to seeing in Hong Kong?
I like architecture, so I think I’ll appreciate the building structures as I’m walking down the street.

Post No Bills Opera Gallery, Sept 17 until October 15, operagallery.com.

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