New York artist Ron English is universally recognized as the godfather of the modern street art movement. His distortions of pop cultural iconography, from fast food logos to Marilyn Monroe and Mickey Mouse, have brought his pointed critique of modern consumer capitalism into the mainstream in striking and unforgettable ways. He’s worked with Super Size Me filmmaker Morgan Spurlock on multiple films, painted album covers for The Dandy Warhols and (uh) Chris Brown, and even designed imagery for the Obama presidential campaign in 2008. The term he coined for his iconoclastic, culture-jamming artwork is “POPaganda,” and his work was chronicled in the 2005 documentary film of the same name by Pedro Carvajal.
All of these things make Ron English’s participation in this year’s Richmond Mural Project a true honor for the project and the city--but as English warns in this interview, they may also result in some uncomfortable questions for the RMP organizers to answer later. English’s creation, overlooking eastbound commuters on Leigh St downtown, is yet another of his over 100 modified interpretations of Pablo Picasso’s legendary Guernica. This one features enraged fast food mascots waving pieces of meat in the air with malicious intent, centered around a “Have A Nice Day” smiley-face that splits open at the mouth to reveal a grinning skull. It’s an outstanding painting--one that reveals English to have lost none of his edge over the past decades of his artistic career.
While he was in town, we sat down with Ron English to discuss a wide range of topics, from Guernica and “Abraham Obama” to his experiences creating public art in the South--and quite a bit more. Here’s but a small sampling of all the ground we covered during the interview; keep an eye on our website in the weeks to come for more excerpts from this fascinating conversation.
What do you think of Richmond so far?
Richmond's very nice. They have a lot of walls here. Looks like this thing can keep expanding for quite awhile without covering mine up. Mine will be the first to get covered up, mark my words. It's funny--I was thinking everything was going so perfectly, everybody seems so into it, and as soon as I said that the next lady said, “You're not painting on my building.” It was weird. I guess the tenants presented themselves as the owner because they wanted a mural, and when we showed up at night to paint it, the owner thought we were vandals in the night wrecking her building and went ballistic. So you should never say things are going great, because five seconds later everything falls apart.
The Obama/Lincoln image we used for the poster struck a chord with people. Where did the idea to combine those two ideas come from?
Well the whole thing happened rather quickly. Obama was still running against Hillary [Clinton] at the time, and they knew that the youth vote was going to be critical, so their staff was looking for ways to get to the youth, right when street art started becoming this huge thing. So they contacted Matt Revelli at Upper Playground, because he was heavily involved in the inception of the street art movement, [and] they said give us an artist, we'll make prints with him and use those to promote the candidate. The first one was Shepard [Fairey], and the second one was David Choe. I was the third one. They asked me on a Monday, and asked if I could have a piece finished by Friday. I think the talking points for that week were that Obama's not qualified, he doesn't have enough experience. That's when I realized he had the same experience that Lincoln had. You know, he's a skinny intellectual from Illinois. Also, the whole slavery thing. Slavery doesn't end the day you do the emancipation proclamation, because you're talking about people that don't have any property and don't have a long term stake in a country, so it's a very important part of the process for a black man to become president. There were just a million reasons to do it.
I submitted the piece, and I was having a party so I sent out a bunch of invitations to the party. I think one of the people I sent that image before it came out sent it to somebody else, and it went viral on the Internet. I don't know how it happened, it just happened quickly. Then the print came out and sold out in like two seconds. I have a band called The Electric Illuminati, and so [band member Don Goede] called me up and said we have to tour this image. Just go up from city to city and put up the one single image.
Like a billboard or something?
Billboards, buildings, anywhere we could put it. And I said, “That's great, I have all this other stuff! I have a billboard of McCain and it says I wanna get erected, it's a Viagra ad. I have a Republican retirement home, and a lot of stuff against McCain.” I had a whole lot of imagery queued up that I was starting to put out there. And Don said, “No--one image.” I said, “Can we at least do it in different colors?” and he said, “You can do it in different colors.” But you know, he's smart. McDonald's doesn't have a different version of the golden arches. They just focus their message to one singular thing. We don't need to show how smart we are, or how clever you are; this is more about getting Obama elected.
We went to ten cities. We did a legal mural in Baltimore that was sponsored by this gallery, and that night the guy that came to help me, Daniel Lahoda, stayed up all night putting posters up all over. He wreaked havoc. The next day, we were driving back to New York on the 4th of July, so we were in traffic all day long. About an hour and a half into the ride, we get a call from the gallery and the guy was freaking out. He said, “The mayor's here, all these people on the city council, CNBC is here, CNN's here. I don't know what the fuck to do, people are flipping out.” So it made the national news while we were on the road on the way back. What really lit the fire was trashing the neighborhood with a lot of posters. They were really mad about the mural, but because it was legal, they couldn't be that mad. It doesn't become a story until somebody breaks the law, so [Lahoda] did me a huge favor [by] doing that, I guess.
Maybe the absolute first street art festival ever was in Baltimore [in July 2002]. They built me a billboard to do for the festival, so I did “The King of the Jews For the King of Beers.” I painted it on a big piece of paper that we posted when we got down there. They got nervous, and I said, “Well, I have another one”--the “KISS: Kids On Coke” [image]. And they said, “Fuck it, we'll do the Jesus one.” That weekend, [people] burned the thing to the ground. They had 200 Christian radio stations saying I was Satan. It blew up, and they were scared because they thought they were gonna lose their funding from the university and everything. They didn't expect the firestorm that was to come from that billboard.
Did you feel like it was going to make that kind of impact?
No. When we left, everything was fine. Then they had the festival. That's when everybody saw it and flipped out, so we were gone by the time the shit hit the fan. I didn't really understand that the South started at Baltimore. In the North, nobody cares, but once you hit the South...
Do you do a lot of work in the South?
I did the same billboard in Texas and the same thing happened. It made the national news. The South is funny. Do you remember when the big censorship thing happened in 1989? When they tried to get rid of the NEA? First it was Dick Armey, then it was Jesse Helms. They were trying to destroy the NEA, so we put together this art show called the Helms Degenerate Art Show, after the Hitler Degenerate Art Show. We got like a thousand artists. There was no curation--you're in the show if you wanna be in the show. We did it in 10 venues around New York, but we wanted to do the show in the South. So we went down to South Carolina. There was this gallery that wanted to do it, but finally they said, “We can't do it, we're too scared. You'll come here, make a big statement, make the national news, and then you'll leave. We're trapped here.” My friend went down, and they drove him around town and everything was Helms Dry Cleaners, Helms Grocery... They go, “The Helms’ own this town. You cannot fuck with them.” And that's the thing with small towns--there's usually some very powerful people that own the town. If they pulled something like that, they'd probably lose their gallery.
I'm sure. Richmond's not a big town--there are definitely some major influences here.
That's the thing when you get to parachute in somewhere, wreak havoc, and then leave; whoever helped you there is stuck. It's always a weird situation.
What was the inspiration for the piece you did here?
Well, Shane [Pomajambo of Art Whino] wanted a Guernica. I think he saw the Guernica that I had at the Juxtapoz show in New York. I'll never do the same thing twice--I've done over 100 versions of [Pablo Picasso’s] Guernica, so I just kind of came up with something new. It's the fat food Guernica. On the left are the Ronald McDonalds, on the right is Bob’s Big Boy.
Do you ever come into conflict with corporate sponsors in festivals like this one? We talked about Altria a little bit.
Well, they could be awfully mad when I leave town.
I know there's a statement in there, with the references to corporations, but nothing specific to Altria's smoking.
Yeah. What if I’d had a bunch of little kids smoking?
That'd be really interesting. That'd be a difficult conversation for us later. [laughs]
Actually I've been more tame recently. The thing I actually designed for the wall was a giant brontosaurus painted like a zebra. [Shane] really wanted Guernica.
Why did you want to do your own version of Guernica? Why such an iconic image?
Well originally there was the first Gulf War, and all my friends went to DC to protest. I was gonna go, and it occurred to me, “I'll just be another face in the crowd. What could I do here? I'm in the media capital of the world.” So I painted Guernica, a 10x22 foot [billboard], and I wrote “The New World Order” on top of it in big fluorescent letters. I thought about [how] Pete Seeger will do a song and he'll add new lyrics to old melodies--the folk tradition, how art gets made. So I thought, “Well, I'll reinterpret something.” Because everybody already knows what Guernica means. It already has that meaning embedded in the image, and then it translates to the next image.
I always think it's interesting when you can associate yourself with something that iconic. Remember the Apple advertising, “think different,” with Albert Einstein?
We did a “think different” with Charles Manson, and yeah, that was too easy. And the funny thing is on the Apple website they posted the picture of Charles Manson.
No, no, no. One of the guys said it was funny. That's [when] I realized: there is no “they.” Or if there is an “us” and a “they,” there's us inside they. Do you know what I mean?
There's a lot of normal people within the machine.
Yeah. If you watch the movie POPaganda, it's kind of subtle, but basically everywhere we went, people were secretly helping us. We went to Kinko's and we're doing all these big printouts, and when we go up to the counter, the guy says, “I can't charge you--leave. I can't risk my job, but I'm looking the other way and you're not gonna pay.” A guy called me up and said, “We want you to do ads for Camel cigarettes,” and I had been doing the anti-ads for a couple years at that point. I looked at my wife, “Are they trying to buy me off? What the fuck's going on?” She said, “Just use their money to make your billboards and fuck with them.”
I had the trompe l'oeil technique that I developed in college, so I was putting that on the billboards, and they were putting them up around the country until one of the executives stood underneath the billboard and saw it was all skulls. If you see it straight on it looked like weird pattern stuff. They were trying to get the trip hop kids to smoke, but once they saw that, they had realized we fucked them. Then finally, I talked to the guy who hired me, and he said, “Well, the deal was that I'm a 40-year-old gay man, I have a condo, this is my job. I don't like selling cigarettes to kids, but I wanted to strike back in some way, so I thought you would know what I was doing and you would do your thing. Because I can't do it, but you can.”
Do you think street art has gotten too trendy?
My experience with art is, I went to college and tried to show my art in galleries, and everybody said, “We're not gonna look at your slides, we don't care, throw them away.” Or “Why don't you come back when you're 30 and maybe we'll look at them then.” And you realize there's actually no way into that world. That's when I started doing all the billboards. But now there's a way in--you can put your art on the streets, and people decide whether you're good or shitty instantly. Now everybody has access, so it's an incredible moment in history. And I think, Why am I such a fan of baseball? It's because when I was a kid, I played. At some point, I realized I might play one year in college, but I’m not good enough. But I've grown to love the sport by participating in the sport.
It's the same way with street art. The kids are doing their street art, and at some point they might think, “Fuck it, I'm gonna be an accountant or something, and might not have what it takes to go all the way, but I'm a fan. I know who all the street artists are. I’ve made my own street art.” So they’ll be fans for life. They can appreciate it. I swear, when you're on the lift and you get down and sign all the autographs for the little kids, it's like you're buying those fans for life. All my life I wanted art to be popular, and it's finally popular.
It reminds me of what Wu Tang said: they’re for the babies, because all those babies grew up to be hip hop fans.
Exactly, and hip hop happened because of access. If I'm a kid in high school, if I rhyme, I'm a rapper. I don't need a $6000 synthesizer. To rap, you just rap. Street art, you just go out on the street and paint something. Now you're an artist. You don't have to have a bunch of special equipment or a Harvard degree. People love sports because that guy's really good. There's a specific thing you have to do, you have to get the ball through the hoop. Let's say Michael Jordan had never got a ball through the hoop his whole career, but he's considered the greatest basketball player because his dad owns the team, so everybody's hired to go, “He's great!” That's what the art world has been for 100 years.
If they don't look at anybody's slides, how do they know they have the best artist? They don't. It's a very small clique of people, and street art has blown that whole thing apart. Now it's something more akin to sports, where everybody knows who's the best person. The artists are way better now. There's more great artists than there ever has been in the history of the world, and it's because they opened the doors. Everybody can see, everybody has a chance, and the competition's huge. I used to run track, and as soon as I'd run against other people, I'd get faster. It's competition, but it's good competition.
More stories from street art godfather Ron English
You may remember a couple of weeks ago when we shared with you our interview with legendary street artist and graffiti provocateur Ron English, who was in town this summer for the Richmond Mural Project. What we didn't share with you at the time was the full extent of the conversation we had with this legendary artist. He regaled us with so many more wild stories than we could possibly fit into the space we had for them, and we had to leave a lot of great stuff out. However, we didn't want to keep them all to ourselves, so here are a bunch of bonus stories from our RVA Mag interview with Ron English. Enjoy!
The Abraham Obama Tour:
We went to San Francisco and LA, Colorado Springs, then Denver, and Seattle. So we put the image up everywhere.
And you were playing with the band in each location too?
No. We did a show with the band in Colorado Springs and it actually kind of ruined it. This guy that was the editor on the movie POPaganda said, “I want to make a movie about this.” Because it's contained, it's six weeks on the road. And Obama was either going to get elected or he wasn’t, so he thought it was something he could tackle. So he made a documentary [Abraham Obama] about the whole thing, and actually we weren't able to sell the documentary. We only had one person who wanted to buy it, and it was at Showtime. The buyer said, “This is a really important moment in history and it's unprecedented that these street artists came together to support a candidate. Not a single artist supported McCain, and it may have been the tipping point in the election so it's an important moment. But the problem I have with the film is that all the women are either not there or they're naked.”
What happened was Yosi Sergant put on a big show in Denver, it was a culmination, we had been on tour and we landed there. [The show] was street artists, and the only big street artist that was a woman was Swoon. They couldn't get her so they got Maya, who at the time hadn't developed the style that she got super famous for more recently. so she was just really pissed off, like, “They only got me because they couldn't get Swoon.” So she was mad that all the people at the show at the end, and all the people that we met on the streets and stuff, were men. The guy in my band then said, "We want to throw you a party in Colorado Springs." To show off how hip they are--because you know that's the epicenter of Christianity, right?
Colorado Springs? I didn't know that.
Yeah. That's where all the big mega-churches are housed and stuff. Colorado Springs is where they have their headquarters. So I think he desperately wanted me to see that they had a very small hipster population. That they were way more hip and way more fun and crazy. So this guy painted all these women like characters, but they were nude so they would be like rabbits and cowgirls...
So another artist painted your campaign?
Right, right. It was a surprise for me, like when they threw me the party. But then he included that in the movie, and that kind of killed the sale of the movie.
Teenage home movies:
I saw an interesting video of you from the '70s going around a grocery store, and it seemed like you were hanging out with your friends.
Yeah, we used to make movies.
Are you still in touch with any of those guys?
The main guy died two years ago. We actually got to see him a couple of months before he died, but he didn't go to college. Basically if you turn 50 and you're a laborer, you're a dead man. His back completely went out, he couldn't work anymore. He took meds for his back and drank a 6 pack and started hemorrhaging inside. But even when we talked to him, we knew his life was at a dead end, there was nowhere to go.
Did you have a sense you were going to be an artist? Or did you even know you were going to be an artist back then?
I didn't know what an artist was. There weren't really artists in Illinois. But yeah, I wanted to be one. I just didn't know how to do that. The movies were fun. You could see I was making fake products and putting them in the supermarket at 15 years old. I haven't really changed much.
The chaos from that film back then, it just seemed like you just kept going with it.
It actually got seriously bad because when I moved to Texas I started doing the movies again. I started using these speed freaks in the movies, and they did some crazy fucking shit. I went down to this park where they all hung out. You know, you always get fucked up and you do the craziest shit, but it's like, “I can't film because it's in the middle of the night.” The camera equipment back then couldn't handle it. So what if we got up in the morning and started drinking beer and shooting speed? Reverse the schedule, and we'll see who can do the craziest thing. A bunch of them showed up. One guy jumped out of a plate glass window, one guy jumped out of a speeding car, and one guy set himself on fire at the mall. In the end, one of the guys caught fire really bad and had to be taken to the hospital for a month. And somebody stole that movie too so I don't even have it.
And that's when you stopped doing those?
Right. And I actually stayed in touch with him forever. He's the only one that's still alive out of that whole group--the guy that was on fire. He went to the hospital, and they gave him morphine, of course. You know, the worst kind of pain you could possibly have is being burned. They have to scrub the skin off your legs. It's horrible. And he told them he did speed, because he's fucking high as a kite, and they cut him off of morphine. Because you can't have morphine when you're on some kind of drug, so he had to go through the most searing pain you could possibly have without any medication. When he got out of the hospital, he never went back to doing meth. He came and joined me at college, and he was one of the first computer guys, so he's been very successful ever since. All the other kids in that movie are dead. I felt horrible about what happened, but he feels like it saved him. It shocked him and he went to college and became one of the first computer geeks.
Back in the early '90s he came to live with us for a while, and as a present he wrote me a virus, a computer virus that if you wrote on your computer "Andy Warhol," on the screen it would say "Andy Warhol," but if you e-mailed it to anybody it would turn into "Ron English," because it had the same number of characters. It became one of the top 10 viruses in the world and it was called The Plagiarist. And he re-wrote it three different times. So he was kind of competing with the people that were busting the virus. It was the nerds versus the nerds, because they were fans of his work, because this guy's fucking super smart. I was actually nervous because there was a computer virus with my name on it, but I don't even know how to plug in a computer, so it couldn't have possibly been me. It was a benevolent virus, that's all it did.
That’s almost like culture jamming in a way.
Yeah, that was like his take on culture jamming. He wanted to go to Wall Street and he said we could sit in a car and could hack people's computers without even going in their room. He was super good at it, and I was just too scared to do shit like that.
Talk show appearances:
I saw an old video clip and I was wondering if this was real or not. I should've written the name of the show--you were on there with a girlfriend, she was talking about your lifestyle.
That's my wife [Tarssa Yazdani]. We did a whole lot of those shows. I watched TV all day when I painted, and they had just opened up cable. There were like 4 or 5 stations, but then suddenly there were like 200 channels. They needed to create content and they needed something on the air for cheap, so they figured out talk shows. That became the big thing. It was the cheapest show you could do. They shot them in New Jersey. They sent a bus to New York and picked up a bunch of homeless people or whatever to fill up the audience. So the audience is free, you're not paying them. I started thinking, well, wouldn't it be a good way to promote my career and go on all these shows? But what I figured out was it can't all be about art, it has to have some kind of sexual component.
So the first one we did, my wife called up and said, “My husband's an artist and I support him with that, but he does a lot of paintings of nudes. I have a professional job and I don't think it's very professional to come home and find all these naked women who can't put their clothes back on. Am I a prude? Should I have even called you?” They said, “Oh no, this is great!” What we did was call all our friends and told them to call in with the same problem, and a friend called and said her husband does these videos and there's always naked women and she thought he might be having sex with some of them... So they said, "Oh my god, it's an epidemic. We've started a trend." They built a show around it. We went on the show and we were in the green room, and different people's situations got more egregious as they called in, so they said, "We're bumping Ron and Tarssa to the audience." Because they overbook the stage. That's why if you ever watch the Oprah Winfrey show and they're doing a show about cancer, everybody has the same cancer in the first three rows. So if someone doesn't show up, or someone seems more crazy than [the people] onstage, [there are reserves].
So they bumped us to the audience. And the whole place, the green room all stood up and said, “Well, we're all leaving.” And they said, “This is a live show! Wait a minute, do you guys all know each other?” And they're like, “Yeah, we're pranking you.” In a panic, they ran down and said, “We're fucked!” And everybody said, “Oh don't worry, we'll go out there and yell at each other.” We did a few of those. We did Jennie Jones, and Am I Nuts was a weird show; that's when I went out and acted like I had an addiction to doing billboards.
The one that I saw was a guy that smoked a lot.
Morton Downey Jr. We did his show twice. We did one where this guy trashed a bunch of artists, like “Look at what they're calling art now!” Then later, he had a show in Chicago when he tried to do a more subdued show, and we did that one too. I think that was the last one we ever did. My wife was pregnant and she was tired. She said, “Get one of your friends to pretend that she's your wife, I'm not doing these anymore.” But Morton was crazy though. I was scared shitless, because they were using me as the tease. “This man's the most illegal artist in America.” They wouldn't say what I did. The first artist came on, and they booed him and threw shit at him, and he kind of limped off stage. And these artists were heroes, that I thought were great. The next artist came on, and they booed him and threw stuff at him, and he left. Then it was my turn, and they showed some of my billboards. Morton said to the audience, “And this guy I like.” They were about to attack me, but then they were like, “Oh, okay well we like him too.” They were all into me, and it was fun. Then I got into a fight with Mort when we went to commercial, because he said something like, “What about the advertisers? God I just love those cigarette ads,” because he's obsessed with smoking. I said, “I only go over cigarette ads,” and he flicked his cigarette at me.
When we went on his show in Chicago, I asked, “Do you remember when I was on your show before?” He said, “I don't remember any of that shit. I was so fucking coked up.” The funny part was when we were in Chicago, that's when he started dying from the smoking. He was green, and we were like, “How's this gonna work?” But if you watch the show, he looks normal. They adjusted the color so he looks good and everybody else looks weird. You could tell he was biting the dust.
He seemed like an extreme person.Yeah he was extreme. It was all show business to him. All those guys are show business, or I think they all are. We were promoting the [POPaganda] movie in Canada and I had a really good publicist. He said, “I'll get you on anything, but do you wanna go on a right wing talk show?” I said yeah, and I went on a radio show. It was like a Rush Limbaugh type of thing. The first couple segments they wouldn't let me on because they thought an artist would be boring. And my publicist kept bugging them, and they said, “Okay, we'll put him on for a couple minutes, but then you get the fuck out of here.” So I went in and he goes, “So what's the deal with the Democrats in America? Why do Democrats hate their country and Republicans love their country? What's up with that?” And I said, “Republicans love their country like rapists love their women.” All the phone lines lit up, and people started calling in and screaming, and he goes, “I like you!”
At the end of it, he said, “You're from New York--I really want to be in the New York market. Is there anyone hiring down there that you might know of?” And I said, “The only people that are hiring is Air America. It's the new liberal station.” And he goes, “Oh yeah, I can do liberal.” So they're actors, they're just show people. We would go on these talk shows and they would be our nemesis and yell at us and stuff, but they were all just other people that we knew from the scene. A lot of times we'd be just sitting in the green room and they'd go, “Which side are we on today?” They formed the Young Republicans, they were other pranksters who were on these shows, or they weren't even pranksters, they just liked to be on these shows and act like they hated us. Even Bob Grant, after he'd yell at me, backstage he would say, “I think you're a great artist, but it was all show business, you know.”
Do you feel like you were part of the show?
Yeah. I mean it was a show. It was a put on.
Ron's opinions about the current art scene:
The artists have been great and I think the community appreciates that back and forth. If you get nothing else from Richmond, everybody here's absorbing ideas.
Except for that one lady that owned an art gallery. So she probably felt threatened--she’s part of the old guard. You gotta change, honey--you gotta keep moving on.
Landscaping and puppy dog pics have been really huge in Richmond.
When I grew up the artists were painting flowers that they showed at the mall, and the radicals were the ones that painted barns. Not on barns--they painted pictures of barns. I got to go back to my hometown, which was a crazy experience. One of the reasons is because of the internet, because the whole town was waiting for me, with the [local] news and everything. We had no idea. We were all grungy, because we were just painting murals in Detroit. We were completely shocked that when we showed up at this restaurant and everybody was there. Then I did a mural and it got on instagram, and all the kids came down from the college. But then I went to the old gallery that's in my town, and it still showed the same landscape paintings that I thought were pretty impressive then; but they weren't even that good of painters. The clouds looked like they were gonna drop out of the sky, like they were made out of concrete or something. It was unimaginative, banal shit. And it was because there was no competition. They were local artists, everything was good.
The reason for the Richmond Mural Project is not only to have great artists come in, but hopefully to raise the level of the local art scene. If you want to put up your work next to people like Dave Flores, you have to step your game up.
Also, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the artists are very open about their techniques. They'll show other artists. When other artists come up and ask, “How’d you just do that?”, they’ll show them.
I noticed a lot of people wanted to talk to you and they said, "Ron's a little stand-offish."
Well it's hard to talk when you're painting, because you're concentrating, but afterwards I thought I was very friendly.
I guess when you're working it's like, "Well, he's probably thinking about stuff." And it's hot as crap out there.
The funny part is when you go somewhere, the most aggressive ones come up to you. The ones that are probably more like you, that are shy--you don't really meet them. They just kind of stand in the background. Everywhere you go in school, there's always the aggressive one who'll run up and talk to whoever's there, and there's always that weird shy kid who's standing in the back who's probably pretty interesting. They're just not gonna put themselves out there.
Interview by R. Anthony Harris
Introductions by Marilyn Drew Necci