Justin Carty is a painter, designer and digital animator born and raised in New York City. I discovered his art via an exhibition at Rob’s Shoppe in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. A month later, on the eve of the release party for a music video he had produced, I sat with him to discuss his various artistic passions.
Tell us a bit about your background and early influences:
I grew up in the Upper West Side, I used to go to the MET, that was a big influence, also graffiti—the old-school days of Wild Style, Style Wars. That in addition to just walking around New York.
I’m really influenced by the classical stuff, like Egon Schiele—I was confounded when I saw his work, I was like “this guy was doing this stuff back then? Oh man!” No wonder he was twisted, there was no one else doing that kind of stuff, he was by himself doing that crazy genius work.
Caravaggio was a rebel in his day, and to be a rebel in those days of doing Naturalistic work…you could have your head or balls cut off….!
Keith Haring—I used to see his chalk drawings on the way to school…I should have taken them down, and owned a few by now! (laughs).
Phil Frost, he used to paint and do a lot of album covers, for example for Groove Collective. He’d paint with white-out, that was his major medium, he almost died from it too! He used so much of it, and that chemical was never supposed to be used to that extent! (laughs).
I love these little stories about these guys that go to such crazy extents for their artwork, that they sacrifice their health….those are the kind of stories that stick with me, and the person who’s making the art….if I see some awesome art I like, then that person usually has some great stories.
You went to school for Architecture?
Yeah, a Bachelor’s in Architecture in D.C.
Did you want to be an architect?
(laughs) I didn’t know what I wanted to be…I wanted to be an artist, and they say when you want to be an artist and your parents disagree with that, you become an architect. Architects normally go on to grad school, but I bailed out after 4 years. Though, I should say, my mom always supported me completely, she’s just tough and wanted to make sure I knew what I was doing.
I got into Theater, which is my other current passion, and did some set design…acting. I did the whole “jack of all trades,” into the arts, out of the arts, carpentry, painting, and then 3 years ago I got back into painting, and was like, “this is the thing I’m going to follow.”
Were you drawing your entire life?
Yeah. Always drawing—drawing at museums, drawing on the subway—which is a great place to draw…as long as people don’t catch you and get pissed off…which they usually don’t.
For your Subway Series, did you snap photos of the people and then paint it later?
Yeah. For the sketch series I did, I sketched it right then and there, but for the portrait series I did which was more naturalistic, and you have to sit with it for a lot longer and get the detail….
I stopped doing the first because you want a picture where the person’s not self-aware or aware of you. You want to capture it when they’re solitary and in their own world…and if you’ve noticed, the subway is the only place in this crazy hectic city where you can see New Yorkers in their own world and completely meditative. I love that, I love that kind of silence, and then as soon as the door opens, click—they’re back in it! (laughs)
So I did that for awhile, and then I stopped, I hated taking sneak pictures of people, I felt so terrible about it (laughs)….now when I take pictures I always ask the person first, and actually you can get a cool response. You can meet some really great people if you’re open about it…
Did you ever take drawing classes?
Yeah, I took some in school. I started learning from comic books, I was young, and then going to museums and drawing on class trips. I grew up on the upper West side and we used to go on all these class trips, and you’d see all these people drawing, so I thought, “oh, that’s what you do.”
Did you ever do graffiti?
No, I was always too scared to put my name up! (laughs) I was really shy as a kid. I remember in college I went at it a couple of nights, but I was so afraid of being caught, I would step back and look at what I had done, and it was just this hasty scrawl that had fear all over it! (laughs) So I thought, “yeah, I don’t think this is going to be my way!”
But yeah, I took classes—Spring Street Studios, I still go there sometimes for life-drawing, and that whole crowd is very cool—older, very bohemian New York.
Where do you draw inspiration from, and what are the subjects or themes that motivate you to create?
I think conflict…I had this whole little mini-phase where I was really into political art, during the Bush era, but then I started feeling like that was too obvious, I wanted to do something more universal.
I think my influences come from people’s faces & portraiture, that’s a huge influence on me. Other influences are music—Hip Hop, Jazz, Funk, Soul…..and New York! I think of New York as just different historical layers that are built up on each other, and I like to imagine all of these layers at once.
How do you feel that your art has evolved over time?
It came from very comic-booky, to very literal, to…literal abstraction. Now it’s just a little bit of everything, and if feels very organic.
Everything’s just coming together, like the animation I do—now I would love to do a theatrical show, that’s my next thing, and create all this projection and backdrops along with the production itself. I think it will evolve into different mediums….right now with this video I did for Nickodemus, it feels like a great marriage of the painting and the animation.
How is your experience of working in digital animation different from your work with more traditional mediums, for example your oil paintings? Is there a different kind of gratification that you get from each?
Definitely—I’m a hands on person, I love working with my hands, the digital stuff kind of takes me away from that, so it’s not as satisfying—you don’t have the smells of the oils….you’re physically invested in a painting, you know?
…while digital is so clean! (laughs) For a while it was just me trying to make digital UN-clean….I think it’s just a totally different medium. And digital itself has tried to become art over the years, and it’s done it in a lot of ways, but the commercial stuff is still the commercial stuff, you know? You have to give the client what they want.
Justin Carty – 2010 Reel
Do you view commercial projects as another platform for showcasing your work to a different public?
I think I’m starting see and feel that—people I work with are like, “Ohh, you do this…” They’re starting to notice this other stuff I do….so I would love for it to become that, because then I’m promoting my art while making money! (laughs)
I don’t know where it stands, in regards to doing your art vs. doing art for a corporate client. I don’t know what that would be, and I definitely don’t want to become the person who waters down their art just so it’ll be presentation-worthy for a corporate entity…that would be terrible! (laughs)
I do think that things evolved so that some artists work for corporations….as artists! They do exactly what they wanna do, and the companies just put it out. It’s kind of weird! (laughs) But I’m open for everything to happen, to every opportunity—bring it! I’m ready to contribute, that’s where I’m at.
Do you feel that artistic content maintains its integrity when it is corporately branded? Or does the branding dilute the message?
You can’t synthesize it and blend them together, because that just becomes watered-down art, but I think there can be branded content, and then this guy’s art. Otherwise the artist will contribute to the brand’s vision, but I don’t think that the brand vision will contribute to the artist’s art.
…but….it enables artists to do more of their work….
So do you feel there’s a way for artists and brands to be paired together and not water it down?
Well, I think that a corporate entity is a corporate entity, and it has to have a clean image because it has to appeal to everyone at the same time. There are no artists out there except for huge pop icons—Michael Jackson, for example, with his universal, amazing art—that appeal to everyone.
If you take the most universal amazing artist, like Michael Jackson, and you pair him with a corporate entity…it still waters down the art! (laughs) So I don’t think there’s a way to do it, or at least, I haven’t seen it done….but we can try! (laughs)
If someone comes to me, and offers me a multimillion dollar deal like that…who knows?
Then I might say, “Yeah, now I’m on to the next phase of my art.” I don’t know if I’d say yes, I don’t know if I’d say no.
I saw a documentary a while ago on the early 80’s New York art/music scene. I remember this one guy saying that in his opinion, one reason the artistic culture was so distinctive was because at the time certain New York communities were very cut off from the rest of the world, which allowed these amazing subcultures to incubate before breaking into the mainstream.
What are your thoughts on this? In today’s age of internet and social media, is it harder for an artist to incubate and find their own voice before being thrust into the limelight?
I was thinking about that the other day, to wrap your head around it is a little difficult. With Twitter you can make a piece of art, upload it and if it gets picked up, goes viral—incredibly influential people could see it in a matter of minutes….an the artist gets recognition for that.
You never had that back in the 80’s—you had these mogul art dealers who had all the power, they opened their little galleries downtown, and they could choose who would be the next “art god.” Now it’s the internet, and it’s just a question of using it.
I think that artists are going to develop in their own ways regardless. You have these artists—let’s say you’re young and growing up, you’re in love with some girl and your heart gets broken, you write a song—that’s never going to change, whether you put it online right away, or you perform it in front of people.
You can’t take away what happened in the 80’s because that was the most amazing energy. I don’t know if what happened with Hip Hop in the early 80’s could be repeated—that’s like the Woodstock of our generation.
But then again, something that’s amazing is that the revolution in Egypt was largely conducted through Twitter and Facebook…so, going back to your question, it’ll happen anyway. People can’t get away from it. Yeah, people spend a lot of time in front of their computers, they need to go out and exercise more (laughs), but I think it’s more of a positive than a negative. Those revolutions will still happen, that energy will still be there.
Hip Hop started in the Bronx, and there were a lot of great things happening in the lower East Side, and there was cross-pollination there, but it would take months to get to another city! It would take years to get to Europe! Now if something happens, it’s already in Asia in minutes! It’s great, you get to harness all these cats out in Europe or wherever else who are into what you’re doing, and contributing right away, in minutes. (laughs) It’s amazing, you can’t fathom how incredible all this collaboration is.
Yeah, I don’t think the internet takes away, I think it makes it better….it’s more energy!
Are there certain pieces of yours, of both your personal stuff and your digital art, that you consider your favorite?
Nickodemus: A NEW YORK MINUTE feat Sadat X, The Real Live Show, Rabbi Darkside, iLLspokiNn
Animated, Illustrated & Edited by Justin Carty
Additional Animation and art by Serge at Motiongraff.com
How did that collaboration come about?
He saw my work, and one show I had, he just showed up, he had a gig somewhere in D.C., and he had his equipment in his car, and he was like, “Hey, you need some music?” So he ended up DJing my show, which was ridiculous—I was sort of in shock from that!
He opened a lot of doors. And Laura Mirabella, who does a lot of amazing silk screening and stuff, she jumped on board too and said, “Let’s hook up an awesome project.” She helped me film a lot of stuff for the video.
With Nick, it was like, “let’s collaborate”—that’s what he does. He can harness all these amazingly creative people. He’ll go to Columbia, and get this amazing musician to do a show here. He’s good at that.
It was amazing that he wanted to work with me, so I was just like, “Fuck it, let’s do it!” (laughs)
So you produced the entire video?
Yes—I think I went to the limit of how much work I can put into that, and still have a semi-full-time job. I created the video, I created the paintings, I created the flyer! (laughs) …and I did it all myself…which is my fault, because I have difficulty delegating…other people tried to help and get involved, like the really awesome artist Serge at Motiongraff.com who did contribute, I wish it could have been more.
Are there any of your paintings that you have a particular fondness for?
The stuff I’m doing now is great, because it combines all of the classic portraiture I’ve done with the abstract subway pieces I’ve done, and the drawing….I felt that my drawing style was pretty strong, I use these aggressive lines and I wanted to infuse that into my paintings. The most recent work I’ve been doing is getting there, so that’s the stuff that I’m most proud of at the moment.
Who are the people in your recent works?
The recent stuff, a lot of them are the artists from Nickodemus’ track—there are five MC’s, there’s a group called The Real Live Show, two guys, then there’s Ill Spoken, Rabbi Darkside, and Sadat X, who is legendary. And then there’s Nickodemus, who produced the track and put it all together.
Nickodemus gave me the footage of the different artists recording their verses, and I drew them.
I’m still geekin’ out over being a part of that—I mean Sadat X….I loved Brand Nubian! It’s funny, if I was to think too much about it I would have been too nervous to do anything, so I just had to block that out and just do it.
As for some other people in my art, I went and saw the Sun Ra Arkestra—I love them!—I went and took some pictures of that, and incorporated a lot of that into my paintings.
What are some of the things you do while painting & drawing—do you put on music or movies, or anything else to get the creative juices flowing?
Oh yeah! I’m watching Kung Fu Panda, I’m listening to Hip Hop. When you’re doing art, it’s almost like you want to be distracted by other things…I used to want to be very focused, but then that didn’t work, it’s like being distracted somehow keeps things flowing. So I’ll have different things playing, both the radio and a movie, or a song—sometimes I’ll start singing (laughs).
I don’t like quiet, quiet’s a little weird. I grew up on 96 Street, which is a very loud block, trucks, buses and cars going through…so I need that distraction…I think the more distraction there is, the more I’m at ease….you need the chaos to feel comfortable!
Are there any other mediums that you would like to explore?
I’d love to get into more sculptural stuff, found objects…create mammoth sculptures. Someone who influences me a lot is Swoon—she’s this amazing street artist, she came up doing wood-cut stencil work, she’s incredible.
She’s very inspirational for me, she started as a street artist, that’s how she gained her notoriety, she thought the white walls of galleries were too confining and didn’t respond enough to the art.
And that’s exactly how I feel—I feel that a lot of the Chelsea gallery stuff is sedate and confined. There’s some amazing stuff, but the majority is like….ehh.
Anyway, Swoon would do all these amazing portraits, she’d travel around South America and stuff. She would do these wood cuts, and the line work was amazing…and that’s totally the kind of stuff I’m into.
She started with these flat surfaces and started getting found wooden objects and making these huge installations, bringing them out of the walls. I’m very inspired by this work.
Are there any other artists out there right now that have caught your interest or imagination?
BLU, he started doing cell animation on walls as graffiti. He’ll paint a character, take a snapshot, and then go over it.
I think he’s underrated because, well…it was supposed to happen. Sometimes a music group will come out and I’ll just be like, “Yep, exactly. This was supposed to happen, that was the logical next step”…and so it doesn’t cause this huge stir.
So BLU’s work was the logical progression for all this graffiti and art and animation. The amount of work he puts into that, and the cahones to do that, it’s mind-blowing.
I think it’s the perfect time for people who are creatively A.D.D., because nowadays you can combine all of the arts that you do.
One thing you said earlier was that the digital stuff you do is very clean and lacks the physical investment that you really relish, but at the same time you welcomed combining that medium with others.
Do you envision that in the future you would like to retain that digital element in some of your work, or would you rather just move away from that?
No, I think there’s so much amazing stuff, I’m working with a lot of great digital artists who feed my interest, there’s a lot of that clean digital stuff that I love. At the same time, my aesthetic is not…that.
I think it’s an interesting question, because when I enter my art into the digital realm, it’s not the art that’s on the wall, it’s different….it has to become different. It has to be informed by the digital world…and what is that? So, that cleanliness doesn’t put me off, it’s just….it comes back to conflict, that’s how I think I create my art, through conflict—I have to fight through that medium to get to the medium I can work with.
How do you create your art through conflict?
I always equate a lot of my art to music—there will be a musician who creates a ballad, and it’s beautifully sad—“I love this person, and I’m so sad I lost them.” Or, “I love this person, I’m so happy I met them!” That is awesome, and it makes good songs, but for me, it’s about fighting that emotion…I can’t just be like “that was a great emotion, I’m feeling this emotion,” it’s like, “No, I don’t want to feel that, fuck that!” It’s about emotional tension.
I think a lot of that comes from my love of the theater, to me that’s what live theater is—tension and acting. Good stories have tension! These forces are on the verge of something, and the longer you can sustain that, the more people will be invested in that. And that’s where I think my art tries to be.
When you were into theater, were you acting as well?
Yeah! And I still am! Not at this very moment, but I’m a part of a theater company.
What kind of roles?
I played a pimp a few years ago! (laughs) The acting is always there…you can’t close off your influences and what you’re inspired by, I think it’s the perfect time for people who are creatively A.D.D., because nowadays you can combine all of the arts that you do. My godson Destino is into making art, and playing video games, and animations…he’s into literally everything, and there’s no delineation.
That point especially resonates with me, because I consider myself very creatively A.D.D., and I often wrestle with anxiety related to being a “jack of all trades, master of none.” It’s heartening, actually, to hear you embrace that…
Ha! I’m right with you. A couple years ago I was like, “I have to embrace this.” Everyone always tells you that you can only do one thing. Everyone. You can only do one thing to be a master at what you do. But not everyone is like that.
My reckoning was, “Well I’m going to do everything I want to do, and I’ll be so exhausted that I’ll have to drop something. (laughs) I’ll work my ass off on everything I love to do and that will decide it for me, and in the end I will only be doing one thing, because I’ll be so exhausted from doing all those other things, that I’ll just be doing this one thing. “ And I thought, that’s perfect!
That realization was a complete revelation to me, and I was all in, because I wasn’t worried about what I was doing…you know, when people ask you what you do…that used to be the dreaded question, because I used to do everything, and do nothing, and do something….and it would change! Because I wanted to be that guy that did one thing!
I’d see some guy at a party and then see him again a year later, and I would try to remember what I told him last year, so I could be consistent, be “normal.” And then I realized that it doesn’t matter.
It’s funny, your art is so refined and well-crafted, it doesn’t seem like it was put together by some meandering art aficionado.
Well, I was at it for a while—painting and drawing has always been my constant, my meditation from the chaos.
I spoke recently with a freelance artist who mentioned that he relished the freedom of being his own boss, but conceded that the lack of ongoing security could make things extremely stressful at times, which in turn sometimes affected his creativity. Where do you stand on this? Do you envision yourself continuing to be a freelancer?
That’s a great question, because I thrive off of freelancing and being my own boss, but I’m in an interesting situation now, because I’m freelancing but I have a boss. I’ve been working at this one place for over a year and a half…it’s sort of a “permalance” type of situation.
I love to take off when I need to, and as an artist you have to do that, you have to be available to do something else, to have your own hours.
At the same time, you can get lost in that chaos of being a freelancer—today you’re working a job, and tomorrow you’re working a different job, which means you have to change your hours, because you’re going to have to stay up until 6am referencing the shot. You don’t have any time to do your art anymore because your hours are so chaotic.
When I was doing hardcore freelancing, working like 4 different jobs within a week or two, I couldn’t paint, because everything was so chaotic.
But now that I have this “permalance” deal, I can actually paint when I get home. It means I don’t sleep (laughs), but that little drop of continuity allows me to do my art. At the same time, I strive to be my own boss….it’s an interesting situation….
Freelancing is a huge, huge hustle….and most freelancers are doing something else. I was listening to this comedian the other day, he was saying that to be an artist in New York, you have to have a career that’s not your art (laughs)…to survive! And that’s a very good point, because if you’re unknown and you’re trying to become an artist, there’s not really a way you can survive unless you have a pretty decent job.
That’s interesting, because I’ve always leaned toward that point of view, but I was listening to this artist the other day, who was saying the opposite, that if you have a day job, then that ends up becoming your career instead of your art.
Oh yeah! But I can say what I’m saying because…I don’t sleep! (laughs) I hustle and work so hard on this shit…no sleep, my apartment’s a wreck, I don’t have much of a social life (laughs)…it’s on!!! And they say that good art comes from that hustle, that struggle.
…and I’m thankful for it! I could have easily slipped into a nice comfortable job, but…I don’t want to….
Do you think that the struggle you speak of is necessary to sustain an interesting artistic output?
I think for me it is. I need bumps in the road! It feeds my art!
I think that great art comes from people going through horrible, amazing, funny, beautiful things. It doesn’t come from just chilling at home, you know, “everything’s groovy, I got my 401k” (laughs)
I hear you…at the same time, it seems that by a certain stage of their lives people want a level of security. Also, they find an artistic route that is financially viable and so they stop taking risks. I met a woodcarver at an art fair once who said she felt compelled to carve the same character over and over because she knew it would sell…and she had a kid to feed!
Yeah…I don’t have a kid! (laughs) I think I’m at the point now where people don’t expect me to have anything (laughs), and I feed into that! I have a lot of nieces and nephews.
The best point I ever heard was from a friend, she said “I see artists in this neighborhood grow to a certain age, get a spouse, put on the weight, and they’re drinking, and it just looks like they gave up!” And that’s the traditional route! And that’s fine, except that those deferred needs and dreams that those people have will just be a burden on their kid.
I don’t want to be that guy….I don’t want to have one path, one career, give up all my dreams to support that kid and that lifestyle. There’s another scenario—what if you just go for everything you want to go for? And you try your best to support your kid, and you might not be perfect…isn’t that OK? (laughs) You’re just a dude trying to do your thing.
What are some of the things you do when you’re not drawing, painting or doing digital animation?
I go to the theater company that I’m a part of, Chelsea Rep Lab, I do readings of good plays we want to put on….we’re gearing up for the next season and I might be in some of those shows.
I love to dance, there are these old-school House sessions that I go to on 14th St., with all these great old-school House dancers, these original New York motherfuckers! There’s young kids too…so I’ll go and vibe with them, and we’ll work on and show each other moves…it’s not a class, it’s….a jam!…it’s called PMT Dance Studios.
That’s awesome! Are you good?
I can shake a leg! (laughs) Back in the day I used to go to all of the House parties—Vinyl, a bunch of those old jam sessions….
It’s very strange all the things that I do, but…I grew up in New York! There are all these influences from everywhere, and I was open to it all!
Do you have any upcoming projects that you’re excited about?
It’s been great in that I’ve had one project pop up after the next, a collaboration here, an exhibition there. The next one is Nickodemus’ “A New York Minute” record release party, which is basically a collaboration based on a collaboration:
A release party with a viewing of the video we worked on, with my paintings displayed as well as another exhibition, sneaker art design produced by these legendary graff artists. It’s gonna be awesome, I can’t even imagine all the different people that are involved in this thing.
Finally, do you have any advice for aspiring artists?
(laughs) Being an aspiring artist myself?
I guess the biggest question facing young artists is, “should I choose a steady job, or should I do my art?” To me the question is obvious—do your art! Do your art until you can’t do it anymore! Do it until they throw you out, or lock you out…and even then you’re probably still doing something pretty interesting! (laughs)
One more thing—anyone who shows love for your art, you have to invest in those people and be so grateful for them. Those are the people that will support you, you have to invest in them and bring them into what you do. If they take time out of their busy life in this crazy city to show love for your art, that’s huge, and you have to show respect to that. And some of those people will be the best collaborators you’ll ever have.
Keep up with Justin Carty at Justincarty.com