A talk with graffiti artist Tim Clorius
By Chris Busby
Portland graffiti artist Tim Clorius is rare among his peers in that he tends to work in broad daylight. These days, when his name makes the newspaper, it’s in the arts section, not “Police Beat.”
Clorius, a.k.a. SubOne, is actively trying to change most Portlanders’ perception of graffiti – from the reaction that it’s just mindless vandalism to the realization it can be legitimate art. Toward that end, he’s been involved with several well-publicized, graffiti-related initiatives, and has met with mixed success.
The striking anti-war mural he and other graffiti artists created on the wall behind the Center Street music club Asylum is still largely intact after over three years. By contrast, a wall-length piece he collaborated on this past summer, on Pleasant Street, was ruined soon after by a graffiti writer apparently angry his tag was painted over to create it.
The 30-year-old German-American from Heidelberg has led workshops on graffiti art for Portland children and teens and area art students. With the help of a grant from the Maine Arts Commission, the urban mural project he’s started (called S.U.B.O.N.E., for “Supplying Urban Beautification, Offering New Experience”) is turning schoolchildren on to the art of mural-making. S.U.B.O.N.E. is helping kids at Reiche Elementary School create a mural this fall, but last year, a fence the project painted for the Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Organization’s office across town was taken down after some MHNO board members complained it sent the wrong message about graffiti to the community.
A graduate of Maine College of Art, Clorius is also using his graffiti skills to make surreal oil paintings, a show of which, titled Subscript, opens Oct. 6 at Sanctuary Tattoo and Art Gallery, on Forest Avenue.
The Bollard sat down with Clorius in his Congress Street studio last month to discuss his new artwork and past projects, but also to dig deeper into the question of graffiti as art, as opposed to crime. The following interview, edited from over an hour of discussion, contains the most frank and illuminating comments Clorius has yet made on the subject in a published article.
The Bollard: How has the transition been from spray paint to oils?
Clorius: That’s something that I’m working on as an artist, to try to create flows that really relate to the painting in terms of dynamic and in terms of form, and maybe in terms of color or even content, but that are not the traditional type of graffiti…. I’m trying to create the same sort of dynamic flow of graffiti, but actually use visual elements that are purely invented and that are from my life, that are personal, that have a message in a type of way.
I’m trying to promote that idea of feeling free – especially as a graffiti artist – feeling free to let go of the letter, because I feel the letter, even though it is the core and root of graffiti, is also holding it back.
What’s the city’s reaction been to the idea of graffiti as art?
Well, I think the city generally is very, very cool towards graffiti. I mean, things in the city happen very slow, but in terms of what this city is and the way they work with us, at least, it’s great. Really, props.
I feel the next graffiti wall we need in this town should be a wall that is free-standing, so it sends the message it’s a canvas – not part of a building, not part of some other thing…. Have a canvas that’s built for graffiti, that has the appropriate size, dimensions; that’s outside; [that] has a roof so it doesn’t get wet and the paint doesn’t peel….
Just start talking about graffiti – that’s my whole thing. I just talk about graffiti like it is fine art, because I do believe it is, or some of it is. By talking about it and displaying it like it [is fine art], it’s gonna get there. We show it at City Hall.
When we have a legal wall… it erodes the conflict that [graffiti] always has to be illegal. If you want to change it – you will always have kids that want to go out illegally, but you could grab the ones that are predominantly interested in the art aspect of it, just by providing good space, places just like you do for ping-pong or soccer.
Can you make the argument that if there are legal walls, there’ll be less illegal graffiti?
Only in the sense that by providing a space, a beautiful space where art can be displayed as art, people will be more challenged to come up with beautiful productions. Beautiful productions take time, and paint. Now, cans go to beautiful productions, not onto public places, because if you don’t have much money and you don’t have much paint, you save it to burn a piece that everybody’s gonna see. So resources will go into beautiful productions that otherwise would go into illegal work.
Where’s the line between a graffiti wall like Asylum’s and a tag? Could you say a tag is ever art?
What people don’t realize is graffiti needs a definition. Everybody says ‘graffiti,’ and the one person thinks the black-line tag is graffiti, the next person thinks it’s some nasty throw-up, the next person thinks of beautiful graffiti, the next person thinks a free-form wall.
So, graffiti needs a definition, and we have that. There are eight forms of graffiti. Again, education will widen the horizon in terms of understanding it.
The first form is the tag. The second form is the throw-up – if there are two letters, two colors…. The third form is a piece, which stands short for ‘masterpiece,’ which already has some design and some flow and some type of color and everything.
The next traditional form is an end-to-end, which is under the windows of a [train] car, and end-to-end and top-to-bottom, which is the whole car. And now, in newer times, you have production walls, where writers actually do make art – there’s a background and there’s a piece. And then you have 3-D, which is the newest form – it goes out and in and there are shadows; it becomes very difficult and technical.
So when people look at a tag, realize it’s the first form. It’s like when you do karate – there are so many similarities between martial arts and graffiti in terms of rules and unspoken laws and things that good writers know but nobody else knows. If you look at it like that, if you’re a martial artist, the tag is like learning to punch. And if it’s effective, you can knock somebody out, you can go all-city and get fame. But it’s not necessarily the one you’re going to get the most respect for.
Is the illegality of graffiti part of the message or just a vehicle for fame?
It is traditionally part of the message and the history…. I have to do a much weaker form, because I do respect people’s property. I don’t mark – my house in Germany is tagged to shit. I don’t like it, and I don’t have respect for people who do things on beautiful old buildings and things that belong to other people. I mean, if I paint your car, like, yeah, you would hate it and I would hate you if you paint my car.
I’ve done stupid things. I’ve done things that I feel horrible for and I’ve done some illegal graffiti that I feel really good about, and I feel there is places to do real good. What I have no respect for is, like, the guy that doesn’t give a fuck about his placement, ruins it for everybody else – because the city is willing to accept a certain amount of graffiti if it’s not too disturbing. The smart writers just get up in the right places, do it stylishly, and they run for years.
I’m not on a mission to stop illegal graffiti at all. Sometimes that gets put into my mouth. I’m not about that. I want to be the one that offers a positive alternative and the new approach – it’s not about graffiti or illegal, it’s just about art.
What’s motivating graffiti writers in Portland?
Predominately, it’s a culture that is only concerned with its own peers. It is a culture that is about style, and writing, and placement and paint, and people only care about the writers doing it. So political concerns are usually not in the repertoire of graffiti writers. It’s about getting up a style to get recognition and change the style and all that.
It’s an alternative means of communication amongst youth that don’t necessarily use the common, normal venues. It’s very interesting, because a piece comes up, everybody knows about it the next day, there is a real communication. It is like an outdoor gallery in a way…. It’s an art world. It’s a parallel world….
How big is this world in Portland?
I would say it’s probably like a core group of maybe 15 that’s always been around. They also, probably, are the ones that, in a way, do the least damage, because they have learned what kind of a community Portland is, and they respect that.
The problem is – when you go to Germany, you go to my town, you need to leave like 3,000 tags just to even get noticed. You come to Portland, you do one tag on, like, an electricity box, and the next day everyone’s going, ‘Oh, did you see that….’ Because it is such a small community, we just don’t have a need for such crazy graffiti.
And that’s what I think a lot of these sort of younger kids are trying to do. They see the Internet, they see graffiti videos, and these videos are made in huge cities. They’re made in, like, New York and Boston, and there is room, because everything has been bombed already…. So they think, like, in order to get that fame and to be that original graffiti writer, they have to do the same thing. So they go into small, little Portland, Maine, and approach it in the same type of way: bombings with big-boy cans, on public buildings, no matter what, every intersection, whatever.
But they don’t realize, because they’re young and unexperienced, that Portland doesn’t have room for this, and even the writers agree on that, the old writers. So the old writers are the people that are really perpetuating an art form. They focus on spots where they might walk away with good photos, or spots that are non-destructive, spots where they can do nice pieces…. [In Portland] all you need is one or two of the tags – you really don’t need to paint much – and you’ve got it.
It’s a problem also for us, you know, for people who are trying to put a positive image on graffiti and also trying to do art…. We just painted Pleasant Street [a wall facing the Bakery Building], and it was a really nice piece, and this person – I don’t know if you saw it before; there was a tag on the wall, a little black tag, just a one-burner tag. [We painted over it] and we’re old writers, we’ve been painting for a long time, we have that right to do that…. That kid had a problem with it, probably, and lined it, and just bold-lined it like it’s nothing, like not even considering the time and the money that went into it. But also, [he] did something that no matter what kind of graffiti writer you are – you look at something that was beautiful, that was finished and done, and because your ego kicks in, you now go and you destroy it, not giving a shit about it.
And that’s the problem: ego. Ego, ego, ego, ego. This is what I will tell you: Graffiti culture has the hugest egos in the world. For real. That’s part of why I paint. I have ego. I think most writers have ego, but I don’t have that kind of an ego.
Ego is so huge in the graffiti culture. What does it take to be a graffiti writer? You need to be, sort of, willing to run from the law, you need to be willing to do crimes, you need to sometimes fight for it. You need to have a lot of mouth, you need to be able to project yourself out….
Everybody has big egos, and then the whole purpose of this is to get an even bigger name, ego. That’s the whole purpose of bombing.
Someone that [feels] it’s necessary to invest his whole life into ego-making – and ego-making, now, I’ll specify: People that only do throw-ups and bombs and tags, because that’s ego-making. If somebody stays with it for 30 years because they want to develop style, it’s a whole different thing. But if somebody invests that much time into this kind of graffiti, that kind of obsession, he has an ego problem.
Yes. You’re not changing anything. Yeah, you get some street respect and whatever, but do you really deserve the respect? That’s another question. What takes more respect?
My opinion is, I give much more respect if they are willing to paint a beautiful piece and let that stand as ‘This is the best I can do. Judge it.’ It takes a lot more guts than to stand in front of a dark wall at four o’clock in the morning whennobody’s out, and take 10 seconds – no more – to draw a name.
Are you able to have this kind of conversation with the kids you work with?
It really happens rarely, because when this topic comes up – you’re actually the first one that I’ve ever talked in detail [with] about this, because I don’t want my name to be associated with illegal graffiti, and I also don’t want it to be associated with some kind of Evangelistic preaching the other way.
I just see what I do as art, so normally, when that question comes up, we will often go into [a discussion of] art…. They know of my work, they know I do graffiti, and then they are excited about the project they’re about to do, and these questions just don’t come up. It’s the first step… talking about it like that and it becomes art.
When you do a long project and you have long conversations and everything, yeah, then it comes up, but then I know the kids good enough and I have a working relationship and I then, yeah, I do tell them exactly that I feel that way.
I do caution them not to do anything illegal, because I did it, I got caught, I put my family through a whole bunch of problems, I had a search warrant at my house, I got arrested many times. And if you get caught, now with a felony record, you can’t write checks, you can’t buy a house…. If you get caught and you have a high bust, and it costs your family $10,000 to clean it, and you are from a poor, immigrant family, you don’t have that money. You can really harm your family.
I just tell them, I respect you for what you do. I feel that you have more to offer than a lousy tag.