Baltimore-born, and now, New York City-based, artist Chris Stain has been making use of the built environment as his canvas since the 1980s. His work stems from the simple printmaking method of hand-cut stencils, reflecting inner-city and working class themes, and relating closely to his own upbringing in Baltimore. Stainâ€™s characteristic large-scale murals evolved out of his practice as a graffiti writer, and stand today as a kind of contemporary nod to WPA-era portraiture, featuring the faces and plights of everyday people in all of their affecting, confrontational realism.
Image courtesy Chris Stain
When did you start writing graffiti?Â
I started writing when I was eleven, right after I saw the movie Beat Street and picked up a copy of Subway Art. My first tag was SAVAGE. But it was long and I couldnâ€™t get it to flow in the Baltimore handstyle standard that was set by Billy ZEK TST/GS, so one year later I started writing STAIN.
Your work comes together through a characteristic stenciling and projection process. Itâ€™s very precise work. When youâ€™re planning a mural, how much do you plan ahead?
I like to check out the neighborhood first and see what type of demographic is present. To me itâ€™s important to take into account who lives there and how they might feel about the mural. Of course you canâ€™t please everyone. Based on that information I come up with images that seem to fit. I start out with one or more central figures, then I add elements of urban landscape to tie it together. I have a variety of transparencies that I can experiment with until I get the feel I am looking for.
Because youâ€™re using a projector to throw your images onto the site of your work, I assume this means that you can really only work at night. Was this a process you decided on because you prefer to work under the cover of night?
Working with the projector is just quicker for me. I can get an outline up in no time and come back the next day to add color. The older I get the harder it is to stay up all night painting then get up early the next day to fulfill my obligations. The other option is to cut huge stencils out of paper, cardboard, or plastic and paint the mural that way. Its very time consuming for me to work like that and I donâ€™t have the freedom that working free hand allows.
You very clearly favor storytelling in your work, often spotlighting culturally disadvantaged, underrepresented individuals and urban landscapes. What is the narrative yarn youâ€™re spinning?
In some ways itâ€™s biographical, somewhat nostalgic, and in others I feel like the childrenâ€™s book author Ezra Jack Keats just telling stories about inner city kids and common folk.
Image courtesy Chris Stain
How do you think about the relationship between image and text?
Together they give the observer more of a complete picture. Coming from a graffiti background I have always had a relationship with letters. In fact I first began to notice letters while spending time with my grandfather as a child. He carved his name, â€œ George Kelso,â€ into all of his tools in script and painted everything red. My mother use to say â€œIf you stand still long enough, Poppie will paint you red.â€
Many of your murals include portraits. How do you select specific individuals as subjects?
I look for emotions in the personâ€™s face that I can relate to. One of my favorites is the boy on the bike. He is just staring out into the distance, sitting on his bike. From the image I get a sense of being on your own looking around for the next adventure; the kind of experiences you have at that age.
Image courtesy Chris Stain
Are all of your projects done with permission?
Yes. But even with permission and a signed and dated permit in NYC, you will be harassed. At one wall in Brooklyn I actually had the owner with me and the police wouldnâ€™t let up.Â I was interrupted six times by different officers in one night while working legally. After they saw the permit they prodded me for information just wanting to see if I knew any of the graffiti writers they were looking for.
Thereâ€™s a particular kind of learning that happens through the passing down of knowledge in graffiti crews. You hang around, observe, practice, socialize. Itâ€™s all part of the process. Itâ€™s kind of like an urban folk art.
Yes. But that also happens with other art groups right? I am thinking of the Dadaists in particular.
Do you consider yourself self-taught?
As a graffiti artist, yes. I saw it and wanted to learn so I just practiced and practiced. I Hunted down publications, album covers, recorded music videos with the slightest hint of writing, like the Rolling Stones video â€œWaiting on a Friendâ€ where for a brief second there is a Futura 2000 tag in-between some wheatpasted Stones advertisement. It sounds crazy but it was the creative spark that I was so attracted to that came by way of graffiti for me.Â I actually havenâ€™t painted any lettering in quite some time. I miss it but there is a certain energy to it that I havenâ€™t been able to fully embrace in the past few years and that has held me back.Â I learned stenciling as a part of the screen printing process back in high school in â€˜86 or â€˜87. Somewhere around 1998 I recalled that process when I was trying to work more figuratively. At that time I was very inspired by the work of Kathe Kollwitz and wanted to draw like her but I couldnâ€™t and didnâ€™t have the time to make the effort. Stenciling allowed me to work quickly and accurately while capturing the emotion of the photograph.
And, now youâ€™re an art teacher. How do you approach teaching?
I just try to share what I have learned and experienced. Graffiti, despite its negative connotations, was and still is my gateway to a broader world of self-expression and creativity. So in the classroom I first talk about my experience and how that ties into the various avenues of art. If it wasnâ€™t for graffiti the majority of the artwork I now appreciate would not make as much sense because I now understand the importance of having enough passion to dedicate so much time, what to speak of your personal freedom, to making art.
This is the second year in a row that youâ€™ve been to the John Michael Kohler Arts Center through a partnership with the Wooster Collective for The Sheboygan Project. That means the city of Sheboygan now boasts two Chris Stain murals. What was the experience like?
The good folks at the Wooster Collective and The Kohler Arts Center have been very supportive and I have to say thank you again to everyone involved.Â The arts center is a gold mine for vernacular art. This year I was given a special tour into their collections. Itâ€™s one thing to see the work in a book but to see it in person, it radiates the artists mood and emotion much more. So I was blown away by the experience. The work housed in their collection by the likes of Emory Blagden and Eugene Von Bruchenhein, reveal creativity in a very pure form in my opinion. As far as my work there, last year I taught a stencil class and painted a mural. This year some of the people I met prior returned to help out on a large 40 x 20 foot mural on an underpass. Itâ€™s nice to be able to share work and the process but even better when people take something away from it to the point that they begin the practice themselves.
Photo byÂ Caroline Voagen
How have you seen graffiti change since you started in the 80â€™s? Do you differentiate graffiti from what is now being called â€œstreet art?â€
In one sense itâ€™s all art but there are different energies to what is known as â€œgraffiti,â€ mostly lettering based primarily using aerosol paint, and â€œstreet artâ€ which runs the gamut of various mediums. As for the letter-based movement, it has changed quite a bit since the 80â€™s. Technically, its reached levels unimagined back then through the help of all the newer spray paints on the market with lower pressure and cap options. The introduction of the internet helped styles develop more rapidly as it was easier to access photos from all over the world, get new ideas, and spark creativity.
Can you talk a bit about the translation of graffiti and street murals into the gallery and museum context. As artists who typically use the street as their canvas move their work indoors, it seems to me that there is a very different kind of relationship to and experience of the work â€“ for both the artist and the audience.
Again it comes down to the energy that goes into it. You can compare it to running. If you go running one morning in the park as your daily exercise itâ€™s one type of experience of running. On the other hand if you are being chased and you have to run from danger itâ€™s another type of experience of running, with different emotions and intensity. Both involve a need to accomplish the task but the energy and emotion that go into each are slightly different and produce different results.