By Daniel Hernandez
The artist Dash Snow promised me an interview, over and over. Every time I ran into him during his 2007 stay in L.A., he'd say, “We still gotta talk, man.” The last time he said so was at the after-party to the opening of his September show at Peres Projects in Chinatown. The party went down at the Charlie O's, on the ground floor of the old Alexandria Hotel, on the strip of Spring Street that was for a while downtown's Crack Commerce Central. Dash was weaving through a crowd of tip-top glamorous and affected L.A. art-kids, who had gathered to hear sets from some of his favorite bands: Abe Vigoda, the Thrones, and Mika Miko. The lighting was dim and red and the room packed, from the chipped checkered dance floor to the velvet-red booths. His gallerist Javier Peres, the indulgent impresario of Chinatown's art scene in those days, paid for everyone's drinks till midnight — or until a couple thousand dollars were spent. I don't remember which came first; by midnight everything was a blur. Someone had passed around pills of MDMA and all I remember is seeing Dash's willowy frame popping up and down, his two dusty blond braids tumbling about, parted down on each side of his head like some kind of hell-raising Kalifornia biker demon, laughing. It had been such an unforgettable week, and with Dash in the room, it felt like things were only going to get crazier.
Snow, who died this week in New York of an apparent overdose at the age of 27, never gave me that interview. Wasn't as though I expected it to happen. The photographer, sculptor and graffiti writer was not media-savvy to begin with. He often embellished things or outright lied when approached by the press, simply to amuse himself. But he had been dismayed, friends said, by the long article on him published in New York magazine earlier that year that exposed him too much, revealing his naiveté at dealing with the delicate social codes implied in the process of being profiled. In L.A., I did get to hang out plenty with Dash, with Javier Peres and the workers at his gallery, with Dash's West Coast community. Thankfully, it became clear in that short time that having Dash Snow articulate his thoughts on his practice wouldn't be nearly as illuminating as witnessing it in action.
This involved more than spraying semen upon yellowing copies of the New York Post and putting them in frames and on gallery walls. This meant – to the great discomfort of an art-world intent on boxing every gesture into its proper genres – valuing all expressions equally. Considering the work in a gallery show as deeply as one's tattoos or the quality of the tags left on a downtown alley wall. Seeing finesse and beauty in the most godless and grotesque things and faces. Clothes and jewelry and the mind-expanding and/or numbing qualities of recreational drugs. Blood and bodily fluids and prostitutes and homeless people and people having drunken, delirious sex.
In other words, all the things that ignite the rage of the critical theorist who calls such concerns “trash” or the moralist who derides it all as meaningless “decadence.” Maybe that's what it is. In the early 2000s, these aesthetic interests quickly became their own sort of self-defeating cliché. Drugs killed Dash, after all, and no one forced him to overdo it with heroin and end it all on a Monday night at a hotel in the East Village.
With Dash there was more tension there than we often care to see with this too-familiar type, the “tortured artist.” A member of the de Menil family, he was born into art-world royalty. Yet Dash, bravely, chose to live his teen years and young adult life as a complete street outlaw, faithfully documenting every adventure and encounter with a Polaroid camera. So tender in age himself, by the summer of '07, he had become a father. Bravery again. By the time Dash Snow's name became synonymous with the easy-to-be-loved, easy-to-be-loathed Lower East Side renegade artist, he never seemed to shake off his originating cultural upbringing. He lived permanently by the rules of the international graffiti fraternity, that mixture of respect for the tribe, for the adversary, and for the anarchy, the mores of the urban underworld. When I first met him, in Peres' home in 2006, he had just gotten out of L.A. County Jail for leading cops on a foot chase across the 101. He had been out “bombing” on the freeway.
Photos on Twitter show Dash Snow was still hitting the streets to make large-scale graffiti pieces, as SACE of the IRAK crew, until just before his death. One piece uses the word “Secret,” his daughter's name. His sculpture and collage work were not groundbreaking, but were a total expression of the things that caught his eye, reflecting the horrors and cruelties of the world he saw around him. His graffiti altered and contributed to that landscape and his photographs sought to give it shape and form. A monumental and never-ending task. Dash felt he had a cool enough head to be up for it.
“I've seen what this kind of attention can do to people, when they let it go to their heads,” he told Interview magazine recently. “I'll only go to an opening if I'm a big fan of the artist or to support a friend. People say 'the art world' but that's kind of generalizing. I'm not so concerned with it. I just want to hang out with my baby and make art.”
He did so honestly, because Dash's work valued truthful documentation tremendously, as a tool of subversion, a force for human connections. Because honestly, the world is fucked. We are fucked, his art seemed to say.
“Dash's work is so vividly autobiographical, and celebratory, while still only showing the aspects of his life and his story that he wants to tell,” Javier Peres wrote me, around the time Dash was in L.A. “He is the storyteller, and we are the listeners, whether we want to listen or not. Well, that is our choice, and whether we choose to listen or not, his reply remains the same, 'Thank you and fuck you!'”
The last time I saw Dash in Los Angeles, the Weekly assigned me to do a piece on his preparations for the show at Peres Projects, which carried the boorish title of 'God Spoiled a Perfect Asshole When He Put Teeth in Yer Mouth.' It took days for me to breach the topic of maybe interviewing him, and once I did, Dash responded politely, but seemed indifferent either way. In Los Angeles he just wanted to have fun. We all hung out at Kathryn Garcia's apartment in Silver Lake. Girlfriend Jade Berreau and baby Secret were getting into town some days later. So friends came and went. Stuff happened. Dash glowed.
“He has a wad of hundreds and buys two six packs of Tsingtao and a bag full of disposable cameras,” I banged away in disjointed notes, nearing dawn, after his first night in town. “Dash is barefoot. He shows us his belt made of hollowed Mexican pesos and a hippie fabric. Dash wears a lot of black.”
He and Kathryn, an artist then working at Peres Projects, rode around Los Angeles looking for materials for his show. They posted a call on Craigslist for male models to ejaculate on a screen with a phrase, taken directly from the New York profile – 'How much talent does it really take to come on the New York Post, anyway?' – turning a common critique of his work back on its head. It would be the centerpiece of his show. A few nights later, Dash organized a happening that proved more successful than anyone at the gallery could have expected. A solid mix of all-around creepy guys – some gay, some not – got together on Chung King Road and took turns walking naked up to a platform facing the back-lit screen, and did their duty. In the basement, a television played porn to help “fluff” the guys. The whole time Dash took photos excitedly, enjoying the scene. Afterwards, of course, the party continued.
Throughout our interactions in L.A., Dash exhibited absolute warmth and generosity with me, and none of the pretense, competition, and ill will so often associated with the downtown New York scene. He listened intently to those around him. He displayed patience and intense affection for those he cared about. And every outward impulse – every sensation or emotional cue – seemed to both alarm and excite him.
“He was a real natural leader who could care less about followers but always had an army of devotees,” said my friend Nina Tahash. “He was more of a brand than an artist. People wanted to buy a piece of him. It was more than just art.”
True. With Dash Snow around, you got the sense that the source of that crackling human energy in the air was found in someone devoted to the pure act of living, pushing those boundaries, accepting the risks. Accepting that sometimes those risks can come and catch up with you.
We never published a piece in the Weekly about Dash's stand in L.A. Didn't matter. I got to spend some good times with him and his mates, our friends. He gave away so many kisses and so many gifts. Javier Peres and his gallery workers and Dash's fellow artists were having the time of their lives, too. Now so many of Dash's “devotees” have lost a good chunk of something exquisitely special, irreplaceable. We lost a good graff writer, a good artist and a good person. And somewhere behind the deep pain of his relatives and closest friends, we know that the scene he so artfully generated, at least in its most agile form, its most honest mischief-making, may have died along with him.