Exploring The Fine Art Of Graffiti With RJ Williams
RJ Williams is a graffiti artist and multidisciplinary creative operating in Sydney. Producing his first graphics for a t-shirt when he was 12, RJ has led a fascinating life. He’s produced products, snowboarded around the world, got immersed in the Los Angeles graffiti scene and launched numerous creative endeavours that have allowed him to live a life pursuing his passions.
For RJ, passion number one is graffiti.
With graffiti under assault by the government and conservative community, often painted in a poor light, RJ was keen to have an open conversation about what attracts people to graffiti, what the culture really looks like, and how people are expected to behave when they participate in the scene.
Whether you’re new to graffiti or well immersed in the scene, RJ shares interesting perspectives and stories to keep all sides interested.
You can listen to the full podcast with RJ below, or read on for excerpts from the conversation.
I did a t-shirt for a company called Hound Dog. Not many people are old enough to remember Granny May’s. It was a nick-nack store in Westfields back in the day. That was the first t-shirt I did in 1992. It was a dude snowboarding because that is what I was doing at that time. Big 90s pants, shell-toe shoes.
Through snowboarding, I met a dude called Pete Murphy, and he was running a tour company that was blowing up. They were doing the first snowboarding tours to Japan, and they did the t-shirt in collaboration with Hound Dog. Hound Dog had an account with Granny May’s, and they said “Can we stock Granny May’s” We said yes. I was 12.
That rolled onto the next job and the next job and the next job. It was confronting because you were around people who were much older. You got introduced to drugs and alcohol when you were very young.
I think a lot of people made a lot of money out of me in the early years. I went from that to designing some of the early ranges for SMP and SMP blow up and ended up in General Pants. They made a lot of money, and I just got free clothes.
If I was looking at that by itself, I got ripped off but looking at it 30 years later that just prepared me for how people will treat you. I just learnt it earlier than anyone who went to art school and is 25 getting ripped off having people say “Oh, do it for exposure.”
Getting Into Graff
Before I was really noticed was a lot later than others, probably I was in my late 20s. I’d been illustrating since I was a kid. At that time, I was living in the mountains snowboarding. There are no trains there and if you pick up a spray can you go to jail the next day.
My introduction to graffiti was in America travelling for snowboarding. Los Angeles has always been a very big influence on me since I was 12 years old since I started touring snowboarding.
I was doing those first illustrations to save money to go snowboarding overseas, and then I get over there, and I see the same style I was drawing in painted on walls and I was like “Ah, I want to do that.” The inspiration started then, the participation started then, but the recognition was probably not until I built my first shop, and we had legal walls. Then I could facilitate much more established artists in my space, learn from them.
I was probably 28 before people started noticing what I was doing with a spray can, but I had been fucking with it since I was a little kid.
Creating an Icon
That came from painting with Porky and Riz. They already had a piece that was really recognisable, and I would just tack on the end with a character and add a background.
At that time, no one was hitting the streets illegally with a piece that was a character and background. They were all throw up or tag.
It wasn’t until 10 or 15 years ago that Beastman was blowing up, Phibs was blowing up, Kid Zoom was blowing up with really photo-realistic stuff, and there was no one doing what was traditional, so I was like “Oh, well I’ve got a character. You can do a piece, and we’ll go out and do it on Paramatta Road or find a nice red hot spot and spend longer there and add more colour and make a name for ourselves.” He sort of came about from that.
He’s something that’s just really recognisable and really fun to paint.
The Fine Art of Graffiti
A big part of the art form is not getting caught. So, there’s a “fine art” in not getting caught. And when you do get caught, there’s a fine art in court — not going to jail.
You’ve got to finesse the street, you’ve got to finesse the system. You’ve got mates, and you’ve got to finesse them so that they’re not making too much noise and getting you arrested.
The fine art behind graffiti is something you don’t necessarily see in the painting. If you’re in it, you understand it, like “Wow, there’s not cutbacks there.” “Wow, how did he paint that location?” “How did he get all the way up there?” That’s the fine art, and unless you actually try to do it, you have no appreciation for the fine art behind graffiti.
There is then a fine art in putting it on the internet and not getting arrested.
Rules Have Changed
I think a lot of people read things like a Henry Chalfant book with Martha Cooper or they watch Style Wars and they read those rules and say “You can’t tag over a mural” and it’s such a basic 1978 thing to say.
It’s not 1978 anymore. They were talking in graffiti terminology. So, when seeing a mural (back in the day before murals were commercialised), like a full-sized wall, you can’t just go and do a tag over that. They’re not saying you can come straight out of art school, paint a portrait of some idiot and it’s going to be OK.
People take a lot of those initial things that were taught in the early days, the first things you could access, they take those things out of context and just apply it. I don’t think that’s valid.
You’ve got to remember that graffiti has a pretty serious criminal element to it as well. It can attract some pretty gnarly characters, like people who will turn up at your house with a baseball bat if you do the wrong thing. They won’t blink. So I have an obligation to maintain integrity and not fuck with that. So for a young artist dabbling in this stuff and thinking that it’s all airy-fairy and you can get away with whatever you want, it’s really not like that.
Graffiti = Therapy, Community, and Escape
A lot of things. I think it’s a form of therapy. It attracts a lot of people from broken homes, a lot of people from good homes that are toxic environments. It’s a form of escapism for a lot of people. It’s a way to find your tribe. It’s a way to say “Hey, I was here” and feel like you have an identity that’s bigger than yourself, so it’s a way of confronting your own mortality.
If I do a painting on the street I know a thousand people who I’ve never met before are going to see that tomorrow — who I will never meet — but that painting helps my life have more effect on more people. Whether it’s positive or negative, it doesn’t really matter. It’s just enhancing your life-force. For me, that’s what it is.
For other people, I know there are guys out there that feel like punching their wife in the face, and they know it’s wrong, so they go out and paint a train. Or they feel like shooting up heroin, so they don’t do that, but they go out and paint a train or the streets or whatever.
I think escapism is a big thing but also creating an identity is a big thing. Finding a group of people who are also misfits, who can understand you because they’ve been through similar shit in life.
There’s very few pussies in real graffiti. 99.9% of the people you meet in graffiti are very real people who’ve overcome adversity in one form or another. As a kid, once you get your head around that, you realise that’s a really good place to go for people who don’t just pat you on the head and say “Oh, it’s OK, just listen to this podcast before you go to bed and eat your vegetables.” You have people who give you real-world answers. It’s that whole find your tribe thing. You’ll find a mentor who’s been through hell and come back and survived.
Some of the guys I look up to today have been through heroin addictions, they’ve been through prison. They’ve been through everything, but now they’re running successful businesses, they have beautiful families, they dress well, they drive nice cars, you’d never know, and graffiti is how they got through that.