Interview by T.K. Mills Images by @acool55
I met with Phetus88, known for his distinct monstrous-face collages, next to The Great Wall of Savas as he was painting his iconic style. Phetus (A backronym meaning ‘Please Help Educate These Unoriginal Suckas’) is an animated shit-talker, who isn’t afraid to speak his mind. Starting in 1988, Phetus has over 30 years under his belt, with the talent and experience to back up his opinions. We discussed his origins, the meaning of originality, and the commercialization of art.
T.K. Mills: How long you been painting? How'd you get started?
Phetus: I've been painting and doing graffiti since 1988. I got started because I was always in detention.
T.K. Mills: Did you grow up here in New York?
Phetus: I grew up in Long Island, South Huntington to be exact.
T.K. Mills: How did your style develop?
Phetus: I don't even know. I wish I could tell you how that started. When graffiti artists would do their names and stuff, I would do the characters because everybody did names. I didn't really have a name specifically per se, so I did a character. So now my street art aesthetic is characters. The concept that I came up with for the characters is monstrous. The phrase that I coined is ‘monstrous expressionism.'
I'm not really familiar with other artistic terms like abstractism or whatever those fancy fucking words are that would describe somebody's artwork. So mine was monstrous expressionism. The acronym was obviously ME. So the hashtag in social media was It's ‘All about ME’, and ME was monstrous expressionism.
Expressionism is when people come by and they walk in front of my piece, sometimes they jump in the air or they smile, they do a crazy pose, because they see themselves in one of the faces. So at this particular piece that we're doing here, there's 40 different expressions. Out of all of those different faces, one of them would have to reflect yourself. Everybody can relate to the face and to the expression. So at some point in time, when you're walking past it, you got to feel like one of those faces.
T.K. Mills: How did you come up with the name Phetus?
Phetus: I came up with a logo, right? So that's like a face, right? I've been doing this since 1988. And back in the day, the slang was phat with a PH. And I made this face and people were like, "Yo, that's a phat face." Or when I would put it up in the streets, people would say, "Yo, the phat face, the phat face." So I kind of took along the tag to go along with that, and I started writing phat, P-H-A-T. But then like '92, '93, '94 comes along and like phat farm and the Coca Cola phat grip, and get your phat cable optimum connection… like phat became way commercial and there was really nothing for me to do.
I started going through the dictionary for words with a PH, and I came up with phone. And I'm like, "Oh, that's pretty cool," but then I was like, "Yeah, that's not it." And I went into the dictionary to the F part and like the first few words down it says fetus. It was just so obnoxious. And I was like, ooh. And just because people had said that's a phat face in the word fat with the F switch to a PH, and I said, oh, fetus with a F switch to a PH. And at the time I was looking to rebrand, rebirth, so to speak.
At the time, mind you, this is the 90s and it's like, ooh, fetus, that's disgusting, a fetus, abortion, that's all you would think. It was like, yeah, fuck that! I'm running with that and that was it. And it became Phetus with a P-H-E-T-U-S.
T.K. Mills: How have you evolved as an artist over time?
Phetus: I think over time it developed. Coming from doing graffiti for 30 fucking years, later now, it's street art. I never did letters. Not that I can't do, but I never did a name or letters. So I'm not prolific in that way. I'm the character guy. So how can we do characters in an artistic "street art" way? And this is what you get.
T.K. Mills: On that note, what do you think is the difference between graffiti and street art?
Phetus: So street art, I'm able to sit here all day and do fuck shit, whereas graffiti you get a couple of minutes to do fuck shit.
T.K. Mills: Permission goes a long way.
Phetus: Right. I could sit here all day and be bad, versus I got a hot few minutes to get this off and be bad.
T.K. Mills: Do you still do illegal pieces, or do you mostly stick to permissions and projects where you have time to work?
Phetus: No comment.
T.K. Mills: Where do you usually get up? I've seen a couple of your pieces around Bushwick, Brooklyn.
Phetus: Because Bushwick is like a fucking free zone. That's kind of where it started, you know. I got over there in the early wave. And just from being over there, I was anchored. So I was like, yeah, we could just go there anytime.
But, you know, after a while, it's like, all right, I painted there every fucking weekend for two summers. People just painting and hanging out, shit talking. So now all of a sudden, you're painting on the same fucking street, and every hour is a fucking tour guide. So it's like, yeah, we're done over here. That's that.
T.K. Mills: So that brings up the next question. What do you feel about the commercialization of graffiti and street art? As someone who's been doing it for a long time, what do you think about kind of that development?
Phetus: I've done this shit from day one, whether it be an airbrush t-shirt or logos or whatever the fuck it is to make a dollar anyway, right? Not like I do this to make a buck, but you always did it to make money. That was the hope, and now it's at a point where it's a thing. It's like, well, why fight it? You better get on that fucking gravy train. And then if you can't, you're fucking irrelevant. You're washed up. And it's like, "Rrrr.” You become that dude.
I'm already a bitter dude. I'll always be a bitter dude, but I'm all for the movement to make some money. What happened was the change of guard in the advertising world. So 20 years later, it's people who grew up on hip-hop and graffiti. So now it's like, yo, if we do this sneaker this way, or this is the way this campaign should be, and then I know this guy and it just so happens to be authentic, it's like, well, why the fuck not? 2020, man, balls to the wall. Get your fucking shit. You get it in where you fit in. How's that for a quote?
T.K. Mills: What do you think of the use of ‘pop’ imagery in street art?
Phetus: It's a fucking cheat code, because people already recognize it. I'm from the old school where you didn't bite, you didn’t copy. You came up with your own shit… They just want the dollar, the bottom line. So with that being said, you're talking to the wrong guy.
T.K. Mills: What does originality mean to you?
Phetus: I know everything's been done before. Like I say, all right, so we've seen the soup kitchen, right? The Andy Warhol soup can. That was cool. And then all of a sudden, it's how many years later, there’s the Brainwash Stormtrooper soup can. Like whatever that is, it's like, all right, you took a Stormtrooper, which is a fucking gazillion dollar entity and a fucking soup can and you made the both of them. So it's like a win-win-win. It's like fucking super cheat code. What the fuck did you really do? So that's the whole thing. That's my whole thing. If there's already a soup can, why the fuck would you do a soup can?
That's my fucking gripe. When I come in, I paint, we get a bottle of fucking devil juice. We smoke the god's fucking green, and we paint somewhere in between purgatory. That's what the fuck goes on. It's all off the top of the head.
T.K. Mills: Can you tell me a little bit about your other projects, such as Pixel Parade?
Phetus: We got the Pixel Parade app, which lets you use digital stickers and emojis. It's on iTunes and Google Play. It's an independent app. And any artist or anybody that's interested, is more than welcome to DM Pixel Parade app. It's a digital sticker and emoji app that you can add your brand to, photos or text, and all that fun social media stuff.
T.K. Mills: Any other projects you have cooking up?
Phetus: I mean, whatever comes across the fucking desk every other day. It's clothes. It's apps. It's walls. It's logos. It's every fucking thing relating to pop culture, music, entertainment, fashion, life, been here, don't stop. We eat all day. We're sharpening our spears and we go out and hunt for food every fucking day since 1988. And we're getting ready to move into 2020. 2020, vision is clear.
It's just -- this is all the fuck I know. Otherwise, it's get a regular job and fold and come to the shit show of society. And I rather paint walls and be a paint pirate and do fuck shit like I was 15 years old. How's that for an ending quote?
He is on Instagram @PHETUS88