From painting on the floor of his apartment in Santa Cruz, California to bombing the streets of L.A. and designing album covers, Mear One has come a long way. He started as an art student, winning contests and taking drawing courses. By the time he dropped out, graffiti was a fulltime career for Mear One â€“gaining him the acceptance of prominent local crews and his big break at Zero One art gallery. Mearâ€™s talent and love of underground hip-hop grew into a design career, working on album covers for some of his favorite artists. What sets Mear One apart is the seriousness in how he carries out his art and the conscious themes he portrays in his work. He wants his audience to not only appreciate his designs, but the underlying message as well.
“To be a real graffiti artist you had to tag, you had to participate in the game that was already created. And if you didnâ€™t, you were looked at [like] you werenâ€™t real”
Format: What made you first decide you wanted to be an artist?
Mear One: Well, I been doinâ€™ it since I was a little kid. It just seemed like the natural process to evolve into, without having to do the regular day-job thing. It was more comfortable to be doing art than anything else because it was what came natural.
Format: Why graffiti?
Mear One: I was a trouble-making teenager, so graffiti art is the most inspiring activity I could get into at that age of burning buildings down and throwing rocks at cars and shit. It was a more creative route to take.
Format: Who put you on to tagging?
Mear One: Some of my best friends that I was down with were into it, and like I said earlier, being a troublesome rambunctious teenager, graffiti art was rather therapeutic â€“ a creative way to express all this frustration I was having and all this behavioral outbreak â€“ causing trouble, stealing and doing all this shit I used to be into.
You know, tagging was the first introductory phase into graffiti art. To be a real graffiti artist you had to tag, you had to participate in the game that was already created. And if you didnâ€™t, you were looked at [like] you werenâ€™t real, you hadnâ€™t put in the actual time or work that the true graffiti artists had. It was an introductory phase and I still tag. I think that itâ€™s a sign of resistance.
Format: Can you tell me more about Skate One, CBS (Canâ€™t Be Stopped) and WCA (West Coast Art)?
Mear One: Well Skate One was a homie of mine who went to my junior high school and lived in my neighborhood and I always kind of idolized him because he was such a magnanimous human. He had a lot of strengths as an individual and he got up a lot of places and did his graffiti art. And it was really inspirational to get down with someone who was willing to teach and who was willing to share the passage into becoming a real graffiti writer. Homeboy would pick us up from nowhere â€“ we were just artists trying to figure out what direction we were going and he would sort of guide us and teach us into becoming a well-developed graffiti artist. Itâ€™s kinda like he was a teacher. Canâ€™t Be Stopped was a slogan that we lived by â€“ itâ€™s like nothing can stop us from developing our art and becoming successful in whatever we want to become. Canâ€™t Be Stopped was the slogan that we lived by and we were a crew.
So West Coast Art was another crew that ran the Fairfax neighborhood which I brought myself up in. I grew up in Hollywood, but as soon as I became a graffiti writer I moved over to the Fairfax district. Fairfax district was like a alternative to the rest of the city for people like me. I always sort of idolized that crew [West Coast Art] because they had the dopest murals, they had a whole team of heads who were dedicated to getting up and bombing illegal burners on the freeways and just doing it, you know? Really doing it.
Yeah, so those were the two dominant crews in my neighborhood and as soon as I got down with that crew we like took off. I was sort of like the youngster in the mix and as I came of age and came up, a lot of these people have moved on to do other things and Iâ€™ve carried on since then. I mean, Iâ€™m still out here doing my graffiti art that I started with back in â€˜86, â€™87 â€“ Iâ€™m still doing it now, so everyone had a really huge influence and effect on me â€“ the whole graffiti scene.
Format: On your website you mention using art jobs to support your graffiti aspirations. Historically, graffiti artists would steal their materials. Were you ever considered a toy or unauthentic for choosing a different route?
Mear One: Naw. I mean, I got my start by traveling all over Southern California stealing my spray paint. I think everyone starts out as a toy in some sense. When youâ€™re fresh in any scene, all of the pioneers are going to look down upon you and feel threatened by anybody new coming into their mix, and as they become familiarized with you and your style, you gain acceptance and youâ€™re not considered a toy anymore â€“ so, â€œyesâ€ and â€œnoâ€ to all of those questions.
I started off stealing all my supplies and evolved to a state where you mature and get old. You donâ€™t want to be some fool standing in the store stealing stuff when you know you have the skills and ability to get hold of the supplies in other ways. Itâ€™s been 30…35 years now, Iâ€™d feel really silly going into a store trying to steal spray paint.
So to figure out how to get corporate America to pay me to do what I love doing, and then take the money from that and invest it back into my purpose â€“ which is, I donâ€™t wanna say its anti-corporate or anti-America or anything like that, but my purpose is to wake myself up and become a more conscious artist in the scene and express truth. You know, piercing truth that gets through the rhetoric and the stereotypes. Iâ€™ve been a stereotype for many years of my career. Being a graffiti artist, you become a stereotype and Iâ€™ve tried to transcend that through finding my own freedom and discovering in myself what graffiti art is to me now.
Format: How did the death of Skate One affect your work?
Mear One: Well, homeboy was killed by a train that night. When I got the phone call from my homies that this had happened, I realized at that moment that for all of us, the art that weâ€™re involved in is much more important to our whole team than we had realized. I had come to a realization that we were willing to die for our art, and homeboy had just died for his art â€“ he was painting trains when he got struck by Amtrak, and it just makes you realize that I was livinâ€™ in a state of being unaware.
Just doing this art and risking my life and not being aware of the fact that I could die for itâ€¦ once I became aware of that, it made me take it much more seriously. My art became my life completely, one hundred per cent. I wasnâ€™t just some lost teenager vandalizing walls and having fun trying to be the best or this, that or the other, to be a king or all these things that we all strive to be at that young age. I erased all of that from my mind and realized that I was on a life-long journey and I had to become very aware of what Iâ€™m doing because I could die at any moment. It was less of a joke, it was less of a fun thing to me, it was less of a lightweight experience â€“ it became my life-long purpose when that happened.
Format: How did tagging on the street transition into creating album covers?
Mear One: A lot of the hip-hop artists have brought me on and had me do their work. I made friends with them as the respect of their music and them having respect for me as a pioneer, a real graffiti writer and not just some art-school student who copied the graffiti style, but an actual pioneer that defined the style.
They also respected that I didnâ€™t just do my name and my crew and a silly character, but my style evolved into a symbolic message, like I was a symbolic messenger bringing a level of everything from metaphysical truth to political awareness to social realities that we exist within, and displaying this in a very metaphorical way, like poetry that would definitely inspire people and flip ‘em out when they werenâ€™t used to seeing truth shoved in their face like that. Thatâ€™s why a lot of people have respected me as an artist â€“ I donâ€™t just paint a pretty picture, I try to bring relevancy of our time and situation into form and create a discussion out of it, and a lot of the times the hip hop that I worked with represented that.
Format: What process goes into the design of album cover art?
Mear One: Well, I guess I usually ask the artist for some music to listen to and any advice, whatever they want to see. Usually the best situation is they give me the music and ask for my interpretation of it â€“ thatâ€™s kind of like what my job as an artist is â€“ listen to that music and describe it through artistic means. Quite often people call me up and theyâ€™ll have a specific idea they want to see me do, so itâ€™s a combination a little give and take on both parts.
Format: Your gallery is extensive. What artists have you designed for?
Mear One: Much of the L.A. underground scene is where I got my start. Working with the Freestyle Fellowship, Supernatural MC, Iâ€™ve worked in the drum and bass scene with Hives. Iâ€™ve done work for the Visionaries, thatâ€™s evolved outwards into the world because the L.A. underground hip-hop scene was so extensive and big around the world. Iâ€™m doing work for all kinds of people around the country and the world, for that matter, now. Iâ€™ve done big majors. As far as working on sets and building sets and backgrounds for Lenny Kravitz to designing the album cover for The Significant Other [for] Limp Bizkit. Quite often some of these people arenâ€™t my favorite choice in music, but as an artist you have to be open to work with all kinds of people to fund your own freedom.
Format: What are your thoughts on the state of cover art design today?
Mear One: I think cover design is a way music can be interpreted without hearing sound; a visual can express the sentiment of the music and connect us to the idea of whatâ€™s inside.
Format: What projects are you working on now?
Mear One: My newest work is a body of pieces that has taken me seven years [that] I have been chippin’ away at, and is coming to completion this summer. It focuses on the journey we take into the unknown mystery of life and how we fight through the struggle to come to a new way of looking at life and ourselves. I have striped away all the concoctions of the reality we are used to and posed a complex situation for us to ponder on, also I have a few that deal in riddles. These are my most proud works and I canâ€™t wait to show the world.
Format: Do you have any advice for artists aspiring to follow in your footsteps?
Mear One: As for an up and coming artist, just follow the feelings inside and work to define the images in your minds. No need to waste time getting a piece of validation from the authorities of art, just do the art and donâ€™t let anyone stop you.