Teiser talks paint wars

Walker Teiser, born and raised in New York City, grew up with graffiti. He’s been writing on the walls since he was 12, and now, at 21, studies at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore. WEEKEND caught up with Teiser – in broad daylight! – about fake permits, running from the cops, and what art looks like before dawn.

Q. Tell us a bit about how you got interested in graffiti.

A. Growing up in New York, I was curious about it from a young age. When I was ten, I saw the movie Style Wars [a documentary on hip hop culture], and after that I was obsessed.

Q. Where were your first projects?

A. Mostly in the East Village, in New York.

Q. You’ve also done some work in New York for the Public Ad Campaign, which protests outdoor advertising by creating art in public spaces. Can you tell us a bit about that experience?

A. It was fun. I went to jail… so I didn’t get to go to the reception. I think I was the only artist who got arrested. I’ve been arrested for graffiti almost twenty times in many different states. So I’ve been through it a bunch of times before. That was a bad experience, though, because I had a felony for a forged document [since the Public Ad Campaign sometimes gives graffiti artists fake permits]. Because of that, I had an extra charge, but thankfully I got out the next day. But it was a fun project, painting illegally in broad daylight.

Q. When else have you been arrested?

A. I got arrested in San Francisco, on New Year’s morning of 2009, and went to County Jail for a week. That was for painting graffiti on a big ledge. There were tons of times before I was 18 in New York. A bunch of fun chase stories, interesting things.

Q. Chase stories?

A. The good ones are the ones where we got away. One time I was on the West Side Highway — this was in 2007 in New York — and the guy that my friend and I had looking out for us had really bad eyesight. So all of a sudden there was a cop car right next to us, and we both ran. It was a crazy chase. My friend ended up on a rooftop, and I ran for ten blocks with the cop car right behind me. When I finally got stopped, they searched me and ended up just letting me go, I think really just out of respect for how far I ran, before backup showed up.

Q. Sounds dangerous. When do you normally like to paint?

A. 4-6 a.m.

Q. And what’s it like to be on the inside of the street art and graffiti scene? To outsiders, it seems pretty mysterious.

A. It’s cool. It’s a pretty small, interconnected thing. You meet a lot of people from all over the world with a lot of ease. If you want to meet somebody and you’re traveling somewhere, even if you’ve never met them but you’re familiar with their work, it’s very easy to get linked up. The most productive thing it’s given to my life is the people I’ve met through it.

Q. What kinds of people?

A. Tons. A lot of my best friends, I’ve met through graffiti. They’re all the most interesting, inspiring people I’ve ever met.

Q. Is it a competitive scene at all?

A. Street art can be. But I’m more versed in graffiti. I know a lot of street artists, but I don’t really do that myself. Public Ad Campaign was kind of an isolated thing for me. Street art is more competitive because they’re doing gallery work, and that’s connected to their street work. Graffiti, I think, is a totally different thing. It varies a lot.

Q. How so?

A. There are just so many different kinds of people who do it. You have rich kids who do it, you have really poor kids who do it. You have people from all different places. There are people who are in it to do as much as possible in the most dangerous places, and that’s kind of a competition. There are people who are in it just to further their craft, so that’s a different aspect. There are all different types of writers.

Q. Do you have a specific graffiti or project of which you are most proud?

A. I do. But I can’t talk about it.

Q. Why not? Is it strange for you to be here, talking about it with other students?

A. Yeah. It’s a really cool opportunity to do it in this setting. I’m pretty humbled by it. But I never really talk too much about what I write, or anything like that. I think it’s vital to almost every graffiti writer to maintain that mystique.

Q. So now you’re studying in Baltimore. What’s the graffiti scene like there?

A. I mean. I know everybody down there. I don’t know how much I can talk about activity, but there’s a small scene of people. There are some really good people who moved there to go to MICA. My friend Gaia [a graffiti artist from New York] did some really cool stuff there, and he got good press for that. Graffiti isn’t such a big thing down there.

Q. And you’re also studying film and photography?

A. Right.

Q. Do you ever try to tie that into graffiti?

A. No. I document my work with photographs, but my artwork has nothing to do with graffiti. At least not consciously. It’s totally separate.

Q. If you could work in any city, where would you choose to go?

A. I haven’t been to a lot of cities in Europe. I’d love to go there. I dream about it. But I love New York. Out of everywhere in America, New York is unique to me.