Interview by Jy-Ah Min
World traveling, wall crunching, metal-head, graffiti painter and founder of the Rabbit Eye Movement, NYCHOS just finished an impossibly gigantic Rabbit mural in Oakland this Sunday. Fresh off the cherry picker, the long and rough hours of heavy breathing through the painter’s mask didn’t seem to phase the artist one bit. He offered UP an exclusive interview about the process:
J: I wanted to ask you about your process. Which, to a lot of people, is pretty mysterious.
N: Yeah. Some people told me that people think I do it all on the computer first. (chuckle) It just makes me laugh when I hear sh*t like that.
J: Why do you think people think that?
N: I don’t know. I guess it’s because it looks too complex maybe. I don’t know.
J: How do you prepare for a mural? Are there clear stages in your mind in terms of what happens when you’re thinking about doing a giant mural?
N: First of all, most of the time I have to see the spot. And then I know what I’m going to do. I did not know what to do a week ago, because we didn’t really have a wall. I had loads of paint and I know roughly what I need for doing the anatomy stuff– just 3 colors for the bones and certain colors for the organs or whatever. We went there to that wall and first i was like maybe a horse skeleton or something.. but then the shape of the wall wasn’t very good to do a horse skeleton.
N: It didn’t fit there for me. I didn’t see it there anymore.
J: How did you know it could have been a horse in the first place?
N: Hmn I was thinking in my head… I haven’t done a proper horse skeleton in a while…and I’ve never dissected a horse… and the horse is a very complex… very hard… It’s hard to draw it already to make it nice and the body structure and bone structure is so crazy. And I was thinking that when you paint something, it’s like painting graffiti at night time. You have to work out: Can you actually do this in this time?– This is also a point. I don’t think I could have done a horse skeleton of this scale in that time. So even while painting the rabbit I was like: Can I do this? Do I actually have time? I knew how far I wanted to go with it so I’m happy… but I could have added more stuff… more veins or veins outside the rabbit or an eyeball floating or something like that. But I didn’t do that cuz you’re also thinking, let’s just finish it. I was happy with the way it was so I didn’t do the eyeball and all that… Sometimes there’s those little things you add and it’s just not cool any more. And you might actually not like it and then you would have to get rid of it and it would have taken another hour.
J: The way you tend to these murals, it looks like you’re sketching right onto the walls, whatever the scale, so a lot of the mystery is: How does he get the scale right? Do you just adjust and improvise as you’re going along?
N: No I think I’m sketching like a cartoonist. I build up proportions in very 3-dimensional thinking way but it’s all really basic shapes. So sometimes my stuff really looks very planned out with the proportions because you can feel those shapes. It’s not like this rabbit looks like a real rabbit but it’s this comic rabbit because it has those real 3D qualities to it.
J: There’s definitely a sculptural quality to a lot of your murals even though it’s in a 2D space, in the way you construct things. There’s a flattening first, then you hollow things out and then you fill it in…
N: Yeah so when i started to sketch I was like: okay this is the back, this is the belly out here… I know the back leg muscle is really fat because he needs to run and this is a front and it’s bit smaller so a smaller shape and then the ear and head is pretty clear. So the first sketch is a basic cartoon drawing… those simple shapes of how you make a cartoon actually. So very geometric. And when I’m sketching those shapes I’m already thinking, you’ll see it more from down… in this case we see it more from down because it makes sense to me when you have this really small person…
J: You mean you’re thinking about a vantage point, an ideal position to look at the mural.
N: Yeah actually this mural has two. Because there’s two points where the mural really has to work. So when you drive by, and you see the rabbit kind of jumping out? The shadow goes toward the front. Cuz I might have put the shadow the other way but the shadow needed to be on this side because when you drive past it this huge shadow just pops the rabbit off the wall. So this is a very important spot for when you walk by or drive by and look inside the parking lot. And then of course the other one is straight-on. A straight view but because you cannot go that far away and you have to look up, I think it’s impressive when you look up from the rabbit’s belly perspective. So actually I kind of had to draw it flipping over and you don’t really see so much from the back in this case. I had to draw it down the corpus ribs and then there’s this brown and made them really big and then I had the rest of the ribs going this way. So I measure it all out before I fill it up with stuff.
J: And when you say sketch, do you always start it on paper first?
N: For this one I did a rough idea on paper. I know that I don’t want to really plan it too well because it’s not going to be like that anyway. And when you’re too stuck to your sketch you lose… there’s you, your sketch and the wall… and sometimes when your sketch is too important for you, you get stuck to your sketch and you get really annoyed with what you’ve sketched out and so it’s like… ah F*ck the sketch, here’s the wall, this is the actual painting. You have to work it out on the wall. The sketch is up there. I just draw it up there and work it out and extend things and shape it and reshape it with the roller paint after the real sketch.
N: And then the thinking process about the colors just happens: How do I do the rabbit. So is it brownish? or greyish? I can have a beige color as base and darker beige as a shadow part? Is the shadow and fur part with ivory or almost white? At first you have a light brown rabbit but with the fur it happens to become a white rabbit.
J: How important is movement in your paintings and murals?
N: I think about it from the start. It’s important because much like a cartoon I try to keep it animated. And it starts from the beginning because I have to consider the position and composition of the animal from the start. I could just draw an animal as stationary but I prefer it in action.
J: How many times do you think you’ve painted or sketched a rabbit in your life time?
N: I have no idea. At least a 1000 times.
J: How many times do you have to sketch or study something before you start to have a natural hand at it for a mural?
N: When I first started to think about doing graffiti and murals, there was like a 5 or 6 year period of my life where all I did was come home after school and just sketch for hours and hours. I have tons of sketch books somewhere from that period and I plan to revisit it sometime. I know that sometimes I think that I have a new idea but then I remember that I’ve already worked it out before in one of those sketch books.
J: What other subjects besides animals are you interested in?
N: It’s funny because most people think I only draw animals and tell me that I remind them of ROA. But for me it’s not really about drawing animals, I am just interested in how things are constructed and how they work. I am not interested in painting just animals.
J: What other subjects besides animals are you interested in painting then?
N: I think about R2D2. I really want to do a Darth Vader one. And a helicopter would be nice. It will all depend on what kind of helicopter etc. I thought about doing one of an ak-47 or a rifle which shouldn’t take me too long to figure out.
The Easter Rabbit mural was made possible with the support of Lequivive Gallery, Montana Cans, Upper Playground for Fifty24SF Gallery. Special thanks go out to Lauren YS. All photographs herein are by Jy-Ah Min for Upper Playground.