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On Public Art: “An Artist Without Parameters” A conversation with Brooks Golden

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 and those that foster it. 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 receive more recognition.

Brooks Golden aka Be Golden© is a tremendously important figure in the Chicago street art community. The relationship between Brooks and the “raw” nature of “street art” is like an abiding romance. Brooks Golden appreciates the optimistic, tight-knit local community that has positioned itself parallel to the continued dichotomy of “street art”. His breadth of knowledge about the history of “street art” is impressively comprehensive and personal.

In celebration of the The Chicago Street Art Show opening this Friday, May 13th, it seemed paramount to feature the interview with Brooks Golden this week over any other. Presented by the Chicago Urban Art Society, The Chicago Street Art Show is the first of its kind (in Chicago.) The exhibition will display and highlight the prolific history concerning the Chicago-based street and graffiti art community.

Where are you from?

Brooks Golden. Paris Club Wall Commission. 2011. (Photograph by Nicolette Caldwell)

Brooks Golden. Paris Club Wall Commission. 2011. (Photograph by Nicolette Caldwell)

I’m from Milwaukee Wisconsin—Beer City!

Why did you decide to come to Chicago?

To go to the Art Institute and to start a new life, about ten years ago now, so 2002, I came here.

So that was ten years ago. I am sure there has been a lot that has happened since then. Do you mind telling me what have you been up to since then?

Quite a bit—I went to school for three and a half years of that ten years. We could say nine years technically and three and a half years I went to the Art Institute. I kind of traveled a bit for that decade—went to New York, went to San Francisco for the first time. Then I started showing work in Chicago in roughly 2007 under the name “Brooks Golden.” So yeah, that is what I’ve been up to.

In what ways do you consider yourself to be an artist?

For all intents and purposes I make visual art. I’m not musically inclined but I do make visual art. So that is basically how I view myself as an artist and how most people often see me as an artist, but I have a tendency to think that I am creative minded, so therefore just things about the way I live, make me an “artist”.

So you came to Chicago to go to the Art Institute to pursue a program in Art and Design. But before that you were doing other things regarding the art you were making. What were you doing then?

I was a pretty traditional graffiti writer in all senses of the word and in a crew that I’m still in (FCR.) I wrote graffiti illegally primarily, solely. And that was how I started getting a sense of sharing my work with the public. Seeing your work from a city bus has a different impact then say, drawing some little thing and hanging it in a gallery. It has a completely different connotation and it broadens the audience quite a bit from being this specific type of person that would see it in a gallery space to everybody, kids, grandmothers, elderly people, teenagers. It is an interesting thing—when your work impacts all of these people in say, a negative way, as well as a positive way—because some people hate graffiti, understandably.

But it is democratic for everybody to make those decisions for themselves regarding what they want to look at and it adds a bit of variety regarding visual things to look at in public spaces.

Yeah and it is there and it is in your face. It is there so you have to kind of deal with it. It’s not like everything else in society where it’s all sanitized and made completely palpable before they give it to you. It’s what it is. It’s kind of a raw form. Sometimes it’s really beautiful in its rawest form and then sometimes it’s not, depending on the artist. But it is completely democratic in that way.

What was your first experience with graffiti art as a maker or even just learning about it?

Brooks Golden. Paris Club Wall Commission. 2011. (Photograph by Nicolette Caldwell)

Brooks Golden. Paris Club Wall Commission. 2011. (Photograph by Nicolette Caldwell)

I used to be a skateboarder back in the late 1980s and my first foray with graffiti [as we know it] actually came from a lot of people in my age range’s group age range experiences with Beat Street and those kind of hip hop movies that all cashed in on everybody being excited about hip hop and break dancing and graffiti writing. So I had a little foray in the mid to late 1980s like 84’, 85’ when I think Beat Street came out and also writing my name and spray painting and getting a jean jacket with my name airbrushed and having those experiences pretty early on. I think I was like nine or ten when that first happened and when I first tried to write graffiti. And then later on as a teenager going into high school (maybe twelve) we would start tagging and wrote skate boarder logos in the neighborhood and everybody knew it was us because we were the only skate boarders in the whole six-block radius. But like Airwalk and the Vans logo, Rat Bones was also big and that was one of the first things that I clearly identify that we were doing something illegal but we were having quite a bit of fun doing it.

Were you ever afraid at one point when you realized those consequences? I mean obviously you continued to do it but was there ever a moment where you were ever afraid over something you did and the repercussions of it?

Yeah because being a skate boarder is kind of it’s own seemingly illegal but not really illegal. It’s not like basketball where you go to the court, you play basketball and then you take your ball and you go home. Skate boarding is like an open wide and equally democratic kind of sporting activity [I guess they’re calling it that now.] It is just about being free and you and your board and the city. We were always getting chased out of every place we went to anyway so this sense of not doing what we were supposed to be doing but doing it anyway was kind of instilled in me really early on—I started skating in 1987. So as an eleven or twelve year old I was already just doing what I wanted to do and running from the law and having a sense of freedom in that in my rebellion.

At some point you decided to make a conscious choice to pursue a traditional degree with art making because you enjoyed what you were doing before, but there had to have been a breaking point. So why did you decide to make the change?

Graffiti writing as a whole was getting to be exhausted. I had a bunch of friends that were locked up. I had a friend by the name of Apes (FCR) who was sentenced to four years in prison for countless graffiti charges. That was going into the late 1990s like 1997/98. Then realizing that I had been doing graffiti for a long time already, maybe like 7 or 8 years already and thinking about my art, it wasn’t quite solidified for me what I was doing, I was just a graffiti writer at that point. I still wanted to do things and share this work with people and I was trying to figure out a way to do this in a way that it allows me to get a bigger reward from the work. And magically in 1998 and coming up to the end of that decade, the term “street art” was becoming popularized by Shepard Fairey, Cost and Revs, quite a few people were already many years into that kind of art making for the street like Miss-tic (Paris), Blek Le Rat (Paris) (off the top of my head.) So all these things were opening up and I was like man there is this whole other avenue of art making that still has the illegality sensibility, which I am completely attracted to. There is like this inner person in me that is certainly peaceful but also there’s a certain level of anarchy and a “do what you want to do” mentality to life. I don’t know, because  really, who wants to be under control?

So by coming to Chicago you were able to open up a door of opportunities that you didn’t have elsewhere?

Brooks Golden. 54b Gallery. 2010. (Photograph by Nicolette Caldwell)

Brooks Golden. 54b Gallery. 2010. (Photograph by Nicolette Caldwell)

So right before getting to Chicago I started making “street art” but it really wasn’t street art yet it was still basically graffiti that had taken on an artistic face. I was basically writing graffiti on freight trains but I was only doing stencils. So I did like seven to ten six foot by four and a half foot stencils on trains because I like graffiti and I like the way it translates from a distance. And I wanted to do faces and I wanted to do people that I knew and I was really venturing in a space where I was doing portraits of my friends and my then girlfriend. So by the time I got to Chicago I already had this solid idea about what kind of art I was making for the streets that didn’t have anything to do with graffiti as a traditional form and it certainly wasn’t what people deem street art now. It still to me was very much about graffiti, but I was venturing into different territory where characters were the primary focus of what I was doing.

What was the transition like for you when you came here? Did you know people here or did you kind of insert yourself and then it all fell into place?

I knew lots of graffiti writers here and I was kind of like a no show to the game for years because I was just watching and taking it all in and trying to familiarize myself with what was here already and whose toes not to step on and those who were important players and this was 2002 so it was quite a bit of time ago. Some people who were major players then don’t exist now and some people who didn’t exist then are major players now. But it wasn’t until about 2004 or 05 that I really started to actually actively put stuff out in the street. There were a couple of years where I did a couple of things that probably got glossed over or overlooked. But it wasn’t until then when I started thinking about making work where I wanted to garnish attention from Chicagoans.

Did that work out for you?

I don’t think it worked—some people think it worked. I think I became better known through a couple different paths. There was this indirect path through graffiti writers who understood that I was a writer who became a person that was just painting characters and making stencils and wheat pastes and they understand my credibility of where I came from as a writer. And then there were people outside of that who just saw me as a street artist kind of person and they were into what I was making. So you have these two different audiences that were accepting of me. So in some ways I always had that thing were I wish I did more.

But it has always been important to me that everything I do is about quality and it is not quantity-based because that was what graffiti writing was all about. It was like smash as much, do as much, bomb as much, blow everything up…using all of these violent terms… but it was all about spray-painting just to clarify. It was about spray-painting as much as possible—it doesn’t have to be good it is just about more, more, more and that is how you garner your fame as a writer initially. I mean you can move from tagging and bombing aspects into more colorful pieces and character design but it certainly starts as just like “getting up.” So I have done my fair share, almost a decade of “getting up,” and I was certainly interested when it came to street art of finding the other half of that coin, which is the quality side of that.

Since you have not been focusing on writing graffiti and it was a large part of the last twenty years of your life, do you ever feel nostalgic about it?

Brooks Golden. 2011. (Photograph by Nicolette Caldwell)

Brooks Golden. 2011. (Photograph by Nicolette Caldwell)

No, not really. I mean I guess nostalgia is two-fold though. It comes with it’s own set of returning to a place where things were not always perfect then either. I mean I certainly miss the freedom of just being a writer and this kind of haphazard recklessness that kind of allows you to do whatever, like climb twelve stories up and be handing off this thing and then relishing in that as you work with people, all these nine to five people that don’t have a sense of doing anything exciting other than showing up to their job that they hate. Just being in the same space with them and sharing stories of running tracks and riding a freight train half way across the state and here I am at 7am too, ya know? And they have no idea…there is something very freeing about that.

So yeah and then nostalgic in a kind of way that I was probably the worst person I had ever been in life then because I was reckless. And I was reckless in my personal life with people that were around me. So no, I don’t miss it because I am a better person now and that is what’s more important to me.

So do you think that it has something about getting older and having more responsibility?

Everybody has their own timeline for themselves when they need to get their proverbial shit together. About twenty-five is when I starting thinking that I needed to start settling into more “adult” things; you know a career, marriage. But graffiti was always there and I always had this thing that I wanted to stop writing when I am ready.  I don’t want to be told by anyone that I cannot express myself or be a creative person without parameters, which is basically what being a graffiti or street artist is—not having any parameters put onto your creativity. And that is still very attractive to me, and still what it is about today—I still don’t want any parameters. I don’t want to be told that this space is not okay for you to express yourself.

You said you didn’t miss it. And you alluded to something that you did enjoy at one point so are you sure that is all you missed about those experiences?

I miss the camaraderie of my crew and being a young man in my early twenties and growing with people and being so in tune with other young men. I do miss that kind of camaraderie and our willingness to share with one another. That was so open and I think about it now and realize that I have never met anybody other than those ten guys in my crew and I would just come and open my book and my life up and they would see everything I created over the weekend. We would critique each other be like, “that’s fresh” “that’s cool” “that’s kind of wack.” At that time I had never since that time in my life been that open and free about my ideas with other people. I do miss that kind of freedom. Now it is kind of a secretive place. It is like, “I’m an artist and I need to hid my ideas, I need to keep things to myself. Somebody might make a book about it. Somebody might take my idea and run.” I’d like to get back to that place where my ideas are free because that is just being human—just communicating and sharing. I think that is super important—not to worry about what I am losing or gaining. I never felt like I lost anything with my crew members.

Swiv and Nice One Collaboration. 2010. (Photograph by Nicolette Caldwell)

Swiv and Nice One Collaboration. 2010. (Photograph by Nicolette Caldwell)

Just to clarify, I don’t think there is a big distinction between actual graffiti and street art—it is all the same. It is all a pure expression of whatever thoughts or ideas you want to express. There are different roads to that same kind of thinking, some people come to graffiti [the spray painting route] and some people come from the art making, wheat pasting, stencil artist, creative side of that and they meet in the middle and they are both doing something that is technically for the law’s sake, that is not acceptable. So I don’t really differentiate that much between what I do being street art or graffiti—it is all kind of graffiti art to me, and all kind of street art, because they over lap at this point. I could be painting something graffiti one night and then wheat pasting and stenciling the other and putting up boards. It is all the same it is all just an extension of being an artist with out parameters [I guess that would be a good way to title this.]

So concerning the Chicago Street Art Show opening this week at the Chicago Urban Art Society. You are going to be a part of it in a big way. I was hoping you could talk about your involvement and explain to the world why this show is incredibly important to Chicago.

It is an important show. It is going to be at the CUAS space on May 13th. It is going to basically be a celebration about the last decade if there is a decade a full decade of “street art” in Chicago and its impact on the Chicago art scene as a whole. I mean I’ll explain my quick synopsis of it. When I got here in 2002 there wasn’t really a thing [street art]. The closest thing to that was some of the work that Chris Silva, Cody Hudson, Mike Genovese and Juan Chavez were making. They were making these kinds of pre-fabricated-in-the studio-kind-of-things and going out and placing them into the community. They only did it a few times but the impact on me, personally, was so overwhelming because here I was making this graffiti as street art stenciling and I was basically painting out in the freight yards and they were actually putting art work in the street [work that I would covet normally] they were just putting it out into the public. I thought this was such a profound thing and it really changed me as an artist—that level of unselfishness to give their best artwork to the public at a drop of a hat and anything of it could have been stolen or ruined. I am still struggling with that level of generosity in my work and I certainly find it admirable that they did that because it changed me. It is still something that I think about all the time.

So there wasn’t this street art thing. It was just that and at the end of the late 1990s going into the early 2000s, the sticker art thing was happening in a big way. And a lot of kids were coming to street art through sticker art. So a lot of the people that I met here were not these well-formulated artists like Cody and Mike, Juan and Chris were. They were just kids in college that were fucking around and making stickers because they wanted to be famous too since Shepard Fairey did it. So that was my first foray into Chicago street art, which I didn’t like at all in its initial stages. All these people were making this Poke`man bullshit and didn’t understand what they are making and some of the work just wasn’t good. I had a really negative way of viewing Chicago street art in its initial stages.

Klepto. (Photograph courtesy of Klepto)

Klepto. (Photograph courtesy of Klepto)

Then there were a few people that kind of broke from the sticker making and moved toward stencils and wheat pasting. Notably, Klepto Salem and her boards, which were these intricate paintings on these boards, which were fully, realized pieces of artwork. Goons had formulated these things where he went from these small stickers and sculptural-based things in 2005 to these wheat pastes in full color and these themes like Middle Eastern themes, Native American themes and Rock and Roll themes and for the first time I was like, “Yay Rock and Roll is back, [you know?] It’s popular, people are talking about it!”

Recently, Nice One’s work has been developing so quickly and so well and we really needed him back in the mid-2000s along with Goons and Klepto to really give Chicago street art some credibility. As of late, he has been doing a bunch of really great work that has been giving the city the kind of level of street work that I think it deserves. There are super talented artists (in Chicago) and we should have wonderful amazing street art as well.

Thanks for really going into depth about your experiences with “street art” in Chicago leading into what the Street Art Show is about to exemplify in less than a week. Could you explain what your involvement is with the show?  I heard you are doing a collaboration with Chris Silva and I am sure a lot of people are interested in knowing more about that.

(T)HUG LIFE(?). In the studio. (Image courtesy of Brooks Golden)

(T)HUG LIFE(?). In the studio. (Image courtesy of Brooks Golden)

So the show is important because it’s actually just giving the people who have in major ways and some people in less major ways a place like a handshake or a nod saying, “thank you for doing this,” which I think is really important. And it is at the one-decade mark so it is a good place to start. We are certainly in the three-decade area when it comes to graffiti writing. Primarily graffiti writers are my favorite street artists because they risk the most and the reward is little. It is in accolades, they don’t get paychecks or book deals. So it is like a nod and that is why it is important. It is saying, “hey you didn’t waste your time and people are paying attention.”

Since you started changing the aesthetic of your work toward more of a “street art” style do you think that has influenced the reception your work and other opportunities as far as showing your work in a traditional gallery setting?

I have not had that experience. I think my street art is kind of few and far between and the people that have a relationship to it are people that I already know. They are already on the in.

But you have shown your work in galleries.

I have but it was probably more of a traditional sense of being discovered by the galleries from either my website or some other medium but it wasn’t a, “being discovered on the streets of Chicago turned gallery artist.” It wasn’t that kind of story. I have been pursuing a gallery career for the last six to seven years. I have actively been trying to put myself in a place where I can be in a gallery but continue to do the street work. That is very meaningful to me.

I think that is a good balance.

For me as a creative person it certainly is because it allows me to be as far reaching as I possibly can.

So, The Chicago Street Art Show…

(T)HUG LIFE(?). In the studio. (Image courtesy of Brooks Golden)

(T)HUG LIFE(?). In the studio. (Image courtesy of Brooks Golden)

Yeah, I am part of Chris Silva’s (T)HUG LIFE(?) that has taken shape based on participation of artists including myself, Nick Adam, David Cuesta,Thor Goodlife, Matthew Hoffman, HYSTK (Have You Seen These Kids?), Dan Ezra Lang, Chris Silva, Brian Steckel, Robert Stevenson—with a gracious nod to Juan Angel Chavez & Mike Genovese for directly and indirectly providing content for us to repurpose in the project. So yeah, I was basically invited six months ago by Chris to be a part of this collaboration. We share a crew lineage he is the Hash Crew, THC (Three Hearts Club) member and I recently became one so we have that lineage of being part of a graffiti crew to start collaborating. I have been looking forward to it and the last couple of days have been wonderful collaborating on the piece. Just trying to get him to expand this piece as far reaching as possible. He has been very generous with letting me interject my ideas.

So what do you think people’s reactions are going to be about the collaboration and the show?

I think they will be blown away. It is probably one of the coolest things I have ever seen. I mean there is a familiar element to this piece [and this is why it is great] because it is about street art and things that are suppose to be taking place in the street but the basis for this piece [because you won’t see it until Friday] is from a piece that was on the street. So that is the basis and the kind of foundation for this whole thing and then there are lots of new avenues and friendships that come in and partnerships that come in and a lot of real collaboration in ways that it is not just like (pushing glasses up on my face in my nerd voice), “I’m making art, how do we make this best piece of art?” It is about bringing people together as friends around a collaboration that we all get to share. So I think that is really important. I like that aspect about Chris’s work—the collaborative aspects to his work I really enjoy and this piece is really dynamic. It is amazing, it is going to be the highlight of the show so I am super appreciative about being involved.

Have you heard anyone else talk about the show who are not part of it?

No, I think everybody is being fairly hush hush and I think it just comes from a lack of confidence of what is coming from that angle. But knowing what this collaboration has been, I am not wasting a second to say that this is going to be amazing. You are going to miss out on something very very awesome if you don’t come to this show. And there is a book! I mean a book about Chicago street art. That never happens. (Globally) We don’t ever get credit in this city for anything. We just got credit this year in the History of American Graffiti Art and there has been graffiti in the city for thirty years and just this year we are getting that credibility. So to just be around for a decade as like a street art thing and to get a book already and a show dedicated to it—that is an accomplishment.

Going from the idea to the reward really quickly in this city opposed to other cities is huge—that doesn’t normally happen for people in Chicago it usually takes twenty years of grinding away for that to happen and for them to get their credibility. Some people who are important to the Chicago street art community don’t even live here anymore and they don’t even want to be involved, they have moved on. But they are important because inadvertently or overtly they affected other people who thought it was important to put up work in the street. Big nod to them, all of them, every one of them in some way shape or form, they helped formulate this thing and helped it happen—because without people making that art there wouldn’t be a show or a book.

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2 Responses to " On Public Art: “An Artist Without Parameters” A conversation with Brooks Golden "

  1. [...] and other visual symbolism to promote a sense of humor and allegory. In a 2011 interview with Sixty Inches From Center, Golden stated: I don’t think there is a big distinction between actual graffiti and [...]

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