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sucklord

Artist Profile: The Sucklord

Of the many types of artists that roam the streets of New York, there is one that stands separate from the rest. His name is The Sucklord and he has built a mini-empire based on his strange, unique vision of what an action figure can be, and where strange art fits into the art scene.

The Sucklord was born in the West Village, New York City in 1969, the perfect time to see the rise of the action figure in popular culture. When he was eight years old, Star Wars was released in theatres and, along with the film’s box office, a flood of toys entered the marketplace. The Sucklord, then more commonly known as Morgan Phillips, became a lifelong fan of the franchise and was inspired to create his own line of action figures. “I’ve been inclined to make toys my entire life, since I was a kid, since the first Star Wars figures came out,” he said in an interview with The Atlantic. “It became sort of hard-wired into the way I experience the world.”

worlds-most-famous-couple

The Sucklord’s work is perhaps best described as remixing. He will often take discarded and abandoned materials and rework them into something new, something unique. He calls the result “bootleg action figures,” a term he coined when he first started producing his unique figures in earnest in 2005. “Bootleg figures are a lot like sampling in the world of hip-hop, where you take little bits and pieces of different songs, different figures, and recombine them into something new,” he explains. “Hopefully there’s something transformational going on.”

homotrooper

The Sucklord’s work has a hard time being placed in the modern art world but has slowly been gaining notoriety in unconventional places. The Sucklord himself admits that he has a hard time “know[ing] where this stuff belongs.” It’s too “low-brow” for the modern art gallery, with its preconceptions and precarious pretensions, but his figures are a bit too esoteric and adult to find themselves in traditional toy stores. The Sucklord, however, has found two avenues that are bringing his work to the masses: the internet and reality television.

right-on

You can find much of The Sucklord’s work on his site, Suckdelic, where he sells his work, blogs, and profiles many other artistic endeavours. He has also made several appearances on reality TV shows, including Gallery Girls. The show’s stars, who own a store in New York called End of Century, stocked his wares and profiled him on the show. He has also appeared on a number f other shows, all of which feature his eclectic work.

One of the things that make The Sucklord’s work so interesting is its placement. Rather than avoiding commercialism, like how Banksy tries to sidestep capitalism and art, The Sucklord has embraced a modern approach, one that circumvents the normal, established avenues in favour of something more suited to his particular work. By making his own path, he can control his art’s distribution without compromising his vision.

naomi rag in the act of yarn bombing

Yarn Bomber Naomi RAG

When most people think of street art, they think of only a few materials. Well, that’s not true, most people think of one single medium, paint, when it comes to art found in public spaces. It is, after all, the most widely used material, but ever since graffiti started, people have been experimenting with the physical means they use to communicate and make art. And one such artist has made a splash in East Harlem, with what some may consider the least “street” of materials: knitted yarn.

an act of yarn bombing in nyc

Naomi RAG (the “Rag” stands for “Random Acts of Generosity”) is a New York-based artist who’s mastered the art of “yarnbombing,” where colourful yarns are spread out in a public space not unlike painted graffiti to form certain shapes and looks. Except where paint has only a limited set of places it can go, yarnbombs can end up almost anywhere, from chainlink fences to light posts. She started doing it back in England a few years ago before moving to New York, where she has now set up shop and puts up a new piece every month. The process is long and time-consuming, by the looks of her scope and vision, which probably take a long time to dye and knit into the right shapes. But the results are universally spectacular.

yellow flower yarn bomb in nyc

Each of Naomi’s yarnbombs are colourful, creative, and made to spread a positive message: a tree knitted with LOVE into the pattern, a brightly-coloured display of flowers, or anything else that at once beautifies and uplifts. They are all focused on beauty and eye-pleasing work that can bring a bit of literal colour to a passerby’s day.

love tree yarn bomb in nyc by naomi rag

But it isn’t just the message that makes these pieces so inspiring, it’s Naomi’s use of form and space. From cozies that cover an entire tree’s trunk to elaborate setups on chainlink fences, Naomi’s work spreads out and takes over these spaces in new and interesting ways. Spaces that usually collect garbage or are ignored by other street artists are given a colourful vivacity that inspires and lifts the look of the area. And especially in East Harlem, where gentrification has caused a lot of problems for street artists, this blend of new materials and classic “bombing” is creative and, well, a little cozy.

What Naomi RAG’s work accomplishes is not just a positive message or unique scope with space and materials, it shows that street art can accomplish a lot of different tasks using many different materials. In that way, all street art is reflexive, aware of its cultural roots, and is constantly coming up with ways to differentiate and create new experiences. For Naomi RAG, that is threefold: through materials, through positive messages, and finally through the use of non-traditional space for the projects.

jay shells street art rap quotes

How One Man’s Love of Hip-Hop is Subverting the Law

Geography has always played an important part in hip-hop and rap culture. Where you’re from is important. It could connect you with like-minded people. It could get you killed. Dropping lyrics about where you’re from is a way of saying who you are, where you started, and how far you’ve come. NYC-based artist Jason Shelowitz, a.k.a. Jay Shells, understands the important of place in hip-hop, so he’s taken the lyrics to where they started.

Taking the form of red street signs, Jay Shells’ “Rap Quotes” puts shout-outs about specific places exactly where they came from. One sign in Stapleton House Village, for example, has lyrics by RZA: “Grew up in Stapleton House Village, where blood flood the waters in the streets like oil spillage.” Up on Broadway and Myrtle, a sign quotes Mos Def. A street post near Carnegie Hall sports lyrics by Busta Rhymes. Slowly but surely, Jay Shells’ signs are popping up all over NYC.

Since the signs themselves mimic official street signs, the very medium of “Rap Quotes” delves into the rebellious and anti-authority sentiments found in much of the hip-hop Jay Shells quotes. The project is less about praising these areas and more giving a visual history to a largely auditory medium. Cam’ron’s lyrics about 145th and Broadway speak directly about the violence he experienced in that area.

With over 60 of these signs now gracing street poles in New York City, Jay Shells crossed to the West Coast to give L.A. a similar treatment. Over 45 signs have been put up in L.A., celebrating the city’s rich hip-hop culture. “Where you at? Western & Imperial, It’s the pure West Coast coming out your stereo” reads one sign that quotes WC. Another quotes Gangsta Rap pioneer Ice Cube: “I never forgot Van Ness & Imperial, look at my life Ice Cube is a miracle.”

Since the East-West Coast is rivalry largely over, Shells had no problem finding some help for “Rap Quotes,” from helping put up the signs, comb rap lyrics for the perfect quotes, and snap some photos so the signs are immortalized in proper place before the signs are taken down by fans, detractors, or the authorities.

Since posting street signs without a permit is illegal pretty much everywhere, Jay Shells is used to seeing his work taken down. But these days, the authorities are the last people to take them down, because fans and detractors usually get to them first. In Harlem, for example, Jay Shells and his colleagues watched from across the street as a freshly installed sign quoting Sadat X was removed. Jay Shells seems unfazed by the entire removal process “He removed the sign and threw it in the trash,” he said in a recent interview, “You can’t please em all.” But despite his laissez-faire attitude about the signs getting removed, he does try and preserve the sentiment on his Twitter (@TheRapQuotes) and by taking the signs off the streets and into galleries.

The most recent gallery to showcase Jay Shells “Rap Quotes,” along with some of his other art projects, is Gallery 1988. Jay Shells hopes to expand the project outwards to other American cities and galleries, taking his subversive work, quite literally, to the streets across America.

1 allen mural in new york city

That’s Right, this is Legal Graff in NYC

New York, while not as aggressive as L.A. in its anti-graffiti laws, has made it purposefully difficult for people to make street art and have it stay. NYC has set up an anti-graffiti taskforce whose sole job is to go around the Five Boroughs and paint over street art. Sure, some of that may need to be removed, either because it’s unwelcome or offensive, but many of NYC’s greatest street artists have their great work eradicated before people can really appreciate it.

1 allen mural in new york city
That’s why this street mural is such a curiosity. To the average person with little to no knowledge of the New York graffiti scene, this mural on Allen and Division Streets in Chinatown is just another instance of tagging. Another place where people with spray cans have vandalized a piece of property with territorial markings. But for someone who knows the New York street art scene, this is a pretty cool collaborative effort, and perhaps the beginning of something new.

First, you may notice some pretty famous names on here: Remo, SP, Joz, Easy, Mey, Cinik, Sev, Giz, 17, Chino, Veefer, and Trap are all represented in the tags. These aren’t just some guys with spray paint, these are respected artists. And the end result looks like normal graffiti, the usual tagging people sometimes simply tolerate in their neighbourhoods, but speaks to the history and importance of street art in a city’s aesthetic and visual history.

The other important part of this piece is it’s legal status, in other words, the fact that it isn’t vandalism next of the chopping block for buffing out. Nope, this is fully legal street art, created in partnership with the City of New York. The graffiti collective Animal previously managed to get a mural done in Chinatown, but it took three years of paperwork and the help of a community affairs officer in the 5th precinct to get it done. Here, we expect the same process happened, but this is less overtly a pice of mural art and more a collection of names. Either way, things seem to be changing in NYC for graffiti artists. They are certainly changing elsewhere in the country.

mural in la
Take, for example, Saber and Zeser’s L.A. mural. For a town with actual legislation against murals, their legal mural for a downtown artstore is an accomplishment simply by its existence. But it’s materials is even more interesting: it uses materials that are used to buff and eradicate mural art. Rollers, fire extinguishers, and other items used that are either directly used or simulate the poor quality paint used to erase graffiti are all used. The result is a stunning visual piece that speaks to the importance of mural art while using the very procedures that keep it somewhat concealed or censored. Even its height, only using the top half of the building, speak to the NYC taskforce’s limited resources in removing higher street art.

Both of these murals stand as testaments to the importance of street art and its gradual reclamation of acceptance and recognition. Both of these cities at one time were almost defined by their graffiti and street art, for better or worse, and both cities have actively attempted to erase that part of their visual history and aesthetic. But with these two murals, that aspect of history is both reclaimed and deemed by the higher authorities as appropriate and necessary. That counts as a win for both.

coby kennedy post-apocalyptic weaponry

Coby Kennedy’s Post-Apocalyptic Weaponry

If the latest zombie craze has taught me anything, it’s that you have to be ready. I myself have a pretty great zombie attack plan, one that uses the local geography to keep me and my friends alive mostly by hiding. But Coby Kennedy isn’t content with hiding, he wants to take the fight to the streets, using part of the street.

The Brooklyn-based artist has taken to fashioning street signs into weapons for any post-apocalyptic world. Part Mad-Max, part found object art, and part political commentary, Kennedy’s work is dangerous in more ways than one. Like the greatest of apocalyptic art, Kennedy’s pieces speak to the present more than they do to any specific future. “It’s based on a narrative which reflects contemporary situations,” Kennedy said recently in an interview with Complex, “A lot of the street signs are from places in Brooklyn that have history and weight, places that are losing that particular culture.” The threat, a common concern all over the Five Boroughs, is homogenization and gentrification, the swapping of low-income housing for trend and coffee shops. While his art looks part of a desperate future, Kennedy insists it’s part of a desperate present. After all, how many times have we seen Brooklyn and New York destroyed in TV, movies, and books? And in how many ways? Preparing for the future is perhaps impossible. Kennedy’s project shows the present is perhaps more frightening than anything Hollywood can concoct.

Unlike those swords you find in stores, be they katanas or replicas of movie props, Kennedy’s street sign weapons are legitimately dangerous. The machetes will actually saw through another human. The shields will hurt if you get smacked in the head. These pieces, however, are part of a larger narrative Kennedy is creating though various media, not relying on a single method or means to tell his story to anyone willing to look, hear, or participate. All of them are instead part of a weird narrative that spreads into many different places. Many artists have a similar theme, look, or feel, but Kennedy is building the same story with each of his projects, be it his hyper-realistic post-apocalyptic paintings, gun vending machines, and now his dangerous weapons made from scrap are all part of that same vision, that same universe of Apocalypse.

Many of Kennedy’s fellow New York artists have taken their trades from the street to the gallery. In fact, many of New York’s successful artists rely on the fine art world now to make their living, but Kennedy’s post-apocalypse narrative project is the first I’ve seen to actually look at and interrogate that movement from street to gallery. After all, his story is told in disconnected parts: a machete in someone’s living room here, a gun vending machine there, a painting hanging in a gallery elsewhere. They are all part of the story and it requires the “readers” to traverse different spaces and times.

But while Kennedy’s art does look at the present through a vision of the future. He’s quick to remind us that the Apocalypse is fluid and may mean different things for different people: “When is the Apocalypse? Ask a Native American, he’ll say, ‘It already happened. All my friends are dead,’” He said in a recent interview with Animal New York, “Ask a black man 150 years ago, he’ll say, ‘That was Tuesday. The end of the world is my life right now.’ And what about the Bubonic Plague?”

graffiti murals in downtown new york city

Does Graffiti-Free NYC Work?

In a world that has a hard time differentiating between vandalism and public art, New York is just one of many cities that have decided to turn muralists into the enemy in a War on Graffiti. While a kid painting a middle finger on a bridge seems like a long ways away from artists like Saber or Seen, the line isn’t as blurry or the difference so large.

To address the issue, New York started up Graffiti-Free NYC, a government agency that responds to graffiti complaints with a free removal service for all five boroughs. Some neighbourhoods have had over 400 complaints per year. Naturally a homeowner shouldn’t have to pay to have their door repainted if it’s been graffitied against their will or without their knowledge, so the program’s free aspect can help people who are essentially victims in a thoughtless crime.

Obviously unwanted graffiti should be removed, but NYC’s specific motivations are somewhat hazardous, perhaps even dangerous to the city and its residents. In their mission statement, Graffiti-Free NYC argues they “enhance overall neighborhood aesthetics to improve the business climate, increase property values and create goodwill throughout New York City’s local communities.” And while the program also helps “create challenging and skill-enhancing jobs for low-to-moderate income residents,” the reasons for the program seem to only encourage the gentrification of New York that’s harming many different communities. By wanting to “improve the business climate” and “increase property value” isn’t simply hurting many residents faced with impossible rent increases, it also maintains the idea that “art” and “business” exist as polar opposites with a clear winner: commerce.

While New York claims on their website that “it is the current policy of Graffiti-Free NYC not to remove murals,” for a program that has removed upwards of 170 million square feet of street art, I find it hard to believe that all murals have survived the program on top of the program’s clear goals of making NYC a public art-free institution, unless of course the public art somehow encourages or reflects how commerce is helping the city.

Artists are finding solutions, ways to avoid the Graffiti Squad, but these may actually be making the art more dangerous. If a city is meant to protect and serve its citizens, the Graffiti Squad is a perfect example of how legislation can do more harm than good. In one article at Animal New York, artists recommend going high, to hard to reach places where it creates a safety concern for the people paid to remove the piece. Currently, cleaners can only reach about 35 feet in the air. Above that, artists can still have a clear canvas.

Graffiti-Free NYC represents a good idea that needs serious re-evaluation. The program is necessary, a means for victims of vandalism to get the support they need. But the program also puts graffiti artists at risk and perpetuates ideas that are harming New Yorkers, like driving up property values to push out low and middle income families. A compromise needs to happen between muralists and street artists who do good work outside a corporate structure and people’s desire to live in a beautiful city without vandalism.