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On Public Art: YAMS ONE

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.

Last week YAMS ONE a Chicago-based artist originally from Virginia, agreed to talk about his experiences as an artist creating for public spaces. YAMS has been painting publicly since 1995. The conversation that unfolded could have gone on for hours because he is eager and understands the importance of history, the ephemeral nature of public [graffiti] art and finds this endeavor necessary and purposeful.

Yams One. Untitled. (Photo courtesy by Yams One)

Where are you from?

Virginia, the “Big East.”

How would you describe your artistic style?

I have been working on abstract formations over the past five years and it is more like taking graffiti writing to a level where it is not necessarily writing. You know what I mean? Because I had the idea a while ago that when you paint a graffiti piece it stops and you get to a level where the piece is done. But then it just came to me one day where I started seeing these other patterns and began creating them. And everything is all freestyle.

I have done some of the trucker hats from the 80s. My thing about the hats, which is kind of funny and I was known for it for a minute in Chicago is that people still see me and they’ll be like, “oh you’re the guy that did the hats!” and I didn’t really want to get known as the “hat guy.”

So this whole style started with, what if you could do graffiti and it just keeps going and just expands all over the paper. When I started understand what I was doing I started to understand that I could take this pattern that I was creating and form structures and not necessarily figures but different scenarios of things interacting. It is funny how there is this relationship between letters and figures and how you think about them. But for me the formation of the letter is the opposite. It is about putting figures into letters, which I guess is kind of popular these days but mine is not really preconceived as much it just kind of comes out and as I see it happening I change it.

Yams One. Untitled. (Photo courtesy by Yams One)

Your work does tend to have an organic process to it.

Yeah sure it is very organic if you want to use it as a word. If you look it up in the thesaurus you might find other variations for the word organic, which would probably describe it as something that grows; it has to do with life and relationships. That is what it is all about—relationships between everything. Everything that I think about and everything that inspires me that I believe in, they come out through this technique that I have developed for myself. It is almost like writing lyrics. I love that element of freestyle with all forms of hip hop. Whatever comes out comes out. For me as a hip hop visual artist or whatever you want to call me.

What do you think of yourself as?

I don’t know. I mean I just think of myself as a painter, as an artist. I work in a lot of different forms and with a lot of different media.

What is your creative background?

I went to VCU Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond Virginia and I got my BFA there for painting and printmaking. So when I was there for the last four semesters I was in honors painting, which is interesting because you sort of have to battle to get into it. You have to come every semester with your portfolio and your transcripts and all the painting professors come in and form a committee and decide who gets kicked out and who gets to stay in. So I got in and held it down for the last four semesters. That was a really great time for me to develop because we had 24 hour access to the building and I was there all the time painting late at night.

Did you start painting graffiti before college and when did you start?

Yes, definitely. I have been doing it since 1995 and I just turned thirty on March 17th. I never imagined what it would be like but here it is.

That is a long time!

It is really weird because I feel like right now I am just starting to understand it and just beginning. It has taken me so long to figure out all the elements and I remember when I started looking at graffiti I didn’t know where to begin.

Yams One. Untitled. (Photo courtesy by Yams One)

If you had to break down the steps how would you explain the experiences you went through?

In my family there were a few people that were artists. Not like professional artists. My grandfather was a painter and it was just something that he did and picked up later on in life. He was pretty dedicated to it but he wasn’t well known for it. My mom is a school teacher and later on became an art teacher. She always had an interest in drawing and is artistically inclined and showed me a lot of things when I was a kid. So just being around that background and having people around me like that is what really got me started just knowing about art. But for me it was really hard as a kid because the things that I saw in my imagination that I wanted to draw I couldn’t really get it out the way that I wanted. It was something that I always wanted to do but I just couldn’t do it. So then one day I was 14 somebody gave me a marker and said, “go write this thing in the bathroom” and gave me a tag name or whatever and I didn’t know what the f*ck it was but I wrote it anyway. From there I was interested in it and I started seeing graffiti and just started to really look at it and understand it.

The really interesting thing is that I am from Virginia and my mom is from New York and my mom’s side of the family is from New York. They were immigrants and came from Russia and Romania. So they came into Europe and they were pretty fresh old world old school style interesting people. So I used to go to New York to visit them and be around graffiti all the time in New York but I was totally unaware of it until I finally found out what it was. Coming off the George Washington Bridge coming off of this rooftop I remember it was like a mile long. I just had to know how to do it.

So yeah, it has been a long journey. For me it was weird because there were not a lot of people around doing graffiti, like really doing it. There were a few people but from where I was, which was Virginia this is like University of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson area. At the time there used to be a lot more funk and hip hop and a cool scene there in the 90s and I was lucky to be around it and see that because a lot of kids that are there in the place where I grew up don’t see it and don’t know about it. And if they do know about it is because of me and the people that are there still painting. Because we still paint the same wall that we were painting back in the day. I was there for the last year and I was just painting there for the whole time.

Here is a picture of this mural I was working on a while ago. Originally it was like three walls but they painted over it.

Was it a commission piece?

I got a small donation. He he.

So why isn’t it there anymore?

It is still there; part of it. That was really hard for me to understand why they only painted over two walls of it that took me like three months to do. It happens.

This is an example of the last piece I did before I left Virginia to come here but I ran out of paint and wanted to do more.

How do you fund your supplies?

There are ways. A lot of it is I just buy spray paint but sometimes I had the guys at the paint store just hook me up. And they just gave me a bucket full of white. They were hooking me up. You can get people to give you things. I hoard it and I am always looking out for it. Stuff you get from the art store always accumulates. I just always have lots of paper and pens around and that is what I have been working with primarily since I got out of school. Because then I was working with a lot of oils and since then I don’t have the studio to work on all the crazy stuff I was doing. I was making some wild combinations and really interesting stuff.

Yams One. Untitled. (Photo courtesy by Yams One)

Is it pretty frustrating for you not being able to sustain your passion?

It is funny because it can be frustrating if you let it get frustrating. I don’t get frustrated because for me just the fact that I am able to continue doing and be around people that are still doing it; I am still in it for the same reason I was in it for the first place just to make something that I wanted to see and see myself get better and better. I am totally surprised by what I make so that is really the reward. It is frustrating when I have to work at things like working in the kitchen where it takes away from my time to do it. I wish I was able to get more permissions to make more money so I can pay my bills of off it. That is the thing that is really frustrating. Time is the issue.

It should be that way. I get the illegal part but that does not mean that more building owners and alderman in our city cannot be more supportive.

There is no outlet for it and if you do not give people a place to do it they will find a place and they will do it. It is the same thing with skateboarding. There are always going to be levels of graffiti that will be illegal but once you get past the graffiti aspect of it and get into the art aspect of it you gotta think about is art illegal? And then people come up with all of these questions like when does graffiti stop being graffiti and when does it become art and then are you a sell out and all of this kind of stuff? For me really I don’t care, I do everything. Everything I get a chance to do, I do it.

It is not a matter of when it stops being art but more about a certain demographic of people who are in disagreement about what it should be categorized as.

Yeah. But I think that there is a turning point in an artist’s life as a graffiti artist where you either become focused on it or you don’t. You either do or you don’t. And when you get to that point it is like becoming enlightened because you understand that there are incredible possibilities with it and it is endless and it will never stop. Sometimes I see peoples styles and they are just so limited you know? Even some old heads I think they could push it so much harder. And why not? Because that is the whole point behind it to have fun and do something you have never seen before.

Yams One. Untitled. (Photo courtesy by Yams One)

So your first taste of graffiti writing was that one experience in the bathroom?

That was the first time I wrote on something with the intention of really knowing, “oh I am doing graffiti right now.”

What did it feel like?

I knew I was doing some shit that I was not supposed to be doing! From that point on a lot of poeple were writing in the bathrooms at school. But form then the way it really got started was because a lot of us were skating and we would go from spot to spot. And you would throw up tags and things like that so that is how I understood bombing. It wasn’t really a big deal. It was almost like graffiti spots were like skate spots. You just go from one to the other and do something different in each one. I remember seeing older head and their pieces thinking wow that is pretty amazing right there! I want to be good like that one day. So I had something to look up to. I think that is an issue in Chicago with the buff because it is so crazy out here and they paint over everything so fast so people don’t really get a time to shine and kids don’t really get to see how good somebody can be out there.

What other ways do you support yourself as an artist?

I am a chef. I have been working in kitchens since I was a teenager and I sell my artwork from time to time.

How does your work speak to the public?

I think sometimes they don’t even notice. I see people walk right past it. And I’ll be standing there across the street thinking wow how the hell did this dude do this and get away with it because it is an incredible piece. You know he had to do it fast. It was beautiful. It was huge and people just walk right past!

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

Public art breaks our everyday monotony. It is important to keep creating because as human beings it is in our nature to be expressive.

Yams One. Untitled. (Photo courtesy by Yams One)

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?

It is important to document graffiti because it is only temporary. Everything gets painted over eventually. I don’t know where we would be without Style Wars and Subway Art. Writers have always taken pictures of their art.

You mentioned that religion was a big part of what you draw into your graffiti. Can you explain how that works for you?

I feel that art and religion have always been together. Think about Catholicism, with its grand architecture and its propaganda vs. aboriginal art in Australia. I feel like artists, [particularly public artists] are linked with people who are close to the earth. My heaven is earth. When I paint I am in paradise. I know that my inspiration comes from someplace greater than myself. I am not very religious, but when I create I feel godlike.

Are there any contemporary artists (graffiti and non-graffiti) that you look up to?

There are so many it is hard to start naming names. I like artists who create vibrant and soulful images. All the artists that I kick it with on the regular inspire me. I am also inspired by my friends. Big shout out to the old school writers in Chicago.

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 don’t know if I will have kids, but I would tell any kid to be responsible. Don’t get yourself in trouble it’s not worth it. I am always ready to pass on the information I have learned. I like teaching and I hope to teach at art in schools and colleges one day.

What name do you go by?

– YAMS ONE I represent NTTZ (pronounced entities.) Again, a big shout out to OMN crew.

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