- Words by Kristy Calabro, Photos by The Sold Crew
Chris RWK: I NEVER LEFT YOU
Known for his instantly recognizable characters, witticisms, and iconic robot, Chris RWK, is gearing up for a solo show, “I Never Left You”, tomorrow, Thursday, March 15th at 212 Arts. The title has a few different meanings. As Chris said, he’s been doing this for 20+ years and he’s too stubborn to do anything else. The show also explores the effect the robot has had on people and did you know our favorite robot has a name? Read on to find out what it is.
“This is not only a NY legend, but an international star.” - Bytegirl on Chris RWK
WIP @wellingcourtmuralproject (2017)
Photo credit: John Domine @johndomine1
Early Years & Influences
Growing up on Staten Island, Chris was heavily influenced by his older brother. Before the internet, before social media, in the late 80’s, his brother and friends were into graffiti and Chris saw the importance of documenting this and would tag along and take pictures. Around two years later, he started writing and was into lettering, but gravitated towards shapes and characters.
Music, cartoons, and comics are huge influences on Chris’s life and art. The artwork found on Iron Maiden album covers, Bugs Bunny, Garfield, The Far Side, all had a huge impact on him. He learned from the speech bubbles and the way comics were laid out. Chris developed his own version of a cat from Jim Davis and Garfield, which in turn helped him to create his signature style and characters. Gary Larson’s The Far Side taught him how to tell a story or a joke using a single panel image and a memorable, funny one-liner. That’s how Chris approaches his paintings. He tells a narrative and tries to get the viewer to laugh or think through a single panel of art.
Also, hugely influential were punk and hardcore bands that had many positive, often political messages in their music like animal rights and Straight Edge, which Chris has been since around the age of 11 when he first heard the band Slapshot. Straight Edge (sXe) means you abstain from drinking, drugs, and smoking. It’s a more disciplined, controlled lifestyle.
His teacher in high school saw something in Chris and pushed him to go to art school. He attended FIT and then he went on to get a BFA from Hunter. After college, he would try to get his work shown in various galleries, but was rejected due to his age. They wouldn't even take the time to look at his slides.
WIP @wellingcourtmuralproject (2017)
Photo credit: Erica Stella @stellabella824
Birth of a bot & a website
Chris was obsessed with drawing the famous, geometric 3D cube which eventually turned into a television and that turned into a boxy, generic robot. But, he wanted to create a more emotional robot which started to take shape in 2001. The same year, Chris established Robotswillkill.com with his friend, Kevin, who helped with the technical side of the website. The robot was also used as a promotional tool for the site. Robotswillkill.com was one of the first of its kind because it became a platform for artists ignored by the mainstream art world. Within a week of its launch, this online community was receiving tons of submissions a day. Users would exchange links and pictures (sometimes getting up to 500 photos a day) and experiencing things they may not have if it wasn’t for the website. Robotswillkill.com was not only popular locally, but internationally as well. Some as far away as China would spend up to 6 hours exploring the site. They started out with 13 visitors and at one point had, 50,000 unique visitors per week!
“I wanted graffiti writers to maybe learn about illustrators or fine artists. The main thing was getting people to see graffiti as an art form.” - Chris on creating robotswillkill.com
Chris RWK at Scrap Yard
Photo credit: @just_a_spectator
We all have a story to tell
“You walk by thousands of people a day in NY and we all have a story to tell, but we never hear it.” - Chris on why his characters have no mouths
The phrase “Robots Will Kill”, was first verbalized as a reaction to his friend, artist, Chris Rini’s painting of a giant cell phone holding up a little person to its ear, and Chris RWK just laughed and said, “Ha...Robots Will Kill.” He explained the phrase on the Sold podcast, “In The Spray Room”, “If you do something too much and too often, it becomes robotic, and you lose your love for it...something that kills the reason why you started something in the first place...artists doing art for the wrong reasons, it becomes automatic, where it doesn't come from a true place anymore…”
The name of Chris RWK’s robot is POBOY - which stands for Prosthetic Organic Bot Of Youth. The reason why the robot resonates so much with people is because it’s more human-like. It has sympathetic eyes, it’s slightly hunched over, and seems a little vulnerable. The robot has an 'X' where it’s heart used to be, representing some emotional scars. We relate to the robot because we all have scars and like Chris said, "We all have a story to tell."
Chris RWK & Veng
Photo credit: Joanna Pan @joannabethpdot
On getting walls in a Pre-Collective Bushwick, Chris said, "Well there was always graff in Bushwick. Lots of graff guys were from there or painted there because it was easier to get walls in certain neighborhoods. Veng was offered the building on Gardner between Flushing and Johnson around 2005-2006...before the area changed. He shopped at Soho Art Material...the owner said, ‘I have a storage building in Bushwick you can paint.’ From there the buildings around it offered up their walls. Since then, most of the buildings have sold and things changed. That wasn't the typical way of getting walls...In the 1990's, when myself and some friends tried getting walls, you'd have to have portfolios and visit the building multiple times. The owners typically weren't on property...the employee would try to get us in touch with the building manager, then we'd have to go and show them the portfolio, then they'd have to speak to the owner, etc. It took time and for the most part, the neighborhoods weren't like they are now. They weren't fancy shops or $2,500 a month apartments. The good thing was, the neighborhoods would appreciate it more. You felt a genuine sense of 'thank you' and not the feeling of 'oh now my property value will go up.' If you told me and my friends in the 90's that whole blocks and neighborhoods would become 'street galleries' we would've laughed."
Support those, who support you – "Staten Island edition"
"It's funny being from SI, you either knew everyone or there were random people from here that were a surprise. Staten Island has a lot of stuff going on that most people don't realize." - Chris RWK
Ahh, that far away island known as Staten, the "forgotten borough". Staten Island isn't on Long Island nor does it belong to New Jersey. Yes, count them again, there are indeed five boroughs, five pieces that make up the puzzle that is NYC. Some of us Staten Islanders would like you to know that we're more than just a place filled with gyms, tanning salons, and pizzerias; or even the home of Wu-Tang (by the way, will never, not be cool). But, come on...we are more than that! So, let's shine a light, scratch some backs and, give a few shout-outs, to our fellow, talented friends and artists from Shaolin.
Chris RWK and Nite Owl for @jmzwalls
Photo credit: Kristy Calabro @kristycnyc
Originally from Staten Island, Nite Owl,(@naito_oru), is one of Chris's favorite artists to collaborate with. Chris said, "It's funny about Nite Owl, I had no clue he was from Staten Island originally. We linked up through the internet. That's one thing about starting robotswillkill.com, I've met a ton of great artists and people in general. We traded stickers a few years ago, I guess more than a few by now. Probably later 2000's. One day, I'm at a Home Depot near me and I see all these Nite Owl stickers on signs...First thought was he knew someone in the area and sent them stickers. When I started doing trades in the 90's with sticker artists, we'd send each other packs and then get them up in our areas and not just put them in a shoebox under your bed. Then I realized they were solo. No other artist around 'em. I shot him a message and he told me his connection to the Island. Since then, any time he was out here, we'd link up to paint and hang...For a while, I stopped doing color stickers. I focused on the black line stuff. Collabing with him has brought color and depth back to my hand drawn stickers."
Stereotype Co. is a lifestyle brand that connects art, music, and fashion to the community and Chris has worked with them a few times. They have a great message behind their merch and events. "Don't Stop Dreaming."
Richmond Hood Company - Chris has collaborated on some merch and has done shows with Richmond Hood Company. He said, "They have a great line of clothing and do a lot to support the creative scene on the Island."
Many great graffiti artists are either from or got their start on Staten Island. To name a few: Veng, Edge, Vers, scope2, Mars, Fade, Sign, Lev, Keps, Rime, Semz, Sag, Kope, Met, AK, Take 5, Gano, Caster, Prez, Mike Die, Exit, Cram, Goal, TEO(CTO), Vyles, Bets, Heils, Nezm, GN, Vew, Deo, Mega, Ouch, Odin, PK, KID, EJae, DEC, End, Real, Mek, Trace.
There's also artists like Rega, Rez, John Santarpia, Magie Serpica, Skull Dezign, Kevin Mahoney, sharpy, and Herb Smith that are from the Island that do great work.
Chris said, "People don't realize how much history is on this island. How much talent is on the island...we've (Staten Island has) always had an underdog attitude...that's always been present in art, music, really everything...I'm sure it's had an effect on me. Growing up listening to punk and hardcore also contributed to the underdog feeling. I chose to be straight edge at a young age and I've had plenty of friends or people who didn't understand it, but they understood it was my choice. It was a choice for the outcasts among the outcasts."
Chris & Veng for @wellingcourtmuralproject (2016)
Photo credit: Sarah Sansom @catscoffeecreativity
Not done yet, not by far
So, what's next for Chris? First up, is, of course, his solo show, tomorrow, March 15th at 212 Arts. In June, he'll be curating a show at Clutter gallery. The Annual My Plastic Heart RWK show will be happening in July. Chris also has a show in August at Redefine gallery in Orlando. Plus, lots of group shows, a print release with Galerie F in Chicago, the first episode of "The Blackbook Diaries", along with many other projects and he's trying to release some new merch each month.
A sneak peek at some pieces featured in his solo show " I Never Left You". Photos courtesy of artist: Chris RWK
Chris loves meeting and talking to people and fans. These interactions are what influence his work. Chris RWK IS a legend. He's been doing this for 20+ years and no, he's not stubborn at all. He is still honored and humbled by all the praise he gets and in fact, he seems to always be ahead of his time. Maybe, it was that underdog attitude that actually gave him that extra push to become the successful artist he is today. His longevity is due to the fact that he is true to his craft and he’s always so consistent. As long as he keeps sharing his witty thoughts and art, a part of him will always be around...he’ll never leave us.
For more information:
“I Never Left You”, Thursday, March 15th, 6-9:30 P.M., 212 Arts, 240 E 4th St.
Chris for @underhillwalls (2017)
Photo credit: Kristy Calabro @kristycnyc