BelowKey: How Below Can He Go?
Around this time last year, Sold Magazine covered BelowKey's pop-up shop on the Lower East Side, and we've been seeing him everywhere since. There were more pop-up shops, group shows, freight train graffiti, pieces, wheat pastes, stickers, murals, collaborations, you name it - he is probably involved or supporting in some way. At the same time, he is quiet and keeps his own vibe alive. BelowKey was our featured "Ones to Watch for 2018", and we may have been late to that game! The 1st male artist to travel with the Dripped On The Road Residency Program, we are happy to get answers to some of your most crucial questions about getting "BelowKey" into your lifestyle.
(WIP at King Killer Studios, Gowanus, BK / above: 2 wheatpastes found in LES)
Erica Stella: To get us started, please tell our readers your background in graffiti, art school and/or both?
BelowKey: Been doing graff since I was 12 and I've been painting, building and making things since as far back as I can remember. Formal art education didn't come about until my college years. I graduated in 2013 with a BFA.
ES: Where are you from originally? Give a shout out to the crews you rep today.
BK: I was born, raised and living currently in Queens, NY. Usually I roll dolo, but I'll always rep BTI & TRK cuz they're my homies. No graff politics.
(All WIP at King Killer Studios, Gowanus, BK)
ES: Your moniker embodies a persona, and even a lifestyle. To clarify and explain the origin as well to our readers - is it "BE lowkey", or even more so... "BELOW key", (Even lower than lowkey)?
BK: BELOWKEY is very much a lifestyle —mainly my own, but I think there's truth in the universal, so I'm sure others can relate. It was intended to be a lifestyle brand at first. Because I already did graffiti, it was an easy transition into guerrilla advertising for the brand. It embodies many meanings but most of all, it's about doing what you love without expectations. We live in an age of oversharing where privacy doesn't exist. Being "low key" is about having experiences, working hard and inspiring others — simply for the love of creating.
ES: Some could incorrectly interpret a "Belowkey lifestyle" as unmotivated or lacking in drive. While talking with Solus on our podcast In The Spray Room, he made comparisons to fighting above your weight class. Who do you see in the art game that’s above your weight class - someone that motivates & inspires you?
BK: I motivate myself, always trying to step my game up for myself. In order to be low key for me is to do shit not for the accolades, but to just do it because you enjoy it. Whether it be giving a helping hand, or fuckin’ shit up.
ES: You have successfully made the pop-up shop model a way to sell your art, circumnavigating the gallery circus. Are you ever surprised by what sells and what doesn’t? Do you feel like you’ve gotten to know your clients & market at this point?
BK: I'm always surprised when anything sells, whether its at the pop-up shop, a group show or online. It's like a dream to be selling things that I create.
ES: You are right, it’s an absolute dream to be a living, working artist; especially in NYC. Was there ever another career path or plan B for you?
BK: Not really. If I had to be doing something else, it would probably just be zeroing in on one thing specifically within the realm of art, but I enjoy switching it up and doing something new everyday. Whether it be my true love of spray painting, or something different like sculpting or carpentry. I have had odd jobs to pay bills, though.
ES: Who are your band of characters? Some repeat from time to time & it seems there is a main guy... Do they have names & what is the story behind each of them?
BK: The Creatures from Below are the OG Monkey, the Lone Wolf, Hip-Hopula, Gnomey and many other random characters. The main guy is the OG Monkey who symbolizes the monkey on my back, the graffiti addiction that will never go away. The Lone Wolf is about the idea that the wolf that stands alone is stronger than the herd of sheep. ES: Does Hip-Hopula only come out around Halloween?
BK: Nope. Hip-Hopula is a mash-up between a 50's style Dracula cartoon, Secret Squirrel and the hip hop culture I grew up around. He's got all types of graff tools in his trench coat, roaming the streets at night all year-round — sometimes with a boom box for company.
ES: Which childhood cartoons influenced/inspired you? Magazines, TV shows?
BK: Heavily inspired by all the 90's cartoons I grew up with. My Hip-Hopula character is mostly inspired by some old Dracula cartoon I saw as a kid. To name a few names: Ren & Stimpy, Cow & Chicken, Tom & Jerry... even Rocket Power and shit like that.
ES: Explain the difference or similarity between the rush of getting up illegally vs. the rush of success in selling your artwork to fans and clients?
BK: I think graffiti for me is more selfish. It's just putting my name and sense of humor out on the street. Selling art lets me appreciate the feeling of creating something of value for others while doing something I love, at the same time. They're both awesome feelings and I couldn't do one without the other.
(group show curated by Turtlecaps, Spring 2018 Astoria, QNS)
ES: It is refreshing to see artists creating their own characters and not falling solely into pop icons in their work. Have you ever drawn famous characters (fiction or non), and how does pop culture influence your work?
BK: I designed and hand silk screened a Nostalgia Competition t-shirt which pokes fun at this idea. Many artists today rely solely upon nostalgia through reproduction of pre-existing hits. I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing if others hadn't come before me to inspire me as a kid. But my soul doesn't let me be a copycat. There's a difference between inspiration and imitation.
(Collab with Tone1 & Redrum / Greenpoint, BK 2018)
ES: Well said. What’s in your headphones when you are painting?
BK: Pandora on shuffle and my thumbs up station. Everything really.
(Above and Left Below: The Mes Hall, Mt. Vernon / Right Below: found on Allen Street)
ES: If you think it's taken a turn for the worst, where has social media gone wrong?
BK: It ain’t social media, it’s people. But then the stealing of our data to sell us stuff is also crazy.
ES: And last but definitely not least: Have you ever picked up a tattoo gun? Any interest in putting your work on skin?
BK: I have tried using a tattoo machine on fruits. It was cool, but I still don't have the confidence to permanently do that to someone. However, my art has been tattooed on others, and I think that’s the illest form of appreciation, to be immortalized in someone’s skin.
Thank you so much for your open honesty. If you would like to bring a piece of the streets into your home, or wear it on your body - check out the next ONE DAY ONLY Below Key pop-up shop this Saturday!!!!
434 E 9th Street, from 2-10PM