If the American dream is a 401K plan, a marriage and a mini van, than Mike Giant happily lives the American nightmare â€“ â€œI get to travel around on the back of my art and itâ€™s been really fun,â€ says Giant, who, in April, had a solo show at Galerie Magda Danysz in Paris, France. At 35, Giant can experience autonomy while making a paycheck, a luxury that young artists strive to achieve and millions of working class people cannot foresee. Perhaps, worldly experience is Giantâ€™s strongest attribute, â€œIâ€™ve been around the world and I have a sense for lots of cultures, and that has helped me see what the base human experience is outside my sheltered, American lifestyle,â€ he says.
Having an active art career is as important to Giant as getting up once was to GIANT. In July, Italian publisher, Drago, will publish Muerte, a book of 50 images from Giantâ€™s recent show in Paris. â€œThe publishing thing has been really good for me,â€ he says, adding that publishing has enabled counterfeiters to scan his images and transfer them to vector-based files, but his view on publishing remains positive, â€œIâ€™m not going to hide the stuff in the house.â€
Giantâ€™s T-shirt designs are exclusively released by REBEL8, a San Francisco based company that Giant singed a 15-year contract with. â€œMy partner and I are simply trying to make clothes that we would wear, and we wear street clothes: jeans, T-shirts, sneakers, baseball hat, a hoodie,â€ he says, adding that â€œstreet-utilitarianismâ€ best defines the function in his style. And when Giant writes GIANT (â€œI get really paranoid as I get older,â€ says Giant, adding that graffiti is a spur of the moment activity, almost like a treat) he jocks function in fashion to the max, â€œWe wear clothes that we can eat dinner in, do graffiti in and ride our bikes in.â€
â€œI live in Albuquerque, I can wear Dickies and T-shirts every fucking day and it doesnâ€™t matterâ€¦â€
Format: You have several creative attributes â€“ you tattoo, you write graffiti and you illustrate. Please explain how your creative process is different for each medium you tackle.
Mike Giant: There are levels where it does and there are levels where it doesnâ€™t, for sure. With graffiti, these days, I kind of just make it up and kind of go with the flow, and itâ€™s more of an activity than actually trying to make something; tattoos are the total opposite, I really have to work it out before hand, on paper, and make sure it looks good and make sure it looks good on skin before I start tattooing. Between tattooing and making illustrations, where I start with a blank sheet of paper until I have a completed drawing, thatâ€™s pretty much the same, regardless of what Iâ€™m drawing in particular. Itâ€™s more so the mind frame that Iâ€™m coming from as I approach different mediums. The creative drive is the same to me. Graffiti has become this thing that is an outlet of retouching my youth, a little bit, and getting back in touch with the street; itâ€™s not so much about art anymore. Graffiti is a different thing and it is something that facilitates a relaxation within me that I donâ€™t get from sitting in the studio. Luckily, I have a lot of different ways that I kind express myself. I try to embody the art of living, too. The concentration, the creativity and the curiosity that I have in my artwork comes across in everything â€“ whether Iâ€™m hanging out with my girlfriend, what Iâ€™m having for dinner, or how Iâ€™m exercising.
Format: As your career grows, your name, Mike Giant, becomes acknowledged by the public. How does public acknowledgement affect your ability to write graffiti?
Mike Giant: I canâ€™t really write GIANT at all, in a lot of situations. If Iâ€™m in a foreign country or doing something legally, I can kind of get away with that. I get really paranoid as I get older. But I kind of figure out ways to make it happen if I want it to happen, itâ€™s much more of a spur of the moment thing these days, or for special occasions.
Format: You contributed a laser etched skateboard to the Refill Seven exhibition, the first exhibition of its kind. Please explain the concept of your contribution and your experience with laser etching.
Mike Giant: All I had to supply them with is the artwork and they had the stuff set up. It was a pretty easy thing for me. It was artwork for the cover of my new book that is coming out and it is going to be a REBEL8 T-shirt, too. It was an illustration that I had done around the time I was asked for the artwork for that project.
Format: Do you still skateboard?
Mike Giant: I stopped. I think I stopped two years ago. I had a bad wreck at a skate park and fucked up both of my arms for two months. I didnâ€™t know if I was going to be able to use them again and that was that â€“ I just stopped. I had skated every day for 13 years, from 1981 to 1994 or `95. Then, I was working for the skateboard industry and skated all over San Francisco. Then I got into bicycles, but skateboarding is still a large part of my life. Right now, actually, Iâ€™m doing some skateboard graphics for some pros that were my peers, as kids.
â€œTo mark the occasion I ate a sausage and I hadnâ€™t had any kind of beef since 1992.â€
Format: Your new book, Muerte, is set for release. Please explain how the Muerte book project came together.
Mike Giant: The new one is something I did with an Italian publisher named Drago and theyâ€™re doing a whole series of art books. Itâ€™s a black and white art series, there will be 36 books and mine is the first one in the series. Muerte is like a catalog of the show that I had up in Paris that, I think, closed last week. There are 50 images in it and less than 100 pages. I laid it out really simple with two colors. I had a hard bound book, Giant, that came out a few years ago and that one just went into its third printing. The publishing thing has been really good for me. Itâ€™s a bitch dealing with counterfeiters, because my work is so readily available and any kid, these days, can pop it into a scanner and turn it into a vector graphic, which happens a lot, but Iâ€™m not going to hide the stuff in the house.
Format: Pieces of your fine art and tattoos that you create appear to have a religious influence, please explain how your religious practices transcend to your creative practices.
Mike Giant: They do, for sure. Itâ€™s all one thing. How I think about reality, the work, my life and who I am is going to come across in everything I do, especially, in what I draw â€“ drawing is my way of expressing those inner things. Sometimes, Iâ€™m pretty literal with the symbolism. I really try to take my time and stay in the moment, working on one little inch of a drawing until itâ€™s complete. I try not to get caught up in thoughts. For me, the concentration comes across visually. Then, in another way, I can touch the viewerâ€™s sensibilities with symbolism that weâ€™re all used to. A lot of the really strong symbolism, at least in my mind, is the religious stuff. That is the stuff that survived for centuries and tells all the stories that people keep telling over and over about each other. Iâ€™ve always been a little bit in awe of religion and God. I grew up Catholic and it was that kind of colorful language of metaphors. As I grew older I realized that didnâ€™t fit my sensibilities, but I found the answers I was looking for elsewhere. Now, I use that kind of iconography mixed in with the Christian imagery â€“ itâ€™s all mixed up, but itâ€™s all the same thing to me.
Format: You do not tattoo anymore, what made you decide to discontinue tattooing?
Mike Giant: The simple, short answer I give people is that it is the hardest job I do that pays me the least. Itâ€™s physically grueling; it really hurts my back, my hands, and my mind when I do it, now, if I do it for more than a few hours. Itâ€™s something I will continue to do in my home for my friends. I think it is a cool medium. It will be nice take it back to the old days of drinking beer in the living room and giving people tattoos.
Format: Several decades ago, a stereotype was tough males with tattoos attracted women, however, the role has reversed, why has the popularity of females with tattoos exploded?
Mike Giant: Itâ€™s the same thing for men â€“ itâ€™s a way for a woman to set herself apart and create a self-identity and be like, â€˜Fuck the status quo, Iâ€™m going to cover myself in drawings.â€™ Thatâ€™s totally cool. There are a lot of women that are starting to understand the deeper artistic implications of tattoos. I see more girls, in bigger cities, now, with really traditional looking, Japanese â€“ like three-quarter sleeves and chest panels – but itâ€™s done with an elegance, softness, and history that makes me impressed. It shows a level of class in an area where a lot of people gravitate towards lowest common denominator imagery, which Iâ€™m all about. I love skulls, snakes and roses, but Iâ€™m glad to see that women are getting more hooked into what is possible with tattooing. At the same time, I feel like a lot of women are stuck reading fashion magazines that are on a four or five year cycle of â€˜Tattoos are great!â€™ Then, two years down the line, magazines are like, â€˜Hereâ€™s how to get your shitty tattoo removedâ€™ and then in two more years, â€˜Hey, get tattoos, theyâ€™re cool!â€™ For women, theyâ€™re already caught up in the system and itâ€™s just fucking them up, basically, and making them unsure about whatâ€™s up.
â€œIt will be nice take it back to the old days of drinking beer in the living room and giving people tattoos.â€
Format: Youâ€™re a well-traveled artist. In your travels, what have you taken from the environments you were surrounded in and how have your experiences in those environments affected your creativity?
Mike Giant: Traveling is inspiring and as I see new things, I come back to the studio and I want to embody some of the things that I saw or some of those things that I felt â€“ itâ€™s a subconscious inspiration that I feel. In life terms, traveling has let me see that there is a base humanity that weâ€™re all dealing with. The day in and day out struggles are pretty much the same everywhere Iâ€™ve been. The technology may be different or the weather, but the day to day realities are the same. Itâ€™s very human and I find that to be super inspiring to me, as well, and that comes across in the ideas that I try to present to the public, because Iâ€™ve been around the world and I have a sense for lots of cultures, and that has helped me see what the base human experience is outside my sheltered, American lifestyle.
Format: In April, you traveled to Paris and explored its catacombs, finding amazing relics of Parisâ€™ past. Please explain your experience in the catacombs.
Mike Giant: It was one of the most amazing places that Iâ€™ve seen on the planet. It was so rich with things that interest me. It was a street thing, but it was 30 feet under the street, so it was this time capsule of old Paris. There were all kinds of interesting, shady people down there over the years. We were seeing graffiti from 200 years ago! We were with the foremost guide, so we were totally safe. Iâ€™m glad the Parisian authorities made it a lot more difficult to get down in there, because I could see if it got more popular than it is, it could get tore up. Itâ€™s a cool place and I think if you have to opportunity you should check it out, but itâ€™s a down and dirty mission, we didnâ€™t get out there until 5:30 a.m.! Nothing grows down there. There is no light at all. Itâ€™s too far down, all the rats are up above. No rats, no light â€“ itâ€™s just a dead zone. There were fucking bones everywhere, itâ€™s just death. To mark the occasion I ate a sausage and I hadnâ€™t had any kind of beef since 1992. But that was the atmosphere of the experience, I felt soaked in death and felt compelled to consume a bit of it, as a vegetarian it was a weird moment.
Format: Under the moniker, Count Trackula, you blog at Fecal Face, how has your experience as a blogger bridged your work as an artist?
Mike Giant: My approach to the blog is that Iâ€™m trying to offer details of my life that are somehow related to me working as an artist or my life as an artist. Iâ€™m trying to inspire that the life that you want is possible and I feel that Iâ€™ve worked hard and Iâ€™m enjoying myself. I get to travel around on the back of my art and itâ€™s been really fun. I have other friends that can and are doing the same, weâ€™re really lucky. I want to be able to share that enthusiasm. I want people to know that they can do it. You got to make compromises here and there, but itâ€™s all relative.
Format: â€œStreetwearâ€ is a popular label for emerging brands. Do you consider your work at REBEL8 to be streetwear?
Mike Giant: I definitely do. Iâ€™m with you on terminology, but I think thatâ€™s really accurate. My partner and I are simply trying to make clothes that we would wear, and we wear street clothes: jeans, T-shirts, sneakers, baseball hat, a hoodie. Thatâ€™s our standard uniform and itâ€™s totally based around street-utilitarianism. We wear clothes that we can eat dinner in, do graffiti in and ride our bikes in. To me, that is what encapsulates what streetwear is.
Format: Recently, you signed a 15 year contract with REBEL8, what direction do you see yourself taking REBEL8 in the next 15 years?
Mike Giant: We donâ€™t know. I donâ€™t know if weâ€™re going to have lofty plans. Thus far, weâ€™ve tried to come up with stuff that satisfies us and works within our budget. As things go on, weâ€™ll expand into stuff that we would really like to wear. We would like get into denim and all that kind of stuff, too, and I would like to make bicycle stuff, DVDs, all that shit. But at this point, our focus is to consistently make good stuff and itâ€™s been working for us.
Format: At REBEL8, the T-shirt designs are printed without the aide of computers. What challenges do you face in designing when the T-shirts are printed in an old school process?
Mike Giant: Yeah, as much as possible and thatâ€™s something, I think, weâ€™re going to have to talk about in the future, because it becomes a numbers game as the company grows you got to keep up with production. To go from the drawings to the T-shirts, using film, these days, is getting more and more difficult, because nobody has those cameras anymore. Itâ€™s getting trickier and I donâ€™t know how much longer weâ€™re going to be able to continue to do it. In the end, all the artwork is drawn by hand.
Format: In a recent Format feature, Married To The MOBâ€™s Leah, says that men in the streetwear community are â€œvery feminine,â€ because they troll blogs, take photos of their clothing and lineup outside stores waiting for clothing to be released. What is your opinion on the feminine characteristics that males in the streetwear community have adopted?
Mike Giant: I donâ€™t find myself getting caught up in that too much. Iâ€™m a little outside of that, but itâ€™s definitely something I see in my travels. Itâ€™s the same thing that I did in middle school, as a heavy metal kid. I had tour shirts and all the kids wanted the same shirts, and we objectified those things and elevated them to a cultural status. Itâ€™s the same thing thatâ€™s happening today, but itâ€™s a different scene. Different art, different colors, but itâ€™s still the same kind of mentality of what is cool or not, and status â€“ itâ€™s America. On some level, Iâ€™m not going to participate in fashion so much, as a man, because it doesnâ€™t really interest me, but it is cool to be in a place like Europe or Japan where men are concerned with how they look, like they give a shit as much as the girls do. I never do that, I live in Albuquerque, I can wear Dickies and T-shirts every fucking day and it doesnâ€™t matter, nobody is tripping and nobody is trying to create a thing where it becomes a priority. I wouldnâ€™t say itâ€™s feminine to be interested in fashion, as a man. I think itâ€™s a womanâ€™s point a view or if a person is already caught up in the prissiness of how youâ€™re looking and then you see men doing it, of course, it is going to come across as a feminine thing, because itâ€™s already feminized. But to me, itâ€™s trying to keep up on whatâ€™s cool and, sometimes, whatâ€™s cool is really gaudy, weird and trendy, but the trends for girls are just as stupid â€“ it comes and goes. I hope REBEL8 doesnâ€™t get caught up in that shit.
Format: A lot of the work you do is enjoyed by younger generations, as you age, do you feel the same connection with your audience or has the connection changed?
Mike Giant: Yes, I do feel out of touch with young people on one level, because Iâ€™m older. Iâ€™m not concerned with things that teenagers are concerned with, but there is a youthfulness that I try to maintain in myself, as a person, and that comes across in the work. Iâ€™m still into drawing cute girls covered in tattoos, skulls, hot rods and all those things that a rebellious teenager would be into, because itâ€™s not the status quo.
Format: Do you feel a responsibility for what your creativity produces?
Mike Giant: Something a lot of my Buddhist teachers tried to get across to me is that there are wholesome and unwholesome aspects to ourselves. They are in our thoughts, how we live, and how we interact with people. I try to water the wholesome seeds in myself and in the world, for the benefit of myself and the world. I try not to water seeds that are unwholesome, which are things that are not that conducive to the world. Certainly, there is imagery that I will shy away from, because I feel like I may be watering some unwholesome seeds in myself by manifesting those things. Other times, I may draw things that might seem unwholesome to other people, but from my personal intent and perspective, it is still coming from a good place. I canâ€™t be responsible for what people see in my work, but I can be responsible for the intent that I put into my work. Inherently, Iâ€™m not trying to cause conflict. Iâ€™m trying to open the doors of communication and get people to listen or to think. No drawing, inherently, has any meaning or presence. Itâ€™s only given its presence in the viewing. The observer gives it symbolic weight, and the object, itself, has no intrinsic value at all.