An Interview with Robbie Conal

by Lauren QuinnPosted on

“In Tom Patchett’s office, in the bowels of the cavernousTrack 16 Gallery @ Bergamot Station, while hanging my retrospective exhibit of 100 original pieces,”NO SPITTING—NO KIDDING”, Oct. 2008″

Robbie Conal could be called the Godfather of LA Political Street Art. He could be called a lot of things. And we’re pretty sure that’d be okay with him.

Robbie’s been postering, printing and fighting the man for 24 years, and this October will be included in the upcoming group show Marxist Glue (opening tonight, Thursday, October 28th), which will feature over a dozen LA political street artists. We caught up with him to discuss the show, Los Angeles, his current work and why he’s ultimately an optimist.

HF correspondent Lauren Quinn interviews Robbie Conal, and gets a look into Robbie’s photo archives, below.

Marxist Glue focuses on political street art in Los Angeles. As a long-standing fixture in that movement, can you speak a little about the evolution of political street art in LA, and where it’s at now?

My first street poster—MEN WITH NO LIPS— went up in LA in September 1986. A friend and I put up 200 or so of the nasty little beasts (Ronald Reagan, Caspar Weinberger, Donald Regan and James Baker III), rolling through an all-nighter in my ’84 Honda Civic Wagon, since righteously dubbed, “The Gluemobile.”

We didn’t have much company out there then. Not a lot of so-called “fellow travelers,” except for flyers for alternative bands, Colby Co., all-text signs stapled to telephone poles advertising Boxeos y Bailles, and sad little lost puppy notices.

That all pretty much changed with the 2000 Presidential election. Rap & hip hop artists—all of Klub Kulture—skaters, surfers and graffiti krewes, street digi-doc krewes like the great LAFCO, whose politics were mostly confined within their own sub-culture—though their mediums were inherently political, as in, “the medium is the message” (this is directly the point of Shepard Fairey’s GIANT/OBEY project, by the way)—absolutely understood STEALING A PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION!

And they didn’t like it. I know quite a few musicians—OZO! Boots Riley! Tom Morello! Dwight Trible! graf artists, Shepard Fairey, Mear One, Vyal, Axis, Man One and many others—vowed to use their skills to try to prevent it ever happening again, moving at least a significant percentage of their art and consciousness on to more directly political subjects. In 2004, Mea , Shepard and Elizabeth Ai came out to the West side and got me to participate in a national anti-Bush, anti-Iraq War guerrilla street postering campaign—in the process dragging this old man through late night klub kulture on a national scale. Whew! They were awesome. Political street art was ON!

I was OFF (the hook).

“at the fabulous Forum in Inglewood–a Pearl Jam concert. Eddie had told me that Howard Zinn was his hero. My wife, Deborah Ross, and I had the opportunity to take Howard to this show and Kelly Curtis set up this meeting just before Pearl Jam went on stage. Eddie was almost speechless for the first few minutes. It was lovely, actually.

It’s been said that Los Angeles is the perfect city for street art: tons of surfaces and a so-called captive audience of motorists. How has the city of Los Angeles affected your work, and how do you see it affecting the work of other street artists?

LA is a terrific canvas/venue for street art—with one ironic caveat: it’s big—too big— for one little person to get up enough paper to penetrate the incredible visual detritus of commercial advertising in so-called “public space”—for everything from blockbuster movies with big guns, bigger machines, scruffy macho boys who never met a razor they liked and never met a pussy they didn’t want to shave—to legal addictive drugs, like, “Captain Whomever’s Rotgut Rum with a Winking Babe in one torn clothe and a Parrot.”

On the other hand, the greatest thing about Angeleno Public Consciousness is our attention to surfaces–you know, everywhere we go (outside of LA), everyone thinks Angelenos are superficial:

“Where are you from?”


“Oh…..Hollywoooood! :

Hmmmmm…shocking! But what they don’t know is: we’re DEEPLY superficial! That’s big.

Because we see everything, and you see on us, and everything we see on you counts, baby!—(it) is a signifier—a message about how you want us to see you and how we want you to see us. We get the message. We will hunt it down like a dog.

So, starting out in 1986, putting up “MEN WITH NO LIPS,” I knew Angelenos would see the posters. And deconstruct them as signs of more than they were (which is, after all, what signs are)—assign some personal meaning to them—chew on it—make a relationship, however inchoate, in public space between the posters and each particular viewer. Then, when the next poster, like, “WOMEN WITH TEETH,” had the unfortunate Angeleno surrounded—again!—if I was lucky that person would  remember the first and go…”Uh-Oh!”

LA is a car culture. By now, street artists know to design their public non-sanctioned art to be received at intersections—between the green light, the orange light and the red light and so on and so forth. If they’re using a combination of image and text, the text must be readable from the driver’s side window of a Prius at a traffic light or stop sign, or it will not be read at all. Construction site walls are irresistible to any street artist’s inner urban designer.

LA has more temporary everything than any other metropolis in the US: we never let anything age gracefully—dreams, styles, cars, stars and/or structures. Also, there are so many areas of endemic, ignored urban blight—often, sadly, our most populous hoods—mainly due to our society’s peculiar value system. Our habit of putting a monetary value on quality—(“How good is it?” = “How much does it cost?”)— bogs down to a trickle when we leave the commodity market and enter the realm of humanity: providing health care, education and shelter for everyone here (not to mention the uncounted). So LA always has plenty of temporary, blank structures just crying out for urban beautification projects like street art!

Ozomatli plays a set at Robbie’s Track 16 Gallery “No Spitting” opening party,  0ct. 2008

Marxist Glue is a show of street artists, held in a gallery. As someone who has long been “doing the splits”—that is, having one foot in the established art world, the other in the “outsider” art world—do you see the gap between the two worlds narrowing? How do you see the transience of street art translating to a gallery space?

Yes, it’s narrowing to within an inch of its life. When big clothing companies open their own high-end art galleries, shrewdly wedging themselves snugly into the gap between the merchandising of pop culture experience, genuine local cultural expression and original works of art intended for reception in a clean, well-lighted space, transience is a non-issue. Besides, “transience” has already been successfully, creatively, brilliantly monetized as this season’s fashion line and or fad (giving it 3 months shelf-life, max). I’m not sayin’, I’m just sayin’.

You recently said that you’re trying to retire from guerilla postering. Where are you now with it?

I’m wavering. Mortgage Bankers just drove me mad. BP Petroleum ditto. “Our” wars—worse. Take any war. Take my war, please. Afghanistan… Come on, mannnn!  Does Obama have a one-liner for that? Like, “Hey kids, let’s invade Russia in the winter!”

Robbie’s installation at Marxist Glue in Los Angeles, Thursday October 28th 2010

You’ve also said that you see Obama’s presidency as representing a small “shift in the zeitgeist.” What is this shift, and how is it affecting your work? What new areas are you exploring, politically and personally (ie: “Not Your Typical Political Animal”)?

I can’t talk about that. You’ll see: I’m having a one-person show of original paintings opening on November 20th, 2010 at Country Club Projects, 805 Genesee, R.M. Schindler’s ” Buck House.”

However, yes, I feel less guilty about doing sincerely soulful drawings of pussy cats and puppy dogs, communing with nature and Gaia in particular, because Obama is not George W. Bush.

One of the stated goals of guerilla postering is empowerment, “to change apathy and cynicism to optimism.” Although much of your work is in the form of satirical caricatures, do you ultimately see yourself as an optimist? Do you see political street art and guerilla postering as an expression of optimism?

Absofuckinglootly, yes.

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