Interview by T.K. Mills - Images Provided by ThirdRailArt and Sule
I once watched Sule climb a 15-foot scaffolding, with ninja-like nimble determination. With poise, he pulled himself up, spray cans in hand, outlining his trademark character, a warrior-deity. The figure, who took form at the height of last year’s protests, is a blend of the artist’s inspirations, from comic books to anime, and a rounded world view of what it means to be.
When I sat down with Sule at the SoHo Renaissance Factory’s headquarters in the NoMo Soho, we discussed rediscovering your passion, being unashamed of who you are, and finding in peace in creating.
T.K.: So, Sule, when did you start exploring your artistic side?
Sule: It’s been all my life. I’ve been drawing since I was a kid. Sculpting, painting. I was a young child when I started, and I’ve kept it up since then. Taking breaks here and there as life goes.
T.K.: What media did you consume as a kid that influenced you?
Sule: I grew up with a lot of international folklore and cartoons, comic books, video games, but not all American.
T.K.: So, where did the international aspect come from?
Sule: From my parents. You know, my mom read me like folklore and like fantasy stories from all around the world.
So, one story I grew up with was Momotarō. It’s called Peach Boy, and it’s an old Japanese story about family. This old farmer family finds this giant peach and then there’s this kid inside of it. And they raised the kid, right, and then their island is being attacked by like oni or demons from an island close by. They kept on harassing the village, so he decided to go get it back, but then he goes on a quest to fight the oni on the other island. I’m paraphrasing. He had a little shiba inu sidekick. So, yeah, I just grew up with a lot of like different stories around the world.
T.K.: Did your parents just happen to have like an interest in like the international world?
Sule: I guess they have more of a worldly view, as second-generation immigrants. Both my parents were born in the United States and then their parents were born in St. Thomas, the U.S. Virgin Islands.
T.K.: So, as an artist, how do you feel that kind of international element has shaped your own aesthetic view?
Sule: Well, yeah, specifically Manga and comic books. America as well with Marvel, DC, Dark Horse. And there’s also Shonen Jump, all those classics. When I got to school, I loved the library over there. It’s gone now, but I would go there and read comic books.
T.K.: So, you grew up in the city?
Sule: Yeah. I’m from New York, New York baby. I grew up in Harlem, Washington Heights, and Jersey City as well.
T.K.: When did you start making street art?
Sule: I was bombing when I was younger, so I guess around the age of twelve, I’d say. I’d sneak out in the middle of the night with some friends. Just go paint. It was a lot harder to get spray paint. You’d have markers and shoe polish sort of stuff. Yeah. That was when I was first introduced to stores like Scrapyard.
T.K.: Can you tell me a little bit about how street art has evolved for you as a medium?
Sule: Well, I mean I got caught a few too many times and had to stop. I stopped bombing for a long time. I mean, light vandalism maybe here and there. But yeah, I wasn’t really out until last year when there was that neutral, gray area – legally speaking - for all that space in SoHo with all the boards.
I had a bunch of different opportunities at the time. I worked with illustrations and graphics for friends. Small jobs like that, but I’ve been mainly working as a yoga instructor for the past 7 years and then just light stuff here and there. It was like ebb and flow— I call it the millennial hustle. I had three jobs.
T.K.: Could you tell me a little about the origin of your samurai character?
Sule: Well, a friend of mine had hit me up to come paint and I wasn’t sure exactly what to paint. It had been so long. Well, I’ve never done a piece like that bit. So, the first time I painted was for the plywood boards.
I was up all night actually thinking ahead. Pulling an all-nighter just coming up with this character. I drew a bunch of different versions of them. And the first one was just the face and then I brought the whole body. From there, it’s just evolved. I’ve just been experimenting and playing with it. I call it playing it outside, you know.
And when I first put it up, it was smack in the middle of all the protests after the murder of George Floyd. I want people to pass by and see themselves in that warrior in protest. Originally, when I was sketching it out, it was a sign. It was this worm holding out like a protest like a picket sign and it said something like “How many is enough?” Eventually, I ended up switching it to a spear. And instead on the spear for like the sheath, I put accountability instead.
And since then, it, I would say, evolved more into a warrior deity-like figure, sort of like a comic book character or a cartoon, you know, but that same idea of people being able to see the power in themselves. Especially with everything that’s been going on, feeling empowered to be able to push through whatever obstacles. Fucking evictions and homelessness, to police brutality to the gambit of fucked up things.
I was able to see myself in that character. Especially with everything that was going on, I just stopped teaching pretty much. Well, I was teaching on Zoom, but the studio is closed.
T.K.: Could you tell me a little about how you guys all came together to form the SRF?
Sule: For sure. So, we had pretty much all seen each other’s work in some way, shape, or form prior to July fourth. And on that day, we just happened to be painting on the same street. So, I remember walking around and just looking—seeing like where to paint, hitting up some friends, seeing like where they were at. I made my way over to Mercer between Grand and Howard Street. And the deal with that was the Nike store over there had security. So, they had been making sure people weren’t stealing the boards. Pretty much like it was one of us and then a few of us were there. And then at one point, it was all of us were there. It was like “Oh, like that’s your work? Oh, shit. Like you’re the person who does that.”
That was when we met and then after that— I remember there was some lady that came that day and she was like “Well, I wanna like figure out how we can like do something with all this. I have connections with like the Brooklyn Borough president.” Something like that. But also, she was like “Just donate all this work. It was like “We already donated it. What do you mean? Like it’s street art.” We already donated our time.
That was kind of when we started to —
T.K.: Started to see yourself as more of a collective entity?
Sule: After we finished painting and still looking around, there are still all these boards. So, I was like “All right. Around the corner, there’s these blank boards. Let’s do that next.” So, that became what we did and then it was like “Are you gonna be here tomorrow?” And then tomorrow became the day after that. And then it coincided with picking up and trying to preserve the boards as they got stolen, which was also the point of why we were on that same street because we knew that those boards will be safe.
You know what I mean? ‘Cause, at that point, work had already been stolen.
T.K.: How does it feel to be painting in a collaborative environment versus just doing your own thing?
Sule: It was super inspiring, you know, us meeting together and working together for about a year. It will be a year since that day and we’ve done like so much together since then. We still wanna work together. It’s really real, you know.
T.K.: How do you incorporate yoga and athletics into your art?
Sule: I’ve always been very active. I find peace in it. It’s what the human body is capable of. Even from reading like too many comic books, you know. I’m gonna go Super Saiyan, man.
T.K.: So, it was last year that you got back into doing art, right?
Sule: Yeah. It’s not like I did a hard stop. But in terms of really sharing my work, putting it out there, that was like a mixture of 2020 and the ‘rona in a sense, you know. With the yoga studio closing, one, just having more time to paint. Feeling safe to paint.As we all know, some people are treated very differently by the criminal justice system. So, being able to pop out and share my work and have all this love come from a whole career has been serendipitous, like us all being able to meet and then work together.
T.K.: That’s legit, man. I feel like it’s history in the making.
Sule: Thank you. You know, I agree honestly.
T.K.: Going back to your character, what are some of the phrases you put with it? I love that you kind of combine text with visual.
Sule: So, a huge part of that was the times when I first put out the character. It was like “All right. I’m going outside. Apparently, we’re all supposed to be wearing mask and shit.” You know what I mean? So, for me, like putting the mask on like the original character that I did, that was a way of really just like making a statement to the world in solidarity with George Floyd’s murder and the myriad of other murders that have gone on. And the words that I put on there are “My execution might be televised” and just a man just looking like dead in the face, just matter of fact.
T.K.: And a lot of people wanted to just turn a blind eye to it. But you made sure people have to see it.
Sule: You have to. You have no choice, you know. That was another one of the beautiful things about street art and then being able to put art up in SoHo. New York City is segregated. We all know this, you know.
But it’s people who have the luxury of being able to turn a blind eye to certain situations. So, that was a huge part of like why I wanted to put the mask in the beginning. It was just that. So then, from there, that first piece, Alfredo, which is the lyrics from the song, Scottie Beam, by Freddie Gibbs — So, yeah, if you hear the lyrics, big shout out to Freddie Gibbs and the album, Alfredo.
And then the next piece was the Samurai. It was like “All right. What do I wanna say here?” It’s just around the corner. It’s just being able to paint. It’s like “All right, I wanna draw this giant like black samurai warrior, you know what I mean, that’s like an ancient fighter. You know what I’m saying?
There are a lot of different paths to enlightenment and martial arts is one. I always want to inspire people to do great things. I think of him as a character with a mask, that’s says my color is not a crime. Like indigenous people, black people—Black people are native to everywhere I would put it. I want to put this message out. You know how it is. Whenever they show the ghetto in a comic book, who do you see, right?
I want to show an ancient character that was strong, but with a sense of determination and willpower. Beyond that, show the kids that like they’re gonna be a dope protagonist that doesn’t always have to be some figure with gold teeth and a gold chain.
T.K.: Do you ever feel tokenized or pressure from the expectations on you as a black artist, versus just being able to like create as you feel?
Sule: I’m very fortunate to say that I don’t. Of course, as an artist, there’s always that potential for pressure to create for sure. But that’s also been a beautiful part about me expressing my art. It’s just that, you know. I haven’t had someone saying you need to draw this especially with all like these public pieces just like “No. I can just go where you share a piece of myself with the world.” With myself too, it’s an experience for me every time like I go outside and I’m painting and then people watching and all that sort of stuff. It’s a huge change coming from bombing, you know. I’m able to take my time with stuff and come back to it tomorrow.
T.K.: How do you see your art evolving?
Sule: Well, I guess this runs off from what I was saying before. Like after that, I stopped putting the mask on and then just started showing this character in different forms and different styles. And so, that character is me, it’s you, you know what I mean, in terms of who he is as a spirt, as an entity.
For me, also, solidifying the notion that ‘I’m out here,’ masked off. Saying “This is me. I’m here” in a metaphorical way.
T.K.: Any closing thoughts or things you want people to know about you, or your art, or passing wisdom you like to give the world?
Sule: Stay out of your head. It can be a rough neighborhood sometimes.