An interview with Ian Debeer

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Tattooer and artist Tamara Santibanez spoke to graffiti writer and street artist Ian Debeer about his art, criminal conviction and social media; his temperamental relationship to it and how it’s reconstructing how we produce and consume contemporary art.

T:  I’d like to hear a quick concise bit of background about your history, as far as art, your graffiti art, or prison for a little context.

I: I started writing graffiti when I was 15 or 16 and got into a lot of legal trouble.  Did prison time- actually had the second longest sentence in the US history for the crime of graffiti.  Ever since then I have been trying to figure out how to make other types of art.  Graffiti is the greatest contributing force to who I am now I think.

T: Are there other types of art that you were working in besides graffiti before you went to prison?

I: No, I drew a lot when I was younger.  I’ve always drawn and I’ve always had a loose appreciation for aesthetics.  But when I was doing graffiti, it fulfilled every creative desire that I had so I didn’t try to familiarize myself with any other medium.

T: You have quite a graffiti legacy in New York, you’re still everywhere.  What to me is a really interesting part of your whole story is how the terms of your parole were restricting your form of creative expression. Can you talk a little bit more about that and elaborate on the specifics of it?

I: I’m not allowed to own or possess any traditional art making materials that include but aren’t limited to: any type of paint, any marker, any pencil, any pen, any crayon, chalk. Anything that you can use to mark a surface essentially, I can’t legally use which is absurd obviously. And then while I was serving parole my parole officer came by one time and found me doing a painting in my basement and because I was doing that she searched the whole place and she found additional art making materials and ended up violating me for it and I served an additional 3 months just for that, so that’s what’s pretty unique. I’m the only person as far as I know with that parole condition. And I’ve done some research on this in the United States. Can’t legally do a painting right now if I wanted to.

T: It sounds like your situation is pretty exceptional as far as the sentencing for graffiti, but I was going to ask if it is common in any other type of parole? It’s pretty unique and specific.

I: It’s tailor made for me. I think it’s because I just got unlucky. I just happened to be the person that transferred parole from Pennsylvania to New York when the specific supervisor was there and she didn’t know how to handle my situation and wrote up this condition which is a series of events that are unfortunate. I don’t think it’s anybody’s fault in particular and I don’t think as a result because of my own actions or anything, I just think it’s an unfortunate thing that happened that continues to affect my life.

T: First of all the concept that you can define what you consider an art making material is pretty bizarre because it is so broad. Also the idea that you can incarcerate someone’s creativity or constrain it with these specific yes’s and no’s and allowances and things being forbidden.  So that seems partially how you transitioned into using social media as a platform for expression?

I: I mean I never really made that connection until two minutes ago when you first started asking me about giving a background, then I started to think well why would we talk about that if we are going to talk about social media, but it does tie directly into it. Before I went to prison I never posted a photo of myself online anyway…

T: Well there’s an anonymity that is necessary with it right?

I: When you’re younger you think “I have to be anonymous because I’m a criminal” but realistically you don’t have to be that anonymous. The cops that are looking for graffiti writers, even if they find out what you look like or what your name is it doesn’t mean that they are just gonna straight up arrest you.  And 9 times out of 10 even if you do get arrested as a graffiti writer it’s not even that bad. But in the Myspace days if I would post a photo of myself I’d put a bandana on or I would cover my face, and girls were into it you know, and that was my angle.  So I never posted a photo of myself and of course I did some growing up but I also was just older after prison, and the halfway house and I was living in Buffalo. And I was bored.

T:  Well I’m assuming you didn’t have smart phone access, you didn’t have social media access while in prison so you came out and things had probably changed quite a lot.

I: I got on Instagram when I was living in Buffalo and wanted to stay connected to friends. And I was like this is cool. And I just started lurking. I think that really what still what holds my interest in Instagram is just looking and thinking about how other people portray themselves, and what it means, and what their moods are.  I mean same thing with Facebook, but people feel more inclined to talk on Facebook than on Instagram.  There they are really focused on presenting themselves or the things that they are doing visually, which even if these people aren’t artists you can go so deep with them.  I can analyze somebody’s account and tell you if I think that they are being authentic or if they are self aware.

T: What do you look at for cues as to reading those things?

I: I mean how many selfies somebody posts is one thing, but also the way that their selfies look.  Because when you’re looking at selfies-and people forget how to look at selfies-when you’re looking at one you have to imagine the person taking it.  All of the photos that never made it, like how many fuck ups are there per selfie that gets posted?  There’s like the selfies that girls are posting after they got dissed by their ex-boyfriend and they’re trying to look like they are not sad.. you know what I mean?  There’s a selfie of a lonely depressed middle aged man who is just addicted to his job and hasn’t been able to hold down a relationship. There are so many different types of selfies. Even people that are older…there’s some kids that are growing up and selfies are just natural, it makes sense to them.  It’s part of being social and then there’s people that actually have to think about it and kind of take a step back from it and be like “am I comfortable being part of this younger thing?”.

T: Putting your face forward, almost for peer review…

I:  The thing that I always think of before I post it is why would any one else give a shit about what I’m about to post.  When people post a selfie it’s like you’re saying this is me, what I look like…do you like it? Or not?  It’s crazy, people do it daily.

T:  And you essentially say yes or no.  Yes I do like this, no I do not like this.

I: I watch people some times scrolling through Instagram and just blowing past things like close friends’ selfies and shit like not even thinking about it or looking.

T: And when you ask if you like that person in real life, of course you like that person.  When presented with their face you don’t “like” it.

I:  And I have actually had people stop liking me in person you know, because of shit that I’ve done with the internet or shit that I’ve done on Instagram.

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T:  That’s what I want to hear about.  There are things that you’ve done before that I’m really interested in, like you did the workout videos- the prison industrial workout videos and you also did the acai bowl series which I really liked. You also present this sort of combative persona on Instagram. I guess I am interested in hearing your motivations behind some of them or how they came about.

I:  Usually the motivation is part critique of myself, dealing with something about myself that I think is absurd. Sometimes it’s critiquing other people that are guilty of the same thing.  Or just making people not take themselves so seriously, hopefully. With the aggressive persona what I’m trying do is show how ridiculous it is to engage in beef online.  I think it’s embarrassing for both sides, there’s no winners but at the same time it’s highly entertaining to watch. And thats what I wanna show people. Like yo this is interesting, just watch me make myself look terrible right now.

T: And what’s interesting is you often do it with your friends. You are doing back and forths with people I know that you’re actually close friends with in real life.  So I see the disconnect but it’s interesting to imagine what people see if they don’t know you.

I:  Well thats the thing, a lot of my followers don’t know me personally so when they see me beefing with people, they think it’s real.  And that’s something that I think is funny too.  The people who figure it out that it’s not real are usually a little bit smarter.  There are some people that that’s how I end up having problems with because I’ll say something or do something that I’m like this is obvious right? That this is a joke? But people are so sensitive about stuff online or maybe they are not just as perceptive as I give them credit for.  But the acai bowl stuff I was doing… as a lot of white kids do- I have a little bit of guilt knowing that there is privilege for white people in the United States. One thing that really upsets me is that- you can tell this really in New York- if you go to Manhattan there are these delis that are amazing for like 20 bucks you can get this sick meal and then you go to the hood you have to eat at Popeyes or a deli or something like that.  Good food and healthy nutrition isn’t accessible for people across the board. So for somebody that is familiar with the hood or speaking in ebonics to be eating acai bowls and to be excited about this trend that is pretty much for rich white people that can drop $15 on this dessert type thing that is supposedly healthy, I just wanted to do that to show the disparity between somebody talking in that way about something that is for a whole different world.

T: The viewer might not put that together but they see that there is humor even if they are not sure why.  They perceive that there’s a contrast but they don’t understand why. You do that sometimes with talking about art in your Instagram posts. Which functions in the same way you know?  Speaking in a low brow way about something that’s generally considered to be high brow.

I: Something that upsets me is people – the inaccessibility of art.  Everybody’s trying to figure art out as if it’s something secret.  The depth of art is unimaginable so it’s never going to be explained.  But people have a problem with that. People get frustrated by it so they think it’s not okay to admit that you don’t know who that artist is or you don’t know what this piece means or whatever. What was the last one you talked about? The prison work out videos. Well shit, there’s the work out people on Instagram . Trainers who post about motivational shit every day. And I think its ridiculous but I don’t want to just insult them or say they’re one dimensional or they’re stupid because I don’t think that. I wanted to make workout videos that were a mockery of working out but also a mockery of myself too. I made myself look really ridiculous in those videos. Honestly those were the things that people vibed with the best. And I think it’s because I actually appear in those. People don’t have to read the caption. If people read the caption then they can figure it out with their perception of the tone. Whereas with a video, its like ok he’s definitely kidding, it’s definitely a joke.

T: You’re sort of known at this point for being elusive with your Instagram account, because you’re constantly changing the name, deleting, reactivating, re-appearing under a different name…so is it impulsive when you delete an account? Or is it calculated?

I: A little bit of both, I am aware that I do that stuff and I guess I could stop myself, but I like doing it. I smash phones every now and then or I’ll do something destructive to myself. If I get sick of Instagram, or just to prove something to my friends. Actually one of the times I just did it on a bet like that. I was with a friend of mine and he was saying that I need the attention and I was saying I don’t and he was like “you couldn’t delete it.” And I just pulled out my phone and did it right then and there and lost something like 4000 followers.

T: Did it feel good and cathartic to clear the slate and come back? What about the followship?

I: If nobody is hearing you then it’s kinda boring. I like the idea of talking to a large group of people and seeing how they respond. I think that would be exciting for any artist. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. People are always talking shit on it, but I think most artists want to draw people’s attention to something. The first photo I posted of myself on Instagram was a photo of myself at the driving range wearing all Polo, really nice turquoise shorts, boat shoes and stuff which you wouldn’t expect because before prison I would have never dressed like that- I never would have gone golfing. But after prison I was interested in trying a bunch of different things and went one day with a friend. That happened to be the first photo that I posted and and it made a bunch of people be like “what are you doing?” and that’s what excited me. Wow, now people think that I’m out here golfing regularly or I dress like this all the time, or maybe my financial position changed, they don’t know, you know? And most people are not being completely themselves, they are presenting themselves in a way they want to be viewed by others. And I like to play with that idea of the space between what’s actually happening and what’s going on online.

T: There’s something exciting and empowering about the knowledge that you can take control and manipulate it to your own ends.

I: Imagine if you could do that in real life. Like if you just could go into every conversation and control every facial expression, every word, and know exactly how you wanted to be- like an actor or something. It definitely is appealing.

T: Do you think there is a usefulness in having a separation between your true self and your persona online?  Or do you think that its better to be authentic?

I: Totally- I can’t imagine what it would be like to just be completely yourself all the time online. If you could just broadcast what’s going on with you constantly to everyone that’s ever known you? That’s crazy. I almost don’t ever want to share anything that’s real for that reason. I read a Young Jeezy interview when I was really young where he was like “I don’t fuck with Facebook at all because it’s like snitching on yourself”.

T: How much longer is your parole?

I: Two more years, until September 13th of 2018.

T: What forms do you see your creative expression taking for now, for the immediate future and what about when you can own art materials again without fear of violating your parole?

I: I still think about the problems and pleasures of actually applying paint. At the end of the day I need to be creating things with my hands. I do like conceptual things, I like ideas in art, but I wanna be a painter and I still- I don’t care if you put this on record- I’ll still do painting right now. I violate the conditions of my parole every day-so I guess it’ll just be nice to not have to worry about it being a problem. Really what I want to find out is how I’m going to support myself financially cuz I am not comfortable being poor. I’ve been poor my whole life and I am still really agitated about it. How can I do something that I enjoy and make money to support myself.

T: What are your thoughts on being in this generation of young artists that have access to the internet and either grew up with access to it or gained access to it at a young enough age that it has really trickled into the art that people make, and digital media has become maybe not a preferred method of expression for artists of our generation, but pretty inescapable I think. So what are your thoughts on it as a medium in and of itself versus other more tangible forms? As somebody who has been limited to solely that not by choice.

I: Well that’s the thing, some people have tried to mock stuff that I put up on Instagram, saying oh, its just one of Ian‘s little projects or whatever. I don’t think that all art has to be serious so I have no problem saying yeah, I am using Instagram creatively. I’m not expecting everybody to like it.

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T: What do you think it is that makes people not take the internet so seriously as a medium? Do you think it’s the newness of it? The temporary nature of it?

I: Well, if you look at the history of art in general- and I love reminding people of this- every single time there’s a movement or change it’s met with aggression and disregard. That’s just the way people react to new things, period. So if people don’t like what you’re doing or are questioning or talking about it, that’s a good thing. Not everything people make is good, people should be kind of insecure and try and be aware of what they are doing. But I honestly feel like what I’m doing is natural. I don’t feel any type of guilt about it. And I think that there are small things, nuances in the way that people that use Instagram. Like Instagram personalities, people that I have never met but that have a lot of followers.  I think there’s definitely a gap between people that are using it to make art that aren’t aware that’s what they are doing and there’s people that are old that are hyper aware about the effects of the internet and try too hard to make work about it and I think that that’s no good. I think that there’s got to be a comfortable medium between the two where somebody that’s familiar with it, somebody thats affected by it, can just produce things that are about it without being too contrived.

T: There are interesting conversations of friction that happen with what you just described. Like did you see that in one of the Richard Prince Instagram pieces that he did he took a photo off a woman named Audrey Wollen’s page? She’s a young female artist who uses her Instagram and digital media to kind of recreate classical nudes in this digital realm, very feminist oriented, and her reaction to him using her photograph was really strong- saying that it was this old white man appropriating a young woman’s body without permission for his own artistic purposes. That interaction between the two is telling.

I: That’s good Instagram art. It just so happens that Richard Prince already has his own audience where he can kind of do whatever. I read Gagosian put out a publication when he showed his works and he just talked about how his daughter showed him Instagram and he was like oh wow, this is easy, I don’t like cameras where I have to figure out how to use it- I can just screen shot it and it’s done.  He wasn’t saying these high crazy conceptual things, he was keeping it really down to earth. Essentially what he doing is is taking a mirror and shining it back on people.

T: That’s the fascinating thing- how much people are willing to reveal about themselves and how upset they get when they are made aware of it.

I: What if somebody that was famous that people take seriously noticed you and you respond the way that people respond – I have had friends that have been selected by Richard Prince and they didn’t do anything. They didn’t respond, they didn’t re-post and say “oh my god,” etcetera…and there are other people that went to the show and took photos of themselves with the prints that they were in, re-posted it a bunch, and people that had problems with it they would make a big deal about it and people who loved it would leave comments about it.  You could learn a lot about yourself by your reaction.

T: You have that moment of thinking almost “oh, dad found out about instagram”…but then you realize you need the perspective of someone that’s not immersed in it to really illuminate it. Is there anything on Instagram right now that you’re particularly excited about?  A hashtag or a trend that you’ve noticed?

I: That’s cool that you’re asking that question because it’s really relevant to right now. At this moment I just deleted my account again.

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