Curbside Confidential: A Mexican Street Artist on Painting the Town
It's not everyday your favorite Mexican graffiti artist comes to town. Based in the DF, Gyde & Seek's Claudio has left his mark on Mexican cities from Oaxaca to Guadalajara to Monterrey. This spring, he added NYC to his résumé. The morning after an all-night painting spree in the five boroughs, he squired us up and down the mural-clad blocks of Bushwick, Brooklyn, explaining how to distinguish a "piece" from a "bump" from a "throw-up" (the street artist who never sleeps!). Running on caffeine and artisanal donuts, he even agreed to an impromptu sidewalk interview. Below, Claudio discusses the day he got hooked, the one commission he won't take, and how to tell an old hand from a rookie grafitero.
When and where did your career as a street artist begin? How did you get your start?
My dad is an architect, and when I was a kid, he always allowed me to draw on his blueprints. So at a very early age, I got used to working big—never in some tiny notebook. I've had a thing for scale ever since. You could even say I was a precocious art merchant. By elementary school, I was already trying to sell my drawings to classmates. Eventually, the principal intervened. He was like, "You can't do business in school, man!"
Do you remember the first time you picked up a spray can?
One day, in middle school, I saw another student tagging on a table. I was mesmerized. Even though I didn't understand what he was doing, I started to copy him. I was 14 years old. After that day, I began painting outside all the time. My parents didn't like it. I come from a very traditional family, and all of my siblings have graduate degrees and more conventional careers. My dad was worried I was going to get into trouble. Sometimes he would come with me when I went out painting after school—in case I needed someone to protect me from the police.
And have you ever been afraid—painting at night? Why was painting walls so addictive?
Everyone asks me that. Painting at night? Isn't it scary? Usually people are just curious. They take a look at what you're doing and then let you be. When I'm painting, I can stay up until 3:00 am without even noticing the time that has passed. I don't feel tired. I don't feel hungry. I don't mind if it's raining. Sometimes even the client will say, "Hey, aren't you going to go home?" It's hard to describe, but painting a wall is a very physical thing. You're moving your whole body. It's an amazing release.
Do you have a favorite subject or theme?
Letters are the subject I have always loved most. I love the challenge of creating a new shape for a symbol everyone already knows. Letters also reveal a lot about a street artist's personality and skills. To do them well, you really have to know how to handle a spray can. It's like calligraphy in a way. Nowadays, you'll see artists using a whole range of fancy nozzles—and there's nothing wrong with that. But a veteran graffiti artist will be able to do a whole wall with only one or two basic caps. Over the last decade, street art has become super trendy. Graffiti's not so trendy anymore; the artists who still do letters tend to be the ones who are totally committed to the craft.
How much does context influence your creative vision? What usually comes first, the wall or the idea?
I have a graphic design background, so I do think a lot about user experience. I'll consider the wall's quirks, the neighborhood, the residents—how they might interact with the work. On the other hand, sometimes it feels right to stop analyzing and just paint.
Does mixing art and business still come naturally or do you ever find it challenging?
The most important thing for us to achieve is respect. It's way more important than money. Sometimes, with commissions, you're trying deliver something very specific that the client has in mind, which can be challenging, since of course you can't actually see the thing they're envisioning. For me, it's important to balance all of that with play. Last night, for example, I was just messing around. When there's less pressure, I can be more playful. It doesn't always have to be meaningful.
Do you ever pass on commissions if you don't feel inspired?
Everyone wants a Virgin of Guadalupe. It's the one request I routinely turn down. People will say, "You should really do it for free, man. She is our holy mother." Or they'll suggest that you should only charge for the paint, itself! It happens all the time. It has happened to almost every local artist I know.
Do you think there's a connection between the "Mexican Muralism" of Rivera's age and the street art you find in Mexico City today?
It's interesting. There have been murals in Mexico ever since the Aztecs were painting the walls of their temples. But many of today's graffiti artists have very little education. They don't necessarily have access to all of that history. There is one Mexican street art collective that actual calls itself the "New Mexican Muralism". That might sound conceited, but these guys totally deserve it. They have managed to earn the respect of everyone—of street artists, graffiti artists, taggers. They're incredibly versatile, and the quality of their work is unrivaled. They still do graffiti. They still do letters (they're actually super old-school). But they also painted an entire barrio in Hidalgo. I love showing off their walls during my tours.