Posted by: Addison – Aug 13, 2012
Of all the art world heavy hitters that came through RVA over the last few months, Jeff Soto just might be the heaviest. Initially inspired as a high-school student in the late 80s by pictures of New York subway art, Soto spent the 90s making a name for himself, both in his native California and around the world, with his graffiti and street murals. Ceasing to work with aerosol paint at the end of that decade, he moved into the world of illustration and fine art; mixing commercial work for Sony Music, Rockstar Games, and Disney, among many others, with gallery showings New York, LA, London, and Paris. Recently, though, at the height of his fame in the mainstream art world, he made his return to the world of spray paint murals after ten years away from the scene. It was this work that brought him to Richmond; participating in the RVA Street Art Festival, he contributed a large-format mural to the outdoor gallery that the Canal Walk has now become. We caught up with him while he was in town for that event, and he gave us his thoughts on the changes that have occurred in the street art scene over the past decade, and where he hopes to take his work in the future.
How did you get involved with this project?
Is this microphone going to catch us?
Yeah, it’ll catch you.
Are you going to transcribe this later?
OK, so you can edit out the parts where I sound like an a-hole?
[Laughs] Of course, yeah.
How did I get involved with this? Uh…
Do you know Ed from way back?
You know, I didn't really know Ed. I knew of his work, and I guess I've seen it just from being involved in mural painting. I kind of looked into that from time to time. But I'd never met him. He asked me to be a part of this, and it sounded pretty cool. I looked into the artists that he wanted to have involved in the show, and I was like, “Wow, this is a pretty cool, eccentric group. I would love to be a part of it.”
There are some street writers, some actual pure muralists, it's a combination of all kinds of stuff.
It's a good combination, and I think somehow it all goes together rather well. Maybe it's because it's all on the same walls. The styles couldn’t be more different. It's like a really good gallery show or something, you know?
Do you consider yourself a muralist first?
No. I consider myself just an all-around artist/image maker. I have roots in graffiti [but] I've never considered myself a street artist. It's been like 12 years or so since I've done the more traditional hip-hop graffiti. A few years ago I got this desire to paint big again. It was like going back to the graffiti roots. Some of the things I hated about graffiti in the day were the politics--what's legit and what's not legit. It was very anal, like, “Oh, you can't use brushes, you have to just use cans.” Too many rules and regulations. There were also limitations, like we didn't have access to all the different kinds of paint. We were still using Krylon, and I think there was a paint called Molotov. I don’t even know if they are still around.
Was that something new, like Montana and Ironlak and all those?
Yeah, [those] came out around when I was leaving the graffiti world. I thought [I was leaving] for good. At some point I realized that I really love painting big. I wanted to get back into this, but I wanted to do it on my own terms. I don’t want to be attached to a crew; I don't want any of that graffiti bullshit. I just want to paint what I want to paint.
No dance-offs? No beatbox battles?
That stuff's cool but it's not really me.
OK. I took you more for a dancer.
Yeah, just from the outside looking in.
No, I don't have any moves at all [laughter]. I'm a music lover, but not a dancer, that's for sure. I might rock out when I'm driving my car, you know, when no one can see me. I guess people would see me if I'm driving my car. “Look at that guy dancing! Let's record it.”
[Laughs] “That’s Jeff Soto! Put him on Youtube!” But anyway, so you find yourself wanting to go big again...
I wanted to start painting big again. I wanted to start painting murals. There's something really special about painting outside, as opposed to being in a studio. So I found myself in London in 2009, and I was hanging out with D*Face and Word To Mother, and they were like, “Hey are you going to paint any walls while you're here?” I was like, “Maybe... Yeah, I'll paint a wall.” My whole thing was [that] I didn’t want it to be graffiti, so I [didn’t] use spray paint at all. I painted three things, and it was all done with paint rollers and brushes. It was cool, but I realized I could have done that in half the time, or maybe even less. It's messy mixing paint and all that, so I decided at some point to embrace spray paint again. With all the colors they have, and it’s kind of made to paint with. When I started, we had Krylon, which is made to paint your mailbox, or paint your bike or something. They have all these cool artist colors now that are made to paint with. The tips are pressure sensitive. It’s so easy now. We would have killed for something like that back when I started doing it.
You sound like a godfather of street art now.
No... I mean, there are people that have been doing it a lot longer than me. I started tinkering with it in '89, and then probably in '90 or '91, I really started going full force and doing a lot of graffiti. So it's been a while. I've seen a lot of changes, good and bad, but I try not to judge. It seems really easy for kids nowadays to get the paint they want. It's kind of a legit thing, where they are telling their parents about it and their parents are really supportive. Actually, my parents were kind of supportive too.
Kind of kept you out of trouble?
No, they thought I was just painting abandoned cement structures out in fields. I was also tagging and destroying property, you know? So I didn’t tell them about that part. They just thought I was making art.
It seems like a lot of the graffiti artists got legit, got into galleries, and then found that they were bored with galleries. There's a whole movement of people going back out into the streets and doing these large pieces. Have you seen that? Has it always been this consistent, or is this kind of a wave that's happening right now?
I think in a way it's a wave. I think street art, for the last five or six years, has been kind of trendy. It's becoming accepted. The graffiti, the tagging people, are always going to have a problem with that, but [with murals], I think people are starting to go, “Oh wow, this is art. This is interesting. It's beautifying the city.” Usually these paintings have some kind of meaning to them. It's not just fluff that we are putting out.
It's not wallpaper, it's narrative.
Well, it's not like a decorative mural, it's--
Not like a straight pattern...
Well, even straight pattern could be really interesting. Barry McGee does things in straight patterns. But I think the work that all of these artists are doing has a lot more concept in it. It's actually fine art that's put up on a wall in public. And we have something to say with the pieces we are making. I think that was the problem with traditional graffiti. It was like, “Here you go--this is me.” You know? “This is my tag name. Check it out.” It was all about getting fame among your peers. People say, “I do graffiti because I want the public to see...” Nah. It's all for other graffiti artists. At least that's how I see it. I think this is different. We're painting things that people can relate to. Maybe it's a little more populist. It's colorful, it's bold, it's interesting, and everyone seems to like it. Which--maybe we need to change it up if everyone likes it. Maybe we need to become a little more offensive, you know? Push the boundaries a little bit.
Well, I'm sure a lot of kids and families love your work.
My work appeals to kids a lot. I don't know why.
It's the fantasy elements of it, you know? The Neverending Story, those types of things that you imagine are possible, that kind of live in your work.
I'm a big fan of science fiction and fantasy. I always have been. Like most adults my age, I was really into Star Wars. All of those cartoons; early anime that we might see on cable TV back in the day.
The artwork from Star Wars got me pulled in, too.
It was like a great world. And then like reading fantasy as a kid, reading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and all that, has just been a big part of what I like.
Along that line, do you ever see yourself getting into taking your characters and your narratives and making a story out of them, making a movie out of them?
Yeah, for sure. For sure. I've been telling my daughters a story about three magic unicorns that go on a quest. And every night I tell them a little more of the story. I'm making it up, and I'm like, “Wow, this is really interesting.” It's totally like I'm copying all of the fantasy stories that I've ever read, but you know... I think about that. I've actually started developing a couple different projects that I'm going to try and pitch eventually. But we'll see. I definitely think that might be the next step, like doing a movie or doing a cartoon.
I mean, where else do you go? You can go bigger, you can go into other media. You've done so much work, and I would think that you are constantly trying to figure out what you should be working on next. And maybe you are stumbling into that stuff, you know?
I stumble into a lot of it. It's hard to plan things out sometimes. There are so many things I want to do. I want to continue with real painting. I love doing gallery shows. That's always going to be a part of my life. I’m starting to get into the storytelling aspect of my paintings, having some kind of a narrative going on in my work. That's, like you said, really making me think I could make a story. Or maybe it's a comic book, maybe it's a cartoon, maybe it's a movie, I don't know. But it has definitely got me thinking about things. I think that's pretty important to me, to not limit myself. I feel like, as an artist, I want to be able to do whatever I want. If I want to jump from fine art to more production work, I usually don't see a problem with that. If I want to go from working on a cartoon to working on a mural to writing a story, it's all the same. I try to keep it open, and try not to limit myself too much.
I was reading that you were just in Paris, and there’s a lot of street art there. This is kind of a historical event for Richmond, in that street art has never been here before. Do you have any thoughts on that? Just coming into a new spot and just making this big mark, and having all these people that have never seen this kind of work?
I think it's great. I think there should be more events that are like this, because I think it really engages the kids. They are seeing this, their impressionable young minds are becoming inspired, seeing something different and thinking different. It's a really cool event. I've never been to Richmond before this, so I don't really know the history of the art out here, but it seems like a really cool place so far.
By R. Anthony Harris