With Art Basel (the international art show that’s on every millionaire’s or billionaire’s party circuit) approaching, I asked myself, “Who are the most relevant and interesting artists today?” Names such as Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst and Jasper Johns quickly came to mind. While they all certainly produce impressive, iconic and germane contemporary art, I felt that that they didn’t quite muster the personal intrigue of artists of eras past — like, say, Warhol.
Warhol created buzz not only through his “pop” spin on iconic figures and objects, but his life personified his work. Perhaps it was the bevy of models by his side or his regular patronage of haunts like Studio 54, but his name lives on as something that represents the nostalgic best of his era. Today one artist in particular seems to be well on his way to developing a Warhol-like status and that is the graffiti artist Alec Monopoly. His street and canvas art foster a conversation centric to wealth and excess and the artist himself seems to have become the proverbial Monopoly Man who wears a top hat and is often chauffeured to some of the world’s most exclusive parties in a white Rolls (and has even designed custom Rolexes available through bhindi.com).
While this New York native may have somewhat of a bad boy rap, you need only sit down with Alec Monopoly to quickly realize how well spoken, passionate and humble he is about not only his work, but life. Yes, his caricature is over the top, but it’s really about performance art… even when he’s busy autographing Miley Cyrus’ inner thigh backstage at LIV Nightclub in Miami.
I spent some time with Monopoly before, during and after Basel to get a better appreciation of who he is, where he came from and how his life informs his art. Here are our conversations:
David Morris (DM): How did you end up in LA?
Alec Monopoly (AM): I was in New York and then I had some issues where I was getting into a lot of trouble with my graffiti, so I came out here just to take a break from it all and then I just ended up staying.
DM: When you say trouble…
AM: I was doing a lot of illegal graffiti at the time in New York City. I had an art show there. It was my first show and I was there doing a lot of graffiti promoting the show and the police showed up to my gallery. They actually tried to arrest me and I fled the state and I went to New Jersey. I took the train there and then I left from there.
DM: You literally left your show and fled to LA?
DM: Warrants out for your arrest?
AM: They were. They finally caught up to me. The cops always catch you.
DM: All that’s in the past now?
AM: Yeah, all that’s in the past. I’m chilling now.
DM: What were you graffitiing in New York?
AM: I’m not going to say exact details because the case really isn’t closed and they never really got me, but I was doing a couple of landmarks, areas that you really weren’t supposed to graffiti.
DM: You came up very quickly in the LA scene since your arrival in 2006.
AM: I was always known in the graffiti scene in New York, but not really in LA. I gained notoriety really quickly just because LA is so much easier to do graffiti. It’s so spread out. There’s not as many cops around. The cops really pass by you and they don’t even really care. They have bigger stuff to deal with. They have drunk drivers. They have the gangs. There’s shootings. In New York, the cops are bored because in Manhattan there’s not really much crime really anymore, so they’re really out for you. Here, they’re a little more lenient.
DM: And now people actually seek out your work.
AM: Yes, I was even able to get a lot of legal walls where I could do more intricate things. A lot of the walls you see now in LA I have are legal, done with permission.
DM: Is everything legal that you’re doing now?
AM: No, not everything, but most of the stuff. I always try to find time to do some graffiti here and there, but most of the time, I have so many walls that are given to me now, so anytime I want to go out and do something illegal, I can just do it legally.
DM: When did that change?
AM: I got my first permission mural in 2010 and then it snowballed because I used it as an example to show other building owners.
DM: What was your reaction when someone asks you to graffiti their wall?
AM: It was surprising. I spent maybe a week all day every day working on the wall, my first legal wall because I was just so excited and it was nice to be able to chill and relax and work on the piece instead of doing it quickly and running from the cops or whatever. Then it just really grew from there. Other people saw it and appreciated the skill.
DM: Then you started really making the transition to gallery art?
AM: My first show was in New York as I had mentioned. I had just been doing graffiti around New York and this real estate investor guy had walked through meat packing in New York and saw some of my graffiti. He was impressed and asked if I sold canvases. I really had not made any canvases of my graffiti work yet, but told him I could make one for him. He then commissioned me to make ten paintings and put on my first art show. Between the sold out show and the cops chasing after me it created a lot of media and I’ve been doing really well since then.
DM: Rewinding a little bit, everyone knows you as Alec Monopoly. Obviously that’s the alias of who you are in the media, but you grew up in New York? Who were you before you put on graffiti mask?
AM: I grew up in New York. My mom is a painter, so I’ve been doing drawings and paintings as early as I can remember. Then there was this gap where I was doing graffiti in high school and making as much [traditional] art. Then after high school, I focused mainly on [traditional] art and I wasn’t doing any graffiti. I did an art show for Donald Trump at his house in Palm Beach, Florida. It was a bunch of pop art and stuff like that, so I wasn’t doing any graffiti at that time, so I’d say from about 2000 to 2006, I wasn’t doing any graffiti.
DM: How did you get hooked up with Mr. Trump?
AM: My friend was actually doing a fashion show with a bunch of models at his house and asked if I wanted to come and exhibit there. It was an amazing opportunity for me. I ended up selling most of my canvas work there. Back then I was doing these Van sneakers to match the canvas and doing paintings on the shoes. They were pretty cool.
DM: When did you start to put on the mask and create your persona?
AM: I first created Alec Monopoly when I started doing graffiti of Monopoly figures. There are so many different routes you can go as a graffiti artist, but I wanted to keep my identity anonymous so I could continue to do more illegal graffiti. It was just for legal purposes that I was hiding my identity in the beginning. I never really even named myself Alec Monopoly. I was just going Alec and would always do the Monopoly guy. On the internet I just became known as Alec Monopoly. I’ve kept it not for legal purposes anymore, but it’s just more for my convenience so I could live a normal life.
DM: And you wear a top hat.
AM: I started wearing the top hat in 2012. It’s when I felt a little more comfortable with the character and felt almost absorbed by him, so now I really am the Monopoly guy.
DM: You’ll roll up in Hollywood in a white Rolls Royce to a venue, top hat, scarf and all, and everyone knows exactly who you are.
AM: Exactly. It’s fun because for me, I’ve become performance art. The life I live is my art work.
DM: Do you do this to further your brand?
AM: I’m going to carry on with it for a little bit longer, but I have some new concepts coming out and am going to do the death of Monopoly.
DM: The death of Monopoly?
AM: Yeah. We’re not releasing that series yet, but it will come soon.
DM: He’ll still hold a piece in your heart obviously?AM: Of course. He’ll hold a piece in history, but these are some new characters I’m working with. You see Mick Jagger right here? These are an icon series of the masters of each art form. I did Jay-Z as the master of hip-hop. Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones as the master of rock-n-roll. I did Picasso, the master of cubism. I did Salvador Dali, the master of surrealism, and I’m working on all these different masters, but I’m also incorporating a story behind it. So the canvas of Mick Jagger’s portrait actually contains pages from his biography of Mick Jagger. So there are three dimensions to it. The first dimension you’re going to just look at it, you can see the photo of him. Second dimension is you could read into it even more about him and his life story [from his biography on the canvas] and the third is the shading that’s all black light reactive, so when you put a black light on it, it turns three-dimensional.DM: The portrait work actually shows more dimensions of you as well, as many see your work and predominantly think of more cartoonesque pop-art.
AM: That’s what I used for graffiti in the streets. There you only have half a second to gain someone’s attention for someone walking by to actually pay attention to it. They really need something that they can gravitate towards and they can relate to right away or they’re just going to keep going and the work blends in with the rest of the graffiti. For me the Monopoly guy resonates with everyone from every country because everyone knows exactly what he is and stands for. Right now I’m gravitating towards new characters like Richie Rich and Scrooge McDuck among others.
DM: And now your masters series.
AM: Exactly. When I was first painting the Monopoly guy I received a criticism. People said, “You’re just painting cartoon characters, anyone can do that,” but I’m actually a very skilled artist. That’s why I released a Jack Nicholson portrait right after that that was very detailed in the face to show my skills.
DM: And that was all done with graffiti.
DM: How do you get the fine detail of graffiti?
AM: Graffiti is a lot easier than the canvas actually, because it’s such a large format, so when you’re going to such a thin detail, it’s not that thin in the realm of things because it’s such a big wall. This would take a small paint brush of detail, but on a huge wall, if that’s the size of a building, the thinnest detail is still that big, it’s a quick spray. Spray paint is easiest for me. I love spray paint.
DM: Where did you train?
AM: I learned to paint at home from my mom. She was a very good teacher, but with spray paint, I taught myself. Spray paint is impossible. They say it takes a decade to really learn spray paint and be good with it. I’ve been at it about ten years now and am now really just getting good and confident with it.
DM: What’s the idea with the social commentary? With Monopoly, it seems to perhaps be Bernie Madoff? When you came to rise, there was quite a bit of financial controversy, so there’s obviously some satire that’s seen by people looking at your work, but is there a message you’re trying to convey with him, with the character, or is it just something you like?
AM: It’s something I like, but at the same time, there is a message, but I like to leave the message open, so people can draw their own conclusions on it, keep people guessing I guess.
DM: Is there something that you’re trying to convey with the new portrait series?
AM: The new portrait series, they’re just characters that I’ve been inspired by and that I really enjoy and I think Mick Jagger is one of the best musicians and artists of our century, so I’m just honoring him I guess out of the love I have for him.
DM: Changing gears a bit, you are very well known in the nightlife scene. Is going out just part of the business for you?
AM: I try to act like it’s a business thing, but I just love going out too. In LA, I really like 1 Oak. It’s just easy and chill, other than us getting shot at the other night when we were there.
DM: You mean when people came in a shot at Chris Brown?
AM: I was there. I’d just done a painting with Chris Brown on Sunset and he said, tonight is my album release party. You’ve got to come by. I was like, sure, why not? He was like come sit at my table. I’ll be performing. I come in and we’re hanging at the table. I forget what time it was and we hear bang, bang, bang. We’re like what? Everyone hits the ground and me and Chris Brown are like, those are fireworks. They weren’t and Chris and I ended up in all those TMZ videos where everyone hit the ground. We all raced out of there, but I’ve been back since.
DM: What’s your schedule like? You’re basically based in LA, but you’re traveling a lot, right?
AM: Yes. I just did a whole Asia tour. I work with the W Hotels internationally, mainly in Asia, and I do paintings in their lobbies. I just painted the W Maldives. I did one of the huge speedboats. When you’re landing, it’s by sea plane, you land onto this beautiful island with blue crystal water and the hotels are out on the water and you can see the ocean underneath you. Where you land you can see the speedboat. The boat’s name is Marilyn so I just did Marilyn Monroe on the roof, her eyes looking up, so when you’re landing, you can see her eyes are looking at you, and then when you come in to the entrance of the hotel there’s a huge mural. I also went to Thailand and met with the Museum of Contemporary Art there, which is this quarter billion dollar brand new museum. I’m going to do my first museum show there next November, which is a really big deal for me. Then I went to Dubai and Abu Dhabi after it, where I was doing stuff for sheikhs and private collectors.
DM: Let’s talk a little bit about that. What was that like?
AM: It was very interesting because I had never been before and a lot of my following is over there. I was just really excited to meet everybody and hang out with all my fans. It was really cool. I was hanging out with one of the sheikhs and he had a pet chimpanzee that I was playing with.
AM: Yeah, it was adorable. His name was Luca, this little chimpanzee, so I was hanging with him. We went to the gym with him and he climbs on the monkey bars!
DM: What is it like to be in one of those palaces?
AM: It’s insane. It’s funny because the palaces are in the middle of nowhere. It will be this sandy desert and then you pull up to this mega-palace. It’s weird how spread out everything is over there.
DM: You’re out there partying with sheikhs. Any crazy stories?
AM: It was interesting because everywhere I went I’d meet somebody and they’re like oh, come paint my hot rod or just for fun, think of stuff for me to do. Come paint my hot rod car for $50,000. I painted my friend’s gym for $75,000. It was crazy. There’s no concept of money. They really don’t care about what anything costs.
DM: And now you’re doing a privately commissioned show/mega party for Basel.
AM: Marc Bell is putting it on for me. He’s a billionaire collector and he’s going to buy a bunch of the paintings that are going to be in the show. It’s a private event so it’s nice because there’s no sponsorships or anything, so we don’t have to deal with any sponsors. I literally have free reign to do whatever I want within the show.
We’re going to do it all around the pool deck in the back area and I wrapped the whole front of the hotel with my graffiti and then actually have five super cars that I did art work on parked out front. Then I’m back to LA for about a week and then I’m off to St. Bart’s. I’m doing an art show in St. Bart’s over New Years. Every billionaire in the world is out there.
DM: David Morris: What is the best market for art in the world?
AM: I think the best market is London because London is such an international city. Everyone from around the world in Europe goes to London. I’m sure there’s a lot of tax breaks and weird situations where people can buy stuff in London. My show last year in London was my most successful show.
DM: When was that?
AM: That was last I think it was February.
DM: What do you with a show? Do you usually get out there a day before?
AM: I go a week or two before, but that time, when it’s in Europe, it’s a whole different thing because here the shipping is easy. Shipping in Miami is expensive, but it’s easy. Shipping to London is so expensive, it’s not worth it, so I’d rather go out there and create the work there. Last year, when I was in London, we were staying all the way in West London in a Holiday Inn, this little shitty hotel, working out of this warehouse. It was crazy. For two weeks, I just detached from all society, turned my phone off, was just in the zone working in the studio, and then after that, after the two weeks were over, I came over, stayed in the Ritz Carlton living it up. I like to work really hard and then earn the good life. I actually enjoy it. If you’re eating caviar all the time, it doesn’t taste good anymore.
For more information on Alec Monopoly and his work, check out alecmonopoly.com