Art & Design

Augustus Thompson

Art & Design

Augustus Thompson

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Alex Finlayson:   When people ask you what you do, what do you say?

Augustus Thompson:  It depends.  I tell a lot of people I work in a surf shop.

AF:   Which is true, but. . .

AT:  Talking about being an artist is like talking about religion. You don’t want to do it with just anyone.

AF:  At the last gallery show you seemed pretty engaged.   

AT:  Because that was all about people’s associations with the art.   That’s where the fun comes in.  I had multiple people telling me that one of the drawings reminded them of Pee Wee Herman.

AF:  One of the self-portraits?

AT:  Yeah.

AF:  Maybe it was the weirdo haircut you were sporting that night.

AT:  I cut it myself.  Mostly it was just manic energy, but even a haircut can be part of the reality of living as an artist.  You know.  Just  being as bold as possible.  Embracing yourself as a spectacle.

AF:  So, would you say being an artist is an occupation or a lifestyle?

AT:  It’s a life.   It’s not necessarily something you choose.

AF:  When did you know that it would be your life?

AT:   Probably studying Rauschenberg.  That was the turning point.  I related to his work but also seeing the photographs of him as a young person in the lofts.  It was all very romantic.   In school, they shovel names at you.  But for me, it was just Rauschenberg because he was doing a lot of photos, he was painting, and he was doing sculpture.  He covered all the terrain all the time.

AF:  So you were responding to his life.

AT:  Exactly.

AF:  Anybody else inspire you?

AT:  Free art. What’s happening in the streets.

AF:  Can we talk about your graffiti persona here?

AT:   As long as you don’t reference it directly.

AF:   You maintain two different artistic identities and names.  As a graffiti artist,  and– whatever you call the other? Being a fine artist?  How does that duality work for you?

AT:   I love it, but I don’t always know who to be.  I have friends who are strictly street artists.

AF:  The giant nude you painted on the sea wall in Bolinas was one of the best things I’ve ever seen you do.

AT:   People who don’t do graffiti, that’s what they want to see from me.    The large characters.

AF:  How big was it?

AT:  Probably about 30-35 ft.

AF:   It seemed like a beautiful bridge between your studio art and your graffiti.

AT:  In San Francisco it’s harder to do the big characters. Here every piece of architecture and real estate matters, so they’re really up on removing graffiti. Brooklyn has more vacant lots and abandoned buildings; visible spots that are right next to popular thoroughfares.  I’m mostly a graffiti writer now.

AF:  Is  San Francisco less of  a graffiti town than Brooklyn?

AT:    The spirit of it definitely lives here.  Tons of people are doing it.  But you know your stuff will be erased—

AF:  — removed or tagged over?

AT:  Both.  Here it’s more of a destructive act.   In San Francisco, people get really good at tagging because tagging is an infinite craft, and you can do it fast, and you’re ok with it getting removed.  When you’re putting in a lot of effort into a big production, you’re putting your neck on the line  and  probably just wasting valuable paint.

AF:  The Bolinas nude lasted about forty minutes.

AT:   Well, that sea wall is a free space.  Anybody can paint there, and there’s not any respect for what’s good.

AF:  The year you lived in Brooklyn, you built a reputation as a roller graffitist. Were you also painting in your own name?

AT:  Some. I was learning how, so I would paint and destroy.  This method of working has carried over into my studio work.

AF:  After Brooklyn, you moved to San Francisco.  Was your intent to make a life where you could paint more?

AT:  I guess.  Now I’ve got a girl, a nice place to live.  A day job to pay for those things.

AF:  And surfing.

AT:  Definitely surfing.  I’ll always do graffiti the rest of my life. Wherever I am.  But it involves an arduous schedule.  Like anything else, to be good, it’s a full time crazy job.

AF:  Is there a part of you the graffiti satisfies that the fine art doesn’t?

AT:   With graffiti there’s no theory involved.   You can do whatever the fuck you want.  It’s  freedom when you don’t have financial freedom.   It’s freedom when you don’t have a voice in culture and the society.   You also get hooked on the anxiety.   Of having your back to the street where someone can sneak up on you.   That’s like a drug.  When I’m working in the studio, I try to get to that place.  Some of my best paintings have some of that really nervous energy; that  same anxious nature about life and what’s to come,  that’s in my street work.

AF:  Would you say that your graffiti feeds your art?

AT:  It clears the palate.   I can go out with my friends and do public work, doing whatever we want.  It doesn’t matter. Whether it’s good or bad, it doesn’t matter.

AF:  Are you saying that in the studio, there’s more self-censorship?

AT:  Totally.

AF:  And that you’re more aware of your audience?

AT:  That too.

AF:  It’s kind of ironic you picked  “One Man” as the title for your show at Fifty24, because, you really are two artists.

AT:   But one man.  Those words are just a definition of something I know.  Me being one man, one human, and inside, one artist. It’s something I’ve been writing in graffiti.  Some of the people at the show would have recognized “One Man” as one of my tags.

AF:  You’re normally very careful to keep your two art worlds separate.

AT:   I haven’t written enough here to have everyone in the city say, “Oh, yeah, it’s that guy.”  I maintain a pretty cool presence in the graffiti scene here. I’m not as hungry for attention as I was in New York.  In graffiti  the only thing that will change your image with the public is who you go out with and paint with, which is kind of similar to a gallery.   You know.  It’s who are you running with?  Who are you seen with? What’s their style?

AF:  I was really happy with the show.  You sold a lot of work.

AT:  It was pretty damn cheap.

AF:  How about that random guy who was walking  past the gallery on opening night,  who stopped in and bought one of the biggest paintings?

AT:  Icing on the cake.

AF:  How does that feel?  A man who didn’t know anything about you and your work except what he saw on the canvas.

AT:  I hope he’s ok with the fact that I used latex on that canvas, and it’s probably gonna crack and fall apart in the next five years

AF:  Oh my god!  I don’t want to know that.

AT:  Maybe it won’t. He can get it restored.

AF:  The story goes that Andy Warhol painted the soup can because he ate Campbell’s soup every day for lunch.  What plays a daily role in your life that inspires you? AT: Getting dressed.

AF:  You are a pretty snappy dresser.

AT:  I love it.  Waking up, getting shaved.  Picking out shoes.  I pretty much never wear the same thing twice.  I have very few clothes, but every day I wear something different.  If you’re going to work, your day is straight up with someone else’s agenda. Getting dressed is the one artistic thing you may do all day.

AF:  How about that haircut of yours?

AT:  I cut it myself.  Mostly it was just manic energy, but even a haircut can be part of the reality of living as an artist.  You know.  Just  being as bold as possible.  Embracing yourself as a spectacle.

AF:  I don’t necessarily think of that as a straight man thing.

AT:  Dad had his swagger.  You can see it in the old photos.  But it was also a part of growing up in Black culture, in Richmond [ Virginia.]

AF:  So, for you, being an artist involves a sense of style?  

AT:  It’s totally connected.  I learn a lot about color just by getting dressed.

AF:  What’s your favorite color?

AT:  Right now?  Paprika.   I was just in LA and saw these shorts I really wanted that were  a paprika color.

AF:  One last question I have to ask.  You had an opportunity to paint a mural for a celebrity, and you dropped the ball on it.  Why?

AT:  My life right now is a lot to deal with.   I’m struggling just to maintain a relationship.  Do graffiti.  Surf.  Work a day job. Make art.  And making art, there’s all this time you’re spending on it that you’re not getting paid for.

AF:  But this was art.  It was a paying job.

AT:  Maybe I was scared.  What do you paint on a wall in someone’s house, where they’ll see it for years?  Maybe it will still happen.  I don’t see it as a lost opportunity like you do.  Her house is still there.  She’s still there.  And I’m still growing as an artist.

Thompson’s New Image Art show opens this Saturday. There’s a group show coming up in Copenhagen and a 50 ft mural for  artMRKTSan Francisco. You can visit his tumblr or his blog.