Interview With Dan Witz—Pioneer Street Artist

© Dan Witz
We recently had the unique opportunity to chat with street artist and realist painter Dan Witz at his studio in Greenpoint. Active since the late 1970s, Dan is considered one of the pioneers of the now ubiquitous street art movement. His work has been shown in galleries throughout the US and Europe and was featured in the 2010 Banksy documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop. Dan’s upcoming show, NY Hardcore: New Paintings runs from April 5th to May 3rd at Jonathan Levine Gallery in Chelsea.

GP: How long have you lived in Greenpoint?

Dan Witz: Since 2002. I’ve done a lot of street art here over the years.

GP: Anywhere in particular?

Dan: I wouldn’t tell you, ’cause once I tell people they’ll go get it. I have four or five pieces up in Greenpoint right now.

GP: Greenpoint has probably changed a little bit since 2002?

Dan: The minute I got here, they tore down a third of every block and built condos. For me it’s all good. It’s a change in texture, a change in environment. I’ve lived in New York since 1978. It’s always changing.

GP: How did you get into street art?

Dan: I’ve been an artist since I was a kid. I got to New York and went to this fancy art school and tried to figure out what it really meant to be an artist…which is not what I thought it would be.

GP: What did you think it would be?

Dan: I thought it was about making great art and knowing other artists and working together to change the world. That art was an agent for change and that it was a cultural conversation that I would be participating in. When in fact, it was all that, but it was also things that I felt were repugnant. Especially when it was about knowing the right people and networking and making connections. This was also the time of minimalism and conceptual art, which was super boring. I thought it was very elitist. If you weren’t educated or you didn’t go to grad school, then you couldn’t talk about that stuff. I was really repulsed by that, this arrogance representing the art world. It really turned me against making a career in the traditional art world.

GP: So what did you do?

Dan: So it’s 1978, I hear the Ramones. I hear Devo and Talking Heads. This stuff was just cracking me open.

GP: At CBGBs?

Dan: CBGBs, Tier 3, all those sort of famous places. I would go there as an art student and just hang out and hear all these bands. It was all about cracking you open. To see the world in a new way. You combine the music and going down on the subway and seeing all the trains tagged, a whole train completely tagged with some integral, thought out, beautiful, renegade, rebel artwork. These trains rumbling into the station just blew my mind. I realized that this is what I needed to do. This is what I wanted to do.

GP: How did you start?

Dan: In ’79 I painted these hummingbirds. They were tiny and realistic and took like three hours to paint.

© Dan Witz

GP: Nobody messed with you?

Dan: People fucked with me. Cops fucked with me. But I had this concept of myself as an anti-establishment artist. I had a motorcycle and tattoos, which was rare then. I had this identity as being a street person in a way. 

GP: The hummingbird was your tag?

Dan: Back then it was all about tagging. I was trying to adapt myself as a contrarian to graffiti. It was an anti-tag. It was so small and took so long to do. People saw it and liked it. People still seem to talk about it.

GP: Was there anyone else doing street art like this at the time?

Dan: There wasn’t much street art being done by art students. There was Jenny Holzer, a famous art world artist. She’d do these wheat paste posters. A guy in the mid-seventies who I really admired, Charles Simonds, did these little villages made out of pueblo bricks. He was very little known, but he should be hugely famous. He was a big inspiration.

GP: Who else inspired you?

Dan: Really it was the graffiti kids, not just the tagging kids, but the people who were doing art on trains were what really inspired me. There were a couple of other people doing this stuff. It was all kind of mysterious. You didn’t know who they were. And people didn’t know who I was.

GP: So there was no communication between you guys? There was a scene?

Dan: It was all anonymous and seditious. It was art for art’s sake. There was no career in it. It wasn’t a strategy to get ahead. It wasn’t a brand. It was just this crazy thing that I loved the hell out of doing. It was scary, it was an adventure. When I’d go out and paint the hummingbird, it was all adrenaline.

GP: New York seems like it was a different place then.

Dan: Yeah. It was roving gangs and a lot of violence. But muggers wouldn’t really pick me as much because I kind of blended in with the street.

GP: What about the cops?

Dan: The cops weren’t the problem doing street art then. They’d roll up and see what I was doing and think I was a weirdo and leave. Or else they’d be like, “Cool man.” There were gangs of kids running around, they were the real problem. I saw lots of fucked up shit. You got so used to it back then, so used to looking over your shoulder, used to this kind of threat level every time you went out to buy cigarettes, that you just dealt with it. I can’t believe it now. I can’t believe how we used to live. We were in bad neighborhoods late at night, fucked up. People romanticize it.

GP: What are you doing for street art these days?

Dan: The interesting thing about this is that I’ve kept doing it. A lot of people did it for a while and went on to other things, gallery careers and stuff like that. For about twenty years nobody cared or paid much attention. There were little flares of interest. It got to be a little sad that I was doing street art in my thirties backs in the 1980′s when art was all about money and reputation. But I didn’t care who saw my pieces, they weren’t for hip people. Around 2000 the internet started and people started talking about street art. That’s when it started taking off as an art movement. My subtext began to be that I’m an artist among other street artists rather than this weird guy.

GP: How have things changed since the early days of street art?

Dan: Gentrification started and you couldn’t do stuff in certain neighborhoods, or the cops would arrest you. Giuliani became mayor, and it became more and more difficult. You had to be more strategic.

GP: Where you ever arrested?

Dan: I’ve never been arrested.

GP: What street art are you doing these days?

Dan: My work has evolved and I’ve been conscious of what other artists are doing. What I’m doing now involves very little exposure. Maybe thirty seconds. I really don’t do street art where other people do it. Most of the stuff I do is in Europe anyway. When I’m in New York I’ll do stuff on the side of the highway, where people are bottle-necked and stuck in their cars. I tend not to put stuff where other street artists do. Usually what I do is illegal. The last  big thing I did was for Amnesty International.

GP: The Illegally Detained Prisoners series?

Dan: Yeah. I’m also doing something for PETA this September.

GP: How have people responded to your street art?

Dan: A lot of what street art is, you usually don’t see it yourself, you see it online. You know it’s there and you’re looking for it, but the way it exists isn’t like actually seeing it; instead you see a picture of it in Huffington Post or Juxtapoz. Most people encounter my stuff online.

GP: Tell me about this piece [I point to a grate mounted over a painting of a child.]

Dan: This is related to the Amnesty International stuff I did. These little kids looking at cell phones. I have some spots picked out around town, but I’m also going to London and Paris, so I’ll probably put some up there. It’s part of a series I’ve been doing since 2005 called Dark Doings, people and animals and weird stuff going on behind grates that look like real grates. A lot of the stuff I’m doing around Greenpoint are pieces that look like real windows or ventilation grates, and maybe there’s a pair of hands coming out or maybe they’re looking at their phones or a monkey behind a door that you normally wouldn’t see. You’d take it for granted that it’s real, up until you walk by it for the fiftieth time and you’re like, “Whoa, there’s a monkey behind the door!”

GP: What’s your philosophy behind these pieces that you nearly miss unless you’re paying attention?

Dan: That’s it right there: unless you’re paying attention. I respond to art that wakes me up, that cracks me open. I love art that makes me look at the world in a different way, that makes me not sleepwalk so much through life. I try to make work that does the same thing.

About Nathan Frank

Nathan Frank, art editor at Greenpointers is a New Englander writing in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter @nathanfrank2 and on Instagram @ten1000things.

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