For many years, as the story goes, the allure of New York City was that it was dangerous and free. You might get robbed or be surrounded by filth, but it was cheap enough that artists and weirdos of all stripes could chase their particular dreams. They could make art and, in turn, make the world a better place. This made NYC an exciting, confusing, and frustrating city—one of the greatest in the world. As it has cleaned up, of course, almost all that has been lost.
Almost! Anonymous street artist RAE (aka RAE_BK) was raised in this rougher, more anarchic New York. “I grew up in the East Flatbush section of Brooklyn and spent a lot time working at delis and butcher shops,” he tells WSWD. “Each one had some sort of shady past or weirdness happening at the time. This included a place that had ties to the Mob, with people whispering to one another between the grocery aisles. Another one was owned by a drug dealer who was about to go to jail. One day a Con Edison worker came and shut down the power due to nonpayment. All the meat went bad and we closed for good.”
Now RAE’s work nods to this gritty city of yore and the characters who made it hum like nowhere else. In his pieces, paintings and found objects are often packed with distorted, pained faces peering out from phone poles or old bathrooms. In other constructions, he lets in more light via a whimsical trash monster riding an old bike out a window or hanging around a back alley.
WSWD caught up with RAE on a recent weekend to talk about conjuring a lost world and dealing with the one we find ourselves in today.
What Should We Do: How do you feel your work fits into today’s political and social environments?
RAE: As the news of the day has gotten darker and deeper, my work has gotten more abstract. All the confusion that’s going on, and the false equivalency of things, has made my work more busy, more frantic, more frenetic. I’m not going to be writing “freedom” or “justice” all over my paintings or anything, but it’s in there. I find myself using money from sales that I make for causes that I believe in, too.
WSWD: In the past, you’ve described some of your work as “Pee-wee’s Playhouse directed by David Lynch.” You can see the mix of playfulness, aggression, and even some insanity, maybe.
There’ll be a patch of tiles that are missing at the entrance of a subway, and it’s like, oh, wait a minute, why did that happen there? That would be a perfect spot for art.
RAE: A lot of that comes from what’s happening in the news and around society. There are pockets of goodness and then there’s this dark stuff, and it overlaps. My work always involves that aspect of it. I go back to it. It doesn’t matter what body of work I’m doing. And the quote that you read was based on a time that I spent last year living inside a storefront window on the Lower East Side, putting myself on display for 24 hours, seven days a week. That broke some of my own phobias and fears about being around people.
WSWD: You work and display in a lot of unconventional spaces all over the city. What do you like about those spaces?
RAE: I have this thing of wanting to be first at something. What I mean is, if I travel somewhere, I want to be on the ends of a country or a continent or something along where the water meets the land. Trying to find where the beginnings of things are. And it connects to where I look for locations for shows. What I do is I look at the work and the subject matter that I’m making and then I think about where that space would be and how that would best connect with [the work].
I had a show in the basement of a butcher shop in Chinatown. The basement had to do with a building I once lived in that was holding my artwork hostage in its basement.
The location does reflect what the work is about. I had a show in the basement of a butcher shop in Chinatown. The basement had to do with a building I once lived in that was holding my artwork hostage in its basement because I was using the apartment as an art studio, which I technically shouldn’t have done. They wanted to hold the art until I basically gave them money for using the place as a studio. So the basement of the butcher shop was reflecting that story line. I basically look for locations that fit my theme.
WSWD: As a street artist, you work outside the gallery system, but also literally outside. Is there anything in particular you look for when you decide to put a piece in a particular place?
RAE: I’m always keeping my eyes open in the city, which is obviously getting a lot more polished, and it’s becoming harder for someone like myself to find places to put work. One thing that I think about is: If I put this piece up, is it going to last? Obviously, if I screwed something into a fancy shop in SoHo, I doubt they’re going to keep that there. So I look for spots in between the folds of the polished New York.
I’ll notice things that seem to be in need of a piece of art. There’ll be a patch of tiles that are missing at the entrance of a subway, and it’s like, oh, wait a minute, why did that happen there? That would be a perfect spot for art. Or a window that’s boarded up, or something like that. It will take some time. I may have to do some measurements and work on it in the studio and figure out a way to install it inconspicuously. These are the types of things I have to think about before I’m doing the work.
WSWD: That suggests you might need tools that other artists don’t necessarily carry around.
RAE: I keep a tape measure with me. I have a space in Tribeca, where there are some little side streets, and there are a few windows that have been bricked up and knocked to the edge of the surface of the building, so they’ve recessed a bit and they make for really nice little displays. Or if there are parking signs missing from street poles, that’s where I bolt up a lot of sculptures, too. I’m looking up, down, left, right. It’s instinctive at this point.
WSWD: Does New York still have an art scene or just an art market?
RAE: I’m not the best person to ask because I’m not so immersed in the scene of the art world. One of the reasons is that I try to come from an original place. I think I’d get bored really fast if I was just making series of paintings [that were] going to be at a gallery. And then making another series that’s going to be there. I have to try to infiltrate the mundaneness that’s happening in society with work and have people see art when they don’t expect to see it.
For example, I don’t know if you know about this, but in Bushwick there’s this bar that allows only two patrons at a time. You go there, you sit, just you and one other person and the bartender. And they make you all these interesting drinks. You just keep doing shots and trying little things, all really unusual stuff. But it’s a really tight, cramped area.
I said, “I’m just putting up this piece of art.” “Oh, you have permission to do this?” And I was like, “I think you need to go and find your place.”
And so one day I was installing a piece of work not far from that bar. And coming down the street are these two tourists, and here I am on this ladder on this dark street installing this piece. They were hesitant to ask me about it, but I was the only one around. They could hardly speak English and they were completely lost. Then I looked on their phone and I saw what they were asking for, and I told them where it was. They started to leave, but then they stopped and sort of looked and said, “Can we ask you what you are doing?” I said, “I’m just putting up this piece of art.“ “Oh, you have permission to do this?” And I was like,“I think you need to go and find your place.”
WSWD: You probably don’t want that kind of attention when you’re installing a piece.
RAE: Yeah. I don’t need any more people attracting anybody else. Later on, I guess they were drunk from this place they went, but they were photographing themselves in front of the piece. They sent me a private message of it on Instagram—now they know who I am and they’re following me on Instagram. It’s these little moments where people stumble upon stuff. I’ll see a picture of somebody looking at something that I made, and that’s really what it’s all about.