This summer, I met up with Biafra CBS while he painted with Bernd, Ryoe and Wundr at the Momentum Art Tech Madcity BBQ Burners event in Madison, Wisconsin.
Let’s start with you telling us how you came up with your name?
Jello Biafra was the lead singer of The Dead Kennedys. They were the first band that I was exposed to where the lyrics meant something to me. They weren’t just a poppy radio group. The initial iteration was Biafra Inc. I made a sticker in 2006 or so that said BIAFRA INC. across the bottom, my hope was that the Inc. would make it look like it was more of an official company and that the stickers would stay up longer. That plan sort of worked, but it was more effective when I just used the name and no pictures on the sticker. I’ve only put Inc on one car and that was a whole car on my birthday 8 or so years ago. It just doesn’t look good. 9 letters are too many letters for trains.
Can you tell me about your crew and any other crews you’ve been a part of?
I’ve been in CBS since 2013. 455er was the one that introduced me to the crew, he and I have been friends since 2006 or 2007 so he was always connecting me with west coast folks. I was also in a crew for a period before CBS called 4DK which was me, Wundr, Kater and Urban Camper.
How did you get into graffiti and how long have you been writing?
I was into it with skateboarding and punk rock. I started with stickers and stencils around 2002-03 but I didn’t start painting graff until 2007 or 2008. My friends were doing it, and I was already doing the stickers and stencils and thought it will be fun. Out of all the people I started with, I’m the only one left painting.
Can you tell us about your style and how do you feel your style has evolved over the years?
My letters are always straight letters, I enjoy that structure. In general, Minneapolis graffiti is not overly flashy or overly technical, it’s primarily solid fundamentals and nice bars. There’s a lot of straight letters and funky straight letters, but it’s pretty much always legible. It’s just solid graffiti. I think over time my stuff has become a little less flat, but I try to keep the letters in the same vein as the characters so it’s always cohesive. Everything always has a thick bold outline ha-ha.
You do graffiti, street art, fine art – You’re on walls, trains and labels – how do you define you?
It depends on what it is I guess. I do graffiti, street art, printmaking and painting. My focus is whatever is going to deliver the best result. If that’s letters, cool. If it’s a poster, cool. I try not to get hung up on one medium or technique. Graffiti and street art were my first loves and the other stuff has been a natural extension of those initial interests
I went to art school and my teacher knew I was into graffiti and was supportive, but there were a bunch of kids that were like graffiti is so over. Street art was what was in because it served a purpose and was interactive. I told them you have no basis for this argument. They would say stuff like, “Well I watched this movie and know everything about this and that.” But that’s not how it really works.
My dad doesn’t like graffiti. He’d always point to it on trains and tell us how it was a blight when we were kids. I think part of it is that he doesn’t fully understand the culture and the other part is that it’s illegal. I think the more he’s been exposed to it the more he’s starting to understand it, but I don’t know if he’ll ever fully enjoy seeing it.
I think most of the time people just don’t understand graffiti and because of that they dislike it. If you look at a tag you might hate it, it might just look like an eyesore, and if we are being honest, if it’s mine it probably is an eyesore. The primary problem is that if you don’t know what you’re looking at, it’s hard to appreciate it. When you look at a tag, if you understand how it’s done its very impressive. Someone is controlling the arm, their wrist and their finger, pulling off these confident marks under pressure and it’s all calculated. In fine art you hear people make the same comments about someone like Matisse. People always talk about his bold color choice and his strong confident lines. Graffiti appreciation is in the same vein.
How did you go from artsy to trains?
I think it was just an extension of what I was doing. I was doing stencils and they kept getting bigger and bigger and it just felt natural to start adding other large elements in there too. My friends were painting trains, and I’d go along with them. I had always been fascinated by freight train graffiti. I’ve always liked the mystery of where something got painted as opposed to a wall where you know where it got done because it’s not moving.
Who or what has influenced your style the most?
A lot of it is my friends. We’re always hanging out or group chatting. Everyone’s posting what they’re working on and they’re really honest about critiques and stuff. They push me and tell me when something looks stupid or cool.
What was it like growing up in the Fox Valley area of Wisconsin? How do you feel the graff scene has changed?
The Fox Valley is cool. It’s weird because it’s all fairly small-town stuff there, so if there’s something illegal happening, everyone seems to care. Somebody had gone down one of the streets in downtown and put a bunch of those cheap little flea market circle stickers on everything. There was a whole write up in the paper about how this was felony, vandalism and blah blah blah. The police were going out of their way to crack down on the culprit. I think it was probably just some drunk college kid who found a pack and thought it would be funny. So in places like that you really need to mind your P’s and Q’s.
I don’t know how much the scene has changed since I left. I think there are a few more people painting now than there used to be. It’s tough to tell because there’s a well-known liberal arts college in the area so there are always some transient painters that show up for 4 years and then never come back.
How does graffiti play into your personal life and “day job”?
I do production screen-printing. I went to school for fine art printing, so the same principle applied to production printing. It’s one of those things where printing informs how I paint and vice versa. Screen-printing is just fancy stenciling. There is a big crossover with people that do graffiti, screen printing, tattoos, etc. Part of it is that those jobs have fairly lax schedules. The other part is you’re working within a family of hard black lines and there is an easy crossover from one to the next.
How much time do you put into your craft on a weekly basis?
I’m not sure I could give you an amount of time. I wake up let my dogs outside, start working on stuff, go to work, come home and start working on stuff. That’s pretty much my every day. I had a teacher tell me that you should do something related to your craft every day. It doesn’t have to end in a finished product, just something that keeps your brain focused and keeps the ideas going. I try to do that, even if it’s just working on a shirt design or something like that. All of those projects inform your other projects. How I paint informs how I print, how I print informs how I design, it’s all related.
Was there ever any piece of advice you received when you first started out that has stuck with you?
I think I’d cycle back to that last question. Just do something related to what you’re interested in every day. If it’s biking, swimming, music, whatever, just do it a little every day. Just do it for you.
What have been the biggest sacrifices you’ve had to make for your craft (work, money, relationship, etc.)?
I really don’t feel like I’ve made life-altering sacrifices to do this. It’s my entire life and it has been for a long time so my friends and loved ones know what’s going on, and they know how antsy I get when I can’t create stuff. Graffiti and street art gave me the confidence to approach fine art and murals, every element builds on the last. I feel like middle school/ high school version of me would be pretty proud of what I’m doing now.
I feel like my kidneys will probably have an answer to this question in another 10 years or so.
Do you ever do any commission work?
People do ask for commissions and I do take them on from time to time. Generally it just depends if it’s a project I’m excited about and what they are looking for. If somebody wants a mural of a skyline and their cat and a bike I’ll turn it down. I don’t want to paint stuff that feels forced. I like when my themes intersect with what someone is looking for and when there is a loose idea and someone trusts me to take it to the next level. That is one thing I appreciate about having a day job, I don’t have to bend over backwards to appease someone’s weird mural requests just so I can pay rent.
Besides “know your history,” if you could teach something or tell the new generation of graffiti writers anything, what would it be?
Don’t be afraid to try something new. I think too often more established writers get too caught up in their own era of graffiti and if you aren’t doing it like they were then you are doing it wrong. The truth is you should know the rules, you should know where what you are doing came from, but you should also do you. Experiment, try new stuff, don’t be an idiot. Graffiti is not going to advance if you’re stuck trying to appease a group of people who just talk about how much better it used to be.
How do you feel the internet and technology has affected the scene?
I think it’s fine. It keeps pushing everyone forward. It’s cool when people post your stuff and they’re excited to see it. That’s part of the appeal of trains. There’s the romantic notion that I can paint it here and then it goes into another state, or even another country, and you start imaging all the things that car will see before its scrapped painted over.
I hear people complain that the internet is making one homogeneous style with people taking different elements from different places and combining them together. I understand the argument, but I think it’s irrelevant. Yes, if you’re just lifting letters from a picture you found online that’s one thing, BUT I don’t see anything wrong with exposing yourself to other people’s stuff. The same way people were getting exposed to stuff through graff magazines. Now you just have one giant internet magazine. That’s what keeps graffiti progressing. I see stuff online with color combos I would never think of and that helps me understand how I can work a color I was unsure of into something that I’m doing. I’m not taking the color combo, I’m just learning what colors can help my color in question pop. Sometimes you can’t understand something until you see it done right and when you see that, it opens you up to a whole world of possibilities.
How have you grown?
I think I grew a lot when I met Wundr, he’s a much cleaner painter than I am, everything is very crisp. When I met him, I was painting much more loose, largely because that’s how the people I was painting with at the time were painting. I’m still not on his level as far as cleanliness, (I’m a very impatient painter) I’ve landed somewhere in the middle. I think it’s like that whenever you meet someone and start painting with them a lot, you sort of absorb techniques and learn little things that can help with your own stuff.
What really drives you and keeps you painting?
I think a majority of it is this mystery of how people will approach something or see it. I love seeing pictures of cars sitting in their natural environment or people interacting with a wall. When you see things like that, whatever you painted takes on a whole new life because now people are interacting with it and it means something to them. That’s a feeling I really enjoy.
What is the dream for you or the big goal with graffiti and your art?
My goal with all of this is to create these moments that people stumble upon. There was a year that I was hoping to make it home for Easter, but it wasn’t in the cards. That Saturday I got a message from my dad of him standing in front of one of my cars with my sister (275 miles away). He knew my name from the stickers and when he saw it from the road he did a double take and pulled a U-turn. That was also the day he found out I painted trains. It’s moments like that that are really appealing to me, when people I know (and even people I don’t) stumble upon my stuff unwittingly and are able to have a smile.
You guys get even colder than us in Chicago. Is it ever too cold to paint? Any fun/crazy/ridiculous cold/snow stories?
For a long time I didn’t have a temperature that was too cold. I really do love winter painting. There is a sense of calm that you don’t get in any other season. One day Wundr, Urban Camper and I went out when there was a wind chill advisory which meant it felt like it was -30 F. We decided that would be a good day to do freights because nobody would be out… and we were right, nobody was out. We were out there for maybe 25-30 minutes and lost all feeling in our hands, face was numb, tears frozen to our face. I painted a majority of my piece left-handed and with my thumb. We weren’t thinking and were both painting with gloss Rusto so nothing was drying. We got back to the car and were just about crying as our limbs thawed out. I don’t think either of us were very happy with our cars. That was the last time I’ve painted in really cold weather. I set a limit now, so I’ll go down to -10 F, after that I know I’m not going to like the piece and just make myself uncomfortable for no reason. Winter is also a good time to get caught up on some fine art stuff, so I’ve been trying to do that a little more too.
Where’s the coolest place you’ve visited.. for graff or in general? Any upcoming trips or events?
Eagle Butte, SD for their annual graffiti invitational RED CAN. Cheyenne River Youth Project (CRYP) puts it on and it’s great. If you ever want to see what graffiti can do for a community and be reminded that graffiti is bigger than you, go to Eagle Butte, SD. It’s incredible. There are videos you can watch online about it. They had a segment on the Oprah network a few years ago about CRYP and everything they do in the community. I feel very fortunate every time I get to go out there.
In general, I went to Croatia last fall. That’s an amazing country. I would love to go back there for a jam or something.
I don’t have too much travel lined up right now. I’m went back to Eagle Butte to do a mural with Wundr and Ryoe, but I think that’s about it – at least that’s all I have written down ha-ha.
Got any crazy bombing stories?
I’ve got some stories, but nothing you haven’t heard before. Most of the stories can be summarized by saying having long legs helps you run faster.
Who are your favorite artists and writers that you follow today?
I’ll give you the short list in no particular order, some are writers, some are not. Paul Rentler, Craola, Jenny Schmid, Mear One, Cleon Peterson, Scribe, Jacob Bannon and Theory.
Do you have any upcoming projects or anything else you are working on that we should know about?
Nothing super big, I’m plugging away on some new prints and paintings and fall is notoriously busy for murals here because everyone’s trying to spruce up their building before winter, so I expect that will be my next 3 months.
Any shout outs? Where can people follow you and anything else they expect next?
Shout out to CBS of course. 455er, Wundr, Coupe, Ryoe, Bernd and Boxymouse for putting up with me. Afex and Ecks because they’re Canadian and we need some foreign shout outs in here. I feel very honored to have the friends that I do and I hope they know that. You can follow me on Instagram @biafrainc or at biafrainc.com.
Thank you to Bombing Science and Melissa for the interview!
Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me for Bombing Science!
Melissa on Instagram @lissahhb