Posted by: Addison – Aug 16, 2012
VA-born, New York-based artist R. Nicholas Kuszyk is best known for his robots. He’s shown his colorful, eye-catching work in galleries all over the world, and even put his robots into book form with a children’s book, R Robot Saves Lunch, released by Penguin in 2010. Nick’s done a lot of work in different sizes and formats, but he painted plenty of large-scale murals in his early days, and in recent times he’s been getting back into murals and street art. So when Ed Trask was calling up artists he knew to enlist their participation in the recent RVA Street Art Festival, Nick was an obvious choice. We caught up with him while he was in town for that event, and had this entertaining and enlightening conversation with him. Read on to learn Nick’s opinions on the merits of doing really big pieces, European street artists coming to the United States, and a whole lot more.
How did you get involved with the RVA Street Art project?
Ed Trask emailed me or called me or something, I don't know.
You've been working with Ed for, what, 10 years?
Yeah. You guys have been working together for a long time.
Have we been? I mean, I've known Ed for at least that long. That's pretty much it. This was rad--it didn't seem so formal because of Ed. That was the best part. Even though it was a relatively substantial commercially funded corporate thing, Chamber of Commerce and all that shit, it didn't feel that way.
How long have you been doing murals?
How long have I been doing this? Have you been around? I don’t know.
I think the first thing I saw of yours was probably four or five years ago when you first moved to New York and you did the giant wall.
You didn't see the Hole in the Wall that I did in 2002? Remember that? When it was Holy Chow.
You did the walls on that?
That was 2002. I had a big goofy pink wall here. I was doing graffiti in the 90s. In the early 90s I started in DC area in graffiti, in that scene in ‘92 and ‘93 when I was Little Toy and then I did a whole bunch of graffiti up until around 2000. '99, '98 is when I started doing real art. I got all fucked up on drugs and went to rehab and then came out, moved to Charlottesville and started making cheap art around '97 like the end of '97 early '98. That dude Steve King--you know who Steve King is right?
I've heard the name. I've never met him.
He's the OG cheap art dude. I kind of copied his model and started making affordable art. You know about those old art parties we used to do--throwin’ house shows and stuff, like in 2001.
Are you talking about Egg Space? Like down on the river?
I did a show at Egg Space in 2003. We did a real big show at Art Space in 2000 and 2001. It was huge, like fuckin’ 1500 people came to it. For Richmond at that point, it was a big record breaking thing, you know? We got in all the magazines, and we were all like 23 or 25. The oldest person was like 30, which I think was Ed at 32. I think he was affiliated with that. The big deal for us was the art show parties. I did one in Charlottesville and a couple in Brooklyn in 1999-2000. Then I started doing it here and it took off. But that was just local energy, and then we split off and did our own thing for a long time.
Yeah. I was just talking to Dalek about this transition, this explosion of giant pieces on walls. A lot of the graffiti guys got legit, did gallery work, got bored of gallery work, and are now just going back to street, you know?
There is a weird echo that's happening all around the country right now that the institution is kind of caught up with all the “Dytch-Hype”, you know? Like the Blu shit and the Os Gemeos stuff--the guys that really went big. I'm going to claim that Blu was the dude that made everybody especially for me stop fucking around, stop being a pussy. Like, for me, when I saw a couple of the Blu pieces... I mean, we had done big things before, but all of that dude’s shit was HUGE. I was like, “Duh.”
It's a way of like getting back to your roots.
Or not even, it's just the magnitude of possibilities. Doing it real proper with the scale, specifically. People had done big things in the past here and there, but every single thing they were doing was legitimately large-scale. That inspired me, for sure.
Got you excited to do it?
Yeah. And it was cool, so obviously. I don't like talking about like momentum. Like, “Oh, we’ve got all this momentum, because this thing is big and the next thing is big,” because you never know. But for me, it was a turning point. I hate saying stuff like “Oh yeah, Americans,” but I think a lot of other people kind of push shit. Like, “Let's do this on a competitive level.” Because that's how it is, graffiti guys especially. Those graffiti guys work big.
It was interesting hanging out with Pixel Pancho, from Italy, and ROA. They were saying that a lot of the walls in Europe had been just eaten up. Just that the street art scene and the mural scene is really huge. So a lot of those guys were really...
...like tour over here?
There are so many small cities in America that need them.
Like virgin territory?
Exactly. So you got to chill with these Europeans. Not talking shit but it's like, “Yo, stop flying these fuckers in.” Get the good talent that's been slept on around in the States. There are so many motherfuckers that are absolutely capable of doing these huge amazing things that haven’t had the opportunity. But it's also good to have the superstars. ROA was talking shit about being a superstar, but inadvertently, with his nature, he is a fuckin’ superstar in this scene. He just one-ups his shit, it's awesome. I love it.
He went to London after [the G40], and Aryz was here--he flew out to Madagascar. Goddamn.
That’s cool. I'm going to Australia next week.
Oh my god.
Yeah, and then probably going to Bangkok after that for a little while.
Are you just doing murals?
I'm curating a show [in Australia], a group show. Ed is in it, Jim Callahan is in it. A bunch of Richmond people and international people [are] in it. James [Dalek] is in it too actually. Rich is in it too. Suzy is in it.
You guys have been building on that crew for a long time?
We're not really in a crew. This isn't a crew. It's social, like a gangbang, you know?
What do you think a project like this could do for Richmond, since it's completely new? Or does it do anything? Maybe I’m thinking to far ahead…
I don't know. That's exactly what I was talking about--the hype of momentum, and people thinking, like, “Oh, it's going to be…” Inherently, with things like this, it only happens if the developers are interested. The city is only doing it because they are realizing that this kind of attention is good for property value. And that's a harsh reality if you are not a commercial person. Someone like ROA or Blu specifically is really anti-commercial, anti-capitalism, anti-corporate exploitation of all this stuff.
But inevitably it happens. Whenever he puts an image on that building it becomes a product.
Yup. Like when I was in Oakland, I'd deal with that. I'm in the hood, and I'm some white dude from Virginia. That's some racist shit, but the reality is nobody knows me there. I did a big wall in a pretty grimy neighborhood. You’ve got to sort of... not tiptoe, but I don’t want to be the dude who's stamping my territory and putting my sticker on your shit. I think it matters and there's a reality to the relationship with the community. Which is the point of saying chill with flying all of these European guys in. Not that I'm shitting on those dudes. But, you understand, there is always local politics, and I think that should be respected. So I ended up stepping back from just doing these big robot murals. I did a wall for this woman that had a building I perched in [in Oakland], and she turned out to be like the grandma, literally the den mother for the Black Panthers. She's 85 and she is a well documented, respected community leader activist. I talked to the liaison and he was like, “She would prefer if you did something like this.” At first I was like, “Well, I'm like an artist and I do my own thing.” Then I was like, “Wait, no no no. I'm a human being, I'm in your world, what do you want me to paint? I'll paint it.” Which is beyond the ego of my fuckin’ characters and all that shit. I did a thing for them. I painted a guy.
Did you do a guy or a robot?
No, I actually painted one of the guys in the Olympics, in Mexico City, you know, [with] the black glove. [African-American Olympic athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in the Black Power salute after receiving medals at the 1968 Summer Olympics.-ed.] Because those were like her kids--not really, but she looked after those dudes. Evidently she bought them the black gloves that they wore, but they only had one pair. So one dude's wearing the left glove and one dude's wearing the right. In some endearing way, they just fucking did it. There's some families there, it's not the worst place on earth, but it's a grimy zone.
That's interesting. Scribe did a thing in Abney Park over in Jackson Ward, and the neighbors came out and formed a line just thanking him for doing something positive in such a fucked up neighborhood.
For sure. [Nick starts to tell the story of a murder that occurred while he was in Oakland. -ed.] It was right around the corner. I could hear the bullets, it was so close. The next morning I got up and walked down there--police tape... hectic. There was a rap video being made, like some thug rap shit, and these dudes rolled up on the shoot. Three dudes got out [of a car] and started spraying with M16s, AK-47s. It was loud. They shot eight people, and no one died except for a one-year-old baby. His name was Hiram, and I knew him because he would go to the coffee shop right around the corner from my house. I was supposed to paint a fence right there. I saw the photograph in the newspaper, and the little dude was at the coffee shop on the regular with his mom. I never met the father. The dad got shot through his hand. [The bullet went] through the father's hand into the baby's head. Here I am about to do my robots and shit, but it's like, I'm painting on a fuckin’ murder scene. That was the only time I had to incorporate the times. It was like, “I’ve got to do it.” So I just did a big Hiram piece. And I put this little baby up--I didn’t know him but I said hi to him. The family was crying and shit. I saw them the next day and they were crying, and [they] came up to me, fucking big ass thug dudes, and were like, “Thank you.” That was all positive, on some memorial thing, but then the dude who owned the building in between the coffee shop and the fence got super pissed off about three weeks later that some white dudes came and did a baby's name. The mural was a memorial. I didn't know how else to do it, you know? And so the dudes got real pissed off that all these white kids, these artist people, were painting the dead neighborhood babies. All this dead shit, because there was another memorial in the corner for someone else who got murdered.
That sounds real deal.
I got robbed at gun point. Real harsh--I had a gun to my head. It was bad, but there was this weird dynamic. You’re being positive, but you never know.
By R. Anthony Harris