recently, i had the pleasure of instant messaging w/ one of my favorite street artist's (although he would disagree w/ the title) elbow-toe. i first became aware of elbow-toe's work roughly around 3 yrs ago. initially what drew me in was his broad range of work. what kept me is his clear talent. he exercises so many mediums. from painting to lino cuts, to sculpture to grease sticks. the dude is dynamic. it's always refreshing to see a street artist go beyond the limitations of the accepted norm.
our conversations took place over a few weeks, below you will find some of the highlights from the chat transcripts. we talked about everything from how the name elbow-toe evolved to the possibilities of contemporary lo brow art and where it may go and more. elbow-toe has a show opening up this friday called poets of the paste at ad hoc w/ armsrock, gaia and imminent disaster. if you are in nyc/brooklyn you should go.
m: i became aware of your work about 2 or 3 yrs ago...how long have been putting stuff out on the street?
e: april was actually my 4 year anniversary.
m: how come this month 4 yrs ago it happened? had you wanted to get work out before?
e: not really, i was sort of vaguely aware or street art, i had been thinking about it 2 years before that. that it would be an interesting experiment to take some lithographs i was working on and seal them in a plastic covering and leave them on the streets for people, but i sort of lost interest…and just got back to studio work.so to answer the question of why it has been 4 years i basically was working at a web firm as their senior programmer and one day this guy comes in with a book of neckface. so i just started drawing in chalk this little character, the "ELBOW-TOE"
me: i read that your name comes from a sort of spoof off of neckface.
e: yeah, someone at my job had been complaining about him and i was sort of joking around that if i was a graf writer i would be ELBOW-TOE
e: that was a few weeks before i saw that book, so it must have been some alignment of the stars or something.
me: obv. i read that you kind of regret the name now, is that true?
e: sometimes. i was not even that committed to it when i started.
me: i like it. although it makes my big toe hurt when i see that image.
e: ha. i thought of it as an experiment.
m: did you see street art as a way to further your artwork? was that the original thought?
e: i was actually stuck in a rut around that time, i worked for a couple years on and off with laurie anderson, and had applied to columbia for grad school i got wait-listed and sort of got lost for a bit…then i started teaching myself after effects, and maya, i thought i wanted to do video art. then the street art thing sort of happened and i was actually at a point where i was trying to decide which path i wanted to follow i had started a gallery as well...i was trying anything to get some movement in my life.
m: well, that is one of the things i love about street art...is you can just do it. and it has a way of really pushing you, because the streets allow some things and not others as in terms of mediums.
e: i was working at the time on some pretty big advertising accounts and was getting sick of the fact that i was helping to sell people crap.
m: yeah, that can be a hard pill to swallow when you don't have an outlet yourself. did they influence you?
e: they influenced me only in that i saw street art as an opportunity to influence the visual spectrum outside.
m: besides neckface, who were you noticing on the street...who inspired you?
e: no one really at that point i was completely oblivious, even though it was all around me.
m: ha, that's really interesting, considering about 4 yrs ago is when things really started to explode.
e: i find that the city trains you to have very short vision.
m: how so?
e: there is so much visual refuse, that in order to not go crazy you have to filter a lot of stuff out.
m: very true. nyc is great like that though...it's overflowing.
e: used to be, it's getting too clean now.
m: can you tell me a little bit about the text in your work? i know you get up w/ grease sticks. you've put some paste ups w/ text as well.
e: there was a point years ago where i wanted to be a poet. i sort of view the text pieces as little poems or notes.
m: the series w/ the kids...
e: that is actually all me.
m: "when i was a kid”, yes, i was going to ask you that.
e: my mom had sent a bunch of photos to me when I got married
e: i know how sweet.
m: what was behind that group? your thoughts, ideas.
e: i became really aware of the fact that these advertisements were trying to tell you how you could be a certain kind of person and i thought it would be really fantastic to say what kind of person i had been to be more reflective than fantasizing, that it could make people think about their own childhood and how it has affected them.
m: yeah, when i read them i totally wondered what i would write for myself.
e: the only thing that bothers me is that the subtlety is lost on them…once i started dealing with text i started thinking of all these things i could do with it. i sort of have a rule with my work though, i don't like repeating my text pieces. i did these pieces where i would juxtapose an image with text and then have another image that corresponded at the bottom.
m: one of the things about your text work is it's really pretty earnest, like the grease stick one liners. do you just write that stuff as it comes to you? or is it preconceived?
e: i just write it as it comes out, i find that taking walks is a great way to drop down and i find a lot of my work that way and once i get in the groove a bunch come out at once.
m: yeah, like a free flow.
m: has swoon influenced you?
e: the only thing that she influenced me by is the concept of a figure in the environment.
m: how so?
e: up to that point, i had only seen the sort of cartoony characters. so to see these realistic figures in an environment blew my mind i still did not know of banksy yet or blek or the whole stencil thing…didn’t know faile yet…
m: yeah, that's what initially drew me to swoon...that and i was so stoked she was a woman. she was doing something soooo different.
e: yeah, swoon, and armsrock move my soul. banksy i think is pure genius, particularly his work with the environment itself.
m: hey! good morning.
e: been up pasting. 6 x 9 footer.
m: holy shit. how do you get such large pieces up?
e: slowly :)
m: when you go out do you have specific places mapped out?
e: i go around and get a sense of spaces i would like to get up in and make notes about them, such as exit routes, cameras and such as well as what the imagery can play off of. some times i have held off hitting a space for a few years till the piece seems right for the space.
m: so do you work on specific pieces thinking of the particular place in mind or vice versa?
e: generally, i think of the pieces as their own entities and try to find spaces that speak best to them, it is definitely a marriage of forces. i am not for instance as intense as a WK interact who measured out his spaces and made diagrams. he is so brilliant that way.
m: have you ruined pieces in the process of getting them out?
e: very rarely, in fact only on 2 occasions. when i was trying new techniques of installing the piece. one fellow, c215, would put his paper in a bag with glue so he could essentially just take it out and install it. i tried to do that on a piece i had enlarged on the xerox machine, the paper could not take it.
m: are you influenced by WK?
e: no, but i think he was one of the guys i first noticed back when i was in art school.
m: ok, i have a q for you...i see you paste up over graf a lot. that's kind of a big no no in the graf world...what's your feeling on that?
e: i am an asshole straight up. i did it a lot at the beginning, because i thought ok, graf here means it is safe.
m: yeah, cause that kind of stuff is not looked down upon lightly. there are real rules to the street.
e: yes, and i can actually understand it quite a bit now but my reasoning [to avoid going over graf] is more out of fear and laziness than beef. i try so hard now to avoid it, but sometimes when i put up, everything just sort of goes blank. fear of getting caught, those spaces where the graf is in are pretty well secluded, and lazy in that i could have taken my time a little better, usually [if] i end up going over someone at the end of a run, [it’s because] i am on a pasting high and just have the desire to keep getting up. the first few pieces are always more specific in placement. that is what i mean by lazy.
m: do people ever stop and talk to you while you are putting stuff up?
e: it has happened like twice, once in london and once here.
m: what was there response to you?
e: 'nice work man, can i take a picture?'
me: haha. did you give them a thumbs up in the photo?
e: i stepped out of the photo, actually i let them take a picture and then i smashed their camera. cause that is how i roll, i am a bad ass mutherfucker. that's why i wheatpaste. it's a real man's medium. nothing says man, like pasting a poster.
m: hahaha. you exhibit in galleries.
e: yes, i am still trying to figure out the gallery thing, being a commercially viable artist. for me, i am much more into the process and just letting my creativity flow.
m: do you work now?
e: no, i am doing strictly art at the moment. my wife actually gives me a hard time because i don't want to just copy one style of mine, which i think makes it hard for people to recognize my work and see it as an investment.
m: right, well that must be hard...because the public gets to know a specific style and then the consumer demands that.
e: yes. i just want it all.
m: well your work is incredibly broad.
e: and am trying to figure out how to make my own tightrope to walk
m: do you have a.d.d.?
e: no, i am horribly focused. my pieces are pretty labor intensive so i have lots of time to think of new projects. if i could deal with farming my work out to assistants it would be awesome.
m: ha. i don't know how i feel about that kind of art. how do you feel about it?
e: well i worked with laurie anderson for a while doing programming on some installation stuff, and i realized that some of these artists are like artist 2.0 they are the corporation with the artist as the brand. if i could find people as technically controlled as i want i would love to art direct them.
m: well that makes sense, that sort of work...but do you remember the dot paintings demian hirst did about 12 yrs ago? those were all colored by assistants. that seems odd to me, that sort of delegation.
e: but that work was so mechanical i can understand not a lot of talent in the execution.
m: because your work is so broad...and you move in different directions, do you get certain mediums out of your system or do you look back and think...i need to revisit that group?
e: i feel like i work in circles, like all these pieces are part of a giant arc and i will come back to them later on with new information. i think there are common threads, more than common expression. the artists i have respected and tried to aim at have all been pretty broad in their work.
m: you said before you started to put work out on the street you were in a rut, do you think the street has fed your creativity?
e: yes. absolutely, i think it is the greatest possible art intersection i have ever experienced.
m: yeah, it's a creative beast.
e: i was actually not as quickly all over the place before it. it made all this stuff that i had been taking in have a chance of various synthesis. i mean to be honest, i don't look at a lot of street art or graf. i mean i have my artists i like, but i am much more interested in firguring out how to, say integrate something i picked up from anselm kiefer into my work. i don't see myself as so much of a street artist as it is a place to put work.
m: that's interesting, because i think of you as one...and i think you are pretty well known as one. would you disagree?
e: i don't for instance have a relation to the particular pop-i-ness of a lot of the street art. i certainly don't want to be known as one in the long run. i mean one of the areas of art that i have never felt close to is pop art and it seems like people are seeing street art as an extension of that and i would never want to be linked to that. the artists that have moved me are for instance: steven di bennedetto, anselm kiefer, lucien freud, chaim soutine, gregory crane, kara walker, william kentridge, so i am much more into traditional arts. i just feel like i happened into it and have tried to figure out how to use it to fuel me.
m: what are some gallery shows you have coming up?
e: poets of the paste at adhoc, a show at black rat press later this year, thinkspace in LA in december with armsrock and a smattering of small group shows in between…so it is a really busy year.
m: so four years on...looking back what has been your most exciting experience in the art world so far?
e: i would say the [wooster collective] spring street show i think it was the apex of the street art movement.
me: I thought you might say that.
e: it was just electric. i can't think of any other word for how it felt working in the space. particularly getting to do the large drawing on the outside i am just looking forward now to seeing what the Barnett Newman is going to be to this street art movement
m: i don't know who or what that is...can you tell me about it?
e: barnett newman brought in the minimalist movement against the ab-ex movement. just this drastic change. i would like to head down that road now. it will be really interesting 25 years from now to see what this will all lead to.
m: do you ever worry you may spread yourself too thin with the broadness of your work?
e: sometimes. i just haven't ever found that one thing that says to me, this is it i can do this for a long time. my cut paper pieces feel really good, they feel like me and some of the drawings i have been up to feel good. i think i may be getting closer and all this exploration has led to it.