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CES on His Evolution as a Graffiti Master


In the vibrant world of graffiti, few names shine as brightly as CES. A trailblazer whose work has transcended the ephemeral nature of street art to become a permanent fixture in the global art scene, CES has navigated the complex pathways of creativity and innovation for decades. In this exclusive interview, we delve into the heart of CES's artistic journey, exploring the early days that laid the foundation for his iconic wildstyle. Through his reflections, we uncover the growth and transformation that have marked his evolution from a young graffiti enthusiast to a respected artist whose pieces resonate in galleries and urban landscapes alike. CES opens up about the challenges and triumphs that have shaped his career, offering a rare glimpse into the mind of a master who continues to push the boundaries of what graffiti can be. 

CES in 1996 (Left) and 2022 (Right) 

Could you tell us a little bit about the history of the B-Boy character?
The b-boy character goes back to the mid 80s when I was really infatuated with all aspects of graffiti writing, and I was very much inspired by some of the greats before me. So it came about through influence from a lot of different things and how people were dressing, talking, and acting from the music that was being played and performed. It captured the whole atmosphere of living within graffiti culture at that time.

What's the relationship between the characters and the letters?
The character for me is usually a kind of self-portrait, if you will, how you kind of cartoon yourself and view things in that way. I come from a place where things were better said simply and conveyed simply. So the character is an extension or an accoutrement to the letter, they play off of each other, they compliment each other in the positioning of the colors and spaces that they fill. When you have the opportunity to go extra, that's where the character really comes into play, but first and foremost, you want to get your name up and then the character is kind of solidifying it.

It's like a compliment to the letter.
Yes, it compliments the letter. When I would paint and do a character or something that would compliment the letters, it meant that I obviously had enough time to do it. If it was illegally done, chances are you were really pushing the envelope by extending your time in that spot and that you had the paint to do it. I would first and foremost do my lettering, do my name, and then start to work everything in around that. So the character is always a bonus.

As an example, I was just overseas just a couple of months ago actually, and I had an opportunity to go paint a train. I was actually in Europe, and so we're in the train yard and I'm painting and I got my name up, and there were a bunch of us pretty much doing the whole line that was in the yard, and I looked over and said, "Yo, do we have more time?" And can I borrow this can from him and that one from the other guy? And I ended up doing a character next to my name and they were like, "Don't worry, you still have more time. It's really, really cool."

So I did another character and I'm like, "Okay, we still have more time." Then I did a giant spray can and we still have more time, then I put up the crew and a matching double cloud. And I was like, "Oh my God, this is a dream I'm getting away with." It went in that order, it was my name then a character. I was happy and ready to go home after that, like wow, we really pushed it. So when the opportunity arises, you really have to seize that moment.


One of three original CES b-boy drawings releasing on 2/22

So there's three characters that we see in the drawings. Is there a difference in the story between the three of them?
There is a difference. One of them is where I was living at the time, 205th. If you have them in front of you, there was 205th Street station on the D. And I lived right there at the last stop for probably about 12 years. So that was my stop and my station, and I did it with the colors that the station was. So it was personal to me in that sense. The other character, he's got the train pulling into the station, he's standing on the platform and honestly speaking, it was around the time when Tracy 168, a very famous pioneer here in New York had passed away and I did the 168th Street station. It actually was pretty much on the day that I had found out that he had passed when I was working on this project, so I felt compelled to add that in.
The other one, he's got the love on his belt with the one, the one train with the S on there. To me, that's just some classic fame city, one train, one love is really what it's standing for. It's just bigger than the moment for me. I try and pull everything into it and have a message, just not like a cartoon guy, which is cool. Like I said, I like to keep it simple, but the one, the finger, the hand up, the one on the hat, and the love on the belt, this is one love. And one love being graffiti, being the culture, just embracing that.

Not that New York is super dirty and run down, but the subway system is very dated and unless you're in a proper neighborhood or even then, it's probably still trash. The tiles are always dirty with rust and just mildew and everything that's underground that surfaces. That's how I choose to paint the tiles versus clean and white and bright. To paint the station with all its decay is really what I try and convey in the painting. So there's a lot of layering and a lot that goes into breaking down and decaying these things without really losing what it is.

What's the technique used in the drawings?
All three of them are mixed media. They're actually on Bristol board, they're marker, airbrush, color pencil, some acrylic, just a whole just mix of all my favorite utensils. So it's rare that I'm able to take a drawing and actually airbrush onto it because I do everything in a drawing at my desk with markers and pencils and all that I'm accustomed to. But for something like this, I was able to take it into my studio and mount it on a board and really have that kind of spray paint look. So I really went the extra distance on these drawings.

Tell us about the difference between CES and WISH. Why do you go by both?
So as a graffiti writer, you have your primary name, right? That's like the name that you're known for, your people call you, you recognize it's like your title. And I started writing WISH sometime in the early to mid 90s as just a secondary name. If I was doing some spots that were hot and I really didn't want to put my name per se, I didn't want that attention. But as other writers get to know each other, we can tell if a particular writer does something because you know his style. So I was writing WISH during those days, which was more if I would paint a train or hit a spot, like I said that I didn't really want that attention.

And then I started to like it more and you kind of were more free in experimenting with a different name because there's just only many ways I could write CES before it became repetitive, even though I did certain things that I thought were different, 99% it looked the same to most people. So WISH was my way to expand and escape that and take on a different role.

How does it feel to still be producing high level work this many years into your career? 
You know what, I'm just really grateful and passionate at the same time on what I'm able to do. When it comes to graffiti and just the art in general, even though I've had some ups and downs within the culture, it's all part of it. It's not like I raced NASCAR and flipped over a bunch of times. Nothing that was really life-threatening, but just some ego shattering or legal issues that's come with the territory. So for me to recognize and to embrace painting within this culture, somebody once told me that I'm talented enough to pretty much play any role within the art world, but I choose to do this and that's true. So me doing this, it's not like, "Oh, I'm a gift to the graffiti world by sticking around and staying in this culture, it needs me." No, we all need each other.

If I was the only one doing this shit, I don't know how long I would last. So being inspired by the older generations and me playing the role that I play today for the younger writers who are coming up, acknowledging and embracing all that's there, is great. If you go back in time to the outrageous photorealism of what some people are doing around the world, it's mind blowing. And it all comes from graffiti culture, which is very interesting. If a person was to dig deep and realize where things derive from, they would be amazed. So here we are still pushing the boundaries but recognizing the essence of what it is.

What advice would you give your younger self?
The advice I'm giving myself still to this day, which is just have fun and believe in what you're doing. As a young person starting out I was unsure and I didn't really know my place. And then someday you just wake up and you realize, "Wow, I've done so much. I think I'm pretty sure." But never being satisfied or sitting back on it and saying, "Okay, I did enough." I've done a lot so to speak, but still wanting to do it. I'm not bored by it, it's not work. In other words, just enjoy the trip. That's what I would tell myself. It's going to be a pretty interesting trip. There have been so many things that I've accomplished and have yet to accomplish, and so many people that I've grown to become friends with, people who I've admired and people who I'm still constantly meeting that I couldn't have dreamt of meeting as a young cat coming into the culture.

I didn't have the vision. I just thought, like I said, it was like something I did that summer when I was a kid because a bunch of people were doing it around me and nobody, not one that I started with does it. I don't think they did it the following summer. So I thought I was a nut all that time because I kept doing it and even getting arrested and even having all kinds of issues and God knows what I don't even want to get into it becomes so crazy and twisted and still sticking it out and still saying, "Yo, I can't help. I love this." Like you get bit by a bug or something. So as a kid to the younger one, I would tell myself, "Yo dude, just enjoy it. You're not going to believe it. And don't lose that passion because that's really what gets you up every day and makes you want to go out and do things." That's really where I'm at.

Can you talk about the fine line between being consistent but not repetitive as an artist?
That's a fine line, right? I think about going to see my favorite band, I don't necessarily want to hear them play some new shit. I want to hear the hits, I want to hear the classic shit. And you can't lose that, right? If you switch up it's got to be gradual, you got to bring us in. So growth comes from the artist as well as the audience. And when you recognize like, "Oh shit, I'm too deep. I'm losing this or I'm not doing that." 

A lot of people could go paint Godzilla, but not everyone could go do a proper character within the confines of graffiti and the influences that set that apart from other art movements. So it's easy to see the big and the bold, but it's about the simple stuff. We're in our own box and I'm okay with that. We're speaking our own language to each other and that's cool. What happens is more people eventually come into the box and into the culture on their own versus me chasing you down trying to speak the gospel of graffiti.

There was a rooftop spot that I'd always paint right here in the South Bronx, and it was on top of a business where cats would come in, but had nothing to do with the culture. These were businessmen from a whole different universe, big money cats. I would bring them out here and give them a tour and explain to them what they're looking at. There was one guy in particular I remember. I said, "Yeah, so me and my friends, we come out here and we paint and this guy's from Australia and that guy's from England and this guy's from Japan, and that's what's happening up here this week." And he's like, "Oh, let me get this straight. So you guys basically just come up here and write your names in different colors?" He simplified my whole life.
So I was just like, "Oh shit, yeah, that's pretty much what I do. I just write my name in different colors to you." That's what it looks like. And I was like, "Yeah, that's pretty much what we do." "So you mean to tell me that guy flew all the way from Australia to write his name in pink over here in the Bronx?" I was like, "Well, there's more to it than that." But you could do that to anything, right? You could take football for instance. You guys got this ball and you throw it around the field and someone's got to catch it and you've got to stop him. You could simplify everyone's world.

That's a good way of looking at it!
I won't say its ignorance, but if you're not invested in what it is, and then when you go inside of it's like you're just judging the book by the cover, once you start reading the unlimited chapters of graffiti culture you realize its so rich in history from every direction. It's far from done, I know I'm far from done. I think the best is still yet to come, and we just keep building. I mean, it's a worldwide movement. When I first started, I didn't know what was past my house.

CES x BEYOND THE STREETS Limited Edition Collection 

Speaking of past your house, where do you think you've traveled to where you were surprised at the level of knowledge or interest in the movement?
Man, I've been to a lot of places, and I'll tell you, I'm always amazed at the education of people. You stay in New York and a lot of people might be close-minded and only focus on the five boroughs or what's happening on just trains or on the street and they don't really know past that, past their neighborhood.

I remember I went to the Canary Islands in Spain to do an event and we painted all these people's homes on the water. These beachfront homes. So you would get your own person's house to paint outside. They'd have a whole big side of their two story house, three story house, and the people would come out and feed you and just really make you feel welcome. And I'm like, "Shit, this would never happen in New York. You go write on someone's house and they're going to come out and make me dinner and help me clean up and they don't even give a fuck who I am or what I'm doing. This is mind blowing." There was probably 25, 30 artists from around the world doing incredible stuff. So it was such an experience to see something like that. It really makes you realize, "Wow, this shit is so much bigger than me and my boys from my block."

At that point you've become an ambassador for the culture. 
Yes, you realize you've become an ambassador for the culture. So what you do and what you set out to do really speaks bigger than just yourself. When those opportunities arise, you have to recognize them versus thinking that we're going in this tunnel and painting this train and it's every man for themselves. When you're invited to another person's space, country, town, city, event, it becomes big thinking and a big experience, and you just want to really put it out there. That has happened to me on several occasions where I was just blown away. 

But I'm getting old now. So when I see other cats, it drives me. And social media is a different energy too, that just shows you the cover page of people doing things, but until you actually meet them or go to that place or travel and do things and you feel it for yourself, that's really where it's at. Experiencing not just sitting in your backyard painting the same shit over and over and posting it, it loses its experience in that sense. I'm much older now, but when I was in my teens and 20s I was a lot more arrogant and a lot more competitive and I had a different view on things. I think a lot of us did because chances are you were around people with the same mindset.

So now you find yourself much older and hopefully much wiser, sitting back and thinking, "Yeah, that shit really doesn't matter. What matters is this." Is really feeling and experiencing the moment versus trying to tell somebody how to think and what they should be looking at and who I am. It's being here and embracing the moment, having that experience and really making it count. More time living and less time looking.

Do you ever find yourself losing that hunger?
Now that I'm increasingly experiencing more success and more comfort in the space that I worked so hard to get to, I think back to the hungry me, and I really admire that cat that was doing it just for the love. I would walk through the snowstorms, through the worst neighborhoods, put myself in situations that you couldn't pay me to do now.

The passion seems to get kind of watered down at times, so you can't get lost in the comfort and say, "Oh, well, I made it to this point. I could just do whatever." No, that's what happens with a lot of people with music. I feel like they start out, they're real hungry, they really got something to say, and then they get signed, they get a bunch of money, and now they're just phoning it in. That happens with so much. I'm not saying stay broke and stay hungry, but it seems as if that kind of strips you from the drive.

I've come to realize I don't want to waste my time because that's the greatest thing that we got. So if I'm going to do it, I really want to do it and make it count and have something deep that really means something and that's special for myself and others. I admire the young writers that are out there getting dirty and really running it. I remember those days. I'm in a space now where I got a nice car and I got every color can of paint and I'm probably home watching the game instead of putting myself out there. But I earned that and when it's time to do it, I definitely will step up, you can bet on that.


New releases from CES arrive on Thursday, February 22 at 9AM PST through our online store. They include a series of original works, sticker packs, a skate deck, a plush version of his iconic b-boy character, t-shirt, keychain and puzzle!