Most of the time I find people’s age irrelevant, but upon shaking hands with New York-born artist Todd James, the fact that he looks significantly younger than his age is striking. While I’m typing this, I’m realising that a lot of artists who come from a graffiti background have this going for them. It seems to take at least a decade off of you. - Please send me all your theories.- Not that the 49 year-old James has ever limited himself to graffiti. Starting painting trains as a young teen, he quickly branched out into record-sleeve design (Beastie Boys, MOBB Deep, Eminem), logo design (The Source), animated videos (U2, Minoriteam), puppet design (Crank Yankers, Miley Cyrus) and of course his world-renowned paintings. Once again descending upon Brussels’ staple ALICE Gallery, Todd James has filled the space with his high-spirited art and his laid-back attitude.
KNOTORYUS: Congratulations on the great work! This is your third show here at ALICE, right?
TODD JAMES: Thanks. Yes, Alice and Raph did invite me to paint some walls in Charleroi a while ago, but when it comes to shows, this is my third one here. I feel like we do them every three years, which is probably a common cycle.
KNOTORYUS: Nicolas Karakatsanis, the photographer whose work is hanging behind you, has the same approach. No matter how busy he gets, every two years he blocks out a time period to work on an exhibition. Do you carve out a specific amount of days and how do you go from there? Do you come up with a theme?
TODD JAMES: Alice and I, we plan it in advance. I probably worked on these for three months. I already had one of the works done. The one with the two women in the beach apartment in the dark, you know the one I’m talking about?
KNOTORYUS: It’s my favourite.
TODD JAMES: I really liked it too and I just knew I wanted it in the show. I really dug the colour palette. So I knew that was going to be something I wanted to work with. But in the beginning I did think the process was going to be more simple than what it turned out to be. I didn’t have a theme, but when Alice was asking to send her a title for the show, I sat around one morning and thought about the painting that we were going to use to promote the show and ‘Electric Ritual’ is what I came up with.
KNOTORYUS: When I hear the word ritual, I can’t not ask if you have any work-related rituals yourself.
TODD JAMES: (Thinks) Not really…
KNOTORYUS: Do you have to be in a certain headspace or mood when you paint? I always go back to this story of Nick Cave who -luckily for us or we might have lost him- found out years ago that he didn’t have to be in a self-inflicted dark state, or be up in the dead of night to write. One day he just went: “I’m going to try this as a nine to five” and it worked.
TODD JAMES: I didn’t know he said that! That’s funny, because I was talking to someone the other day about how waiting for things to come to you is bullshit. Not everything is going to be great but if you don’t sit down and work on something, you’re going to miss out. Sometimes I’ll just be drawing and think: “Things aren’t going to amount to much this morning.” But then something does happen because I forced myself to work.
KNOTORYUS: I know what you just said to be 100 % true. I’ve been working like that for several years now, but I was relatively late in discovering that approach, because I think that the first couple of times I delivered really great work when I was young was when I was under an extreme amount of pressure. Looking back I think that made me perceive that the success happened because of the chaos surrounding me rather than in spite of it. Did you always know, though?
TODD JAMES: I always knew, because I’ve always found joy in drawing. Sometimes I’ll be working in the studio and afterwards feel like I didn’t really accomplish much, but I had to go in and do it. It might have made me feel a bit bad in the moment, but the next day or week I might come up with something for which what I previously did proved to be useful.
KNOTORYUS: Let’s go back to when you were thirteen and it’s a beautiful day, maybe a Saturday. Where are you, what are you doing? You were probably already doing graffiti, right?
TODD JAMES: Thirteen? I could’ve been anywhere in Manhattan or The Bronx, or travelling to somebody else’s house. Graffiti was probably involved, drawing, sitting around and observing. A Saturday, at thirteen? Definitely out.
KNOTORYUS: I think it’s super funny because at thirteen, on a Saturday, I was out as well – meeting friends. I don’t know if you’re a parent?
TODD JAMES: Yes, I am. I know, it’s not the same now! It’s crazy. In fact, let me ask you this: when you were a kid, at age ten. Did you know all the other kids on your block? Pretty much?
KNOTORYUS: Pretty much, yeah. You?
TODD JAMES: Oh yeah. So, one of my kids had a classmate who she became friends with towards the end of the year. They didn’t even know the other one existed before they were in class together. Turned out they could see into each other’s window and lived around the corner from each other. But they never knew.
KNOTORYUS: I have a thirteen year-old now and sometimes I struggle with the fact that we were so much more connected and independent at that age. We knew how to meet up without having mobiles, we knew where to find each other and hang out, go do stuff. Now, it’s the parents organising everything, it must take a lot of the excitement away. But I’m also sure the opposite, having her run around Brussels all day at thirteen, is not a good idea either.
TODD JAMES: I don’t know! We managed when we were kids. Thirteen seems okay.
KNOTORYUS: Yeah, debatable. But what kind of music were you into as a kid?
TODD JAMES: I was into Pink Floyd at that time. Some rap, but at the time it was in a weird phase. Hip-hop wasn’t a genre yet and electronic music happened at the same time and I kind of piled it together. “Rapper’s Delight” had happened and then Run D.M.C. came out and that was exciting. Slick Rick came out around ’84 or something. But I somehow also got into heavy metal. Actually, I talked to Fabel from Rock Steady Crew the other day and we had the same kind of conversation about music – because he’s into all kinds of music. We’re both big fans of this metal band called Celtic Frost. But at the time you are referring to I was listening to Pink Floyd. I think I discovered Celtic Frost like a year or two later.
KNOTORYUS: Do you remember the moment when you realised it wasn’t just graffiti for you?
TODD JAMES: It was never only that. I wanted to draw comics and do animation from when I was about ten.
KNOTORYUS: I read in one of your old interviews that you would like to work on an animated feature. Has that happened yet?
TODD JAMES: Not yet, but I’ve thought about it a lot and I want to do it.
KNOTORYUS: Would you write the script as well?
TODD JAMES: Probably, yes.
KNOTORYUS: I was looking through my copy of ‘Beautiful Losers’ –I talked to Ed Templeton and Clare Rojas– and you guys, KAWS, Steve Powers, are all really different from each other. But I feel like now is a moment in time where you’ll all probably get approached by fashion houses to do collaborations. I know you’ve worked with Pharrell and adidas, but what KAWS did in Paris for the Dior SS19 Menswear show, is that something you’d consider? Is that a world you’d feel comfortable in?
TODD JAMES: I feel comfortable in any setting. But it would depend on the project. There’s always been a connection with fashion. Kenny Scharf, Dondi and Futura definitely dipped in and out of that scene in the 80s.
KNOTORYUS: One of the bigger projects you worked on in recent years were the 2013 MTV VMAs. How did that come about?
TODD JAMES: My friend Diane Martel was directing the VMAs that year and she asked me to draw these crazy bears. There was one giant bear that was in it. I had focused on that one the most and it kind of became the background for the whole thing (laughs). Brian, or KAWS as you know him, was branding the entire event, so when Diane said: “You want to do these designs?”, I was up for it.
KNOTORYUS: That was a crazy show. (laughs)
TODD JAMES: But nobody knew that was going to be that big of a deal. It was just like: “Oh okay, you want me to do something? Cool.”
KNOTORYUS: Do you easily jump into the unknown or even the commercial? The reason I’m asking is because younger artists can sometimes be really protective of their talent and work – it can be hard for them to think: “Oh, I can do this thing too.”
TODD JAMES: I say no to a lot of things, but they’re all different kinds of things. That MTV collab was a completely interpersonal interaction. I don’t know what they’re saying no to.
KNOTORYUS: It’s more about the fact that you were never opposed to pop culture at all.
TODD JAMES: I think me and people from my age group like KAWS or Steve started out making commercial art. Making logos and art for rap groups and music in general.
KNOTORYUS: You immediately saw art as something commercial. Beastie Boys and Mobb Deep aren’t super commercial– but I think it’s a good mind set, to immediately go: “I’m selling this.”
TODD JAMES: If something’s cool or seems like it’s fun, then I’ll do it. But there are things I say no to all the time. Saying no is an important skill for anybody.
KNOTORYUS: What’s been one of the last things -besides work from this show- that you made and were really chuffed with?
TODD JAMES: (Beams) I made a colouring book for Dungeons & Dragons.
KNOTORYUS: I’ve seen it! And you’re really proud and happy about it, right?
TODD JAMES: Those are two descriptive words that absolutely apply! (laughs)
KNOTORYUS: Why did this job touch you so much?
TODD JAMES: Because I used to play D&D when I was young. For years, even. And when I didn’t play, I always kept all of the books and artifacts, because I never lost interest. I even got to interview Gary Gygax, the creator, in 2000-something, before he died. It was for Mass Appeal.
KNOTORYUS: Did he tell you something during the interview that blew your mind?
TODD JAMES: I found out that he had made a lot of money with D&D, sold it and then had a horrible divorce. When I was interviewing him, he was working on a new game. After a while he said: “I have to get off the phone, because in twenty minutes people are coming over for the game.” He still played D&D weekly! It was awesome to be on the phone with him. And now it’s crazy to have officially worked with – and to have been a part of – the history of this game, through art.
KNOTORYUS: How did that come about, though?
TODD JAMES: In a really weird way. They re-launched a new edition of the game just a few years ago. I started playing again and then connected and did some very limited t-shirts with them. They liked our collaboration, we did some more stuff and then they proposed doing a colouring book. That was last Christmas, so I started working on it in the beginning of 2018.
KNOTORYUS: Did you immediately know what you wanted to do with it?
TODD JAMES: Yeah, it had to be a Monster Manual colouring book. I chose a whole bunch of monsters, but not all of them and then I started drawing.
KNOTORYUS: Do people post pictures of their colourings and tag you in them?
TODD JAMES: Yeah!
KNOTORYUS: That must feel crazy.
TODD JAMES: It does! It’s a super fun project, I don’t know, it’s weird, the things that you get most excited about. (laughs)
KNOTORYUS: Thank you for talking to me.
TODD JAMES: No problem. Thank you.
A Solo Show by Todd James
Until October 27 2018
Rue du Pays de Liège 4
Wednesday – Saturday
2 PM – 6 PM
Also by appointment