April 21st, 2011, Elle
by Fabiola Beracasa
on April 18, 2011 – 2:33 PM
While in LA for ELLE’s Women in Music party, I took a minute to catch up with Retna, the breakout LA street artist who’s among the lucky few chosen by Jeffrey Deitch for MOCA’s Art in the Streets show. Retna, aka Marquis Lewis, has a heart warming smile to offset his devilish glances, and happily told us how he grew from a “graffiti artist” and landed in one of the most important street art shows to date.
ELLE: When did you know this was your calling ?
R: I liked graffiti when I was about eight-years-old, but it wasn’t really called street art at that time, it was just graffiti. When I first saw it I knew that was what I wanted to do I just never really thought that it would turn into a career, you know? I just did it because it made me feel good, or it made me happy when I looked at it, but I never would’ve thought of where it would go…
ELLE: When did it turn from something that you loved, and did passionately, to something you could actually live off of?
R: I think that was maybe the past seven years. [I] got into design, my first forays into actually making money off this or being able to make somewhat of a living off this was designing graphics for clothing companies. So I was designing for this Japanese brand doing some cut and sew stuff; I think at that point I saw, “Hey I can do these graphics, and you know I can pay for other stuff that I want to do,” and then little jobs just started carrying on and it kind of kept leading to other things. I did a lot of stuff just from the heart for free for the longest time and, well, you do things because you want to do them and you don’t want to sit around and wait for people to pay you. You think, “Well fuck, I’ll just go make it happen.”
ELLE: What does it feel like to be part of Jeffrey Deitch’s Street Art Exhibition?
R: It feels great. I’m really excited to be a part of it, it’s definitely a little overwhelming [as] it’s my first museum showing. It seems like it came a lot earlier than I expected. As a kid you want those institutions to recognize you and make you feel like you’re important. I acknowledge [Jeffrey's] commitment to what we do and I’m really honored to be a part of it. It’s exciting to be in a show with all of these people that you grew up looking up to and it’s kind of mind blowing. I would’ve never thought that they’d come visit me at my studio when I was eight-years-old, looking at these books that they were in. They’re the greatest people and then to be around them and to actually exhibit with them, it’s kind of something unreal.
ELLE: There’s always that argument that when you move the graffiti, the street art indoors, into a museum into a gallery, it loses something. How do you feel about that?
R: That’s all on the person viewing it. I think what’s great about that movement is that some guys still do both… so I think the idea early on with graffiti or street artists was you always want things that you can’t have, you always want to be in that spots that you can’t be in or you know people don’t want you to be in—so when we wanted to climb and paint this building we needed to figure out a way to go do it—so I think with the museum it’s just another aspect of that same mentality. We wanted to be in there, so we figured out how to get in the door and put our stuff all over it. Or, a couple [of] people crack the door and then the flood gates [open]. I feel that if it wasn’t for all of those, my predecessors doing all of the early work from the 70s and 80s and 90s and what have you, I wouldn’t be able to be there.
ELLE: You’ve worked with fashion companies before, how does fashion influence your art? Or do you feel that there is a correlation for you?
R: I’ve been heavily influenced by fashion, and a lot of that work was influenced by like Art Nouveau and stuff like that. It still relates to some of my other work where I do matadors and bishops and these pieces where the clothing is just a little bit older, but I’m still kind of following along those same lines. I obviously love and enjoy looking at fashion magazines, mostly women’s fashion, not really interested in men’s fashion so much. I just think it looks great and it’s art.
ELLE: Did you ever get in trouble for doing graffiti?
R: Yeah, I’ve been arrested a good amount of times. My mother was just devastated. She came here from El Salvador, worked two jobs and tried to send me to some of the best schools and I gravitated toward graffiti early on. So for her it just hurt, it was really a disappointment. She loves it now. She’s more protective of the work. She used to throw away a lot of my work early on, but that’s also what made me better. She was my biggest critic at the time.
ELLE: Where do you see Retna going from here?
R: In my mind’s eye? To the end I guess… yeah, till the end of time…