Chris ‘Daze’ Ellis is something of a legend. Part and parcel of the wave of graffiti that reached out to a million youths all over the world through the medium of graffiti magazines, movies and books, he’s one man that can certainly walk the wall-talk. There’s not many interviews with anyone that’s picked up a spray-can where we don’t talk about Style Wars and Subway Art, so here’s a few words from a true school, humble pioneer.
More jump off after the jump off…
VNA: So you first started writing in the mid 70’s, how did you first get into graffiti?
Daze: I think I got into it the same way many people do, at first, I was really aware of the first generation of guys in New York City on trains in the early 70s but I had no idea who was doing it or what it said, I had more questions than answers. There was gang activity in new York, a lot more than there is now, so I kind of assumed that it was gang-related. Which probably a lot of people assume, but after a while I started to realise that it was more individual, or groups of individuals who had nothing to do with gangs, and I was just attracted to it, I was attracted to the colour and the culture kind of drew me inside it, magnetically.
In 1976 I entered the high school of art and design and that school always had a large concentration of writers that were going there, so when I was about 15, 16, I started meeting people that were actually going out and painting trains, it was great. That basically was my whole life for years, if I wasn’t painting trains, then I was taking photos of trains, drawing outlines, it was really my whole life in a very complete way.
VNA: Obviously MTA transit police are a lot more organised now, what was the deal back then?
D: Well, NYC as a whole was a very different place, it was economically bankrupt, so things like art were very low on the priority scale for the police, I mean, they hated it, but there were other matters that were a lot more pressing. So NYC was a lot different to how it is now.
VNA: So how long were people thrashing trains for?
D: well, it continued pretty late into the 80’s, but by the late 80’s they were ahead of the game. That’s what I started to notice in the graffiti magazines, like On The Run and Flashback, the graffiti fanzines that were really prevalent back then, that the focus was really shifting to walls. At first I didn’t really think about it, because after you’ve painted a train, a wall is so secondary, that it’s just not that exciting or worthwhile. But I realised that wasn’t the case, I had to change my whole thinking pattern about it, because there was some really amazing stuff that was being produced and I wanted to be a part of it.
VNA: What kind of stage were you painting trains up til?
D: I was painting up til 1983, but at the same time, in 81, 82, I started to show in galleries in New York, so there was a period where I was doing both. I was making paintings and showing them alongside CRASH, Keith Haring, Jean Michel Basquiat, Futura, Kenny Scharf and those people, but I was also painting trains with people like Dez and Skeme, you know. But my interest in painting trains started to wind down around that period, because I had already painted with most of the best people in the movement and I just felt I had said and accomplished as much as I could do, and felt that making paintings and exhibiting them and being all about that.
VNA: How did that crossoever into the galleries come about?
D: It kind of crossed over in a real organic way, because I really didn’t have any aspirations in the beginning to show my work in galleries at all. So it was just something I started to do and galleries showed interest in it, that’s sort of how it evolved. I didn’t really have a plan.
VNA: What galleries at the time were spearheading that?
D: In New York, there were alternative art spaces that a lot of important people came out of, you have no idea. Some of those spaces were artists spaces, which still exist, Fashion Moda, ABC No Rio, Franklin Furnace, just to name a few, and these spaces provided a venue for experimental art and performance, so for the first time I was showing my work alongside artists that weren’t from the graffiti culture, people like Keith Haring or Jenny Holzer, John Ahearn, Kiki Smith, they all came out of that. Also, the East Village art scene was a big deal, there were a great many artists that came out of that as well. I would say in the early 80s, there were more venues dedicated to art than there are now.
VNA: There seems to have been more of a communal vibe back then?
D: Absolutely, there was. I was very much a part of all these scenes, the East Village art scene, the graffiti, the alternative art spaces and because all these things were getting so much press attention, it wasn’t long before some of the big commercial galleries and collectors started to take interest.
VNA: How has the art world changed since then for you?
D: I’ve still continued to show my work at galleries and have exhibitions at museums. I think a lot has changed since then, there was a period in the mid-80s when people were no longer interested in graffiti art and I had to rely on the interest of a few loyal collectors in Europe, really to make a living, but I just really persevered through that. I think nowadays people are a lot more premeditated in what they do, they already have a plan, or at least an idea, of what the end goal is going to be. I also think that the art world is a lot more money motivated now, there’s an intense amount of speculation, and I think all that is clouding the judgment now of what is important and what is really not important.
VNA: It’s interesting that you see some people that brand themselves as ‘street’ artists going almost straight to the gallery now and the work in the streets becomes almost secondary to that.
D: Yeah, it’s a bit sad, because it says that they never really had that much of a commitment to begin with. I really respect people like Os Gemeos or Shepard Fairey, who continue to put work up in the street, even though they’ve achieved this art-world success, they’re still staying true to their roots and realise that their public work is an important part of the whole picture.
VNA: Are you still doing a lot of work outside of the studio?
D: Yes, painting murals and doing public work has always been a really important thing to me, and it continues to be. My studio work is really important, but bringing the work to the people and having direct interaction with people on the street is also a large aspect of what I do. I also do work with kids, with kids groups and doing mural workshops, that’s also a really important part of what I’ve been doing. 2 years ago, I received a Smartpower grant from the US Government to go to Ecuador and did 4 murals, with 20 kids per mural, so I worked with about 80 kids and we did some amazing murals. Aside from that I did about 6 of my own murals, so I continue to do that. Here in New York I do a lot of work with TATS Cru and CRASH still and I just feel like I don’t really want to lose touch with that aspect.
VNA: Has that become a lot more based on legal work? Do you need to keep your nose clean these days?
D: The illegal aspect of what I used to do is over, pretty much, that’s for the younger generation, more so than myself. I don’t really like people telling me what to do, or where to paint, I like to find a spot where I don’t have to deal with the hassle, where I can just take my time and work.
VNA: So, back when things like Subway Art were coming out, how was that time for you?
D: Well, the people that were involved in Subway Art, Wildstyle and Style Wars, I don’t think realised the global impact that any of those were going to have, I know I didn’t. The director of Wildstyle, Charlie Ahearn, asked me to turn up and paint on certain days for them to film, or for me to paint something for them to film. I looked on it as a really a hassle, it was on the strength that Charlie was a good friend of mine and I wanted to help him. But nobody, including Charlie could have predicted that that movie was gonna be as influential as it’s become. It was the same with Style Wars, I was actually one of the first people to meet Henry when he was working on the documentary and I knew Henry was a serious enough person for it to be a good project, but again I had no idea that these things would influence people worldwide.
VNA: How does that feel to you, that those kick-started a global movement, reaching out to artists like Chu, Goldie and 3D?
D: It feels great, I’m still in contact with Goldie, we painted a couple of years ago in New York. I always felt from the beginning he grasped this whole thing from a cultural point of view. He does music, but he also paints, he’s a great painter and very passionate, so for me it’s a great feeling of accomplishment to have been a part of that movement and know that people like Goldie were influenced by what I was doing.
VNA: Is the work with kids that something you still want to keep pushing?
D: Yeah, this year I have several projects with kids, one is at the Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, it’s a high school that I’m going to be working that lasts about a month, creating 4 big paintings that connect together that will be shown in the museum. Then later on in the year I’m going to Baton Rouge, Louisiana to work on 2 big murals there with high school students that have to do with the history down there.
VNA: Do you see it as part of your duty to do more community-based projects?
D: Even that is something that happened very slowly, years ago someone asked me to come and speak at a class and show some slides and I realised that the kids were really interested, I had their attention, which was a great thing. I felt that if I had their attention, that was half the battle right there. I started doing more and more and felt that it was a real win-win situation. The kids were getting something out of it, the parents were getting something out of it because their kids were interested, I’m getting a sense of accomplishment and the sponsors of the projects were a part of something great. So I’m being asked to do that more and more now.
VNA: It’s amazing to see people giving back more to the community and teaching in ways that are outside of the existing template, because a lot of kids drop out, or don’t fit in and some of the most talented, creative people I know don’t fit into the system. You were painting at 15, I guess that, for you, was a massive passion that had nothing to do with the education system?
D: When I was in the High School of Art & Design, graffiti was my whole life, I was always drawing, I was always doing something, but at the same time, I was a horrible art student, flunking all my classes, because I was spending all my time in the lunch room doing outline and drawing sketches. I had no idea where it would take me, I didn’t even think of it so much as art, but I knew it was something creative. I think a lot of kids today have that feeling, they don’t know what they want to be doing in 20 years, or even 5 or 10 years from now, but they want to be doing something worthwhile that they enjoy, and it always surprises me that this culture that has kids from all kinds of different backgrounds focus on it. I’ve worked with kids from really under-developed countries and underprivileged neighbourhoods and even kids who were middle class or even upper class, and all of them seem to be interested in it.
VNA: I guess it’s an easy way to see an impact on your environment that people feel so disconnected from all the time?
D: Yeah and it’s gonna be something that I continue to do for a long time, and I’m glad to be an inspiration for the younger generation out there.
VNA: So tell us a little bit more about what you have coming up?
D: I have a lot of projects on right now, the City as Canvas Project, from the collection of Martin Wong, from the mid 70’s to mid 80’s, so the collection is an important time capsule of that period. I’m very much a part of that, he was a good friend of mine. They’re showing a lot of other artists like Lee Quinones, Lady Pink, Keith Haring, LA2 and some other great people.
VNA: Do you have any new work that’s going to be show there?
D: I have one new piece I made for the show, but most of the work is from the early 80’s. After that I have a solo show at the Addison Museum of American Art in Andover, Mass., in May, which is larger scale, more recent work. I’m also in a show connected with Coney Island, Brooklyn, that’s going to open in a museum called Wadsworth Atheneum that’s going to travel to 5 other museums and end up at the Brooklyn Museum. Im also working on a monograph of all my work that covers the full scope, from trains and murals to museums.
VNA: Have you always been able to make money from your art?
D: Yeah, pretty much, there’s been peaks and valleys, but I’ve always been able to make money from my work. Sometimes better than others, but even when I didn’t have a long-range goal, I knew that I’d be doing this for the long run, I’ve always had a good work ethic and that’s one of the things that really helps me do what I do.
VNA: So you still get up in the morning and you’re pumped on what you do?
D: Sometimes it’s harder than others, but I’m not really one of those artists who just waits around for inspiration. Even if I don’t feel like going to work, I go anyway, because I find the more I paint, the more ideas I have, so the studio becomes and incubator for ideas. I’m working on one painting but thinking about the next two paintings and where that particular work can go. I also have these sculptures that exist in a kind of incubator stage for a long time, just as sketches, but I want to see things in a more 3-dimensional form.
VNA: Do you want to start moulding too?
D: The next sculptures that I’m doing, I want to make from beginning to end, but I think with any sculptor you need help to work on a large scale. It’s difficult to do that single-handedly. It’s something that interests me quite a lot and I want to realise it, I’ve seen other artists that are normal painters and seen sculptural translations of their work, and thought I can do that as well.
VNA: Does that mean you’re going back to the drawing board, are you re-learning?
D: A little bit, I think it’s exciting to do tackle something that isn’t that familiar, that’s the danger in a lot of artists is that they can keep doing something that they’re successful with and after a while they can just fold it in. I’ve always wanted to try different things with my work and give it the freedom to evolve into something else. Sometimes it may be hard for people to follow what I’m doing, but it’s all basically one path.