Axis doesn’t get out much these days. It’s not exactly that he’s a hermit or a recluse (or maybe he is, by consequence), it’s more that he doesn’t have superfluous amounts of free time, and when he does, he barely manages to squeeze in a shower and a change of clothes, if that’s alright with you. He’s been busy, he tells me. Busy painting, busy exploring, busy practicing his craft and picking up new ones with an enviable adeptness that is usually reserved for child prodigies, busy translating on canvas the ornate fantasy world that exists within his youthfully imaginative yet old-school mentality, proving that the tired adage about not being able to teach an old dog new tricks does not apply to the self-taught wonders of the world. As a veteran of the legendary CBS crew (if you know, you know), Axis has more than paid his dues, blurring the line between fine art and street art, first with a spray can, and now a paintbrush.
Though heavily influenced by the formative subcultures of skateboarding and graffiti, over the years, Axis has evolved into a celebrated fine artist whose paintings hang in prestigious galleries, museums, and collectors’ homes around the globe. Not to mention, playing in two bands, tattooing at the famed Bob Roberts’ Spotlight Tattoo, producing commercial art through his design agencyfor clients including Toyota, Scion, BMW, Virgin Mobile, and Pepsi (the list goes on…and on),creatingDeadmau5â€™s mask for last yearâ€™s Gaming Awards, and making the rest of us feel horribly inadequate by excelling at everything he dips his Vans into while we’re all still floundering to be above mediocre at something. I arrive at his Los Angeles studio, which is not unlike an adult version of FAO Schwartz, with shelves of collectible toys, art supplies, and masterpieces-in-progress neatly decorating its gallery-like halls. Given the disorganization of my own mind, and what I envision the psyche of a typical artist to look like (right-brains unite!), I’m impressed by the clutter-free, pristine condition in which I find the workspace,especially considering the caliber of creating that goes on here.
As soon as I press the red record button on my super high-tech gadget (aka hammered ass iPhone), and Axis overcomes the awkwardness of me invading his personal space to conduct this interview (he doesn’t entertain visitors on a regularly basis, especially not prying ones like myself), I recognize his sardonic humor and quick wit from the lively and slightly sinister characters anthropomorphized in his rainbow-colored canvases. We talk about his growth and transformation as an artist; his deviation from the fast-paced street art community to the solitary confines of the white-walled studio, and at the end of it all, he offers to split, four ways, his very last piece of chewing gum, because he’s just that much of a gentleman. Oh yeah, and did I mention that he’s fluent in almost every musical instrument with strings? Basically a one-man, computer-shunning, hand-drawing, analog-loving, Banjo-strumming orchestra, people. Read on for the rest of our conversation about his adventures in art, curation, and more. For visual musings not done with a computer, you can follow him on Instagram here,@axisvalhalla.
What was your earliest exposure to graffiti, and what made you want to pursue it?
My earliest exposure, that I can remember, was when I just moved here from England. I was young. It was in the ’70s and I saw some graffiti from two different gangs. It’s so funny. I was a little kid and I used to write it on my peachy folder, not knowing that if the wrong people saw it, I would get in trouble… So, that was the earliest, but that’s not what made me want to paint and do stuff on walls, because most of my work is character-based. Actually, before that, I did graffiti when I was four. I don’t know if there are still pictures of it, but I drew a shark the whole length of a hallway in my uncle’s house. It had huge, menacing teeth. I kind of remember it in my head, but my mom told me that’s when it first started.
Was that because you’re scared of sharks?
No. I like them, actually. That’s how I want to go out, by a great white bite.
I’m obsessed with sharks, too. When did you start doing graffiti with a crew?
I started a little crew with some friends of mine in my junior high. But even before that, a buddy of mine and I were writing with spray paint in 6th grade. Everyone was breakdancing at the time, and neither one of us had any interest in that. It just wasn’t our thing. I still can’t dance if my soul was on the line, like, even if getting down meant getting to heaven. So neither one of us was into dancing, and a year later we ran into each other. Funnily enough, we were both doing graffiti. But technically, as far as writing on things, probably ’85. But before that, I messed around with spray paint while watching kids goof around doing kick worms and pop locks.
It’s interesting that a lot of people who were big graffiti writers end up moving into painting, which, I’m sure, is a lot more solitary than doing graffiti. Like you said, now you paint mostly in the privacy of your home. Is that reflective of your general mental space these days?
Yeah, I think so. The reason I got into graffiti, and same with most of the people I know, was because we didn’t care about what we were learning in school. I wasn’t a bad student. On the contrary, I was actually a good student, but I didnâ€™t like authority figures telling me what to do. At that time, I was already a skater. I started skating at a young age and all my friends were skate rats, you know, so I think we were looking for a way to express ourselves without rules, without boundaries. Fast forward to now and everything’s about politics and graffiti’s everywhere. All of us got into this for the same reason â€“ a lot of people were fuck ups, a lot of people came from broken homes. But long story short, now itâ€™s come full circle. These are the reasons we started and now youâ€™re telling us we canâ€™t do this and we canâ€™t do that? Fuck that.Iâ€™m just somewhere else mentally. You evolve, right? You grow. I would never say anythingnegative about graffiti. I love it and I always will. Those were some of the most formative years of life, and I met some of the most formative people of my life today when I was a stupid young kid.
Do you listen to music while you paint?
I play and I listen. I take breaks and I play mandolin, banjo, and guitar. But yeah, I play everyday, seriously. And everything from Robert Johnson style blues to Bach to Black Flag. And I have two bands.
What are your bands? Are you playing any shows?
With my one band, The Pain, which is sort of like the Delta Blues-infused bastard child of Black Sabbath, Black Flag, Cro-Mags and Discharge, weâ€™re just starting to get it together again. Weâ€™re planning to book some shows for the mid-summer. And I have my other little side project, which could be categorized as gypsy jazz, called Mercy Buckets.
Rad, I’d love to hear that. And you’re also tattooing?
Yeah. I havenâ€™t really said much about it to most people yet. Because of the other stuff I do, Iâ€™m not at the shop as much as I’d like to be. Iâ€™m very fortunate to work with the people Iâ€™m with at Spotlight, which is an incomparable institution. I want to start making some more time for it, but between that, commissioned paintings, and the graphics I do, it’s hard to carve out time. It’s so much more than just another medium, as some people may think. It really becomes a way of life. So many of those guys are so committed, itâ€™s amazing. I wouldn’t say it’s a club, but I come from the background of graffiti, and before that, skateboarding, so I’ve always been somewhere on the outside. Now I’m 40. So, these guys are â€“if you want to talk about salty dogs â€“they’re some of the best people I’ve ever known. They’re the real deal. Masters of the craft. I learn something every time I go in there. Any time you’re really learning something, damn, that’s life. I can’t speak for anyone else on the planet, but in my world, that’s living.Going home, going to bed and thinking “I learned this. Fuck yeah.”
The increasing permanence of your chosen art form is interesting. You started out with graffiti, which can be seen as temporary and fleeting, then moved into painting, and now tattooing, which is some serious lifer shit. You’re leaving a legacy when you tattoo.
Shit, I got to sign my name on a kid. That was cool. Iâ€™m sure guys do that all the time, but I couldn’t believe it. I remember thinking that he couldn’t be serious, but he was. He was going back to Japan with my name on his leg, like a walking billboard. I should be paying him. Stuff like that still surprises me, it’s such an honor. I’m like, “Thank you, sir.”
â€¨â€¨As an artist, you have a certain style that youâ€™ve cultivated over the years. Do your tattoo clients come to you because they want something specifically in your distinct aesthetic? I imagine it would be difficult for you to render an image you didnâ€™t conceive of or design yourself?
Thatâ€™s a great question, because Spotlight is old school. Theyâ€™re as real as it gets. Normally, they’d want you to do certain things first. But, it didnâ€™t really work out that way for me. I showed up and Charlie, the owner, really just encouraged me to do my thing. That was so awesome to hear from someone as respected as him. I’m thinking, “You trust me? That’s crazy. Thanks man.” Itâ€™s definitely more comfortable when it reflects my personal style, because if the tracing comes off or something gets messed up, itâ€™s my stuff. I own it. I know it. I remember I was tattooing my bandmate Jeremy and we looked at the original sketch against the tattoo on his leg, and I remember thinking the final product looked even better than the sketch.
Once you do something onceâ€¦ you own it. Perfect example: when I was a kid, if I was like, â€œHey mom, whatâ€™s this mean?â€ Sheâ€™d say, â€œLook it up and use it in a sentence.â€ â€œWhy?â€ â€œBecause youâ€™re going to own it.â€ If you sketch something ten times, or once you paint something, it becomes yours. So I remember looking at the drawing and feeling stoked that it looked even better on his leg. So to answer your question, it can go both ways. Though there are certain things I donâ€™t enjoy doing, Iâ€™ll do them. I mean, if someone came in and asked for a DNA strand down his entire leg, I’d probably suggest that there’s a better guy for the job. There are certain things I donâ€™t understand, so I donâ€™t know how to approach them. Iâ€™m not knocking it. I mean, I even get bored of my own stuff sometimesâ€¦
What kind of commissions have you been getting lately?
My favorite to date I did for my friend Ed, he and his wife are collectors. They have a massive egg collection. They’ve got pieces from an artist named Billy Al Bengston â€“big time names, old school, really bad ass dudes â€“ my friend Defer, Patrick Martinez, and a bunch of major guys. And he commissioned me. Originally the idea was for me to paint on an egg-shaped canvas, but then I came up with an adaptation of that â€“I did Humpty Dumpty sitting on the Berlin wall. The whole meaning behind the painting was, â€œWhat goes up must come down.â€ Thereâ€™s a lot of hidden meaning in the piece, but that one I did about a year and a half ago. And Iâ€™m working on two right now â€“one Iâ€™ve been having a really good time doing is for my friend Shaun, the owner of Neff, and itâ€™s of his whole family. Everybody in his family has nicknames from Disney films, so theyâ€™re all wearing Disney costumes. I actually incorporated several Disney characters into the piece. It’s a lot of fun.
You know, the more creative freedom I have on any piece, the better. If thereâ€™s a concept, that’s fine. But when there’s really no art direction, Iâ€™ll do my best work. With anything, you know?
Do you still do skate-related projects?
I still paint on decks, but the last stuff I really did was for Santa Monica Airlines. Just some test stuff. But before that I used to do a bunch of stuff for Muska, whoâ€™s a really good friend of mine. But that was a long time ago. Not too much lately. I paint on my own decks sometimes, but those are just one-offs, like hand-painted. I would, though.
What’s on your plate right now? What’s on the horizon?
There’s always a bunch of stuff going on. I’m working on a cartoon, and some big people are going to be involved. Mickey Avalon’s doing the main character, and I’m going to do one of the voices myself. I’ve got the writer, and the characters, but I don’t want to give away too much just yet. I’m really excited about that. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do.
I also just wrapped a big project with the The Getty Research Institute. I co-curated a book for their permanent collection called Liber Amicorum (Book Of Friends 2012). It’s an oversized, encyclopedic blackbook that chronicles 150 graffiti artists in Los Angeles from the beginning of the movement until now. Not only did I get to co-curate it, but I was honored to be featured as artist alongside giants like Miner, Defer, and Retna. It’s really amazing, and I highly recommend you take an afternoon to go check it out. It’s currently on display by appointment only.
I also have a big show coming up at the end of the year with my friend Mike Rios. I’m going to be doing that with Woodgrain James, the CEO of Us Versus Them, so I’m really looking forward to that.
I’m always working on so many things at one time. Right now I’m working on six pieces. I complete at least one painting every week. It’s not like I start Monday and finish Friday, but I’m working on so many at one time that I’m always able to finish something.
At least you get to have that feeling of accomplishment each week. Who are some of your favorite artists and influences?
My favorite of all time, Norman Rockwell, also Rick Griffin, Frank Frazetta, J.C. Leyendecker, R. Crumb. All very apparent in my work. As far as current artists, I don’t get out much to art openings. Muska’s was rad. It’s totally different than anything I do, but I know him as a person, and that guy is just in beast-mode right now. That sculpture he did was just insane.
Muska’s pretty epic.
Nicest guy in the world. Definitely a doer not a talker. When he had his other space on Fairfax he kept inviting me down, but I was so busy. One night I ended up getting over there at 1 am, and then I started going a few nights in a row. It was so crazy, because I have my own space here, and I don’t have a lot of people who come through. I have a couple friends who come paint from time to time, but there was just this energy and vibe at Muska’s spot. I’ll also say this, a lot of people think that because you’re good at one thing, you’re going to be good at another thing. There are a lot of actors that think they’re gonna start a band just because they want to. But once in a while, it works out if you venture outside your comfort zone and try something else. Muska’s a perfect example of someone who made the transition successfully.
He’s such an iconic, world renowned skateboarder, and a lot of people were skeptical when he said he wanted to be an artist. I remember feeling confident that he was going to do it. After his Transitions opening I sent him a text that said, “Thank you. I’m not just saying this because you’re my friend. This was amazing. Thank you for moving onto something else and sharing more with more people and doing something awesome.” On the other hand, I have friends who try make the jump, and I’m the first one to tell them what I think. I know graffiti guys who’ve started painting with brush, and they say they want my opinion, but I’m not sure if they really do. I’m not offering my thoughts because I’m an expert, because I’m still learning. If you really genuinely like it then cool, but don’t lie to people. You know in Tommy Boy when Tommy asks, “Does this suit make me look fat?” and Richard says, “No, your face does.” It’s like that. Tell it like it is.
Intuitively, it seems like a talented graffiti artist would be able to make the smooth transition into painting on canvas. Why do you think that it doesn’t always translate?
I’ll tell you straight up. I have friends who are amazing at spray painting, but they can’t get it on canvas. It’s because they don’t devote enough time to it and aren’t disciplined enough. The greatest techniques I’ve learned were mistakes. You’ve got to fuck up to learn. If you’re not fucking up, you’re not trying. If you’re not trying, you’re not learning. I have friends who are some of the baddest guys on walls, but they need to learn patience and a little discipline with a brush. You need to be willing to look at your work from three weeks or a month ago and admit that it sucks. There’s this one waitress at a restaurant I frequent and she always looks at my work and jokes to the other people I’m with, “Oh, he’s so good. I can’t even draw a stick figure.” She’s said it so many times that one time I actually asked her, “When’s the last time you tried?” She replied “Never.” It was like she thought I just woke up one day and became artist. If you want something bad enough, you can be that thing. I highly doubt I’d ever be an outstanding basketball player, but if someone took the time to show me how to do a layup, I’d at least have the fundamentals.
words by Jane Helpern