Two industrial-sized buckets full of pink paint rest on the floor of a dimly lit Los Angeles garage. Mr. Brainwash picks them up and grunts as he heaves the contents against two bare, off-white walls. The stomach soothing shade splatters everywhere. Much of it oozes like lava onto the pale concrete below. The artist grabs black spray paint and surveys his canvas. With concept channeled and can rattling, Brainwash slops through the puddles of pink in his worn, blue Adidas. In lower case letters he writes the words “life” and “is” – each “i” is dotted with a heart. Then, giving the work a third-dimension, he begins “b” and “e” on the floor, sweeping the word “beautiful” up onto the wall. The letters are connected in cursive. He adds a final signature heart, then turns to us with a wide smile and poses for pictures. With outstretched arms and a Titanic-like shout, he exclaims, “Life is beautiful!” God takes care of the echo by shaking the ground seconds later. While the jerry-rigged, tin roof rocks and rolls to a 4.7 temblor, everyone runs for safety, except Mr. Brainwash who says simply, “It makes a better splash.”
Nuclear power could be harnessed in the energy of Mr. Brainwash’s ideas, and The International Creativity Museum could be established inside his studio. The space is a shrine to brightness where satisfyingly strange kernels of Pop Art explode all around. Marilyn Monroe’s blonde locks are bastardized as they leapfrog from a portrait of Larry King to Condoleezza Rice to Spock. Her powder blue eye shadow serves notice to Jack Nicholson that his shining role certainly would not have come as a cross-dresser. Elvis may look like a teddy bear, but his intentions appear cruel as he inspects a red, Fisher-Price machine gun. Jimi Hendrix fingers the yellow chord during a not-so-fiery set of Guitar Hero while a connect-the-dot Gandhi watches peacefully. A Campbell’s label gets condensed over Norman Rockwell’s corncob pipe smoking face, and the Bartles & James guys put down the wine coolers to proudly display a spray can of tomato soup. A six-foot tall sculpture of the tag-able tomato paste comes complete with angel wings honoring pop’s prince. “Andy Warhol is dead, but he was a great artist,” Brainwash says with a choppy French accent. “At that time people needed soup to eat. Food was gold. For me, a spray can is the gold of today. Any kind of paint is more rare than the biggest diamond.”
An animated Brainwash fidgets across from me on a couch covered in paint droplets. He’s wearing loose-fitting Levi’s that sag slightly, and a plain black t-shirt with aviator glasses hanging from the v-neck. His wavy, dark hair hangs like drapes from a beige fedora. “This whole world is art to me!” he says between puffs from a precariously perched cigarette. As he nods his head, red ash floats like a hot feather onto the cushions below. His eyes go there because mine did first. Brainwash snuffs out the rising smoke with hands covered in pantomime-thick white paint. He then proudly points to his bare left wrist and proclaims, “I don’t wear a watch. If you ask me the date – I don’t know it. You ask me the month – I don’t know it. It’s like I enjoy time so much, that I try and steal it everyday. I want more and more of it.” In fact, he was up until three, four or five in the morning recently (time is always an approximation with MBW). Mr. Brainwash was so inspired by the work he was creating that an idea just popped into his head. Immediately, he went outside and, in the pre-dawn darkness, tagged his own building with the phrase “Sleeping is boring.”
To be fair, a Kiss concert on acid would seem boring after one night with Mr. Brainwash. Hanging out with him is like permanently attaching a smiley face button to your jacket. While his body is void of tattoos, he says the word “LIFE” is likely inked on his soul. “Life is too short to see the bad,” he says. “Negativity is long, and it takes too much of your time. And we don’t have that kind of time.” Brainwash’s outlook and his art collide to create a positive message of acceptance. It even has the power to make the king of horror flicks huggable. In an illustration simply titled, “Alfred Hitchcock,” the smug-looking director holds a “Life is Beautiful” movie clapboard. “Even when it’s dark, try to see the light,” MBW says with conviction. “If you choose to see that anything is possible, you’re going to start to believe it. And when you really, really, really, really, really believe it, you’re going to live it.”
His pot of proof pudding boiled over in the summer of 2009, when Brainwash was asked to do the cover art for Madonna’s greatest hits compilations called Celebration. The image he created for the CD became one of the most iconic of the year. It was plastered everywhere on billboards from Tokyo to Los Angeles, Internet blogs, record store windows and it even became people’s Facebook profile picture. The image brought together Pop’s royalty – both past and present: Marilyn Monroe and Andy Warhol, Madonna and Mr. Brainwash. The cover art, along with nearly 20 other supporting pieces, blends Warhol-like imagery with famous photographs of Madonna using Brainwash spray paint.
Brainwash kicked off 2010 with the biggest exhibition of his career – a 15,000+ square foot art extravaganza called ICONS. It opened to a massive crowd and a line that stretched several city blocks in New York City’s Meatpacking District on Valentine’s Day. When MBW takes on a project he brings it BIG… more than 200 Neo-Post-Pop paintings under one roof, mostly portraits of famous fashion designers, musicians and entertainers with his signature paint splatter across them. One corner featured a wall of Tom Ford, Yves Saint Laurents and Madonna. Another section showcased a wall of contemporary artists – Warhol, Haring and Hirst – mounted six wide and three tall. Portraits of Steve Jobs, Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg made an appearance, too. One classically inspired painting featured P. Diddy directing Degas’s ballerina dancers.
Other highlights… a dozen or so massive installations, including a giant mountable horse made from recycled tires, a real NYC Yellow taxi cab turned Matchbox toy in its plastic and cardboard packaging, a garage door slash fifteen-piece panel of Woody Allen and six-foot tall Pepto-Bismol cans that not only cure indigestion and diarrhea – they also spray paint. A trail of pink paint on the floor led downstairs to a swingin’ 70′s style basement, complete with egg swivel chairs, soft lighting, cut-up vinyl portraits of music’s greatest performers and a gigantic, old-school boom box that stretched the entire length of a wall. The venue oozed energy, and through its sheer size, ICONS proved that “everything is possible” as more than one hundred thousand visitors came to see it during its four month run.
The New York show came on the heels of 2008′s epic Life is Beautiful exhibition – Brainwash’s first solo show. Instead of begging for gallery space for the Hollywood opening, he rented the vacant CBS building on Sunset Boulevard. Before any piece of art could be brought in, tons of junk had to be taken out: miles of television cable, old editing units and miscellaneous furniture. Contractors told him it would cost up to $140,000 to get rid of it all, but Brainwash came up with a better idea. “A problem always comes with a solution if you think positively,” he says. “I thought to myself, ‘Everybody wants metal. Everybody wants cables.’ So I started taking pictures and I put an ad on Craigslist. Next to it I wrote, ‘Free Everything.’ The next day, I had seven trucks full of people who emptied the whole thing for me.”
Over the next seven days, he filled the space with more than 200 paintings, sculptures and prints, including; a Duchampian-esque urinal covered in tags with an Obey Giant sticker in the center, a 15-foot-tall fast food bag complete with a receipt as an ode to Claes Oldenburg, a gigantic silver-bulleted six-pack of Petrol Light, a 20-foot robot made from vintage, but working, televisions and a series of seven-foot sea creatures built out of film canisters. He even made an installation out of 25,000 books and created a life-sized version of Ed Hopper’s Nighthawks. He painted 10,000 shoes green and hung them from the trees in the courtyard. He bought two police cars and layered them with Venice Beach style vandalism. While Brainwash and his crew assembled the building, the show was being hyped like a Don King-promoted boxing stare down. Old billboards that used to display smiling headshots of news anchors became massive targets for MBW tags, including one featuring a stinging left hook from Muhammad Ali knocking the living paint of somebody. Wheat-pasted posters of Brainwash’s main event also began popping up on every naked wall and lamppost from Melrose to the Miracle Mile.
On Wednesday, June 18, 2008, one of the most ambitious art opening in Los Angeles’s history did not disappoint. A handpicked jazz ensemble greeted guests at the door. Inside, Shepard Fairey worked the turntable. Projectors flashed images everywhere as the entire building became a bouncy ball of artistic happiness. Children ran around like they were at a park, while grandmothers grinned in their wheelchairs. In the middle of this eclectic crowd, Mr. Brainwash needed help getting around as well. Many thought the fancy scooter he was riding was a gimmick, but he’d fallen from a ladder preparing for the show and broken his foot. Slowing down was never an option. “I couldn’t even believe it myself,” he says regarding the turnout. “When I did it, I didn’t do it to have a lot of people, I just did it because I wanted to make it happen and prove that anything is possible.” By the time the show came down, Mr. Brainwash had become as popular in Los Angeles as Kobe Bryant.
Criticism, however, jumped in the passenger’s seat on the love train, making the ride to the top even more interesting. One critic called Life is Beautiful “a grand art prank of epic proportions.” Others have called him a “punk,” a “phony” and even the “Paris Hilton of street art.” Bloggers have said that he was bred from a copycat and that his idea of conceptualization is to tell his assistants to get to work. I ask Mr. Brainwash if the haters bother him, and he tells me I should cross out the word “hate” from my vocabulary. “No matter what, nobody can stop you from doing something,” he explains. “I respect those who criticize, because the world comes with the good and the bad. But for me, it doesn’t matter. It’s important that I bring the message that I want to give. If I can bring good to some people, that’s good enough for me.”
Mr. Brainwash’s introduction to the street scene came ten years ago – not with a can, but rather a camera. Thierry Guetta, as he was known back then, moved from the French projects to L.A. in 1982. He went to college, but found graduation was nearly physically impossible. “I was too artistic in my head,” he says. “I’m like a bird with A.D.D. I can never sit still. I’m always moving.” Guetta hit the ground running on U.S. soil and quickly found his stride through art. “I saw art everywhere in America,” he remembers. Guetta went to swap meets in Southern California where he began hoarding vintage televisions, typewriters, books, photos, old 45’s, anything that caught his attention. He couldn’t get enough culture. Guetta painted large, oil canvases of The Lone Ranger, Tarzan and all things Americana. Michael Jackson was so moved by Thierry’s talent and subject matter that he bought several of his pieces. Guetta documented those sales to the “King of Pop” on videotape. In fact, he filmed everything, and by 1990 he’d put down the paintbrush and permanently picked up a camera. “Movement was art to me,” he says about the shift. “It was even more powerful than one image, because it was like I was capturing life itself.”
“I used to follow old people,” he continues. “They were in their eighties and nineties, and thought I was crazy. I’d follow them for two days non-stop as they went to the grocery store, a café, basically everywhere they went – because I felt that they had something to say.” While America’s greatest generation gave Guetta perspective, he soon was drawn to an entirely different message coming from a segment of Gen X’s and Y’s. Guetta spent so much time in urban settings that he watched an artistic movement evolve from its infancy. By the turn of the millennium, Shepard Fairey, Banksy, Swoon, Faile and others were spraying, sticking and pasting ideas about political and self awareness around the world. The art gave the punk rock listening, skateboard riding and countercultural crowd a mainstream voice. Guetta recorded the cosmic shift and began making the ultimate documentary about street art.
Fairey’s work evolved from an experiment with phenomenology to a dialogue about propaganda, censorship and our environment, and eventually helped shape a presidential election. Guetta’s cameras caught it all, including several of Fairey’s high-profile arrests. Banksy, on the other hand, built a reputation on his elusiveness. The satirical stencillist used rats, monkeys, policemen, soldiers, children, and the elderly to make anti-war, anti-capitalist and anti-establishment statements. He built his man/ghost reputation by hanging a yellow, smiley-face over the Mona Lisa at the Louvre in 2004, and brought in a real-life “elephant in the room” for his Barely Legal exhibition in L.A. in 2006. Guetta got so many of these big moments on tape, and a decade later, the documentary “Exit Through the Gift Shop” premiered in January 2010 at The Sundance Film Festival. The unannounced feature received a standing ovation on opening night in Park City, Utah, and was nominated for an Oscar for the year’s “Best Documentary.”
Banksy gets director’s credit for “Exit Through the Gift Shop” because he actually turns the table on Brainwash, as the movie becomes a parody of a filmmaker turned artist who spent a decade trying to document an underground movement. “It’s the story of how one man set out to film the un-filmable. And failed,” Banksy said. Sundance Festival Director John Cooper said the story was so bizarre that he questioned whether it could be real. “‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’ is one of those films that comes along once in a great while, a warped hybrid of reality and self-induced fiction while at the same time a totally entertaining experience.” The movie will next premiere at Cannes in May.
Fairey and Banksy are street art pioneers who have been instrumental in elevating the genre’s status. They also deserve much of the credit for the birth of Mr. Brainwash, as their trusty tag-along with a background in art and a hankering for happiness found that a mural on the side of a building can be the most boisterous mountaintop for messages like “Life is Beautiful.” For many the word brainwash conjures up memories of Patty Hearst’s kidnapping, Jim Jones’s cult or prisoner of war confessions. But Thierry Guetta only sees positives in mixing the power of creative influence with the potential in an open mind. “Sometimes with art you can talk louder!” he says. “The way that I see it is that I try to brainwash with such a good message. I’m not telling anybody to kill somebody else. I’m just telling them to live better, to enjoy their lives, to respect everyone around them, to try and do something beautiful and lift people to be creative.”
Mr. Brainwash began his crusade with a few hand-drawn stickers, but quickly graduated to giant billboard paste-ups, which can now be found all over the country. During Art Basel Miami in 2007, Brainwash created a 20 x 40 foot Obama Superman mural outside the Scope Pavilion with the following message: “Rosa Parks sat, so that Martin Luther King could walk. Martin Luther King walked, so that Barack Obama could run. Obama ran, so we could fly.” While Obama was campaigning, Mr. Brainwash began work on several commissioned murals along 9th Avenue in New York City. Madonna and Angelina Jolie look like giant clones of each other on a 19th century brick building with matching Marilyn hair and beauty marks. Around the corner, Louis Armstrong totes a trumpet with a Louis Vuitton case, and Einstein holds a protest poster that reads “Love is the Answer.” Miles Davis is immortalized on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles, and a giant Jackson Pollack drips paint outside Brainwash’s studio on La Brea.
Inside, Brainwash is planning his next big thing. He’s constantly creating new art; taking iconic images and making them more fun. Among his pop culture portfolio: a series of UPC codes over Lichtenstein and Picasso, PUNKing Robert Indiana’s LOVE and turning the farm in Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” into urban squalor. He used graffiti, stencil, acrylic and screen print to make most of the works on paper, cardboard and found objects. But his most original and newest work comes from stacks and stacks of old vinyl. Brainwash chopped up records to create pop portraits of music legends like Frank Sinatra, Notorious B.I.G., Jimi Hendrix, Bono, Bruce Springsteen and many more. Quarter inch cuts equal intricate facial expressions, and chiseled CDs give sunglasses their shine. His vinyl portrait of Jim Morrison sold for $100,000 before the ICONS exhibition – others were going for three times that much. “I had to find something that nobody in the world of art had done,” Brainwash says. “I wanted to take singers that spent their whole lives singing for us and make them live forever with what they sold.”
On a wall adjacent to the pink and black “Life is Beautiful” graffiti in his garage, Brainwash stencils another message. In drippy, DNA defining lettering it reads: IF EVERYONE THOUGHT THE SAME, NOTHING WOULD EVER CHANGE. The inspiring commentary is designed to get people to “see with their hearts” and smile always. Brainwash lives each day like it is New Year’s Day, celebrating another page turned and proudly sharing his good fortune with others. “I love life and want to spend my money and use my talents to make this a better world for everyone,” he says. While the message resonates in his art, his actions speak just as clearly. I met a guy pushing a shopping cart full of tattered blankets near Brainwash’s studio. He told me his name was Mouse, but he was far from quiet when speaking about his favorite artist. “He’s always looking out,” Mouse says, adding that Brainwash frequently buys breakfast for those less fortunate on the block. Mouse lost his job as a meat cutter four months ago and his girlfriend is pregnant. While Mouse and I are talking, Mr. Brainwash is busy flicking paint on the multi-colored, ever expanding mural outside his studio. Mouse says he walks by here often just to watch him work, and I ask him why. “Because it makes me happy,” he says.
Written by: Ben Bamsey
Photography by: Harper Smith