CULTURE FRONT: Wallis returns to da streets
Planet Jackson Hole: You’ve transitioned from making work about rappers to creating prints of drug dealers and gangsters. Tell me why.
Aaron Wallis: I felt that, to a certain extent, some rappers are actors glorifying a gangster lifestyle and are not actually gangsters. So by making artwork about actual criminals I am getting closer to the core issues I’m trying to address, such as the counter-culture deification and sainthood of criminal figures and behavior, in which rappers do certainly play a role.
PJH: Your work seems particularly relevant right now in light of the #IfTheyGunnedMeDown hashtag campaign in response to Mike Brown being killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri. On social media, young black people across the nation have posted opposing photos of themselves: one adopting a tough, badass pose; and one smiling and wholesome. Similarly you make images of black men who emulate gangsters – or are gangsters – yet you posit them as saints. Why do you think mainstream America sees black men as menacing?
AW: Even if it’s only subconscious, white people are taught to fear black people. Many white people feel a sense of superiority over blacks, which helps them feel better about their own place in society. This sense of fear and superiority in much of white America leads to an inability to empathize with blacks as fellow human beings. The police kill unarmed black men every day in America. But white people don’t really care because they think the victim deserved it or because, in their closed minds, the police are the only thing keeping blacks from rioting and raping white women. It’s a modern day extension of slavery through the prison industrial complex and the war on drugs with the complicity of the media. Personally I have lived in predominately black neighborhoods and nobody ever tried to kill me. Everyone who has ever threatened me or attacked me was white, so I’m realistic about who is menacing.
PJH: What’s your personal connection to your subjects? Do you think of them as saints?
AW: Well I don’t know any of them personally. I would like to visit Larry Hoover in prison but the government does not allow him visitors. I don’t think of killers and drug dealers as saints necessarily. I’m trying to look beyond good and evil, which are generally subjective. Many popes had people killed and started wars; many respected religious leaders have preached violence and hate; America under both Republicans and Democrats has had everyone from communists to Muslims murdered all over the globe, including civilians. So I’m trying to say that just because they are criminals doesn’t mean they can’t be worthy of admiration, and that respected leaders many times engage in the same behavior on a much broader scale.
PJH: Your prints look especially painstaking to make. Describe your process of making a piece like Larry Hoover.
AW: I start with source images from the Internet, mostly. In Larry’s case it was a photo taken in prison. These are usually low quality images so I take them into Photoshop and try to digitally sketch up a design working with scans of illuminated manuscripts from books. I do research and try to read as much about my subjects as possible. Larry has a book titled Blueprint for Community Growth and Development that I really wanted to get my hands on. But it’s said the U.S. Government has suppressed the book, and that may be true because I couldn’t find a single copy in digital or print format. I found some super sketchy website in Malaysia but didn’t want to give them my credit card. So I settled for a quote I took from an interview with Larry Hoover in prison. After I finish the design, I do a CMYK process color separation and screen-print those four layers. I may print additional layers, or Chine Collé and gold leaf by hand. The entire process for one edition usually takes over 100 hours.
PJH: What’s next for this series? Will you explore other media or subjects?
AW: Right now I don’t see moving beyond printmaking, though I would like to do paintings again one day. I think the subjects are going to continue to remain criminals. I’m working on El Chapo, Pablo Escobar, The Chambers Bros, The Supreme Team, and also a number of cop killers. I think it would be interesting to do a show of all cop killers and call it Karma Police, after the Radiohead song. Again, cops kill unarmed, usually black people every day. I think it’s interesting to explore cop killers as an instrument of karmic retribution, or just plain causality, but I don’t expect work like that to sell.
An opening party for of Aaron Wallis’ latest Street Bible prints happens Friday at The Rose, 7-10 p.m., with DJ Vert-One spinning. Street Bible 2: Da Return will be on exhibit through September.