Designing Kudoglyphs And Unpacking Symbols With Alloyius McIlwaine
Alloyius McIlwaine is a Philly based street artist who’s painted some 140+ murals in his city as well as countless others all around the world. He’s a busy guy, regularly working on brand collaborations, social justice campaigns and good-spirited projects driven by his own will and enthusiasm.
Based in the US, Alloyius is in the thick of conversations around how art impacts the public and the responsibility of artists to use their platform for social good. A master of captivating viewers with bright, positive murals, Alloyius’ work also comes with deeper messaging, hitting people while they’re engaged and feeling optimistic, which is exactly where he wants them.
Alloyius McIlwaine was a brave soul to join the Street Art Unearthed podcast on its very first episode, where he talked about the culture difference between graffiti and street art. On this next episode, Alloyius joined us to talk about the role artists play in changing perspectives and engaging in political conversations.
He also discusses his unique Kudoglyphs, hidden hieroglyphic type symbols hidden in his work, which he is building out to create a Rosetta Stone adding a whole other level of messaging to his work.
Check out the first podcast with Alloyius McIlwaine below to learn about his background and the difference between street art and graffiti culture.
Then listen to the latest podcast with Alloyius McIlwaine here, or read on for excerpts from the chat.
Murals Picking Up in Philly
Things are good. Things are pretty good here. As I was saying a little earlier, it’s actually been very, very busy for me mural wise. I have eight or nine projects right now running simultaneously, and they’re keeping me busy. So I don’t have any complaints other than the fact that I need a vacation.
I feel like since the beginning, there has been a fair amount of work and stuff coming in. I don’t think I saw layoff at all. I think even to this point, I was still having to turn down jobs just so I had some breathing room, which is a good thing.
The good thing about Philly is once people know you in Philly for doing something, everyone contacts you for it.
It’s one of those cities where it’s a big city, but it’s the smallest big city in the world. Everyone knows each other here.
What Keeps Alloyuis McIlwaine Busy
I just did a mural for a preschool. They just wanted something that was really bright and colourful and fun to excite the kids. So I just did one for them. I’m doing one for this marketing research company called Guru. I just finished it. It was like there was a silhouette of a brain and then I had to fill the brain in with a bunch of really cool stuff, like hot air balloons and stuff. Some just like symbols of what they try to do for their business.
I just did two magazine covers. One is for a Bella Magazine. I painted my sister for the magazine cover, which was really cool for the one. Then I did another one for this street art blog in Brooklyn. They do print in a digital magazine, so I did one for them.
What else? Oh, I have this black, long mural that I’m doing in this area across from our Widener University here. Probably about 40, 50 minutes outside of Philly. So I’ve been working on that too. And that’s most of the stuff I can think of. That’s all the current stuff that I’m doing right now.
Serving the Underserved
I just started this initiative where I’m going to take people once a month, get a whole crew together and just find a community that’s underserved and do some murals and do some beautification projects and stuff there.
I did the first one on my birthday, and I was like, “This so cool.” So I’m going to do it more often. I’m going to put up in my timeline, in my feed pretty soon.
I just called my friend up, and I was like, “Hey, I want to get some people together to beautify the neighbourhood for my birthday.” And he was like, “All right, I’ll call you back.” It’s that simple… He called me back, and we got it together. And what the most amazing thing about that was, just the love that we got from the community.
There’s this one guy, and I don’t know, I think he probably was a drug dealer, but he came by and called us over to the car while we were painting. And literally just put a $100 in our hand for paint. And he was like, “I appreciate what you’re doing,” and drove off.
And so I was like just the fact that someone appreciated what we were doing for the community that much that they wanted to contribute to it, I just thought that was really special.
Putting Positivity Out to the World
I’m always mindful of it because with all my work, I really try to put out really super positive things whether it’s shapes with words in it that are positive or just the feeling or even if something is more themed. I always try to make sure I’m putting something really, really positive out there into the world. And I’ll put something different depending on the other area that I’m painting in.
I always want to be mindful of the people that live in the community so that I’m doing something that they’ll appreciate because they are the people that are going to have to see it every day. You just want to make sure you take care of those people and do right by them.
That’s exactly the plan. Draw them in with a little bit of honey and hit them with some stuff that might be a little bit uncomfortable, but it’s something that you need to know so that we can make the world a better place.
Addressing Tough Topics With Tough Crowds
It’s when I see or hear or feel something that I feel compelled to write or speak about. Otherwise, it’s mostly just me just trying to bring more light and colour into the world, but sometimes there’s something going on in society that’s really heavy that I feel I need to speak on. And that’s when that comes into light, that kind of situation.
There are certain things that I do feel pressure about. Like there’s this one thing that I have coming up. So there’s this town that’s actually had been historically very, very racist. And there’s a group that got together and are there right now currently doing a fundraiser to raise funds for me to come there and do a positive, unifying, uplifting mural that might have some… that might touch on some important subjects.
In that situation, I really want to make sure that I go and do something that is eye-opening for some people that maybe grew up in a certain environment and so they were taught a certain thing, but they have this feeling deep inside that something isn’t right. And those are the people that you want to try to reach.
Understanding Who to Reach
There are certain people that you’re just not going to reach. I was even getting in… I got into a debate online with somebody the other day after I made this social justice post that went semi-viral. It got five or 600 shares on Facebook. It got a fair amount of visibility. There were some people that were commenting on it like, “Oh, this opened my eyes. I didn’t really think about it that way,” and there are other people that were, despite the overwhelming evidence that was in front of them, they just were fighting so hard to keep their current mindsets.
James Baldwin had this quote like, “We can disagree and still be friends and still love each other unless the thing that we’re disagreeing about is rooted in my oppression.”
So you have certain people like that, that you’re just not going to reach that, no matter what information is provided to them, they’re so caught up in the hidden division that they’re not going to see the light. But you have other people that are, they feel deep inside that north star. It’s like, “Oh, there’s something wrong about the situation. I might not completely understand it, but I feel that’s something’s wrong.” So those are the people that I really want to try to reach.
So when I’m doing projects like that, that could reach some people like that, those are the ones that maybe I might pay a little bit more attention to and maybe put a little bit more work into just to make sure I get that point across to them.
Take a Knee Pad Campaign
As far as the Colin Kaepernick thing, I thought that was a really important thing to be a part of because there was just so much that was being lost about the actual message because people were just trying to take it and flip it and turn it into something else.
To give some background stats… African Americans are three times more likely to be shot and killed while unarmed by the police. And this report … A lot of people when they were talking about this, they’re like, “The statistics don’t show that. The statistics show that more white people are murdered by the police than black.” And they don’t understand the fact that as far as the population of the US is concerned, it’s, I think at this point 76% white, and it’s 12% black as far as the actual population of people living in the US.
If you have 200 white Americans that are murdered by the police, and they make up 76% of the population, and then you have a hundred and something black people murdered by the police, and they make up 12%, that’s a disproportionate amount because it’s way more of the actual population of black Americans that are being murdered by the police because they don’t make up as much of the population. It’s far more of a frequent thing in that case.
So that’s what Colin Kaepernick was protesting. He talked to green beret, and then the green beret basically said, “I would appreciate it if instead of sitting on the bench while the national anthem is concerned, if you would kneel instead,” because kneeling is a show of respect. People kneel when they propose, they kneel when they’re being knighted. Kneeling is sombre. And so he started doing that instead, but because some people wanted to stick their head in the sand like ostriches and not face the actual thing that was being protested about, they were trying to turn it into a thing where, “Oh, Kaepernick is against the military. He’s against the flag, and he’s against the national anthem.”
And it’s just it was such a ridiculous thing. Because one, as I explained earlier, he actually switched his stance so that he was showing more respect to the military because after talking to a person in the military who he obviously wasn’t trying to upset in the first place, because he also had family in the military, he said, “Okay, I understand your position. I understand how this would be upsetting to some people. So I’m going to still protest, but I’m going to do the thing that you think is better and it’s more respectful than doing what I was doing before.”
Even outside of that fact, for one, the military has its own anthem, and the military has its own flag. The American flag represents everybody. It’s also representing the people that are being murdered in the street by the police. So when there are injustices and stuff happening, you have to speak up and say something about it. And this is one of the main points that I’ve said, “Never at any point, should a flag or a song or a symbol mean more than the people that it’s supposed to represent.”
That’s one of the reasons why I felt it was so important to join this protest and to support Kaepernick, because it was such a ridiculous thing that this message about police brutality was being turned into an issue about whether you’re patriotic or not.
Patriotism can become very dangerous sometimes. It becomes very dangerous sometimes because people, they start caring more about the idea than about their next-door neighbour. That’s where I think a problem starts to come in. I really wanted to do something to push the conversation back to what it was supposed to be about instead of this nonsense that it was being turned into.
The Power of Symbology
The really important thing about art is that it’s something that can reach somebody, no matter what language they speak or no matter what background they come from, because there’s this thing about symbols. It’s like you can destroy a person, but symbols are bulletproof, you can’t destroy a symbol. If the symbol gains enough power, you can’t destroy that.
So sometimes if you create something and it has a symbol, or it’s symbolic, you can get a message out there easier than even someone speaking and saying something. Sometimes just the feeling that resonates from seeing a symbol means something… which ironically is why… why some people are so caught up in the American flag… because that’s a symbol.
It’s like, if you’re living in a house and it’s a beautiful house, but you see there’s structural damage. You have some people that are like, “Oh no, there’s nothing wrong with this house. I love this house so much, and there’s nothing wrong with it.” And you have other people pointing out, “Well yeah, no, we love the house, but we have to fix this problem before the foundation collapses on us.” And that’s what I think that some people are missing.
There’s also perspective when it comes to everything, because like, I was reading something. I can’t remember who was saying it, but they were talking basically about how a lot of the other people who you would consider to be villains think that you’re the villain.
When you look at things that way, then you really just start to see that it’s more, if you really take a responsibility to speak about something, that you really want to broach certain topics in a way that brings people together to try to solve the issue, instead of doing something that may or may not be more divisive or separating.
You have to be very careful about the things that you’re saying, because you don’t want to cause more divisiveness. You want to do things that make us all realize, “Okay, listen. We’re brothers and sisters. We’re sharing. We’re a part of the same area. We’re all citizens of the earth. Let’s try to figure out a way to work together and live together, as opposed to fighting over all of this crazy nonsense.”
Own Your Privilege
People need to do more listening. Because like there was somebody that, after I posted one of the things I posted, they were saying that, before I broke it down the way I did, they didn’t really understand. They just got upset anytime someone mentioned privilege because they thought for one, that when people talk about they’re like, “Oh no, I have things that are going bad in my life. I have struggles that I have to deal with.”
Everybody has struggles, but here’s where it’s different. You’re not struggling in a certain area because of what your skin looks like or because of your sexuality. And that’s where we’re saying you have the privilege. If you don’t have to worry about certain things… like for instance, there was a law passed in the US, just in 2019, where it was basically giving black women the ability to wear their hair naturally in the workplace without being discriminated against or being told that they have to change the way their hair is. That’s some shit that you as a white male living in America, you don’t have to deal with anybody telling you that the way your hair naturally grows is unprofessional.
Mockup for Joe Biden campaign to encourage voters to vote.
When people are talking about privilege, that’s what privilege is. Privilege is when, for instance, I’ve had people during my lifetime come and talk to me, and it’s a surprise when they realize that I’m intelligent. It’s a surprise that they look at me and find me attractive because black people aren’t seen as being attractive or intelligent, there’s this very like particular stereotype. Those little microaggressions… that’s what privilege is. People don’t understand that it’s not always about money and where you grew up and stuff, and the fact that you have struggles. Everybody has struggles.
It’s just one of those things that you have to try to get across to people because a lot of people don’t understand that concept because they’ve never had to deal with it. They’ve never had to deal with the fact that like, one of the things I’ve had to deal with is getting on a train and having people clutch their purses and stuff, and I’m wearing a business suit going to work. But still, because of what my skin colour looks like, I’m a threat to them. That’s not stuff that some people have to deal with.
That’s just one of those things that I feel needs to be understood by more people. People need more of that aspect where it’s not necessarily that you haven’t been through shit. It’s not necessarily that you haven’t had a rough life, it’s that you don’t have to go through particular things because of race, sex, gender, and whether you’re or not you’re handicapped.
Remaining Calm While Fighting the Good Fight
Oh, that’s one of the things that I’ve had to develop over the years. I would lose my temper often when I was younger. That’s another thing that James Baldwin said, I’ve quoted him probably three or four times in this interview because he’s always on point. He said that, “To be a woke black man in America is to be in a constant state of rage.” That’s one of the things that over the years I’ve had to try to calm myself.
I’m still learning. I’m still growing as a human being to certain things. I try to stay very even-keeled when I’m having these conversations so that people actually learn, but sometimes people say things that are just so infuriating. There was recently an issue. Someone posted something about how black people never thanked the white people for freeing them from slavery. And I was just so mad when I first saw that. That I literally wanted to scream and throw my computer.
I had to calm myself down to describe to the person why and how that was really messed up and why that was such a ridiculous thing to say. It shouldn’t have to be explained why that’s ridiculous, but to certain people, you have to. I was still furious, but I had to calm myself down and say… unlike other people saw the same thing and they didn’t respond to it like I did. But patience is one of the things that I’m trying to learn.
Building a New Visual Language
I’m basically trying to develop a Rosetta Stone of symbols. I called them kudoglyphs. Kudos as in positive affirmations.
In all of the pieces, I try to incorporate these positive symbols. And I want to have it so that when you look at the pieces, you can read it and it says something to you.
Now I’m still trying to develop what each symbol means, but I do have a general idea of what most of them mean. And I’m just still building the Rosetta Stone that says what each thing means. Building a language is hard.
It’s something that’s always been really interesting to me. It just sparks something for me. I was always interested in looking at hieroglyphics and things like that. An old script that had meaning it just… Because, it’s just the same thing we were talking about earlier about symbols. Symbols are powerful.
Because it was something that always interested me and I always like to study hieroglyphics and things like that. I said, “You know what, since I love symbols and since I love the aspect of symbols and since my shapes were kind of symbolic anyway,” I said, “Instead of having the 3D Version, let me try to break down an actual hieroglyphic version of what this shape is, and a hieroglyphic version of what this shape is and try to turn those into symbols so that people can read what’s going on.”
So that was basically the idea behind it. I want to have a… If you go into a gallery and see some of my paintings or you see one of my murals, you can literally just pull out the Rosetta Stone and, “Oh, there’s a hidden message in here.”
What’s Up Next For Alloyius McIlwaine
Probably the YouTube stuff’s going to start back up when I start doing the community stuff that I was talking about earlier… we’re going and brighten up some of the communities. So you’ll start seeing me do more of that stuff because I have footage that I’ve collected from some of the things that I’ve done that I’ve posted already. I just haven’t had a chance to cut the footage and then upload it.
I do have my coffee table book, Volume One, it’ll be coming out sometime before the year’s over. So I’ll be working on that and putting that out. And probably my second colouring book will be out. At least by January, but I’m going to try to get it out by December before Christmas.
And just, I would say, look out for more murals because I have a lot of stuff coming out.
Written with excerpts from the Street Art Unearthed podcast with Alloyius McIlwaine.