Interview by T.K. Mills - Images Provided by Sinclair the Vandal and ThirdRailArt
An oft debated question in the art world is – what’s the difference between art and vandalism? Some dismiss graffiti, yet embrace street art. While others are able to capture the raw energy of vandalism, with the refined touch of traditional art. One such artist is Sinclair the Vandal.
In our interview, we discussed the journey of his life, how growing up in the rough-and-tumble of New York City influenced his sense of aesthetics, how being a provider for his family shaped his career trajectory, the importance of networking, and the necessity of staying creative, no matter what.
T.K. Mills: What first sparked your interest in street art and graffiti?
Sinclair the Vandal: I grew up in New York in the 80’s -- this is the late 70’s, early 80’s to early 90’s, that era where the city was the epicenter of hip-hop and graffiti. I was very involved in all of it. You couldn’t escape it growing up in New York. If you weren’t into graffiti, you were into DJ-ing and if you weren’t into DJ-ing, you might be a rapper. If you’re not a rapper, you were a break dancer.
Growing up in those days, the exposure to graffiti and street art in New York was very influential. When hip-hop exploded, all my friends and anybody that I was around wanted to become graffiti writers, like most kids those days. As a kid traveling around in New York City, getting on trains to the Bronx, going to Brooklyn finding who’s hot and who’s not, taking pictures if you could. Going anywhere and everywhere there was graffiti.
That exposure led to me wanting to be a graffiti artist. You know, you come up with names, you do your tags, you do your throw-ups, you do your bubble letters, you try to learn how to do it. I ran with a crew called The Destiny Children, who started off in Long Island and then, graduated into doing trains, predominantly the Five line in the Bronx. We would go really big, whole cars top to bottom, everything.
That was graffiti and then searching for graffiti, I discovered street art at the same time. Going into Lower East Side in the 80’s, I saw Keith Haring. I’ve seen him in action, drawing on the street. I witnessed him on several occasions getting off the train and scribbling his little characters all over the subway.
Naturally, with all this, I wanted to dibble and dabble in the art scene.
T.K. Mills: Did you think a career in graffiti was possible?
Sinclair the Vandal: Well, as I graduated high school, my family broke my chops. Saying, you just can’t go around scribbling for the rest of your life. The pressure was on to do something, go to college, go to the military, you know, do something.
I had to make a decision on where it was I wanted to go in my life. And, at that point, I had quite a few friends who worked in the music industry at the time. A friend of mine’s family was pretty influential in the music scene in New York City. I had to have this conversation with myself -- do I could continue on the graffiti path or I can start looking at other avenues of creativity where I could make living and have a career.
So at that time, I transitioned out of graff and art. I went into music after that. And I worked in the music business for quite a while. I maintained a mental model of: what would I create artistically on a piece of paper or with spray paint? I looked at making music the same way.
In the industry, I did multiple things. I went to a college for music production and engineering. At various schools, I also studied the business aspect of music and, the legal aspect of the music business. I’ve done A&R, I’ve produced, I’ve engineered, I’ve recorded, I performed. The whole gamut of things.
I transformed myself in the music business and I did that for quite a while. Ultimately, I made a decision to move my family to Florida, probably around the year 2000. I gave up on the music industry at the time because people were stealing music left and right, and the record labels were giving up on new artists because they were losing money.
T.K. Mills: How did moving to Florida effect your career trajectory?
Sinclair the Vandal: My wife and I decided to move our kids out of New York and we came down to Florida. I went into a corporate environment. You know, I worked for a Fortune 500 company down here and I got into the corporate management world. You know, 9-to-5, making good money, health insurance benefits, all these good things. It was good for the family, I provided for them, but it didn’t nourish my soul.
There is definitely a huge difference between living in New York with all the culture, the art, the music and then, you come to Florida – it’s not like that. It took me a long time to adjust to living here.
I worked in the corporate world for a long time. I was an office manager. I sat there and did spreadsheets and budget reports and stuff like that and after about 14 years of that, I got called into the office one day and, they were like, we’re laying you off, so you know have a nice life, here’s your severance package and too-da-loo.
I was bummed out for a long time and my wife noticed how bummed out I was. She turned around and she said, listen, you got to get your mind somewhere that will bring you a little peace, make you a little happier. She said, why don’t you paint? You always like painting. So, I went and bought some canvas, I bought some spray paint, I bought some acrylic paint, and then I started doing goofy little things.
A local art curator in my area found out that I was painting. She had been educated in New York City and lived in New York City for a long time. So, when she approached me and was like, “I like to see what you’re doing.” I was apprehensive at the time because I wasn’t really doing this for anybody to see it, it was just personal therapy.
Living in Florida it’s a little conservative, so it’s not like I could do graffiti and have it be well-received. So, I dibbled and dabbled in a lot of abstract work. I used a lot of color schemes and color coordinated pieces, thinking like if I was going to do a graffiti piece, what colors would I use for that. I started doing a lot of gallery events locally in my area and, then I started doing shows… Long story short, it just it snowballed into being invited to going with an art director for the Ringling Museum in Sarasota over to Art Basel as a VIP guest.
T.K. Mills: How did that help fuel your creative career?
Sinclair the Vandal: My exposure in the Miami art scene led me back into a bigger, broader audience. The director at SCOPE heard about me and then all of a sudden, you know, I’m getting offers, “Hey, do you want to put something at SCOPE? Do you want to do this? Do you want to do SCOPE New York? Do you want to do SCOPE Miami?” And, the opportunities just came in.
What I currently do now style-wise was a fluke. I was doing a lot of abstract work. And I did a piece and I just couldn’t stand it and I went into my garage and I got a spray can and I did an old throw-up over the abstract piece.
And, one of my neighbors came outside and was like, “That looks pretty cool. What is that?” She had no idea what a throw-up was. I said, “That’s an old graffiti name in the 80’s and 90’s. I used to write all over the place.” And she was like, “I like that. That looks pretty awesome. You should do more of that,” because she would always see me painting.
So, I started doing it and the galleries started to become a little more receptive to it. At that time, street art and graffiti were having this modern resurgence.
T.K. Mills: Where does the name, Sinclair the Vandal, come from and how did that identity develop?
Sinclair the Vandal: So, when I was doing the abstract work, I was using my real name and, when I started morphing into street art, my real name didn’t sound like it fit what I was seeing on the canvas.
I hit up a very good friend of mine, who’s a large marketing executive out on the West Coast, like, “Listen, man, you know, I’m in a bind.” He deals with a lot of sports, a lot of professional athletes. He started buying pieces off of me and giving it to his clients as gifts. He said, “I’m going to look at your artwork from a marketing perspective. Nobody wants to hear this kind of artwork coming from, John Smith or whatever. Let’s look at it as a brand.”
He got into my head and I started thinking about names that higher end clients would like. Nothing offensive, not too street, you know, because some art buyers are a little spooked out about things like that.
My grandmother was Hungarian royalty from Europe. She came to the United States during World War 2 when Hitler invaded, and being part of the royal family, she needed to get out. I have an uncle who was a fashion designer for Anne Klein, who had a genealogist do my family tree. Our family tree was related to a family in Europe that was called the St. Clair family, which ultimately throughout the years changed to the Sinclair family.
I was reading the genealogy book that my uncle had created for our family’s history and I saw the name and I was like, Sinclair, Sinclair. The name Sinclair was popping in my head. My friend the marketing manager said, “Well, we need to call you Sinclair something.” He came up with Sinclair the Creator, which I absolutely could not stand. I said, “What I did was pretty much vandalize everything I could in New York City” and at the same time we had this light bulb moment: Sinclair the Vandal.
T.K. Mills: Can you talk to me about some of the images and symbols in your repertoire of styles, such as the panda?
Sinclair the Vandal: The panda thing came about organically. I’m very open to spiritualism. I’ve had a lot of people ask me what my spirit animal. I started to think of imagery of things that meant something. I wanted it to have meaning to me. I liked pandas. They’re peaceful.
As to my style - pre-COVID, my style was based off of watching gentrification happen in many different parts of the United States and seeing how graffiti and street art were affected. I always found beauty in vandalism. I always found beauty in the inside of the trains in the 80’s and just seeing so many names written over names and written over names and tags over tags.
So, what I started trying to do was really express what I was seeing on the streets. So, a lot of my pieces are literally a mishmash of everything I’m exposed to. I’m trying to incorporate all of that onto a piece of canvas because everywhere we look, everything is being gentrified. So, where maybe 72 different street artists could have put something on a wall now, it’s owned by a corporation and the mural is one artist and that’s what you’re exposed to.
People my age group grew up in the days of vandalizing everything in New York City and I’m like, you know, I know a lot of people that are successful people that they miss that. You know, they want nice things, but they also miss that aesthetic.
I have a lot of Southampton clients and they wanted that throwback to the 80’s, where they remember tags all over the place. So, I wanted to give my clients and my collectors a piece of authenticity that they could put up on a wall. It was like bringing the street aesthetic into their homes, their businesses, their summer homes, their lofts, you know.
T.K. Mills: How did the pandemic go for you?
Sinclair the Vandal: Listen, I’m a networker by trade. When I worked in the music business, it was all about networking with people. It was the perfect opportunity for me to network with the world because everybody was in the same position I was in. They were stuck at home, looking for an outlet different than just sitting behind a computer and talking to one another or playing video games or watching movies or Netflix.
So, I used it as a networking opportunity and during COVID I actually sold a decent amount of artwork. I made a lot of great connections that are going to come to fruition now, because everything is opening back up. We can start traveling again, so all those people that I met last year, we’ve negotiated offers, whether it’s working on commercial properties or hotels.
T.K. Mills: Do you have an ethos or philosophy to your artistic process?
Sinclair the Vandal: I mean, yes and no. I mean, I can definitely do a piece that has no messaging or meaning, it’s just a fun piece. However, I try to put messages in my art. If you look at some of my work, a lot of stuff is hidden, it’s camouflaged, it’s layered over and you have to really look at my artwork to see like the little intricate details.
If I want anybody to take anything away from my artwork, it’s that I try to be as authentic as possible. I know we can all be influenced by other artists, but I try to always put my twist to it, where I try to make it my own. You’re going to get the 80’s, the 90’s, even my corporate business time -- I try to utilize that time of my life. I incorporate all my life experiences into my art. And sometimes it might be silly, sometimes it might be serious, but I try to put it all out on the canvas.
T.K. Mills: Is there anything else you want people to know about you or your art in particular?
Sinclair the Vandal: I think of my art like the music business. So, how the 70’s has a sound, how the 80’s has a sound, how the 90’s had a sound, every decade has a sound. I want everybody to look at my artwork and go, okay, I can see the 80’s, I can see the 90’s, I can see the 2000’s. I want my art to be timeless, yet represent the different decades of my life.
I want viewers to be able to see how I view the art world, the art scenes, and the things that I was exposed to throughout my life through my lens, you know, and my point of view.