Tarzan of the Aerosol Kingdom: Justin Suarez
Mr. Prvrt AKA Justin Suarez has used his graff name since the age of 17, and is aware of the connotation; monikers have the potential to mislead the viewer, and make you think just as much as the visual image they created. There is nothing perverted about the beautiful animals Justin creates on a concrete wall, and there is more to him than the name. Here on Sold Magazine, we have written about graffiti legends from Topaz to CrashOne, and covered more formally trained artists transferring their animals to public murals like Sonny Sundancer and Louis Masai. Justin defines the natural progression of graffiti technique to realistic animal portraits. His skills are increasing at an alarming rate, and it's been exciting to watch what he comes out with every time. I tracked him down recently after his Aerosol Kingdom Solo Show at LowBrow Artique in Bushwick, and he graciously gave us a peek inside his animal planet.
Erica Stella: Before we get started, I want to say thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions for Sold Magazine. I have photographed your walls for years now, and am delighted for the opportunity. Please tell us how you got your start with graffiti, art school and/or both?
Justin Suarez: I started messing around with graffiti in 2001 at the age of 17, while in my first year of art school in my hometown area of Albany, NY. Shortly thereafter, I became familiar with the work of stencil artists Chris Stain and Brian Scout, who were living in the area at the time, and were incredibly supportive in my early development. That was some of my first real exposure to using imagery as an alternative form of "getting up." Using images instead of letters seemed to evoke much more of an emotional response from the viewer, and gave them something to connect with.
I never did finish college, but I feel like my time there was well spent, and important. Up until that point, I don't think I had ever sat down and done ANYTHING for 5 hours straight, and studio classes forced you to do that. Learning that kind of discipline was really helpful. Also being forced to try so many different mediums led to the point where I started experimenting on my own. Stencil art will always be my first love, and I consider it my true roots, as it was the first art form that I really clung to and took seriously. I did do a series of large-scale stenciled murals years ago, but started to become frustrated with the amount of time and effort it takes to execute them. At the point when I wanted to be creating works on an even larger scale, and with more frequency, transitioning to freehand murals was the natural route to take. At first, I tried my best to emulate the look of my stenciled work, which worked out well enough. Over the past few years I left that behind as well, wanting to see how far I could begin to push detail and realism.
ES: Your explanation of your time with stencils remind me of Forrest Gump, and the braces on his legs. It sounds like you just grew out of them! The discipline taught in art school is crucial, but life gives us daily lessons as well. Do you ever consider finishing under grad or graduate school to further study academically?
JS: I flirted with the idea of going back to school for a while. I feel like the main thing I would gain would be the degree and the ability to teach in a professional atmosphere. At the same time, my choice to leave college when I did was calculated. At the time, I was in a Printmaking major, and realized that the degree I was going for would be virtually useless in the job world outside of teaching. I also saw the student debt piling up, and made the decision to get out while I could. I hear stories about people going to grad school and getting paid to do it. That would be a no-brainer.
ES: In a deeper dive on what you mean by "perverted", I understand your perspective now: alter (something) from its original course, meaning, or state... Is there an intention to put that word (your name), on the street to confuse the public or be misunderstood?
JS: That was really the essence of the name when I picked it, and its the only name I have ever used since the age of 17. The first sticker I ever made was a stencil of a priest holding a rosary, and I put the word "Prvrt" above it. At the time, this was topically relevant. All of those stickers would get the name ripped or scratched off, but the priest would be left behind. I found that really interesting that I could get such an emotional response by pairing a word with an image, and in a way, it maybe made me feel powerful. Eventually I found out how much MORE powerful it could be to create artwork that people would love, but the name stuck around.
These days, the name creates many awkward, but often fun interactions. I have also had countless people urge me to change it. For the most part, a graff name or alias isn't intended to be a reflection of who they are. It's typically just a word. In my case, people often expect me to be or act a certain way as a reflection of that word. People often seem surprised at how "normal" I come across, but honestly, there is no way I could get away with using my name in a professional atmosphere unless I was a totally upstanding individual. I have worked with children from the ages of kindergarten through high school, and I run a quarterly youth mural apprenticeship program for the City of Rochester. I am completely transparent about the name with my students as well as my employers, and it seems like at the age of 34, the name isn't going anywhere.
ES: Many artists focus on topics or subject matter. Why have you chosen to focus on animals, and what is your connection to them?
JS: The connection I have to animals goes way back. I grew up on a family farm, and spent two weeks in Kenya when I was 6, which was a definitively formative experience. As an adult, I spend one day each week volunteering my time working with birds of prey at a facility outside of Rochester, NY called Wild Wings Inc. This is a completely volunteer-run facility, housing roughly 30 different species of raptors, used for education purposes. All of our animals are permanently injured and non-releasable, meaning they could not survive on their own in the wild. Spending time handling these birds has informed my life and art in many ways, and has become a huge part of my "artistic voice."
ES: Other than actual farm animals, what are some early childhood inspirations that you carry with you today?
JS: One of my earliest memories of animals goes back to the primates that my parents worked with. They did non-invasive behavioral research at a University in the 80's. I was always separated from the animals by the bars, but I was occasionally allowed to give them food items, at which time our hands could briefly touch. I think that these interactions instilled me with a real sense that animals are thinking, feeling beings.
During my adolescence, I volunteered at a sort of zoo or game farm that was close to our farm. They were pretty lax about letting me in the enclosures with animals. Looking back, being in the same cage as a lion or cougar was probably not the best idea. A lot of these memories seem wacky to look back on, and I was totally the weird kid at school. During high school I moved out and got as far away from the farm life as I could. Years later, I barely even realized the connection when animals started becoming the predominant theme in my work. It was like one day, the light bulb clicked on. Big ups to Mom for being a crazy animal lady.
ES: Instead of using humans as subjects, you prefer to collaborate with them. Tell us about your favorite collaborations to date.
JA: My favorite piece will ideally always be the next one - This should be every artist's response! I do have a rich history of collaborating with other individuals, and it always provides a completely unique product and experience. This is always exciting for me to see something that I played a role in, but is so much different than what I would do alone. This was and will always be the way that I have learned everything I know about spray painting. Hashing tricks and techniques with other artists has helped me in my understanding of the tools, as well as the art form. I truly love being a part of this global community of artists. I have gotten to meet and paint with so many artists that I have looked up to. Some of my favorite people to collaborate with have been Sarah C. Rutherford, Aaron Li Hill, Pilot, and A Visual Bliss.
ES: Who would be your dream collaboration?
JA: I'm really hoping to do a wall with Bishop and Hoacs on my next trip to NYC!! I particularly enjoy painting with writers. I gave up letters eons ago, but its the essence and roots of a culture that I love deeply. I think in many ways, writers strive to perform at a level that creates a competitive atmosphere. Writers paint hard, fast, and always strive for crispy, clean perfection.
ES: Name an artist(s) that has influenced you.
JS: My biggest influences are my friends and the people I paint with. We push each other constantly. I love a little friendly competition, and getting burned by one of your friends just makes you want to keep improving. These are the people I am actively learning from, and discussing life, art, and technique with. I enjoy the work of many artists, but I feel like influence has to come with interaction.
ES: According to your website, you have only painted murals in the US, is that still the case? If not... tell us about those experiences.
JS: A couple years ago, I was able to travel to Berlin and paint as part of a collaboration between Wall/Therapy and Urban Nation. It was a great experience, though I did feel in kind of a bubble because of all of the American artists I was traveling with. Not sure if Canada counts, so those are the only places outside of the US I have traveled to work. But I am of course hoping to get overseas more in the future!
ES: What countries/cities are first on the list to visit & paint?
JS: I don't really keep much of a bucket list. Some of the most incredible experiences I've had in and outside of painting, have occurred from happenstance. Some of the places I have been the most excited to go, have turned out to be exactly what I expected and not much more. These days, my favorite experiences happen in places where people don't even know what mural art is. It takes them by surprise, and those reactions can't be duplicated. If you think about that in comparison to walking down the streets of NYC, where murals are coming and going constantly, you can start to get what I mean.
Australia and New Zealand are two places I would love to visit. The animals and environments there are like no other in the world. When I see plants and animals that don't remind me of home, that excites me, and reminds me of being in Africa as a child.
ES: What's in your headphones while you paint?
JS: I tend to listen to really ignorant hip-hop, and I'm not ashamed to admit it. I like to listen to fast music that doesn't make me think about anything except enjoying the fact that I'm outside painting.
ES: Have you ever picked up a tattoo machine? Any interest in putting your work on skin?
JS: I took an apprenticeship when I was 19, so I did several tattoos during that time. It was never really what I wanted to be doing, it was just a job to me, like a means to an end. I also honestly found tattooing to be really stressful. You can always cover up paint, but there is much less room for error in tattooing. That being said, it wasn't for me. But I have lots of tattoos of my own, and I have the utmost respect for tattoo artists. Shout out to my artist Pamela Carol she is quite smol, but a total beast!
ES: Talk about your experience working with Low Brow Artique and Bishop on this latest project Aerosol Kingdom? Tell us how it came about & what's coming up next...
JS: I was lucky to meet Bishop right around the time that the shop opened in '12, when I first started actively painting in NYC. I am extremely proud to consider him a friend, and grateful for the opportunities and walls he has provided over the years. I also love how often he introduces me to other artists in the shop, and every time prefaces the introduction with, "I never do this, but ..."
As far as this show, Aerosol Kingdom Bishop actually pitched the idea to me. I did a small series of 6 cans a few months back, and 15 minutes after I posted pictures, he was calling me up. It seemed crazy to do 100 pieces at first, and eventually I had to impose a pretty strict schedule on myself to get all of the work done. I love a good challenge, and it feels great to set goals and crush them. It was a huge personal accomplishment to create such a large body of work, and I can't think of a better venue for it. It seems equally serendipitous and meta to have a show of spray-paint stencil works, on spray cans, at a spray paint shop. Super nerdy and I love it!
ES: Once again, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with Sold Magazine. Any advice for the young/aspiring urban artists?
JS: If you want to make painting your job, you must first paint like its your job.
The Aerosol Kingdom show is on view until August 30th at:
Low Brow Artique
143 Central Avenue