Barry McGee

Artist Barry McGee discusses his graffiti aesthetic, and how his style on the streets has changed since he first started tagging at 18.

ART21: What is the difference for you, in working at a gallery, in a museum, or on the street?

MCGEE: I think the method is the most interesting thing to me. I think, in traditional art making, you come up with a good idea and you hide it. And it’s, like, “Oh, this is a good idea; I got to really work on this, really push this.” And you’re, like, “Oh, this is going to be good,” and you prepare carefully for a gallery space, which is a pretty neutral setting. But, with a lot of people that do street work, if you have a good idea, you’re just, like, “Oh, this is a great idea; I’m putting it out on the street tonight!” And you try to get out there as fast as you can, and you know immediately the next day if it was a good idea or not. People are just, like, “Oh, I saw that thing you did and . . .” Or it’s just, like, someone will go over it. And maybe it wasn’t such a good idea. So, it’s that environment that I think is vastly different than a studio artist who is in this nice space with light, or just like this studio space, which I have.

ART21: If people see it and then it disappears . . .

MCGEE: I always like that quality of it—the artist actually being there in the space. You could see someone’s show, and then it could be in Berlin the next month. And it’s the same show, but the artist may have never even been there. But I like that personal touch, where it’s a lot like graffiti. If an artist, a New York [graffiti] artist, comes to visit San Francisco, you know immediately when the artist is in town. It’s just, like, “Oh, look who’s in town.” And it’s like that everywhere now. Immediately you know when someone’s been there.

ART21: Have you done something on the street while visiting in New York?

MCGEE: Sure.

ART21: Give me a clue, so I can look.

MCGEE: It just looks like garbage. It just looks like all other graffiti in New York that everyone hates. That’s what I do now. That’s all I do—is this stuff that people hate, because supposedly I do stuff that’s different than what other graffiti artists do. So, I think I’ve gone back to doing what people traditionally, like, hate, you know, which is just like the scribbling graffiti. But at the same time, I’ll walk three blocks and inside the gallery be doing what I do with the same hand, and people are saying, “Oh, art! This is great, this is so superb, I love this stuff,” and then walk back out on the street, and it’s, like, “I wish they’d get rid of this stuff, though . . . ” and it’d be my tag. I like that; that’s funny to me.

Barry McGee and Margaret Kilgallen in a Bay Area rail yard, 2000. Production still from the “Art in the Twenty-First Century” Season 1 episode, “Place,” 2001. © Art21, Inc. 2001.

ART21: I know that Margaret Kilgallen is a big influence for your work and that the two of you often go out and do things together, or near one another. Isn’t that somewhat of a graffiti tradition, being competitive and going out tagging with other people?

MCGEE: Yeah, there’s always a push. You’re always highly aware of what your counterparts are doing. At any given point, you can walk down the street and you’re, like, “Wow, these kids have, like, amazing penmanship.” That’s what I’m always aware of here, now—amazing penmanship and fearlessness also, in spite of the current climate against it. These kids are crazy now. I used to think we got crazy, but they’re just literally . . . You know, you can do time now for your little markings on the street these days. It’s no more, like, Keith Haring: “Graffiti . . . come on, everyone let’s do graffiti!” It’s not that way anymore. It’s a whole different climate.

ART21: Did your parents know about you doing graffiti out on the streets when you were younger?

MCGEE: I think they knew of it, but I don’t think they realized the extent of it, maybe because I was out of the house already by then. I started late. I started at eighteen or nineteen.

ART21: Marking on the street?

MCGEE: Yeah, that’s pretty late.

ART21: I thought you were younger.

MCGEE: No, I’m pretty late. I was pretty late in the game.

ART21: So, at the end of high school . . .

MCGEE: Yeah, right, at the end of high school. Art school came much later. Did it pop your bubble?

ART21: No, I guess not, I just thought you were younger when you started. So, what made you go to the street at eighteen?

MCGEE: It was probably through music and stuff. It was a lot of punk rock shows and stuff like that. There was always graffiti in these places, and I was just, like, “Who is this guy? I keep on seeing this guy.” There was this one guy, Cuba. He wrote “Cuba” and it was at all the same hardcore shows—in the bathroom, on the door, and on the street. And then I was, like, “What, who’s doing this?” It was different than my idea of what graffiti was, before that. I’ve told you before: there was a bunch of people that were all interested. We all used to ride scooters and stuff around.

And there was this one guy that (this is dumb)—we used to go ride our scooters around, like Vespas and Lambrettas, and there was this one guy—he would always carry spray paint in his side panel. And at every stop, why, he’d just get off and he’d do this huge, like—he wrote “Zotz” or something, and the o was this big cowboy thing, like the o was a big cowboy face. And I was, “Say, what the hell are you doing?” you know. And he was, like, “I’m doing graffiti. They’re doing this in New York right now.” It was ’84 or ’85, right around there. And he was, like, “Yeah, everyone’s doing this stuff in New York, and you should try it too. You want to try it?” or something. And I was, like, “Yeah, I’ll give it a try.” And he goes, “You have to come up with a name first.”

There was probably some dumb scooter magazine at the time that was called Twist or something—I think that’s how I got it. But I’ve been stuck with that dumb name ever since. I wish I started earlier, like you said. Thirteen or fourteen evokes the whole different idea of doing graffiti than it does at eighteen, because there was, like, this kind of hipness or coolness that you’re aware of, at that point. You know what I mean? Does that make sense?

Barry McGee in San Francisco, 2000. Production still from the “Art in the Twenty-First Century” Season 1 episode, “Place,” 2001. © Art21, Inc. 2001.

ART21: It’s more deliberate.

MCGEE: Yeah.

ART21: So, what were you doing in high school?

MCGEE: I was doing art and drawing stuff. But I feel like I was the last generation that actually even had art classes, because the schools in California are not so good anymore. Not that it was good when I was there, but I go to speak at schools in Oakland and San Francisco, and there are no art programs there. There’s one teacher, and there’s no drama, there’s no music, there’s nothing. There’s just one art teacher that takes kids in, after school, or there’s one class on Friday that introduces art, drama, music—everything—to kids.

And then they wonder why kids are painting all over the street, you know? I think there’s this need to, like, do things with their hands and create things a lot, with kids. So, it comes as no surprise that kids are going to gravitate towards things where they’re doing things, painting things. It’s just where it’s at. How it’s done now—the legalities—is the issue at stake, now, with most urban cities.