Brightly colored gooey creatures looking like they just came out of a weird cartoon. You can see them on walls as murals, stickers, silkscreened posters, but also as toys, on sneakers like All Stars, within galleries and artistic spaces. They’re everywhere, and they’re the product of Buff Monster, one of the most famous and most renowned street art creatives out there. His artistic career began in Hawaii, had a long, nice stay in Los Angeles, and it is now flourishing once again in New York City, where the artist found inspiration and a brand new working atmosphere. Drawing from the aesthetics of black metal music, if you can believe it, as well as his love of ice cream and the Japanese culture, Buff Monster made his curious name over the years by being quite busy all the time. In fact, he tried his luck out in almost every creative field we can imagine: he works on murals, paintings, trading cards, books, designer toys and projects and even TV shows. His works are appreciated, painted and exhibited around the world, and it was our utmost pleasure to talk to this legendary individual about his own and the beginnings of street art in general, the story behind his Melty Misfits, and the exciting new projects that the future will bring. Scroll down!
Widewalls: You seem to have caught that right moment of the rise of street art as a proper contemporary art movement. What did that look like from your perspective? In what ways did it impact your own art?
Buff Monster: You’re right, it’s a really interesting time to be working as a street artist, or an artist with a street art/graffiti past. I got started doing stuff in the streets 20 years ago, which is way later than the second wave of street art/graffiti artists got started, and before they started to get accepted. I’m talking about guys like KAWS, Shepard Fairey, Todd James, Banksy, Barry McGee and several others. They’ve all been such a huge inspiration and have really worked to get this type of work accepted by galleries and institutions.
Widewalls: Toys, posters, stickers, prints, books, sneakers, shirts, accessories, little sculptures, even candles featuring your beloved buff monster characters. Could you tell us about the process behind applying your art to all these different materials and surfaces? How did they help you grow as an artist?
BM: As an artist, I think it’s your responsibility to shepard your work into the world. Art doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Art has to be been in order to exist. Street art is great because its out there in public for many people to see. I look at the product stuff in the same way. And, by the way, I look at social media the same way. They are all ways to get work out there that is free for the viewer, or very affordable for the collector.
Widewalls: When it comes to storytelling, featuring the Melty Misfits for instance, do you have a particular source of inspiration? Or do you just spontaneously draw from life?
BM: Actually, I would say that most of the work doesn’t contain a narrative. So many of the pieces are more about form, color, movement and other formal characteristics. The narrative pieces that I do work on draw from the Renaissance. I just love the Renaissance. Such an amazing time, filled with such amazing artwork. I think it’s interesting to re-invision scenes from the timeless stories and allegories painted during that time.
Widewalls: Playful and vibrant, your art also shows the dark side of the characters, and life. Why is it important to incorporate dark humor as well? What should it tell us?
BM: Yes, the bright colors and cute characters draw in the viewer but there usually is a much darker thing happening. This also goes back to the Renaissance; the vanitas paintings of the 16th and 17th centuries to be exact. Those paintings were about the futility of life and the certainty of death. I think ice cream is a modern vanitas metaphor; it represents life and the passing of time.
Widewalls: Apart from the Renaissance, are there other moments in art history that you’re interested in referencing? What kind of challenge does this kind of creative “mix” impose?
BM: Certainly I’m inspired by much more modern phenomenon like graffiti, Garbage Pail Kids, Japanese cute culture and heavy metal music. And of course, a wide variety of contemporary artists.
Widewalls: Because your work comes from and belongs to popular culture, you’ve collaborated with numerous brands and even TV shows: Disney, Minions, even South Park, if I’m correct. How do these projects come to be? How do your visions fit in these well-established concepts?
BM: Each project comes about differently, but usually it’s a curator or gallery that is putting together a show around a certain theme, or it’s someone at the company that reaches out. I’m very flattered that I’ve been asked to reinterpret so many iconic characters/brands.
Widewalls: Can you point out your most favorite project so far? Or at least one that stayed impressed in your memory more than others.
BM: They’re all great in their own way. The Minions project from earlier this year was really great. I was asked to reinterpret the characters for a whole clothing collection (board shorts, bikinis, shirts, jackets, etc.). But since you mentioned Disney, I can talk about that some more. I read a biography about Walt Disney this year (“The Animated Man”) and it gave me a whole new level of appreciation for working with the Disney company. I highly recommend the book. I had no idea how much Walt struggled... almost his whole career. I first worked with Disney a couple years ago when I created a bumper (a 15-second intersticial animation) for them. I talked about the story, created a story-board, painted all the imagery by hand, chose the music, and then worked with the animators to get it all just right. They were really great to work with! Earlier this year, they called me and asked if I’d like to design a print for them. I created a really nice design, they got it printed by a highly respected silkscreen printer in LA, I signed and numbered them, and then they gave them all away. That was
Widewalls: What has the move to NYC brought for you? How would you compare it’s street art scene to the one of LA?
BM: The street art scene is totally different, and I’ve painted way more walls here in NYC than I ever did in LA, but that’s not what caused me to move here. I felt like I had hit a dead end in LA and I needed a change. I didn’t know what life in NYC would be like, but it’s been way better than I ever could have imagined. The people, the opportunities, the weather; it’s all so great! Now to be fair, I love visiting LA (it’s so much better than living there).
Widewalls: Are you in touch with the graffiti artists in Hawaii and their work? If so, could you tell us a little bit about the state of art there?
BM: I started my graffiti career in Hawaii in 1995, but my graffiti career ended after a few years. I wouldn’t consider anything I’ve done since 1999 to be graffiti. But to answer your question, I’m happy to see that KATCH is still going strong in Hawaii. I only met him once for two minutes when I was a kid, but I’ve reconnected with him and I love seeing all the work he’s doing.
Widewalls: Is there anything you haven’t done yet, but you would like to, artistically speaking? A collaboration with another artist, perhaps, or experiments with some more mediums?
BM: I feel like I’m just getting started. I guess that’s a pretty cheesy or typical thing to say, but I have a lot of ideas. I’ve been working on my first sculpture for the last year (which will be released in early 2017). I’ve been working on a some experiments with new materials but I also have so many ideas for new paintings. I’m publishing an essay soon... I just work all the time.
Widewalls: What’s the plan for Buff Monster art in 2017? Where will we be able to see your work?
BM: It actually looks like the first half of the year is going to be busy. So far, it looks like I’ll be showing my work in Taiwan, NYC, Florida, Utah, London, Germany. For everything else, I’m in the planning stages. Hopefully a project I’ve wanted to do for over 5 years will finally come to life in 2017. Please sign up to the mailing list on BuffMonster.com and follow me on social media (@BuffMonster) for the latest news. Thanks!
Featured images: Buff Monster mural in Coney Island (Brooklyn, NYC), 2015; mural in Jersey City (New Jersey), 2016. All images courtesy the artist.