Paulie Nassar: The Outlaw of Philanthropy

Credits: Written by T.K. Mills // Photos Courtesy Paulie Nassar



Where did you grow up and how did you get into art? 

I grew up in Manhattan, Upper West Side. Dad's from Yonkers, but originally family is from Brooklyn. Mom's from Jersey via Poland. So I grew up in the Upper West and got into art as a little kid. There's pictures of me in my kitchen in diapers painting next to my brother. He would paint for five minutes and leave, and I would be there for like five hours.

Your art demonstrates a wide range of mediums and forms. How did your style evolve?

I would always experiment with anything I could. Whenever I look at art, I never look at the work, so much as I would look into the artists’ process. I’m always interested in the process of creation. 

I did one piece where I dripped paint every day, that would dry flat but eventually developed into a natural sculpture. So I would always experiment with those things, I also like to learn how to do traditional painting. I take influence from a bit of everything.

I’m fortunate that my parents were always supportive in that aspect. I remember being like eight years old and my mom taking me to paper-making class. So just to learn about the importance of what paper is, and learning respect for it at a young age, taught me to always be open to new forms. 

That's always the way I was with art and other artists. I would go to Five Pointz and just sit there and watch the dudes go up and be in awe. I just liked to observe their styles.


How old were you when you first picked up a spray can and got into graffiti?

Eleven. We would go after school on 70th street. There used to be a big open lot with huge roller letters and shit. I respect graffiti, but I never wanted to have a tag as a name or as a brand, as what my art is.

I would run home at 3:30pm, watch Bob Ross, and then from there I would leave and meet up with my friends and grab the 1 train at either 86 or 96. We used to jump down at the station and paint in there. We would sneak in there and that was where we would paint. I was never about train yards or hitting big trains. I thought it was cool, but the aesthetic never grabbed me in terms of how I liked my pieces. So I stuck to walls mostly, but of course I’ve played around with people and painted wherever.

So in terms of your aesthetic, how has that developed? Was there any image you’ve had for a while? 

There are a few ideas that I cycle in and out. I refine something until I don’t want to do it any more. When I first heard of cubism, I got obsessed with it, so I did cubism styles for a long time. I would paint and use layers and experiment – because I wanted to learn painting on my own terms. A lot of my art is tattooed on me, like the pig and different things I used to draw a lot.

Heart of Stone Print Nassar

Would you consider spray cans your preferred tool?

I like using multiple things, but I love spray cans because of how versatile they are. I love what you can do with it, but it is just another medium at the end of the day. It's whatever you use to accomplish your goal in the best way possible. 

I love working on a canvas and being meticulous with a super fine brush. For example, the ostrich with the top-hat I like getting into detail with a piece that’s two-feet tall. With spray you can take on bigger projects, like a hundred-foot monster. Spray lets you paint a wider area, faster.

There are so many avenues in art and I just like to experiment. If I want to try sculpting tomorrow, I’ll try sculpting. It just takes confidence to take on and try new things. I’ve never feared a project that was above my experience level, but that is how you get your level up, you just do it and practice relentlessly.


So you talk about process, what is your process to street art? For example, you walk up to a blank wall, how do take it from idea to finish?

One of my big things is I want my piece to fit into the environment it’s in. It sounds corny, but I ‘listen’ to the wall and start engaging with it. To figure out what color it should be, I see what’s next to it, what’s around it and the kind of feeling the colors evoke.

If there's a certain shape to it, I try to break it down to the simplest form. A canvas is obviously a rectangle or a square, but with a wall, I look at what type of material the wall is – is it smooth, is it wood, is it cement, what is it? I need that visceral element. I use my hands to make sure it’s the right consistency. 

I’ll spend time looking at the wall and think of what kind of image I see in that shape, like an owl, or an octopus, or whatever, and then I look up a source image that fits and then I’ll sketch it out. I studied engineering and architecture for a while, and that helps me develop my blueprints.

Most of all, I appreciate the moment and then produce the best thing I can possibly produce.


Could you elaborate on the vandalism side of street art? What do you think is the difference between painting illegally versus a legal wall?

Well, the only difference is permission. And quality. You either have 10 minutes or 10 days. When you’re spraying illegally you can't do the same quality piece, because you don’t have time. For the illegal side of street art, people learn to make amazing things quickly but there's a beauty to when you give someone a budget and time and props and community respect.

With permission, it also changes the messaging, like the difference between street art and graffiti. The minute you're not doing lettering or your name, it's street art, even if you're a graff writer. There’s overlaps, like production pieces, but a lot of it is lettering versus images or murals. I do graffiti technically sometimes, but I don't self-identify as a graffiti writer. I know graff dudes, and I love those guys, but their trajectory is different than mine.


Can you tell me about your non-profit, Off the Wall Graffiti? 

I met a woman named Mora McCarthy in San Diego while I was working an event. I wanted to be an artist that isn't like ‘hey look at all my shit all the time,’ so I wanted to involve younger artists. I met Mora and she told me about ‘Off the Wall Graffiti’ which was this idea she had and this program she wanted to put together, and I was like this needs to be real.

She had done a few small things like she'd go to skate parks and bring stencils and let kids paint their stuff. But in terms of branding and marketing and development, there was nothing. And so I was like, I have time and money and you have this seed. Let's really grow it.

We got in a van with my friend from Ireland and we did 75 days in 28 cities, going to different organizations figuring out connections and doing a lot of discussing on the road. We basically had our whole brainstorming conference in this van. And at the end of it we had a real thing. We got a 501c3 certification and we started setting up events. Doing stuff in LA and Miami and building curriculums. One of our biggest projects is running a safe house where kids can paint any time. 


What were some of the students like?

It's crazy how different they are. They're inspiring. A lot of them are victims of circumstance. We've got kids that come over at 3 in the morning, we’d ask like why, and they’d tell us something like ‘I didn't want to stay at my moms and sleep on the floor in the kitchen.’ That's your situation? Here's a couch. Paint, get your shit out, charge your phone, crash, and go home in the morning. Let your parents know you're okay.

Our students ranged from 14 – 24, but the ones that would come around more often were often about to try to get away from their family. They had hard circumstances where the choices they had were either ending up jail or find a successful path Like, how do you finish high school when your home life is sleeping on the kitchen floor? That's not the conditions for success. So we offer them a spot.

Our goal is to have it be, where people everywhere run these safe houses for kids. If your kid gets in trouble for graffiti, set up a wall. They'll go every day, and they won't go other places. Connect with them. Find out why they're painting. Why is that the outlet that they're drawn to? At the end of the day, it’s better for everyone for the kids to have a place to express themselves.


How do you mentor kids to make a career with their art? 

Our big thing is to continue education. If you didn't finish high school, you have to either finish or get your GED. That’s crucial. You need an education. From there, it’s about figuring out their avenue and showing them what the next five years might look like for them.

We had a kid who filmed his friend every time they did graff. It's like ‘dude, you're a filmmaker.’ We took him to the New York Film Academy and said "take him for a semester and tell us what you think." At the end of the semester, they were like "this kid’s great."

We helped give him a purpose. A lot of kids who get into trouble, it’s because they want to do something but no one gives them an outlet.

Transient Ambition Nassar



He is on Instagram @NASSARTING