Much like rock stars and supermodels, hip hop and street art have a long history that spans decades. And never before has the relationship between street art and hip hop had more of a literal representation than with the soon-to-be-unveiled “Now Royalty” collection by Los Angeles-based street artist, Kai Aspire, which depicts some of hip hop's biggest names as medieval noblemen.
Kai first made an impact on the L.A. street art scene with his bold anti-smoking “Morons” mural back in 2009, which depicted what looked like a pack of Marlborough Red brand cigarettes, but with the word “Morons” where “Marlborough” should be. Needless to say, the piece sparked plenty of conversation, and ultimately inspired Kai's own father — a smoker for many years — to finally quit.
Since then, Kai's work has adorned the Melrose Corridor area of West Hollywood where he grew up, with each piece showboating a different social message — everything from anti-drinking (“Abysmal Vodka” as a play on Absolute Vodka), anti-consumerism, and even an anti-technological douchiness piece (“Boundberry,” a nod toward society's obsession with mobile communication).
With social awareness as his overall message, Kai's newest collection of oil paintings depicting rappers as medieval noblemen is getting a lot of attention. So much so that the piece he created of Eminem as a monastic saint has already been purchased by Slim Shady himself.
On display as a solo exhibit opening Friday, May 4th, at the Guetta Gallery in West Hollywood, there are 26 paintings in all. And a quick scan of the gallery during the interview showed some of hip-hop's most revered faces: Tupac, Jay-Z, Kanye West, even a Drake piece.
Read on for a glimpse of what inspires one of the southland's youngest (a quick Google search lists him as 21 years old, although he refuses to state his age for the record) crusader of positivity in the L.A. art scene.
OC WEEKLY: When did you start doing street art and what were your first images?
I first started doing street art a little more than three years ago. And my first image was “Morons,” an anti-smoking campaign. That was my first. And my second was “Boundberry,” which was against the use of cell phones in everyday life because your life becomes more virtual than livable and you start to live your life on your phone or your computer, than you do with actually interacting with people.
That's pretty insightful for someone so young. I read somewhere that you're 21, how old are you?
I would rather keep my age unknown.
Ok then. What prompted your anti-smoking/drinking message?
Well, my father was a smoker growing up and I was very uncomfortable with the idea of him smoking. So, I had asked him to stop many times before and it just didn't register to him. And he's the one who taught me about art and how to create it, so I found the best way to communicate to him was by making an art piece about it. So, “Morons” was inspired by him and it was made for him. And then as people started to see it, it became a little bit more of a success, so I decided to bring it to the streets and have it speak to a broader audience, and help people out. And as I helped people out, I realized I could help people in other ways, so I started making more work with a strong message.
While the anti-smoking/anti-drinking messages are pretty obvious no-no's to most young people from an early age, I saw that you also did a mural on the dangers of credit cards and debt. What inspired you create a piece about that?
Well, as I started making street art the economy started to dip, and people started to realize money doesn't grow on trees and life's a little harder than you think it is. So, as I started to get a little older I started to understand how credit works and I realized that the credit card is the perfect way to create debt. It's unfair that they [credit card companies] grab you when you're young and then you're stuck forever paying a percentage on money you just don't have. Basically, if you wanna create problems for yourself, you should get a credit card.
Tell me about the new collection. What inspired you to feature these particular artists, and what are you trying to say by having them in this medieval context?
These artists were an inspiration for me. When I started making street art I was listening to them, listening to their lyrics and a lot of them fight for the people. And, so they just became an inspiration to me, just being them [in the musical context]. But as I started to study them, and understand who they were [and are], I realized that the way they walked, the way they spoke, the way they dressed, and the way they paraded around town, they paraded like kings and noblemen, so I decided to portray them that way.
Did you start out deciding to create pieces about each of the music artists you've painted or is there one who started it?
The 50 Cent piece is the one that started it all. His lyrics were really inspiring me at the time, so I created the one of him and the rest grew from there.
What message do you hope people will take away from this exhibit?
I'm hoping people will see the strength in them and want to know more about them. I know why they each were an inspiration to me, but you can't see what's in my mind and I can't see what's in yours. So, this way people can see what's inspiring about them and want to learn more.
Speaking of exhibiting and spreading your message, do you have a dream venue where you would like to someday have your work shown?
MOCA [the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles]. I would love to have my work featured there. It would be such an honor.
Do you have a favorite piece among all of your work thus far?
I'm a fan of all of my pieces. I have a special connection to how each was made, so in that way, they're all like my little babies. If I had to choose one though, it would be “Morons” because it did what it was supposed to do.
The “Now Royalty” exhibit opens to the public on Friday, May 4 at the Guetta Gallery, 645 Martel Ave., Los Angeles, 90046. The first 100 guests receive a free collectable print.