It isn’t exactly a surprise to learn that New York contemporary visual artist Bisco Smith has an appreciation for Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline. However, when you look at Smith’s usually black and white work, often containing written words, it always seems like there is an extra meaning that you just haven’t discovered yet, and that meaning has the power to change over time.
You just have to keep looking—you will find its rhythm.
His style of art has been called “visual freestyling,” but it, like Smith ever adapts. According to his website, music, especially Hip Hop influenced his work. His original graffiti art was done under the name Bisc1. He uses what he learned in the street and brings it into the studio.
While this New Englander/New Yorker was always interested in art, when a young man, he was active in the skateboarding scene which led him to an appreciation for graffiti art. He continued to learn on his own and from trial and error on the street. However, Smith graduated from Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute in 2002 with a BFA in Communications Design and made a living through IV Creative, a hip design studio that regularly collaborated with artists, record labels and well-known brands, but he continued making all types of art.
He is not only a muralist, but also plays with many formats including canvas and even objects. Smith has exhibited all over the world and imbues the world with positive energy. In 2017 he was chosen as a participant in the curated outdoor gallery of ArtRepublic in Jacksonville, FL.
Bisco Smith spoke with Michelle Tompkins for TheCelebrityCafe.com about his path to becoming a successful artist, his inspiration, the significance of street art, what he likes to do in New York City, which charities and causes he devotes his time to including Urban Art Beat, what he hopes his legacy will be and more.
Michelle Tompkins: Let's start with the beginning. What's your full name?
Bisco Smith: My full name is Bisco Smith, B-I-S-C-O Smith.
MT: And what name do you use as an artist?
BS: Same thing, Bisco Smith.
MT: Where are you from?
BS: I live and work in Queens and born—I'm New England, basically. So, born in Massachusetts, raised in Connecticut, moved to New York. And then I did a little time in Los Angeles and now I'm back in New York.
MT: Which languages do you speak?
BS: Just English. I'm so American. It's terrible. I wish I spoke more.
MT: Me too [laughter].
BS: You ever hear the saying, 'If you speak three languages, you're trilingual; if you speak two, you're bilingual; if you speak one, you're American.'
BS: That's our ignorance. It's terrible.
MT: It is [laughter]. Now, this is an optional question. Please tell me about your family.
BS: I have a great family. They very much encourage what I do. I’ve got two sisters, one brother, great parents and everybody’s married. My immediate family is my wife.
MT: Okay. Well, then I am going to ask this question then, how do they inspire or support you?
BS: Well, my wife is forever my inspiration and support, daily. She and I actually work together. She helps run the business and gives me a lot of creative input and helps paint big projects when I'm painting them. So she's definitely imperative in the equation of working. And my family just always supported me. And I've worked creatively for a lot of years in my whole life of having to work and — it's obvious a lot of people don't encourage art. I think art is less encouraged and my family always encouraged it, so I appreciate that.
MT: How did you get interested in art?
BS: I think I always had the interest. I've always done things that are creative. Actually, maybe skateboarding would be my first move into a culture. I paid attention to culture and seeing the energy, and I think that sort of brought me deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole of things.
MT: What got you into skateboarding?
BS: I'm not really sure. Maybe the rebel side of things, those skate kids doing rebellious things.
MT: Now, how did you get your training as an artist?
BS: Through trial and error, growing up painting. Graffiti was really— there was no training. You just learned as a group of kids. But then I did end up, fortunately, going to Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. And I went there for graphic design. So I got trained as a designer and the painting I'm doing now is a combo of the design and the years of just learning how to paint on the street. And also the music that I spent a lot of time making.
MT: Now, where do you get the inspiration for your art?
MS: I'm inspired by really the world around me and internally. I try to do both. I feel externally, and then I try to pull from a place of internal. So I feel like the state of the world, being in New York, that the humanity, the energy, the motion, I think I'm just inspired to produce whatever it is I need to make things. And I need to make things because that's what brings me joy, and that's what makes me feel like I'm living with a purpose, when I'm working and I'm making things. I'm not good at consuming all the time. I have to produce.
MT: Do you stick with one medium or do you try out different things?
BS: That depends on the timeline and how long we're talking. The last few years have been pretty much solely with paint. Previous to that is paint and music. So the medium switches. But right now, I'd say the main medium is basically I try to take what I learn in the street and bring into the studio, and I try to use the tools that I learned there. So it's house paint, and spray paint, and all the raw materials of rollers and paint, and all the stuff that comes from Home Depot to make my paintings.
MT: What kind of art excites you?
BS: I think art that you can feel the humanity in. I can respect technically sound painting. I really do respect realism, but what I feel is work that has an energy to it, has a freedom to it and has a confidence to it. And I think so that could be abstract. It could three marks on a painting. I just have to feel it. I think I'm into artwork that I feel, not that I just technically respect.
MT: What kind of art bores you?
BS: That's a tough question. I don't really think about art that bores me. I mean, maybe here's an answer. Pop Art that just recycles faces of famous people. I think that work is you're taking someone who spent a lifetime to build up their creative output or their legacy and then just re-taking their lifetime of hard work and their legacy and putting it on something else to make art. I just don't understand it. Not like Warhol that sold pop art and made commentary using things that existed in our culture. I think he was an innovator of that. But I think at this point in time, when I see street art, 'street arty paintings' with pictures of famous people, that bores me, definitely.
MT: Do you think artists have a responsibility to be moral, political, or socially engaged?
BS: No. I think artists should do whatever they feel like doing. And if some are socially and politically engaged, that's great, but it's not anybody's duty to do that. If that's what your soul says, then it's your duty. Sometimes people just need to forget all that shit, and sometimes art would just pull you out of that and that's okay. It doesn't have to touch on socio or political things.
MT: Do you think artists have a responsibility to explain or contextualize their art?
BS: No. I think some people enjoy that, but, no, I don't think so at all. I think an artist has only a responsibility to themselves until— I know I say that and then I feel if you make some artwork that's— let's say like these films that are all about killing people, going around and just shooting people and these super violent films. I think that we have a responsibility to make the world a better place. Some art maybe doesn't do that. But at the end of the day, art is selfish and it transcends outside of that at some point. And some of us take it there, some of us don't.
MT: Who are some artists you admire?
BS: That's an interesting question—or not interesting. Who do I admire? I'd have to really sit and write that out. Just like I said before, I admire artists that are unique and are capturing— they just put good feelings into their work. There are so many people making such much good art presently that's it's hard for me to make a list. That list would be really long.
In the past, maybe Pollock was one of my first, to see that scale. It's interesting because my work maybe had elements of what he did. But the scale that he worked on really impacted me, younger. And then the more I paint, the more people tell me about artists that I never knew about. Because I'm not trained in painting. I'm trained in design. I don't know much about the world of paint. But the more I paint and the more I'm around people, the more they put me like an artist that I love. And I would say if we went back, maybe Franz Kline, Cy Twombly, those guys really speak to me when I see their work.
MT: How do you define street art?
BS: To be honest, it's not a term I love. I've been doing this pre that word, before that word even existed. But I would say it's become an aesthetic. It's no longer art that was from the street. People are making 'street art' on canvases and saying this is street art, but they don't paint on the street. They've never painted on the street. So I think it's become this aesthetic that people are latching onto and use for marketing. But the truth of the word street art is art on the street. It's art that's put out into the world for people to enjoy or to be touched by when it's living on the street.
MT: What would be your preferred term, just art?
BS: I come from a time when it was graffiti. But I know that the schools before me, there are people that I really respect that hate that word graffiti because that word is made from the mayor, and the law, and that was a term to define a thing that was anti. Street art to me is a very loaded word. And where I come from it was graffiti versus street art. There was this thing and now it's just become such a common household term that it's taken on a life of its own, which is cool. I mean, I'm happy there's more art on the street and there are more people making it work. I'm not anti the people doing it, but it's become a blanket word for a lot of stuff.
MT: Do you have a favorite piece of art that you've done?
BS: No. I don't think so, to be honest. There are some that I feel captured memories, every piece is a memory, rather than a pretty painting. I'd say the highs like making paintings to me, some paintings reach a high in energy. Those paintings, basically, are always chasing that high, trying to get that same feeling I got when making certain paintings. So I do have some that have brought me to moments that were like, 'Whoa, that really felt amazing and I want every painting to feel like that one.' I think those are the ones that stick in my mind. But there's a few of them and particularly, I couldn't tell you exactly at this moment.
As I get ready to move studios this weekend it got me thinking back to that time I pulled off the walls from my workspace at WNDO in venice and brought them to @cavegalleryphotos There is always something special about the organic layers of the painting walls. Thinking about making some new prints off the painting walls in my current studio before I slide into the new spot. . #studiowalls #cavegallery #venice #stylewriting #newyorkcity #language #lyrics #expressionism #art #design #abstract #paintings #energy #meditations #handstyles #streetart #calligraphy #calligraffiti #contemporary #modern #interiordesign #blackandwhite #biscosmith
MT: What messages are you trying to convey with your art?
BS: In terms of messaging, I'd say that the main undertone of my work is maybe a driving force forward in life. As an artist, I feel like I have to tell myself all the time and it's where I'm at now. But it's just, I don't know, rise up or skies the limit or stay open. All these things are I'm basically sort of creating guidelines to keep my life moving forward. So there's that. And almost all my work has a positive undertone to it.
I believe that the work resonates in whether you can understand it or not. There's an intention behind it so I try to always create from a place of good intention. When I'm putting marks on a canvas and I'm working, I always try to stay in that positive mindset, but when I take work to the street, I'll do a lot of writing pieces based more on socio and political things that are happening because I think that's a better place for it to live. But if you're going to live with a piece of mine in your house or wherever you choose to live with it, I want it to push out a good energy. That's sort of my goal.
MT: Do you work alone or with other people?
BS: Most of the time, I work alone, but I do collaborate with other people. And I have some really, really cool projects that have brought me to different places because of these great people I've worked with. My ideal is to work with people in different disciplines. I like to make the paint, and I love working with photographers, a few letter-making dimensional stuff, but things outside of my discipline.
MT: Why do you think it's important for people to get outside with their work?
BS: I think for me, my whole trajectory in life, I've always put my work in front of people. And I look back five years later and all of a sudden think, 'Damn, that was pretty wack. I should not have done that.' But I'm a fan of watching people grow, and I like to put work out no matter what. I actually don't really like to make work that doesn't have the intention of living outside of where I'm making it. But, I think some people, that's what they want to do and they feel like making work and not showing it so that's cool, too. I think whatever feels good is what we all should be doing.
MT: How do you find businesses to show off your work?
BS: I've just been fortunate to have an opportunity and one thing always leads to another. I try to take what feels good and do my best every time and then things just come from that.
MT: Do you participate in traditional art shows or are you primarily about street art?
BS: I do a fair amount of exhibitions. And I love doing solo exhibitions because I can really dive into an idea and a body of work and present it in in a way that is my way of presenting it. It allows me to really fully work my artistry out. I do murals in the street. I do gallery shows. I do projects with brands and businesses that are doing things that I believe in. And I try to stay grounded in the work that I'm doing between studio, street, gallery, all that stuff.
MT: When is your next exhibition?
BS: I have work in a bunch of shows. Just come next week, I have work in a show in New York. In 2018 I've got some really, awesome projects. I'm not in the space to talk about them right now, but I always got stuff going on. Online as always, you can always see what's up.
MT: Do you participate in festivals?
BS: Not much. I'd say Art Republic might be one of the first I've been involved in or I'm going to be involved in. It's not a big thing that I do.
MT: How do you earn a living?
BS: Making art.
MT: That's good [laughter].
BS: Yeah. Yeah.
MT: That's the dream for the artist, so I'm glad that's the case.
BS: I feel very blessed. That's what I do. I make paintings and paint walls and stuff.
MT: What are your goals for yourself for the future?
BS: The MoMA [laughter]. I mean, really, for real. I want to make work that lives a long time and that transcends a lot of things. And I love graffiti, I love street art, but my view is to keep pushing and to take it further. I also don't know what disciplines things will land in in the future. I would like to cycle back into audio somehow and bring some music back in and maybe sound. I try to stay pretty open, but just being a part of these institutions that are really powerful in showing work that has context and strength.
MT: What do you want your legacy to be?
BS: That's a good question there. I never thought of that. I don't want to work thinking about that ever. I just want to make the work. Some people I respected told me, 'You should make work like you're going to die tomorrow every day and make the best work you possibly can.' And maybe if we’re all trying to get away from death, by whatever we’re doing, to create a legacy. I just want the work to resonate, whatever that is. And however long that is, I don't know.
MT: How would you describe your art to someone who's never seen it before?
BS: I'd probably describe my art as post-graffiti, deconstruction, abstract, lyrical impressionism.
MT: Is there something in life you want to do but haven't done yet?
BS: There's a lot of things in life I want to do that I haven't done yet, for sure. Definitely.
MT: Like what kind of stuff?
BS: Living in places like Paris and Hong Kong. And swim with sharks in a cage. And combine my work with architecture. And make 12 babies and have a harem of children, [laughter] I definitely want to have a family.
MT: Let's see if your wife's on board for the dozen.
BS: Yeah. For real. I don't know about a dozen. I feel like that's irresponsible for that state of the world. We're overpopulated. Maybe two would really be my max.
MT: What do you like to do for fun?
BS: I pretty much am fortunate to do what I like to do every single day. I like to be creative and I like to explore and travel but lately, I've just really found joy in working and being in New York. Nature might be my other grounding aspect of life. To get into nature and just tune out of this whole digital domain craziness world that we're existing in but I like to make art really.
MT: What's one of your favorite things to do in New York?
BS: Sit on a bench and watch the world like people watching wherever that may be. Every neighborhood's got different people watching.
MT: What are your social media handles or websites?
BS: Everything is biscosmith.com or @biscosmith. Google Bisco Smith, it's all there.
MT: Are there any charities that you wish to mention?
BS: I work with some organizations. One called Arts by the People and another that I helped form years ago Urban Art Beat. I'm doing some projects. Right now I'm actually working on something that's going to go to Ronald McDonald House. I work with charities a lot and there's a cool charity I'm working with that's coming up. We're going to do an event next month and I can tell you what it is. It's interesting. It's called Shanti Bhavan and it's a fundraiser for building schools in India and you know India's got the ill class system so it's hard to elevate out of the class and if you go on Netflix there's a whole documentary about this non-profit organization. So I'm going to do some work with them but I always try to where I can lend my work to help move good things forward.
MT: When and where can we see your art next?
BS: I guess that depends on the scale. If you were on the street, L.A., New York, Miami, I have some pretty major pieces of mine like larger pieces and gallery work I have nothing and there are pieces here and they're all over the place from Hong Kong to L.A. and Miami and New York. But in terms of solo stuff at the moment, I have no exhibitions on view right now.
MT: Can you please tell me about the event in Florida?
BS: I'm going to go paint some walls in Jacksonville and it's part of a festival called Art Republic and I believe it ties technology and art together and there's a lot of programming happening. I'm going to make some pieces that are based on the idea of storms and water rising because Florida just went through that and the world is getting crazier with that. Puerto Rico and all the islands. That's the work I'm going to do. I have these pieces sketched out and basically, the undertone is awareness of the environment.
MT: What is the greatest compliment you could receive as an artist?
BS: That is a good question. Maybe people that tell me they saw the work and then they were inspired to go and do something great. I made some pieces, these prints that were basically called Peace and Light and it was post-Trump's election and I think that the chaos of what was it called, the fight with the Native Americans and the water. The Standing Rock fight and I made these pieces during Standing Rock and someone wrote and they were like, 'I hung this on my wall and I really needed to be reminded of the peace and the light and to hear the work brought someone that calm during the chaos was just a peace of mind,' that really felt good. Because I want to go start a revolution and do some crazy shit, but the reality is we have to live and if my work can make an impact and I think when the work feels like it made an impact on people, whatever that is but hopefully positively, that's when it feels good.
MT: What is something you'd like people to know about you?
BS: I let the work do the talking on that end.
Learn more about Bisco Smith here.
[Images from Bisco Smith]