Interviewed by: Jesse Carr
Photography by: Kaitlyn Chow
Produced by: Dan Hwang
WK Interact defies easy categorization. Born in the South of France, and without the context of being born into an insular, signifier-filled graffiti scene, WK Interact decided to mix storyboarding ideas from film with photography in the early 1990s and mold a style that is definitely his own. His work is usually black and white, and resembles figures in flux, twisting and smearing in a bricolage of motion. One thing his pieces do not typically feature is his name, a trait that simultaneously defined the pieces and obscured the artist, a process that is, in a sense, anti-graffiti.
"Out for Fame," a 1995 song by KRS-one encapsulates the goal of the graffiti artist who makes it a point to get his or her name emblazoned in as many places as possible to attain "fame." In two of our past Fresh + Creative pieces, we have interviewed and explored the worlds of legendary artists who did just that--ESPO and HAZE. WK Interact has a different set of goals. His name provides a clue to one of those aims: to capture people as they interact with the work. Once a passerby is photographed while engaging with the artwork in the background, the piece is finished and documented. In his large-scale books, WK captures these meetings.
While joining WK Interact for a chat in his studio/home in Brooklyn, it became clear that he did not separate his art and his mode of living. Everything in the studio was movable and convertible, down to a rolling TV mounted to wood with slots for unframed photos and postcards and moveable found objects functioning as both furniture and art. The space boasts some of his work, from tricked out skateboards to modified clothing to his famous work-ready bicycle. While I sat on a modified chair and put my phone and notes on a circular coffee table on wheels constructed from planks of wood, we chatted about his process and some of his most famous projects. He has crafted large scale work for Kobe Bryant for Nike, Dwyane Wade for Jordan Brand, the New York Mets, and many more. Scroll down to view our conversation with an artist who has been at it for over two decades and proved to be an inspiration for a number of artists, leaving behind his own legacy as an originator. And though he didn't set out for fame, by sticking to his original vision, he has cemented his name as one to be remembered.
Tell us how you got your start.
At the time when I started, I didn’t know much about street art or graffiti. I was in a totally different city, in a small town. I didn’t have the roughness or urban city style. It was a city in the South of France called St. Paul De Vence. I enjoyed coming up with ideas that interacted with the streets. I was passionate to do something free, and I didn’t expect much in terms of art. I didn’t think the gallery or museum would give me that freedom in terms of creativity. I felt like the street was my place.
It seems like you had a different goal than many graffiti artists. What were your goals when you started?
The stuff that I am passionate about is film, sculpture, and storyboarding. For the street, my work is not necessarily something that has to be hand-crafted. It doesn’t necessarily need to be painted. I view my work as an interaction: creating a story based on the street and location.
I didn’t come from street art or graffiti. I was not interested in the quantity of my works, but the quality. The location was important, and it still is. I want the emotion and the interaction with the physical structure and the architecture.
Even here in the studio, it seems like you have an emphasis on re-imagining objects.
Yes, I find items and then want to re-think them and give them life. The same is true with my work, which has the goal of taking over a corner or location.
The location drives the work, not the work that drives the location?
When I pick a wall or door, there are many things happening: the people who live in the building, the architect who built it. All that energy is in that building. So why do I pick a spot? I consider all of those factors, including those who pass by the wall or door. Most of my work is just very graphic in black and white. But the passerby taking a photo is an important impact of the meaning of the subject, as I want to see those who pass near to the work and interact with it. That way it suddenly creates life and motion between the subject and my work, a very important detail.
So the work is context for what happens around the work--the way a passerby will interact with that piece?
When you first crafted these pieces, it seems like many were not on board. How did you get through that initial rejection?
My work is about physicality, challenge, and change. Most of my work has a beginning, but no real end. It’s in motion. Most of the galleries were closing at the time when I was doing this work. I had struggled to get work that I believed in and struggled to even speak the language. Those struggles helped me to make more intensity and motion in my artwork.
What are some examples of your work that involve a large scale story?
I did a project for 9/11, the 100 years of Mexican Revolution, and the anniversary of D-Day. These 3 projects are based on the bravery of men and women facing a difficult period of time where many of them lost their lives and gave us freedom.
Can you talk about some projects with large corporations like Nike or the Mets?
When I meet with a brand like that I go to the company with a full concept. For the Mets with Citibank, I signed up to do the entire stadium--the entire interior and exterior. So I worked for 15 days and made a massive presentation. I wanted to shoot 5 or 6 players, and then I presented a budget. Then the client trim the scale of the project down. And very often 75 % of that concept will be dismissed. This is, unfortunately, the problem when working with brands: often they will ignore the best part of the concept and only focus on a commercial level.
I did a Kobe Bryant project, which was amazing. But before I did that project, I had a project on the table with Nike for Michael Jordan. I went to Portland and sat down with 15 people at a meeting. Then someone dropped a 50-100 page book of photos of my work on the table. Everyone came to the meeting with that same book. The photos are taken by someone else, and none of these photos were mine. They belonged to Nike. They asked me: “Would you be interested in doing the entire campaign for Nike Worldwide of Michael Jordan ?” At 25 years old, working for them seemed great with a high salary and a lovely house. At the time, I could barely make a $750 rent. But the catch was that they said that they would own all of my past work and they would own my work and my name. This is just one such offer for a large company. At the time, I was starving and looking at this opportunity. I decided to risk it all and focus on my dream. I refused those proposals.
For many artists we interview, the term “street art” is inherently negative. You didn’t aspire to be a “street artist,” and many young people only know that term because they may not have the history to know what it means entirely to do work on the streets. What would you want to communicate to a young artist who wants to do work outside on the street?
A lot has changed from the time that I started in the street in 1990. I believe street art will vanish soon, as most of the street artists are becoming muralists. Every decade is different and you need to adapt yourself to your own time. It is not necessarily only looking at what other artists did 20 to 50 years ago, but focusing your emotion and dream.
How do you stay motivated for a project, even if it doesn't get the recognition you envisioned?
For my 9/11 project, my Mexico project, and my D-Day project, there was no press, no sponsor. It ended up being over 600 feet long with no PR or press, and it seemed at first as if it hadn’t been done or publicized. I gradually realized that you do the work and decide to be patient, which is part of the advice to young artist: you need to be patient.
How does photography of people seeing and interacting with your work factor into your work?
When the wall is 100 feet high and not at eye level, I don’t like how you can’t capture or the interaction with the public because you can’t shoot it and see the interaction with the work. I prefer the piece to be the picture of the person seeing the work and being involved with it.
Based on your skateboard project, you once said that the board is meant to compare to a kid today who is basically blowing himself up with immersion in social media. Can you explain that?
Many kids are being lulled to sleep with news, advertisements, and video games, many aren’t aware. Being and acting this way, where they are not reacting, it is almost the same as blowing themselves up. My intention in 2006 was to create an artwork who was familiar to them, a skateboard attached to dynamite and also a remote control. This artwork represented fun and escape while at the same time they could trigger themselves. The crazy part now in 2016 is that young kids are blowing themselves up, but in the name of religion, which was not what I had in mind.
A lot of my work is political and a reflection of the society and my surroundings. Blowing yourself up in the name of religion in my vision is not awareness and not acting for any good.
How can an artist become a representative of his or her environment?
An artist needs to reflect the colors and the intensity of his environment. I took the intensity of New York and put it in the work. All the symbols and feelings of the work make their way into the work, but it may not be immediately obvious to someone who just sees the work. So I would tell a young person to incorporate the environment and never forget to look around.