Credits: interview by Christina Elia for Thirdrail Art - Images by: John Domine @walkinggirlnyc @acool55 @tarboxx2
Tarbox contorts his dynamic deconstructions to the will of his environment. His portraits of animals inhabit the walls of some of the biggest street art epicenters across the United States: New York, Los Angeles, and Denver. I caught up with him at the Akumal Arts Festival to discuss the inspiration for his energetic creatures and the themes at play in his work. After taking a pause from painting a purple hammerhead shark, Tarbox gave me a quick run-down on his background and what brought him to Mexico.
When did you start painting?
I started painting with spray paint in 2014, but I’ve been painting on and off most of my life. After getting clean off some drug issues in 2014, I picked up spray paint. I started becoming successful around 2016.
Is there a strong street art scene where you’re from?
I’m from Houston, and yes, there’s a scene. It’s not as strong as some places, but it’s better than what you’d realize at first glance. There’s quite a lot of street art in Houston. I started there, and I also painted a lot in Austin. I’m friends with SprATX, they helped me get walls and other opportunities
How did you get your first wall?
My first wall was in Houston at a place called Kingspoint, which is closed now. It was the closest thing to Austin’s Castle Hill, a place with free walls. Gonzo, a local Houston artist, is responsible for getting me my first decent-sized wall. Then I would just start hitting places up and asking if I could paint. That’s been working for me.
Has your style evolved since you first started?
Yes, when I first started, I did a lot of faces. But the gestures and emotions were a lot simpler. As I’ve expanded, I’ve tried to become more dynamic with situations and lighting. I’ve evolved, but I still mostly do animals
What’s your favorite animal to paint? What have you done more of?
I’ve probably done more bears than anything else. Bears or foxes pretty much. Right now, this is my first time painting a hammerhead shark. I just like to paint animals, since I’m very concerned about environmental issues.
Does that concern find its way into your work?
Sometimes, but when I started it was very much art for art’s sake. I resent the idea that art must mean something. I totally value what it’s possible or capable of doing, but I don’t think it has to mean anything. In the last couple of years, I’ve been trying to pepper that in. To not be too on-the-nose, to make a dividing line. I’ve spoken out in my Facebook group against certain behaviors I don’t agree with, so I started feeling I should use my platform for something I stand behind
Does that mostly focus on one issue?
It’s mostly environmentalism, but there’s also more issues I try to tackle. I lean pretty far left. I’m open about that. There isn’t a through-line, but here and there, I’ll throw a nod to a specific thing
What’s something you’ve painted before that had a “message”?
Once I painted a zombie cat holding a key, and I did a little write-up on the housing crisis and how important it is, how affordable housing should be a bigger concern. It’s just not in the public discussion as much as it should be
How did you conceive this hammerhead shark you’re painting now?
This one is simple. I was just thinking of animals that were relevant to Akumal and the Riviera Maya. I had never painted a hammerhead shark, and I felt like it worked really well with the colors and space. It fits in less with Akumal’s theme of conservation than the Kuwaiti I painted last year, which had a whole story behind it. The shark is more aesthetic, but at least paying tribute to our natural surroundings
How did you get involved with the Akumal Art’s Festival?
I funded my first trip to New York, painted two walls, and met Rena Gray, John Dominé, and Spectator. Six months later they invited me. That just how things have always gone. After I do some sort of self-funded trip, shortly thereafter I get invited somewhere else. I got invited to Akumal last year, and then I came back this year. I had to apply but it was with the implication I would be included.
Do you feel like your work fits with whatever else is being painted here?
Hm, I don’t know. I’m rushing to finish, trying to get ahead of it. I don’t like having to catch up. I’m trying to work from 9 am-6 pm every day. I buffed this wall on Tuesday and worked all day yesterday and today, so this is my third day. I think it’s good progress. There have been problems with the lift but it’s mostly fine - working in the sun, you’re just so tired at the end of the day.
Did you have a sketch in mind before you came? Or were you inspired in Akumal?
I didn’t really have anything in mind. I was maybe thinking of a shark, but I wasn’t sure. Akumal definitely inspires me with its focus on the environment and the impact we’re having. Plus, the people are friendly and appreciative here. They’re happy to have us involved, and that helps. I do use a lot of cool colors, but this color scheme is something I used once before in Seattle in August. I wanted to repeat it. I work a lot with purple, but this piece is a little different than the rest
Could you talk more about the wall you painted on Hester Street in New York in September?
I made friends with this guy named Crisp, an Australian artist I met in Colombia. He had a lot of connections in New York, so he helped me get in touch with John Dominé and East Village Walls. That branched off in different ways. Since coming to Akumal, I’ve definitely made a lot more New York connections. Almost everyone here is from New York