Alexander Heir is the man behind New York’s punk clothing label Death/Traitors and artist in his own right, who for the last week has held an exhibition of his new work at Sang Bleu Contemporary Art and Project Space. We spoke to him today about his career, the work he’s showing with us and what he’s going to be upto next. Heir’s pop up shop will be open until Saturday from 12-8pm where you’ll be able to buy some of his artwork, clothes and his new book. And a big thank you to Jura Whiskey for sponsoring the opening on Tuesday evening.
How have you got to where you are now?
I moved to New York City in 2002 from New Jersey to attend the Pratt Institute to study print making. My father was a photographer so I always grew up around art, as a teenager I grew a great interest into Punk so print making seemed to be the logical step to merge the two things that I really loved. The best thing that I got out of art school was the network of young artists that I met who have become great friends that I’m still in touch with. When I was in school I started printing t-shirts with the schools facilities, and by the time I’d graduated me and a friend had invested in a t-shirt press. A year after I graduated I started doing Death/Traitors which is basically the apparel end of my art. So since then I’ve simultaneously been creating t-shirts but also creating my own art work which is on show at the moment at Sang Bleu. As I started the brand the punk scene in New York really started flourishing so coincidentally because of that I’ve ended up doing a lot of flyers for gigs and bands. Death/Traitors isn’t a fashion brand but more of a brand for punks and made by punks.
Could you explain the ideas and inspirations behind the work that you’ll be showing at Sang Bleu London?
The exhibition will be half Death/Traitors pop up shop and half art show. I will be showing some new work that’s the first in a series called “Demons of The 21st Century,” depicting some of the different evils that plague this modern world. This first piece will depict the Soul Sucker, the beast that steals peoples’ creative hard work and ideas. In addition I will be showing some prints from The Tattooed Man series I did, which was a more fun series seeing what I could do illustrating tattoos and body suits in my style.
What is it about the aesthetic of tattooing that interests you?
I’ve always been drawn the boldness and simplicity of traditional American and Japanese tattoos…I was always drawn to the thick, black lines, and exciting imagery of skulls, dragons, etc..I love the crude, almost grotesque flash of some of the early 20th century tattooists. Like punk rock, so much of that early tattoo art is so simple and borderline ugly, but when it’s done right is can be just as good or even better than any work created by a virtuoso.
On the opposite side, I love traditional Japanese tattoos (and the prints and paintings many of them are based off of) because they were illustrated by such masters with such amazing technical skill and grasp of anatomy, balance, and color. That work exists in that hard to find world between stylization and realism; The figure is reduced to the simplest, most descriptive lines; every line and shape is perfect.
The term punk is often thrown around to describe your work, and as the world becomes increasingly corporate notions of historic subcultures becomes more and more obscure and often loose their original meanings. How does punk actually inspire or effect your work?
“Punk” is such a interesting word…it started out as a word appropriated to describe a specific music scene in the 70’s, then evolved into a genre, then kind of became this catch all word to describe anti-establishment/ counter culture ideas.
It’s indefinability is both a huge strength and weakness; At it’s best, people use the idea of punk to liberate themselves. I see it as a way to embrace honesty on one’s self and work; it’s the rejection of the selfish, consumption based lifestyle that the powers that be push on us. Punk should be a haven for the outcasts and weirdos. The current “punk” scene in NYC right now is incredibly inspiring, it’s full of bands and visual artists that consistently putting out amazing, original work, and pushes me to try my best all the time. I love doing artwork for bands; when done right, the music and art and elevate each other. Nothing beats listening to a record that sounds great and has great accompanying art.
At it’s worst, punk is a pissing contest about credibility, an excuse to destroy without reason, and a genre/lifestyle to buy into. And like may other genre descriptors, it attempts to lump in artists from a huge variety of times, places, and beliefs.
This is where my ambivalence about the word comes in…I have had this discussion with a good number of my peers here in NYC: We’ve all been clearly influenced and inspired by a lot of artists and musicians that have been considered “punk,” and have grown up attending and being involved in the punk rock community, but there is also so many other things influencing our work and perspectives. I think this has been a lot of artists’ problems since the inception of the word…Sure, we are punks, but we are much more than that, as well.
Which subcultural/punk artists inspire your work in particular?
Pushead was a huge influence on me when I first started drawing, as was Raymond Pettibon’s early work and Mad Marc Rude, too. I’ve always been inspired by Vivienne Westwood & Malcolm McLaren’s designs for their brand SEDITIONARIES, as well as the collages of Jamie Reid.
Gee Vaucher’s graphic design for Crass is probably is a huge influence, as well as their iconic logo designed by Dave King. Sakevi Yokoyama’s art for GISM (also inspired by the artwork of Crass) is huge, as well the the aesthetic and artwork of Discharge. I know some of the albums were designed by their singer, Cal Morris, though I’m not sure if he drew their iconic logos or now. Of course their iconic “Never Again” cover is a John Hartfield collage.
I love all the work Vince Rancid did for Raw Power, and although I don’t know of any connection to punk, I LOVE the work of Suehiro Maruo.
There are countless album covers designed by the bands themselves or underground artists I could list as inspirations, as well as some more notable artists I’m forgetting.
There is a thriving scene of young “punk” artists right now I am very inspired by including Sam Ryser, Heather Benjamin, Eugene Terry, Jessica Poplawski, Emil Nasdor- Bognar, and Abraham Diaz. I also love and inspired by the tattoos and flash by all the guys at Smith St. Tattoo (Steve Boltz, Bert Krak, Dan Santoro, Eli Quinters), Dimoni, Rotor, Simon Erl, Koji Ichimaru, Rafel Delalande, and Guy Le Tattooer, and so many more…
How does it feel when people get your illustrations tattooed?
It’s always an honor when someone likes or feels connected to my art enough to get it tattooed on them!
What is next for you now?
In the the immediate future i’ll be showing my work at Aloha tattoo shop in Barcelona and El Nido in Valencia next week. After that I’ll be releasing new scarves and jackets for the winter through Death/Traitors once I get back To New York. Something that I’m really excited about for next year is a series of hand painted kites that I’m going to be making. I’ve always love flying kites, when I was younger me and my dad would go to the beach and do it, and ever since then I find it a bit like my kind of zen. So for this exhibition I’m going to be selling the kites but also making a video of me flying them. Its interesting because I’m fascinated by Japanese culture and that similarity with an interest in kites also exists there too.