Fabien Castanier interview the NYC legend, Seen at the occasion of his show in LA.
How are you feeling now that you’re back from Paris and living in the U.S?
SEEN: Honestly, I thought coming back to the US, meaning not coming back to New York but to the West Coast, would be a breath of fresh air and a little more relaxed than it would be for me if I returned to the East Coast. The weather is obviously a bit nicer, but that was the whole idea, to come to the U.S. for the nice weather, get away from the cold, get away from the New York habits that would disrupt my everyday work.
As a native New Yorker, which do you prefer – living in the U.S. or Europe?
SEEN: I like Europe because it’s old. My whole life I’ve been traveling there. For me, whenever I went on a trip it was about walking down the street, seeing the buildings and the architecture. It always amazed me these buildings – what they looked like, the structure, how they were built – everything. In the U.S., you don’t have that. I mean everything is fairly new – it’s only 200 years old! Nothing is really old.
Your super hero body of work is exhibited in galleries around the world and recent auction results have been tremendous. For this upcoming exhibition at Fabien Castanier Gallery, you are exhibiting work that you created while living in Paris. Can you explain how this exhibition is different and what it’s all about?
SEEN: Honestly, I like to use the word experimenting, but there’s more to it. I’ve always worked in an abstract area my whole life – as early as the 80’s, maybe late 70’s. The graffiti style of work – with the form of the letter – is what took off in the general public’s eye for me. I was painting in other styles at that time too, but I didn’t get a chance to work that deep in those areas. So during the early days, in the 80’s, when I had an opportunity to change my work style and go in a new direction I never showed the works that I was really getting into, which were more abstract. I kept that private, all these years I’ve kept it private. I wasn’t able to fully explore that style up until about 5 years ago. That’s when I got the opportunity to leave the U.S. and made my way to Paris. That was when I had all my energy and all my time. I was able to go back into experimenting in this field.
How did you decide upon living in Paris?
SEEN: When I got to Paris in 2007, I ended up doing an exhibition there. That’s when I decided to stay. About 10-12 years before that, I was trying to go. At that time, I was trying to get away from the States, to come to Europe to do what I wanted to do, which was to experiment further, but that was never allowed to happen because of family, my lifestyle, my work at the time.
But in 2007, when I landed in Paris, I said “OK, there is nothing to hold me back here at this time. I’m here and I’m gonna stay because if I don’t take this opportunity to stay now, I may never get this chance again.” I only knew a handful of people that I felt I could trust to keep quiet that I was in Paris to do what I wanted to do, to experiment and to help me to do it. So I took 5 years, and I worked 7 days a week. I got to the studio at 9 in the morning and wouldn’t leave until 3 or 4 the next morning. And when I left there, I would go home, sleep a few hours and do the same thing the next day. It was all about going further, where I could take this and it gave me a lot of energy to do it, a lot of time. No distractions. It was a beautiful moment in time.
So do you find it humorous that you painted all these works in Paris and that they’re going to be exhibited in Los Angeles with a French gallery owner?
SEEN: Yeah, I tell you, it’s strange that it will happen that way because the truth of the matter is, I figured that they would never be exhibited in the U.S. And if they would be exhibited, they would be exhibited in Europe. I find it ironic? It’s crazy (laughs) that it’s happening this way you know. But I do feel very good that it’s being shown through a French person, as I created it in France. So I feel there is a connection still. For me to show it here in the U.S. with anybody who’s from the US? I don’t think it would have a real feeling for me, like it would lose something for me. So I feel there is this connection there and I feel positive about that.
Did you like the French “joie de vivre” when you were in Paris? What did you think about the French people?
SEEN: Right off the bat, and this is the god honest truth, I had no problem with them. My whole life, I hear, “The French are a little snooty, especially to the Americans…” My experience though, with the French, was… NEVER, never did I have a problem, even when I ventured out on my own. I don’t speak the language and I still had good feelings.
Wait, I had one problem there. The food! When you go to a restaurant in Paris, the chef is the chief. This is the way the food comes, there is no changing it. You can’t tell the chef how to cook it. You can’t tell him “No, I don’t want mushrooms” or “No, I don’t want sauce” or “ I want extra”. It comes the way it comes. Thats the only thing! Do NOT argue with the chef. That’s what I learned. Cause I’m a very picky eater so it was a little difficult getting certain food because I need to have my food very very well done. Try to tell the chef that and he’ll come out and tell you to get out of the place. (laughs)
So be honest, would you go back to Paris for 5 more years?
SEEN: I tell you, I would live there for 5 more years. But during those 5 years, I would explore more. I spent most of my time in the studio. If I did 5 more years, I would go see more galleries, more museums, and I would see more of the streets that I didn’t see. But yes, I would.
Did you find inspiration in Paris?
SEEN: I found time in Paris (laughs). I found time. And I’m gonna be honest with you, time is what I needed. Inspiration? I guess I found that while I was there because I had that time to experiment, to find it. Any other way, I might not have found it.
Of this series that you created – all this experimentation you were doing – how does this fit into and how is it significant to your larger body of work?
SEEN: I feel it fits in because an artist needs to grow and to experiment. And if they don’t do that, then they’re not growing as an artist should grow – to see where you can take something, and to me, it’s all part of the process.
The shame is that it took a long time to get to this point, to produce a large body of work like this. When I was doing works in a similar manner years ago – experimenting – I wasn’t able to bring it all into one huge body like this. When people look at this work, at first they might think it’s overwhelming because it’s 5 years worth of work, “Okay, where did this come from?” Some might not see it fit in. But if you step back and look at the big picture, the form of the letter in graffiti is color blending and design work. The only problem is, the graffiti where I grew up – it was locked into a box, into a frame with an outline. I took the letter, an abstract piece basically, and I was confining it by putting an outline around it . Now, it’s totally released. The only thing that stops it at this point is the end of the canvas. And the truth of the matter is, you don’t even need the canvas, you just go beyond that. The letter just keeps growing.
These paintings that you created in Paris over the 5 years, they are exclusively painted with spray cans. Can you explain this process?
SEEN: The spray can is a tool that I find to be most comfortable with. I’ve used a paintbrush, an airbrush, I use other mediums and it all works for me but the spray can is the most comfortable. I figured out how to use the spray cans in an unconventional way with different works, with different abstract styles I would do. There is one way where I would take the spray can and take the cap and I would squirt the paint into the cap of the spray can. I let it go into the cap and turn into a liquid form now instead of an aerosol spray, so I just turned it into a different form. Now, I’m using it to drip on the canvases over and over to build up my textures and my colors and my designs. Sometimes, I’ll just lay a canvas flat on a table and I’ll take maybe 10 cans of spray paint and just squirt all 10 cans on the canvas. Then maybe I’ll take a trowel and move it around in a freestyle movement. There are so many ways to use a spray can. It does not have to be just pressing a button down and the spray comes out.
Do you consider these paintings a new direction for you? Will you continue in this direction, and still experiment or was this just a phase in Paris?
SEEN: Like I said, through the earlier days of my work, I worked in this area. Those 5 years allowed me to explode with it, do many pieces. I feel that I would like to continue with it. The truth is, I did so much with the structure of the letter that I feel – not a block – but I feel that there’s no further that I can go with it because I am happy with where I got with it. I’m happy with the lettering form, it’s my style and that’s what I do within that area. There’s only so many designs I can put in there, so many color variations I can do. So for me, that’s complete.
So in a way, these paintings are a way for you to break from the graffiti style and from what you normally show, for what you are known?
SEEN: Yes, yes. And it would be great if I break through and if it’s accepted. If it’s not, it’s still ok because I will still explore and experiment with it. It was just so important for me to take that time in my life. I needed to find it and I needed to find that time. And I was lucky to get it because for me, it makes me feel better for what I’ve been doing all these years because you get…. tiresome. You have to figure out what you’re looking for and where you’re gonna be happy in life, you know what I’m saying?
People like Keith Haring, for instance, everyone knows his work. Ok, he passed away early. Would he want to paint that same imagery today? And would he have stood the test of time if he still did it today? So these are a lot of questions, a lot of mind games that the artist starts getting in his head, like “Where am I going with this? What am I doing?” But you know what I figured out in the end? No matter what, I’m going to do what I want to do. Maybe one day when I kick the bucket, someone’s gonna open up the door and see all these different works and say, “Hmm, who’s this guy? and who’s that guy and who’s this guy?” and then realize it was just one guy and say, “You know what? See that guy? That guy was an eccentric. He was a fucking genius.” (laughs)
By many, you are considered a legend in the graffiti and street art world. What do you think about the great excitement surrounding this movement today that you began in the 1970’s? Do You have any insight about this movement today?
SEEN: In the 70’s, I was a kid. I didn’t think much more of it. You started off writing at school on your desk, then on your books at school. Then before you know it, you’re leaving the school and you’re writing on the school doors. Then on your way home from school, you put these little tags on the mailbox, and so on and so on. As a kid growing up it was cool, but I never would have in my wildest dreams thought that it would start a world movement.
I started to see that happening in the late 70’s, early 80’s, when I started to travel overseas. I was one of a handful of artists that was brought to Europe to start showing work on canvas. And from there, going from the trains to the canvas into a gallery, I was watching myself and others paint the streets of Europe. The Europeans were seeing what we did and then I saw them writing in the streets. I’m watching this thing start to explode. We went from country to country, showing our work and the explosion just got bigger and bigger. And then it got to computers which brought it to the world even faster, it just started to multiply. It’s so crazy what it turned into, not just on the street but it started to change how the public sees art. It trickled into the galleries, into the museums. And then you ask, “Well maybe it’s not gonna last?” Well, we’re talking over 50 plus years now that it’s been happening.
What is your next project or future plans?
SEEN: My next project? I’m going to build my coffin (laughs). No, ha! My next project is moving again. We’re in LA – this was a quick drop off point for me. I was originally supposed to go into Nevada first. I have a few projects going on there. So my idea was to be closer to my projects and also to be able to have a studio there. So we’re moving into a new space, it’s opening in the next few months. This will be my new project, getting that off the ground. And once I’m off the ground, I can start producing my work again.
What would you say to the people who will be visiting the UNSEEN show in February, about this exhibition and about this new series?
SEEN: The truth of the matter is, those who are not familiar with my work will not be surprised. But those who are familiar with my work will be surprised. All I can tell you is, if you like it I’m happy and if you don’t like it, I’m still happy because I’m happy doing what I’m doing for myself in life at this time.
These graffiti guys who deal strictly with lettering, they’ll label me right away. They’ll come to the show, some of these guys, and they’ll be like, “What is this?!” But hopefully one day, their minds will open up and expand and they’ll see that you need to grow and to move on and to see where it leads you, see where life or your mind expands to lead you.