Interviewed by: Jesse Carr
Photography by: Sam Alive
Produced by: Dan Hwang
The work of Kimou Meyer, aka Grotesk, has been an integral part of streetwear and sports design for years. You may not know it, but his work has adorned designs for Nike, Uniqlo, Alife, Stussy, Only NY, and many others. An angular, accented Swiss-born artist with a penchant for whimsical provocation has slowly and methodically worked his way up from blogging on the graffiti website 12oz. Prophet to becoming a partner and co-creative director at Doubleday & Cartwright, a go-to firm for commercial work that ranges from large Nike projects to Americana-inspired graphic work for Carhartt WIP.
On the drive to the Doubleday & Cartwright, we passed through Williamsburg streets lined with a succession of graffiti pieces that range from quick tags on a fence to bubble letter “throw-ups” on a brick wall to fully-realized commissioned work on storefronts. The metal doors outside the firm feature recent work from artists, as the vandal squad “beautified” the city by painting over the previous work that was scrawled on the entrance a few weeks back.
After passing through the rooms lined with a glass case filled with vintage American sports artifacts like a vintage set of Mets bubblegum cards and a wall with a 44 x 46 photo of Muhammad Ali by Thomas Hoepker, we were led to Kimou’s studio downstairs, a studio filled with inspirational items. As Kimou took time to explain his space, he then shifted gears (and moods) to compose a drawing for about 10 minutes. He took the time to retrieve the proper pencils and pens and methodically went about his work, seeming to block out all else, including the looming photographer. He explained during the interview that drawing was his yoga, his escape from the meetings, drafts, phone calls, and deadlines. We saw him take a deep breath, grab his tools, concentrate, and craft.
With work inspired by the street, but unlike others you may be familiar with, he emphatically told us during our conversation: “I hate street art.” Click through for a chat with a commercially-successful artist who has earned his underground stripes through hours of digging for information and proving his ability to have a fresh, unique take on the scene. After reading, don’t fight the urge you may have to get back to working with your hands after you put down the phone to free them up again.
A conversation with Kimou Meyer aka Grotesk
Jesse: Tell us a little bit about your current projects, especially the exciting ones with Case Studyo?
Kimou: Well, I think the way it started was with Mathieu from Case Studyo, the owner. We had mutual friends like Peter Parra and Cody Hudson and a niche of people. A few years ago, I can’t recall exactly if it was 2012, maybe, Mathieu came to New York to visit a bunch of his artists that he had already on the roster of Case Studyo. He wanted to meet with me because I studied in Belgium and we had mutual connective tissue. He came by the studio, and at that time, I was already working on some of my wooden sculptures, experimenting with a few things.
I mentioned to him that I had an idea for a lamp that I was not really skilled enough to execute as far as the electrical components and the challenge to put all the wires on one of the legs of the design. When I showed him some of my drawings and a loose prototype, he said, “Oh, I’d love to do that,” and that was kind of how it started. It was very exciting because he’s an extremely great craftsman, and he’s also very up to the challenge because he didn’t see any limits as far as the medium and the idea..
Did he make the arrangements to find you the people who could facilitate whatever technical challenges existed with the sculptures?
We tried to figure out if the wire should be inside the leg or if we should use real laces. I don’t know exactly how many people he used, but he definitely has a pretty good arsenal of resources to just get stuff done. I was blown away when he sent me the prototype because it already looked so good. It’s a very nice collaborative project.
Raekwon’s landmark album, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, featured “Can it be all so Simple.” In that video, Raekwon wore an iconic Snow Beach Polo jacket, that has since become a collector’s item. Tell us a little bit about some of your inspirations to put that reference on a sculpture.
I was a hip-hop DJ for more than 10 years in Europe. Basically, I was a huge Wu-Tang fan. I’d seen some of them in Switzerland when they were touring, and back in the day, there was no internet, so I would watch late night MTV and I saw Raekwon wearing the Snow Beach jacket. I was very intrigued because I was just like “What is this thing? It looks dope.” When I moved to New York, through a bunch of co-workers, I met a guy named Allan Torralba aka Seph One, who used to be a graffiti writer from Queens. He would constantly bid on eBay on Polo stuff in like 2001, 2002, and that guy really started to explain to me the whole ‘Lo Life culture. I’m always fascinated by micro-trends that just start by few people who basically do what they like without trying to be on trend and end up creating their own movement.
So where were you getting your information about things that were interesting you back then?
Graffiti & hip hop magazines from back in the day like Stress, On the Go, and East Coast skate videos. In Europe, we would look at those things in the magazines and basically make up stories about them like they were kind of a fantasy world. I have never been a thug; I have never been a tough guy. For me, I was creating characters and illustrations like people draw comics of superheroes and draw comics inspired by Spiderman. I started to draw my hip-hop heroes, and I began my fantasy world through more of a cartoon language. I had so much respect and still have so much respect for the whole urban and hip-hop culture that when I did something, I wanted it to be right so people knew I knew about the culture.
Do these experiences make their way into your work?
I’m a kind of anthropologist. I love to gather a lot of found pieces of paper, patches, and weird artifacts from back in the day, and I use these as my food for thought to create, whether it’s through sculpture or drawing. To also set the record straight, I AM NOT A GRAFFITI WRITER, I am an OBSERVATIONIST of the movement, I don’t participate… I would be fronting.
In the intro to your book, there’s a question: “Does work that interacts with the street need to be done by someone from the street?” How do you answer that question?
For me, it’s really about respect. For example, it’s one thing to jump out of a car, take three photos in Williamsburg of graffiti on the wall, leave, and then do a street art book. To actually get familiar with the city for me was kind of a goal. I told myself, if I’m going to New York, I want to embrace it to the fullest. I don’t want to just get familiar with one neighborhood, not just the area where I feel comfortable. I want to understand kind of the dynamic of the city, and that’s the beauty of the city, too. After a while, people year after year still see you around, still see you doing the same kind of work, and you earn your stripe as a New Yorker
So how has street art changed from those days of the late ‘90s because of the proliferation of information that’s available about Street Art on the internet?
Well, I think it’s as simple as there is the separation between before social media and after social media. When I moved to New York, Internet and email were just starting to be common. In 1999, there were CDs and cell phones, but there were no smartphones.
What is it like now?
Today, people go to a party, take a selfie, leave and say, “Wow, I had a great time with my friend.” Well, actually you only spent one minute at a party and it’s kind of the same with art: You put up two stickers, you take two photos and you are a street artist! I mean, it’s very funny because when I first moved here to Williamsburg, there was no street art. There were a few guys doing wheat paste art, like Bast and Faile; the rest were strictly street bombing. You had to earn territory. You had to get up a lot to get a street presence. If you wanted to get a name out there, you had to put in work for years.
What do you think of street art?
I hate street art.
You hate the term or you hate the actual work?
For me street art should be used for art that needs the urban environment to live in as a medium like graffiti, political graffiti, street bombing, and community murals, but also for sculpture like Revs or even Claes Oldenbur . When a guy spends 12 hours in his studio to do some characters with oil painting to cut them out and wheat paste them and they’re going to last like a half day in the street, I don’t understand the concept, because I wonder why that person spent so much time for something that’s going to get ripped off? Do they do that just to get the photo to say: “I was in the streets?” If you use the street as a medium, use every street, every borough--go bold or go home.
If you have 15 hours of studio time to do one cut out, I would rather see someone spend 15 hours covering and covering and covering walls with tags and throw ups or chalk messages.
You get more coverage for 15 hours, right?
Yes. I work in Williamsburg, and it’s so funny because it’s like everybody’s wanna-be up with all those kind of pizza-looking artworks with a bootleg Warhol of Marilyn with a grenade in her hand and the word “Anarchy.”
Yeah. Versions of Banksy.
Yeah, but it’s like there is no content. It’s like what do you say with that? There is no meaning.
Can you make a distinction between graffiti and bombing and street art?
The purpose of graffiti for me is to get your name up as much as you can with a very effective and iconic style so people can see that you were around. But street art, what does that mean? That’s like somebody’s trash is somebody’s art and vice versa. I don’t consider art that is made inside a place and then brought outside to be street art.
Okay, that’s a clear distinction, so it has to be done outside in the elements on the surface it’s worked on, right?
That would be my definition is that it is done on site. Because for me, it has to have the guts. If you do an oil painting for 15 hours, cut it out, and then shit your pants and wheat paste it on the corner of your neighborhood, hoping you don’t get caught, for me, that’s not street art. If you go on site with your art palette and just paint over for 15 hours, then I’ll give you the respect. There needs to be that thrill, that sense of risk for me to give credit to somebody who put work in the street. The guy who is climbing one of those signs on the BQE with wind gusting and taking a risk to fall and die to write something strong--for me that’s street art.
In your book that chronicles your period from ’99 to ’09, you have an illustration with a prescription pill bottle with a ruler and two pencils and a marker in the bottle. It says on the bottle, “use once at least every two hours.” In other words, do work, do art; and then it says below your name: “Stay away from your computer once a day.” How have you seen things in the art world today in 2014 in comparison with the message in that illustration?
When I first started my career in New York as a designer, everybody was bugging out on Illustrator. I was also doing a lot of digital portraits, and I was less and less attracted by the paper and spending more and more of my time on the computer to a point where my eyes would just bleed in pain. I would spend 12 hours tracing over those photos, bending vectors and doing all that. I was just jumping straight to the computer, and that’s where I started to do almost a deprogramming challenge where I said to myself: “What am I going to do if I keep becoming amazing at the computer but lose my hand skill?” If there are no more computers, I want to be able to keep drawing and creating stuff and having fun.
My yoga is drawing. I need to draw a few hours a day or even a half an hour, but at least I need to do one drawing a day. I got a few friends who even use the hashtag #onedrawingaday because the computer is a great tool to change color, to speed up some of the process, but again, it’s a tool. It’s not a creative device.
Sitting down in front of the computer won’t give you idea, and it won’t create a style for you, so for me it was really important to force myself to do personal work that is 80% done by hand and then 20% cleaning up with a computer.
As co-Creative Director of Doubleday & Cartwright, do you ever run into conflicts about art vs. commerce? How does this conflict change when you have a family to support?
Well, for me, it’s family first; so however I can make money, I’ll make money--as long as I keep my integrity. If I was single and if I was 20, I probably would not do any commercial work. In a perfect world, if you told me “tomorrow, you can stop work forever and have enough money to just paint and draw and do sculpture all day,” I would jump on that boat. But the reality is that my clients feed me too with ideas and challenges. Let’s say, a Nike project comes along and I have to do something special for them, and then all of a sudden, I’m like “Wow, I learned a lot about a certain sport or something.” That new knowledge feeds my drawings. If I have fun doing what I’m doing, whether it’s commercial or not, I don’t really care. The beauty of having a full time company with a great business partners and great employees is that I don’t have the pressure anymore to make a living off my drawings.
Tell us a little bit about your interest in vintage American sports logos and uniforms.
I grew up in Switzerland and studied graphic design in Europe where everything is really about system and minimalism and you use one or two typefaces to communicate your information. I was part of that school of thought, and I was really into sports already, but mostly soccer. In Europe, soccer jerseys are usually very simple fonts with a classic crest, but they have nothing handdrawn and they are designed very much like a corporate logo. I moved to New York to design for a European company named Base Design in New York who hired me for that Swiss background, that kind of minimalism, using Sans Serif fonts and a super simple layout. Then when I came here, I started to go to thrift stores because that’s a huge passion of mine to dig in vintage stores. I just love that world, and I used to do that with my dad as a kid. When I came here, I kept seeing those bins of baseball jerseys, old hats, pennants, sports bags, and trading cards. That world didn’t exist where I’m from.
It was almost like a cultural shock on the graphic language, and what amazed me was the sports items looked very vibrant and very spontaneous. The job was to communicate your team or your division or the league you played in, but the American sports items were kind of like folk art, handmade and all over the place, but yet cohesive. They were made by hands. With eBay nowadays, unfortunately, you can find stuff, but back then when I moved here, there was no eBay, so you could go to so many stores where there were shit tons of patches and pennants and it was still kind of undervalued.
When I first started to work in the garment industry, the same guy Allan Torralba who told me about the Polo culture was the first guy who taught me how to do good-looking hand-drawn baseball script and how to make varsity type authentic and unique. He told me which kind of letters I should refer to and gave me something like a secret path. The guy was incredibly talented with varsity style and layouts, and then I started to gain knowledge about what was authentic and what was new or what was made to look old and what was really old. I started to go down a very obsessive road of collecting patches and vintage t-shirts. I probably have like over 20,000 vintage references as far as photos and a good 200-300 pieces of garments floating around the studio.
What do you see as some of the differences in design in sports today?
The sad truth is that back in the day, the uniforms were all handmade. There are a few companies nowadays like Ebbets Field that still do it really well because they use the proper machines.
Now, when you go to Madison Square Garden, you see the Knicks stuff, and it’s not interesting. You don’t feel you own a part of history, or that it will gain value as it sits on your shelf. Or maybe there is like a five panel New Era hat that still looks different, but everything is shiny; everything is plasticy. It became a mass-consumption product just to claim the color of your team, but nobody really cares about the details, the fabric, the quality of the art, the appliqués used. I feel like people are losing taste. The corporate models just don’t know the right companies to create intelligent merchandising. They standardize everything through a lack of knowledge in merch-history. There is a standard look and feel for the leagues that followed by lack of idea, which is the sad truth. We are dreaming to rebrand a NBA team with Doubleday and Cartwright. We would bring it to the next level.
Back in the day, if you look at the Red Sox or the Dodgers or the Yankees or the Athletics in baseball, those teams knew that you could do a script with a swoosh and that meant baseball. Everybody was doing his own flavor. But then in the ‘90s, the sport look kind of fell off, like a lot of teams like the Sacramento Kings, the Marlins, and a lot of the hockey teams did stuff that was on trend. Now they look very bad.
Finally, does having a family change your work? Have you seen that having children actually changed the work you produce?
Oh, totally. I mean, probably not as far as pure design for the agency, but mostly on my personal work. The naïvete of a kid, the openness of not calculating when they create is beautiful to witness. My son does mind-blowing stuff, and I just wish I had the same fresh, un-calculated brain. He can do three eyes on a character just because he’s stronger than a guy with two eyes, and he doesn’t even think twice. He just does it. A big shift in my work came from the children’s books I picked to read to them. I kind of went back to some of Tomi Ungerer, Dick Bruna books. Those are like the level of communication and the strength of just very simple imagery with few words that became a huge inspiration because it’s like if you can produce something in one image with one phrase to create an emotion, it’s worth everything. I’d much rather do that than do an over-complicated thing. I make pictures that I hope people on every social level will understand.