Interview by Evan Pricco
Todd James began his art career in the New York City subway system of the early 1980s, using the moniker REAS. Through his adolescent graffiti work, James mastered the practical challenges of good design and large-scale execution at an early age. With a career that has seamlessly bridged the gap between the worlds of graffiti, commercial art and fine art, his works across genres are connected by a confident, raw line, potent and saturated colors and compositions, unashamed displays of absurdity and the addressing of real-world problems.
As a young designer James created some of the most iconic and enduring logos in the world of hip-hop, and it was during this period that he began his vivid animation work, which continues to the present. James’ paintings and installations have been exhibited in galleries and museums worldwide, including both the 2001 and 2015 Venice Biennales. He is also a co-creator of Street Market, a major work of the post-graffiti movement that debuted at the Philadelphia ICA in 1999 and was subsequently expanded and exhibited at Deitch Projects in New York in 2000. A decade later, a re-creation of this work was the central installation of the L.A. MOCA’s record-breaking Art in the Streets exhibition.
Like many other subway painters, James was inspired by cartoons, comic books and youth culture and often channeled politics and humor into his work, both on the trains and eventually within the fine-art space. He remains one of the most influential and inventive graffiti writers of any era, and one of the few artists whose work intersects successfully with many disciplines and industries.
Do you personally have a favorite era of graffiti?
The 1980s, because that’s when I started really doing it, so there’s that special connection. A lot of great work was done then, and the spillover, the weird stuff from the 1970s was still lingering and could be seen. You could still see remains of the past, but they were fading. It was a nice period that bridged funky innovation and technical refinement. It’s also the era that really expanded graffiti out from the subways to the world, because Subway Art was published and Style Wars and Wild Style were released, and they all made a global impact. But of course, I also love looking at everything from the ’70s. I’m so blown away by that stuff — it’s inspired me tremendously.
When did you start seeing a sea change or cultural shift as far as artists in graffiti and street art getting opportunities to work outside of those worlds?
At different times there were different waves or moments in the ’70s, but I think the first really strong wave was the early ’80s that captured the world’s attention. Then in the late ’90s or 2000 it expanded again.
The first Street Market show, called Indelible Market, with Stephen Powers, was like the seed that planted so much in terms of what the street could be in a gallery. It was even selected to show at the 2001 Venice Biennale. For me personally it was like the bomb that blew up everything I knew about art. When you were working on the pieces for that or the concepts, did you have an intimation of how influential it would ultimately be?
It was first titled Indelible Market when we showed it in 1999 at the ICA in Philly. Steve knew a curator named Alex Baker and sent him our proposal for the show, and I think it was a year later when we got a grant to do it. At the time we would hang out goofing on ideas and playing PlayStation, and then we got the call and it was real. I had no idea how it was going to be received, but I had a sense of excitement about it. Often when you feel inspired by something then others will be too. Everything in that show was the result of what Steve and I had been into and been involved in up to that point. From graffiti writing and logo design to early commercial work and all of Steve’s work in the streets and making [graffiti zine] On the Go. So all these things got poured into that show.
You have always had this interesting career aside from REAS, branching out into art direction, TV production, comics and of course fine-art paintings. Did it take a while for you to feel comfortable being Todd instead of REAS? Or is that too overblown of a distinction anyway?
For me it has been easy: Everything in writing and doing subways is REAS and everything else is Todd James — all the exhibit work and all the commercial work, animation, etc. And somehow it all connects at different intersections. When I first had an interest in fine art, I talked to DAZE, who told me, “No one in this world cares about how much graffiti you’ve done. You need to start all over and create a new body of work.” It was sobering but true advice. Then later when we did Street Market, Jeffrey Deitch and Barry McGee suggested that both Steve and myself only use our government names. I’m glad we did, because it allows all these things to stand on their own.
Dare I say that your recent works are so distinct with color application that it almost feels like you are bordering on abstraction. Do you think you are getting back into more of a graffiti style with this attention to color, more than, say, your M*A*S*H-style girls or Somali pirates?
With regards to color, I actually think my palette has stayed somewhat consistent, or at least there is a foundation of color that connects all the work. Pinks and vibrant, saturated colors always appeal to me. I don’t think of it as having any connection to graffiti or the past — it’s all one thing.
What do you find you’re influenced by these days?
Here’s a list of influences and sources of inspiration from now and before: yacht rock, Frank Frazetta, BLADE TC-5, Peter Saul, TACK FBA, 1960s Godzilla movies, cartoons, Dungeons and Dragons, the Soul Stirrers, b-boys, Master Shake, GHOST, King Terry, STRIDER, RAMMELLZEE, race car graphics, Viking sagas, Jack Kirby, video game concept art, ancient Babylonian art, First Aid Kit, Stanley Kubrick, R. Crumb, the news, conspiracy theories, things that are analog, my friends.
Do you still have a kinship to graffiti? Do you still feel a deep connection to it?
It feels like a lifetime ago, but I still feel a connection to the past, to my generation of writers, and sometimes I see something now that sparks my attention. I don’t actively look now, but graffiti is really part of the foundation of my interests. I’m standing on the shoulders of all the writers who came before me and I feel connected to this group of people who were all drawn to this artistic movement that existed unto itself.
There’s So Much To Life, Acrylic on Canvas, 2016, 5’ × 4’. Photo by RonaldAmstutz.
Todd James "Interior“ solo exhibit Eighteen Gallery Copenhagen, Denmark, 2018.
Three Guys One Ship, Acrylic on Canvas, 2012, 6’ × 7’, Photo by Ronald Amstutz.
Hot Dogs and Hamburgers, gouache and graphite on paper, 2008, 23” × 31”.
Purple Flowers Acrylic on Canvas 2018, 84” × 60”.