10 October, 2012

New Heroes Rising: an Interview with Homo Riot

Homo Riot was first spotted on the streets of Los Angeles in 2008.  The work was that of an angry artist making a public statement about the passage of Prop 8, a California initiative which stated that only marriages between men and women would be recognized by the State.  The highly charged and occasionally sexually explicit imagery, quickly penetrated the mainstream in Los Angeles and became a rallying cry for gays, lesbians and their supporters.  Almost immediately, the street art community embraced the work and Homo Riot the artist became part of an ascending group of artists considered to be at the forefront of the street art movement in America.  He continues to make his mark on the streets and create works of art that propel ideas of equality, challenge existing ideas of what it is to be gay and empower young gays and lesbians.

The initial intent to offend and lash out at the supporters of Prop 8 has now morphed into something more profound and far reaching.  The work is now an emblem of pride and strength, not only in California but around the World thanks to the internet, social media and artistic outreach through a project launched last year by the artist called The Global Homo Riot.

Thank you for joining us to talk about the politics of your life and work.  First off: why make art by an alternate identity?

HR:  It started out as a necessity to avoid any hassle from the cops but as I continued making and showing art under the alias I realized that it works for me on many levels.  The moniker gives the work a layer of mystery.  It serves as a placeholder for people’s ideas about who makes the art.  By working under the moniker I can imbue the work with a “vigilante” quality that I don’t think would be as successful under my given name.  Also, there’s a historical reference to the frequent anonymity of gay men in society and a modern cultural reference to the “ANON” sexual encounters of gay men.  As a street artist, I’m working in dark alleys at night, trying to avoid being seen, doing the deed quickly and getting an adrenaline rush.  In this way, the work parallels the cruising habits and hook ups of gay men throughout history.

I understand you were compelled to take art to the streets when Prop. 8 was passed.  Has Homo Riot generated any advance for this cause over the last 4 years?

HR:  I doubt it.  But my intention was never to “advance” the cause.  My expression was one of outrage.  I didn’t want to build bridges and appease anyone.  I wanted to spit in their faces.  I didn’t want to convince Mormons and Evangelicals that I should be allowed to marry my partner.  I wanted to manifest their greatest fear about gay marriage on their streets and in their neighborhoods.  I wanted to let loose leather boys fucking in public, bearded bears making out on street corners, and masked muscle bound queers threatening them with sodomy.  That anger propelled my work in the streets early on.  Now my motivation has evolved.  Today it’s as much about communicating a strong positive presence to young gays and lesbians as it is about pissing off puritans.

Do you continue to be directly involved in any organizational or grassroots support of gay rights?

HR:  While I support groups fighting for equality and gay rights in my personal life and I’ve donated artwork to GLAAD auctions and AIDS charities, I’m not active with any groups currently through my art.  I do have an interest in starting an organization that would seek political asylum for gays and lesbians who are persecuted in countries around the world.  We grant asylum to those persecuted for their religion.  Shouldn’t we do the same for people who are threatened with imprisonment and death for their sexual orientation? 

Absolutely.  That would be an incredible service.  As for your more recent projects, Jeremy Novy curated a "A History of Queer Street Art" for SOMArts in San Francisco.  Please explain your role in helping to bring that exhibition to LA.

HR:  I knew that Los Angeles would be a very welcoming and supportive city for the show.  I contacted Jeremy and described what I had in mind, which was to take the show from an academic and traditional gallery setting to a more authentic raw street venue.  I contacted all of the participating artists, recruited some new artists to the show and had new work sent in to be included.  In addition, we had merchandise including t-shirts, a limited edition book and sticker packs available for sale, which is something that wasn’t possible in the previous show. 

I installed the show in a small gallery a block off Hollywood Blvd, in the heart of Hollywood.  It’s a gritty spot (a half block from the notorious gay dive bar The Spot Light Room—which has since been closed down) where tourists from all over the world, teenage runaways and drunk hipsters converge.  It seemed an appropriate place for the work.  The show ran for a month and had incredible attendance.  I’m hopeful that the show will make it to other cities.  It’s an impressive collection and deserves to be seen more widely.

It’s funny—I think that, when seen on the street, images are frequently perceived as more explicit and confrontational than they would be in a gallery setting.

HR:  I understand the point.  When you walk into a gallery most people know that they may be faced with something unexpected or disturbing.  On the other hand, there’s an expectation when you’re in the car with your kids or your grandmother that you won’t be subjected to questionable images plastered on bus stops.  But I’m working outside of the norm and I want to challenge people.  Maybe a conversation about two men kissing is one that wouldn’t happen without my imagery.  Maybe the kid in the car is gay and would benefit from a conversation like that with his father.

That image of two men kissing is my most recognized work and whether in a gallery or on a billboard, I don’t see it is as explicit or particularly confrontational, unless you are a puritan.

Right, and in the case of “two men kissing” there is evidence of ignorance among us.  However, when you intensify the content of your images—say, with a man ejaculating/urinating?—you do give it a pretty strong push.  Are you as brash in conversation as you are with your prints?

HR:  Ultimately, I’m an artist.  My street work can be confrontational and message driven but my fine art is not about activism or making a point.   In person, I’m a fairly innocuous and soft-spoken man.

So tell us more about your fine art projects.  Do you intend to continue with gallery exhibitions?  How do you translate your work for this forum?

HR:  As long as galleries are interested in showing my work I will gladly supply them with it.  My street work and my gallery work share imagery and are definitely related to one another.  But where my urban art is aggressive and message driven, my fine art is completely personal.  It’s pure self-expression and exploration.   I think art that’s simply pushing an agenda is boring and has little sustained value.   The work I create for galleries comes from my subconscious and is a reflection of my life experiences, my idiosyncrasies, my culture and my obsessions.

Homo Riot's gallery works for an upcoming show at
Bert Green Fine Art.
Nov. 3rd - Dec. 22nd #losangelesqueer

And you have a show coming up for Bert Green’s gallery, correct?

HR:  Yes, it opens November 3rd and runs until the end of the month at Bert Green Fine Art.  The name of the show is #losangelesqueer.   The title is a reference to the modern importance of the digital “tag”.   There are a dozen or so pieces in the show and they take inspiration from LA’s “gay”borhoods and notorious cruising spots.  The works themselves are meditations on “old” gay and “new” gay.   They are full of vintage gay imagery, much of it shot in Los Angeles, and the interplay of that with graffiti.


Homo Riot in the streets of Chicago . . . 2012

I remember a time when people thought “we won’t see a Black president in our lifetime.”  What needs to happen for us to see someone other than a heteronormative figurehead in the Oval Office?

HR:  I’m not sure what it would take.  I doubt it will happen in my lifetime.  Maybe the Rapture is the answer.  Not that I’m waiting for that to happen, but it doesn’t sound so bad all things considered.   In that scenario the “righteous” Christians are sucked off the planet to parts unknown leaving the rest of us heathens to sort it out for a thousand years or so.  We might have a chance that way.  Hopefully, our fortunes don’t ride on the eventuality of the Rapture. 

I’ve more than once wondered what it would be like if a well known and prolific male porn star became a national hero either by preventing a terrorist’s attack, or saving the life of the first lady or disarming a gunman at a televised sporting event.  The media would celebrate him.  Every minute of television coverage for days would recount the events and glorify his heroism until some journalist in Topeka uncovers his past.  (Can you imagine hundreds of thousands of straight people in America Google-ing a gay porn star for images?)  We would all be fascinated by the size of his dick or the measure to which he could bottom.  It would force our nation to think about gay sex and gays as heroes.  Assuming that this imagined gay porn star were well spoken, intelligent, unashamed of his past and without other foibles, who’s to say that he couldn’t run for the White House and win.   

You mentioned in the boy meets boy blog interview that “I wish there were queer street artists in every city, in every neighborhood. The world would be a better place.”  What do queer individuals have to teach the people of our national public?

HR:  I believe visibility is critical and not just gays on Glee and Project Runway but locally.  I think realizing that there are gays all around us helps to do away with some of the fear straight uneducated people have.  That kind of visibility also serves to empower young gays and encourage the closeted gay to come out and join the crowd.  We are not served by blending in and being homogenized.  We are unique and our story is yet to be written.  That a predominate number of people in our country still believe that we have chosen to be gay and lesbian proves that we have a long way to go in educating our people. 

The denotations of an “America culture” are very loaded.  Do you consider yourself an “American” and, if so, by what terms?

HR:  I love my country.  I am 100% American.  I may one day choose to live outside of this country but I will always consider myself American.   I have a decidedly Western take on logic, science and life in general.  I am a child of free speech, exploration, experimentation, and rock and roll and in those ways I believe I am very American.  That said, I’m frequently disappointed in my country and my countrymen.  I am disillusioned by our government and its leaders.  The tenets that this country were founded on have been so perverted by historical rewriting and political expediency that liberty and the pursuit of happiness are now viewed as limited rights while the rights of the wealthy and powerful mock the idea of equality and democracy.

Homo Riot's early work, block print

Can you tell us about your art work pre-Homo Riot?

HR:  I’ve been creating art almost all of my life so my body of work is varied and covers the gamut from sculpture to works on paper.  Most of my early work was collage and mixed media.  In school, I considered myself a painter but as I get older I realize how much I love printmaking.  Part of my artistic life for the past two decades has been street art.  I didn’t even have a name for it when I started.  It was just intuitive that I make my mark on the streets in a public, non-traditional setting.   Now I combine all of these elements, collage, painting, printmaking and street art to create my current work.  But without doubt, my work has always had a strong sexual component to it.

Last year, you organized the GLOBAL HOMO RIOT initiative—even going so far as to distribute “kits” across the world!  How do you delineate Homo Riot authorship when the hand of another person has grafted one of your images onto the street?

HR:  When it comes to the street work, I don’t really worry about “authorship”.  Over the past few years, I’ve disseminated so many stickers and pasters that it becomes a moot point.   I would happily share credit for any Homo Riot street work with the person who took the initiative to put it up and spread the word.

Homo Riot, thank you so much.  More on Homo Riot can be found here:
More artwork, press, and information about Homo Riot’s upcoming show at Bert Green Fine Art http://bgfa.us/artists/homoriot

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