HUBweek Change Maker: Caleb Neelon

Artist & Writer

Photo Credit: Todd Mazer

Caleb Neelon is an artist and writer based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. When he was 13 years-old back in 1990, the sight of the newly opened Berlin Wall covered in graffiti and murals was a revelation. By the mid-1990s, he was immersed in the global graffiti scene under the name SONIK.

Today, his murals and artworks can be seen in city streets and exhibitions throughout the world. Caleb’s broad range of recent activity includes studio artwork, cultural diplomacy projects through the U.S. State Department; curatorial work at museums, projects bringing artwork to hospitals, documentary film production, and painting for fun in the street. Caleb has authored or collaborated on over two dozen books including the landmark 2011 HarperCollins release The History of American Graffiti, co-authored with Roger Gastman. Most mornings you can find Caleb at the kitchen table drawing with his daughter before her mom wakes up.

As an artist and a writer, what problem are you working to solve? Can you share a little bit about where you find inspiration? I suppose ultimately the ‘problem’ I am working to solve is to create a fulfilling life for myself. That involves a lot of people and a lot of putting good and lovely things out into the world, and a lot of highlighting the work of others. I’m inspired by lots of things. Work leads to inspiration.

What originally inspired you to do street art and why have you kept Boston as your base? I have several memories of seeing graffiti when I was young, and they all made a strong impression on me. I wanted in, and when I started to figure out how graffiti worked as a teenager (this is before the term ‘street art’ was used much). I wanted to learn everything I could about it, all over the world and throughout its history. I’ve stayed here because I’m a townie and my wife is, too. Cambridge, where I live, isn’t really known as a hub for professional artists, but it definitely is a hub for people who hole up nerding out researching and writing, and one out of two ain’t bad.

Why did you decide to start writing about art and graffiti in addition to creating it? Writing articles for print was something I had done since I was a young teenager, right around the same time I took up graffiti. In the 1990s, the stack of books that you could find about graffiti was about three inches tall, and since this was pre-Amazon, it wasn’t automatic that you could find them. Practitioner-made magazines by the mid-1990s had a lot of reach, though, and when I started writing for a few of them, they reached everyone within the culture world-wide. I knew the interest was there, and over time, publishers woke up. Twenty-something books later, I still like making them. I get to meet some of my favorite artists and ask them a great deal of nosy questions. In today’s age where people curate shows and events by metrics as inane as numbers of Instagram followers, solid books with actual research hopefully steer the ship toward real understanding. And I care about that.

What impact do you hope to have? A positive one.

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your career, either as a writer and/or an artist? The challenge has always been the long term. I think all artists have to face the challenge of keeping everything moving in the right direction so that they get to their old age and still dig what they do. I’ve been a professional artist for twenty years. The challenge is the next forty. Artists don’t retire, remember.

One thing people might find surprising about you or what you do? Different people are surprised by different things, so that’s a hard question.

Something you wish you knew when you first started out as a street artist? When I started writing graffiti in the early 1990s, it wasn’t something that got attention in media, art, or publishing circles. The change in attitudes has been huge and it’s been a great ride to be in some small way a part of. I suppose I wish I knew more mentors when I was in my teens.

What’s next? This is sort of a regular summer for me: a few mural projects, working on another few books, more studio art, and curating another museum show for early next year.

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