Doug and I to start with achieved John Fekner again in 2018, when the a few of us have been attending the Nuart Pageant in the city of Stavanger, Norway. John’s unassuming existence conveyed an aura of calm amidst the sea of chaos swirling about him. At that issue, I was not fully mindful of his artistic legacy, and he definitely isn’t really the type of individual who has the need to have to announce it. As a scene, avenue art and graffiti have no scarcity of figures, with a lot of whose presence calls for notice by way of flamboyant or signature style decisions. John’s not the kind of dude to be donning a trilby and sun shades anytime soon.
To have an understanding of the importance of his capability to marry road and artwork tradition, we have to go ideal back to the 1960s and the 1970s, to a time that predates Banksy, Blek le Rat, or even Basquiat. John was a younger artwork university child with a penchant for social discourse and a adore of the concrete playground that was New York Metropolis. Like all fantastic artists, John’s do the job is a reflection of his surroundings, in his circumstance, a flower pushing as a result of the rubble of a city pressed to the boundaries, a item of his surroundings.
The operate is legendary: stenciled textual content that boldly proclaimed “Broken Guarantees,” “Urban Decay,” collaborations with the unique House Invader, Don Leicht, or his presence close to the Style Moda space. In quick, Fekner has been a person of the most pivotal political and social voices in road art and graffiti. Via conceptual artwork, images, music, poetry, stencils, paintings and even early forays into digital artwork, Fekner has constantly been at the precipice of prevailing artwork tradition. Dough and I persuaded him to sit down for a chat — Evan Pricco
Evan Pricco: In the course of your occupation, and even now, with your nearly slight irritation in executing an interview, is these anonymity just a point of flexibility for you?
John Fekner: I think so. It was a put wherever I could obtain some solace and one thing where by I am heading to do what I’m going to do on Friday evening. I’m not going to hang out with the young ones down at the park exactly where I lived. I would commit a Friday or Saturday night time executing artwork. This is back again into the late 1960s, into the ’70s. And that was just created into me. I was sort of, like, I am not likely to say a recluse, but I desired the time when I could just do a little something. I would use my time that way. I imagined it was effective. I indicate, some folks would study textbooks, but it wasn’t like currently being in the park each night time and being a showman or actively playing handball or hockey and then cards and doing all the things affiliated with hanging out at the park in the center of the night. That’s in which I 1st begun performing out of doors perform.
Doug Gillen: So let’s communicate about this outside operate then. What was the inspiration for you? I imagine there wasn’t a substantial sum of this kind of get the job done all over NYC in the late 1970s. If I am a youthful road artist coming out now, it’s a pretty unique time and I could very easily be encouraged by the under no circumstances ending volume of street artwork that is out there, but what was it for you?
Nicely, there was not that substantially. I signify the 1st huge text I did was a phrase from The Compact Faces, and I wrote the text “Itchycoo Park.” It was a hit, and my mates and I determined to just juxtapose things. I took a green freeway indication off the Grand Central Parkway. We brought it into the park and hung the highway signal on the metal fencing previously mentioned the handball court docket walls. So it was like this incongruous issue about why this signal right here would be pointing to the Grand Central Parkway exit. I was in college or university, and this was the drop of ’68. We painted with white paint and rollers, and it was big. That was the first occasion of undertaking one thing outdoors with significant letters. And I then did a couple other factors like bringing a auto into the basketball courts. It was not a park, it was a playground, a cement asphalt playground. And that is why I’m this sort of a actual physical wreck these times mainly because I under no circumstances played on everything that was delicate or grassy or a football subject. Every thing was rocks or stones or asphalt.
Acquiring back again to exactly where that led, in terms of the stenciling, I was incredibly fortuitous to be associated with the early Soho scene in 1968. My lecturers at the New York Institute of Technological know-how established the initially co-op gallery named 55 Mercer on Mercer Avenue. And a couple several years later, Mercer Arts Heart opened up and that was the 1st spot most punk bands started off to perform. It was the early era.
EP: In 1968, when you took the practice in New York City, have been there already tags inside the subway cars?
No, I think it was really obscure, and in all probability really small. I necessarily mean, there had been gang customers that tagged the bridges, the Hell Gate Bridge, names like that coming out of West Side Story. If you see the first conclusion credits, and even via the film, there have been some pretty interesting early… you could possibly not say graffiti, but it was surely someone putting some thing on a wall in city instances. I’m not talking historical past right here, I am conversing, like, the late 1950s. So there was some stuff around, and of program, Taki 183 was, like, everywhere you go.
This has me imagining about my personal historical past. I had a teacher in artwork school in the late 1960s who told me a truly good thing: you really don’t have to be an artist and use paint to make a portray. That was kind of profound, and I came in the subsequent working day and I produced a painting with masking tape. He seemed at me, like, this child obtained what I just explained to him. Ahead of then, I was executing landscapes and portraits, the standard faculty 101 foundation form of paintings, which was truly excellent. So at the time, that type of turned me onto a different sort of technique and operate. The second vital thing a professor advised me was that there is certainly not just the real planet and the art earth, John. There are other worlds you can appear at.
EP: What you might be sort of detailing, and I know we detest making use of this term, but it really is nearly like you were being form of given entry to starting to be additional of a conceptual artist.
I was. It was conceptual art. And that was the start off of, like, Style Moda, breaking all the rules.
DG: I want to go ideal again into this type of avenue sensibility. There’s this other environment, but what was your coming of age into artwork, the sort we appear at, say, from the early 1960s. Was that an selection?
No, we had been looking earlier than that, as youngsters obtaining unique varieties of styles, car or truck versions, constructing products, portray designs, some sort of casting wood burning kits. My mom and dad often gave me all those kinds of provides when I was, like, 7 or eight years previous, so I was presently drawing. I was combining some sorts of drawing. I nevertheless experienced drawings with textual content, and, of course, like every single artist, cartoons were quite essential. The Flash was my dude. I did a comedian ebook with my good friend, and we manufactured a black and white zine when I was 14 yrs previous. I was producing in 1965, poems and stuff. Then recognizing as that went on, I believed. ‘why do I have to generate a full ebook or write a poem when I can just say precisely what I want in one sentence?’ You get that from Bob Dylan. I necessarily mean, it truly is just type of like, yeah, ‘The Periods, They are a Altering.’ I indicate the track could just have been that, Or “Blowing in the Wind.” I considered that the effectiveness of that style of approach was quite interesting.
I applied to Pratt and Columbia College and was accepted, but my mother and father, who experienced never ever owned a residence, generally lived in an condominium, could only afford an additional university. It was a manufacturer new school, the New York Institute of Technological know-how, which was a large amount more affordable than those people two. I wound up likely there, and it was the very best matter that likely happened to me.
EP: Ended up you conscious of how these individuals all around you were being likely to outline that time period of time, people like Jenny Holzer, Keith Haring, Basquiat? Were being you conscious of all this happening?
It felt extremely important for the reason that just about every working day there was anything new being introduced to the table. A large amount of it was pushed by tunes, a lot of the rap, electro, hip-hop, whatever I indicate, everyone listened to Kraftwerk, I signify, hearing a song for 20 minutes driving from Jackson Heights to go to play West 4th Road handball, and the tune was nevertheless on. It can be phenomenal.
DG: Some of your most legendary photographs arrive from the 1980 collection in the South Bronx, a town in the midst of a crack and heroin epidemic. There have been staggering premiums of murder, burnt out and deserted autos, piles of rubble and properties that were more like vestiges of war than places of convenience, forming a concrete playground. To attract attention to the scale of the city’s mismanagement and lack of financial commitment, you and your prolonged time innovative spouse, Don Leicht developed a sequence of significant scale, large impact stencils on buildings all over the neighborhood. The simple, but properly bold captions, pink phrases like “broken promises,” or “decay,” gave the desolate structures a existence, as they cried out for focus and modify. How did this occur about?
The “Broken Promises” arrived from Jimmy Carter, who was President at the time. Ronald Reagan, a presidential candidate for that forthcoming November, was in New York. So I did not know what was specifically likely to happen, but there was an substitute people’s convention from men and women across the U.S. as well as the local individuals. Don taught on Tinton Avenue in the South Bronx, so we understood these neighborhoods. I was previously doing things in the decaying areas in Brooklyn and elements of Queens. I understood that the Bronx was a position to do a little something, a spot exactly where this could really be significant.
DG: So, let’s go smaller sized. I am really interested in the record of the stencil. What did the stencil give you that producing a thing freehand didn’t?
Authority. It gave me the search of authority. It seemed official. It looked like it was performed by the Division of Sanitation, some thing so massive that it would capture your eye. I signify, they would tag a auto, and if there was an abandoned car on a freeway, they would set a little sticker. So I just took that notion and just designed it on a building wall. It would say “post no payments, write-up no costs.” I took that and designed it “Post No Goals.” That was a tribute to Don due to the fact an artwork gallery particular person advised him that his do the job would by no means be proven on 57th Street. Don came out all frustrated, and he was considering that it was just not heading to take place in this article. So I did a piece identified as “Post No Dreams” all around the IBM setting up at 57th and Madison. I was usually making an attempt to make it glimpse like probably it was authorized!