There is a dichotomy in the street art world between what is art and what is graffiti. No artist has worked harder to break this paradigm than LA based street artist, Kai. A classically trained artist who attended the prestigious L’Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, he offers a reprieve to the tension between street art and graffiti. With works spanning over 15 countries, he has a singular mission: to spread universal love. His simple and yet powerful pieces engulf the viewer in love, regardless of language or background. Artulu was invited to attend the grand unveiling of the latest mural from his “If” series titled, “Love vs. Money” where we were given the pleasure of speaking to this highly influential artist one on one about his past career and his current series.
When did you realize you wanted to become an artist?
I got into street art when I was about 14 or 15. The main reason I got into street art was to get my father to quit smoking. I created my first campaign called “Morons” which is a Marlboro cigarette pack and it says “foolish choice” instead of “filtered cigarettes,” “Morons” instead of “Marlboro”, and “committing suicide” instead of “Class A Cigarettes.” It was a personal piece for him and I put it in his bedroom because he’s trilingual and speaking doesn’t always get to him.
Did it work?
He quit smoking, woke me up and said, “Thank you so much for helping me, I want to buy the painting so I support you, but don’t spend the money on shoes and clothing or skateboards.” So I used the money to buy my first screen-printing set-up, and that started my career.
After “Morons” you unveiled “Now Royalty,” an introspective evaluation of the influencers of modern society in parallel to the nobility of baroque portraiture and then “Lost Values,” a further insight into societies loyalty to consumerism. What was it like to produce these at such an early age and how did you come to conceptualize these notions?
I was still working in highschool, like doing art at night and school during the day and I was still getting up on the street because that was my passion. My dad saw that [my art] was starting to pick up and people were starting to recognize me so he said that if you’re going to get into art, I need to teach you about art. I was working on “Lost Values” while I was working on “Now Royalty” because as I was studying art, I was studying Anthony Van Dyke, Rubens, all of those and I realized that there was a history in the paintings – you can go and find out who the noblemen and who the kings were, and we didn’t have that in the states. So I realized that when Kanye wears a pair of glasses, everone wears those pair of glasses. So I worked on that collection with my father, and then [simutaniously] I was doing “Lost Values” in the street. I showed “Now Royalty” first before I showed “Lost Values” in a gallery and that was just because my thought process at seventeen was that it was more interesting than my other work when in fact people actually enjoyed my “Lost Values” collection way more.
There is an unspoken street art paradigm which you’ve seemingly broken. The typical convention is to go from the street to a gallery and your sculpture and concrete based series have, in contrast, seen the transition from the gallery to the street. Could you elaborate more on that notion as it relates to your works?
So when I started I got scooped up by galleries right away – right away – I was seventeen years old selling paintings for thousands of dollars and didn’t understand the value of it or how lucky I was to be selling work. The more I spent time in the studio, the less interesting my work became and I realized that I had lost my roots and who I was as an artist and to get back to that I had to get back on the street. But I always felt like street art had a low, dirty connotation so I wanted to bring the value up and do street art galleries. So I created the cement frame, and started my own gallery kind of work and I realized I should spend more time with the people than with the galleries. So I started investing more of my time and more of my energy in doing amazing street work because that’s what I like to do, that’s what I enjoy to do. I like to walk around and put something up, [feel] the adrenaline rush, the location, and [see] the photos – and they’re still there. They’ve lasted two years in New York, four years in Paris, five years in LA, and the beauty of it is that I think people are starting to appreciate them. There are little niches of people who protect them, and when they see someone trying to steal it they yell and I know people who have contacted me to say I stopped someone from taking one. So I think that by me giving more to them, they’ve given more back to me.
With your attention turning from galleries to your fans and the realization that the street is where you belong, how did that get you to where you are today? And why hide your face?
My thing was always that I’m just like everyone else. It’s just everyone works hard at something – everyone has a dream – I just never gave up on that, even when I was starving and had no food, no nice clothes, no anything I was like I want to do this so badly. I think a lot of people have that mentality and my idea is to show people that if I can do it anyone can do it, you just got to really bulldoze through and survive the hardest times and then eventually the good times come. And when you believe in something people will start to believe in it as well. But I don’t like to take pictures with people or have them post them on the internet just because I’ve done illegal work in fifteen countries and having illegal work in fifteen countries kind of puts a little bounty on your head.
While many of your recent shows have been solo work, do you also like to work with other artists? Who have you worked with in the past?
I usually work with people who have the same passion or drive as me, and who are more oriented towards the streets. So I’ve worked with a couple people like Chris Brown, who when I met him was fresh out of jail and very sober and clear-minded, and he was trying to become an artist – he was trying to do it correctly so we worked very closely. I’ve worked with WRDSMTH, who is a great artist and he’s very passionate. I’ve worked with a lot of people, but I find it sometimes a little difficult for people to understand my point of view and their point of view, just because I’m going simple – I’m taking away all the extras, all the fluff, all the things that make people excited. I pull that away to make sure the message is strong. A lot of artists enjoy the extra little details and fluff, but I find that if you work everything perfectly and simple it has a bigger effect. The famous example is Kiss: “Keep it simple stupid.” So I’ve always, especially with my latest collection “If”, I always try to keep it as simple and as to the point as possible yet keeping it cute and playful. I’m not trying to be morons and lost values – that was brute and kind of negative, I’m trying to make a positive version of that.
Can you explain the main concept behind the “If” series?
“If” stands for imaginary friend and the idea behind “If” was to speak to everyone without saying any words. The reason I did that was because when I studied in Paris and around Europe, English is a language everyone speaks but not everyone understands. So you can be cunning and clever here, but it might not come across in Europe, South Africa, Central America, etc. so I was working on speaking to everyone clearly but without saying a single word and that becomes way more than difficult than it sounds. I already have a lot going against me with police and people who are yelling at me like “what are you doing??” but then I have a lot going against me because it’s hard to find universal symbols that everyone understands. And there’s not so many of them so sometimes I have to blur lines of symbols and kind of convey something by meaning something else and it takes a long time. Just to get the aesthetic and detail correct it takes eight months. It takes more time for us to finish the design than to finish the sculpture.
And what about the use of pink in this series of murals?
So pink I think is a universal symbol of love, and when I set out on my world tour the idea was to spread love and to spread joy. The character is cute and it does that but to give it a knockout punch I thought that adding the pink and the effect that pink has to us would really push that the next level. So I‘ve been working with pink a lot lately, and it might become a yearly thing because up until now, if you see all the cement work there’s no color – it’s mainly black, white, and grey so I might do a yearly color. I might find different shades of pink to work with but as of now I’ve been working with this pink, and I’ve done 6 murals with the same pink. The idea is to engulf things with love and to keep spreading love and I think when someone sees pink they smile – even if they hate it – they smile because it’s cute. That’s my goal at the end of the day: to make people smile.