Rostarr’s “Introspectives”, the past, the present, and the future:
An Interview with Artist Rostarr
Looking back at the path you have taken is inevitable for every artist. From expressing feelings with movement to documenting everyday encounters in the form of drawing, painting, or film, Rostarr employs unique painting methods to create strategic line work with influences from calligraphy and traditional African sculptures. Polished and playful, Rostarr’s stunning portraits and narratives recasts stories of his past. The New York born, now Bali based artist had just freshly moved into a new environment to continue on his creative journey in the east.
You were a B-BOY back in the days, how did you transition to becoming an artist?
I mean… It's a long story. I started B-Boying when I was 13 years old in 1982/83. It was something that helped me to find myself, my skills and my strength as a kid. Before I didn’t feel like I had any of that or even have an identity growing up in America. I look back at the times when I was a B-Boy and how important that was for me to becoming the creative and expressive person I am now because it was something that separated myself from other people - people took notice of that and treated me differently. And so, it was important for me to realize my skill or develop a skill in whatever I do or be good at whatever I do. Then the heat for B-Boying died down as I got older and things changed. My brother and I were really into comic books so we started drawing a lot of manga characters and I realized that’s what I love! I then went to art school to study graphic design and printmaking, but I really loved to draw. I was told by my tutor in school that my drawings are very expressive and the iconography and typography were strong so I developed that into my style. I didn't necessarily think that I was going to become an artist or anything. When I got out of school, I thought, "OK, well I'll just become a designer or an art director or something of that nature." In my mind, I want to be a free spirit and have an independent inner mind goal and not work for anybody. But the core is just about the pure love of drawing. Period. It’s not about figuring how I could make something realistic, it was about just drawing and realizing my characters don’t look perfect. This is my style.
With the pieces that you chose for this show, what outside stimulus makes you more creative or has inspired you to make these works?
I think people are the most inspirational for me. People's character, personalities, the psychology of people in general - why do some personalities clash, and why would they do the things they have done? It's really fascinating for me to observe all these weird characters on the street; it’s almost like a photographic memory imprint - when I draw, these personae appear on my paper.
Yeah sometimes depends on the piece. For example, The Magi or the Three Kings - I painted this piece a couple weeks before my first son arrived; the joy felt like the blessings of the three kings in the biblical story. As for the portraits, as I said, they are reflections of the personalities I encountered. Because I love African tribal masks, they have an influence in the way I draw these faces, abstract and geometrical but visually engaging. I really love this writer - his name is Joseph Campbell and he wrote a book called The Hero with A Thousand Faces. I believe most people are wearing a mask regardless of your occupation or your status. Everybody is trying to play a role and when that person takes off the mask, there's another mask underneath, and another mask underneath. Sometimes these masks look like armors in my drawings. I call that an emotional armor, ones that people put on to protect themselves.
Because your art is so expressive, do you usually sketch?
Oh no I never really sketch at all. The one thing I do is that I draw in my sketchbook. It's not really sketching, I usually start drawing and ideas will come along. I rarely plan my paintings in the sketchbook before executing that onto the canvas. I enjoy filling the pages up in my sketchbook. When I start to attack a canvas, I often start from one place and build from there like Lego and Tetris using my own shapes and see what feels right. It’s almost intuitive and I'd like to be surprised by what I'm making so it's important for me to have an improvisational loose approach to my art.
What if you made a mistake?
I don’t believe in mistakes unless you are talking about spilling a whole tub of paint but I’ve never done that because you… try not to fuck up. If you have an attitude and you're worried about every little thing then it's just going to drive you crazy! I learned to make little mistakes. If something didn’t turn out the way I wanted it to be, I learnt to work with it and make it look right. I'm a bit of a perfectionist but my attitude is very free. I just go with it.
Some people categorize you as a street artist or a graffiti artist. How do you position your art when it comes to explaining it to people?
I definitely don't like being labeled in any way. I won’t call myself a street artist because I don’t paint on the street. I don’t tag. People have that misconception because I came from a breakdancing background - a street culture or sub-culture so to speak, while being in a similar circle, I made a lot of friends who are graffiti artists. My brother is actually a graffiti artist himself. Maybe some of my work has influences of those elements, but going on the street with a spray can is never a goal of mine. I am not the type who cares about the egotism of writing your name everywhere. I guess this is also where my name Rostarr originates. I see myself more as a brand - a brand identity versus a name. it sounds like a corporation or a brand you would see on an 18-wheeler. It didn't have any ethnicity. I also came up with the symbol that I call The Seed. It takes the shape of a poop. I wanted a symbol to represent me instead of a name or a tag.
I've never had a problem with working commercially. I enjoyed doing commercial work from the very beginning. I pretty much started my career by working with brands. And nothing's really changed since. I have always loved fashion and interior design. When I was a kid, I wanted to work with every brand that I like.
Seedling by Unique Board (Available at WOAW)
What are these brand that you love?
Too many. I respect a lot of people and brands out there. I've been lucky to be able to work with Nike a couple times in my career. Actually, my first job out of school was with Nike. I did a big ad campaign, an illustration of a basketball player. I also worked with Stüssy and Moncler recently, companies I’ve respected for a long time. My art works well as a pattern and that makes it easier for fashion brands to print on textiles and later turn into a signature piece.
Do you get attached to your work?
Yeah, I do. It's hard not to. I try to take my time and create bodies of work that is meaningful to me. But nothing makes me feel better than to surround myself with all these works that I put so much love into. They have a time stamp in my life. They documented certain events in my life so sometimes it's hard to sell my work, but I've learnt to let go. There are a few pieces that I’ll never sell. Also, it’s sometimes difficult to put a price on some pieces because of the amount of love and effort I put into them, but I have to sell my work to feed the baby so it's all good.
Do you collect other artists’ work? Who are your favorite artists?
Yes, I do collect a lot of other artists’ work. I'm lucky to have a lot of good friends who are amazing artists and we've traded a lot of work alongside my art collection. My favorites are Jose Parla, Brian Kaws, and Faile - my good friends. These are all my friends and comrades and I respect them all and I love what they do.
At this point of your career. Where are you now? Is there something that you are striving for?
I'm just striving to be freer and to not be pigeonholed, the same thing I was striving for before I started my career. I used to think that I needed to fit into what the art world wants from me or is expected of me. A lot of times they expect you to master a style and not veer from it; that way you
don't lose collectors who recognized you by the style. I do have stages which I am experimenting with multiple styles but I can’t. That's just like a mental death for me. I feel like I forced myself to only create calligraphy or limit my color palette to just black and white. It drove me crazy! Now thinking back, I feel like I should have listened to myself before, but you go through stages in your life where you think that, as an artist, this is what you need to do because galleries are asking you to create work in this one specific style because it sells. As an older and wiser self, I realized my work should be for myself, not the gallery, not anybody else.
What do you have coming up after this show?
I'm going to be working on a mural with Kenny Scharf and Kevin Lyons and some other artists for POWWOW Korea in Seoul. Then in November, I'm going to be in a group show called Reflections in Seoul again. It will be one of the biggest group show of the year, a lot of heavy hitting artists like Jeff Koons, J.R., Jose, Damien Hirst, Sterling Ruby, and many interesting artists so look out for; we're going to probably tour that show to China and Japan.