Guerilla artist talks about his latest project and the importance of being high
By Stacy Davies
Over Easter weekend 2008, the street artist known as Skullphone enacted a corporate coup: on a half dozen Clear Channel billboards across Los Angeles, his black-and-white human skull talking on a cell phone appeared and ran on the boards for four days. The public has never been certain how the image appeared—hacked in or hoaxed in (through legitimate avenues)—and the artist isn’t giving out details. In fact, he won’t even confirm that the image did appear. Fortunately, we have the photos.
Primarily known for the stark black-and-white logo, the artist has been promoting the image for a decade, wallpapering L.A. boroughs and sneaking the image onto otherwise kosher stickers that ask bathroom employees to “Lava Sus Manos” or inform gas pumpers of the octane levels at the station islands. With the onslaught of digital billboards, however, and his triumph two years ago over them, the artist now finds himself veering into new realms. The result is “Digital Media,” a body of work debuting this month at Obey artist Shepard Fairey’s Subliminal Projects Gallery in Echo Park.
Skullphone, who keeps his identity and studio closely guarded secrets, allowed CULTURE access to both his face and space to talk about what he calls “public alternative art,” and where this new version of it is taking him.
This series of work is billboard-inspired—representations of gas station logos and landscapes, the American flag and other images. What made you go in this new direction?
Back in 2008 there weren’t a lot of digital billboards up in L.A., but one day I was driving along and saw a handful of them and I thought, holy shit, these literally went up over night. I immediately flashed to the entire landscape changing and what that meant to Angelenos and others, once the billboards spread out past the L.A. basin. A lot of my artwork at the time was focusing on New York or London, but when I saw this stuff, I was immediately sucked back into L.A. and the idea that I had to make art about Los Angeles—where I grew up and where I live now.
Unlike the monotone skullphone, these images take their technique from the dot creations of Seurat and Roy Lichtenstein, and include the RGB color palette. Was that necessary in order to address billboard blight?
It’s a progression of me as an artist. When you do something so bold, something that stands out merely by its black-and-white nature and the imagery itself, it’s actually really refreshing to work on something that’s falling apart at the seams. These new pieces are on such a glossy surface that you really can’t even photograph them. And I enjoy working with contradictions—I mean the skullphone is one of us, dead, using modern technology.
And the billboards?
I’m putting up a mirror and documenting where we are. I’m not trying to actually pass judgment one way or the other. All I’m doing on a really basic level is showing outdoor signage in its current state and my interpretations of it—where I think it’s moving and what could possibly happen with it. Two of the pieces I’m showing represent what I would do if I did create another digital billboard: 🙂 UR N LA, which is a play on texting and @Latimes, which is like a Twitter thing, where live tweets can run on the board.
Don’t you think looking at all of these moving images while driving might result in more flattened pedestrians?
I guess it’s conditioning. And conspiracies. You know, if you’re in Times Square in New York, you don’t complain about it because you’re expecting it. It’s when you’re jolted by the image, especially when you have one practically in your backyard. Pretty soon you just have to accept that you have one in your backyard.
Might be good if you partied 24/7.
Yeah, it’s like having sweet wine and getting a bad hangover the next day!
[A friend of the artist comes in and lights up a joint. Contact high to ensue.]
Speaking of wine, do you often medicate when you’re making art? Especially with this new stuff, which looks like a zillion hand-painted dots?
It certainly helps! [laughs] In order to get this show done on time, I’m calling all of my friends and asking them to come paint dots. First we have to have a “let’s practice dots” night, of course.
You’re also putting up 300 skullphone dot images around L.A. right before the digital show. Why?
I want to stick with my roots. If I’m going to do something at a gallery, I want to put something on the street, too. I had to really contemplate going from street to gallery, because it wasn’t the immediate goal – I felt like the artwork on the street was the finished product and that’s all I wanted at first. That made it pure for me because there wasn’t a product that you could sell. The minute you have a product that you can sell, it turns the stuff on the street into a marketing device, pointing people in the direction of “buy this.” That’s why, in my first gallery show, I reversed it and put advertisements in the gallery.
But when I do an art show, I don’t want to strictly take what I’ve done on the street and put it up in the gallery—it doesn’t always translate. And if people are going to take the time to see the show, it’s important they see a development of my technique, even if they’re not on board with the content. I want them to take something new away from it—I don’t want it to look like I’m just throwing up everywhere!
[Note: I did feel like throwing up everywhere after my contact high forced me to eat an entire bag of Oreos post-interview. No apologies from Skullphone required.]
IF YOU GO
What: “Digital Media” exhibition.
When/Where: Subliminal Projects Gallery, 1331 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles.
Info: Call (213) 213-0078, or visit www.subliminalprojects.com.