Art Territory: An Interview with TOPAZ
TOPAZ and his memorial portrait of Prodigy from Mobb Deep
Meet TOPAZ, a graffiti artist who prefers spray-painting compelling characters and lush backgrounds to spray-painting words. Think graffiti, and the imagination is quick to home in on graffiti writing: from mind-bendingly complex wildstyles splayed through with razor-edge points, to blockish forms that satirize typography.
But full-wall graff productions don’t exclusively trade in lettering. And make no mistake: this Art and Design alum is more than proficient in graff-writing.
“If I couldn’t do letters, there’s no way I would be able to call myself a graffiti artist. The first time I picked up a can of spray paint, I was doing letters. I did not start doing characters with spray paint until years later, after seeing crews like FX and TATS CRU doing productions back in the day — I hadn’t seen work like that since LEE and SEEN were doing whole cars,” he muses. “Nowadays, I mostly like to do characters and backgrounds because that is what I honestly enjoy. I like incorporating them with graffiti style, and always keeping that authentic feel is very important."
TOPAZ focuses on characters. For some artists, doing characters means summoning a handful of well-worn, illustrated personas onto a surface and tweeking as needed to accommodate holiday themes, memorials, political messages, and special color schemes.
Not for TOPAZ, whose arsenal of characters is boundless: There’s the shaolin warrior/wizard commanding tendrils of electricity in the Bronx. The snarling, simian-golem hybrid clutching a space rocket in Queens. A hip-hop, cassette-playing robot on the lower east side. An ‘80s b-boy keeping company with MERES and JERMS wildstyles at The Bushwick Collective. A trio of “Wizard of Oz” munchkins at JMZ Walls in Brooklyn. The Beast from Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" in the East Village ... the list is days long!
His life fairly teems with once-in-a-lifetime graffiti memories, shout-outs to fellow artists/supporters, and talented siblings. But you won't learn about any of it unless you get with the interview that follows.
Joanna Pan: I know you as Topaz, but i think there's another name you use. In what situations do you use each?
TOPAZ: I don't want to associate the two names at this time, but I will say I have been involved in the music business as long as graffiti art. I work very closely with an independent record label called "Sky God," as well as DJ-JS1's label, "Ground Original" and "Now Or Never Studio" in Jamaica. One of the walls that was in the 5Pointz case was actually a wall by me and JERMS titled "Music Is My Religion" -- it was a tribute to Jimi Hendrix. That wall was partially concepted on the fact that me and JERMS both do music just as much as art.
JP: What crews do you represent?
T: I represent FTR, OTM, 63RD, 108, IndaKut, Horrible Human, AFD, BTW, DWB ... SPK was one of my original crews that I started back in the mid to late '80s with my partners SCAPE, PREM, KRAPPY ... a few others. Jay Boogie -- who used to write "Dutch Boy" back then, and the crew SPK eventually died out on my behalf, and my younger brother ended up taking over, who wrote EASE -- R.I.P. EASE: SBK / 63RD / WRB. And Rel-3 (R3) was pushing that crew heavy for awhile, he was big on the trucks and rooftops, he was a big bomber. All that died out after awhile, but I was down with many crews -- 1-1-3 ... I'm down with WB from Howard Beach. (And) WDD... there were so many crews back then, but I used to just get thrown down with random crews and it wasn't a thing where I would -- I used to push 'em a lot back then, but I don't really push them anymore because it wasn't a thing where we actually hang out with each other. I consider my crews now the people that I actually hang out with, and do a lot of things with, so ... If I leave out a couple of crews that I actually am down with, pardon me -- because I love everybody all the same but I just don't see everybody as much anymore. I want to add that as far as SPK goes that between the time of SCAPE and then EASE taking over the crew, PLATO was my main partner in my prime of piecing illegally and TRIC was also a close partner at that time as well as TOOR -- R.I.P. And I have to throw CAD SPK in there also -- R.I.P., same era.
JP: What is the origin story behind the name Topaz?
T: The origin story behind TOPAZ is pretty basic; elementary. What happened was, I was looking for a tag name in about 7th grade/8th grade, ’87/’88. I had prior names: I used to write ZAX and a couple others that were pretty stupid. One day I was looking through my science book, I wanted something that I thought should be scientific or something crazy like that. So I started looking through the back of my science book -- I guess it’s the glossary where they have the list of words and sections where things are. I just started going through words, and I wrote a list of about 20 that I liked. Topaz ended up being the one that stuck with me. Later on, I realized it was my birthstone. so I started incorporating that into more of the meaning of why I took the name -- even though that wasn’t the real reason
JP: JERMS said FTR stands for a bunch of things: "Fuck The Rest", "For The Rush," "Fear The Reaper," etc. What did FTR originally stand for?
T: I personally was not there in the beginning of FTR. But I always knew it as “Fuck The Rest.” Nowadays it’s almost a contradiction because most of us are pretty friendly and outgoing, and we mingle and collaborate with writers from all over the world. I didn’t really know them at the beginning — the way that I got down was through a friend of mine that used to write RS3. He ended up getting transferred out of the high school that we were in together, and he ended up going to Franklin K Lane. Once he got there, he met up with SLASH and some of the other original FTR members, and they gave him permission to throw some of his friends down. I was one of the first people he threw down. Later on in life, I ended up meeting SLASH and some of the other original members, and that’s who I paint with now. We all come from Queens not too far from each other, and have a bunch of mutual friends. OTM, I am down with as well — that is MERES’ crew. Me and MERES have known each other since the early ‘90s — the very early ‘90s. We met at a program called MAGIC: More American Graffiti In Control, which was run by my friend Gilbert Serrano. At that time, I also linked up with people like ZIMAD, Willie “ROM" Rios, NOMAD, SOZE, etc. OTM stands for Orchestrating The Madness, Only The Magnificent, Oswald Theodore Madison.
JP: In an article we're currently working on, we go in depth with you -- among others -- about the 5Pointz trial, G&M Realty's overnight whitewash, and the verdict handed down by Judge Frederic Block last week. For now, would you just tell SOLD readers about your association with 5Pointz?
T: I've been with 5Pointz since the very beginning. I was there from day one helping MERES doing a lot of the construction and fixing the place up, and it was a hard road up. As far as the case goes, a lot of people get it misconstrued about what this case is about. [TO BE CONTINUED]
JP: I'd like to hear about the Prodigy (R.I.P. 2017) memorial portrait you did.
T: Yes, I am involved in music but as I explained before, but have never actually worked with Prodigy. The Prodigy tribute wall for me was very personal. People don’t know that Prodigy and Havoc of Mobb Deep used to draw, and we went to high school together at Art and Design. But Prodigy also went to junior high school with me, and elementary school with us. So we knew him. I live by LeFrak, where he spent a big part of his life as well and we both ran in some of the same circles. Although he was about a year older than me, always a very cool dude. I just wanted to personally do that mural out of respect for some of our mutual friends from childhood, from the neighborhood, and some of them came out and chilled with me while I was painting just to memorialize him and reminisce. Shout out to JUSTUS, Gym Gang Fitness, TEX, MING, GHETTO, LOUIE, WRY 5MH, — a bunch of dudes that came out. JERMS of course was the one painting there with me. SWIFT, thank you very much. Yeah, we just did that for "P". The funny thing is, I hadn't seen "P" since the whole time during the height of his career. And then when he finally signed with G-Unit Records, they ended up coming to 5Pointz with their new Porsches that they got as signing bonuses, and they were doing a photoshoot for Rides Magazine at 5Pointz, so I finally got a chance to speak to both of them again since high school. I was talking to HAVOC about my man from IndaKut that’s doing this thing now, they go way back. Yeah, it was a good thing -- I gave Prodigy some of my CDs and stuff, reminded him that I’m still repesentin’ the hood. Peace to SHAMEEK, JUSTUS, all my peoples over there. People don’t know, but JERMS also did the cuts on the first song where Prodigy originally dissed JAY-Z. Fun facts, look 'em up.
JP: Yesterday, I saw a full-wall of street art that had been gone over with the words, "Real Graff Only." Do you feel that sort of dis reflects a very real tension between the graffiti vs street art communities? Or is that a tension restricted to only a small corpus of artists from the two groups? How do people deem walls and pieces they see around town to be “real” or "authentic" graffiti?
T: There is a very fine line with street art, because there was really not much street art up until a few years ago. So graffiti art paved the way for that. And nowadays, when you have street artists getting all this wall space to paint -- and they’re actually getting [it] to clean up some of the graffiti art -- it’s a little disturbing to some of us for the simple fact that — alright, we did something on the wall illegally. I did a throw-up illegally: I had to get in and get out. But now, you’re gonna give permission to someone to paint? Give me the permission to come paint there, and I’ll do something nice. Let me rock a piece on the wall. Don’t let some guy from Ohio come and paint a fuckin’ pigeon or some shit. It — there’s a little bit of a tension. I’ll say ... yeah, there’s real graffiti; authentic graffiti. I mean, there’s some people from the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s that would only consider real graffiti what was painted on trains. When that train run was done, a lot of people started painting highways, trucks, buses, garbage trucks, etc. The wall thing is a tricky thing with the street art because -- Yeah. If you’re gonna give street artists spaces to paint, you gotta balance that out with the graffiti artists. There are a lot of places where — I won’t mention any names — people have started these collectives where in the beginning, we would go there and ask them if we could paint and they would say “no” ‘cause they don’t want graffiti on their walls. Meanwhile, their whole neighborhood of street art was them going over our walls. And on some real shit, it’s not about the art, because the art is great -- we all love all of the art. That’s not the question about it. It’s more a question of territory. And when I say territory, I don’t mean gang territory — I mean art territory. Like: 'We was here first, and we was doing this". Now, you’re not gonna let us paint these walls but you’re gonna let these out-of-towners paint these walls? That’s insane — we could do good shit too. We should have control of our own neighborhoods, basically. It’s a tough one — you could ask NAT-KOA that question, he could answer it better.
JP: Where did you grow up?
T: I grew up in Queens, NY not far from the Queens Center Mall. I have traveled all over the U.S. and lived in L.A. for awhile, as well as Staten Island, Jersey, and Pennsylvania. But Queens is my home, born and raised. And I’m still here.
JP: How old were you when you started taking an interest in art?
T: I’ve always been into art. Junior high school is when I started to turn it into a business. I was doing a lot of airbrush t-shirts for people, and even started getting into logo design. At that time, I also started bombing walls. I did that for a short period of time, and I got arrested multiple times; I figured I wasn’t very good at it. I then decided to search out some obscure spots where I can go and do pieces and practice my art with spray paint and not be bothered. I went on to hit all the major spots in Queens and spread out a little more as well into Brooklyn and Manhattan and the Bronx. When I entered high school, I decided to join a community group called M.A.G.I.C. which I mentioned before, which stands for More American Graffiti In Control. It was there that I first met MERES and ZIMAD back in ’91. I was still doing illegal spots, but I just started getting more into turning [art] into a business for myself. And as through M.A.G.I.C., I had also done my first gallery show as well as shown my art work in the Waldorf Astoria at a Mayor Dinkins event. From there, it’s been a hell of a journey.
JP: Do you have family members that are also engaged in visual arts or graffiti?
T: I have 3 older brothers and one younger brother who dabbled in graffiti and arts My oldest brother was sort of like my mentor; definitely a huge inspiration in my career -- he turned this into a living for himself. He now works for Nickelodeon, but has done a lot of work in the animation field, and he also used to write graffiti back in the late ‘70s to early ‘80s. He used to run with guys like SHADOW. George Colón as well, AIM. DIME139 and DEFI. Albert Diaz, who shared the SAMO name with Jean-Michel Basquiat. And my brother used to go by the tag name ROC3-SSB. My older brother Michael, who ended up doing some time with some other influential people like Ol’ Dirty Bastard — or as he would call him, Russell — he used to write ROC1. And when he was locked up, he used to send me pictures that he used to do with aluminum foil and masking tape and all this other stuff. At a young age, that was very influential to me as far as doing mixed media. I thought to myself, 'I could take all these other household items and use them as art,' since I didn’t even have money to really start gettin’ into it like that. My older brother TIMEX also used to be an artist. He also used to be a breakdancer — very influential in hip-hop for me. He used to be down with a crew called the Break Masters out of Jamaica, Queens. I used to breakdance back in the days as well. My younger brother — Rest In Peace — used to do a lot of neighborhood bombing and used to be down with crews such as WRB, with VAMP and NEPS.
JP: Has your family been supportive of your artistic/graphic designer path?
T: My family for the most part has been very supportive. Without them, I would not be where I am today. Some of them have even helped me physically, financially, so I can never say that they didn’t support me. In the earlier years, my father was more of the one saying, 'Go get a job.' He would hang up civil service job applications on my bedroom door and things like that. He just didn’t understand that I could turn something like this into a career. My mother on the other hand was extremely supportive of me. She was the one that was out in the living room when I was leaving with my friends with a bag full of spray paint that was rattling around, and she would just be like: 'Be careful.' She knew what it was. They were very supportive of me. Now I look back and understand why they might have not been as supportive of me. But they were extremely — and they still are — very supportive of me. I’m still with them, they’re still here: except my younger brother, R.I.P.
JP: Are there any particular pop culture references that helped spark your interest in graffiti art?
T: I was inspired by so many things, especially locally. Things like the Blondie “Rapture" video, and movies like “Wild Style” , “Style Wars,” “Beat Street.” There was also a battle on Public Access between SLICK and HEX from the west coast back in the day , which was phenomenol to me because there was no graffiti on TV like that at the time, and they dedicated a whole episode to it. There was a RUN-DMC album cover where they had the words “Hollis” graffiti-written on the wall behind them, that was one of the first things that I copied and tried to draw off of a 45 -record that I actually bought. Subway art, spraycan art, “Flashbacks Magazine” , “Styles For Miles Magazine”, "The International Get Hip Times” , “SoHo Zat” — just so many things. Early shows at the Martinez Gallery. As far as cartoons, “Wizards” by Ralph Bakshi, “Fire And Ice” by Frank Frazetta. I also always loved certain things like “The Smurfs,” which is a big influence on my actual b-boy characters — simple yet effective. Caspar as well. Comic books of course, I am a huge collecter.
JP: What were among the first things you enjoyed drawing or writing as a kid?
T: As far as school goes, I was always drawing art. I used to do full productions on my desk and in the back of textbooks. I drew many random things, from sports players to fantasy scenes, spacemen, etc. They weren’t that great at the time, but once I got into junior high school I was heavy into the graffiti, and that’s all I was focused on. Hundreds and hundreds of blackbook productions, airbrushing, clothes … I also got into portraits at a young age. Always had a fascination for it, and I still enjoy it to this day so I tend to do a lot of that, still.
JP: Did you study art in a formal visual arts program or were you self-taught?
T: I am not self-taught. I have had a lot of people mentor me and teach me things, and I try to learn from everyone nowadays. I still watch tons of youtube videos and tutorials, but I never really had a formal education in art. I went to an art highs school, but did not really put my all into it as I was young and wild at the time.
JP: The facial features are similar on a subset of human cartoon characters you paint. How did the look to those particular characters evolve? Does that specific character have a name?
T: He has no name at this point. He’s just an urban nomad. He developed from the old-school classic b-boy style characters. A big inspiration for me was a comic strip in a late ‘70s / early ‘80s Art And Design High School yearbook. Of course, looking at books like “Subway Art” and “Spraycan Art” helped to develop that style, but a big inspiration for me was a writer named SINCH from Queens, who was doing some of the illest characters I’ve ever seen. Later on, a guy in M.A.G.I.C. named ROM3 came through with a book of characters he had done that blew my mind away. That was definitely inspiring and a huge influence on me at that time because I’d never seen that type of work and quality close up. His characters were amazing. He used to rap, too — crazy bars, all in Spanish, though. People like ZIMAD and ROM Rios were doing amazing work on walls and canvas — huge inspiration to me in the early ‘90s, just to see that I can do both and be successful at it.
JP: I'm just blown away by the sheer range of subjects you paint. Aliens, Disney characters, gorillas, Muppets, robots ... Do you work from photos and illustrations you find on the Internet, or do you your references/templates come from your head?
T: I do both. I do take references, and when I do — depending on what it is — I don’t always follow them so closely. I use them to get my lighting and shade correct and some of the composition, and then I throw my own style into it. I personally like a different range of subjects, so that’s what I paint. Me and JERMS have similar interests with a lot of things, and we range from hip-hop stuff to scientifical stuff. So one of my favorite walls that we did was the Nikola Tesla wall at Tuff City. But we both done tons of other stuff like Mechagodzilla at Tuff City, Sandman at Tuff City. Our series of walls there was very fun. Shout out to the homey BIDS156 who helped us faciliate that. We also did a Bill Cosby wall there. But I love to paint all different types of things, and I don’t like to limit myself because I like to be challenged with something. This is when I feel like I work the best. Because although some people say I’m a good artist, I don’t always have the greatest ideas. I enjoy more of the technical aspect of it.
JP: How did you find space to practice graffiti? Was the bombing your actual practice?
T: Yes, the bombing was pretty much how I practiced, and as far as ventilation goes and things like that, we were very young. I didn’t think about those things back then. I used to paint in my bedroom that actually had no windows, and we used to sit up there and try to do stuff with spray paint (chuckles), which was insane. But like I said, later on I found local track spots, abandoned factories, the Piece Factories in Brooklyn, the Maze out in Maspeth, Franklin K. Lane, Forest Hills High School, The Gas Chambers, Hillcrest … tons and tons of spots that I used to just sit and practice what I wanted to do, and back then there was nobody with cell phones and cameras — there was no way they were really finding you at these types of spots.
JP: How did you learn graphic design? Do you use some of the Adobe programs, or do you sketch things out on paper?
T: I rarely ever sketch things out on paper. I’ll usually take a photo reference or another art reference and work from that if I’m doing a wall. The way I met JERMS, ... he has a record label called "Ground Original Records." Although I was a big part of 5Pointz at the time, I was doing more volunteer administrative work over there, I was helping them with some of their graphics and websites as well at 5Pointz. And me and JERMS met through BL1 -- TMR crew / WDD crew. And he’s the one who plugged us together ‘cause I was doin’ a lot of graphics for him as well, and he was in the music industry as well. I did tons of stuff for JERMS since that point. I’ve done album covers, single covers, videos, youtube promos, I’ve done tons of things in the music industry field with JERMS. I do use Adobe; I use Photoshop. I use Final Cut Pro. I use Logic Pro X. I used to use Pro Tools. Very little (Adobe) Illustrator. (For) web design, I was using multiple different things at the time … I had somebody that I was working with -- Erika In America , who was helping me with Flash stuff for the 5Pointz website. I’m pretty much self-taught on that end, although my older brother — ROC3 taught me a lot of stuff on that front as well. So that’s where I first did my first computer graphics — I think we were using Photoshop3; we were on an Apple IIc computer doing stuff. [Back then, if] I went to print something out one night and left it before I went to sleep and woke up in the morning, it'd still be printing, so I”ve been in this game for a minute. A lot of the first musically related designs I was doing, we used to have to go to a photo print-shop and make multiple photocopy stuff on label paper, cut stuff out, reprint it, recopy it, and — I just gotta say, technology is amazing. I still design album covers, flyers, etc to this day, but I do not do it as much. I am more of a hands-on painter now. I really don’t have the patience to sit in front of a computer that long anymore.
JP: What do you have coming up that you want people to know about?
T: I have so much coming up that I can’t really speak on, because a lot of it is commercial work that I’m doing. And a lot of it is also work that I’m doing to promote my own brands and products. Just got confirmation I'll be doing Street Art Expo this June. There are websites where you may find my work. One is Sky God Studios. The other is IndaKut. At the IndaKut site, you can find my stickers there; a lot of my canvas work as well. But there will be a lot more coming up I will let everyone know about when the time is right.
JP: How do people keep up with you online?
T: The couple of sites I just named are the main ones. If you go to Sky God Studios on Instagram or Twitter, those are not as active but they have some examples of my work. ProductionX is another site; another company I work very closely with, and they have access to tons of my artwork. If you ever want to, holler at IndaKut, Horrible Human , Production X. I can’t forget about Treat Street, with BL, DEN, SAV, PACE, AMUZE, etc. They got tons of stuff that we’ve done canvas wise. I’ve got tons of stuff with them. That’s @treat_street_ny on Instagram. These are the people that have pretty much exclusive access to me, I don’t really deal with too many people outside of the fam. So you gotta get in touch with someone that I know to really get this stuff, but — yeah, those are the main things. Pazroc on Instagram is pretty much my main thing. I don’t update it as often as I should, but that’s pretty much it.