I had the pleasure of interviewing GAPE ONE – RK Crew on a hot summer day while he painted a wall on the West Side of Chicago.
Can you start by telling us how you got into graffiti and how long have you been writing?
I have been into art my whole life and got into graffiti around 1983 when it caught my eye on an American television show called FAME. After that, I started to notice more of the art aspect of graffiti, as opposed to the usual gang graffiti I’d see in the streets around me at the time. Mind you, I was only 7-8 years old back then so I was only doing tags, bubble letters and simple graffiti at that time. It wasn’t until 1991 that I took on the name GAPE and took the plunge into the real graffiti world.
How did you come up with your name?
GAPE was one of my vocabulary words in high school. When I learned that word, I always liked the meaning of it, “to stare at something with your mouth open as if in awe.” When I took it up as a name, I figured it would be something to aspire to. You know, to have people gape at my work, etc. It wasn’t until later that the term gape took on a negative, sexual connotation to it, but I had already fallen in love with the name and had been putting in work for it, so I decided to stick with it, despite the looks I still get when I tell some people what I write for the first time.. lol
Before writing GAPE I wrote COMPLEX. That was around the late 1980s to 1990, before I even knew what train yards were.
Tell me about your crew and any other crews you’ve been a part of?
I am currently RK crew. I finally joined RK in 2013, but have known those guys all of their graffiti lives, so it was like coming around full circle when I finally nestled in. Before RK crew, I was GAP crew in the early 1990s, then LEC in 1995, then TCK in 2004, then NL in 2006 with POEM, etc.
Did you grow up in Chicago? How do you feel the graffiti scene has changed?
Yeah, I was born and bred here on the Southside of Chicago. The graffiti scene here changed in many, many ways. The graffiti game seems like the rap game to me, where things got dumbed down, some for the worse. With the innovation of better paint and brighter colors, people seem to have lost the art form for letters. Like rap has lost the complexity and intelligence of lyrics due to beats having more “swag,” graffiti too, has lost its complexity and intelligence in letters, due to the lavish color selections of paint we now have at our disposal. Back in the day, the colors in spray paint were very limited, so writers back then had to rely on their skill and creativity in letters to stand out from the rest.
Also, back in the day, one had to stay in the streets constantly to stay up with the latest. And with constantly being in the streets, one constantly put his name up on a regular basis. Today, with the invention of the internet, those days are gone. Peeps can easily jump on the internet and visit their favorite social media site to see the latest happenings on the street. No more having to ride the train lines to see who is up, etc.
Last, it seems like there is a big disconnect from the later generations of writers and the newer generations. I think this was caused by the invention of the internet and the kids today not having to stay in the streets to stay relevant. This is both good and bad because, with the disconnect, the newer generations are doing their own thing, which can lead to new breakthroughs in the graff game. However, with this same disconnect, there are lots of fundamentals and history in the graffiti culture that are being lost.
Tell us about your style, and how do you feel your style has evolved over the years?
My style is traditionally old school based on letter structure. To me, letters come first and colors come second, but I’m learning how to put as much emphasis on my colors as I do with my letters, now that the color pallets for spray paint have grown exponentially.
Who and what has influenced your style the most?
Definitely my surroundings and those I came up under. Crews in the early 1990s that were smashing on the Southside like SB crew, Aerosol crew, SAW crew, etc. Those were my influences back then. We all wanted to be a part of, or as good as, those crews.
Anyone you look up to or mentors?
Honestly, I look up to my crew, RK. Most of them have formal art educations and have been professional artists for decades, so I pay close attention to them and I am continuously learning and getting better thanks to them. I can only look inward for creativity, but I definitely watch them to learn more about composition, colors and coloring.
Besides “know your history,” if you could teach something or tell the new generation of graffiti writer anything, what would it be?
Respect and embrace your elders. They have a lot of history to share with you, if you’re willing to listen. And, of course, keep doing what you love!
How does graffiti play into your personal life and “day job”?
Prior to being a full-time artist, I spent 12 years in corporate America as a Software Engineer. Now, a full-time artist, graffiti plays a huge role in my day-to-day life. From waking up in the morning to laying my head at night, or vice-versa, it’s all I do and think about.
What really drives you and keeps you painting?
My desire to get better. Still wanting people to gape at my work I guess. I can always do better, ya know? I want to do better.
What is the dream or big goal for you with graffiti?
If it could get any better than this, I would love to be able to just do my thing 100% of the time, ya know? I do commissions and bring the client’s ideas to life, but it would be dope someday to have clients give me 100% creative freedom.
How much time do you put into your craft on a weekly basis and what have been the biggest sacrifices you have made?
I give all the time I have to give to my craft. I do this for a living and want to keep doing this for a living, so I have no problem investing any and all time to this.
I gave up my plush engineering career to do art full-time, but my biggest sacrifice to date I would have to say has been my social life. When I was an engineer, I made a really good living, so after my 9-5, I would go home and sometimes do art, but sometimes would go out and socialize. I would hit up gallery shows and birthday parties and all sorts of fun outings, but since I’ve become a full-time artist, I tend to spend most of my time in the lab. And being a tattoo artist also, that clientele is made up of night owls, so while there are still gallery shows going on that I would love to check out, I’m usually in my studio tattooing or creating art.
You seem to always be on the move. This interview was right around a trip you took to Spain. Was that for graff? Where else have you traveled or do you want to travel?
Yes. I love to travel, paint everywhere I go, meet new writers and gain artist friends in the process.
The trip I took to Spain was indeed a Spraycation – a vacation where the intention is to paint as well as visit a new place. In Madrid, I hooked up with MATA of the DMC rock crew and we painted one of his private bandos. That was a lot of fun and dude is an awesome person. I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to meet and paint with him. While in Spain, I also took an overnight train to Lisbon, Portugal and was able to get on a wall there also. I was to hook up and paint with NOMEN but our schedules clashed so he hooked me up with a spot to paint and so I did. Much thanks to him for that also!
Some of the places I’ve been to include Japan, Thailand, Amsterdam, France, Germany, Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Canada, and others – and now Spain and Portugal.
How do you feel the internet and technology has affected the scene?
I believe I’ve touched briefly on this subject already in regard to how the graff scene has changed in Chicago, but I can elaborate a bit more here.
Exposure – It’s all about survival of the fittest, but it’s important to not lose yourself in it all though, also. For example, and going back to my previous statement, with technology, writers no longer have to constantly stay in the streets to keep up with the latest happenings. One can easily go online today and see all the latest paintings as artists and photographers of the scene alike are quick to upload the latest and greatest. Similarly, artists can paint anywhere and simply upload the picture to be viewed by potentially millions of people as opposed to only a handful of people seeing it because they put in the footwork, etc. Many writers are for and against it, but using what is available to your advantage, is all a part of the game now.
Shortcuts – With technology comes easier ways of doing things, but there is nothing new here. It all started with the evolution of the NY thin cap. Before this technology, we graffiti writers had to go to our local department store and steal the spray caps off of household cleaners because those spray caps had a much more profound outcome. Later came the evolution of more spray paint caps and then the evolution of spray paint itself. From there, things evolved even further with the use of projectors and similar tools to get the job done faster, etc. I am not against any of this, as I use custom caps to spray, custom spray paint to color and even projectors to speed things up when working for a client.
However, as I mentioned before, it’s important to not lose yourself in it all though – I still spray with stock tip spray caps, I still paint with Krylon and Rusto if/when needed and I still sketch my characters out without a projector when in the streets. I do this in order to keep my skills up to date so when a time comes where I have no caps, no low-pressure spray paint, or no projectors, I can still execute with no issues.
Do you have a favorite graffiti production you’ve been a part of?
I don’t really have a favorite project, but two occasions come to mind in my personal and professional life.
The first was back in 1997, when I was living in Upstate NY for the summer. I was invited down to Paterson, New Jersey to paint at Mitch’s paint fest with all the NY pioneers and writers from around the world. It was my first time painting at a big event like this. I was there to rep Chicago with DZINE, CASPER and others. The event was great as I met and got all of the NY Pioneers to sign my black book. A really surreal moment for a young graffiti writer such as myself at the time.
The second time was my first big mural project as a full-time artist. My homie Statik got the contract to paint the official Chicago Wolves billboard next to the Allstate Arena that sits off of the I90 on the way to O’Hare airport. He brought me on to assist and this job is where I gained the confidence to execute murals on a much larger scale.
What music are you listening to these days when you paint?
I don’t listen to headphones when I paint. Because I grew up on the Southside of Chicago, I made it a habit of never paint with headphones as to stay aware of my surroundings. Back in the day when painting in the streets, you could get mugged, robbed and beaten, so I had to stay on top of all that as to not be a victim. Today old habits die hard, so I still don’t wear headphones when painting in the streets. If someone has a radio though, it’s usually hip-hop that’s banging. When I’m in the studio tattooing or painting I listen to all genres of music. Lately it’s been Classic Rock on the radio.
Do you have any upcoming projects or anything else you are working on that we should know about?
Well, I just did Spain & Portugal, Color Codes in Iowa, Paint Louis and Chicago Meeting of Styles in the last month, so I’ve been pretty tied up with all of that. Now I’m working on some new canvases that will be a part of a gallery show in conjunction with Expo Chicago 2018 in late September. I also have some trips planned for the fall and look forward to the very first Meeting of Styles in Miami this year. MOS Miami will be in correlation with Art Basel Miami this year so it’s going to be wild. I am excited for that.
Any shout outs and where can people follow you?
…and a big thanks to Melissa and Bombing Science for taking the time and interest. I’ve been a fan of the site since the very beginning.
Interview with GAPE ONE – RK Crew – By Melissa Brand (@lissahhb)