Interview BNE talks about the bne water foundation
With the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street, 2011 is proving to be a year of radical change. And “All-World” graffiti writer BNE, who has plastered his simple B&W Helvetica stickers everywhere from New York to Kuala Lumpur, is no exception. In a seemingly mysterious U-turn, BNE earlier this year launched the BNE Water Foundation, an organization helping impoverished children all over the world gain access to clean water. To satisfy our curious minds at 12oz and all over the world, we decided to sit down and get serious with BNE about his graffiti and his philanthropic ambitions for the future.
What inspired the sticker campaign? Stickers have been around for a long time, but the way you used them completely changed the game.
I have always thought that stickers were an effective tool but never had the time or patience to do thousands of tags on stickers by hand. I started going hard on stickers because I was in Tokyo catching tags and I thought that there were probably only a couple hundred people in the whole country that could read those tags. I figured if I simplified it into something very legible, I could capture the attention of millions of people instead of hundreds or thousands. Since I was a young kid I have always been attracted to block letters and legible graffiti. The stickers were designed to catch the maximum amount of attention but once I got going I wasn’t doing it for fame. It became addictive and I enjoyed walking. Putting up 400 stickers for me is like walking a dog or doing yoga. It relaxes me and I like being out in the streets. Even though the whole sticker thing developed naturally and they didn’t really influence me to do it, I do have to give props to Cost and Revs. They were the first to go hard with Helvetica font labels on a local level in the 90’s. Mad props to those guys.
So lets talk quantities, how many BNE stickers have been put up around the world and in how many different countries?
Hundreds of cities. Thousands of neighborhoods. Hundreds of thousands of stickers.
Has the attention your stickers received always been positive?
No, they seem to anger some people. I overheard someone in a bar talking about BNE stickers so I asked him what was up with them, for some reason he really hated them. He said they were everywhere and were destroying the city. That particular city was flooded with Pepsi stickers and posters. I asked him what he thought of the Pepsi labels being everywhere advertising unhealthy products to children. Strangely the Pepsi stickers didn’t seem to bother him. I think the anger comes from people’s minds being penetrated by a logo that they do not understand. I don’t think it’s always about it being “vandalism”. People are assaulted by so much corporate advertising that they have grown numb to it. The corporate logos are still very effective and make their way into our subconscious but they do not stay on your mind or make you angry. The fact that BNE can create such an emotional reaction and capture so much attention is what has fascinated the advertising world.
How were you first introduced to graffiti?
Just seeing it on the walls when I was young and wondering, “who did that?”
That “Who did that?” mystery can leave a strong impression. Was trying to get everyone to ask, “What is BNE?” one of your strategies?
No. As strange as it may sound, even though I designed my graffiti to reach a large amount of people, I never actually thought about how people perceived it. It was all very selfish and there was no big plan, I was just doing my thing. The first time I heard “What is BNE?” was on the news. I was seeing “What is BNE?” so much that I started to ask myself the same question. Eventually I realized that it could mean whatever I wanted it to mean, and that not to use it for something more would be a waste. Now I know that I can use graffiti to communicate with millions of people and advocate important issues as well. Graffiti truly is the voice of the people.
And this eventually led to the idea for BNE Water? What is the main purpose of the foundation?
Yes. BNE Water Foundation’s primary objective is to provide people living in poverty with access to clean water and sanitation. There is a huge difference between charity and social justice and flicking a coin at someone in need changes nothing in the big picture. That is why we are also attacking the root of the problem and educating people on the real reasons why poverty even exists. This project is designed to function like a Swiss army knife and achieve multiple objectives from a single platform. Provide people with clean water, wake up brain dead consumers, unite artists, promote peace and positivity, fight ignorance and racism, protest war, inspire people to start caring, promote independent business and social entrepreneurship, the list goes on and on.
The number one thing BNE Water Foundation stands for is the TRUTH. Individuals and companies use all kinds of marketing schemes to sell their ideas, products and services. Most brands are in the business of selling dreams and fantasies. We are in the business of reality, so our marketing strategy is to simply tell the truth about everything. This is going to piss off a lot off people but it has to be done. I haven’t spent thousands of hours on the streets creating a name for it to be used as some bullshit “charity”.
How do you think the BNE Water Foundation will affect the graffiti world?
I have always thought it was a shame that due to egos and stuff, graff writers had never united and all worked together to use our form of media to say something together. Something meaningful. Then I thought, never mind just writers, it would be amazing if all artists around the world united to not only say something, but to make a change. BNE and our online gallery is a platform to make that happen. As far as having an effect on the graffiti world, this project was also designed with the intention of pumping a little realness back into our culture. Graffiti has been commercialized an diluted to the point that its become a joke. I can’t standby and watch this any longer.
It still seems like a there are tons of writers that are painting and keeping it real. How has graffiti been diluted?
No doubt. There is and hopefully always will be a lot of people putting in work out in the streets. They are the ones that hold graffiti culture down. Graffiti is diluted by corporations and companies using it to make a profit. Tobacco companies, soft drinks, perfume etc. They use graffiti to push their products and when they snap their fingers, many of us are quick to run and deliver them our culture on a silver platter.
Does BNE Water have the potential to change what it means to be a graffiti writer? Do you see kids studying branding and funding strategies instead of practicing throw-ups and tags?
Every writer is engaged in branding and marketing to some degree, sometimes without even knowing it. I don’t think it will change what it means to be a graffiti writer but hopefully it will remind people of what being a graffiti writer once meant. Every generation gets softer and softer, with the Internet and limited edition drippy corporate collabos a lot has been lost. Graffiti and what you see on the walls is the voice of the people. A writer is an outlaw who risks their freedom to express themselves and make their voice heard. A writer is not a clown on a corporate stage; real writers are on the rooftops, in the streets and in the tunnels. Tags and throw ups let the system know that we are not mindless obedient serfs. Do I aim for people to stop doing throw ups and write nothing but political slogans? No, of course not. Tags and fillins are the essence and I hope they always exist, but hopefully writers will realize that it’s also possible to advertise something beyond their own egos. The main point of this project though, is not to change what it means to be a writer; it’s to change what it means to be a human being and to encourage everyone to step their game up.
Do you hope that people will start asking themselves “why am I doing graffiti?”
Yes, that’s part of the plan. Everyone should understand why they do, what they do. Also to know what it is that you actually stand for, if you stand for anything at all. Not to understand yourself and your own actions is foolish.
Why will graffiti writers, a group of people defined mostly by criminal activity, support something with such a positive message?
Just because someone engages in what is considered to be criminal activity doesn’t mean they are indifferent losers who will not stand up for what’s right. Many real writers have already stepped up and offered their support. This is taking graffiti beyond shouting, “Fuck the system!” We are taking matters into our own hands and changing the system. Every single writer on the planet needs to support this project. If not, you really should not even be doing graffiti.
Why will someone with no background in your work, or graffiti in general, support a “vandal” with large sums of money? What guarantee can you give to the general public?
First of all it’s not about people giving us large sums of money. People can donate whatever they can afford. $20 can provide someone with clean water for decades. We are planning to be at the forefront of transparency. Through photos, video and GPS, supporters will be able to track every penny. As time goes on, anyone with a brain who looks closely at what we are doing will eventually feel more comfortable donating money to this movement than to the Red Cross and those sort of organizations. It’s not always about money though; you can use your art, influence or power to spread the word. Donate a tweet or blog post, whatever you can spare. The biggest donation you can make to this movement is to take a look at yourself in the mirror and make small changes in yourself.
How will you respond to your critics who say “BNE is a savvy marketer, this us just another PR stunt”?
PR for what? My own ego? If this was a one-time charity art show or something it could be considered a PR stunt to launch an art career. I am not interested in an art career or validation from the art world and have no plans to ever profit from this. I’ve circled the globe many times and already have everything I need. This is permanent and is what I will be doing for decades to come. I’m disgusted by what we have become as people and I now have the time and money to do something about it. It’s not completely selfless because I do get something out of it. I feel good helping people and I enjoying spreading the truth.
Have you ever felt guilty about your graffiti?
Not really. I’m not going to be a jerk and catch a flooded mop tag over a neighborhood restaurant’s menu or etch bath some poor old lady’s bakery. I’m not a teenage punk getting a thrill out of destroying people’s property. One time however in Spain a friend of mine did a fillin on an old cement wall. He went a little to big and the end of his outline went onto the edge of a freshly painted yellow house. Just as he did that the door opened and the owner popped his head out.
As he asked why we were painting on his house his wife appeared with a newborn baby in her arms. He told us that he worked two jobs to be able to afford that house and to feed his family. I felt guilty about that spot. That wasn’t cool.
What got you started on doing graffiti overseas?
In my late teens two friends and I were making some money and we decided to take a trip overseas. It was a crazy adventure and I really enjoyed it. On the way back I was looking at the map in the in-flight magazine and thought, “Its on. If we made it way out here, we can go anywhere.” Taking a few trips turned into becoming a full-blown nomad.
Did traveling help you discover the potential behind BNE?
Traveling opened my eyes to what is really going on in the world. Its not about the potential in BNE, its about the potential in graffiti, art and all of us as human beings.
Do you think the USA is still the best place for graffiti?
Personally I’m not a big fan of the strict American laws toward graffiti. Not that I’ve ever been arrested but still you know. Speaking of the law, I should mention that it has been over 7 years since I’ve done graffiti in the U.S. and any BNE tags or stickers are the work of copycats or over enthusiastic supporters, which I have no control over. BNE Water Foundation and affiliated companies are not responsible for any acts of vandalism whatsoever.
Do you support Occupy Wall Street?
I think it’s great that people are out in the streets protesting. Americans are a lot softer than people in other parts of the world when it comes to things like this. The banks and government are also to blame and it’s very easy to point fingers at them but we the people are to blame too. The minute someone protesting corporate greed walks over and buys a coffee from Starbucks they become a hypocrite. We allow these corporations to thrive. Without the support of consumers no corporation can exist. Americans have no money because nothing is made in the USA, everything comes from China and everyone shops at Wal-mart. The 1% has all the money because the 99% keep giving it to them. Don’t get wrong though, that fact that tax dollars are spent on war and banks are straight up stealing money is unacceptable. I support Occupy Wall Street but I’m not about to camp out with a cardboard sign. I can make a bigger contribution by utilizing my time in other ways, inspiring people to change themselves, their behavior and consuming habits. Much love to everyone Occupying Wall Street but don’t forget to occupy a mirror too. You are also to blame. Protest human greed, not just corporate greed.
Can you break down how the foundation will survive? What is BNE’s take on commerce?
We raise funds three different ways. Artist from around the world are donating artwork, which we will be selling in our gallery online. Supporters can also donate cash. We’ve designed it so that 100% of donations will only fund actual water project costs. Never for salaries or overhead. Even paypal and credit card fees are covered separately. The 3rd way is through commerce. We will be selling high quality, made in the USA, BNE branded products. 100% of profits will fund water projects and our expenses. This is a way for people to support by simply buying something that they would normally buy anyway. The whole commerce aspect is also to challenge people to start thinking about what they are buying and whom they are actually giving their money to. BNE products being in the streets and shops will also spread the word even further. Shop owners will be able to make money and support our cause at the same time. In addition to other products we will also be selling a line of extremely high quality inks and markers, every single graff shop owner who reads this should contact us. I also need writers to spread the word and demand that your local shops support by carrying our products. Thinking before you buy is a revolutionary act. By supporting independent businesses you are putting money back into the hands of the people. Stop supporting frauds and sell-outs and start supporting truth.
What is included in the your expenses? Will you be publishing the salaries for members of the BNE Water Foundation? Yourself included?
We will be publishing an extremely detailed annual report, which will have a complete break down of all expenses and financial data. Our expenses are extremely minimal compared to western NPO’s and will include transportation to the field, website maintenance, etc. A friend’s uncle owns the office we currently use in Jakarta, we only pay electricity. Most of our staff is based in Jakarta and work for free as volunteers. We even have our own microbiologist who generously donates her time. Under Indonesian law, board members of a NPO cannot receive salaries. They can only be compensated for their transportation to and from work and meals. There is definitely no $600,000 Red Cross CEO salary or 1.2 million dollar Unicef salary. We will have to hire more office staff later but a good salary in Jakarta is only a few hundred dollars a month. Our friends Ega and Mayu have volunteered their Japanese translation and writing skills. Filmmakers and photographers have also volunteered their services for free. As I am not even legally connected to the foundation and don’t really need the money I will not be taking a salary. All salaries and expenses however will be published. As I said before, 100% of donations will fund only actual water project costs such as cement and pipes.
Any final thoughts or Shout outs?
Shout out to all my fellow graffiti writers worldwide. I need every single one of you to support this movement. You owe it to your culture and to the streets to get involved and stand up for what’s right. Go to bnewater.org for more info. Donate if you can but definitely leave your email address or follow us on twitter so we can keep in touch.
TIE – KERSE – POKE – CHARLIE – R.I.P.
Everyone can contribute in their own way. Please visit BNEWATER.ORG and @BNEWATER to help be a part of the change!
Text: Kellan Lee