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Interview | Graffiti Legend SEEN on ‘Old New York’

The new exhibit by the Bronx-born "Godfather of Graffiti" documents a highly prolific period of artmaking in Paris.

Andrew Poganyby Andrew Pogany

Graffiti legend Richard Mirando, aka SEEN, is presently exhibiting some abstract and graffiti works in Old New York, an exhibit at Buckshot Gallery (owned by fellow graff legend RISK) in Los Angeles, running through March 20, 2016.

Commonly referred to as the “Godfather Of Graffiti”, SEEN began painting New York City subway cars in 1973 with his crew United Artists (UA), which included Pjay, Duster, Sin, and his brother Mad. The group quickly became notorious for producing full-color throw-ups on whole cars, and throughout the 70s and 80s, SEEN earned a worldwide reputation for his bright, colorful lettering and emphatic cartoon characters. (Many of SEEN’s pieces are featured in video games like The Warriors and Grand Theft Auto V.)

In the early 1980s, interest from galleries and museums led SEEN to move from the subway car to the canvas, embarking on an artistic journey that would lead him from the Bronx to Paris, along the way creating a body of work that both embodies his graffiti roots and embraces the hermetic symbolism of abstract painting. 

Old New York documents a highly prolific period in Paris, during which SEEN created paintings that “came from the heart”,  that incorporate a range of techniques and unexpected materials, such as metal frames from Parisian rooftops. The exhibition also features numerous recent graffiti works in line with his original style.

[This is a 360° Video! Play, Pause and Drag To Explore The “Old New York” Exhibit]

CRAVE caught up with SEEN to discuss his influences, the importance of place, and the relevance of street art in the contemporary art world. 

Crave: What were the challenges of moving from making art for the street versus the gallery?

SEEN: As for me, I paint whatever I feel like painting. There’s no difference if it’s on the trains or in a gallery being displayed. I cannot answer for others, but for me, it is all the same. It is what it is. The surface may be different, but the imagery that comes from my head would not change.

How do you strike a balance between art as personal expression and art as commodity?

Once again, there isn’t much of a difference, if any at all.  I paint what I feel like painting. I really don’t care whether they sell or not. I like showing my work in galleries as much as I like to see them as painted billboards on the trains.

Can you discuss the influence of “Place” in your artworks?

No. I’m not influenced by location at all.

OK. But Old New York consists of works created in Paris – did making art about New York outside of New York provide a different perspective of New York. How did this influence the pieces?

It’s actually kinda funny, during the 70s and 80s while I was painting on the subways, my paintings were always colorful and full of life. When I started to paint about New York in Paris I was able to see past all the color and see the gloomy greys of New York City. During this time, New York was falling apart, crumbling abandoned building after building, burnt cars on every other block, crime was at an all-time high. I didn’t even notice these things back then, it all seemed so normal. But then I went to Paris and this gave me the time to reflect on those years and I was able to see underneath it all and what I saw was a dark and dingy wasteland.

Seen, “République".

Seen, “République”.

What about Paris, in particular, do you find particularly inspiring, motivating, and/or thought-provoking?

I always enjoyed Europe for its architecture, Paris so happened to been the place I felt at home at that moment. Once I made the commitment to live there I took the time for myself to explore other areas of art. Abstract was an avenue I wanted to explore. During my 5 years I created over 5,200 works in the Abstract area. This was an amazing time in my life. I didn’t have to answer to anyone, it was my time to be a flakey artist and I road this horse for years, turning down every gallery that approached my studio door asking me to do an art show or to buy works. My answer was always NO! It felt good being able to say NO with no regrets. I would go to my studio everyday by 9 am and stay until the wee hours of the morning and repeat the next day and the next. Just walking to my studio everyday was all the motivation I needed. 

Walking through the streets late at night while the city was quiet, sitting in gardens while flowers grow on a beautiful spring day, watching the bees take pollen from a rose, sitting in an outside cafe taking in the sun drinking a coffee with no place to be. These are some of the things that INFLUENCED me to paint. France allowed me to have a clear state of mind which lead to my freedom of creativity.

Is “street art” inherently subversive and/or political? Can you discuss how you see street art’s present role in the larger context of: 1. The “Art World” and 2. socio-political critique/dialogue?

This question is hard for me to answer. Street Art & Graffiti are considered to be a totally different form of creativity; Street Art has its own identity far from the graffiti on subway trains, They are both for the public to see and that’s just about the only similarity. Spraying subway cars was about getting your name up in a letter form. You were competing against the other Graffiti Writers with lettering styles, very rarely Subway writers were speaking to the public. Street Art to me would be more like painting murals on the street, with the exception to the rules being those who bring messages in their work, like Banksy, Shepard Fairey and a handful of others. 

You mentioned Banksy and Shepard Fairey. Which contemporary artists are making work that you find especially poignant?

When I look at art I look for something that puts a smile on my face, I do not read any deeper than that. I’m really not interested in art that one in the art world feels is important or not. What’s important to me is the feeling I get from it.

What artists from the past do you feel a sense of kinship with? 

I really feel like a loner out there, like something from a Pee-Wee Herman movie, I like going through life alone. My best conversations are with myself.