When American graffiti artist SEEN (aka Richard “Richie” Mirando) created his artistic name, he knew his works will be seen. Since he has started to paint the subway trains in 1973 with his crew United Artists, not only have his graffiti works been seen by millions of eye balls at the platforms of the New York subway trains, but also at galleries while his works were being exhibited alongside with those of Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. His attempt to paint the Hollywood sign at California in 1984 further made his effort to get himself seen paid off.
In the middle of this month, SEEN came to Hong Kong for the opening of his “Post No Bills” exhibition at Opera Gallery Hong Kong from September 17 to October 15, showcasing the latest series of Superheros he painted. I got to sit down and talk to SEEN for what he has been through in his graffiti career as well as the current exhibition in Hong Kong.
Early days of painting: getting your name out
SEEN was born in 1961 in The Bronx, New York. He first started to write on the trains in 1973 after watching the trains go by everyday like a blank canvas begging to be painted during his working at his uncle’s auto shop near the train yard. “When I first started graffiti, it was all about getting your name out. The more you write your name, the more people know more about your name,” said SEEN.
To him, it was all about the attention. “I really liked when I painted the train. I would go to the train station early at 8am in the morning, waiting for the train to come out so that I could snap the picture. What I really liked was when the train came in there was my name with the characters I always painted. People looked up and looked down and saw the boldness of the character. Even though they don’t know I did that, I still got their attention.”
Never got caught while painting
When I asked SEEN whether he got caught while doing painting, he proudly said no. “If the police wait here, I go there. The cops were easy to spot.”
While you might guess if SEEN would do painting during night time to avoid getting caught, the truth is the opposite. “Best is to do it during daytime. Most of the workers knew me because I painted so much. I had more years painting train than they worked for the train station. So I was kind of a resident at the train yard.”
SEEN already knew a lot about the train yard and knew what were the best time in a day and the best days in a week to do writing. “After rush hours, staff would pull the trains out of service. The trains would sit there 4 hours before went back to service again then I would paint during the break. I also painted at night and weekends. At weekends, there are two days and a half where the trains would not move at the train yard. If we get tired we go inside the train to get rest.”
The paints didn’t cost a penny
Now in the United States, one has to be at least 18 years old in order to buy a can of paint. “But any restrictions to buy paints wouldn’t make sense,’ said SEEN.
“We stole it,” SEEN confessed. “The paints were never bought, so the law wouldn’t mean too much because people doing graffiti always steal the paints instead of buying. Back then in the 70s and 80s, nobody bought paints.”
Never worried about getting caught for stealing (apart from painting the trains)? “Police at my home would sit there and waited for me but couldn’t do anything because they couldn’t catch me in person,” SEEN smiled.
However, SEEN thinks that it’s a different world now. The kids are more civilized. The paint cans are also designed by companies or people who work in graffiti art. The pressure and the spray cap are made specifically for the paint to come out in whatever shapes the user wants, be it skinny, flat or wide.
The 1984 Hollywood sign ordeal
Knowing there was a big risk to get caught, SEEN tried to tag the Hollywood sign in California in 1984 with 50 cans of paints he brought with his friend, Blake. The Hollywood pride and joy intrigued SEEN tremendously as there was no better place for his name to be seen in California.
“When I went on the trip to California once with a friend of mine, Blake, we climbed up to the mountain thinking that I wanted to come back and paint the sign. I tried to paint the 2 “L”s and 1 “Y.” Those letters are on ground surface, all the others are raised from the mountain. I didn’t get a chance to use all the 50 cans of paint I brought because the police came with the helicopter and the spot lights. I didn’t move for 4 hours until they left and I came back out and quickly finished where I started but I didn’t make it as big as I wanted to. The next morning I went back to the mountain and we took picture of everything. It was a big ordeal,” SEEN recalled.
“Some of my good friends really can’t believe what I did because that sign is so knocked down with security. Nobody would take the attempt to do it now.”
From the streets to the studio
Despite SEEN’s passion in painting on the streets and trains, the artist started to move away from the streets since late 1970s. In the 1980s, he turned his talents to tattoo art and he opened his tattoo studio, Seen Tattoo. In 2009, SEEN opened the Seen Gallery in Paris, France, which then became Seen Studios later.
While he believes the real graffiti works are on the streets, he likes to explore something new outside the world of graffiti. SEEN lived in Paris during 2007 to 2012 where he created plenty of abstract paintings that were exhibited at Fabien Castanier Gallery in New York early this year.
“Graffiti was kind of confined in itself, it’s all outlined. I tried to explore all different areas of abstract elements in unconventional ways,” said SEEN. He then created 5,200 pieces of experimental painting in “wet-on-wet” style, meaning they had to be done in speed and fast pace, such as less than 20 minutes because according to SEEN, “beauty is happening in those 20 minutes”. The coloring and movement were what he found most intriguing.
SEEN took 1,200 pieces he created in Paris back with him, and there are 4,000 pieces left in the Paris studio and 2 large stores. For SEEN, doing graffiti at studio instead of on the streets was a kind of self-experiment.
Graffiti is everywhere, for everyone
When I asked SEEN why some politicians in the US like to have their campaign promotion video-taped in front of a graffiti wall, SEEN explained with one simple reason: marketing. “Politicians hate graffiti, but when they are on the TV there is always graffiti behind. Going to the graffiti wall instead of clean wall grabs the attention of the younger people and so they would watch the program for a moment. It’s a marketing tool.”
“Look at all the products at the market today, they’re all influenced by graffiti. Store front sign’s got graffiti; there is graffiti in the computer graphics. Any marketing materials have graffiti elements. All the young people in the old days were all intrigued by graffiti, now they gain older and know how to market it in the eyes of the current younger people,” said SEEN. “It’s all about marketing.”
But, the real graffiti is already dead
Nowadays, some graffiti artists halt going to the streets or train yards but doing it through Canvas or computer graphics, many consider it as the loss of meanings in graffiti. “Graffiti is long time gone, not even yesterday but it’s gone for years,” SEEN couldn’t agree it more. “I was one of the first to start moving on from the trains and tagging it outside in 1979 and 1980s. I started to exhibit my works to public. Today it’s just gone so far to the point where you don’t know what’s real or fake anymore. It’s missing the mysteriousness about it – when I first started it, even though the other writers didn’t know who I was and I didn’t know who they were, but we saw our names and the works on the train and would say ‘I like this guys’ work’, then everybody got to know each other.”
Now, one could just go to the computer and search for any graffiti artwork available. “It’s not on the wall anymore, it’s too commercial. It’s like a formula for it now. It’s like you can go on the computer and look up graffiti letters from A to Z or 1 to 9, you could design a package altogether and look like a graffiti artist today. Anybody can do it now, it’s lost, it’s gone,” said SEEN.
The current stage of graffiti: commercialized
To SEEN, the world has changed so much since he started writing on the trains. The current stage of graffiti is no longer like the blossom period in the 1970s where the graffiti works were more raw and full of scribbles, which SEEN believes is where the real graffiti was. The only thing that kills graffiti is the commercialization in mid of the improving painting materials.
“Commercialization really kills. I’m happy with the style I developed for myself. I try to keep the real rawness – you can see the real rawness in the scribbles. When I started, there were scribbles and lines that were not connected. Today it’s all perfectly clean. It’s a little depressing, it’s missing what it’s about,” SEEN explained, “Other countries are in the same boat like the US. Europe is going through all the motions US is going through in graffiti – commercialized.”
“Today from the tools you can have total control of your writing. You can make that line so perfect where you couldn’t tell it’s from a spray can. I try to keep the rawness and paint it with the drip. I live in the past. I’m still in the 70s. That’s exciting, it keeps me alive.”
SEEN’s style of painting his name “SEEN”
There are a few main writing styles in graffiti for artists to paint their names, such as the bubble style, the wild style and the block betters. Though some graffiti artists prefer to paint their names in bubble style as it’s “easy” according to SEEN, SEEN has developed his own style to paint his name over the years.
“The bubble letters was designed to get around and be painted fast. You can paint 300 trains overnight and the next morning be all over the city. For my name, I paint it in a readable and wild style because I want people to be able to read my name,” described SEEN, “the 4 characters in my name were leisurable, I would kick some arrows off the edges of the “S” and “N” and make them more wild style. But inside they can clearly see all the characters. It took me years to develop my alphabets and be able to do any names with that.”
SEEN also said that other graffiti writers mostly can only work on their own name, they can’t even write outside their name and never explore further. “How I explore further is that I always use the airbrush. I used to make a living with airbrushing too. I learned how to make alphabets and paint fast. Everything was a learning experience throughout the years.”
Superheros Exhibition represents SEEN’s childhood
This time, SEEN is exhibiting his latest series of Superheros in Opera Gallery Hong Kong. Growing up in TV animations and comic books, SEEN is a huge lover of superheros.
“I like any comic characters. The hulk is always one of my favorites because I like how he smashes everything. I like everything from the Fantastic 4 too because they got muscles – I like to paint big. They are huge characters. I also like The Pink Panther, and Dick Tracy too when I read the Sunday funnies at the newspaper,” said SEEN.
SEEN also likes the villains too, such as the Doctor Doom, Doctor Octopus and the Joker, to name a few. “My whole life is full of comic books and TV, I would watch everything from Warner Bros. to Top Cat, all the comics,” said SEEN.
The style of the Superheros works is a mix of the clean and raw. “Comic is totally to be super clean and crisp like a stamp, but the background is always raw. I try to blur the cleanness of the comic necessary for the comic style while maintaining my graffiti style – it has to be a mess,” said SEEN.
Anything you like in Hong Kong?
SEEN stays for 8 days in Hong Kong for the opening of the “Post No Bill” exhibition. Despite the lack of time to explore the city, SEEN said “I really like the people in Hong Kong already. I also like the skylines and architecture. I heard that people can have a night out at rooftops on skyscrapers in Hong Kong and that’s so cool.”