Punk Politics: The Street Art of Spagnola
North Carolina-based muralist Spagnola explains how the Sex Pistols and heads of state have inspired him.
By James Buxton
Spagnola — a superb street artist from Asheville, North Carolina — is the guy behind the meme “Bush Holding the Obama Mask” around Wynwood, Miami. A successful contemporary visual artist, he’s been featured in shows all over the U.S. And last year, he took part in the Kolor Kathamandu project, where he painted with a number of Nepalese artists to create 75 public works of art. His work combines an anarchic energy with a political edge. We asked Spagnola how politics and punk rock have fueled his work.
Why is a lot of your work, like “Bush Holding the Obama Mask,” highly political?
Spagnola: I believe that, as an artist, I have the responsibility to express my opinions when creating public work. I feel like it’s more important to paint things that make us think, than to just paint images that are pretty. I know a lot of artists paint for an other artist’s sake or to impress other people and to show how skilled they are. I tend to paint for the casual viewer with the idea being that somebody who wouldn’t otherwise walk into a gallery might see an image that I’ve created.
One of your pieces depicts the four previous American presidents as punks. What was your motivation behind that work?
It’s really in homage to my major influences, which would be punk rock and, conversely, the other artists who created those images first. Barry Plumber took a photograph of the Sex Pistols in the late ’70s, early ’80s — that’s where the source image comes from. Gee voucher of Crass, the punk band, took Barry Plumber’s image and re-created it with the Pope, Lady Liberty, Margaret Thatcher and the Queen. What I’m doing is paying homage these two other artists and the images that they’ve created, and made it my own. The title of that Crass album that showcased the image was Who Do They Think They’re Fooling; You? These are my sentiments about the Presidents of the United States, and politicians in general.
What got you into painting on the streets?
I was into graffiti when I was younger. And in 2007 and 2010 I went to Miami for [Art] Basel for the first time and was really impressed with most of the large-scale work that I saw down there. This is what got me into painting publicly.
You also paint a lot of tigers. Why this animal, in particular?
One day, I just woke up with the desire to paint a tiger. One of the reasons why I enjoy painting tigers is because of their expressiveness. There are not a lot of content or messages attached to them, other than the idea of the wild and the unknown.
How does the context of your work affect the content?
I tend to have a few different ideas before I approach a wall. Once I get there — and I see the physical space and meet the people attached to it — I get a better idea of what I want to do, what is appropriate for the space.
How about the city?
When I was in Detroit last I almost got hit by a large SUV almost veering off the road while I was looking at the wall. When I was in New York painting the rooftop of 5 Pointz, I got to meet Marley Marl, Just, G Wiz, and a wide array of artists and writers who are extremely influential to me. In general, when I am traveling and painting, there is a small group of people I tend to work with. These people are close to me — our shared experience is always the thing that really defines the trip. Big shout-outs to Ishmael, Patch Whisky, Molly Rose Freeman and Gus Cutty [a.k.a. Gus Is Rich], Daas, Trek6, Chor Boogie, Stefan Ways, Fred Caron, Mona Caron, Jason Botkin [a.k.a. En Masse], Never, Paper Frank, and all the other awesome people I’ve gotten to paint alongside.
Can you tell us a little bit about the scene in Asheville?
The scene is awesome. There are a lot of really talented artists here — and not a lot of ego, which is really great. I’m really happy I get to live here.