12oz Exclusive Interview: Caleb Neelon Pt 1 – Painting Outside and In
Artist Caleb Neelon, co-author of The History of American Graffiti and many other books on graffiti, has a solo show called Victory Garden up now just outside of Boston. In the nineties, he went by the tag Sonik and wrote the text for the later influential issues of 12ozProphet, when it was still a magazine.
This is the first of a two-part interview with him. Caleb is one of my top favorite “writers” in both meanings of the word. This part will be about him as an artist and the second about him as an author. As an artist he has a primitive, child-like style that is raw and brave, developed in the nineties within a sub-culture of slick letterforms and tight illustration. As an author he is a precise and visionary word-craftsman, who can channel the idiosyncratic language, feelings and personality of whoever he is working with or the subject he is researching. He has painted so many great pieces with so many great artists and written so many great books, it’s a breathtaking landscape of images and words. This interview is a good introduction if you don’t know much about him yet.
As a kid, Caleb became fascinated with graffiti in elementary school, which continued through his high school years. Some early influences were the walls in the projects behind his elementary school; the crushed Berlin wall as it was being torn down, which he saw during a trip to Berlin in 1990; and also many random trips to NYC during high school.
During his artistic development, he was lucky to have parents that supported all of his creative interests. They were both creative, took him to museums and let him go to the library alone anytime, because it was just a few blocks away. It was like his playground. His mother wrote poetry and did photography, while his father studied history and even began writing history books in his retirement. Caleb loved to roam through the ancient art and folk art sections at the museums, and pour over art books discovering strange primitive arts that fascinated and inspired him. Between the museums and the library there were thousands of years of art to study and draw from.
In terms of graffiti though, things really clicked during his first year of college at New York University from 1994-95. Cost and Revs were still up everywhere with their raw and gritty wheat pastes, stickers, rollers and bolted-up canvases. Unlike today, these materials and methods had not been utilized to this extent by hardcore writers before. These pieces were frequently idiosyncratic, primitive, goofy and ugly by the standards of a typical writer. They pushed the boundaries of what graffiti could be. This kind of work appealed to Caleb and inspired him to find a voice that was unique for him and also within the graffiti community.
Interview and pictures continue on page 2…
A quote from his monograph, Caleb Neelon’s Book of Awesome, sums up another important aspect for him about his work : communication. “None of these guys were ‘street artists’ (Cost, Revs, Espo, Twist, Os Gemeos). They were just doing really powerful graffiti that pushed the medium forward. And perhaps most appealing to me was that it reached people other than graffiti writers, which is something I wanted to do too.” Caleb also says: “I was a lot better at (reaching out to the communities I was painting in) than at sneaking around at night. And I like people.”
Ultimately, despite all the inspiration from the art on the streets of NYC, Caleb didn’t stay, but started at Brown University in Rhode Island the next year. With new ideas and passion, he started to develop a new aesthetic that was purely his own. One of his new means of expression was a mission to put out hand-made signs that were personal, poetic, child-like and funny. He bolted them to typical street signposts in urban and country settings, The hand-made signs must have stood out next to the utilitarian road signs and delighted anyone who saw them. They were readable, humorous, poetic and above all fun. By the time he had exhausted this obsession, he had installed over seven hundred signs between 1996 and 2001. That’s the equivalent of putting one up every four days on average. The dedication to having found his voice and wanting to make a strong statement is evident in the energy and obsession he put into sharing this series with the public.
Like others around the world at this time, he was on the cutting edge of a movement that would take the “graffiti” out of art being made on the street and explore new voices, expressed with a vocabulary and grammar uniquely all their own, such as Caleb’s sign series. This growing movement became known as “street art” around the turn of the new millennium. The term had actually been around since the early eighties, with participants including luminaries such as John Fekner, Babara Kruger, and Richard Hambleton, but had not become recognized as a world-wide phenomenon until the turn of the century. Caleb did not necessarily consider himself a part of it, nor a proponent, but, like the other graffiti writers he mentioned in the quote above, by pushing the boundaries of graffiti as far as he did, he could easily be included in their ranks at this point. And as evidenced by his inclusion in a huge amount of the books that have come out about street art in the past ten years, he is obviously considered by many people as much a street artist as a graffiti writer.
Interview and pictures continue on page 3…
Caleb also began experimenting with different styles of painting that utilized house-painting materials, and took the emphasis off spray paint. While experimenting with these materials he found that he especially liked using a foam brush with which he could create a primitive, drippy stroke for his outlines. Shaky and child-like, this kind of outline went perfectly with the blocky crude letterforms, naïve characters and folk motifs and patterns that he made all his own. Overall, he found a style that matched his personality: friendly, communicative, unpretentious, approachable, and fun. Caleb found in his materials and style an expression of himself that was whole, integral and unique.
Another quote from his book, which addresses why he doesn’t use “fancy European spray paint” when he travels, reveals another unique reason for his choice of materials: “Ideally, I’d love it if a neighborhood kid could see what I do and go give it a shot him or herself. So it has to be materials that are locally available, especially if we’re talking about a less wealthy country, where using anything else is just really unfair.” This heightened sensitivity to the environments and communities he paints in is yet another beautiful expression of his personality and why his aesthetic developed into the unique statement that has become.
He also discovered that travel and painting in foreign cities was one of the most inspiring aspects about making art on the streets for him. This stems from his love of people and communicating with those within a new community, but also from the interests he developed at the museums and in the library in folk art in general. More specifically, he gained an inherent love of folk art because half of his family is Nepalese. So he naturally began to incorporate important elements from that culture after many trips to visit Nepal. During his travels he has explored the indigenous arts and graffiti in Sao Paolo, Katmandu, Tegucigalpa, Calcutta, Istanbul, Brisbane, Copenhagen, Sydney, and many more. As well as immersing himself in the cultures and communities of the places he visits, he has also painted with many of the greatest artists a country has to offer, such as the Os Gemeos twins, Keramik, Nunca, Vitche, Herbert Baglione, Atome, Pez, Ichabod, Egs, Cakes, and many many more.
Interview and pictures continue on page 4…
With all these influences swirling through his life, its no surprise that as a graffiti writer he couldn’t commit to the typical graffiti dogma many writers feel they have to adhere to. So we find a well-rounded and eclectic body of work on and off the streets. What he has done on the streets can also be seen on his canvases and in his installations. Again to quote from his monograph: “I am attracted to indoor spaces in the same way that I am attracted to outdoor ones. Installations make it possible to really wrap a viewer up and let them settle into a space in a way that people can’t outdoors. When I walk into a space and I see every surface and space done up, it feels good. So I try to keep the installations I do a real walk-in experience.”
Currently he has an exhibition called Victory Garden of his recent paintings, which are on display in the Center for the Arts at Endicott College in Beverly, Massachusetts from January 20 through March 16th. The show was hung and the doors opened mid-January, but they decided to save the festivities for Tuesday, March 6th, which will coincide with the unveiling of his installation and a lecture he will be giving. The installation is being painted and built on site during his residency at the College from February 27th through March 6th.
If you are near the Boston area in the next two weeks, definitely drop by to be immersed in the unique world of Caleb Neelon. If not, check out the works from the show and more on his website and Facebook page. They really are Books of Awesome too!
This is the first installment of a two-part interview. The second installment will cover his work as an author for 12ozProphet and many books on graffiti, including The History of American Graffiti, Art in the Streets, and Delusional: The Story of the Jonathan Levine Gallery. Information was gathered from a two-hour phone interview and also from Caleb Neelon’s Book of Awesome published by Gingko Press in 2008.
Text: Daniel Feral
Photo: Caleb Neelon