I first interviewed Ewok (HM, AWR, MSK, SEVENTH LETTER) about five years ago when he and Chen AKB were doing live-painting for the Third Annual Twin Cities Hip-Hop Festival & Celebration. Since then he’s changed his address to the much nicer climate of Southern California, and joined MSK and THE SEVENTH LETTER, two of the most prolific and innovative graffiti crews in the world. He also happens to be a founding member of Life Sucks Die magazine as well as a member of Minneapolis super-design firm, BURLESQUE of NORTH AMERICA.
In wanting to kick up dust for WACTAC’s event “Don’t Sleep On It,” I thought it would be good to check in with Ewok and see if we can pressure his Burlesque affiliates to bring him out for the event.
What were you like as a kid?
I don’t know, that’s kind of hard to talk about who I was or who I am now. I think I was pretty normal though, you know, played sports, did a lot of skateboarding, those sorts of things. I have a younger brother who’s seven years younger than me, so I think that’s a big reason for why I got into art, being an only-child for so long I had to entertain myself. I think sitting down and having to be imaginative was a big part of that. I always remember drawing though. I always was very interested in art, like I remember going to my grandparents’ house and they’d have these portraits of my aunts on the wall and I remember just staring at them for a really long time, kind of getting lost in them at the dinner table.
So you were always into art?
I remember snapshots of things growing up, not necessarily an ‘aha’ moment, but things I think that definitely influenced me. I remember once seeing my Aunt bust out this crazy sketch of a mouse on the floor. Apparently she was a super-dope artist, I didn’t even know she drew or anything and one day she just drew this super incredible mouse, you know, this is probably interpreted through my little kid mind, but this thing was almost photo-realistic.
So yeah, it was those kinds of things that influenced me. As far as graffiti, it was something I kind of knew about growing up in Millwaukee, but it really caught my attention driving through Chicago to visit my grandparents. I remember this old wood building which had a tar roof, and the roof would have all these silver tags on it. And then something that really sticks out was on the station by the highway off the redline there was this character of a cop blowing this big whistle, like chasing after another character, which I would later assume to be a writer. Then I also went to New York in high school with the art club or whatever and I remember seeing a tag on one of those ‘Hi my name is’ stickers on like a slab of marble at the end of the sidewalk, and for the first time seeing delivery trucks with graffiti and just thinking, “Wow, this is real graffiti, this is it.”
How did you get started doing graffiti?
My boy Mber and I started doing marker tags with those big magnum 44 markers and just stuff like that back in Milwaukee, but I don’t think I did any paint stuff until I moved to Minneapolis. So, we used to do marker tags, and I think one of us found a pilot or we would like try to get Meanstreaks from places. There was this warehouse place on Central that we used to go to back in the day and you know, get my Tommy Hilfiger or whatever I was into back then, but they also had 99 cent spray paint too, so I bought that and I remember trying to do like this bubble-letter thing. I think I did my first piece in like, ’91, and by piece I don’t mean burner or anything good.
So coming up in the nineties, I’ve got this off the wall question: What’s your favorite 90’s jam?
Uh… classic nineties, jam… I’m trying to think what my favorite was then, and then what my favorite is now. On the retro-tip I’m going to have to say “Regulate.”
(Laughs) Anything with Nate Dogg singing on it is gold.
(Laughs) For some reason I’m really feeling that right now. As far as back then, I’m going to have to say… you know, probably the whole “Chronic” album.
Who were some of your influences in graffiti back then? It seems you had a pretty unique, organic style.
I’m going to pull my own card and say back in Minneapolis my biggest influence graffiti-wise came from that anime movie “Akira.” There’s a scene near the end… It’s so amazing the way that they did this movie, all the dope animation, everything is so spot on, stylized and fresh… There’s this guy, I think his name is Tetsuo, he is the main character and he is crazy and has super-natural powers, but he starts turning into this sort of bio-mechanical monster, and all this nasty shit is happening to him. It’s so fucking dope. I kind of was just mesmerized by that whole aspect of it, his bio-mechanical joints and limbs and stuff. That it made me want to break down my letters to their key components, so that they each have their own personalities, like each have an emotion, motion, texture, kind of had those three as my basic elements: Emotion, Motion & Texture. Then I’d try and find ways to work in other influences to make the letter form have those elements.
A lot of it had to do that scene from ‘Akira.’ I also was trying to do things with spray paint that weren’t the traditional methods, like “First outline, fill, final outline, highlights.” I wanted to make the process of painting with spray-paint more like painting rather than, say, like an architectectual drawing. I was trying to be more creative and have the elements that go into painting a character, but with letters. I really like the idea of trying to make the letters a texture, like melting wax, or plastic-y.
Now with my crew (MSK) it’s good because we all influence one another. Like I feel fine saying you know “This person influences me,” or whatever, because I’m sure they’d turn around and say that I influence them, you know? There’s almost a general pool of ideas that we can all pull from, and we all contribute to everyone’s style. But some of my really big influences now are Rime, Revok, Aroe and his by Roid who does these very weird textured pieces. I like when people push the envelope and do new stuff, not like “i wanna do a good piece so I’ll just try and do what Cope’s done or Seen’s done.” Too take it to the next level you’ve gotta develop new stuff. Like Rime is one of the biggest innovators right now, like a lot of the time he’ll have his ‘R’ and the kick that comes off off that will almost carve out his ‘I’ in the negative space, and he’s always doing super unique and great things like that.
***We continued the interview for about an hour, at which point my computer crashed and the audio of the rest of our interview was lost, which I had been taking sparing notes on… So I had to schedule another go at it. Here’s take two***
So I watched Akira this weekend. Definitely a mid-90’s Ewok piece. (Laugh)
(Laughs) I kind of think I could get away with not ever copping to that influence, and that if people saw the movie on their own they wouldn’t really put it together. But once I’ve said it it’s pretty obvious…
How’d you get into illustration work:
Got into graphic design and illustrating through Life Sucks Die. Like when I was going to school I sort of thought graphic design kids knew how to work computers but weren’t really artists, in that they didn’t really do anything with their hands. Then when we started putting together the magazine I had to learn all of these things, like photoshop, illustrator, quark, etc. and realized that the computer wasn’t so much of a cop-out as it was another tool, like a paint brush or spray paint, whatever.
What was your favorite thing about Life Sucks Die?
The best part of doing LSD was that we didn’t really know what we were doing, that we were all sort of winging it, and that we really had freedom. What was also cool was that it reached so many more people than we had first anticipated, more so than just the culture we were in (graffiti). Then again it also acted as a sort of Trojan Horse. It was a graffiti magazine, but we wanted to do so much more than that, we wanted to make it better than the market of all other American graffiti magazines, and I think we did that. All the information was different, as far as with content, interviews, reviews… we wanted to broaden the horizons of what a graffiti magazine was.
What happened to it?
LSD stopped kind of because we were all becoming adults and didn’t have the time to put into the magazine, as well as when we moved to having a magazine distributor it became something where we had a strict publishing schedule, like “The magazine has to be done by this day.” And I’m personally someone not comfortable working with a timeline as far as creative things go, like, I’d rather spend all the time and give you something I can stand behind rather than meet the timelines.
It seems that Burlesque Design of North America is kind of what came out of LSD.
The thing is, people don’t take you seriously as a young artist, so it becomes very hard to freelance. You’ll try and get a job and they’re kind of like “Who are you?” So we kind of started Burlesque so we could all work under one name, and that way it added some sort of legitimacy to what we were doing. But I moved out to California before it really became what it is today, like where Mike and Wes have taken it as far as a super ill print shop and all the poster design stuff. I wish now that I was more involved, but now I have a 9-5 job, so it’s more an issue of time.
Aside from doing graffiti and doing graphic design/illustration work, you’re also a fine artist.
I don’t really like to separate them into different things, like, I just do one with spray paint and another with oils and brushes, you know? Generally I try and start with an image that is meaningful to me, and work backwards from there, like not approach it as something already planned out. I’m not a huge fan of really symbolic shit like, “Oh, like this dove is peace and serenity of my inner soul.” Laughs.
Do you have a favorite “fine artist?”
I never really had an absolute favorite, but my favorite for right now is a Mexican muralist named Jorge Gonzalez Camarena. I actually got to see his murals this summer when I went down to Mexico CIty for this graffiti-jam.
Where did you see them?
One was in… I’m probably going to get this wrong, but it was called “El Museo de Bellas Artes,” (Musuem of Fine Arts). He’s got a really dope piece there, and also one in the federal building, or one of the federal buildings, kind of close to the Natural History Museum. He’s just ridiculous and, I think it’s either him or his brother, I heard, that invented color TV, or came up with a mechanism to move from black & white to color.
Jorge Gonzalez Camarena
That’s crazy. I’d like to invent something like that.
His art alone is ridiculous, but with something like the TV then it’s game over. I want to say his art is kind of cubist… well, no, not cubist. It’s a really unique style. He makes his characters look really massive and strong in the way that he uses perspective, and his colors are really dynamic. Another thing that I really like is how meaningful his work is. One of the things that I get frustrated with in my own work is falling into a pattern where you’re the dude that paints a specific image. Like for me I do a lot of klansmen or poodles, and although I know it has whatever latent subconscious meaning, I enjoy his direct symbolism. The work he did dealt a lot with political and cultural movements, a lot of it had to do with Mexico’s history and the conquistadors. And while the symbolism is blatant, the work is so beautiful and nuanced that the symbols almost get lost in the murals.
How was the graffiti jam?
It was a lot of fun, but just chaotic. I think they got a permit, but it was loose. (Laughs) In the United States you don’t see a lot of stuff you see in Mexico. Like up here you’ll see like parking meters and stuff, and down there too, but then they’ll just have pallets or bags of sand in the street, and you wonder if the city is putting those there, or what? Weird shit. It’s bizarre how everything is so orderly and regulated here compared to some places. But aside from the jam we painted a couple of other spots. I like seeing people’s reactions to you painting graffiti in other countries, especially as a foreigner. Sometimes it’s the first time people have seen graffiti, or definitely the first time they’ve seen somebody painting graffiti live. It makes you aware of how much propaganda is up here in the U.S. that makes people hate graffiti, like blaming it on ruining neighborhoods and gangs and other shit, and so they make people hate it up here. So it’s interesting painting for people that don’t have a predetermined notion that it is bad, and usually their reactions are favorable, like “OH, this is awesome.”
We were actually in Korea last year, and we were painting right on the sidewalk. I’m sitting there painting a piece and I’ve got this sixth-sense that somebody is watching me, so I turn around and there’s this old man, you know, 80-85 year-old with his camera phone just taking a video of me painting for like 15 minutes.
What did you go to Korea for?
That was a Seventh Letter trip.
I meant to ask you this earlier actually, but what exactly is the Seventh Letter about?
Basically the Seventh Letter is a crew in the regular sense of a graffit crew, but it’s also more like a professional extension of graffiti for people who are trying to make a career out of what they’re already doing, whether it be photography, graffiti, fine art, printing, etc. It’s essentially a large group of artists taking that next step. When you’re young people say “Keep it real,” and “Don’t sell out,” but I think too often they confuse any success outside of graffiti with those. This is a way to market ourselves as artists, but with an extension of what we’re trying to do in a professional setting.
What’s with the name ‘Seventh Letter?’
(Laughs) Honestly, I don’t know the exact reason. I never asked, and by the time I started to question what it was about it was almost too late for me to ask anybody. (Laughs) It’s like when you’ve met somebody like, you know, 20-30 times and you keep forgetting their name, it’s sort of awkward to ask them what it is. (Laughs)
I always thought it was either ‘graffiti’ or like being a ‘G’ (laughs)
I’m going to go with ‘graffiti’, and someone might see this and call me out.
What advice would you give to a young artist?
Be humble enough where you can acknowledge that you’re drawing influence from other people, but have your overall goal be to make it your own. So take influences but translate those influences into your own style or way of doing it, so you’re not just turning it out but actually digesting the things that inspire you. It’s a fine line between blatantly ripping something off or biting it, you know. It’s all a balance. Also letting them know, whether in graffiti or any other art that you can draw a lot of inspiration from anything, not just other artists. It’s about really paying attention to details, all of the details and things in life that push you in a certain direction, that you respond to.
The art you’re making should be meaningful, you should strive to make it worthwhile in some level. Recently I was talking to another fine artists, and asked them, “Hey, do you ever have this dilemma when you’re stuck in this rut, where you start recycling images of what you already do,” Like “Oh, I’m going to paint this girl, or I’m going to paint this dog,” and really you’re just doing those things because that’s what you always do. There needs to bigger reason than for you to exist as just a machine that cranks out a million pictures of dogs. You need to ask “Why am I painting a dog? How can I expand? How can I make my dog paintings new and meaningful.” It’s the idea of setting a goal, completing it and to keep pursuing greater goals.
What is your five year goal?
I really want to do more fine art, I really like my job and everything, but I want to have more time for painting and doing art shows and painting. I’d rather be thinking about art full time rather than thinking about bills full time, and I think I really want to just be fully immersed in making art my full time job.
Do you think Mike and Wes will spend their extra money on flying you out for the event?
I would sure hope so. Make sure that they get a hard copy of this interview so that they know I said this.
Any last words?
Shout-out to my daughter Froggy!
To see more of Ewok’s work check out: