[DISCLAIMER: This interview and slideshow contain some explicit language and nudity]
Today’s spotlight is a little bit different than our past BR!NKers. We’re going to hold off telling you his real name, and we’re not going to focus on what he looks like. We will, however, let his body of work speak for itself and give you a bit of insight into his life as a perpetual creative spirit. This Los Angeles-based artist, known in local circles as Rabí, has work spread so widely through the city that you’ve probably unknowingly seen and adopted his art as part of the local landscape; much of his portfolio is displayed to the world in the form of intricate murals of spray paint. He is, among many things, a graffiti artist, and he sat down with Daily BR!NK to discuss everything from the legality of his work to the importance he places on sharing art with as many people as possible. He reminds us, too, that where art is concerned, it’s important to keep our eyes open.
Where’d you get the name, “Rabí?”
When I started getting into graffiti I had to think of a name. And at that point – I’m a Puerto Rican Jew – I thought, “Rabbi Sancho.” That’s what came, I don’t know why. After a while, it just became too long. Rabí stuck. People started calling me Rabí, so I ran with Rabí.
And DTLA Designs consists of what?
It’s my production company. It’s murals, it’s video – anything associated with my work and the people I work with.
Tell me about how you started getting into art and graffiti.
Ever since I can remember I was drawing. Or painting. When I was like thirteen, I met a girl. She was into graffiti, and that’s what did it for me. A girl. And she was better than me – and I was like, “Holy shit, I gotta do this to be cool.” So I started messing with letters. And that’s when I fell in love with letters. No longer in love with her. We fell apart, she stopped painting, but I just couldn’t stop. I started in Iowa of all places. There were trains all over the place. We would literally hang out next to trains all the time, so if a train would stop, everybody would run and grab their paint. It wasn’t even art. We were just trying to paint names – our letters.
Does everyone in a town know who everyone else is? Who’s doing all the work?
Yes. It’s amazing because even out here, people know. It doesn’t even matter where you are. If you’re a graffiti writer, you know other graffiti writers. They find you. You find them. And cops and people who don’t know think they know, but they honestly have no idea. I’ve been in so many sticky situations with police, being interrogated… for graffiti.
I was going to ask about that. How does the legality come into play with the art?
They can’t do anything unless they catch you doing it, unless you admit your “guilt.” But always in my head is that it’s art. I’m really not at fault. There are a lot of artists that go and deface things, but my goal as an artist – graffiti is just part of it – is to place whatever it is I’m placing (whether a tag or something else) in a way that I’m beautifying the surface. My goal is to make the city worker who has to fucking buff it not want to. Because it’s so beautiful. That’s what art is – total beauty.
In Santa Barbara there was this long wash that ran alongside the freeway, and after years of people painting in this wash, the city decided to buff the whole thing. One day, everyone started saying, “Dude, they buffed the wash. But they left your piece.” We went over to the freeway to look at it, and the whole thing is buffed except for my piece. I saw that as a chance to communicate with the authorities and the city. It was this big character face I did, and I went back, and next to the face I wrote this huge paragraph about the relationship that artists have with authorities. It ran for a while, so you know that someone who I needed to talk to read that shit. It was so powerful. There’s this misconception that these artists are all vandals, and trust me, there are some vandalistic, dirt-bag, asshole graffiti writers out there, and they give all of us a bad name. But the point is, I’m not a graffiti writer, I’m an artist.
I left Santa Barbara and went back to L.A. because I realized there was no opportunity there as an artist, I was just going to end up in jail, running from the cops, jumping off roofs… it was just juvenile. I came back to L.A. and remembered that it’s all about expression, which I had somehow forgotten. I began working with a gallery where I started doing installation work.
I saw a video of you doing this gorgeous mural of a woman on a wall in a bar in Iowa. Can you talk more about Rabí as an artist who’s involved “legal” art versus the graffiti street work?
I’ve found that a major part of my art is sharing it with people. As a graffiti artist, you’re breaking the law. You can’t tell people who you are. Nobody knows. I have friends who are so talented and they paint all over the world, and nobody knows who they are except for their circles. And it’s because that’s what they want. That’s what I used to think was the honorable thing as an artist. But it’s not about that. It’s about who you are as a person in this world, and for me, who I am is this guy who wants to share not just my art but my ideas, my ideals, and that encompasses my art – anything I do. My goal is to inspire people, to make people smile through my work. By doing graffiti, I wasn’t able to share my work with people.
So other than graffiti, how do you share your work?
That’s the thing, doing legal walls now, that’s how people can come and talk to me. Or by being in a gallery and showing people my work there. People get to find out who I am and what I’m about. It exposes more than my art, it exposes my philosophy, which – right or wrong – is being part of the world, instead of being reclusive.
Do you have any stuff up in a gallery right now?
A lot of it is at this gallery downtown in Little Tokyo, called Hold Up Art. I’m pretty much exclusively with Hold Up Art now – they’ve been managing my work.
Does it feel good right now? That what you’re doing is what you’re supposed to be doing, creatively?
Yeah. There’s ups and downs like everything, and to appreciate an up, you have to go down sometimes. This is my job, and I love doing it. Whether the money’s coming from freelance or getting work from, like, celebrity stylists. I just did that shirt [points behind him in the room] for Avril Lavigne.
Oh wow, you designed that?
Yeah, the thing about freelance is you have to give someone their vision. You take down your defenses and let them have what they want. And it’s fun, and it pays.
That’s great. Is there a medium apart from painting and graffiti that you haven’t yet but you’d like to explore?
[thinks] I’ve worked with glass – blowing and painting glass while it’s hot – I always thought that would be really interesting. If I had the time, I’d like to try that. That and stained glass. Like fucking cathedral-style pieces.
So if one of our readers was to see your work on the site and say, “Wow, he’s amazing, I want to help him out…” what could he or she do to contribute to your success, to help you as an artist?
It’s so simple. A big enough space and expenses for the space. A big roll of canvas and a space. It’s all about funding. We, my friends and I, have an unlimited supply of talent but we don’t have all the resources to do it. I’m doing pretty well on my own, but it would be nice to have some support. Let’s say a big space and a bag of groceries. I would never need anything else.