Interview by T.K. Mills - Images Provided by ThirdRailArt and Amir Diop
Amir Diop is among the youngest members of the SoHo Renaissance Factory, and one of the most ambitious. A driven young artist, Amir began wheatpasting in the streets before last year’s season of unrest led him to paint for a greater purpose.
I sat down with Amir at SRF HQ to discuss his journey as an artist, picking up the paintbrush after becoming discouraged, and learning to outgrow your comfort zone.
T.K.: Start off from the beginning. When did you first start expressing yourself creatively?
Amir: I first started expressing myself creatively when I was a child, when I was young. But I put down the pen and paper when I was about 14 because of discouragement from other kids. But when I was around 19, so about 3 years now, I picked back up a paintbrush and I started painting.
T.K.: What made you want to pick it back up?
Amir: Basically, I was bored one day and I just wanted to do something. And decided “Why don't I paint today?” And I painted, and was like, wait, this is fun. We could do this again. You know? I kept going.
T.K.: Rewinding a little bit, you grew up in Brooklyn and moved to Long Island?
Amir: Yeah. So, I moved to Long Island when I was 12, and my young childhood I grew up in Brooklyn. When I moved to Long Island, I went to a private school, the Waldorf School of Garden City, for about 3 years and then I graduated high school. And then after that, I decided to go to college for a year. And you know how college goes. Sometimes it doesn't work out. But after that I decided that I’d might as well try something new. I should paint.
Then once the protests happened, I thought “Oh, this could be my time to really shine outside.” And I decided to paint on all the plywood boards because I was trying to promote myself at first. But then after that, I found out that there was something bigger that I needed to address at that time.
T.K.: How did you first get into street art and wheat pasting?
Amir: One day, I decided that I need to promote the word of myself. And most people do it by tagging or wheat pasting. I decided to get out there, I was like “Oh, this is easy.” I can get all the spots, you know. And then once the plywood boards was up, I was like “Yo! There’s no law on this.” You know? If there’s no law on this, I’m free to go and do whatever I want on these boards because there’s no law.
‘Cause I was searching up the laws on the plywood boards and I found out that you can paint on them if they don’t have a “post no bills” sign on it. Apparently you have to have a “post no bills” sign on the board for people not to paint on it. But there’s no “post no bills” sign, you can paint on whatever board you want to.
T.K.: Interesting. I didn’t even know that loophole.
Amir: Exactly. So, I was like “Oh, I’m painting on all these motherfuckers.” ‘Cause technically the person owns the board, but I own the image rights on the board.
T.K.: On the topic of plywood boards, we’ve heard the origins of the Soho Renaissance Factory from Konstance. Could you tell me your perspective on how everything came together?
Amir: Everything came together around the fourth of July. We were painting. We ran into each other all on one block. And we were like “You know what? Let’s paint over there. I see you guys.” We all liked each other’s work. We would just say stuff like “Yeah. Let’s borrow some paint.” “Yeah. I could use some white.” “Yeah!”
And we started sharing materials. And then it became a point where we were doing it every day, so we just decided we needed to become solid as a group.
T.K.: And now the crew has been together over a year. So, in this past year, how do you feel you’ve developed as an artist?
Amir: Oh, I’ve gotten super nice with it. I feel I’ve just been really cranking up the time, and the effort, and everything that I need to do. The main thing is that I haven’t stopped and I believed in what I wanted to do and I continue doing it.
T.K.: I’ve noticed in your murals there appears to be a few recurring characters. Can you tell me a little bit about how that developed?
Amir: So, my character's name is Wobbleton. Wobbleton was created right before the protests around when George Floyd was killed. And I was out here wheat pasting in March, around that area, and then I was posting up Wobbleton. Over time, I created the story of Wobbleton and I want to put it out there as a collaborative thing, where other artists can design their version of Wobbleton’s world.
T.K.: Do you have a narrative for Wobbleton? Does he have a superhero backstory or anything like that?
Amir: Well, he does. He’s one of the two protectors of the Triptoverse. And the Triptoverse is a story that I created that’s based off of a version of the multiverse. I grew up loving Marvel and loving all the different multiverse-related shows that I grew up on.
T.K.: Do your paintings usually center around Wobbleton or do you do explore other aspects?
Amir: Oh, I do different aspects. Basically, I want to retell stories in my pieces and I use words to embellish the story, but I put one main image in the entire frame. So, you’re seeing just one image of the entire painting. You’re seeing a screenshot of the event happening and then you see the words where you read from side to side because sometimes it’s jumbled up and sometimes you’re like “What does it say?” But it makes you really think about the way—
T.K.: It makes you stop and really look at it because you’re reading like “Oh, okay.” And it draws you in.
Amir: Exactly. It’s the image and it’s everything that captures your eye and draws you in. That’s mainly what I want to convey out of my pieces.
T.K.: With this storytelling element, how do you want to keep it going? Do you have ambitions beyond canvases? What mediums do you want to explore going forward?
Amir: I’m already finished with the first issue of my comic book. So, I’m gonna be releasing that quite soon. And that’s gonna be something that I’m gonna work on for a while. And then also, I’ll be working on canvas works, street art, a bunch of different things.
T.K.: Do you have pieces that are personal favorites either for the context in which you painted them or the message that you imbued it in?
Amir: There was a piece I made on Muji over the summer. And this was the day I met Konstance. And that piece on Muji was one of my favorite pieces I’ve ever done in my life because it felt as though the message in it was so strong and the fact that it was also my first piece that was stolen. So, it is one of my personal favorite pieces just because of the significance of it and I don’t know where it is.
T.K.: As an artist, how does it feel having a piece stolen?
Amir: Oh, it’s not great. But at the same time, I’m not going to get frustrated about it. I’m not going to go running after these pieces because, at the end of the day, they were made for the people. Somebody stole it from the people.
And one day, the people will find it. And one day, it will come back to me. And I can show this to the world myself instead of it being this lost piece that nobody knows where it is, but it’s being sold the black market over and over, you know.
T.K.: Can you tell me a bit more about your inspiration? How do you feel cartoons and Marvel influenced your sense of aesthetics?
Amir: Well, cartoons and comic books both influence my aesthetics because of the fine lines and the imagery that that gives. When I was a kid, I sat in front of the TV and watched cartoons all day. And I also read comic books. And as I grew up, I never stopped loving those things. I’ve always been a nerd. I love video games. I love all those things. It's something I'm used to. And I feel, as an artist, it influences me because I ask myself, if I could create my own universe, what would it be like? You know, if I were to create my own way of thinking or my own way of being the creator of my own thing. That’s what cartoons make me think of it. Painting make me feel great about that. That's the beauty of painting. It’s the oldest way of creating.
T.K.: You said you actually felt discouraged from some of the other kids and stopped, which to me is interesting because it's cool that you brought it back. But can you tell me a little bit about why you felt discouraged?
Amir: I was in 9th grade. When I was in 9th grade, we were drawing for one of our school projects or whatever, right? And I don’t draw realistic. I’m not a realistic artist. I mean I tried. I just don’t like it. So, I drew the way I usually drew. There were kids who took my painting or my drawing and he photocopied it on the photocopier. Made hundreds of copies and then put ‘em all over the lockers and kids made fun of me.
It discouraged me from drawing, and even saying that I could paint at all. I always said that I couldn’t draw and I kept saying I couldn’t draw. And so, it was actually the time I was working at a camp. I worked at a camp for years. And this girl, I kept asking her because I knew she was a great painter. I kept asking her to paint these things for me or whatever for my events that I was planning.
And she was like “I can’t do this anymore,” and I’m like “I can’t fucking draw…” But she was like I’m not doing it. And I was like “Really?” So she came back and said “I can help.” I was like “I don’t need your help.” And I was painting it myself and everybody told me it turned out good. I said to myself: “Oh, let me try it again.” Then I got home and then I started painting. The next painting was ‘let me try it again.’ And then the next painting was like “Okay.”
I got to my 6th or 7th painting and then I was like “Okay, this is gonna go a little bit slower, but I think it’s gonna get a little bit faster in my case and years wise.” It took me like three years, but I’m gonna do this every day. I’m gonna make this a passion of mine and I just kept going. I kept going and I was like “Oh, it gets easier and then now I’m doing all this extra detailed shit.”
I won’t even try to paint like that anymore because I feel I’ve outgrown it, you know, and I’ve learned so many other styles and met so many other things over the time. And I think even now what I’m doing now I’ll probably look at in two years or three years. I’m gonna be like “I’m not doing it.”
T.K.: That’s a good thing as an artist because otherwise you stagnate. You have to keep pushing yourself and keep evolving with it.
Amir: Exactly. Yeah. That’s the main thing about artists, is a lot of artists stay at one spot and stay in one place. That’s the whole thing. You keep regurgitating. You can’t develop that way if you don’t try to push your boundaries. It’s like you having your things is great. But if you don’t push the boundaries of what you’re doing, then you’re never gonna get better.
You can’t get comfortable. I don’t like being comfortable in general. My mom was like “Amir, you could go get a bed. You know you have money to go get a bed. Why are you still sleeping on an air mattress?” “Ma! I can’t be comfortable. If I’m comfortable, I stop working as hard.”
T.K.: That’s how you guys stay hungry because it’s like that energy keeps you going.
Amir: It makes you great. When you’re hungry, you’re always going for it. You’re not comfortable. You’re not sitting down. If I want to get comfortable, I’m gonna get comfortable in my sixties, in my seventies. Not in my twenties. I don’t have time to get comfortable right now.
T.K.: You’re twenty-two now?
Amir: Yes. I’m glad that I was able to get the attraction I needed young, but more or less, I think every person just needs to work hard at it. It depends on when you start when you’re younger. You know? It’s like if you start when you’re older, it’s like “Oh, well, it’s gonna take some time.” It always takes at least like two to three years to even get something established and something that you want to do professionally. I’ve been doing this for 3 years now and it’s much easier, you know.
T.K.: Would you mind telling me a little about Neo-Savage, the art style you’re developing?
Amir: Well, neo-savage is a new art style that me and Brendan have collaborated and created basically using free-flow art.
So, in jazz they have the flow state, right? We’re using that idea for the art portion of our work. We let go and let whatever guide itself. And as we let it guide itself, we could either make something together or separately by ourselves. It’s being in this constant flow, trying to make a painting, but you don’t know what your next step is, but you just let it go. There’s no preplanned anything. You’re not thinking at all. It’s just letting it go.
T.K.: Where does the name neo savage come from?
Amir: Neo means new, and a callback to some of the roughest and greatest people are called savages. And so, I think the merging of the two words putting out the new savages with this art form, it can create something that almost brings the real vigor and roar to it. Nobody can touch this because it’s your own thing. There’s nobody who can really control it. It’s not a specific art form that you have to follow. This is an art form of your own. This is an art form where you choose what you want to make and you use that flow state as best as you can.
T.K.: Building off that idea of creating collaboratively, as well as being part of a collective, how do you feel working with other artists versus working with yourself?
Amir: Working by myself is fine. It’s cool, but there’s something about working with other people that is like “Look at what we made together as friends.
Look at us.” The power of friendship, it goes great with your applesauce in the morning. But yeah, I enjoy collaborating with other people and being able to paint with other people. It makes me feel we aren’t doing this by ourselves. We’re doing this together as a unit and as a group.
T.K.: Going back to the murder of George Floyd and how everything came together, you said you had gone from just painting for yourself and trying to get out there to doing it for a bigger message. What is your bigger message?
Amir: That’s a good question. My bigger message is that nobody is gonna do this for you. Nobody is gonna make the world a better place for you. It’s nice. You can’t rely on anybody, anybody in the government. We can’t rely on anybody in politics to make it better for us.
So, at the end of the day, the main thing is that we have to make it better for ourselves. If we are in those communities, we need to help to our own communities. I think that that’s something that’s overshadowed too much and that’s something that people don’t really think about. They think somebody is gonna come in and save the day all the time. But when you need to put in the work, you need to put in the work yourself.
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