Approaching the eerie compound in Jesse’s large white cargo van, we joked about the vehicle’s appearance and how we looked like scrappers. The prison, which consists of several separate buildings, was surprisingly absent of any graffiti or vandalism, despite being unused for a long period of time. Lurking around, taking photos and doodling on walls, the world outside temporarily dissolved and I realized why Jesse had asked me to come. It’s a place for conversation, contemplation and tranquility. The infrastructure included ridiculously tiny cells and was a sobering reminder of America’s highly profitable, inhumane and deeply corrupt incarceration practices, the most prevalent theme in Jesse’s most recent body of work. For this interview, I reached out to Brooklyn-based artist, Judith Supine who’s frequently collaborated with Jesse, creating multiple projects intended solely for the streets. — Austin McManus
Judith Supine: How do you define compassion? Jesse Hazelip: Being able to look at a criminal and love them regardless of their deeds. People in our society are very quick to judge others, especially poor people, based upon their own reality. I’ve been reading a lot about the prison system for my current body of work, and it’s alarming how racist and cruel the current punitive system is. I had a small taste of it the few times that I’ve been in a county jail facility. I was shocked by the inhumane treatment and the obvious racial bias in the population, and I could guess that it was much worse in higher security prisons. My experiences there triggered the need to make art to bring attention to the atrocities silently occurring behind those thick concrete walls.
The book The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander has been my bible in researching this series. She worked tirelessly, uncovering blatant racism throughout all levels of our judicial system. Though there are many issues that need examination, I think that there are a few pressing ones that need to be dealt with urgently. The number of prisoners with mental illness is sickening. Prisons are not at all capable of caring for the needs of these individuals. Solitary confinement is another major violation of human rights. This method of incarceration is equivalent to torture, especially when you have prisoners in these conditions for multiple years and sometimes decades. One of the most prevalent issues I have a problem with is the overwhelming number of nonviolent offenders doing serious time for drug charges associated with the ages-old drug war that we’ve been losing for more than 40 years. If we were in Iraq for 40 years, do you think the public would be supportive? We need to take a different approach, obviously.
1xRun: Tell us a little bit about this piece, was this created solely for this print?
Saber: This was created just for the screen print, and it was inspired by a photograph that I took inside the banks of the Los Angeles river. I stumbled upon that particular image in the LA river and it was basically a representation of the post “War On Graffiti” era. So we’re dealing with the aftermath of the billions of dollars that have been spent on removing graffiti art. There is literally a billion dollar project that’s going down in the LA river. Basically everything is summed up with this photo in the sense that you have this buff that has been crumbled off of these old pieces and what’s left is this little glimpse of that piece of history.
1xRun: Was this piece part of a recent theme or is it a new direction for you?
Saber: It’s a new theme in the sense that I haven’t done anything as representational from this type of photograph. But, the idea isn’t necessarily new, I use a lot of buff and that idea in my work. In my work there is this conflict between city governments and the graffiti movement. That conflict is in almost all of the paintings that I create, there’s some sort of tackling of those ideas. A lot of my abstract paintings are moving in this direction — not necessarily so hyper, not so much of the wild style stuff — it’s more of this concept of buff vs. graffiti and the nature of that particular beast. Urban texture is something I’m completely obsessed with, so to capture that essence is a tough thing and I’ve worked on some involved prints, but I think this piece works well and I’m extremely proud of it.
1xRun: What materials were used to create these prints?
Saber: This was probably the most challenging print that I’ve ever worked on personally. I think that Tony and John at Serio Press were also definitely pushing their limits with these prints. The registration on this print was really tough. Between Tony’s separations and my separations and the unique approach to it, this is a really technical print. So it’s cool to push the envelope in order to achieve a realistic look and actually create the colorful layers. There’s 17-18 layers on this thing. Most people will just send in the file and vectorize it. I like to be involved in the serigraph process, it’s something I enjoy doing.
1xRun: Elaborate a bit more about that process, how long did these pieces take?
Saber: The printing probably took about 8-10 days. It’s definitely an experiment. It’s a very conceptual piece. The goal was to make a real piece of artwork, something that can be cherished by everybody, including by other artists and people that understand this process and what it takes to achieve something of this nature. There are only a handful of other printers that are really willing to go that extra mile like we did for these prints. One of the things that we did was create 8 layers of beige to achieve the actual paint chipped look that we were going for and have that real texture as well. It was a real experiment. Tony is amazing at what he does and he is one of the few people that I trust to tackle a print like this. The paper on these is super thick, so thick that I was able to etch in the paper, so the signatures are all etched in the beige layer, rather than being penciled in, which is kinda cool. I used my knife to etch into the paper and it’s so thick that it doesn’t cut through the paper.
It’s a really nice beautiful paper, it’s the thickest paper I’ve ever used. Put it this way, they’re not rolling up, the paper is so thick that when you roll them up the paper breaks. This is the most involved print that I’ve worked on, and I’ve worked on some intense 18-20 layer prints. Every piece in this series is hand-embellished. Each piece has spray paint in it. So instead of printing the tag underneath, I said fuck it, just spread them out we knocked them out that way. So there are 4-5 colors that are hand-painted in the print, so on top of all the layers, each one is hand touched.
It’s a real, celebrated process, hand done serigraphs. That involves separations. That involves specific strategic approach as to how to print for the long term. How to lay the colors down so you’re not muddying things. How to plan and shift the colors the right way. How to get the registration on, how to get the shadows down. All of this stuff is really detailed technical shit. I went to school on it. I really enjoy the print making process. Now, I’m not pulling but I’m there the whole time. I’m always there to rack the prints. I think it’s important to be part of the process. I always mix all the colors. I’ve hand separated each print that I’ve done. On this print Tony really helped me out with the layers, but what we did is strategically plan how to layer them properly and we layered a lot of the color tones. It really was a collaborative process. I enjoy hand separating, but these prints really required Tony’s expertise, as well as some strategic approach as to how to lay this shit down. It was a real intense print. The thing is that it’s supposed to look like something simple and subtle, but at the end of the day there’s quite a lot that went into this particular one. I hope it shows. For me it’s about the artistic process. I love that. I do it every day. That’s what keeps me feeling good about things and being involved in something. For me it’s a daily thing to try to keep going.
1xRun: You mentioned this photo the piece is based off of, when was that taken?
Saber: I took the photo pretty recently, a couple months ago around April 2014. I was creeping around the LA river and my buddy Jon Lake took me down into some deep tunnels looking at some old gang tags. In 2009 the city said that it would cost nearly 3.7 million dollars for buffing my piece and that MTA piece – that was the biggest piece of graffiti ever – and the entire 30 miles of the LA river. That’s a huge scandal in itself because the city was supposed to put that money towards sandblasting the paint off the surface because the EPA wanted the paint chips to be collected and not go into the water run off. The previous city attorney started his “War On Graffiti” , even naming his anti-graffiti campaign “End Of Days” by doing a ribbon cutting ceremony with the Army Corp of Engineers and LA sheriffs on the news. They buffed my piece first without publicizing it, then they buffed the MTA piece for the news special. Then they went against their own contract which was to use the money to sandblast and then they do this public ribbon cutting ceremony where they just spray paint back on the surface going against what the EPA asked them to do. They basically pocketed the fucking money. It’s pretty obvious it was one of those buddy contracts where the finances were all done beforehand regardless, typical LA politics. So now it’s a felony if you get caught painting in the LA river.
For me when I go down there, there are chips of the buff breaking off. So I love to break off the buff and relive what’s underneath. Coming from my generation, I’m one of very few people. Nowadays all these kids grew up with the internet, they grew up with all this accessibility. I’m the last of the generation where we simply had to go out and get everything for ourselves. For me to go down there 25 years later and see the whole entire river buffed white and have this little piece of color breaking through that buff, that to me is a symbol of our longevity. It shows that despite the fact that they tried to remove it, they tried to buff it, that the colors are still there, the colors are forever. Even if they are buried under the beige. To me that’s what this print represents, that conflict between being an artist, putting everything out there and having longevity versus this machine that’s basically working to pit everything that it can against you. So to me that sums of the whole movement in itself. It sums up the whole impermanence aspect of this culture that we have. As artists it’s our job to create some kind of longevity and be noticed, it’s in our bones to have your art live on.
That was one of the driving forces in graffiti, it also drives an individual, painting at this vast concrete landscape of the LA river. It’s this kind of iconic place, and now there’s no history of this graffiti left, except in those tunnels. Those moments are gone where you say “oh shit, that’s that K4P piece. That’s sick. I remember that piece, I remember standing there looking at that piece, I remember that green, it was awesome! I was there.” To know that I can walk on the same surfaces and know that my piece is under there, the largest piece ever fucking painted illegally. But underneath that beige, I love knowing that I put oil base on the outline, knowing that the thin latex underneath will eventually fall off revealing the piece 25 years later. There’s the long term observation of these walls. That’s why people are so intrigued by it.
You go on Instagram, and you can discover all these different hashtags, all these photographers that are dedicated to urban texture. One of them is #GrimeLords, there’s hundreds of thousands of people participating, just on photographing urban texture. There’s something inherently human about observing these textures. The rust. The ruin porn. Looking at the urban texture falling apart. It’s just naturally intriguing. It’s kind of a representation of our own mortality.
So for me, a person who actually participated in this cycle of being in the architecture then years later seeing how the textures have evolved and changed. Seeing the natural and political waves that happened in between all on those same walls. There’s a story there. Imagine if you could see a time lapse reel. The people, the places, the things, all affecting that same surface. You look at one wall and think wow, this wall has been buffed maybe…500 times in 10 years. You go back 25 years. This little 5×5 square foot wall that is crumbling beige off, you can relive the history if you know that wall. You say on average there could have been 5,000 fucking people that wrote on that wall…in the middle of fucking nowhere. That’s a lot of people saying something. That’s a lot of times for that to be suppressed. It’s been buffed enough times for that shit to pile up and start to crumble off. So if you think about that process, who is implementing that process? Where is the money coming for that process? You realize that we’re playing a much bigger fucking game.
Graffiti is an organism. The city is an organism. Not just this stale, structured concrete maze that has laws and stoplights and blah blah blah. There’s a deeper story that’s going on. It’s peoples lives. The stories that have been created. The homeless people that live inside of those places. Whatever the fuck it is. The houses got torn down. The grandmothers who lost their homes. The famous neighborhood folklore that goes down, these crazy dudes and the crazy shit that happened. There’s a more humanistic aspect to the city and we’re the ones who are really into the art of it, the visual aspect of it. Putting it out there. Having the city react to it. I’m not saying that as an outsider doing it, there’s a broader movement to it, but just as an observer and having enough time — a 20 year span – to see enough change to see a pattern of graffiti and how these things evolve, you realize that this pattern translates everywhere else as well. So you say this movement that we have participated in this has forced cites and laws across the fucking planet to find a way to combat it. Then you have to think to yourself that we have empowered big government without realizing it. We have empowered the devil himself. Now there’s an entire industry. There’s a graffiti removal industry.
I could be wrong on the numbers, but I saw an article on the graffiti removal industry and how there’s more and more products, how people sell $3 million metadata graffiti trackers programs and sheriffs use it. The article I read said that it was a $10 – 20 billion industry. A completely silent industry. Again, I could be wrong on the numbers, but you think about it. In America alone every city and every municipality that has a budget to the war on drugs, now that’s the biggest budget there is, but then there’s other “wars” like the war on graffiti and others attached to this shit, so every city has something in place to combat the act of graffiti. That includes a whole host of shit, a whole branch, a whole system that is now funded and operating on multiple levels. Then you have the industry that’s fueling it, and you think these motherfuckers are making a lot of goddamn money off this.
We’re just artists, randomly spraying on things, trying to tell our little stories and hopefully not getting hurt or go to jail by spray painting our little name on a little fucking wall in the middle of fucking nowhere. It’s almost like we’re on a treadmill and the faster we run on it, the more it’s generating money for these idiots. So I’m thinking to myself, holy shit, we just side busted ourselves and implemented an entire fucking industry who’s sole purpose is not to engage art. Not to help art. Not to fund art. Not to perpetuate art. Just to fucking destroy it. Fuck no wonder it’s so hard out there. No wonder half of our generation went to fucking jail. No wonder everyone is getting arrested for some kind of drug charge everywhere across the fucking globe at this point.
It all boils down to that one image in the LA river in the middle of nowhere with a little fucking paint crumbling off the wall. That tells a much bigger story than what it appears to be. That’s what I see in this print. That’s why this print is so important to me. That’s why going in this direction artistically is important to me. I haven’t quite figured out what I’m going to do, but through the process I’m sorting out my own shit and my own creative process. This print is a big deal to me because it’s a big paradigm shift as to how I feel about things. I don’t think I could do anything that size anymore. I’ve always worked on abstracts but that’s another thing. At the end of the day this print is a capture of a much bigger story. it’s about the one individual. It’s about that one little surface. Someone who goes out and does it for himself and jumps through head first. This same story is shared all over the world. It’s not an easy road. Especially with social media now, everyone yelling louder than the next guy, it’s a whole new world now.
1xRun: Tell us a little about when you first started creating artwork.
Saber: I started as a little kid in Southern California. My family was creative so they always encouraged me. When I was little kid my cousins took me to Belmont tunnels and that blew my fucking mind away. I got a hold of Spray Can Art and Can Control magazine. That blew my mind. Then through skateboarding I started going places and writing on shit. Did a lot of that. I started piecing really early. I was about 12 when I did my first piece, and that was a life of its own. I kept skating, kept piecing, kept tagging. I always drew. As I grew older I really focused on that. So I was able to start early.
1xRun: Who were some of your early influences?
Saber: As far as early influences I have to include my family in there, my grandfather was an illustrator, he did things in the 40′s kinda Mad Men era. My dad as well. My mom worked at Don Post studios, who did all the monsters for movies. She had the original alien prototypes in her office, all this crazy shit. So I got to see that early on, which really kinda influenced me. My parents were extremely creative, I mean my mom worked at a place that did movie monsters, it can’t get better than that as a kid. They even sat me down and had me make clay sculptures as a kid. It was cool. Our garage sales were insane. They were fucking awesome, we had an entire Halloween section.
Aside from that I had lots of other great influences around me. Los Angeles was a hot bed for some real progressive pieces early on. So that was cool, already learning that these little wild style pieces were really tough. That was some of my biggest inspiration was going to Belmont tunnels. All sorts of dudes, it’s crazy. My teenage years were insane. A lot of bad stuff happened. A lot of way out stuff happened which only fueled more graffiti and more madness. It eventually got so manic that I became part of this weird club and we would constantly try to outdo each other. People got real competitive things were real hectic and some people didn’t make it through it. It was like some boot camp shit that continued to evolve into an almost revolutionist type thing. I dunno, it got real crazy, especially here in Los Angeles. That’s why guys like Revok, Zes, Retna, Ayer all sorts of guys in my generation. Push was always my dear friends. Eklips was somebody I always believed in and looked up to. He’s the leader of our crews and he always had a much bigger vision outside of painting graffiti. He always was ahead of the curve. I was fortunate to be around guys like Eklips, Krush and Tyke, Bles, Krises. Risk was a big influence on me going to Venice early on.
I studied spray can art. I studied the fuck out of it. I was absolutely obsessed with spray can art and subway art. I was obsessed with the style aspect of it. Early on I got the idea from a little section in Spray Can Art where it’s talking about the Graffiti writer Bio’s approach to arrows in a piece. There’s arrows pointing words, the philosophy aspect of the arrows. That blew my fucking mind. The esoteric idea that you can play with symbols and ideas, that there are things you can do behind instead of just doing cool piece, you can create ideas and give the piece power. That tripped the fuck out of me. I got that early on. I was pretty much solely focused on those ideas. Then I met guys like GK who pushed the fuck out of me. He told me you’re a fucking toy. He was a fucking 3 foot tall midget and he told me I was a toy. And he was right. And I deserved the shit that came my way. I dealt with a lot of it. There’s a whole psychological aspect to painting, that gets real weird, especially the deeper you go. You get into some real quirky, obsessive compulsive, manic shit that goes down. It’s kinda fun, kinda interesting and kinda scary, all at the same time. Especially as you get older and you’re still doing this shit. All of the sudden it gets a little weird. It’s interesting. I love those guys. They are my most favorite people in the world. Some of the most inspirational people I know. Just don’t cross them.
For me I had to take a back seat to a lot of it, because I developed severe epilepsy. I was sick for many years with gnarly fucking seizure. Terrible, life-debilitating, crippling seizures that I was having for 8 years straight, out of nowhere. So that shut me down. But I still persevered through that. I learned how to make better art and make better things. That was quite a trip. I’ll never forget Ayer. Buddies like Nekst, fucking DashSnow, there’s so many dudes now who are gone. Life is hard for every year that we live. There’s a lot of hardness. We live in dog years. My body hurts quite a bit. No doubt about it. I think if you’re past 35 and you still engage in this shit you’re probably looking at the from a different point of view now. Going ‘Fuck. I still love it.’ I have children, so now I have to be accountable, which is real crazy. That’s crazy that I have to be accountable, it’s insane.You have to be a lot smarter about how you approach things.
Now ‘street art’ is the next fucking thing, fucking cool, great, we can ride that train. Fuck it, let the world open up to this idea and then see us in the background. Fuck. I’ll tell you right now we have a real interesting story to tell. A part of me wishes that nobody knew about it still. A part of me wishes it was something that was all about us. A part of me wishes we had kept it to ourselves. But at the end of the day that’s what happened. We put it out there. That’s the side of the coin of us trying to keep something instead of putting it out into the public, but the public has an idea about it. The irony still is that tagging is ugly but paper and stencils are more acceptable. If you’re catching some tags you might get a felony charge, but if you’re using paper they might let it go. I don’t really like that. I don’t want kids going to jail for this shit. That bothers me. I think if you’re a manic mother fucker and you’re doing gnarly shit and being a crazy fuck, you know what you’re getting into. You know the price that you pay. At that level you realize there’s a lot more than going to jail. I think once you hit that level you’re well past caring if you’re going to go to jail for doing it. But those are moments you live in. It depends on the mission. I used to really like to be in that mindset for a while. I was good at it. I did it early. I proved my worth early, so that allowed me to have a little wiggle room to do other things. But at the end of the day my broader goal now is to be a real fucking great artist. To work hard at it. To deal with the bigger picture, which is a life. How to support a life system with your art is a much bigger challenge than getting up. I can tell you that right now. It’s less dangerous, you’re not going to get killed. But it’s about being accountable and that’s a whole new layer, once you bring other people in. If i was still single I can be a manic fuck, who cares, but you’ve got a little mouth to feed and you’ve got support it that’s a whole ‘nother layer.
The bigger picture to me now is that the story is told in a certain way that it makes sense about the broader longevity of the movement. I want graffiti art to be remembered as something that is special to the longevity of art in itself by contributing to the dialog. That’s my broader reach. I want to make sure people understand about wild style. They understand about abstraction. They understand that we’re part of a new wave that is also connected to some old. But we’re a layer of this abstraction. I want to understand that there’s something outside of the predominantly figurative work that’s very popular at the moment.
We all know the score. We all know the history. We know that the letters are the key. Understanding the language of letters and removing it one or two times from that is a really important strain of abstraction. I think that eventually it will get in the right doors, and in the right places for its longevity. To me that’s important. These paintings will well outlast my fucking walls. Walls are hard. People like Aero. That’s guy fucking insane. The fact that he still paints them 2-3 times a week, 30 years later, dude deserves a shiny fucking metal. For me it’s a little more consuming. But I’m not done with them. I just did a big wall with Zes. That was fun. I still have some things up my sleeve. We’ll see.
1xRun: What else have you been up to recently?
Saber: The big thing that I did recently was this mural that I did with LA with Zes. That was kinda cool because it’s one of the few murals in the city of Los Angeles that’s actually permanent, so to be on the other side of the coin now where the city is forced to protect it is a new thing for me. I still paint whatever, but now they have to protect it. Other than that I have a show in Paris in October that I’m working on. I’ve just been working on a few more wall situations. For me I’m learning what it means to be self sustainable. The key to success is self sustainability. Consistency with with self-sustainability. Some people have that, but to come from nothing and work towards that is a whole ‘nother ballgame. 1xRun: Where else can people find you?
Last week the Crooks & Castles crew took over Known Gallery in Los Angeles for an exclusive launch event in honor of the Futura x Crooks & Castles “LEWDS” collection, created in tribute to Crooks’ late Marketing Director, Christopher “LEWDS” Natalio. Sponsored by Hennessy V.S, the party saw a number of VIPs coming out to preview the collection and pay homage to Crooks & Castles’ fallen brother.
“This collection was so important to us. We wanted to make sure everything was right. The synergy between Futura’s “Atomic Flower of Life” and our fallen brother LEWDS came so natural, this whole collection felt so organic to us. To celebrate the introduction of the “LEWDS” Collection, we invited close friends & family to enjoy the energy that the collaboration generated. We kept it local with Known Gallery providing the platform to display the collection’s art installation.” – See more at: crooksncastles.com