As a fine artist, an illustrator, and a designer there is one subject that legendary artist Solo Rm knows all about: Change. During his formative years he was always on the cusp of something groundbreaking and his direction often superseded whatever trend was taking over at the timeófrom his gangstaish and anime inspired characters of the 80ís and 90ís to his found objects phase in the early 2000ís. His inspirations were always clear (fine art, comics, sneakers, music, etc.) but it was his commitment towards progress that truly made him an iconoclast. If Solo seems like a somewhat elusive figure itís because he is; always moving forward, making sure that the craft and city he loves are being represented justly. Centerstage spoke with Solo via email to get a brief schooling on his past work and where he sees himself now.
First off, where did you grow up and how did your interest in art first develop?
I wasn't born here, but I'm a Chicagoan through and through. As long as I can remember, I've always been drawing. It's something that came to me naturally. Drawing stuff out of the Sunday funny pages were some of the earliest memories I have of drawing. I can remember being teased for staying in and drawing instead of going out and playing sports or whatever.
Growing up was there an influential figure or figures in your life that helped shape your style?
Comic book artists were really my first glimpse into the fact that different artist had different styles. John Byrne, Arthur Adams and Rick Leonardi all influenced my early comic book styles.
Around 1984 I was exposed to a movie called "Beat Street" and that changed everything. Soon after that, artists like Lee, Dondi, Skeme and a few other NY graffiti writers from the documentary "Style Wars" really inspired me to try and do this graffiti thing. It was just so different than anything I had ever seen, and I knew I had to be a part of it.
In high school, I was exposed to manga and anime, and that gave a whole new level of influence to my style.
Pollock, Basquiat, Rothko, Klimt and Mucha also played a big part in my art life, if not my style in particular. Friends throughout the years, like my old ASCrew members, also helped in expanding what I knew of art.
How did you link with AeroSoul?
I was introduced to Disrock, who was an original member, through Arize, and we got along so well that he asked me to join. At that point ASC was already well known and one of the biggest/baddest graffiti crews of Chicago, so how could I refuse? They were at a point where they wanted some new blood in the crew and it was just good timing.
Iíve heard through the grapevine that youíve been a part of a lot of heated battles. Could you tell me about SB vs. ASC?
[To clarify] a graffiti battle is when two or more crews compete against each other by painting a graffiti mural. Typically, there are assigned judges to decide who the winner is.
Growing up back then in the graffiti scene, things worked a certain way. You had to "get up," that is, paint as much as you can; you had to be the best. You couldn't compliment someone else's work because you didn't want them to think you were sweating them. I don't know if that's a South Side thing or what. For better or worse, that's kind of the way it was.
I look back and see how it was a waste of time to think that way. But at the time I didn't question the crew. There was talk about who said what, about whom and when, but honestly, I never had anything against the guys in SB. I used to airbrush with Rafa and Yave, I went to summer school with Reek and the other dudes where always cool with me. Despite the frivolity of it all, in the end it was good that it happened. It was sort of inevitable. When you have one crew that's looked at as the best in the city, you'll always have another that's going to want to challenge it. And that's what graffiti is ó it's competition.
I'm just glad we were all cool enough to handle it like pros and not resort to anything crazy. To this day I still run into people I haven't seen in years and they always bring up that battle. For that one weekend in 1992, it seemed like the whole city of Chicago was fixated on what we were doing. And to be a part of that, that's something I wouldn't trade for anything. I was 17.
When you sit down to work do you have a clear vision of what you want or is it more of an organic process?
Both. More often than not, I get a clear image in my head of what it is I want to draw or paint, and then it's either a quick execution or a long, drawn-out bout of sketching and redo's to get it right.
I tend to be very deliberate with my lines, which comes from years of drawing caricatures (my day job for far too long), where you don't have time to sketch anything out or erase, and you have to pump them out in 10 minutes or less. If I'm doing an illustration for someone, there's a whole process to that and it's less organic. A lot of my personal work is thought out in my head and as I picture it, I can already see it working itself out in Photoshop, which is the medium I primarily work in.
Graffiti is obviously a big part of your life, but at the same time your art reflects several different interests beyond just graffiti. How do you balance those passions, and is it one of those things where itíll all eventually appear in your work regardless?
When asked, I used to tell people I was a graffiti artist and I thought nothing of it. That's what I was, what else would I say? As my career in art progressed, I came to the point where I felt I needed something more. I thought about going to school as some of my friends and contemporaries had before me, and in time I too decided to take that route hardcore graffiti writers looked down on. I think that was an artistic coming of age. I knew I had more to offer, and it's almost as if graffiti was keeping me stagnate. I wasn't growing.
Art school exposed me to so much. I had already taken my skills in graffiti, airbrushing and caricatures to their limits. I soaked up as much as I could in the time I was there, and that too changed my life; it gave me new possibilities.
I like to think I'm a fine artist trapped in an illustrator's body and mind. I love the abstract. Abstract art is a big influence on me, if not my work, and because of that I'm torn. I do a certain kind of art to pay the bills, and then I make another kind of art for myself, and then sometimes I try to mix them both together and sometimes people get it and other times they don't. Nowadays my work, both commercial and personal, mixes a few different styles, and the lines between them all are being blurred more and more every day. I really like painting a wall with spray-paint. I'm working a little out of my comfort zone (detailed graffiti characters) and painting more simplified shapes and blending my characters and letters together. I'd like to develop that more. Graffiti is something I can do; it doesn't define who I am anymore.
Can you tell me a little bit about how the ďOn The DailyĒ comic came about?
I've always been into sneakers, ever since I was a broke-ass 8th grader sporting Pro-Wings and watching the cool kids rock Air Jordans. The love affair came and went over the years, but really hit me hard when I started working in the video game industry. I developed a little bit of a sneaker collecting problem. I think it was a way to make up for the pairs I couldn't have as a kid. I also love comic books and always wanted to do my own book relating to things I like. In August 2009, I was introduced to someone looking for an artist that could draw characters well. While the initial idea was totally different, we had a brainstorming session and thought up the idea of doing a sneakerhead comic. And to keep costs low, we'd make it an online strip, which you can find at http://onthedailychi.blogspot.com/. Then I asked one of Chicago's illest, ST!ZO, to join the team for design and post-production. One year in, and we just dropped the 15th strip. And it's free!
You rep Chicago pretty hard. How important is the city to you in terms of inspiration?
It's a big deal to me because it's all I've ever known. I've lived here all my life. I've been around the U.S. and abroad, but for me, nothing compares to Chicago. Maybe it's the down-to-earth, Midwestern thing, I don't know. Where else can you get the crazy weather, deliciously distinct food, beautiful people and all the great neighborhoods, not to mention its vast and unique history? It has just enough good to make the bad worth it. Unfortunately, we're always being overlooked in many aspects due to our location, mindset and the lack of hype, but there's so much good here, so much talent, and I'm trying to showcase it through On The Daily and collaborations with other dope Chicago artists. I guess I just want my city to shine.
Whatís your take on the Chicago art scene?
There are a lot of good things going on right now, that's for sure and so important. Without some of these artists, organizers and galleries, things would be pretty boring. Unfortunately, I can only really talk about what I know and observe. And lately, I've just been too busy creating work.
I will say this about the scene in Chicago ó the most talented artists I know are the ones you have never heard of.
Youíve been working for well over a quarter century, so youíve seen a lot of changes. Whatís been the biggest impact for you as a professional?
Technology, hands down. The immediacy of the Internet has really leveled the playing field. Now, not only do I have to worry about losing work to people I went to school with, but to people on the other side of the world. I'd say I do 90% of all my work, commercial or other, digitally. I finish things up to three times faster because there's no prep or clean up.
Working as a freelance illustrator can be a double-edged sword: all the time to do whatever you want and yet there's so much to do. I love it.
Is there a balance for you in terms of creating art for you and creating art as a commodity?
There's always a balance and a compromise, but it's something I've made friends with. Every artist, in every discipline, wants to live off his or her passion. But, until you "get there" (wherever "there" is) you have to do something else in order to maintain yourself. Some people luck out and get there early and without much effort, and some people never get there. I'm a firm believer in the fact that if you do what you love consistently, the rewards will come.
I'm thankful that I've been able to learn, adapt and grow and never be left wanting. I've been fortunate. If I can be a part of something that millions of people will have in their home, awesome. If I can donate a piece for a worthy cause I believe in, great. If I can paint something that no one will probably ever see, but in the making of that I made a personal breakthrough, then I'm happy.
How would you best describe your style now?
Incredibly versatile. Considering I work in several styles and disciplines, I'd say it's versatile, but that's more of an ability, I reckon. I would say my unique style is a mash-up that blends graffiti, comic book art and Japanese anime aesthetics, rendered with a mastery of craft and technique.