Writing Excuses 13.17: What Writers Get Wrong, with Jamahl Crouch
Key points: Street art isn’t just a vandal running around on a skateboard, it’s a form of art to be mastered. Creativity is key. Street art is free-flowing. You can make mistakes on purpose and build on those mistakes. Doing street art makes you flexible as an artist, because you don’t ever get the same surface. There’s a lot more to street art than just a dude on a skateboard spray painting a trashcan. The goal for the street artist is to be better than they were yesterday.
[Mary] Season 13, Episode 17.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, What Writers Get Wrong, with Jamahl Crouch.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Brandon] And we have special guest star Jamahl Crouch, also known as Illus. Thank you so much for being with us.
[Jamahl] Thank you for having me.
[Brandon] And we have a special guest audience at GenCon.
[Mary] So we know why we’ve invited you here today. But I’d love for the listeners to know a little bit more about you before we dive in. So tell them a little bit about yourself.
[Jamahl] Okay. So besides being a street artist, I’m also a professional painter. I do anywhere from classical work to comic books as well. I’m also an aspiring writer myself. I’m actually kind of dabbling with sculpting. I haven’t like [put much into it] yet, but I’m definitely messing around with it. Also, I enjoy teaching. That’s kind of a big pastime of mine. I think this is one of those crafts that once you learn enough, you have to be able to pass it down.
[Dan, Mary] Awesome.
[Mary] So, of those various things, which is the one that we’re focusing on today?
[Jamahl] We’ll be focusing on street art today.
[Mary] All right. So what do writers get wrong about street art?
[Jamahl] I’d say one of the biggest misconceptions they get is that it’s just some vandal running around on a skateboard…
[Jamahl] Just like drawing hairy ball sex on buildings or something like that. But I think the biggest thing that we have to look at is it’s definitely a form of art, but it’s a form of art that a lot of people spend a lot of lifetimes trying to master and develop and get better at. So I will look at it as less of something like vandalism, but more of another artistry to be mastered.
[Mary] Do you ever look at some stuff and go, “Well, okay, that one is vandalism.”
[Jamahl] Oh, yeah. Absolutely. All the time.
[Howard] You shouldn’t have done that to that wall.
[Jamahl] Yeah. Like there’s some things that people put up there just to call themselves graffiti artists. But then there’s things that I look at that somebody really spent time and effort to make look beautiful. That’s the difference. Anybody can run up and just write the name and destroy property, but it takes somebody that has some sort of conviction to sit outside in the heat, the rain, the snow, whatever the element is, and complete an actual finished body of work that might not be there tomorrow.
[Brandon] So, let me ask you this, kind of building on that. For it to be street art for you, does it have to have that kind of unexpected, it can’t be set out for you, or can it be someone hired to, say, go do this on this wall?
[Jamahl] For it to be street art, for me, it’s just the creativity that’s there. It’s one thing to be able to do it on paper. I was kind of doodling around earlier. But just to… Some people would take like junk out of the streets and nail it up to the wall and actually make that part of the subject. Or people will take different rice paper and paint it all these different colors and paste it up. I’ve seen people like take rocks and mix it with their paint and then mix it with like cement and then make graffiti out of that. It’s really like the creative process of it is unending. So when people take it to that level, that’s what I consider street art. Then there’s like other art where it’s just the amateur art I’ll call it.
[Mary] What is the line for you between street art and mural? Because you said that you do classical painting as well. I’m assuming that people hire you to paint murals. So where do you say, “Well, okay, this one’s a mural, and this is street art?”
[Brandon] Oh, much better way of asking the question I was trying to get at.
[Mary] I was an art major in college.
[Jamahl] It is a really thin line between them. I say a mural’s more of… It’s more regulated. A mural’s more a commercial thing, so it will be more of I’m doing it for a company, then there specific colors that I have to use, specific lines… Just very specific ways that I’ll have to go about doing a mural. Versus street art is really… Like, it’s really free-flowing. You guys were talking about writers’ block earlier. Street art is like… It’s one of these things that will get you around writers’ block and blocks period because it’s a free-flowing thing, it’s not really… You actually want to make mistakes on purpose and build on those mistakes versus a wall mural where you’re very systematic in trying to keep everything in order until the end of project.
[Howard] Did we just send all of our listeners out to buy spray paint?
[Howard] Is that what just happened?
[Mary] Or rice paper or rocks and cement?
[Jamahl] Whatever it takes.
[Howard] When we were in… We were recently… I say recently, at this point it’s been almost a year ago, we were in Europe. I saw a lot of street art, and the style of lettering that’s done with spray paint was fascinating to me, to see it in Swedish, to see it in German, to see it in Dutch, and to realize that I still couldn’t read it, because I didn’t know how the letters were actually working, but it was… There was a style there that was the same, on both sides of the Atlantic, on… Across all the borders. Is that a… Is that an aspect of street art, is that just a graffiti thing?
[Jamahl] Okay. So, I think it’s an aspect of street art, but I also think it’s an aspect of the individual. Because we’re looking at… Once again, it’s like an art form. I mean, I’m pretty sure you guys have watched a kung fu movie before? And you’ll see, like, a hundred different people with a hundred different styles, but there is only one protagonist that’s going to win out of all them. You look at street art the same way. It’s like all these different people from different backgrounds… Even the style of writing. All of us have a different way that we write, and that kind of embellishes itself through the art, the bigger that it gets. I’ll say that it’s both, sort of. Like, it’s more with the culture of graffiti, but also in the culture of that person that’s actually writing it.
[Howard] I just realized that my question shows a huge level of ignorance because I can’t yet see the difference between those styles. I don’t know how to look at it yet.
[Jamahl] It’s really not so much trying to see the differences between the style, but the person who wrote it. That’s the best part about graffiti to me, or street art, is that when you look at a piece or a mural or something that’s been put up there, you’re not just looking at something that’s traditionally like drenched in a culture. Which it is, it definitely has a cultural weight to it, but you’re also trying to like look at what that individual was trying to say or what this individual person was kind of like letting loose when they put this kind of stuff up there on this wall. Okay, so when you look at it, even like the way that this person writes might be a sense to like what they’ve experienced in the past or how they came up in their childhood that actually came out in this art piece.
[Mary] I think some of the things that you’re seeing when you see that stylization of the letterforms is a font that has developed over time that different people express in different ways that is related to the way spray paint cans work.
[Howard] Yeah. That’s what I always… That’s what I’ve always assumed. That leads me to my next question, which is how long does something like that take? If you’re doing a patch, a 10′ x 10′ patch of wall, and you’re putting something up…
[Mary] Howard, did you just ask how long does it take to write a book?
[Jamahl] It isn’t…
[Jamahl] There’s two [ways to answer] to that. One, if you’re doing it illegally, it should take about 15 minutes.
[Howard] See, that’s why I asked the question, because…
[Jamahl] It should take about 15 minutes, roughly. But, I mean, most of the time like I’m spray painting on something, it’s like an old building nobody cares about, so when you actually really want to like get into the whole thing, I’d say two hours. You know what I mean? Like when you actually want to create an actual work of art. But if you’re really trying to get up out of there, you’re like in and out… 15 minutes.
[Dan] Okay. So that gets back to something you mentioned earlier, that I thought…
[Howard] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Mary] And this is illegal.
[Dan] I thought it was really interesting earlier when you were talking about the dedication it takes to do this in the rain or the snow or the whatever, the heat of the sun. I think that that sounds like that that’s a key part of this, that street art is on the street, it’s outside. To what extent does the environment, nature, wherever you are play into the way you do the art and the kinds of art that you do?
[Jamahl] Well, one, like you’re actually presented with different challenges in street art. So aside from gallery art, which I also do, it’s like this really pristine thing. You get a nice canvas, sand it down, you make sure everything’s smooth. But with street art, you don’t know what you’re going to be… You’ll get wood, you’ll get concrete, you’ll get bricks. So it kind of makes you flexible as an artist to approach these different surfaces in a different way. You kind of look at that as a microcosm of life. You don’t ever get the same surface in anything. You always have to approach something in a different way, so… I mean, I would say that that’s the one thing that I would notice about like how they approach street art. As far as like how the art turns out that’s entirely up to like how you figure out a situation that you’re in.
[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and pause right here so you can promote and send us some way so we can see your art.
[Jamahl] Okay. So the one place that I have most of my art is my Instagram. That is illusmm1. That’s spelled I, l, l, u, s, m, m, 1. That’s also my Gmail, so if anybody wants to just kind of contact me through my email or anything like that, it’s [email protected]
[Howard] The illustration you’ve done here on the paper, which I’m hoping you’ll let me take a picture of so I can include it… It doesn’t have to happen right now, but we’ll get it up on the page. You’ve got three l’s. So is it I, l, l, l, u, s? In Instagram…
[Jamahl] It’s just two l’s.
[Howard] Or is it 2 l’s?
[Jamahl] Yeah. I just happened to draw an extra L in there. I was kind of nervous…
[Howard] So it’s one of those mistakes you gotta run with.
[Jamahl] Yeah, I was kind of like I’m going to go with it. I was just kind of like I’m going to doodle something before the show. I was nervous, and I was like, okay, I’m going to just…
[Brandon] I’ve got a question I really want to know. I have heard that there is like a kind of law of street art, that there are certain rules you follow? Is that true or is that just like urban lore? You don’t paint over someone else’s art if your’s is worse and stuff like that?
[Jamahl] That’s actually like… That kind of is a thing. I’m not going to like make that up. But it’s… Whether they follow it or not, you never know. But it is kind of a thing, where it’s like if somebody’s done a nice piece of work, leave it alone. If your work isn’t that good, chances are it might be getting tag… It might be ran over or something.
[Jamahl] Like that’s just part of the culture. But yeah, that is kind of a thing, though.
[Brandon] I heard that there are like certain places that are off-limits to a lot of street artists, in certain places that are encouraged to put your art up and things like that as well.
[Jamahl] Yeah. Like mostly I go for abandoned buildings, so I just don’t get hassled, but the places that’s off-limits are more tempting to those that are like the type of like vandals, you know what I mean? If you want to call them that. They kind of tend to like go for those things for a namesake, for fame or whatever. But for the most part, though, most of the graffiti artists I know tend to like to stay off onto like abandoned buildings because they really want to kind of embellish the artwork, versus just getting a name out there.
[Dan] Cool. I wanted to ask a question. Because our audience is primarily writers, so I’m wondering first of all, if you’ve ever seen street art or street art culture depicted in the media, and if that was accurate or inaccurate?
[Jamahl] I have. Some of it… I think the most accurate that I’ve seen it is if you’ve ever watched Netflix’s, it’s a show called the Get Down…
[Brandon] Oh, I love that show.
[Jamahl] Yeah. That show is probably like the most accurate form… That even happens today. Like, just how like artists like kind of trade these ideas. It’s just… much what you guys are doing, just now, like right here in this room. We all just trading these ideas and these thoughts and these things. Going back to our own kind of wall, if you will, and expressing that. That was probably the most accurate depiction. But the most… For the most part though, not really like. I’ve seen it where it’s just like this dude on a skateboard, just kind of like spray painting a trashcan and running away or something like that. It’s like… There’s really a lot more than that.
[Jamahl] You know what I mean?
[Howard] Well, I mean… That’s a thing that happens, but that’s just vandalism.
[ Howard] And it’s clumsy because…
[Jamahl] There’s a difference. But there’s people that really take time to… They read a lot of books on the subject, they stay at home and they practice the same drawing like 10, 20, 30, 40 times before they go outside and do it. So they can do something in two hours. They can take a two hour drawing and do it in 15 minutes. It’s like… I think people miss out on the part where it’s like you really at home like practiced the same design over and over and over.
[Howard] So it’s crossing the line a bit between street art as a permanent installation and performance art as an act which you have rehearsed, and when it is happening, it’s an artform in and of itself.
[Jamahl] Absolutely. Yeah, I mean, the goal is to get good enough to where you can do something that takes 10 hours and you can scrunch it down and you are able to do it in an hour. That’s what a master is.
[Mary] But it… That actually leads me to a question that I’ve been wanting to ask. One of the things that we often talk about on the podcast is making sure that our character has a clear goal, that they’ve got a motivation. What… If one of our readers… Listeners was going to write a character who was a street artist, what kind of goal would they be striving for?
[Jamahl] I think the goal that they would be striving for… This, I don’t know if everybody would resonate with this as an art… As a writer, but the goal that they would be striving for is really just to get better than what they were yesterday. A lot of times, we look at… There’s like this destination that you’re trying to get to, like I’m the best, and that’s it. But it’s really a thing where it’s like, “OK, I’ve gotten this good. But can I do better than what I’ve done before?” So I think the motivation for that character would be to top themselves, really.
[Howard] That’s way too healthy for writers to…
[Mary] They aren’t going to know how to handle that. That’s going to be very confusing.
[Brandon] Well, we are out of time. Were are you going to give us some homework or a writing prompt or something?
[Jamahl] Yeah. Just… Definitely the most accurate one I said was… Definitely watch Get Down and just kind of watch those scenes with the graffiti artists in there. Then try it yourself. That’s the best part. Just get a can of spray paint. If you go out in your backyard or your neighborhood wall or abandoned building. Just try it out yourself and just see how it feels and go from there.
[Brandon] That is probably the most unique homework we’ve ever given on Writing Excuses.
[Howard] You told them to go outside.
[Brandon] Jamahl, thank you so much for being on our podcast.
[Jamahl] Thanks for having me.
[Brandon] Thank you to our audience at GenCon.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.