Gosha Levochkin is a self-taught artist. Unable to afford art school, he offered instead to fetch coffee and stretch canvases for the artists he admired. So it’s a tad ironic that he now runs his own small art school, called Dirty Hands, on the Lower East Side. But it also makes sense: He’s giving anyone interested the chance to apprentice with a master, just like he did.
After all, Levochkin is himself now a big name in the art world. His watercolor-and-gouache paintings—influenced by graffiti, comic, and anime styles—have hung in top Los Angeles and New York City galleries and he has received commissions from Skrillex, Do Art Foundation, Converse, Sour Patch Kids, Netflix, Steve Aoki, and the AIDS Foundation.
We talked to the artist in between classes about why he left Los Angeles, his early apprenticeships, and what inspired him to teach.
What Should We Do?!: Why did you move to New York City?
Gosha Levochkin: For a number of reasons. First of all, I’m a foreigner—I was born and raised in Russia. When you think of New York, I think it’s like what any immigrant thought about America: the opportunity to be yourself, especially as an entrepreneur and artist.
I grew up in Los Angeles [Levochkin moved to L.A. from Russia with his mother at age 10], but it was too laid-back and I got sick of it. When you visit New York, you automatically get the energy. As soon as you meet people here and you exchange emails, that person has probably already emailed you by the time you get home. That’s what I love about New York; it’s quick. Artists are like that in general, too, because we’re here for such a short period of time to give ourselves to the world.
WSWD: How long have you been making art?
Levochkin: I’ve been creating art my whole life, but I’ve been doing it full-time for about eight years. I’ve always been involved with the arts; my mother and father were both professional violin players in a Russian orchestra together. There’s definitely some artistic blood in my family.
WSWD: But instead of pursuing music, you went in a different direction.
Levochkin: I have what we call “dumb fingers” for music, but they’re great for brushes for some reason.
WSWD: And you taught yourself?
Levochkin: Yes, I’m self-taught. When my mom and I immigrated here, we didn’t have much money. By high school, she was like, “There is no college.” Especially being interested in the arts, it’s a really hard pitch to give any family member. If I said I was going for business or writing, they might’ve been more supportive.
I took an Old Master’s approach. I was getting into painting and showing [my work] when I was in my early 20s, and I wanted more: I wanted to be the artist, to have a show, to get into good galleries, to expose my work, but I didn’t know how to do it right. Instead of school, I reached out to artists whom I liked and apprenticed for them.
I started working at this mom-and-pop art shop in L.A. called Blue Rooster, and I was like the bartender. I was the guy who people talked to when they came in. Every cool artist, such as Shepard Fairey, would shop there.
I already knew who my favorite artists were, and one of them was this amazing watercolorist named Rob Sato. One day, he was checking out and I didn’t know who he was—because I wasn’t looking at their faces; I was looking at their work—until he gave me his card to check out the supplies. I looked down and was like, “Oh, shit, you’re my favorite artist!” The next time he came in, I said, “Can I please do whatever it is you need? I can help stretch your paper; I can go get coffee. I’ll basically be your mini-me. What do you want me to do?” It kind of just started like that; he allowed me in his studio space, and I learned for free by scanning 500 pages of his sketchbooks.
WSWD: You primarily paint watercolors?
Levochkin: Yes, and I learned from the best watercolorist we have. He’s now one of my best friends.
WSWD: That’s awesome.
Levochkin: Some of my really good friends were getting into street art and ran a collective. I learned from them, too; they had a totally different approach to art. Then I apprenticed for Ben Jones, who is a contemporary artist. He’s done shows at the Jeffrey Deitch Project and had a solo show at The Hole last year. I was learning all over the place. I was just like a sponge, because I thought: I can’t afford it, but I can learn it. I had all these tools and skills that you don’t learn in art school.
WSWD: Your plan worked!
Levochkin: I’m showing at the same galleries as they are nowadays, which is insane. It’s kind of like if they’re Led Zeppelin, I would be opening up for them on the same stage. It’s really interesting and has been a hell of a humbling experience so far.
WSWD: When did you start Dirty Hands?
Levochkin: Dirty Hands started about eight months ago. I was walking around with my partner and she was like, “Did you ever think of teaching art, because you’re really good at it. You’re well known, you have all this knowledge, you worked for a shit-ton of people, and you know all of their techniques.” I thought it was a good idea, and it was something I wanted to do. When a New Yorker says something like that to you, your idea becomes tangible.
WSWD: How is Dirty Hands different from other art schools?
Levochkin: Art has become this whole Instagram thing, where you just take a photo and you’re not looking at the technique. It’s for the people who are going into the Whitney or the Getty, and after they take a Dirty Hands class, they can look at the technique and understand the painting a bit more. That’s one of the main inspirations; to inspire people to look at art with more passion than just an image on their phone.
I’m also trying to give my students the feeling of an artist working in a studio space. I want to inspire my students to use the left side of their brain. I’ll give them all the tools, techniques, and recipes, but then it’s up to them to create the final image.
WSWD: A Dirty Hands classroom space is in the works, right?
Levochkin: Yes, we’re building out a space! It’s going to have a retail space in the front and a classroom space in the back. I want it to feel as if you walked into an artist’s studio; I’m trying to make the experience of buying art supplies sexier.
WSWD: Do you have any favorite Dirty Hands moments so far?
Levochkin: A girl who took my watercoloring class about two months ago said she had never drawn or painted before. After explaining a few techniques to her, she killed it. Her work looked professionally done, and that made me feel so good.
Gosha Levochkin’s Faves…in a NY Minute
Definitely Chrystie Street.
Slice of pizza?
Daddy Greens Pizza.
The Whitney. I just go to the fifth floor and I’m always like, OK, I’m ready to go home and paint now.