Free speech and social equality champion Ron English’s Abraham Obama is arguably one of the most recognizable images of the 2008 presidential campaign — second only to his friend Shepard Fairey’s iconic HOPE posters. But did Fairey take his work on a ten-city tour while shooting a documentary about the experience? Nope. English did, though, and the resulting film is like a weird mix of Jackass and a who’s-who of street art’s elite. After the jump, English speaks with Flavorpill about why Boston hates street art, how little money artists really make, and what he’s planning to do with a bunch of paint and 20 cows.
Flavorpill: When did you guys decide to turn the road trip into a documentary? Was that always the plan?
Ron English: No, no. Kevin Chapados — who directed — sent somebody with us to film Boston. I don’t really know what he was thinking about at that point. And then after that, he wanted to make the movie. Once he realized we were going to ten cities.
FP: Does it change the vibe of things when there’s a camera around?
RE: Pedro Carvajal followed me around for POPaganda , so it wasn’t the first time for me. Do you know who Larry Clark is? I met him one time and asked him how he got people to shoot dope in front of him, and all that crazy stuff, and he said, “Well, I did it with them.” And I think that’s kind of what it’s like.
FP: One of the things I found the most interesting in the film was watching you interact with other street artists like Mr. Brainwash or Shepard Fairey. It made it seem like a very collaborative world. Is that always the case, or was that just the Obama effect?
RE: I would say that’s generally true of the street art community. A lot of people are in different cities, so when you go to another city to do work, you call up Shepard Fairey or David Choe, or whoever is in that city, and then they help you while you’re there. And then whenever they come to New York, you help them.
FP: Do you ever crash with each other?
RE: Oh yeah. Anything. A lot of people stay at my house. A lot of people come by to hang out and work in my studio. It’s all of the above I guess.
FP: The film starts off with you guys in Boston, and I read you had a little trouble with the police. And then there’s Shepard Fairey’s recent arrest before his ICA show. What’s the deal with Boston?
RE: They’re very, very strict there. A friend of mine did a show there years ago — Joe Coleman. He’d toured around the country for years before he got to Boston. In this one part of what is almost like a stand-up routine, he blows himself up by strapping fireworks to himself. They arrested him on felony charges for concealing explosives. Everywhere else people were just like, “Well, that’s sort of interesting.” And there they tossed him in jail, so…
We were pretty certain they were going to throw us in jail too, but they didn’t. But again, Shepard didn’t know that he had warrants for his arrest there until he got there. The pieces that Shepard did that he had all these warrants out for him on were legal pieces.
FP: So how does that work?
RE: I think people don’t understand the law. Police will arrest you for things that aren’t crimes if they are out to get you for some reason. And then you have to go to court and defend yourself against those crimes. One time I just put up a sticker, and I was arrested. They used five arresting officers to do it and they pulled a knife. They charged me with four misdemeanors and a felony. For a sticker. I think they like to pile a bunch of charges on you so that when you go to court you have to face all these charges and then if you plea bargain, you can only plea bargain down so far. They really want to make sure something sticks. If they throw 27 felony charges at Shepard, it’s more likely they can get at least one to stick. Even if 26 of the 27 are erroneous. Or 27 of the 27 are erroneous. They seem to have something against street art there in Boston.
FP: How do you keep your sense of humor about it?
RE: Maybe it’s the fact that they can’t catch me. [Laughs] Also, Boston is a very specific town. It’s an aberration. In a lot of towns — I don’t know if you ever saw that movie Infamy , but in a lot of towns, artists greatest fans are cops — even if they end up arresting them. They’re blue collar workers, so they have an intimate relationship with the work. In a way, they are the artists of the cops. I’m also blue collar, and I’ve always had an awareness of my art being very elitist and trying to find ways for it not to be. To find that other audience. To bridge the schism.
FP: Is that part of what keeps you tied to the street?
RE: You know, Bill Gates earns a lot of money. And at some point he realizes that he actually owes something back to the society that gave him this money, and he starts a foundation. It is kind of weird that a very select group of people get to dominate your whole artistic output, you know? Sometimes it’s nice just to go and give it away for free. There’s always been this schism, or at least for the last 100 years in the United States, where art has been very elitist and I think a lot of people are missing out on something because they feel intimidated by it. And a lot of the intimidation is the fact that it seems to cost so much money in their eyes for the amount of work that goes into it.
If somebody is standing in a museum — and this has happened to me numerous times — when a family walks up and someone says, “My kid could do that.” They’re mortified that this painting could cost so much money. But if they saw the same exact design formed naturally in rocks in the Grand Canyon, they would just think it was exquisite. But they’re trying to figure out how much time you put in it/how much it’s worth. At the end of the day — and I don’t think people are ever going to understand this — I make less money than a plumber does. But nobody can have a plumber come to their house for two and a half months to work on their pipes, and then get a bill at the end. They just don’t know how much work actually goes into the art. Jackson Pollock didn’t get 80 million dollars for his paintings. He barely survived. Sometimes it become a cultural artifact. At that point, it’s not really art anyway. It’s just a marker for wealthy peoples’ money.
FP: Are you glad you guys put in so much work to promote Obama?
RE: Yes. We’re completely glad that we did it. It seemed at the time that everyone was doing everything that they could possibly think of. They were going door to door. People were asking, “How can I contribute to this?”
FP: Do you think artists expect more from Obama now because of it?
RE: I think they actually don’t. No. I think they’re pretty used to being burned by society. Maybe they’re more hopeful in terms of Obama… We’ve always had a problem. I think it’s a dirty shame. Art is so weird. The guy who got me involved in the Abraham Obama thing and had me do the print for the Obama campaign is now buying houses in Detriot. They’re like super cheap — like $4,000 a piece. The idea is to create an artists neighborhood and artists housing. He’s having all of us pop surrealists donate art to help raise money for this project. A lot of people have said, what kind of person is going to want to live in a neighborhood where the drug dealers are armed and it’s very dangerous? People don’t understand that artists… I don’t think people want to be artists any more than they want to be heroin addicts. Some people are born artists, and they can’t do anything about it. And they’re willing to put up with just about anything to be able to make their art. All they want is space and time.
FP: Does having kids change what you’re willing to do for your art?
RE: I think it would be a lot more difficult for me to go to prison at this point. Although my wife says it would probably be pretty fun for me; I’d like being in jail hanging out with the guys, and I’d get out of a lot of my husbandly duties. If I was in jail, she’d have to take over my work load at the house, so ultimately it would be her that suffered. You don’t want to miss time with your kids because they’re only whatever age they are for 10 minutes. You know what I mean? We just moved upstate, so my son doesn’t have any friends yet. Right now he wants to be my best friend. Everyday we go bicycle riding and play basketball. Soon he’ll find a new best friend and they’ll want to go play video games. You rarely get these little opportunities.
FP: Are your kids as adventurous as you are?
RE: Um, no. I think it skipped a generation. They’re very cautious. They argue the Republican side of view in debating class.
FP: One of the funniest scenes for me was when that super-sized Ronald is walking around Times Square. And everyone loves him, even though he’s critiquing the very society that they’re a part of… Do you notice that happens a lot with your work?
RE: Yes. But I don’t think that the mascot… I’m not sure what percent of people understood that we were making fun of McDonald’s. One night we were out with the Ronald suit in Arizona somewhere. We saw this McDonald’s was closed but the manager was inside cleaning up. We told him that we wanted to come inside and go on the playground. When he said no, we were like, you have to let us in, it’s Ronald. So he did, and we went to the playground. I think they thought we were from corporate, and that he was the real mascot.
FP: What are you working on right now?
RE: I have my show in New York in the fall, so today I’m painting for that. I need to design some new billboards. I haven’t done that for a few months. And we’re going to go down to Texas and this farmer’s going to let me paint all of his cows.
FP: How did you come up with that?
RE: A university down there wanted to do a show with me, so I said, can you get me like, 20 billboards? And so they called around and the local billboard company said yes. So then I said, can you get me 20 billboards in Mexico, too? And they did. So then I was like, can you get me 20 cows, maybe? And they said, OK. My list of demands… [laughs] I think it’s fun for them too, right?