‘California Dreaming’: BATES Talks His First U.S. Solo Show
"For me, it is very important that I carry the torch. Writing is a dying art form."
Images courtesy of the artist
BATES is a soldier of the letter, tried and true. For three decades, the certified OG from Denmark has painted allegiance to the rhythms of shape and style instigated by the movement’s NYC godfathers, while always making the finished result entirely his own. His melt-your-face-off style, sharp lines, and bananas can control have burned it down on five continents, in more than 30 countries. He’s slayed end-to-ends on the trains of Europe, and, during New York’s Clean Train era, even caught a red bird or two. Indeed, BATES’ work is testimony to a life-long, true-romance with the letter—lived out on walls and miles of train track, and in recent years, European art galleries.
Presently, the Danish graf artist is on the crest of his next major career milestone: his premiere U.S. solo exhibition. This week, he makes landfall at RISK’s Buckshot Gallery in Santa Monica with California Dreaming. The show is a blast of uninhabited graphic verve, and, of course, bright color. Sporting all that we’ve come to love about BATES, the new series of paintings—all created within the last few months—metes out the guaranteed burner in equal dose with more loose-limbed, stylistic experiments.
A week back, we jumped on a call to Denmark to talk carrying the torch and California Dreaming.
Mass Appeal: So often, when artists make the transition from writing in the streets to a studio practice and showing in galleries, the work involves experiments in abstraction or color theory. But, in your case, you’ve never abandoned the letter.
BATES: You know, I did my first canvas in 1985. I still have the canvas. I did it for my mother. I tried it, but I was never really satisfied with staying within the frame. I always loved doing larger works, street-size, with a lot of feeling and motion, swinging the spray can around. Suddenly, on canvas, you have to stay within certain measurements. It was very hard for me to find that. But, I think now, because I’ve been painting for so long, I need to challenge myself. I know a good piece in the street. I can do it on my backbone. It’s not a problem. But, I need to challenge myself if I want to stay within this art form. I have to take some new development and some new growth. Plus, I’ve been doing for 30 years. It’s not like I’m some artist that’s just been writing their name in the street for two years and then decides, “Yeah, I’ll make an art career out of it.” I’ve been practicing and getting better, and I’ve stayed hungry to learn new things. When you work on canvas, you can work more with colors and the planning of it. Back in the day, you just used whatever you had. Now, I can experiment more. But, the transition is hard. You have to stay within the frame and have the same expression you would in the street.
Find new windows and doors.
Yeah. This past September, I was in New York. I was with RIME and HAZE. I see their studio, and I see what they’re working on. They showed me things working with a brush. So, you continually learn, and then add it to your mix. I speak with BLADE. I met with FUTURA. You know, I’m just another generation. There will come a day, when they’re not there anymore, and who’s there to pass it on? I’ve been studying all the good style masters from New York. I’ve been traveling. I met SKEME this year. I feel like, in a way, it is up to me what I leave behind. With all the stuff that I’ve done over the years on walls, I’ve done maybe hundreds of pieces, and there are maybe five pieces that are still around today. I sold my fist canvas in 1987. I went to a museum two years ago and somebody bought it and it stands the test of time. It looks like it was done yesterday. It really made me think I did this over 25 years ago and its still there. I need to put my stuff on canvas. It just took me very long to make that decision. But, when it’s time, it’s time. You learn little by little. I see all my friends and fellow artists and they’re doing it. At least I have to try. It has been eye opening to have this type of response to my artwork. Normally, I just did it on the street, took the photograph and maybe shared it with some homeboys and that was it.
You still consider yourself a student of the culture?
Absolutely. All the time, I’m learning. MARE-139 comes to visit me. And he explains stuff to me, saying that I am of the few style masters of Europe. It makes my brain think like, “Okay, I’ve got to keep doing it.” A lot of people, like you said earlier, go from the streets to galleries making abstract work and doing different things then what they are known for. A lot of people say to me, “Ah you should do more than these things, this style.” I just want to do stuff that I like to do and something that is important to me, like the letter because of the communication. The way I can flip it and stretch it and make the letters dance. Even if it looks like decoration for people who are not so skilled at reading outlines and all that.
I don’t just want to change because now I’m “artist” and have to to please other people. I don’t want that at all. I have been doing it since 1986. When you keep doing it, and keep doing it, it becomes something. That also means that the name also stands for something. When you buy a FUTURA, you’re not just buying his abstract work. You are buying his story, where he’s coming from, what he has been part of. That’s the same with me. I’m just another generation. I’m out here in Europe, so I have a different background, but in a way it’s kind of the same. You know, it’s not like I invented rock ‘n’ roll, but I’m trying to take it in and make it my own thing.
And there’s a responsibility inherent in carrying on that mantle.
Yes. That’s how I grew up. I saw some of the few things that came from New York—the movies and documentaries. Then you had to figure out the rest by yourself. There wasn’t so much information like there is today, so you had to actively go learn about things. I hung out with a guy older than me and he was actually a mentor. He told me, “You should color your outlines. You should do your own characters and do your own background because then you don’t depend on other people. You can do everything on your own.” And I’ve been that way for a lot of other others, younger guys coming up. If they come to me, and I feel that they have the right attitude, are open-minded and are willing to listen, then I will give my experience to them.
I don’t lose anything sharing my experience with other people. It only comes back to me and makes me proud when they work, and after six years maybe more, they start to catch it. They are the next generation. I would say, “You need to study, and look at this guy, and you need to practice your handstyle, and you need to put your stuff on paper before you go all crazy. You have to start with certain things and work with certain colors.” I never went to art school. I never took a class. I learned from painting with other people. I had teachers in a way, but I took a little from there and a little from there, and then you stand around in the pub a bit. [Laughs] My style comes out of that. That’s the stuff I want to give to other people so that they can learn. For me, it is very important that I carry the torch. Writing is a dying art form. People now have all their phones and tablets. Back in the day, I was trading photographs with RISKY with handwritten letters.
How did this first U.S. solo show with RISK come together?
It’s a long story. I’ve wanted to do a show in the U.S., but I thought I wasn’t really ready yet. I still feel like I’m new in the art world. It’s one thing to paint, but another thing to know how the business works. So, I try to learn from experience and my past shows here in Europe. I think now is the right time and I had a good contact in RISKY. I met him in 1989 together with SLICK when they came over to Europe for one of the first graffiti festivals. We’ve always stayed in contact. Whenever I’ve gone to California or they’ve come to Europe, we meet up. Now, RISK is a co-owner of Buckshot Gallery and the opportunity came about for me to do a show. They just had a show with SEEN. RISKY said, “You have free hands. We don’t have any structure of how artists should do their work.” He basically said do whatever you want.
That has to be freeing.
I think it’s really cool. I’m just glad that he believes in me and has given me the opportunity. Now it’s up to me to prove myself.
Your understanding of writing culture is intrinsically linked with the globalization of hip hop, right?
Yeah. There was a lot of different cultures that were happening and coming here, from punk culture to BMX and lots of crazy stuff. But the ways I was getting into it was through the movies, the electric Boogie and break dancing. I started when I was like 12 years old. But, I was also very into drawing as a kid. I thought the background of these movies posters and stuff were even more exciting. But, there wasn’t that much information. You had to imagine things. Maybe there was a small clip that came in the newspaper, something from the Bronx. So that’s how I started. Very much so listening to hip hop. I still listen to hip hop. The youth club that I was going to as a kid, they’d have these parties and [Laughs] we’d do the back pieces on the denim jackets. You know, all this stuff. It was very strong, very impressive images when you are 12, 13, 14 years old. It’s crazy that something that you found in your teenage years can follow you for so long and can develop from that. If you keep on, it becomes something.
Could you ever have imaged that this could become a life? That this would become your life?
I just did it for years and years. I never thought about where it was going to go. I just went from piece to piece. I could just go anywhere and paint. I just wanted to travel and make a name for myself. I was not really focusing on the bigger picture. It has also changed a lot how the culture is accepted, has changed. There might not have been as many opportunities as there are for me now.
And to think now it’s co-opted to the point that advertisers are doing their own full cars.
It’s crazy, I know. Now, you can buy a whole train or a whole house and put your advertising on it. And it’s not about artistic skills. These guys did it illegally, in the dead of night…
And they stole all their paint…
And they stole all their paint. Now, they just put some vinyl on some silver train. It’s kind of funny in a way.
And coming up, your aim always to paint a NYC train?
Of course. Yeah. You see these rolling canvases and want to be able to see your name on it. To watch it crisscross the city. Millions of people get to see your name. It’s insane. From a kids point of view, why wouldn’t you put your name on it? And then if you can do it with class and good colors and people point fingers, of course you want to do that. It was one of my goals. I finally got to New York in 1993. Of course, it was the Clean Train era, but it was like a goal for me. It was also to go there and see the history. I would go to the yards and see quick tags and pieces that were still there form ’81 or ’79 or something. You’re standing there in front of this great big silver train. It was just crazy. But, once I did it, I was satisfied. I wasn’t going to take over the system or anything. It was the thing to go and see the birthplace of the culture that I love. You know, one guy decides to write his signature. Another guy finds a way to enlarge it, make it bubble style and outline it. One guy wants to add a character, so you remember the piece from the Mickey Mouse or whatever. It’s just knowing that I come from that. I’m just from another part of the world.
California Dreaming will be on view at Buckshot Gallery (3129 Pico Blvd, Santa Monica, CA) beginning on Saturday, April 16. The exhibition runs through May 12, 2016.