Words by Marcel Dagenais
When I’m en route to work every day I find there is constantly new tags and street art along my varying path. Street artists are very distinct in their style, since it is a somewhat ghetto-ized formula for creating something visual the materials can range from traditional aerosol to colored tape or painted paper or giant stickers.
The work I’m most drawn to always has vivid colors and intricate details. From the sticker art on bathroom walls to larger scale pieces you find on the sides of buildings around town. There’s something amazing about a culture that can get a message across to anyone. These ideas are what inevitably led me to street artist Billi Kid’s tags last year, I had to turn my bike around to get a photo of his work.
Working Class was lucky enough to have Billi Kid stop by our company headquarters aka my loft in Greenpoint to sit down and give his perspective on what street art means to him and why he uses the accessibility of the streets to show what’s on his mind.
WC: Where are you from?
BK: I was born in Bogota, Colombia in South America, and I came to the states when I was nine. I grew up in California until I moved to New York to attend Parsons, studied there and ended up staying here. I love it!
WC: What inspired you to start doing street art?
BK: I’ve been working in advertising and editorial design for many years, and I hit a point of burnout with this whole beehive environment—and I wanted my own work outside of it. I love street art; as a teenager I did dabble in the graffiti scene, doing logos, write-ups, things like that. I liked what I saw happening in New York. It’s a great creative outlet for me. Now it’s evolved to the point of no return.
WC: What’s the first piece you ever did?
BK: My Cowboy. I was looking at everything out there at the time, and there was a lot of black and white work, very little color. Almost like it was this dark-art. I knew I wanted to do a lot of color not just for the point of difference, but because it seemed like a positive thing to do.
WC: Cool. Are you referring to the little boy cowboy?
BK: Yeah, shooting a flower out of a gun that says “Bang-Bang You’re Loved”. It was just a fun, positive message wrapped in this cute fifties package. I love the fifties in that it was a period of endless optimism even though the world had just gotten out of the bloodiest war in history. Kids looking back played cowboys and indians and those looking forward played Buck Rogers in outer space. It was a fantastical, positive era, one that eludes us now. This was the spirit that inspired my first piece of street art and I started throwing it out there. That was my beginning.
WC: It seems like your tags have a political agenda, like with the George Bush piece. Do you have something specific you want people to think about when you are creating each one?
BK: I know a lot of people approach their work from a point of style. I have a short attention span and I like to flip from one thing to the other—always trying something different. Whether it’s a good thing for an artist to do that or not, who knows? I do know that for me, it’s all about concept. I think the political thing just came about because I was so turned off by politics, not really paying attention until we were electing Obama as a democratic nominee, and I thought it was the perfect time to get out there and get involved. It was a positive change and it ran deep with my own philosophy.
WC: When do you usually put your work out on the streets?
BK: I usually get it done on the weekends since I have to work for a living. Time is always limited so my approach is like: what can I create that resonates artistically and has some sort of message in no time at all? Not having the luxury of time has its benefits. It forces me to be simplistic, bare-bones and perhaps defines my vocabulary as an artist.
WC: Where do you mainly put your tags?
BK: Primarily in Manhattan and Brooklyn.
WC: I remember seeing one of your tags with Kirk Douglas as Gordon Gekko from the 1987 film Wall Street with the saying “Greed is Good”. What were you trying to say with that?
BK: That was around the time our economy hit bottom a couple of years ago. There were three people that sparked this whole “Greed is Good” agenda, Wall Street’s rallying cry for the nineties. It was the mantra of Ronald Reagan and ex-Federal Reserve boss Alan Greenspan. Then along comes Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko and spills the beans onscreen “greed is good!” Who knows? Maybe they’re right and greed is what sparks ingenuity and finance and all that. For me, it’s very tongue-and-cheek. I don’t want to be overtly negative and say, “Sarah Palin’s a bitch!” or be overly discriminative and say, “don’t support Barack Obama!” I don’t want to be telling people if it’s a good or bad thing. I want to leave it open for interpretation.
WC: You collaborated with other artists in past exhibits; do you do that often?
BK: Yeah, when I first came into it, I was a little naïve about the community, there’s been this huge learning-curve—and the more I learn the more I love street art and it’s community aspect.
The first thing I noticed was this animosity between the different groups such as the traditional aerosol artists that have built graffiti to what it is today, what peeps call “the legends,” and the street artists. I couldn’t understand the beef. To me it was like we just invaded Iraq and we still expect different peoples to get along on this global, political level, but we can’t even get along here on the streets. I’m thinking, “why can’t we work together!?”
That got me into the idea of curation and the idea of bringing the groups together. I love sticker art, it’s like aerosol graffiti spawns street art, and from that spawns sticker culture, and one group thinks the other isn’t worth it’s weight and so forth, but I think they are all interrelated. This is a community and we are probably more alike than different—and why not work together? That’s what I’ve been trying to do with my curation as well as trying to present street art in context. Some of these artists are phenomenal… you put their work somewhere where people don’t know squat about street art or graffiti, and they wouldn’t know the difference between that and a so called “traditional” artist. It is such a creative community it would be an honor to be one that helps expand it to a wider audience.
WC: Are there any particular artists that inspire you?
BK: Tons, too many to name here. I will give a shout-out to James and Carla Murray. I was fortunate to get to know them early in my career. They are well-respected photographers that have a wealth of knowledge. They’ve been a wonderful bridge to the history of graffiti. We put together an exhibition, MOM & POPism at Gawker Headquarters last August, which was a blast. Recently, they curated Graffiti Gone Global with SushiSamba down in Miami. Their recent book Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York was a huge success and MOM & POPism was born from this wonderful book.
WC: What was your inspiration for the Favela Kids?
BK: Favela was the theme of Graffiti Gone Global. Favelas are shanty towns in Brazil. Literally, up a mountain there are these shacks stacked on top of shacks. It’s quite a sight. I have a Colombian friend who is a photographer named Oscar Frasser, he has been documenting Afro-Hispanic culture in certain regions of South America. Some of the people he photographs are so isolated, they have their own dialect and music. These are people that during the colonial days escaped the bonds of slavery finding refuge in remote jungles and still managed to retain a lot of their African heritage. Anyway, he’s also been to Brazil and has photographed these Favela kids and I knew he had the material that would inspire my paintings.
WC: How would you describe freedom?
BK: It doesn’t really exist. It doesn’t exist in nature and it doesn’t exist in human culture. What I mean by that is look at the life of a rabbit, it’s always threatened by its “wolf.” It’s never free of predators. Every time he roams his small patch of earth, there is every possibility that this might be his last day. To me, freedom is this idealized thing that Adam and Eve once had until they ate a wealth of knowledge. Freedom is just another word for innocence. I wish I was innocent.
To see more on Billi Kid click here.