By: Carolina Niso
Most people have seen graffiti with its amazing, colorful, stylized letters and cartoon characters painted on walls throughout cities. In the Bronx, in the 70’s, the creators of this urban art form were street artists, most of whom were of Hispanic or Afro-Caribbean descent. They used the trains and corridors of the New York subway system as their first canvases, writing “Tags” and drawing graffiti in a unique “underground style”.
Their work rarely received recognition from the art world until they painted graffiti on canvas, establishing a new art genre and movement. Today, graffiti can be seen in art galleries and museums throughout the world. One of the few survivors of the original movement is the the American, Torrick Ablack, nicknamed “Toxic”. In this interview, he talks to “El Tiempo” about his life and path from the beginning.
With his free, cool style, unhampered by the dictates of classic art genres, Toxic is a master of color. The experience is not improvised as his close friend and art gallery owner, Jean Marc Desloubieres, affirms. He reflects on his first encounter with the artist. “I met Torrick for the first time at the exhibition on street art at the Grand Palais in the beginning of 2009. There were many artists there. I just adored Toxic’s work. I went to meet him and we became friends.”
During his artistic career, Toxic has kept a special place for his childhood friends like Rammellzee, A-one and Koor, with whom he used to paint subways. He has particularly fond memories of Jean Michel Basquiat. He admires him, and appreciates the time they shared together as well as his exhibits up until his tragic death.
Citizen of the world, Toxic began traveling overseas when he was young. Italy was the first country he visited and it eventually became his home. Today, he is based in France, but spends his time between Paris, Florence and New York.
51-year-old Torrick Ablack can say that his life has been a series of encounters and constant learning. He is fluent in three languages (English, French and Italian) and taught himself the techniques of graffiti. His work has been shown in some of the most prestigious art galleries in the world. He was featured in the group exhibit, “Le Pressionnisme”, at La Pinacoteque Museum in Paris in 2015. His most recent show was in the Amsterdam Museum, Netherlands “Graffiti, New York meets the Dam“.
When were you born?
I was born on January 16, 1965 in the Bronx. I lived there for 21 years. My mother came from Puerto Rico. My father was actually born in New York but his family was from Trinidad. At home, we always spoke a mix of Spanish and English.
How did you start painting with Rammellzee, A-one and Koor?
A-one and Koor, we all grew up in the same neighborhood. We met when I was 10. We played basketball, hockey and rode skateboards together. Rammellzee was going to the same school as A-one. But I didn’t know they were doing graffiti because they didn’t sign their real names. I was just seeing their “tags”. One day A-one told me everything, so I asked him if I could draw with them and we formed a group of three. I was 13 years old!
How did you get the nickname Toxic?
I used to play basketball with Spanish guys who called me Toxic Battery. I loved it. I remember the day I started painting graffiti, and I wrote Toxic for the first time!
Where did you get your acrylics from?
We use to go to hardware stores. At that time there weren’t so many colors, maybe 15 or 20. We got what we could.
Where did you find inspiration?
Each artist needed to have his own style. In my case, when we were three, it was easy. But when we discovered that there were 200 guys doing graffiti in New York at that time, it was hard. So, we had to stay at home, draw and practice a lot. Each artist needed to have his black book (the precious book of photos of our work as well as our competitors’), pencils and markers. We talked and drew all day.
At that time, did you realize you wanted to become an artist?
I didn’t think we were going to make money painting trains! I was thinking we were going to end up in jail! (laughs) But the police never caught us.
I saw that we could probably make money from this when we started painting clubs and designing stuff for other people.
How old were you when you started to paint nightclubs?
I was sixteen when I started to paint trains and then some people invited me with my friends to paint a club and to paint T-shirts. After that, we started going to small exhibits in New York at the “Graffiti Aboveground Gallery”. The artists from the older generation were painting on canvas with markers and spray paint. We were impressed and surprised!
Who invited you to do your first show?
Stefan Eins and Joe Lewis, the directors of Fashion Moda. It was at a gallery, an alternative art space in the Bronx, similar to PS1 in New York. Many artists showed there like Keith Haring.
When did you start your artistic career?
I was eighteen when Sydney Janis (a well known person in the art world) asked me what I wanted to do and I told him that I wanted to paint. Just after, Salvatore Alain, a guy from another gallery, took me to Italy and then I started to travel a lot.
What is your technique?
It’s a mix. I don´t use oil paint because it is really risky and not good for your health. That’s why I started to use acrylic paint and I can work with it to have the same texture as oil paint.
How would you describe your art?
I don’t know. I don’t like the term Street Art. I hope I’m considered as a contemporary artist.
Can you explain your evolution?
I started painting in the streets, painting around schools and on trains. Then I started painting on canvases, doing shows at galleries, traveling around the world, meeting other people, and learning new things. I’m still painting, will keep painting, and won’t stop.
Did you study art?
I wanted to go to Parsons School of Design, but I finally I started to travel and I learned on the job.
Basquiat was one of your best friends?
Yes. I met Jean just after his show at the Annina Nosei Gallery. He was already a well-known artist. Jean was a protector for me because I was younger than he was and our mothers were Puerto Rican. He always kind of pulled me to the side to make sure I was okay. When people say that Jean Michel was a sad person, it’s really messed up! People took advantage of his kindness. I still remember the day he took the picture of A-one and I, and then he did one of his best paintings, “Hollywood Africans”. The best memories of my life are with my friends.
You also got to meet Keith Haring and Andy Warhol. Did these artists influence your style?
I knew Keith Haring but I can’t say that we were friends. I used to go to his studio and we were hanging out with the same people. Andy didn’t talk much but I used to hang around him a lot. Keith never inspired me but Andy inspired me for sure.
What was the atmosphere like at that time?
In the 80’s, there were a lot of drugs! A lot of people made it through that stuff. You needed to be strong! It was very hard growing up in the 80’s in New York. But at the same time, it was a very creative period. Now, it’s difficult to do something original. I wouldn’t want to be born now! I’m happy that I grew up in the 1980’s.
What is your best memory of traveling?
Has to be the first time A-one and I went to Europe. We spent two months in Milano, where each one did an exhibition.
I moved to Italy when I was twenty-one, to a little town in the mountains in Tuscany. I spent six years in Italy. I couldn’t even talk to people because I couldn’t speak Italian! It changed everything for me. It made me think about what I wanted to do. Up until then, I had been part of a group. I learned to be an individual. It was cool. I used to go to NY, see everybody, go out to clubs. But I knew two weeks later, I would be on a plane back to Italy. There were no drugs there. It was a good thing for me. That saved my life.
When did you first go to Paris?
I think it was in 1991 when Jack Lang was the Minister of Culture. He organized the first exhibit of art of the 80’s at the Musée des Monuments Français. I was invited and I stayed for a week. I didn’t like it at first but now I feel Paris is my third home. I was 25 when I moved to France. It was harder to learn French than Italian.
How France has influenced your artwork?
Paris has influenced me a lot. I’ve met a lot of interesting people that I still see. They do shows in galleries. I go to their shows and we talk.
Have you participated in any fundraising events?
I’ve done many because it is a way to use my art to help someone, especially when it’s for kids. Last year, I was invited to do a show in Geneva for a foundation.
How did you feel about seeing your paintings displayed with those of your friends at the exhibit at La Pinacotheque de Paris?
It was nice to see my paintings hanging next to my friends’. From this group, a lot of the French guys are still alive, like Future. The American guys like A-one, Dondi, Ramellezee, Jean aren’t here anymore. They all died. It’s nice to see all the work together. It makes me think about what I was doing before and what I’m doing now. Those paintings have been in private collections since the 80’s. I hadn’t seen them since I sold them.
Can you tell me about your project with Pierre Frey, the wallpaper and design company?
It happened before La Pinacotheque. Pierre Frey has done stuff with other artists but it’s the first time he’s worked with someone with my style.
Finding the right concept wasn’t easy but I am happy with the result.
Any shows or exhibits coming up?
I don’t know. I just finished the exhibit “Graffiti, New York meets the Dam“, in the Amsterdam Museum. For now, I enjoy my studio and I’m trying to sell my paintings.
The Man behind the Artist
I have a daughter. I raised her by myself. Her mother passed away twenty years ago and I took Osciana to live with me. Then I had my second child in Paris. He’s French, a Parisian. His name is Lalo. He’s so French! I thought Osciana was going to be an artist. She isn’t. Lalo is like me. He loves art!
How would you describe yourself?
I’m just human. I don’t like to hurt anyone. I prefer to inspire people. I’m still learning. Nobody’s perfect. I just try to be happy, really happy.
Interview published at the journal El Tiempo on January 30th 2016