In Full Site - Rigo 99
Artist Rigo 99 paints loud in public. His monumental murals, painted on the sides of buildings, take inspiration from the graphic intensity of traffic signs and advertising in order to communicate directly to a wide audience. Rigo’s work, because of its scale, is an integral piece of the urban environment where it is displayed.
Originally from Madeira Island, Portugal, Rigo 99 has painted a significant amount of work in the San Francisco Bay Area and is shown both nationally and internationally.
Recently, over a glass of tea at an outside café near the U.C. Berkeley campus, loud paper spoke to Rigo about architecture, the urban environment and his work.
LP: What inspires you to do public space pieces? How did that come about?
R99: Two things, I guess. One is a response to the visual stimulation that comes my way through advertising and public announcements, sort of talking back. The other one is my desire to produce a type of art that is really accessible.
LP: So, public reaction is as much a part of the art as the artwork itself?
R99: Yeah, there is a clear intent to communicate or participate in the communication process with the public.
LP: How do you feel about communicating on an urban scale? Advertising is generally a smaller scale than your murals. Even billboards.
R99: In a way it’s a slightly parasitical relationship to architecture because I just use the façade for support of something else. I look at architecture a lot. It’s a field that interests me. The works, they wrestle away the meaning from the structure onto the surface. I think a place where that was most laid out was the project I did inside the Yerba Buena for the Bay Area Now exhibit. When you go in the Yerba Buena, there is this overhanging balcony that’s really impressive and maybe oppressive, but it’s very light, light grays and aluminum and you have this big stairwell. So, the space is letting you know about its might, its power as a special place for art, because they can afford to have this big space. At the same time, it wants to retain a sophistication and elegance in how it announces its power to you. So what I did there is I painted these black and yellow stripes on the overhang of the balcony going on the horizontal part and then I wrote "headroom" and then I measured it: 12 feet 6 inches.
LP: That’s as big an ego as you can fit into the gallery.
R99: More than 12 feet 6 inches, you start hitting your head on the roof. That’s funny to get that. So it became kind of heavy and like, "Woah, seems like this balcony can fall on me and crush me."
LP: So you are changing the perception of the architecture.
R99: Right, highlighting the power play at hand.
LP: How do you feel about your works blending back into their urban environments as the paint peels or do you maintain them?
R99: Some have disappeared already. Some I do go back and do restoration. I’m comfortable with them being attached to specific time. They are not really dealing in the forever realm; they are dealing in the present tense.
LP: Do you find when you work for museums that you are more conscious whether or not it is temporal?
R99: I’m conscious of the fact that the museum is not a neutral site for art. It’s still very difficult for me approach a museum space as a neutral space to display my artwork. So, yeah, it comes into account.
LP: These new accolades like the SECA (Society for the Encouragement of Contemporary Art) Art Award Exhibition at SFMOMA or the MATRIX exhibition at the U.C. Berkeley Art Museum must put you in an awkward position in many ways.
R99: Yes, I’m still processing it. There is a freedom or a righteousness that can come from screaming from the sidelines as the procession is going by. And if you are also invited to be part of the procession, then you have to. It poses a rearrangement of strategy.
LP: Tactic versus strategy at that point?
R99: It becomes a target for someone else.
LP: How do you prep for one of your murals? Do you photograph or sketch?
R99: Both. I usually walk by the site a lot or drive by, depending. I try to find out where most of my public will be. It makes sense to put myself in their situation. I try to see how many different viewpoints the work can be encountered. That’s mostly walking by, photographing, sketching, also by observing people’s interactions near there.
LP: And you also work with some of the community groups and school groups?
R99: Depending on the site. Sometimes the site comes with a social context of its own, farther than just being part of the neighborhood. Sometimes I am not aware of that when I get into that situation. Usually the work ends up changing, reflecting that new environment that I wasn’t aware of from the start.
LP: How do people feel about living with the work over time?
R99: I have heard different things. There are people who appreciate it as a somewhat more stable, more reliable feature of the urban landscape. If you look back tomorrow, maybe it’s still there. I’m sure some of the people must find it just more noise, more clutter.
LP: Your work seems less noisy because of its simple form, with only a few colors. Content-wise it is not simple at all, but visually it has a weighty presence because of the simple formality.
R99: I try for that. The simplicity. Part of it might be just the social context in which I grew up - the punk aesthetic. Never Mind the Bollocks was made with four chords. My approach to communication is more intensive rather than extensive: high context rather than low context and as physical as possible. A lot of what the scale is about is just a strategy to be able to get physical.
LP: Do you intend to go into 3D?
R99: I wrap the 2D around the existing 3D.
The volume of the buildings and the volume of the space dictate quite a bit the formal arrangements, and that is exciting for me. I am getting more implicated in architecture, in the whole architectural discourse.
The most amazing thing that I have seen was this building in Hong Kong. It is an apartment building maybe twelve stories high and really narrow. Behind it is a big mountain and in front of it is the water. There is a portion of it, maybe three stories high and three slats across that’s a hole. A three-story by three-apartment wide window.
It is there so that this mythical creature that lives on the mountain, a dragon, can fly from the mountain to the water and from the water to the mountain. It makes sense in sheer economic terms. People would not live in the building if they knew they were calling this bad luck onto themselves by preventing the dragon to get to the water. So, it is economically sound to lose 9 or 10 units of housing in order to protect this myth.
LP: A lot of your work calls attention to loss in the urban environment. Are you interested in calling attention to that loss and do you fear for the future of cities, as they become denser?
R99: Honestly, I have a love/hate relationship right now. I am absolutely fascinated by cities. I think they are super-stimulating and exciting, but I am aware that I am doing these works in American cities and that I am originally not from here. So, the larger context that I see my work in is that America exports so much of this fascination with the urban environment ... Gentlemen Prefer Blondes ... Things Go Better With Coke ... Come To Where The Flavor Is.
I came here consciously wanting to figure out how this cultural fascination mechanism was so efficient that it made everybody lose interest in their own stories and become interested in these stories. I have interiorized some of those strategies and used them to point a way in the opposite direction. Point to the Indian rather than to the Marlboro Man, point to the sky rather the than skyscraper. The tree rather than the Nissan Pathfinder. The terrain rather than the map because the loudness with which the map from here is broadcast is so strong that it compelled me to come here and participate.
LP: So your outsider status gives you a lot of room for commentary.
R99: It is easy to feel foreign. But now I am forever stuck in that space. I go back to Portugal and I look at Portugal with the same sort of distance that I look at the US. In the process I have lost ... I belong more to that gap than to A or B. Which again, was a condition that we idolized growing up. I am not a member of the culture. I do treasure that space. To be able to look at things and not understand them. I treasure the chance to encounter the unfamiliar.
LP: What moved you to create the Leonard Peltier banner?1 There are so many causes, why this one?
R99: The fear that one can have in these kind of situations is that there is a cause that is so honorable, so righteous that by associating yourself with the cause some of the righteousness will rub off on you. Like when Mandela came here and every politician wanted to take his photographs next to him. Just by being in a photograph next to Mandela at the end of the twentieth-century would make him a better politician because the man just exuded so much spiritual authority. I fear becoming that.
[The banner] came about because I did a series of works about Geronimo Ji Jaja and my level of involvement with his case grew from project to project and by happenstance he has been freed. It was good to see that sometimes the right thing happens. First I did this thing where I called him Geronimo Pratt. I wasn’t aware that he didn’t like to be called Geromimo Pratt. I did a work where I called him Geromimo Ji Jaja, and then I did this installation in Watts where he came to the opening with his wife within a month of being freed from prison. It was very personal. So, I wanted to increase the contact with him. I was talking with one of his best friends, Henry Douglas, the former Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party. I said, "I would like to do something with him." If [Geronimo] wanted to paint a wall in Louisiana or Florida I would just volunteer some of my skills. I wondered what he would like to say or put up. [Henry] said, "You know what he will say: ’Free all political prisoners.’" Then, I was still doing my homework in regards to my project with Geronimo.
[Leonard Peltier] has been a concern of mine for some time. As a kid, my image of this part of the world was Bonanza, the Waltons; I saw those shows on Portuguese TV. So, he was a case of political prisoner that had more than two decades of incarceration. It seems that there is overwhelming evidence for him to get a new trial. At the end of the millennium, when people are engaged in this kind of retrospective thinking, I thought his situation could be entry point to the relations between California, legitimate government and these other nations which are now almost illegitimate, the Native Americans.
I was attracted to the facts. I love stories that tell themselves, because then I don’t have to be opinionated. I don’t want my to work to sound so opinionated. It is like: look, there is a tree, and then let the tree and the metal wall and all the cars going by do the rest of the talking. I feel that with Leonard Peltier’s situation, I don’t need to call him a political prisoner. I don’t need to say that terrible injustices have been done to him, because I don’t have the knowledge and I definitely don’t have the proximity to the case to be making those lofty pronouncements. What I feel comfortable saying is "Wow, this thing, really blows my mind." So, it is 1999, which for me is associated with the future, and Leonard Peltier is in prison.
LP: There is something wrong here.
R99: "Why is this happening?" I am comfortable with asking the question. I’m comfortable with asking an uncomfortable question more than offering an answer. With Geronimo, I was four years old when he was imprisioned, from his description, a white kid, blue eyes, somewhere in the Atlantic on an island where the tri-continental trade slave was first tested. It wasn’t from a proximity to the cause. ... It is not about defending my gene pool, or defending my political orientation, it is more about, "if this can happen to him, then it can happen to me," and it sounds like a bad idea. It seems a little harsh that someone can be in prison for so long because of his ideas. It doesn’t seem like a good survival strategy to go by thinking that that is okay. More so than the particular views of the individuals. Even though I that I have a good deal of respect for what they have to say as well.
LP: Tell me about the 23 birds. Were any found?
R99: I didn’t call every single one of them; I called a couple of them. They hadn’t been found, but other people had called. There are several things that excite me about those. One, the broadest one, is those flyers can be seen as an evolution from the wanted reward signs of the West. Often in the movies, the plot is moving along, then something terrible happens, a bank gets robbed, people get killed and the citizens come out and "bang, bang, bang" wanted signs go up. And as the people keep fucking up, the reward amount increases. I guess, that was just one hundred and some years ago. A hundred and some years later, you have citizens going out and saying, "wanted, reward, my pet bird." It is interesting going from chasing after an individual that is a danger to society, to going after a lost relationship to nature. Even if it is a type of relationship with nature where an animal that you admire so much, find so beautiful because it can fly around is jailed in the corner of your house in order to allow your imagination to soar, to fly.
That is one aspect. The other one is seeing the flyers as cries of individuality and fragility and acknowledgement of loss. These are things that I find most absent here. It seems so hard to deal with loss. There is so much drive and emphasis on winning the race and moving forward. The Vietnam War Memorial is one of the best examples that I can think of that is an acknowledgement of loss.
LP: And individuality. Each name is listed.
R99: Right. So to be driving through this big, fairly big urban area in the United States, California, and find that people are still moved enough to come out of the closet and let the world know that their best friend is actually a bird, an immigrant from Africa. An African gray parrot is their best friend. What a trip. Also, [the birds] have such great navigational skill. I get lost a lot. I am like a chicken. It is very hard for me to think of a bird as being lost. They can survey the landscape. So it is a loss to the owner, but not that the birds are lost.
I asked a Native American friend if there was a particular story that he thought I should know about birds. He said that the presence of birds is a way for a lot of native people to measure the spiritual health of a community. If you wish for something, say a prayer and wish really hard, it could be love with someone, or something that you want to have happen, then if the wish is really strong, a bird is born, somewhere in the air from that wish. Birds around are signs of prayers, that prayers are alive in the community.
LP: What are some of your future projects or ones that are in process?
R99: One of them will deal with a similar issue as the SECA show, the role of the museum. Towards the end of the year, November, there will be a group show at the De Young Museum [in San Francisco]. The building is scheduled for demolition because of an earthquake problem. I’ll be painting something on the façade of the building. The façade already has these built braces - I-beams and big concrete supports to uphold the façade. It is an exciting set up.
I am doing some work in Portland. Very much in the line of these works here - . again an association with architecture. I am getting more attracted to the temporality of these projects. It makes it easier to go out and make a loud statement. In Portland, there are a lot of buildings scheduled for demolition in their light industrial district. I love that kind of architecture - the factories, the metal. I am hoping to do something on a building that will then get demolished.
LP: Kind of like the work of Matta-Clark.
R99: Yeah, but the idea is to incorporate time. I like really deadpan humor. If I tell a joke and it is really stupid, but maybe a couple minutes later it is really funny, just because you were feeling stupid yourself. I treasure the possibility of doing that with work, of having the time element do that. To write the words "virtual reality" really big on a building that is an industrial building, and then the wreaking ball comes in and it is destroying what? The virtual reality or is it destroying the reality? Was the building not real, because it was to be demolished? Or was it virtual? So am I attaching virtual reality to a dying structure or a dying industry? Thirty thousand people a year a moving to Portland and with them a lot of the computer-related industries. [Oregon] also [has] a very high incarceration rate, as do most states, but they are very high.
LP: The population is very small in Oregon.
R99: Very small. I think they have 2% of their population in prison. So this "prisons/computer" is true there. Leonard Peltier actually lived in Portland for some time. He had an auto body shop there. So, I am contemplating the idea of mimicking the advertising process a step further, by having similar artwork happen in two cities. Maybe the bus project that didn’t happen here will work there. Which would be interesting. A work that couldn’t happen on the radical U.C. Berkeley campus would happen in Portland, a city in one of the most conservative states in the US.3
LP: What kind of process do you have to go though to get a piece approved? Are they only public pieces? What if it is on a private building?
R99: If it is on a private building and only private funds are involved then it only has to meet the city ordinances pertaining to public space. But if it is a commission from the city, then ... But those kinds of cautions and worries can happen from the private person as well.
LP: So it is not just governmental regulation.
R99: There is an overall sense that people are not equipped to deal with disturbing information. This is so bizarre. In the sixties, men with long hair could not go to Disneyland because it might freak the kids or something. That kind of mindset treats the customer as a child, treats customer as so frail that you have to grab them by the hand and sit them at the cash register. It is very bizarre. U.C. Berkeley thinks that it is okay to exist so close to San Quentin, where human beings are electrocuted, while in the pursuit of higher education. That’s manageable, but to co-exist with the word "prisons" written on a bus going though campus, that’s hard. It really seems, out of sight, out of mind. It is the kind of thing that Leonard Peltier suffered: out of sight out of mind.
U.C. Berkeley rejected Rigo’s proposal to put the arrows Prisons and Computers on campus bus signage. The administrators feared backlash from the arrow containing the word "prisons" because it was pointing to the back of the bus. They thought that the artwork might be mistaken for indicating that people who sit at the back of the bus should be in prison.