The bastard children of the art community, often revered, but usually reviled– graffiti artists face scrutiny with every masterpiece they create or urban canvas they deface. Their craft toes a fine line of outrageous colors usually depicted as black and white by the public, but typically observed as a grey area.
The masses usually fall in two camps regarding their feelings about graffiti– love or hate, appeal or appall. There is rarely a middle ground. Though the city of Atlanta has recently resurrected what appears to be a one man Anti-Graffiti Task Force, you still can’t avoid the increasing presence and popularity of graffiti.
Do these masterfully spray-painted letters and images symbolize something much deeper than just tags left on a forgotten building? Are we witnessing art manifested through rebellion or just some punk kids doling out some good old fashioned anarchy after a NOFX show?
The choice is yours.
Graffiti writer come fine artist, Hense, is not only critically acclaimed for his contribution to the underground movement of graffiti, but also being sued for his involvement in the misunderstood art form.
Similar to a recovering alcoholic who still remembers the taste of his last drink, Hense is obviously torn about his past as he embarks in to new endeavors. His current style flows through the same vein of his former life, but he no longer has to worry about his work being buffed out.
Being solicited like a hooker on Ponce, the City of Atlanta is now on his side. For the second straight year, Hense has been commissioned to add to the cities urban landscape. Notably, his pieces adorn the path of the BeltLine, which is considered to be a defining moment of our great city.
Purge: How long have you been making art?
Hense: Pretty much my entire life. When I was in middle school and high school I was taking art classes in school and outside of that. I’ve always been in to drawing and I got in to graffiti when I was in 8th or 9th grade, something like that. That concept took over.
I grew up in Atlanta. There was a pretty big scene here in the early 90’s. I put everything in to graffiti. Then I started realizing that there are other things out there and I eventually started getting more attracted to traditional painting.
Purge: When did you stop doing graffiti?
Hense: I’ve been on and off for the past ten years, but probably in the last five years. It wasn’t a cold turkey thing it was just progressively less and less.
Purge: What influenced you to move in to doing graffiti when you were younger?
Hense: I think it was because I was in to the subculture of skateboarding, music and discovering an art form that was underground. It was creative and really secretive and not mainstream. I was really in to not being mainstream.
Purge: What were some of your musical influences at that time?
Hense: Bad Brains and all that shit. Do you remember Body Count? (Laughter) The Chronic, just like any rebellious stuff. Any kid at that age is probably in to that stuff.
Purge: What caused the progression that made you walk away from graffiti and move in to other forms of art? Was it just getting older and becoming an adult?
Hense: I think just being in my 30’s. I have a group of peers who are all graffiti writers who are a apart of the worldwide movement that is going on and you want to stay relevant within that movement. I’m still relevant because I’m moving in to doing public art installations and murals that are based off of graffiti. It’s like taking graffiti and making something out of it. It’s not just straight up letters.
Purge: What murals and installations are you currently working on?
Hense: I just did one for AOL in Orlando that was a commission for their office. I do a lot of corporate installations. I got a grant from the City of Atlanta to do a big exterior mural on Arizona Avenue. We’re dealing with red tape because it’s on Marta property and the city has to get in agreement with Marta. Hopefully, it should get started next month.
I’ve been doing stuff like that and work for the BeltLine. I did two pieces for them last year and I’ve talked to Ryan (Gravel) about doing some permanent work.
Purge: How did you get involved with the Art on the BeltLine Project?
Hense: I’ve always been drawn to the BeltLine. I used to walk the corridor before they had done any work on it. So I found two locations that would be great for murals or a sculpture and put together a proposal and got a good response.
Purge: Where are the two pieces that you did last year?
Hense: One is on Ralph McGill right by the Telephone Factory Lofts. It’s right under the BeltLine on the embankment of the underpass. The other one is underneath Virginia Avenue by Woody’s. You can’t access it by the road you have to walk under it.
Purge: Where do you want to do your piece this year?
Hense: We’re looking at Park Drive right on Piedmont Park. It’s going to be a collaborative piece. It’s on BeltLine property, but it’s a historic structure, so we’ll see.
Purge: With your peers in mind, working on commission pieces for AOL and the City of Atlanta, do you ever feel like a sell out?
Hense: I don’t really think that there’s such a thing as being a sell out. Shephard Fairey is sort of a hypocrite in a way, but he’s just a real driven guy. It’s really just about however you can make a living as an artist, sometimes you have to do corporate work. That’s the way I view it.
Purge: Hugh MacLeod who runs gapingvoid.com has a chapter in one of his books called the “Sex and Cash Theory” where he says most people need a job(cash) so you can have sex(art).
Hense: Absolutely. On the side, for fun I’ll produce commercial fine art for hotels and I do that because it’s bread and butter. It’s kind of like Tyson (McAdoo) with Turner. Its given me the freedom to have the lifestyle of an artist and go out of town if I need to for a project. At the end of the day, I take that money and apply it to my passion, my art.
Purge: So what would you say is your true passion and the vision for where you want to go with your art?
Hense: I want to keep doing the public murals and installations that I’ve been doing. Basically, do more of those in other cities, which I have done. I did one for Art Basel in Miami last year.
Purge: Was it a big mural of LeBron James?
Hense: Yeah it was… with a big Nike Logo.
I want to do more of that type of work that’s exterior and commissioned and on a really big scale and properly funded. I also want to continue showing my work with galleries.
Purge: Do you enjoy doing the bigger pieces more than the gallery work?
Hense: I enjoy doing both. It’s just a different beast. Doing stuff on wood and canvas and showing it in a gallery and having a gallery curate a show versus producing a public piece of work that’s in the public domain where everybody can see it. It’s just totally different. I think it just goes back to graffiti. A lot of artists don’t have the knowledge of working on a large scale because they weren’t involved with something that let them use tools to go really big.
Purge: That’s interesting because graffiti gave you the experience to work on these big pieces.
Hense: Yeah and that’s the positive. I really want people to understand that. There is a negative connotation with the word “graffiti”. People see it as crap, but there’s so much good. There’s so many amazing artists out there who have come from a graffiti background that are doing things that are really highly recognized in the world.
This guy JR who won a TED award, he does these huge black and white photographs and goes to third-world countries and creates huge installations on the sides of buildings. It’s all sanctioned. He started out doing illegal graffiti, but at this point he’s viewed as a public figure who’s giving back. He’s not just some punk.
Purge: You’re from Atlanta, but do you feel like you’re ever going to move on?
Hense: I love Atlanta. I really like what’s happening. It’s getting better. People from New York are moving here because it’s so competitive there. I refuse to believe that as an artist you have to be in New York. I think that because of the Internet you can pretty much be anywhere.
I’ve got some issues right now with some of the things going on in the city. I feel like the city is going in the right direction with things like the BeltLine, but on the other hand there’s some conservative backward thinking going on. I don’t know man. I don’t plan on leaving anytime soon, but it’s always an option.
Photo Credit: Jason Travis