BasementApproved gets exclusive access as New York graffiti artist, Bisco Smith, touches down in London for his latest exhibition RE/STRUCTURE at OMNI.
A true graff OG, with collaborators including Nike and adidas under his belt, Bisco Smith has taken his love of lettering and translated it into a body of work that places the run-and-gun art form in an elevated gallery context.
Having recently emigrated to Lisbon, Portugual this year – a much needed change of pace and cultural reset, having lived in NYC for the past two decades – Bisco arrived in London this week ready to work. Selected as the inaugural exhibit for brand new gallery and events space OMNI in central London, Bisco invited BasementApproved down for an exclusive BTS glimpse at his process as he staged and created the exhibition, titled RE/STRUCTURE, in real time.
Diving deep on his past and present, the importance of flow and rhythm in his artistic process, and how new fatherhood has changed him, Bisco offers a unique glimpse into his artistic process and what goes into to staging a solo exhibition so far from home.
Hey Bisco! In the age of the multi-hyphenate, I love to hear how people describe themselves, so first off give us a bit of an introduction to Bisco Smith?
Ey! Thanks for the time and the light! I always tell people I am a painter, I paint canvases, murals, walls, etc… Through the years I have been a lot of things, an MC, a DJ, a graphic designer, even a short time trying to be a B-boy (that didn’t last). But where I’m at and have been for sometime is a painter.
Your work is such a celebration of old-school graffiti - the stuff you see in underpasses and along the sides of train tracks. When did your love of graff begina nd was there ever a question that you’d go in that direction with your own artwork?
Very much a celebration of the art form and the energy. I fell into the wall writing hole back in the early nineties and somehow have found myself here. I honestly never really questioned where it was going, I just go and wherever it lands, I’m open.
Watching you work, you can really see the influence of your early days as a graffiti writer - taking lettering and making it abstract and expressive. While you’re working, are they letters to you or just shapes/strokes?
Glad you caught that moment with the paint. All my paintings are based in language, writing, letters, raps, and song writing. Everything I am doing now was born from writing freestyles onto the wall.
You cite music and lyricism as a massive influence, what do you like to listen to while you’re working?
I listen to beats – nothing with lyrics while I’m painting. This give me room to let my mind work the words and clears the space to think. But to get my energy up before I paint I will listen to rap or some drum and bass.
What music artists are you fucking with right now?
Late to the party but just tuned into Burna Boy! Lately I have been heavy on some Nas and some Evidence.
Watching you work, there’s a fluidity and flow that’s almost like a performance in itself which we see in the exhibition at OMNI with some video of you working. Are you quite comfortable working in front of people as an additional part of your artistic expression or do you prefer to work alone?
Both spaces have a feeling. I used to perform as a DJ and later as an MC, so I’m okay with the crowds and sometimes feed off the energy of knowing people are watching, but the other side of that is there are no mistakes allowed – got to stay sharp. In the studio, I can make mistakes and try new things all day and wherever that leads can be a surprise. I think I need a balance of both, around the people and in the studio.
Let’s talk about the new exhibition at OMNI. RE/STRUCTURE is the name, tell us a bit about it?
A few weeks before the pandemic my wife and I had a baby, our first. Soon after, it was lockdown and everything had changed. I think parenthood changes us for sure, and the pandemic changed the world around us. I felt like we went and still are going through a restructuring as humans, countries, economies, etc. The “/“ makes the (re) read as, in response to / structure. I could go deeper and deeper as each piece has real moments, restructure related thoughts, and notes to self written into it, but maybe that’s enough on it for now.
Your work is traditionally super monochromatic and graphic, but here we’re seeing the introduction of some colour - what was the motivation behind that?
Anytime I use color there is a reason, or at least I aim for that. The yellow is a construction yellow, a utilitarian color signaling building and changing. My son is also really into construction trucks and big equipment and I feel like some inspiration may have come from that as well.
You cite politics, the pandemic, and becoming a father for the first time as sources of inspiration for the collection. Do you feel like the convergence of those three factors has changed you fundamentally as an artist? If so, how?
I would say I’m still expressing myself in the same aesthetic style, but maybe it all means more now I’m a parent. I also feel that as an artist I’m always evolving, so maybe that change is coming in time. For this collection, I feel I stayed in the space I enjoy the most which is the writing.
This is a question I always love to ask creative practitioners who pull from real life to inform their work: do you think the world is fucked?
Haha, I do, but I also think it’s beautiful and it’s always been fucked. I think the climate situation is what troubles me most as it feels way larger than human issues like war or money, and seems like an issue humanity has not faced yet. But the birds are still flying and the sun is still shining for now, so a little yes and a little no on that one.
You mentioned you’ve just left NYC after 20 years to relocate to Lisbon. That’s a big ol’ leap. What inspired the move?
Life is short and we needed to complete the full restructure. I try to see life as a story and in the end how ill will that story be? America is going through it, and Lisbon came as we are looking to balance out the values, the space, the energy, the impact and really try something new. We still keep a studio in Brooklyn so we will be going between the two cities, but Lisbon has that Southern California weather and that New York public transportation. A fresh art scene, health care, schools, and feels more peaceful and balanced in general.
How are you finding Europe? What are the biggest differences between here and the US?
Loving it! I feel connected to so many cultures here and it feels super global. It’s only been about 3/4 weeks since we touched down so I am just really tuning into the Lisbon energy, but I will say so far I feel like Portugal has the warmest people I’ve met and the energy has me way more balanced. Can’t wait to see where it leads and how life evolves.
Last questions - best spot to eat in NYC and best city in the world for graffiti?
I am a simple man on the food side, I think I would have to say for me there is nothing more staple than a proper New York bodega sandwich – every neighborhood has that one spot. And you know Pizza has to be on my list, shout out to my guys at Joe and Johns in Queens with that super proper New York Pizza slice. On the graffiti side that’s a tough one, New York got the classics, Paris last time I went was smashed, Berlin has some of the illest spots I have ever seen.
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