Interviewed by: Jesse Carr
Photography by: Kaitlyn Chow
Produced by: Dan Hwang
With over four decades of prodigious output in various media, Eric Haze is one of New York’s most well-rounded artists. From the walls where he honed his handstyle to the gallery world where he rubbed shoulders with Basquiat and Hairng to shaping the design for Def Jam luminaries like Public Enemy and the Beastie Boys, his work has helped form the visual vocabulary of New York. Later in his career, the Haze logo was staple on garments that pre-dated the term “streetwear” and long before his collaborations with Nike, Hurley, and G Shock which introduced him to a new generation.
Through the shifts in trends, he maintained an integrity in his approach to letters, to the shape and feel of characters—the signs and signifiers of the written word. From experiments with abstraction that began at age 10 to his present day gallery work, Haze’s passion for the many permutations of written communication drives him. Far from an aging legend aping his old work and styles, Eric continues to polish his pieces, and the art world is still taking notice. With an exhibition opening November 26 in Paris at Wallworks Gallery of work that bears the marks of distinct evolution from his early days, Haze has a lot left to say.
In our Fresh & Creative segments, we have been fortunate to assemble a veritable history of the New York graffiti, retail, and design scenes. For Part 1 of our conversation with Eric, we focus on his roots and rise to fame in the world of graffiti and the downtown art scene. We lean how the scene morphed from a group of writers called the Soul Artists to being mentioned alongside of Warhol. Together in his Williamsburg studio space bathed in mid-afternoon sunlight, we sat down, hit record, and listened to the story of not just one great artist but the history of art in New York City itself.
FRESHNESS: We’ve been doing a series about the history of New York design from way back. Over and over, it’s come out that there’s been virtually two eras. There’s been a pre-internet era and a post-internet era. The name “Haze” came up over and over. I guess one of the ways to start would be to have you just give us your start in street art in the early 70s? I’ve seen ’72 as a start, is that accurate?
Eric Haze: Yeah. Let me start first by correcting you and eliminating the term street art. This may be a sidebar to the conversation, but I think there’s a very mixed blessing with the announcement of street art over the last 10 years. People have been doing art in the streets, in the public space, and trying to transfer that energy into galleries for over 30 years.
I think this new generation is a sort of historically-uneducated generation who kind of rolls it all up in one ball of wax. And whether I like it or not, I end up getting labeled as a street artist, which is a term that applies to a generation I feel like I’m not part of, per se.
When do you think that generation started? You think that’s social media or before?
There’s not just before the internet and after the internet; there is before the computer, then there’s before the internet, and then there’s the modern world with the computer and the internet. You want me to trace it back all the way? Look, I was supposed to be influenced by pop art and abstract art before I was a graffiti artist.
My father was pretty hip and turned me on to Warhol and Lichtenstein. I had actually gone to the studio of Elaine de Kooning, Willem de Kooning’s wife, who was also a famous portrait painter when I was 10 years old. She put out oil paints and pallet knives. I stretched my first canvas and painted my first abstract paintings when I was 10 years old, which was a short breath before graffiti took over. For me and those of my generation, I’m sort of the first and a half generation. Stay High, Snake 1, and others are the real, true first generation. I was part of that generation, but I was starting out as a toy while those guys were kings.
You were in your young teens?
No, I was 11 years old. I was born in ’61, started writing in ’72. I call it kind of the chicken and the egg, because graffiti was sort of like vegetation growing everywhere around us. I can’t imagine that we didn’t want to get a bite of the apple. It was what was going on the walls, on the trains, in the neighborhood.
The more people I met in my neighborhood at 10, 11, 12 years old, the more graffiti writers I met, because we were all graffiti writers to some extent. It’s a long, complicated story in history in terms of the Soul Artists, the original group I was a part of.
I wanted to address that, so can we do that portion now?
Yeah. We all started on the Upper West Side ’72-ish. We were part of a crew called the Soul Artists, which was started by Marc Edmonds, AKA Ali, who was the person who invented and coined the term Zoo York and published and illustrated the magazine. He was, at that time, 16, 17. He was a child prodigy with a scholarship at Columbia University at 16, 17 years old. He was extremely bright, extremely political.
He understood even then that there was a political and creative element to what we were doing. He sort of educated us and pushed us to understand that at a very young age. We had our first art show as the Soul Artists in, I believe, 1975 at Saint John the Divine’s church on 110th and Columbus.
If I stretched my first canvas at 10, I hung my first canvas in the gallery at 14. Everything else beyond that has kind of been flying by the seat of my pants, making it up as I went along. To some degree, everything that’s gone into the last 40 years has been about fulfilling the promise that Marc saw back then.
Put it this way. There’s a gap there. We were all graffiti writers in a crew and we were kids in the mid-70s, and we all went different directions. Futura was part of our crew, CRUNCH. There were later additions I’ll go into, but basically we sort of disbanded around ’76, ’77. There was an accident in the 1 tunnel with Futura and Ali, which is another story unto itself, but Futura left to join the navy. People like myself sort of, to be honest, discovered drugs and discovered girls and discovered money, so graffiti wasn’t as interesting.
Late 70s this is?
Mid-70s. By 15, 16 years old, I was more interested in making money and chasing girls, and I was running around in the subway tunnels. There were a couple of lost years there. That was sort of the end of the golden age of Cliff and people like that. Then fast forward a couple years around 1979; Ali got a $10,000 grant from the city for what was called the Manhattan Valley Beautification project. He created an art space in a storefront on 107th in Columbus and essentially invited all us kids who hang out together again to regroup in 1979 as the Soul Artists.
Shortly thereafter, he called a meeting, sat us all around the conference table at that same Saint John the Divine’s location from years later and busted out a copy of Zoo York Magazine.
The magazine was done?
Done. He had written, illustrated, published it and all that. He put that in front of about 12 of us at a conference table and basically threw down the gauntlet that this is it. He said, “Look, we can brand ourselves. There’s a sports element in our skateboarding. There’s politics in our graffiti.” In some ways, the whole movement was encapsulated in the first Zoo York Magazine. I have what are labeled top-secret director’s reports of the Soul Artists in 1981. In these director’s reports–there were about eight of us as directors–he spelled out all the potential of publishing art galleries, branding, commercial work–his vision 35 years ago or whenever it was is the blueprint for everything.
If we’re going to encapsulate that period up to the end of the 70s, Marc was our fearless leader and really was a mentor to many of us. He was a mentor to Futura. He was a mentor to me, intellectually. Some of us may have been better artists than he was at the end of the day, but intellectually, he set the tone.
How did he negotiate that space between the political implications of wall art in whatever form and, I guess, the monetizing of it?
Fast forward to 1980. We had set up a storefront. It was the Soul Artists Studio essentially, and we had put an open call out to other graffiti artists and artists in all the five boroughs that we had Monday night meetings every week, an open house at Soul Artists on the Upper West Side.
Within a short three, four, five, six months, word got out, and it was the place to be on Monday night if you were a writer, but not only if you were a writer, we started to attract the downtown hoi polloi. By the end of that year, we had had Keith Haring and Diego Cortez, the curator of “New York New Wave” and Steve Hagar, who was then a writer for the Daily News who wrote, I think, the first article. Again, in this very fast snowball, the Christmas issue of The Village Voice which was the roll over from ’79 to ’80 was the cover story that featured the Henry Chalfant spread and had a feature article by Richard Goldstein that featured five graffiti artists: Futura, Fab Five Freddy, Lady Pink, Zephyr, and myself. We were all photographed and interviewed and Henry Chalfant’s work was the centerfold. That was it. That article in The Village Voice broke the game wide open.
’79 into ’80?
Yeah. Christmas issue. The cover is, I think, Blade’s Reindeer Christmas piece. The point being, we had been exposed, we had been sort of activated by the art scene. Keith invited us downtown to be in an art show at the Mudd Club. Then Diego Cortez, who was a major curator at the time, invited us, the Soul Artists, to be in New York New Wave which was Basquiat’s first …
PS1. Basquiat’s first major exhibition and once again …
Keith, of course, was in it, but we had a hallway. The whole entrance hallway where the high space was all Andy Warhol photos, and it was myself, Futura, DONDI, Zephyr, Fab Five Freddy, and Lady Pink. We all did eight foot by eight foot paintings for that show. There you go.
From regrouping in ’79 to summer ’81, we were hanging major works alongside Andy Warhol, Robert Mapplethorpe, Keith Haring, Laurie Anderson, you name it. From thereon, it’s what I always describe as a baptism of fire. Essentially at that point, we were sort of criminal-minded kids with some talent and some drive and direction who found ourselves the subject of front page articles and featured in major gallery shows.
From then on, we were always playing this game. It was just then that the lights went on and we realized, “Oh shit, we’re in the middle of a field. There’s people in the stands. There’s rewards for scoring and there’s uniforms to be worn.” We were basically naked in the middle of the field going “oh, shit.” Back then, we had art shows before we had work to show.
It’s amazing. You were making work for the shows.
We were always in a position from then on to trying to live up to and fulfill the promise that had been laid out for us.
Ali and what we were doing internally in schemes, words, and style wars. We were having a conversation amongst ourselves and then two years later we realized, “Well, wait a minute. We are in a conversation with Andy Warhol.”
The paradigm shifted so radically. We all understood–and we were teenagers still–that the corporate world was laid out for us to have careers in the arts. I guess we will end that chapter there by saying this: there are a few different things to understand about the playing field before the internet and before the invention of computers. There was no reference book. There was no manual. There was nobody playing the game that we could watch and learn anything from.
All of our mistakes and all of our successes were sort of trial-and-error. I think for those first couple of years and in that period of time, the concept of graphic design was commercial art, which was a dirty word in the fine art word. There was always a sense with graffiti and graffiti artists that this was a real outsider art form without a price tag, originally. There was a fine line between what was considered selling out and what was considered art. Yet, at the same time, we all understood if we’re doing the work, we want to get paid. As a writer, you wanted to be a king and gain fame. Why wouldn’t we want to be king and gain fame in the real art word? The difference was there was money, but there was no politics and no price of admission in the subway system, but there were many subtle political prices of admission in the art world that we didn’t know going in. It became another baptism of fire.
Can you elaborate on that part about the subtle process of admission?
I won’t go too off on the socio-politics of it, but there was an element of slumming. I started to get this sense that we were these sort of outlaw hardcore populace doing something we believed in, and the world that was now accepting us that we were trying to cater to was completely bourgeois. The love was very conditional in that world.
Do you feel like it was overtly condescending at times?
Yeah. There was a fusion of a downtown, often gay, art crowd and hot young street kids who were running amok. I think whatever economic bracket we may or may not have come from, there was a wealthy party going on somewhere and we wanted to be invited to it. The wealthy people knew there was something cool going on under their feet and they wanted to know what that was about, which is old news in the art world.
Do you think that their interest was to be down like the same way maybe like a Malcolm McLaren or that kind of thing? Like it’s just, “We want to be down,” or was it strictly monetary?
There’s both. Marc always like to use the term art pimps. At the end of the day, if we’re supposed to be the artist, we’re not supposed to be the salesman. It’s an inevitable and necessary marriage of sorts for somebody. You need representation in the art world, that’s simple.
So someone is getting a cut?
Right. Let me try and encapsulate this early 80s period of my career. I have seen what I call the hot medium change. Here’s the reality is that in the late 80s, the downtown art world came into its own. The hot medium became painting. If you were creative, you aspired to be a gallery artist. There was no other playing field. If you were an entrepreneur, not a creative, you opened the gallery. This scene grew up, matured, and went boom and bust.
Fast forward to ’85, ’86, when a lot of people, and the scene in general, did not necessarily fulfill its entire promise. You have Keith and John and a few people rising above the crowd becoming very famous and very rich and you find a large part of that aspiring downtown art world just ran into the wall full speed and had to go back to their day jobs.
How did that hot medium bust?
Well, what happened was, and this what happened to graffiti too, that as something grew up, became mainstream, and monetized, it was no longer anything underground; it was business as usual. At the same time, as the art scene, the fine art scene, sort of ran its course, music eclipsed it as hip-hop came along as the hot medium. Now, music became the hot medium where, if you were creative, you want to have a rap group. If you’re an entrepreneur, you opened a record label or a distribution plant and that kind of thing. I won’t go too deep into it in this tangent, but as hip-hop grew up, it became mainstream and was monetized, and that became business as usual.
Streetwear and clothing emerged as the next hot medium, the next canvas where people were now trying to apply whatever skills they had to clothing as a statement. If you were creative, you opened a clothing company like me or you opened a boutique if you’re an entrepreneur. These are the natures of the underground medium.
What were some of the next phases you entered into once the gallery world sputtered out?
In the early 80s, there was nothing to aspire to in that world other than hanging your work on a gallery wall for sale. I started to become increasingly uncomfortable with the socio-political sort of contradictions in the fine art world, but I also started to distill a few things at the same time.
One was that I felt like that my generation was the most selfish generation to come along that we were the me generation. We were the first me generation, and I look at painting as a continuum of one person doing one style and one medium and pushing that same rock up the hill for the rest of their life in the hopes that it was accepted by the powers that be.
It was not only politically inconsistent, but I didn’t really want to make one choice that would trap me in a creative continuum for the rest of my life win, lose, or draw. I also realized at the same time that, “Hey, wait a minute. There is all this growth and noise and careerism about art when what really still got my dick hard first was the written word.”