In Conversation With: Adam Lucas
Earlier this month, I headed over to NYC and hung out with artist Adam Lucas, who joined our panel for Studio 7 talk How To Do Your Thing, alongside a line up of figures from the UK and US contemporary art scenes.
I met with Adam, once known as the famed street artist ‘Hanksy’ (a combo of ‘Tom Hanks’ & ‘Banksy’) to discuss his brand new body of work, what it’s been like moving away from his recognisable tongue-in-cheek depictions of figures such as Donald Trump and Macaulay Culkin, and how he’s made a name for himself as an independent artist in New York…
Studio 7 have a big following of a lot of younger, emerging artists. Talk to us about the path you took to get to where you are now in the creative world, and share any advice you may have for early career artists!
I didn’t go to art school and had no big plans to be an artist. Growing up, I always wanted to be an animator for Disney – until they went digital. High school and art school made me hate producing art, so it wasn’t until I moved to New York and saw the vibrancy of the city and the visual stimulants that I realised that I wanted to add to this and be involved in it. I started drawing and creating again. I don’t know if being self-taught is such a good thing technique and process-wise, as it involves a lot of trial and error for me – taking very small steps – but I’ve come a long way and I’ve still got a long way to go. I’m figuring it out.
For me, it was always the ideas that were on top and the art was below that, because of my history of being a ‘non-artist’. Some of my friends are the most skilled technicians, artists and geniuses as far as production goes, but it’s more than that – it’s about getting out there and meeting people and doing things yourself, as well as putting on your own shows and doing your own marketing… It’s a lot of things! It’s not just being a ‘good artist’. You can go to the gallery openings every night, you can meet the gallerists and curators, and you can hope you get an offer from them, but generally what’s going to happen is you’re going to end up waiting and waiting around – soon enough a new crew of artists more talented or younger are going to come along and you’ll get passed by. You’ll think, ‘what if I had just done this, or that?’ – no! Just do it now! Find a show, find a space, find a storefront, find a group of friends or like minded individuals and make some noise. Do it yourself. Use whatever resources are available. How hard it is to make it in this art world, either traditional or non traditional, is bonkers. So do whatever you gotta do.
How would you describe your new body of work?
It’s very influenced by the city; the colourful visuals, the advertisements, the buildings. It’s also very influenced by cubism. I spent five years doing street artwork and working strictly as ‘Hanksy’ and I built up these walls around it. My work became confined by this structure that I was responsible for creating. I drew only what people expected from me and the kind of work I was supposed to produce and I had spent years trying to get away from that – just doing all the projects that I could; grandiose events, huge productions… but I was still tied down to the first piece I ever created: the Hanksy, ‘Tom Hanks / Banksy’ rat. It was my greatest gift and my biggest curse.
About two and a half years ago I decided that – although I really liked what I was doing – there’s a law of diminishing returns from both the public and personal, and everything plateaus. So whilst I was still getting a lot good responses, I was also growing tired of it and knew I was going to really regret not making a pivot now. I spent two years in the studio working every day with a lot of ups and downs, and eventually I had a show last fall. Now that I don’t have these chains attached to my work I can create whatever the fuck I want and that’s great. There’s no rules.
Do you have a favourite piece from your most recent series of artworks?
Honestly, it’s everything I’m developing so far – there’s so much, so quickly, that I’m really loving everything I create and every little tiny breakthrough I have. I’m confident because I know the amount of time I’ve put in and the hard work I’ve contributed. Failure is failure and missteps are missteps, but you learn from everything and keep moving forwards.
You tend to work on a large scale – do you consciously choose to work on bigger walls and canvases?
Not to sound too self-deprecating, but if you can’t paint well, paint big! It’s a rule people tend to go by. But I do also just like bigger work. I think it’s impressive. It’s awe-inspiring. I like to be completely flooded with the visual that I’m standing in front of, so I would like to create work on the biggest scale that I can. Whether it’s street art, graffiti, murals, a painting on a white wall in a gallery… this city has so much to offer. You can be inspired and influenced by everything.
You’ve organised and curated collective exhibitions for street artists in the past. Is it important to you to continue using your reputation as a platform for other emerging artists?
You’re only as strong as the people you surround yourself with; these are the people I’m inspired by, whether it’s videographers or assistants or interns, or the art or the music. I collaborate with everyone and if I’m the one who has been given a platform, then I can bring everyone up with me. You’re stronger together – it can get lonely at the top. I’ve had a few conversations with people who have said, “man, you’ve got to look out for yourself. It’s dog eat dog”, but that’s not my mentality at all. If I’m thinking about ten, twenty, thirty years from now, I want to be creating things along with these same artists and same collaborators. I’ve done three very large projects that have involved curating; one was called ‘Surplus Candy’ in an illegal brownstone, and then there was a mansion in LA, which involved 90 artists and ten thousand square feet of space. Then last summer I had the chance to use a building right before they demolished it, and I brought ten artists together and we were able to create these large scale indoor murals that were only temporary. The show was only open for one night.
What would be your dream project and space?
Almost everything I’ve done and every big show I’ve put on, has all been DIY and funded by me – always a complete shit-show behind the scenes, but packaged up and made to look nice and polished. It looks like a large scale production but behind the scenes it’s me, duct taping everything together with all my friends chipping in. I know I’m going to look back at this point in my career and look at the things I was creating with my friends now and see it as the best time in my life. However I do look forward to the time where I’m just given a big space, given a budget and wont have to worry about the money and how much things are going to cost. That’s my ideal project, rather than a particular physical space. I’m a very hard worker, but it takes a lot more than hard work to make it in this career – I’m extremely lucky. I took what was originally a little meme on the street and I’ve been able to push that snowball up the hill and have it grow bigger and bigger and bigger. I want to see myself in thirty years, forty years, still making and producing headline-worthy art. That’s where I want to see myself. I want to take that stupid fucking meme that cursed me forever and do the biggest things I can with it.
It’s a brave move to give up making the work that brought you this level of recognition – shedding the ‘Hanksy’ name – to be able to make new art that really means something. How important was making this shift to you?
It was never just about making cartoons on the street. I think I’m going to keep heading in the direction of work that comments on social and political news more and more – and obviously some of it will be more forward, some will be more subtle, but I think in this day and age if you’re going to make art it should stand for something. I think about how good I have it and how nice everyone I surround myself with’s lives are in comparison to a lot of people – of course we all have our problems – but I have this platform and a voice that some people will to listen to. I want to make sure I’m steering people in the right direction, rather than adding to the dumbing down of America.
The comedic element of your work makes it more relatable – is that something you consciously do to help people connect with it?
Well sure, because think about the way that information is transferred and spread via memes and shareable images now. So yeah, with imagery it doesn’t matter how complex or simple it is – it can definitely strike a chord with people. I think that’s why that silly Donald Trump piece of shit that I painted on a wall took off as fast as it did, because within a couple of seconds of seeing it you have an opinion on it.
In terms of your work being commercially viable, how do you fund yourself as an independent artist? Do you work with commercial galleries or are you happy hosting self-initiated exhibitions and selling work off your own back?
I was very lucky with the decisions I made when I first moved to New York; I decided to open a couple of small businesses so I was able to spend two years not worrying about selling art. I was just making art to make art. Financially my head was JUST above water. Unless you’re very wealthy or come from money, it’s very hard to work solely as an independent artist in New York City, which is why I never give any of my artist or creative friends a hard time for making the same thing over and over because they know it sells – there’s comfort in that. But as I was able to not worry about the financial aspect of the art world for a couple of years, I was able to transition.
That being said, I do have a healthy following and I do have fans and collectors of mine, as well as my most recent show which sold very well. And the best thing about working in a non traditional way – without galleries, curators etc. – is that I could keep 100% of the profit. If you’re just starting out and your work is selling for $500 and you have split half of that with the gallery, is that even worth it? Money is money, but it’s like, ‘“man, that fucking sucks!”. Once in a while I’ll do a commission, but generally I’m lucky enough to be able to create whatever I want and people are down to clown with it. Fans and followers of mine have seen my trajectory from where I was 5-6 years ago to where I am now and they’ve seen the arc. They’ve seen it keep going up and they’re on board for the ride. From the response I get via emails, comments or DMs, I can tell they’ve seen this change and progression. I’ve always been a hard worker and I’ve always been a hustler, and I’ve done a lot of things DIY. So I think they can see that and they cheer me on, and that’s why i’m able to sell a bit more than some new artists – because they see the noise i’m creating and, you know, if my show in November didn’t sell one piece it’s not like I’m going to close up shop and that’s it. I would keep going. I would be thinking about my next project, and the next project etc.
Where do you see your future heading within the art world?
With all these different resources – social media, the internet – there is an alternative, non-traditional way to go about pushing your career. Eventually, I see myself crossing into the traditional world a bit more, but I’ll make sure that when I get there there’s room at the table for my friends and I. I really just want to do rad shit with my friends for the rest of my life.
Adam has just launched his latest show and capsule collection in collaboration with Nom Wah Tea Parlour at 168 Bowery, NYC.