“The greatest thing about my life now is that most people take my phone calls. So if I really want to do something with somebody I can call them up and they’ll pick up the phone.” -Ron English
Ron English transcends the street art scene he helped create. His irreverent, pop-infused work has made a serious name for itself since he hitched the bandwagon in 1984. Fast-forward more than two decades and you’ll find English enjoying the aftermath of his most famous piece—which spawned a documentary and, along with Shepard Fairey, galvanized the youth vote in the 2008 election. It takes a unique human being to think of merging the faces of Barack Obama and Abraham Lincoln, but English did it, and his Abraham Obama print is now the second most ubiquitous piece of art from Obama’s campaign. It would be the first if that Fairey guy hadn’t stolen the show.
English started his career by putting up billboards that protested through mockery corporate institutions like McDonalds and Camel cigarettes. His social commentary and eye for provocative imagery gave him a persona, which he translated into popaganda, his own form of art. Some call it agit-pop, but it’s truly indefinable. It’s where a picture of breakfast-cereal characters depicting the final breakfast and an African American boy scout in a Norman Rockwell-style painting collide. It’s Marilyn Monroe with Mickey Mouse tits. It’s the amalgamation of Abraham Lincoln’s head and Barack Obama’s face, which, mysteriously, fit together like two puzzle pieces.
We have reached a period where street art and mainstream art are becoming one in the same. But who says they can’t be? English was there in the beginning–a kid who just wanted people to see his art. And now he’s come full circle with a stunning exhibition at the Elms Lesters Painting Rooms in London (running through June 6th). He calls it Lazarus Rising because he wanted to make a statement about the state of the art world/our economy and what comes next. He was kind enough to chat with the Jailbreak a few weeks ago, and he had me laughing my ass off for most of the interview. Ron English is not only one of the most important contemporary artists working today; he’s also a really smart guy. His political knowledge, wacky (yet somehow completely logical) analogies, and general intellect make for a fascinating and hilarious read.
Enjoy, Jailbreakers. Please Comment Below.
The Jailbreak: A bit of a redundant question I’m sure, but how did you break into the street art scene and how did you become a street artist?
Ron English: I was a street artist before there was a street artist scene.
The Jailbreak: Okay. So how has street art changed since then? I mean to say how do you think people like yourself and Shepard Fairey have converged street art with mainstream art and made the two almost one in the same? Are they one in the same? Or is there still room for street art?
Ron English: They’re becoming one in the same. I think at this point street art is it’s own thing, kind-of like baseball. There are going to be people who play baseball for the Mets and then there are going to be people playing baseball with their teams on the weekend. But what happens with art, as opposed to sports, is that most people in the United States played sports in their youth. If they were good enough they went on and played it professionally, which is something you probably want to do if you have enough talent. Most people don’t, but they become very familiar with parts of the game because it was a part of their youth. Art on the other hand wasn’t really at all a part of people’s youth. Art was sort of an elitist activity that most people had no interest in until the rise of street art. After the first huge wave of street artists like Keith Haring, I think a whole generation grew up interested in street art or graffiti. They grew up tagging at night the way that other people play football on the weekends. It was an intricate part of their youth. The ones that showed a lot of promise went on to become artists and the ones that didn’t still appreciated the art form. You know the same way someone who played baseball in high school, but wasn’t good enough to play in the pros, has this lifelong appreciation for the sport.
The Jailbreak: So you’d say you’re one of the fortunate people who was inspired by street art and was able to make a living and life via your own art?
Ron English: When there was that first wave of street artists I don’t think any of us thought it was going to be a way for us to make a living. It was just something we had an interest and desire to do–we really just wanted people to see our art. We probably thought we had as much of a chance of making money off street art as we did making a living off doing bong hits. It was just something fun that we liked to do and then it kind of evolved into something else.
The Jailbreak: What do you think set your work apart from other people’s, allowing you to breakthrough?
Ron English: In the real art world there’s no basis for why one person is successful and another isn’t. There’s no architect for being a famous artist. Michael Jordan was Michael Jordan because he could put the basketball through the hoop—it was a specific thing that had to be done. In street art it’s more attuned to that because you’re libel to get your ass kicked if you go out there and make retarded art. And If you do it for too long it’s not going to be tolerated. There’s fierce competition between street artists when they try to one-up each other, which makes everybody a better artist. The same way that when you go play basketball against people who are better than you, you become a better basketball player. The bar keeps getting raised and people keep getting better to get over that bar. The whole period of early street art that was the dynamic of what was happening. If you’re out there doing that, you’re going to have to alter your game and try to improve. You’re going to have to figure out what works and what doesn’t by trial and error.
The Jailbreak: What was the turning point for you, when you stopped with that one-ups manship and you found your spot and your niche where you were able to compel people to like what you were doing?
Ron English: I think I still have a healthy sense of competition. I think by 1984 I was a pretty substantial street artist. I mean there was nobody who could build a better billboard than me and nobody who could do more with that medium. There still isn’t.
The Jailbreak: That’s a great segue into my next question: when I say billboard what’s the first thing that comes to mind?
Ron English: A great public space.
The Jailbreak: If you were one of the first to utilize the billboard, how important would you say they’ve been to your body of work?
Ron English: I think it’s a great vehicle for any artist. It’s a way to access the public without any filters and that’s something very difficult to do. A lot of times in the press you have to alter what you’re saying and what you’re doing to make it press friendly. You know, you have editors of magazines and everyone has an agenda, but if you go out and steal the space there’s nobody there to say no. It’s says exactly what you want it to say and it gets directly to the public without a filter. I can think of anything an artist would want more than that.
The Jailbreak: Moving in a little bit of a different direction now, what was your initial spark of inspiration for the now infamous Abraham Obama piece?
Ron English: I was contacted by Upper Playground, the gallery in San Francisco, and Matt Revelli who was putting together a group of six or eight street artists to do something for the Obama campaign. This was because the Obama campaign was reaching out and trying to get the youth vote, and I think they knew street art would be a great way for them to reach out to the youth. Matt put together what he felt was a good group of people who could create something quickly. So he called me up and he wanted an image that he could have to the printer in three days. So I didn’t have a lot of time to think about stuff. I think the idea came to me while I was still on the phone with him. Usually the best images come to you instantly, if you have to labor an image it’s not going to be an image that really works.
The Jailbreak: Is the piece important to you in terms of everything else you’ve done in your career?
Ron English: It might be the most famous thing I’ve ever done. I think it really worked for the moment, and it did what it needed to do. I feel like myself, Shepard Fairey, and those people who got up there and did shit all over the country had an effect. Because Obama pulled the youth vote numbers that nobody expected. Kids forget to register, or they get excited and flame out by the time of the election, or they’re in college and they can’t get to their home state to vote. But everybody did what they had to do and they got excited about Obama. They got excited about it because their homeboys and us were excited about it. I think it had a great effect and ultimately I think that’s what you want your art to do.
The Jailbreak: Do you think the piece and the documentary affected American’s perceptions of Obama?
I think we had a strange privilege to alter how people felt about him. Our last president was a trust fund kid who was allowed to run the company into the ground. It was very much an American story. Where, look, I start the company and it goes so far and then the son takes it over and blows it up huge and then the grandson takes over and runs it into the ground because he never knew what it really took to make this thing happen. That’s what happened with Prescott Bush and George Bush Sr. and by the time it was handed off to George, he was just a trust fund kid who sniffed coke and partied. He didn’t have the mental rigor or intestinal fortitude to take on the task, and he got manipulated by a bunch of people who were after his or her own interests. Obama is the opposite. He’s the first generation and he’s pulled himself up by his own bootstraps. He’s very much like Lincoln. Lincoln was the first frontiersman, he didn’t own slaves, and so they were very similar characters. They were the first of their generations and they worked hard and they weren’t going to fuck it up. It wasn’t entitled to them to fuck it up.
The Jailbreak: What’s your perception of President Obama and the job he’s done so far? Are you happy that you backed him and indirectly asked people to vote for him? Is that something you’re proud of?
Ron English: Oh very much so. I mean I think he’s got the intellect to do this job. He’s young and he’s smart. He’s going to make decisions I don’t agree with but that would happen with every president except myself. I might even make decisions that I would later disagree with. I like that I can be proud of him as our president. I like that when I go abroad other people are excited about him being the president. On the other hand, at this point it doesn’t matter, I know a lot of people who know John McCain personally who tell me we dodged a bullet because that guy is completely insane. Which makes sense because there’s no human being who can go from being tortured and come out as a sane, rational, levelheaded person. It’s impossible. You can’t have your legs cut off and run in a marathon; what we need and what we have is the guy who can win the marathon. I respect what he went through, but this is a very serious job. We found out what it was like to reward somebody for their privilege with the presidency and it turned out horribly. You don’t honor somebody with the presidency; you put somebody in that office who knows what the fuck they’re doing!
The Jailbreak: What do you consider your greatest work?
Ron English: I’ve always felt like the thing that’s most similar to what I am is a musician who has had a band for a long time. If you’re a band and you can rack up three hits then you’re a lifelong band; if you get one hit, you’re a one hit wonder and you’ll end up selling cars or something. I feel like I’m somebody who has created enough hits that I have a lifelong career. In a way you have to make thirty paintings to make one great one, and in a way, that one kind-of becomes like your child. But if you have eight kids, you don’t say one is the best. You talk about the different qualities they have and the different things they’ve brought to the world. The things, paintings or songs, are hits for a reason, and ultimately as an artist you want to resonate with people, otherwise you’re just jerking yourself off.
The Jailbreak: What inspired you to take other people’s work (Warhol, Van Gogh, Rockwell, Picasso, Etc.) and make it your own?
Ron English: It’s kind of like folk music, which I’ve always been very fond of. Before the 20th century, and the idea of corporations and copyrights for owning intellectual property, everything was out there for other people to screw around with. It’s like a folk song that gets passed to a different person and each person would change the lyrics to better suit the circumstances they’re experiencing. It was owned by a whole society, it was passed around and changed, and if you felt like you needed to update it you would do that. It wasn’t a diss to the original person, and in a way the original person wasn’t important. They were there in the moment and then other people came along and handled it and changed it. It was a lot more full of creative culture. So in a way, if I’m changing a painting, it’s like I’m taking an old folk song and making it more relevant to what’s going on right now.
The Jailbreak: What about Warhol specifically?
Ron English: I like Warhol because he left a trail of breadcrumbs. There’s a huge record of what he did: he saved everything, every piece of correspondence and every gift that was given to him. Everything was filed away. So there’s this huge reservoir of what it was like to be a famous artist in the 1960s. Roy Lichtenstein didn’t leave behind stuff; James Rosecliff didn’t leave stuff behind. So as an artist, sometimes certain stuff happens to you and you think that’s fucked up, and the same thing happened to Warhol. One time he was contacted by the Rolling Stones to create an album cover for them. And he came back with the idea of putting a cake on a turntable and they treated him like he was mentally retarded and told him to get the fuck out of there. Then they stole the idea and just found somebody cheaper to make it. That kind of stuff happens to us today and it kind of grounds you to know that you’re not the first person to have shit be pulled on you.
The Jailbreak: Who are your other influences, either artistic or musical?
Ron English: I like Led Zeppelin, I like Bob Dylan, and I like the Dandy Warhols. Honestly, I learn more from young artists than artists who are older than me, or at least it’s equal. My influences might be Rembrandt and it might be Kaws–it might be people who are dead, or people who have only been in the art world for two or three years. They have these brand new brains and they’re re-thinking everything in ways that we didn’t think of.
The Jailbreak: What does Popanganda mean to you?
Ron English: When you’re an artist and you’re at cocktail parties people always ask you what your art is about. And if you actually try to explain it to them, their eyes eventually glaze over. They’re really only looking for a two- or three-word explanation of your art. So I said fuck it and came up with one word that explains my art so we can move on. And it turned out nobody had used the word so I trademarked it. I think it means—kind of—it’s not propaganda, but it serves a lot of the same functions. It’s like being a dogmatic propagandist with a built-in sense of humor about the whole thing.
The Jailbreak: You currently have an exhibition called Lazarus Rising in London at Elms Lesters Painting Rooms. Can you talk about the significance of the name and what people can expect when they go see it?
Ron English: I had a two-person show there last year, and the art-world over there is just kind of crazy and loopy. It was off the tracks and not making sense anymore. Someone like Banksy was making a print and selling it for $1,000, and then the next week it was $20,000 and the next $60,000. It was one screen on a piece of horrible gift-shop paper. Because I’ve been around long enough I saw the same thing happen in the 80s where people were going crazy in the exact same matter. So I figured if I’m going to have show next year, the art market is going to crash before then, so I’m going to have the first show after the crash. I wanted to be first the first person out of the gate to say the Phoenix rises out of the ashes and this is where we’re going next. There are 20 pieces in there, about a year’s worth of work.
The Jailbreak: That’s it Mr. English, thanks a lot for your time and hilarity.
Ron English: Not a problem. Thank you!