A Texas-born and San Francisco-exiled, Bill Daniel is one of those rare cases in the world of art where using the word unique is not an overstatement in any sense. This man has transformed his art into a lifestyle that demands he experiment with survivalism and bricolage in order to report on the various social margins he finds himself in.
Bill Daniel has been documenting American subcultures ever since the early 1980s when he was starting to be intrigued by the Texas skate/punk scene. He soon became seduced by the harsh realities of homeless life, a constant interest that culminated in Daniel's film called Who Is Bozo Texino?, a movie that will be featured in this year's edition of Moniker art fair. Who Is Bozo Texino? has screened in over 350 venues worldwide so far, including a presentation at the Museum of Modern Art.
A confirmed tramp, Bill Daniel tours across the American continent constantly, setting up screenings and one-night art shows. As a result, he became renowned for his uniqueness and dedication, as well as for the old-school visual vocabulary he mastered over the years and decades of working.
Now, as Daniel is preparing for his participation within the Moniker 2017 program, we've caught up with the elusive artist so fond of social margins, hoping that our chat might reveal more about what makes him tick.
Widewalls: We’ve heard a lot about your dedicated artistic manner that can almost be interpreted as a lifestyle. Can you tell us a little bit about the way you work? Was the process always the same or did it evolve significantly over the years?
Bill Daniel: I guess I am still the dirtbag photo punk I always was. Punk was my first introduction to the world of ideas and those values have pretty much stuck. I try to live close to my work, and I try to make work about what I know. I live in my darkroom/studio, in a van parked in the back, I wake up and start printing.
Currently, I'm residing in an oil refinery town on the Texas gulf coast. I'm obsessed with climate change and the petroleum industry, so for the last 4 years I've been living in and shooting this monstrous landscape. Hurricane Harvey was a perfect gift for my photography, even though it was a horrible event. I'm very lucky that my studio and archive stayed dry!
Widewalls: Do you believe your experimental manner of art making is the key aspect of what makes you so different from your colleagues? Or is there something else at play?
BD: The greatest acknowledgement I could make in my art making is the influence I got from living and working in San Francisco in the period 1987-1999. I lived in a community of experimental filmmakers in a neighborhood filled with non-commercial painters and ground-breaking performance artists, and the entire scene was very politically aware and focused.
The Mission School, which has had a well-deserved spotlight on it, was just one part of it all. I feel like I will always be one of those kids on Mission Street, huffing down a $2.50 burrito and going to a free warehouse show.
Widewalls: What is it with black and white imagery that appeals to you so much? Why do you stay clear of colors?
BD: I create in black and white for several reasons, primarily for formal reduction. The basics of composition is what I try to make my language and, for me, black and white presents just the facts and essential forces.
Another big reason is the materials themselves - black and white darkroom materials and process are simple and cheap, and archivally very stable. I want my art to exist in 300 years, if the world lasts that long.
Widewalls: How much of a role does instinct play in your art? How much of your creative process is planned ahead?
BD: I guess the deal is how instinct interacts with practice, right? I think my underlying method is looking for utility in the material at hand. In my early years, I worked in found footage filmmaking - I edited films for Craig Baldwin, an experimental filmmaker in San Francisco. Our method was essentially what can we make out of this shot?
Widewalls: Why do topics like homeless life and punk scene fascinate you? Why dedicate so much of your time and effort into these stories?
BD: I live in the reality behind the Donald Trump world of fake wealth. But also, I have years and years of work that isn't sociological as such.
Widewalls: We suppose you're excited for your limited-edition prints that will be released during Moniker 2017. What are your thoughts on the series, where do they fit in stylistically in your overall body of work?
BD: Well I am just a rabid dog for anything and everything silk screened. I've always admired screen printers and I love the process and the feel of coarse ink. From 60's psychedelic dance concert posters, to Kozak's Austin punk garage-era designs, the killer work done by the Fort Thunder and Space 1026 groups (Providence, Rhode Island and Philly, PA) in the 90s and 2000s, and I love the political poster work of the Just Seeds Collective.
Making screened posters for tours and shows has always been one of the fun parts of my work. I like to collaborate with local designers and screen printers when I'm on tour.
For the MAF poster, I was stoked to be able to translate one of my photographs into silk screen, something I've been wanting to do forever. I chose an image that has a strong simple graphic element - the iconic Colossus of Roads sketch, but also had a documentary photo feel to it - his hand in action, laying down the line.
Widewalls: This year’s Moniker Art Fair organized a film program and one of the movies will be coming out of your workshop. “Who is Bozo Texino?” came out twelve years ago: how are the times different now than they were then?
BD: In a sense, it's the same world - I believe there will always be a percentage of adventurous and creative kids who will find their way to the wrong part of the city to play and come under the spell of freight trains, as a ride or a canvas, or both. But some things have changed in the tramping universe.
The classic old timer tramps that I met when I was riding in the 80s and 90s, Vietnam vets mostly, are gone. But interestingly, there's a generation of older punks and radicalized homeless folks who are becoming our elders now.
The other big change is the creeping police and surveillance state we live in now. Things on the rails changed instantly after 9/11. The days of a friendly worker giving you a break are pretty much in the past.
Widewalls: What do you think about the street art and graffiti culture today? What does participating in Moniker mean to you? How would you describe its environment in contrast to your own work?
BD: Obviously, street art and graffiti culture are big business now, much more mainstream than the culture I came up in. Graffiti has had a hugely positive influence on popular culture and our cities, no doubt about it.
And I'm sincerely proud to have put a film and my voice into the mix. Really stoked to show Bozo Texino here - I've never shown in London!
But I do want to ask, where are the next over-turners? They'll be working in an area we won't expect.
Widewalls: Finally, could you reveal some of your future plans and projects? What can we expect from you both in near future and further down the line?
BD: I'm about to release a photobook of 25 years of my 35mm documentary photography, called Tri-X-Noise. It's a body of work done in the same style as my early 80s punk photography, but the photos chronicle all kinds of scenes and artists in big cities and little towns...
House shows, desert camps, Swoon boats - the famous and not famous all captured for history (I hope!).
Editors’ Tip: Mostly True: The West's Most Popular Hobo Graffiti Magazine
It's possible Bill Daniel is the most inspiring filmmaker of our day. With an impressive filmography that includes work on Craig Baldwin's Sonic Outlaws and as Vanessa Renwick's long-time collaborator, Daniel has crafted a remarkable book to go with his twenty-years-in-the-making Who Is Bozo Texino?—a documentary about modern day hobos, rail workers and a forgotten outsider subculture. It's full of obscure railroad nostalgia—the result of a 25 year obsession with hobo and railworker folklore. Freight riding stories, interviews with hobos and boxcar artists, historical oddities and tons of photos of modern day boxcar tags are all presented in the guise of a vintage rail fanzine.
Featured image: Bill Daniel, Image courtesy of Bill Daniel. All images courtesy of Bill Daniel.