There are few artists of the Hip Hop eras Golden Years of graffiti who have excelled into the greater realms of fine art, commercial art and academia in the manner Carlos Mare aka Mare139 has over the past three decades. Infamously captured in the seminal documentary Style Wars directed by the late Tony Silver and produced by famed documentary photographer Henry Chalfant, the film captures a burgeoning hip-hop culture with the focus on the graffiti and b-boy dance scene in New York City circa 1983.
It was this documentary that drew the world's attention to the plight of NYCs inner city youth and their relentlessly competitive and combative culture they called writing or graffiti. This culture arrested the mind of a young 10-year-old in the South Bronx who lived upon the derelict and unforgiving landscape of burned out and abandoned buildings. On the means streets and below the subterranean subway system Mare found refuge with fellow artists in search of infamy and adventure away from and equally cruel life of poverty at home. Art was his only option, but not any art, Wild Style or Style Writing a highly personalized and abstracted form of typographically illustrating ones chosen name. After years of painting alongside many of his generation's greatest artists, Kel1st, Dondi White, Futura, Crash, Case2 and many others the rise of gallery and media attention during the early 1980s offered him and others the chance to surface with their art within a more formalized setting.
Not content with the direction of popularized graffiti on canvas he began thinking more broadly about the articulation of the culture both in aesthetic and theory, something he was learning through his association with Mr. Chalfant, who was also a sculptor and knowledgeable of the greater history of art. It was through this exchange that Mare was able to consider where in the arc of history he and his genre would or could lay. These were the earliest inclinations toward a modern approach to not just making but discussing this misunderstood art form. As Mare states, it was a matter of intellectual self-defense to formulate the informed words and weapons for debate, something he shared with his friend Iconclast Panzerist and Gothic Futurist Rammellzee (RIP), while on different trajectories both knew that arming both language and art was vital in today's aggressive world in particular for those who lived in its shadows. While Mare aligned himself with western theory, closely associating and investigating early 20th-century modernisms movements Cubism, Futurism and Constructivism to his work, others outside the Gothic Futurists aligned themselves with the more agreeable Pop Art aesthetic. Acknowledging that both play an important part of todays assimilation into the mainstream.
We discuss a bit of the past and present but more importantly the future, which he has greater optimism for just before he departs for Sole DXB Dubai.
Sole DXB - Lets start where you are and have been currently, making greater inroads into Arabic countries with your works and teachings. Why here and not Europe?
Carlos Mare - Thank you for considering this question off the top. Over the past 6 years, I have had the opportunity to visit Islamic countries both as an artist and US State Department Cultural Ambassador; this type of access affords me to deep dive into a culture I’ve long admired from afar. At first, my attraction was with the obvious Islamic design and Calligraphy, which I’ve long said, was so built into our creative practice. Secondly, the historical significance of these countries I've visited informed how I viewed our western relationship to the Middle East. The cultural exchange has enlightened me spiritually and creatively; this speaks to the power of the artistic passport. If one were to ask if I could have imagined my art or Hip Hop would bridge me to the world in this manner I would have doubted it but now I truly understand it beyond the practice of art and in the form of sort diplomacy the type that isn't just political but socially essential.
Europe in many ways has modeled itself after America and vice versa, one could debate the value and results of this but as an artist I see that after early modernism Europe brought nothing back to the table culturally for a very long time, Hip Hop filled that gap, a new youthful generation embraced our culture and reimagined it for themselves. While I was at the vanguard of Graffiti Modernism in the States, Europe being the birthplace of early modernism has really exploded with great diversity in visual art to the point of market over-saturation with little to no cultural context. We can agree that market forces too often dictate relevancy for today's art particularly in well-established countries like the EU and US, whereas the Middle East is reimagining itself in a manner that feels forward thinking and ambitious not predicated on European history.
Sole DXB - What countries have you visited and what impact have they had?
Carlos Mare - I’ve been to Istanbul several times, Morocco, which I fell most, inspired by, Sharjah where I recently exhibited and most recently Saudi Arabia. Istanbul was a fascinating trip because my first visit was strictly academic and part of an effort with Duke University, the US and Turkish State Departments to explore the use of art as a means of social engagement, this was before the Syrian crisis and Taksim Square. My role as an artist was to present a compelling overview of the impact of artistic and social engagement through art and how transformative Hip Hop culture has been not just to the West but to the rest of the world. While culture alone cannot solve these issues engagement in today language is vital to the younger generation. Hip Hop in many ways speaks to the aspirations of youth so it is no surprise that it is used for soft diplomacy. While there I took in Haiga Sohia and the Sultan Ahmed Mosque or Blue Mosque, which deeply moved me spiritually and artistically. It was upon my next visit to Istanbul for an exhibition at the Pera Museum titled Language of the Walls where I really expressed the impact of Islamic design in my sculptures. Following that up with exhibitions in Marrakech with David Bloch gallery with my mates Agents of Change we did a deep dive culturally and artistically, which brought me closer to Islamic culture personally and creatively. I spent December 2015 in Marrakech collaborating with Vincent Zepha Hafez for a show at David Bloch gallery where I honed in on a new aesthetic for my work that was informed by Islamic culture. This carried over to the more recent exhibition for the Sharjah Calligraphy Biennale in which I continued exploring the gestures between graffiti and calligraphy in 3D space.
My recent trip to Saudi Arabia was through Words Beats and Life a nonprofit Hip Hop organization and the US State Department. We traveled with a group representing all 4 elements of Hip Hop and toured Riyadh, Jeddah and Dhahran having workshops and taking a trip to Mecca for Umrah, which was transformative. This I find is the greater purpose of how my art has served me, to travel and have an impact on others as well to receive vital life experiences that best inform my spirit.
Sole DXB - Shifting gears, Sole DXB in Dubai highlights Urban Culture in all its manifestations from Lifestyle to Fashion, how do you view the current state of global Hip Hop culture?
Carlos Mare - I feel SOLE DBX represents the maturity, tastes, and aspirations of our genre. It is both cultural and material. What people forget is that early Hip Hop was so aspirational toward materialism and so interconnected with music, art, and fashion. Our inability as kids to afford big brands gave rise to a highly personalized and ingenious way of fashioning ourselves with what was available to us. We were so inclined to paint our clothes, mix and match from all racks and most importantly put our feet at the center of it all. Sneakers play a big part in this in that we had to represent with the latest and cleanest sneakers on the market. Converse, Pro Keds, Puma and Addidas were at the forefront of footwear fashion. We took great pride and risk attaining new kicks for the truth be told one could get robbed and killed for a pair of Clyde Suede pumas as they would in later years for Jordan’s. Our feet held a sacred status symbol, for us B-boys it was paramount to be freshly dipped in clean sneakers with a proper shoe lacing that in itself was an art form, consider the idea of fat laces or woven two-tone laces, it is unheard of today. This emphasis on the footwear really drove the culture and market as later seen by Run DMC and Addidas and subsequent brand endorsements and collaborations.
As a young student, I studied fashion design as a legit career with the interest of applying graffiti to fashion but in haute couture, long before anyone. Lisa Leone who recently exhibited with Sole DXB was my girlfriend and muse at the time so I would make her clothes with this sensibility. What I didn't foresee was that I was laying the groundwork for many important things namely graffiti sculpture. It wasn't until the late mid-80s early 90s that fashion became such an integral part of the culture with the rise of Dapper Dan, Shirt King Phade and others that were attracted to status symbols that were beyond their reach. This ultimately gave rise to the street brand, which was also inspired by Stussy, and smaller brands on the West Coast. The inclusion of street wear into trade shows changed the game where as before big production brands held court now smaller nimble and creative brands assembled to satisfy their niche market.
Today the culture represented at Sole DXB is geared more toward a more mobile, affluent and informed collector base. This is a powerful statement about the aforementioned history as to how we, as a have a culture, transcended demographics, and economics to affect a billion dollar plus marketplace. We have become stakeholders in this regard.
While in some respect, there has been a market oversaturation of anything cultural, what the urban market does better than any is re-imagine itself for its time. As it matures and prospers it still has to contend with the greater imagination of the poor and ingenious who aspire toward the same status. It is within these less fortunate communities where I see the most inventiveness, honesty and ideas of the future. Those not unlike myself who worked with very little and helped shape what we now know as Hip Hop Culture.
Sole DXB - You will be presenting Style Wars and Moderating a panel with Stretch Armstrong and DJ Clark Kent, what direction will those conversations take you?
Carlos Mare - As for Style Wars I'm well rehearsed in that narrative, Henry and I go way back and are close friends so it will be a natural conversation. I often focus not so much on the past but how far we have come and not only what has transpired but what I see ahead. Hip Hop as a whole in is better than its ever been, some may dispute it and often times it is with a focus on today's Rap music, this is an area where I will press the DJs for their insight. While very little Rap music satisfies me in terms of lyrical content I can connect to I do feel it's now a Producers genre with some really fascinating music being explored.
Sole DXB - Are you exhibiting in Dubai?
Carlos Mare - No. Not yet laying the groundwork for both exhibitions and Academic outreach.
Sole DXB - I want to touch on the commercial work; your career is lined with many firsts and unique accomplishments namely the Annual BET Award? Have you ever met any of the recipients? Does commercial work lessen your value in the art market?
Carlos Mare - The BET Award is by far the highest profile project I’ve done or anyone in our genre. Every year close to 10 million people see my work given to musicians like JayZ, Beyonce, Lebron James, Denzel Washington, Prince, Kanye and many others. This project itself is an exemplary study of both design and culture. I am in the works of developing a book around it which I feel will be very inspiring to people. I have met several of the artists over the years, by far the most gracious were Outkast when the won the very first one and I met them off stage, the magic of seeing my work in the hands of young men who worked so hard for that moment was priceless. In terms of connecting the dots most don’t know who I am or how valued I am in their culture, this is a result of the fray in our diaspora and why a book is so essential in telling our story. One thing that is for certain, the results of all of my efforts and those of my peers was a blueprint for what you see today. For better or worst I advocated for full on integration and interruption of all creative fields. Particularly in the technology field where since the early 90s my brother Kel 1st and I developed the first Hip Hop websites and multimedia design platforms. We also educated and mentored many around us to embrace this oncoming revolution. I ultimately won the highest accolade in the field, The Webby award for developing a cutting edge website for Style Wars. I’ve always maintained a foot in commercial art so long as it allowed me as a brand to express my interpretation of the product or task. Among the many notable projects I worked with NIKE and Brand Jordan in Brazil to design their visual footprint for a project called Elementos. I was tasked to create unique imagery relating to Basketball, B-boying, Graffiti, Hip Hop etc., and the opportunity to create these works that would be physical spaces was fantastic. I’ve also worked with NIKE and Footlocker on in-store installation, which echoed, back to the history of legendary NYC basketball culture.
Sole DXB - The future holds what?
Carlos Mare - The future is both encouraging and uncertain, I have often the discussed the drift of cultural identity, artistic homogeny and the rise of the culture class, these things greatly affect our future and legacy and sometimes keep me up at night. Despite this I think I'm ready to disrupt the game again, first, it was fashion then metal graffiti sculpture, technology, academia now I ready to disrupt "Street Art", stay tuned for that! As for my sculpture works I am still exploring Islamic inspired works in metal and I'm in the midst of collaborating with Michael Walsh another fellow sculptor who like myself has deep concerns with history and with contemporary sculpture. We are working as peers through our works and while we differ in style we are both cut from the fabric of Hip-Hop/Graffiti and modern art. I am also continuing to lecture and focusing on using my work as a passport toward a better understanding of the community I serve. I believe education is our next frontier, that creating a cultural legacy, teaching practice and curriculums will help create richer people who are connected by all this genre has to offer. I have also spent the past 2 years a Curatorial Director of Hi-Arts Gallery in NYC where I was able to present terrific exhibitions I found relevant to the community it serves. In the future, I wish to curate more exhibitions along the lines of cultural relevancy for our genre. Given there is so much out great art out there most can not decipher what is most important for our time and this is where a discerning eye and critical mind plays a big role, there are too many outsiders asserting themselves in a genre they know very little about but through the sway of influence they become the culture class which projects what they feel is popular or agreeable shall I say. There are no greater stakeholders than those who created the culture, bled for it and charted its course to where we are today.