If you spend much time east of Vermont, you’ve likely seen the work of SICKID — the feverishly prolific, and, until recently, teenage street artist who has been dominating Eastside real estate for the past few years.
L.A. is a notorious quickdraw when it comes to removing graffiti, but billboards and walls along arterial routes like Sunset Boulevard offer maximum exposure for public work like SICKID’s before it inevitably disappears. His riotous, dementedly cute, occasionally pornographic figures often riff on extant marketing campaigns — engaging source material with inspired cartoon humor rather than just tagging over it. Think feminized, naughty McDonaldland characters painted on an Egg McMuffin billboard.
An L.A. native who grew up amid the visual cacophony of K-Town, SICKID was weaned on Transformers, Robotek, early Cartoon Network and comic books, gravitating more toward the character-driven work of artists like Barry McGee, Neckface and Miss Van than letters. “The street art boom had already passed before me, but that led me to believe you can do more than just letters. You can do anything on the street, basically,” he tells the Weekly. “I kinda wanted to get more personal with my stuff. And more, like, human. I’m still figuring out shit about myself.”
The illustration program at Art Center sharpened his skills (he dropped out last year), and anime remains an obvious influence. But somewhere along the way, a style emerged that is more than the sum of its early influences. You can spot a SICKID billboard by the lines and palette, the hilarity and controlled chaos. His fine art paintings, meanwhile, employ more psychological depth, narrative, and a detailed illustration style — all on view at his first solo show this Saturday at Superchief Gallery, which includes 40 new works and a “church” built for the occasion.
In the flesh SICKID is ebullient, childlike but wily, with a Cheshire Cat grin and an untamed cackle. He doesn’t drink or do drugs, and looks too tender to be the one bombing billboards. He was arrested in New York earlier this year, but has yet to see the inside of an L.A. jail cell. Obviously, the Keyser Söze thing is working in his favor.
While acknowledging it’s “cliché to say as a graffiti person,” he pointed out all of his work in some way deals with authority, with “what happens when you don’t necessarily feel like you can match up to authority, or you can talk to people who are above you. And what that mindset does to a person.”
That preoccupation is bookended by a fixation on traditional notions of masculinity. “I struggle with sexuality, I guess. I grew up with three sisters, was insecure as a kid… I was just a fuckin’ fat little kid!” he laughed. “I still am. But now I have more confidence because I can paint.” He’s “comfortable in being straight,” but still rankled by the strictures of machismo. “I don’t want to prove that I’m the alpha dog. Like I’m the fucking best. I got made fun of (in school) — like, ‘you fucking faggot!’ It was weird; I know who I am, but now it’s like this fucked up thing where it’s like, am I gay? Fuck! What the fuck?”
Drop all that — along with raw talent and clamorous drive — into the biggest-swinging-dick universe of graffiti and you get something that feels subversive, rather than just rote anti-establishment. “I always hated uber-masculinity… Graffiti has a little bit of that in it. Especially L.A. graffiti; it’s so derived from tag-banging and stuff like that. Billboards are a ballsy move, the risk is so high,” he said.
Explaining a piece showing a boisterous orgy over an AHF billboard about STDs he did last year, he added, “I don’t know, I feel like showing dudes fucking on a big billboard and orgy, it forces the alpha graffiti guy to be like, ‘Oh that dude just got up on a billboard and that’s sick. But he’s painting guys cumming on each other’s faces, what the fuck!’ Just viewing something a little different, and changing the psyche a little bit.”
He seems aware that being in the public eye, anonymously or not, requires a certain performativity. Suggesting his scumstache and Hawaiian shirt don’t exactly telegraph ambition, he added, “I kind of like to put on the illusion, play dumb for some people, because I love proving myself.”
Local and autobiographical references pepper his paintings — locations you’ll know or almost recognize, and relatable moods. Strip clubs, church, Jollibee, the Playboy mansion, wrestling matches, arcades, neo-noir lit bedrooms, unmistakably L.A. streetscapes. He has a knack for shadowless interiors — like he’s spent a lot of time in fluorescent lighting. And his characters — like one best described as a gleeful mashup of paletero, vaquero and luchador in a strategically placed anti-gentrification mural — often combine disparate styles and symbolism. “A lot of my work is kind of self-portrait-esque,” he says. “I live vicariously through those paintings. But I’m also trying to relate to the characters in my work. Just their experience. I try not to make it too obvious, because I don’t like a flat-out statement.”
A piece in his solo show captures the discordance of a pervasive childhood memory. “My aunt was a housekeeper for these rich people and would take us to these sushi buffets — they were expensive, like we couldn’t afford a dinner for a bunch of people,” he said. “She would wear all these super sick, super tacky bedazzled denim jackets. She’d ball out… Putting on the whole mirage. That’s reflective of society now: People wanna be what they’re not, wanna have this tacky shit to prove they have money.”
“You wanna be so much a part of it that you erase what you were,” he continues. “And I feel like what you are is a lot cooler than what you wanna become.” To that effect, the artist used sparkles “and tacky stuff” like stars based off of Windex commercials and airbrushed car posters. “Stars mean they have some sort of value, an awesome luxurious thing. I like putting that stuff that doesn’t necessarily have that value, just to tie those two things together: this wanting to be luxurious and high up there, but you can’t forget what you actually are.”
So does he want to be rich? “I don’t know,” he said. “Being rich through art sounds cool. But at the same time there’s this brand thing of you need to do the same thing over and over again. And you can’t truly express your full thing, your full self. To me it’s like what’s the point of being an artist when you can’t do your own shit? Money is definitely nice. And goals are important too. Wanting what you don’t have definitely keeps you going. But I think I’d rather be a fully happy person and not have luxurious shit, than being rich and hating what I’ve become. It’s a battle.”
Asked if he paints every day, he laughed: “Yeah — oh fuck, yeah. It’s fucked! I hate it! But what else am I gonna do? Time is now.”