A master of transforming everyday found objects into a range of intriguing characters, Brooklyn-born RAE is known throughout his borough and Manhattan for his three-dimensional folksy installations and for his striking, abstract characters. Last week, Street Art NYC had the opportunity to visit Rae’s studio and speak with him.
When did you first begin hitting the streets?
That’s tricky because as kids, we always carried markers with us everywhere we went. So taking tags was always a part of our daily lives. But, officially — where I could show off and say, “Look at me, Mom! I’m doing street art now!” — I would say about a year ago. Back in the 80′s, I was more into mischief, beat-boxing and girls than I was into graffiti, but they all go hand in hand in my book. I was always making characters in other people’s black books, and then other guys would put wild style letters to them. Man, did I love those damn Design markers! When I painted outside, it was mostly done for murals of friends who’d died with the occasional train yard run or dead tracks tagging. I remember doing a huge 20 foot roller tag on the back of Edward R. Murrow High School in the 90′s, along with some of today’s well-known street artists. We rode the train the next day with cheap cameras, all excited to see it, but there were so many leaves on the trees, you couldn’t see crap.
What inspired you to do so now?
What else am I going to do with all this art I make? It’s like when you make a huge pot of spaghetti and meatballs and at the last minute your guests cancel on you — How are you gonna eat all that pasta and meat by yourself? You’ll get sick. Gotta offer it out to the neighbors. It’s the same thing with my art.
About how many pieces have you installed?
Probably about 60, but in my head more like 150. Some still running, others dissed and others stolen or taken down in less than 24 hours.
Any favorite spots?
Not really. I try and keep it as random as possible and not always be in the usual “Look at me!” spots. Sometimes I blindfold myself and spin in a circle holding a donkey tail in one hand and my art in another. Other than that, I enjoy spending quality time in the Lower East Side and Chinatown.
Your artwork is in some places that are quite inaccessible. And your installations require some serious skills just to install. How do you do it?
I’m what they call a “spot stalker.” Instead of stalking people, I stalk spots while sipping hot tea. Also I got a whole new set of tools a few years back. Someone broke into a van I had and stole everything. Even my Isotoner gloves. So when I bought new stuff, I went all out. I bought tools I didn’t even know existed. Sometimes I pick up a new tool and say, “Today I’m going to make something using this new tool.” Crazy thing is sometimes the tool winds up being a Creusot steam hammer.
Have you ever been arrested or had any confrontations with the police while installing your art?
Like a fool, the first pole piece I ever put up almost got me busted. I didn’t even slide the bolt completely in when this cop car comes whipping around the corner and out rolls T.J. Hooker. He asked what the hell I was doing to which I quickly replied, “I’m taking this lovely piece of art down because I just had to own it for myself.” After his brow-beating, I suggested I’d put the work back “where I found it” (wink, wink) to which he replied, “Yeah. You do that.” So at this point, I’m standing there bolting in my art while two cops made sure I did so. People are passing by looking at me as if to say, “Do you not see these two cops next to you?” My friend later called it “sanctioned street art”.
That’s a great story! What materials do you like to work with?
I love metal scraps and shiny things. I like walking the shoulder lanes of highways to find parts that fell off cars.
What is it about numbers in your work?
Numbers are everything in this world…age…money… lottery tickets…curves. Biz Markie once sang “36-24-36” — need I say more?
Your installations are so much fun and teeming with so many concepts. Where do your ideas come from?
Usually, I set out to make one thing, and in the end, it becomes something totally different. I know that going in, but I still try to pretend to myself that I don’t. I’ll cut a head off of one piece and join it to the body of another piece or fingers from this guy become a hat for this one. Who knows really? You just hope for the best. However, I can honestly say that I’ve come a long way from slicing tennis balls in half with a rusty steak knife in my mom’s basement and hot gluing them to things.
Have you any favorite pieces of your own? Why?
No real favorite pieces, just parts used to make the pieces. Right now I’m heavily into roller skates. The old school kind. Maybe because as a kid, my mom once forced me to try roller skating in a rink in Coney Island. I was so scared of falling I held onto the shag carpet fibers that were covering the walls for dear life as I went around herky-jerky a few times. But today if you ever bump into me at a roller rink, don’t walk away from your skates.
Any influences on your particular style – the bold shapes and bright colors?
Little bits of everything influence me. Everyday products like laundry detergent bottles, discarded metal and motors, candy canes. I never know what will strike a chord. You’re gonna think I’m lying, but I was on the train one day and couldn’t believe how shiny this guy’s forehead was. Seriously. I could see myself in it from across the train — including my pimples. I was so fascinated by it, I tried sneaking a picture. It came out really blurry —but what I took away from it was the use of incorporating different shines and varnishes to my work. No joke. So you never know.
When did you first become interested in art?
I’ve been interested in art and making things from as far back as I can remember, but the first real chance I got to take something apart and experiment was at the age of 4 when my mom gave me a Phillips head screwdriver, sat me in front of a broken record player, and said “Have fun!” In a few hours I had the thing in a million pieces and was creating little sculptures. Crazy thing is towards the end of the process my mom realized it was still plugged in.
Do you have any formal art training or are you self-taught?
I am proud to say I have a BA in Fine Art. And I do still plan on framing my diploma at some point. Nothing says “I’m a professional artist” like a framed and mounted piece of printed paper from an institution.
Any favorite artists?
My favorite artists are people who don’t actually call themselves “artists.” The person who makes the misspelled signs at the corner deli, people who produce really bad local tv commercials, fashionable homeless men. I take my cues from them.
What percentage of your time do you spend on your art?
Every waking and sleeping hour. I don’t think it’s something you can turn on or off. I go to sleep chewing gum while thinking about making art. When I wake up, I put the gum back in my mouth and continue where I left off.
Any other hobbies? Interests?
I’m into politics and actually might run for office one day. Seriously. But the truth is I get a lot of unwanted hobbies forced upon me like babysitting adults and moving furniture.
Can you expand on that?
The babysitting adults part is sort of self-explanatory, but the moving furniture part stems from the fact that I often wake up in the middle of the night to find people’s bedroom or living room furniture sets tossed out in front of my house for some reason. Maybe my place used to be a Goodwill donation drop spot or something. Sucks because I have to get dressed and got out to move the stuff in front of my neighbor’s house.
How do you feel about the role of the Internet in getting street art to a wider audience?
The Internet is great. It’s helped give exposure to every sorry artist who’s walked into a gallery with a portfolio in hand and left with their tail between their legs. It’s a way to create your own buzz. I have to say though, I can’t for the life of me understand why more people aren’t Photoshopping their art onto walls, claiming they make street art and popping images on the web. Maybe they are, and we just don’t know it? Think about it. They use Photoshop to make their work anyway? Right? Makes sense.
What about the street artists? What do you see as their function in society? Do they have any particular one?
Sure, they have a function. To come and bring art and creativity to run-down areas, live in places where they shower in sinks and drag home other people’s trash to paint on. All these actions help build up the real estate market for developers who eventually kick them out so they could turn the place into a Benihana Restaurant. Street artists are sort of in the lower half of the food chain just above plant life.
What do you see yourself doing in five years?
I’d love to take a course on becoming a pet detective. Probably a tough field to break into, but rewarding — I’m sure. Second choice would be to drive the car with the “Wide Load” sign on it that rides in front of the truck transporting pre-built homes. How does someone even begin to apply for that job? Third choice would be to fly one of the planes that display advertisement banners over beaches. I like being in the spotlight. All three are tricky I know, but ask anyone who knows me and they’ll say I’ve always been known to reach for the stars.
Photos by Street Art NYC, Tara Murray & RAE