Greg Escalante catches up with the pop instigator about his film, the FBI, Post Graffiti Pattern Painting and how to not get caught by the fuzz

Juxtapoz Magazine
August 2007 #79
By Greg Escalante and Nathan Spoor

GE: So Ron, let’s talk about your film POPaganda, and catch us up on the highlights or fallouts of producing something this informative about your unique way of working.

RE: Yeah, that’s been out since 2004. It’s been interesting to see how the post-production world of film moves once you’ve got a project in the can. Somehow we’ve managed to keep it out of LA and NY (laughing). We’ve been doing film festivals for about a year now. Sometimes I go to the screenings, we’re doing Europe right now.

GE: Have you seen any noticeable difference in doing public works now that you’ve been broadcast over the world, so to speak?

RE: Yeah, my philosophy of saying “yes” to everything doesn’t seem to work like it used to! (laughing) In the past I loved saying yes to all the opportunities that came up. There are some great ideas and opportunities to get a message out out there. Now it’s definitely more difficult, there’s just a lot more opportunities so I’m forced to be a little more choosy.

GE: Has there been any fallout from being more recognizable? Have you been arrested for any past crimes?

RE: No, I assume that it’ll happen every day. Like when Espo put out “The Art of Getting Over” and the FBI came in and took all of his computers. He gave them the book, did their whole job for them!

GE: So the FBI handles graffiti?

RE: Oh, who knows. But check this out. I was in LA on the Morning Drive Show talking about doing billboards recently. And as it happens, the parent company that owns the building and a good portion of the billboards that I’ve become known for commandeering for truths happens to be not just in the same building – but right below us, and in a huge conference meeting with all the execs. The show studio was totally packed, and the dj has the bright idea to broadcast that I’m in the studio, in the same building, etc. And the President of the company, Vista Media, actually came out of his meeting to corner me about the issue. We had our conversation in the hallway, which of course the studio wanted to bring in for the show…

GE: So did you put that on the air?

RE: We did! The President said that the client was getting pissed, but they liked my work and would love to work together on some things. But they wanted to control the message, tell me how to work. Essentially, they were looking for a way for me to not get away with it but were going to have to in the end.

GE: So why don’t you do some billboards legitimately?

RE: I said that. Sure, I’d be happy to rent space and do legit installs in select areas. But the company wouldn’t rent any to me. Hah! Actually, I tried another way to get things done legitimately, like a public service announcement. I wanted to do a billboard about divorce and the great heterosexual. The company said, no, we want you to say you support marriage. I mean, I’m paying them, right? Then someone in their office did some research and found out who I was and they told me I’d never get a billboard anywhere.

GE: So in essence the company censored your work?

RE: Yes. See, when I was young I had no money. I just filled space and put my art work where I could with what I could without any real agenda. The I wanted to go legit and found that I actually did have an agenda. But if the Republicans can get their way and actually carve up the media, not allowing the competition to have any media say, we’re in trouble. I say if you want to rent public space to advertise then use that public domain and get the message out. Censorship is a government tactic. And when corporations gain that much power with censorship then we the people have to realize that they’re now the government.

GE: So have you met Banksy?

RE: No, but I guess we’ve all probably met him and not realized it. But the guy that’s filming a movie about Banksy said he’d bring him to my show in London. It’s a movie about 5 artists with the guy that did Shepard Fairey’s movie, Terry ?. It’s kind of a stream-of-consciousness thing. It might not make sense in a theater, but it does all connect. That’s how the human brain works, leaping from one thing to another. So we all talked it out and the director said it was a great idea. They’re working on the last of the footage so I’m anxious to see how it turns out.

GE: I saw your film at Robert Berman’s, gallery in Bergamot Station, it’s really good. Are you selling those?

RE: No, we’ve had distribution problems. You can watch it on Netflix, or rent it there. There’s a really cool new option where you can even watch it online. They’re supposed to put out a really great deluxe version with the footage from Houston of the Guernica piece from the show I had with Gibby Haynes of the Butthole Surfers and Daniel Johnston.

GE: So tell me this, you’ve said that you did your last billboard ever, right? And you’re doing a moving kinetic sculpture, and automatronic dummy of Ronald McDonald?

RE: Well, I work with the Billboard Liberation Front, and we use quite an array of diversionary tactics. It’s a magnetic thing to talk about one thing and create fear or a distraction, and draw attention to that occasion. It takes a long time to do a billboard, it’s not instantaneous. We’re understand that since putting out that film, there’s definitely a demand for this particular form of communication. And if we can’t actually “feed” them, we can definitely create a franchise of sorts for this.

But that’s not what you were getting at, I know. Here’s the story, back to the Billboard Liberation Front and the great Viacom stunt, complete with a Keystone Kops kind of getaway scene. I was in San Francisco for a show and I wanted to do this particular billboard on Memorial Day weekend, on a Friday or Saturday. But keep in mind, this is not just dropping in and throwing up art on a billboard. It’s much more of a production than that. There’s a whole crew involved to coordinate the diversionary teams to help keep the focus from the actual task at hand. So the guy in charge of the coordinations wants to change it and do it on Monday, since Viacom wouldn’t be there at the office for the holiday. Well, this means that most of my people aren’t going to be able to stick around for that, and we lost a lot of our guys. So we’re down to a couple dozen, and picture this, a couple dozen Ronald McDonalds hidden out in a nearby park waiting for the cops to show up so they can add some serious comedic confusion. And add to that the people stationed at a nearby park handing out press releases for the billboard bombing that’s actually going to take place the day before or after the info on the paper. Then add to that the fact that some genius prankster decides to put the correct time and date on the release to mess with us. Oh my. So we’re waiting around the corner from the spot in a pirate Viacom van that we’ve made. We’re waiting because the actual Viacom guy is there putting up the new billboard on the quiet holiday afternoon. And word gets to us that the cops got a press release and are on the way. As we’re leaving the parking lot there are about 30 cop cars pulling in. It was amazing! Our field agents spring into action and there’s a couple dozen Rondalds all over the park nearby. So the cops all immediately swarm the park, herding up Rondalds. And we quietly sneak over and put up the billboard since the guy has now finished and left. At this point, we get the billboard up and someone’s commented on how there was a Ronald McDonald on the billboard and the cops are trying to catch Ronalds and no one can figure out who did it because, well, they’re all Ronald!

So by now it’s a frenzy, and we’ve decided to do the obvious thing: we strip the van down and head to, yes, McDonalds. So that didn’t work, too obvious. We, about seven of us, all dressed like Ronald McDonald, head into a nearby bookstore. Too small, again too obvious. So as we head out of there and into a sports bar down the street, the cops notice us. We’re in there and immediately out the back, to an off-the-path hipster bar where folks are lining up free shots and laughing hysterically at the scene outside. It’s a small place so we’re having to go out two at a time and through the alley to a record store. Two at a time, changing, then out the front door, where cops are looking for Ronalds. Just as the cops get to the bar, the last of us are leaving. Me and John Law were the last ones out of the bar at that moment. And we were the last two to change before the cops searched the record store as we left as quiet customers with bags in our hands. Seriously, it was that close.

Later that night I went to my opening and there were cops out front of the gallery. I was thinking, whoa, they’re finally going to get me. But they were arresting someone else that just so happened to be right in front of the place. They had actually packed into vans and swarmed the place for this guy.

And don’t worry, we left a box of beer for the workers that had to come redo the signage and wiring. We always take care of them that way. We left a bottle of 15 year Scotch for the police too. It was way too entertaining to not tip them for the show.

GE: So that was your last billboard?

RE: No, I asked Pedro to make the press release for me. It’s a fake, another diversionary tactic. If we wanted to do another billboard then we would. That particular one was a joke on me from him, so it’s all in good fun. I actually did one in Spain last month. It’s in Spanish from some text that they sent me.

GE: So tell me about this book you’ve got coming out, it apparently has to do with your kids?

RE: Yes, my kids Zephyr, 11, and Mars, 8. We named Zephyr after the graffiti artist. And Mars looked like a space alien as a fetus, so we named him Mars Alien, but changed it to Alexander. And we live in the most diverse town in New Jersey, so no one’s ever made fun of them for having interesting names. But the book coming out now is on 9mm is pretty interesting. It’s a collection of the work I’ve created over the last 10 years that my kids have posed for or been the theme of. We’re also putting out a cd of 4 songs that the kids recorded with my brother’s band, Rock n’ Roll McDonalds.
Then in the fall Last Gasp is putting out my first big retrospective coffee table book called Abstract Expressionism.

GE: Did you know Ron Turner was in the Air Pirates in the 70’s?

RE: Oh the old dirty comix thing? Right. Mickey was a movie mogul having sex with all his secretaries and Ron was publishing it as I recall. It was one of the underground books that actually went to court and Ron actually won the copyright for another 15 years and he wanted to put my book out. So he effectively have them all the grand Fuck You by putting out my POPaganda book to say “Fuck Disney!”

But this new book is more of a retrospective of my works. It’s got mostly new works with some old favorites sprinkled in for that familiar flavor. You have to have the hits.

GE: I thought it was cool in your film how you met up with Johnston. I’ve heard that you’re going to work with him and he’s going to tell you his dreams and you’re going to interpret them in oils?

RE: Yeah, he’s a nut. I’m going to work with Daniel next week. I was doing a Rev2 recording about the second Jesus and I wanted to get Daniel. We were friends from when I was in Austin and I wanted him to use his little baby voice but I didn’t know where he’d gone off to. Well, my sister found him in Waller, which is about 4 hours out of Austin. I got a rental car and drove down and found that he had laid in bed for the last 5 years. I had brought all the stuff for the recording but he was just a mess so we didn’t do any recording. But, I had brought him some prints of some paintings and he loved them. He brought out these stacks and stacks of drawings and gave me a handful, there were about 200 in all. I said thank you and headed out, not even really looking at what he’d given me. After that a guy came out from Dallas and saw them and wanted to do a show. I had this idea of painting Disney-style characters of his originals in oils, all slicked up. I called him and couldn’t tell if he understood what I meant or that I was talking about an opening, but he definitely didn’t want to sing.

You see, part of his illness is due to the crash he suffered after signing to Atlantic. The tension of doing the show pushed him over the edge and they put him in an institute in Houston. So now he’s out of the institution, and I wanted to go see him and take him out for some fresh air and all. He was on new meds and we weren’t sure how he would react to anything. But on the new meds he’s Super Dan again! We went out and got him and took him to Dallas and he played with the Sutcliffs ‘til 5 in the morning! After that he told me what really happened when he got lost in NY and we went to CBGB’s and the Zero. He’s since done shows in DC, England and Tokyo, and since the new medications he’s completely turned around.

GE: Wow, so wait, you’ve done all this from New Jersey?

RE: Yeah, Jersey City. People don’t know where it is and they won’t come out here. Brooklyn’s on one side of Manhattan and we’re on the other side. Jonathan Levine’s gallery is 5 miles away.

At first I wasn’t a painter though. I was a photographer. I went to school at the University of North Texas in Denton, TX for Photography. I don’t know why I switched. I was really picking up steam with it too. The Pompidou wanted to do an exhibition but I wasn’t into it any more. I knew the tricks and just lost interest when I realized that there wasn’t much room for me to explore anymore.

GE: Is the photography in the book yours?

RE: Yeah, the photos in POPaganda are mine. The new ones won’t have any though.

There’s never been a big book of my photos if that’s what you’re asking. There’s a Japanese book in the works, but I believe they truly are interested in the paintings.

It was fun back in the day. I used to hire winos to work for me. They’d work for wine and to just be around the girls that would come around and hang out at the shoots. I had no problem working with winos and bums because I always thought I’d turn out as one. We’d drink all day with them and then go party afterwards.

GE: So tell us about what’s coming up for you.

RE: So first there’s Rathole in Japan, he’s the guy that does Hysteric Mini.
Then Opera in Paris and NY. Next year I’ll have 3 solo shows in one year in Switzerland, London and Amsterdam. The boom is here and I’d hate to think I sloughed off before the fall.

There’s also the Scion project. What I wanted to do was take the doors off the car and recast them in plastic. But in reality you have to remold each one of them and so they designed a new technology comprised of stickers with lights that move, so we’ll do it that way. You go in with one idea, then find out some new technology and open up to a whole new way of working things out. It’s like how when I was hand painting billboards for 20 years and then one day some guy in a theater came up to me and told me that it was now possible to print those out for about 100 bucks, when it used to be 30,000 to print a one-off like that.

The one thing I’m not keen on with the Scion project is that you never get to see the cars as production models. There are some incredible cars that would be great to see people driving around. But Scion says that due to an insurance issue they have to destroy the cars.

GE: So tell us about some artists that you like or hang out with or have a history with.

RE: Well, you’d have to go back to David or, actually, there’s never been anyone better than Mark Ryden. Really. He paints like Rembrandt, he’s a real master. I like the lowbrow artists, or whatever you call the current trend. (laughing) I remember being young and wanting to be in a movement. Everyone does though, I guess. That’s how you get something like “lowbrow”, complete with the name. But everyone has their own name for it, or wants to be the one to put a name on it.

GE: What would you call it?

Well, I’ve heard Cartoon Realism, that’s fun. I like New Perceptionists. Levine calls it Pop Pluralism.

GE: Is that in the film? Doesn’t Carlo McCormick diss you in the film?

RE: Hah. Carlo disses me but he’s not really. We’re friends. So we needed someone who would say something anti about it all. And Carlo didn’t want to look like the asshole because no one wants to do it. So in the end they got Carlo to do it and he wasn’t even talking about me, but through the magic of moviemaking and editing we get some classic Carlo McCormick footage saying that there’s an avant garde and a rear garde, and this is kitsch. This is the rear garde. And if Thomas Kinkaide is avante garde with his Suburban Surrealsim. Then this truly is the rear garde.