How did the flag series start?
It was a basic experiment in the beginning, just to play with the idea, then it kind of steamrolled. I did a video -- the Health Care Reform Video Challenge -- for Obama because I have epilepsy and I have no healthcare.
So the country is not taking care of me, and the private sector is not taking care of me, and I have a severe health condition, and no way to see a doctor. Now most people say throw me away and hope I die, considering my point of views. But the reality is that I have a lot to contribute. I was left with no options. So I did this stupid contest.
It was an American flag with the health care debate rhetoric piling on top of it, until the flag died but then came back to life. I won top 20 out of the nation. From that, Fox News got a hold of it and claimed that I was desecrating the American flag for Obama for a week straight.
That only gave me more momentum and more hype to turn that back around on them. I used their footage, created some prints, and used their momentum to make money off them. So thank you Fox News for making me money directly into my pocket. From there, the theme just kind of carried on because once you dive into abstraction, it continues. So the theme is still growing.
The American flag to me isn’t a stale image. It is a living organism in motion. It’s my flag. First of all, I have to say I would never, ever desecrate an American flag. I would not take an American flag -- made in China -- and write on it or burn it or anything. I don’t believe in it. It’s another person’s right to do that, but I would never ever ever do that myself. So to be accused of desecrating the flag was really obnoxious.
It must’ve been hurtful, too.
It was hurtful. Because here I am a person with severe health issues, and I can’t get any health care. To me, it was just an expression of my frustrations. And people have fought and died for the right for the freedom of expression. I’m not running the streets, hyping people up to burn buildings down. I don’t agree with that shit either. I want a healthy society as well.
So the flag in itself is an abstract image, and to me it’s a living organism. It has a continued path and pattern of growth. It gets sick, it gets healthy. There’s a perfect pristine flag that I’m going to do covered in platinum leaf and doesn’t have a mark on it. And there’s the flag that’s totally destroyed and smashed, but it still has the idea that it can get healthy again. That’s what the Tarnished series represents.
My flags are called Tarnished series. Tarnish is something that’s very interesting. It’s something that can be cleaned. You have a beautiful piece of metal. This piece is silver, and you find it and it looks beat up and antiqued and rotten. Then you take it and you scrub it, and you clean it -- and it’s beautiful again. And that’s what tarnished means. It’s the idea that we have potentially ability to clean to the flag as a concept. We have an idea to play with that idea and show the state that it’s in and say, “Let’s help and change this into something better.” And that’s not something that I’m totally focused on, but it’s something that I like playing with. I like the shapes. I like the colors.
You’re bringing this dialogue to the forefront.
It’s an important thing to approach. We’re all under the flag. And would you die for the flag? If someone asked me that, I would really contemplate it and say, “Well, I think I would.” If it would create a better world for my family and the people after me, of course, I fuckin’ would. Would I ever desecrate it? No. I love my country with all my heart, but at the same time, this is not a perfect world. And it’s up to us to at least help change it. And what’s better than art? Art is the one thing that opens up people’s minds.
That’s just the flags. I don’t solely focus on the political thing because that wears you down. To me, it’s about something deeper. To me, the graffiti abstraction represents my spirit in motion. If you took the energy of someone’s spirit, their aura, and you happened to capture it in still motion, that’s what mine looks like. It’s my energy in essence. If you were to move away my physical body and look at the energy of the individual, that’s what my graffiti abstraction represents – is that individual’s energy, the structure of the energy, the look of the energy, the feel of the energy. And that’s what my graffiti art represents.
How do you go about translating that?
It’s something that’s been inside me for years. It’s something that’s evolved. It’s just one of those things that has to happen for me. I’ve just got to do it. In 1989, I went down to the Belmont Tunnels in Los Angeles, and I saw some of the most wicked wildstyles of my entire life in person. From that point I was hooked. From that I carried on. I want to represent the culture to a certain degree in a good way. Yeah, I’m no angel, and neither is everybody else.
No one’s asking you to be.
The idea that [graffiti artists] are a lot worse than we really are -- I’m making paintings, man, that’s it.
“Saber: The American Graffiti Artist” is at Opera Gallery on 115 Spring St. in New York.
For more from Richard S. Chang, follow him on Twitter.