Evolution of A Bluster: An Interview With Artist James Alicea

New York, at one point, was the mecca of the graffiti world. It was a place where businessmen and businesswomen rode trains browsing the morning edition of the local papers, as well as heatedly reading the scrawling on the insides and outsides of trains. For some, it was a blight, but for a fraction of youth, it became a way of life. Though the desire for notoriety in graffiti was just as heated, for these youth, it also became a way to evolve. With the foundations always there, some catapulted their creativity into different styles, different mediums, and different worlds. This evolution is the case with James Alicea, also known as Bluster. A figure who emerged from the graffiti world and stamped his contributions on apparel, graphic design, and his ever-evolving art. He was born and raised in the Lower East Side and attended the famed High School of Art & Design, a stomping ground for many NY artists. He was a part of the PNB collective, which launched one of the most renowned clothing brands of the 90s. Most recently, Alicea designed the graphic art for Bobbito Garcia’s “Rock Rubber 45s” documentary. Now, he is ready to exhibit new work for an upcoming solo show happening in June. His art lends itself to his upbringing, his experiences, his evolution, and his desire to keep creating good-strange visuals. He doesn’t do it for shows, or for accolades, he does it to rock. I sat down with Bluster at his pad uptown and chopped it up for a bit about his art and design process.

For the benefit of our readers, can you walk us through your foundations and where your art has evolved to today? 

The foundation comes from graffiti. I was introduced to graff when I was about 12 years old, maybe even before that, but I came up with the tag when I was 12. Since then, being someone that has been involved in art-making and in art, there has always been this one eye on art and one eye on tags and graff.  When you’re younger it’s like oh wow, this is great. I’ve never stopped making art, so my art-making has been my whole life. One thing that I haven’t done is to stay doing one thing. I don’t do one thing. I can draw and paint and stay with that one style for some time, and then I’ll switch-up and stuff like that. The art stuff now, I think that I’ve reached a point in my art-making where I’m working on refining the language of what I’m working on, which is the orange on black and letter styles. Letter styles that aren’t too-too wild, it’s clear enough that everybody can read it. Like my mom and dad can see it and be like, “oh it says blah, blah, blah… it says smile, New York”. For them it’s a success that they can read it, for me it’s also a success because people see it and they feel a certain way about it. It’s not like a tag where people instantly say, “whatever, that shit is trash.” Or if they see a piece and don’t know what it means and it just looks nice to them. I want them to stop and see it. When they look at it they’ll see the boom-boxes, the plugs, the wires, the buttons, the letters – what is he saying with this shit, the fish, the boobs, the feet, and the hands.

One of the more frequent images I do see you use is the fish, why the fish?

The fish for me is because I’m Pisces. My father is a Pisces. My brother is Pisces. Two of my aunts and my kids are Pisces, so it’s just one of those things. Also, I think it’s cool because fish are continually moving, and I think that’s me as well. I also like the patterns of the scales, so I feel like it all makes sense. It just kind of looks bugged out because it’s always on the side somewhere, or you’re like, “Oh shit, is that a fish”? Fish are dope because they hide, and then they dip. The feet; I love feet, so I’ll draw a foot. Hands; because we do what we do with our hands all the time, but you never look at your hands or see your hands. You notice them when you have a cut, your like, “damn, that little shit hurts!” With the letters, that’s the foundation.

You know, like when you look at Rammellzee, he broke (letters) down, and then he formed Panzerism. [Panzerism from the root word panzer, the German word for an armored vehicle. Rammellzee developed an alphabet of ‘destroyer’ letters with the intent to break free from social tedium, which he coined Ikonoklast Panzerism.] He went super extreme with it, which is great. Who’s to say dude was wrong with it, he just had his way of doing it. My relationship with the letterform comes from watching Sesame Street, Electric Company, and School of House Rock. (Electric Company) would have shit like Letterman, he was faster than a rolling O, able to jump over a silent E and all that weird shit. They took a letter and then put it in this place, this is a letter F, and it’s in the woods. That was my whole shit like I want to live inside that letter F.

“Bluster has a big heart and a quirky character, plus he’s Boricua, so I’ve always felt close to him even though we don’t get the chance to hang often. When it came to coming up with an illustration for my last film Rock Rubber 45s, he wasn’t just the obvious choice, he was the only one! And as expected, he nailed everything I wanted, with style . . .”

A lot of the words you use, the phrases, and the poetry comes from your appreciation of hip-hop. Do you think younger generations can unravel the message or figure out a way to understand it to appreciate it fully?

Most of the phrasing is Hip-Hop based, and with Hip-Hop comes the slang. When you break it down, every part of a town from the east coast to the west coast has its form of speech and slang. If you speak Spanish and you were born here, you never learn that ‘real’ Spanish, and you’ll have that “broken” shit. I feel like we always have to express ourselves in the way that we do things. So mines are the art and the speech shit. My slang or the way that I talk came from being born and raised downtown (Lower East Side). There was a bunch of brothers out there that we would have our own little like, “blip-blip-blip,” or like “did you see the scuffle-butt on that up-take.” We knew what it was. So the things that I write someone may say it, they have no idea, but it’s nice to hear how it sounds coming from other people. It’s like when I work, I never sketch it out, in my mind, I’m going back in time, and I am there. One of my best friends, my Foundations brothers, was killed, and his whole shit was always slang. He had this store downtown. It was called My Life, and he had this thing about him; we all had that little thing, but he was like the chief, the slang cat. So most of my work goes back then, it’s just weird shit.

When you do your work, do you set a time for yourself to work? Do you like to sit down and say I’m dedicating this hour to work on something? Or does it happen when inspiration hits you like you can be chilling and something hits you and you decide to grab a pad or something? 

It’s what you said, and it’s the whole shit! Because like being a dad, being a husband, working a full-time gig, I’m never still. Like now, my boy just left. We had to deal with something, and then you walked in, and then my wife walked in, so now I have to deal with that and still have enough time to rest so I can rock and roll tomorrow. So it will happen organically where I’ll be like, ‘let me sit here and look at stuff. There are those two joints there, some canvases up on the side over there, then I have something over here,’ and then one day I’ll be like, ‘alright cool let me take them out and start,’ and then I’ll just chill and let those sit and then start to feed the bug. Right now, since the show is in June, I was explaining to my wife, there is this internal sense of absorbency. There’s this thing like a sponge where I’m taking in mad shit right now. It’s not something that I’m consciously doing, but my body and my mind can sense it, and it’s weird. This is the first time that I have paid it mind, where I’m just like, ‘yo, shit feels a little different.’ My diet is different, and so I’m just seeing shit now where I’m like writing my notes, different ideas. I have a title right now for the show, and it’s called “Here, There and Everything In-between.” So it’s kind of vague, but it’s not vague, and I think that is what’s part of the work. The show I had last year at 212 Arts, it was called “No Big Words Here.”

I just wanted people to come to see the work and experience it because it was all new work. Some people think that most of my work is big, some were big, and some were small, and it was different. So folks sort of like needed to catch the vapors. This year, I think I’m going to do a lot of three dimensional shit like that box right there. That’s where this stuff is at, so I’m thinking of doing that and maybe sort of like showing like this great museum piece, I’m not sure yet, or I might not. So right now, I’m like at that weird stage.

What other types of mediums have you considered using? Have you considered sculpting or paper-mâché? You have these characters that some may look at as being grotesque and bloated, characters that can easily be seen in different mediums.

I’m taking part in this show, where the theme of the show is denim and some other shit. So all of the art is going to be done on the old school Levi’s jackets. The curator is going to have people come in to do pieces on the jackets, which is cool. What I want to do is take the jacket and line it up with wire on the inside. Dip it in white paint. Mold it, let it dry come back and paint it with the orange and paint it like I paint a wall. I want to try to make it look like you took the wall and say this looks good here as a couch, or as a kite, just take it and show something new. Most of the jackets will be hung, but I want mine to be different.

I have nothing against writers. Everybody does their shit, but I feel like it lacks the thinking of like, why did you start to write? The roots of writing are to compete. You may not say it’s a battle, but underneath it all, it is a battle. If you come and you want to piece with me, and you’re not down with my crew, I have to represent my crew, and you have to represent your crew. We’re not battling, but everyone out there who’s not painting with us is gonna be like, “oh that’s Blust from FC and that’s blah, blah, blah,” and that’s how motherfuckers flip. I don’t care about that, but I care about cats that come on some next shit, which is what I love. If you want to do a wild-style ok, we’ll do that, and we’ll go through the motions. I don’t want that; it should be fun. Just come with no sketch, and let’s just paint. That’s why for me, it’s just important to keep that shit simple. I’m not doing any blends. I’m just doing black and orange.

What was the inspiration for the orange? What brought you into that world?

Do you remember how Keith (Haring) did that “Crack Is Wack” wall? That’s it! Because one, I met him in 1984; mad cool dude. The dude painted quick, but that wall you could see that from miles away, that shit works!

I went to A&D also (High School of Art & Design), and I remember taking the train uptown and seeing these billboards that Keith did. It was dope, and at the time had I known what would have become of this guy’s art, I may have appreciated it even more. You’re at a point where people can see and appreciate your art, do you ever think about how your art can evolve into something bigger?

I would love to see a painting done with black tar. I would just like to see it going from these things like black books, canvases, and walls. It’s important that folks will see it, and they’ll almost feel it breathing. I just see it as being big and bulky, something that will take its own space. I also like this stuff because you can wrap it around things. 

It is going to switch up and change. I don’t know how or when, but when it does, it will. It’ll just be one more thing you know, like you go from your tags to your piece, to your throw-up or vice-versa or whatever. Yeah, it is going to change, but right now let’s rock and roll with it.

“Here, There and Everything In-between” will open June 4th at 212 Arts in NYC.

Find more work by Bluster:

Website| Instagram

(All images courtesy of Laurie Markiewicz ladybirdlaurie & @thegreyeye)