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On Public Art: “Like One”

Wall Painting. Untitled.

Chicago has an abundant history of prolific graffiti writers and street artists. Outside of their own trusted community, many of these artists do not get the chance to speak about their experiences and their love for what they do. This series focuses on giving the microphone back to the artists who create public art in Chicago. Through these interviews our hope is to not only archive the efforts of these artists, but also to achieve a better understanding of the art itself—including why it’s important for graffiti art and street art to continue and to receive still more support.

Self-taught graffiti artist and traditionally trained artist, Like One has been painting graffiti in Chicago for the last fifteen years. Our interview unfolded more like a conversation; we discussed many things that the average person would not necessarily think about when looking at work like his. Like One is concerned about how his public work communicates and connects to others.  It’s clear that being a graffiti writer is not always necessarily about monetary compensation; instead, for Like One (and many others), it’s about giving, creating an experience for others, and learning through the progression of his own career as an artist.

When did you start deciding to create art?

Like One. Adelante. Print. (Photograph courtesy by Like One)I always drew when I was little. My dad used to draw a lot so I would draw with him. I didn’t really think about making art until I got into high school. I got interested in graffiti before I started doing it and I didn’t really care about making (fine) art so much; I cared about making graffiti.

What was it that struck you so much about graffiti?

I really can’t even tell you. At that time there was something nostalgic and mystical about it. And I just thought that was the coolest thing I had ever seen.

Has the illegal nature of some of your work ever concerned you?

Sort of. I’m careful and conscious of what I do, but I don’t really stress over legalities, even outside of graffiti. I do what I feel is right, with everything.  I’m not a youngin’ anymore, so I’m well aware of what I’m capable of doing. Illegal stuff is usually personal work that I don’t really share much.

When did you start painting graffiti?

I started painting a lot in 1997. When I was in high school I was into it but it wasn’t until I finished high school, until I actually focused on it.

Like One. Holding the Center. Wall Painting collaboration with Casey Davidge. Chicago, IL. (Photo courtesy by Like One)

Was it always an individual effort or did other artists influence your interest with graffiti?

I have a friend who I can credit getting me into graffiti. He was the only person that I knew who wrote graffiti at the time. He took me to go paint and it was about a year that we were painting. He passed away right after that so I didn’t paint too much for about a year after that happened. Then I met Flex KYM, who is probably the person I have painted with the most since then. But then your network expands, and I have painted with a lot of people, including Statik, Beon, Exhaust, Revise, and tons of people from different places. I feed off of all of them.

Do you think that graffiti writing helped you expand your artistic vision, as opposed to going to art school first?

Actually, I did go to art school. I went to Columbia College Chicago and graduated in 2002. Even now those creative processes have always been very separate for me in my mind. I am not really sure why, but it has been really separate. I would say in the last couple of years, or maybe even less than that, I don’t really think they bounce off of each other much. For me, the mental experiences from both of those things are really different and it doesn’t blend together like it does for some people. So I guess I feel like the two have been growing simultaneously and are starting to merge slowly.

How has getting traditional academic training in fine art influenced your work?

I was painting graffiti a lot when I was in art school but also doing academic fine art at the same time, and I enjoyed it, but as soon as I finished school all I did was paint graffiti. It is not that I didn’t like it but I had more time on my hands. I didn’t make any paintings or any fine art stuff and I focused entirely on graffiti. I think what I got out of school was to be critical of what I do, and to keep trying different things.

Like One, Living Room Commission. Chicago, IL. Photograph by Analu Lopez. Photo courtesy by Like One)What opportunities have come out of being a graffiti writer?

Well, it’s like a wheel that keeps turning. When I’m out painting a wall/mural, it’s pretty common for a passer by to stop and ask if I/we can paint their building or property as well. So the more painting that gets done, the more it leads to. But even in terms of shows, gallery work, commission work, being invited to shows, and projects with other people, just about all of my opportunities have stemmed from people who know me through graffiti. I’m very grateful for that.

So don’t you think that people can see that relationship anyway?

I think that I have gone through phases of painting where my fine art has gone through stages. I will say that a lot of my work is definitely inspired by graffiti, especially when painting with spray paint. I don’t think that much of my collage work reflects graffiti directly, except for maybe the lettering and typography, which of course all of those things go hand in hand. I think when it comes down to color use and composition; there is a relationship that is shared throughout my work. Do other people see it? I’m not sure really.

For so long I didn’t want my graffiti to come through. I didn’t want to be a one trick pony that only knew how to do graffiti-looking art, because I think that is cheesy. I think some people really value a trademark style (especially in the graffiti world) but I think there is something to be said about artwork standing the test of time. I think that artwork that always has the same look is not a bad thing, but it doesn’t always move me. I just didn’t want to be known as the guy who makes graffiti-looking art.

Like One. Pessimist & Optimist. Anode Gallery Exhibition. 2010. Photograph by Analu Lopez. (Photo courtesy by Like One)So because you are so versatile you are able to allow room for artistic growth and opportunities?

I like to think so. My mind wanders a lot and I think about more than just graffiti. I definitely fall into zones where I think and focus on the same stuff for months at a time. But my work ultimately reflects what is going on in my life and mind so I feel like it is natural for me to branch away from graffiti work to do that.

What kinds of projects are you working on right now?

I have been doing some freelance graphic design and some stuff for Gozamos and other small projects in the studio. Nothing super-major. The wintertime for me is a slow, personally, and I usually spend a lot of time working on stuff for spring. I want to do more public street art; I don’t really want to call it street art but I guess it will end up getting put in that category. I am going to be doing something that is similar to what I was creating last year, creating dialog in public spaces. You can stay updated by checking out my website www.theshiftchange.com.

What are your expectations for how your art is received by the public?

I feel like the universe talks and things talk to you. I don’t want to sound cheesy but I’m a believer in the notion that there are things out there that guide you. So I made these stickers and I put the message on it that says, “Con Ganas” and it means “Give it all you got” or “If you are going to do it, do it right.” There is not a direct translation, but it basically means “Effort,” but more than that, like a really strong effort, and to really try.

Like One. Con Ganas. Screen Print. (Photograph courtesy by Like One)

So when I made this sticker I wanted to make it for when somebody walks down the street and they see it stuck on somewhere, they will remember to try harder than you tried yesterday. If I am going to stick something out there like that, I am going to do it that way (with a message), opposed to a funny character. The stuff I have been working on over the winter is based a lot on that, with literal messages. Even when I am out painting I always stop and sit down on a corner across the street and think about the art and how the next day somebody will walk down there and wonder where it came from. A lot of people react to it but not a lot of people can read graffiti, or care about graffiti and cannot identify it because it speaks to a particular crowd.

I want to do public work that is easy to understand without really compromising what I like to do. I don’t want to do a poster or a mural that has a message, I want the experience to be a little more subtle and intimate than that. And if the viewer walks away thinking about how it relates to them, whether good or bad, or laughing, or with a smile, then that is great.

What does public art give to the community and why is it important for that to continue?

Like One. I Don't Care What Anybody Says That Was A Gamn Good Try. Collage. Mixed Media. (Image courtesy by Like One)I think there are a lot of variables, like what kind of community, and the artist, their intention, etc. I think ultimately it should motivate people, create a sense of pride, used as a voice for the people who live there, and ultimately create a sense of identity for the city as a whole. Whether people agree with it or not, it tells your city’s history. So many murals (not just graffiti) have been buffed by the city over the years; our story literally is being erased.

Are there any contemporary artists that you look up to?

Tons. Friends and people I’ve seen grow are at the top of my list.

Will you be displaying any of your non-graffiti or non-public artwork in the future?

I have some things that are still pending.

What will you tell your kids in the future when they ask about your career as an artist? If they wanted to also paint graffiti what would you say?

I am not sure. I would hope by the time my children are able to consciously think about me, art, why I do what I do, that they would also understand how important the concept of communicating ideas is. That lesson leaves a lot of room to play and make a mess. Hopefully they get it. A lot of adults don’t even get it. If they wanted to make a mess using paint, or any other method, fine with me, as long as nobody gets hurt.

How do you feel about graffiti art being documented for the public? Do you think it is meant just for that experience or do you agree with media outlets such as flicker expanding the community of artists and enthusiasts that now have connections to each other that may never have before?

Well, it’s a double edge sword. No Internet or publication will ever compare to experiencing graffiti or public art in person. But avid art lovers will always want to know what’s going on in other places in the world. Coming from Chicago, where a lot of public art has a short lifespan, I think documentation is very important. Of course the Internet has lead to watering down, emulation of styles, and over-saturation of artists. But I also think that the people at the forefront who are pushing forward and experimenting will continue to do so. So ultimately, I think there’s more good than bad that comes out of it.

Where does your name, “Like One” come from?

It doesn’t stem from a metaphor or anything poetic. I honestly just like the letters.

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