Sike Style: An Interview with Phil Shafer
I met with Sike Style, aka Phil Shafer, on a crisp winter afternoon at his downtown Kansas City studio. The building is home to several artist studios, although he initially had the upstairs loft to himself. Paradoxically, as his creative space has shrunk down around him in recent years, his success and force of presence in the artist community has continued to expand.
Sike is a Brooklyn native who found a home in KC as an adolescent. Even after graduating in 2000 from the Kansas City Art Institute, his personal style is still indicative of an upbringing that witnessed firsthand the evolution of New York City graffiti and the hip-hop revolution. Yet, as he explained to me later, his work must not be considered graffiti simply because his preferred medium is spray paint (a common misappropriation).
His studio is a colorful explosion of organized chaos which, he informed while casually munching on an apple, I was witnessing before “the big cleanse of 2015.” The walls are covered with images, stencils and canvases. Even more piles of stencils cover tables, as well as innumerous paint cans. There are stacks of painted boxes in one corner, rolled posters in another, and skateboards adorn the structural support beams in the room’s center. All works are signatures of his tendency to layer patterns, colors, and form.
Laura Artman: Who would you like to speak about first, Phil or Sike?
Phil Shafer: Same person. (he chuckles)
LA: Where does the difference in name lie?
PS: So the difference used to be I think more when Sike was doing street stuff and then Phil was working at the Medical Center [Graphic Designer at University of Kansas Medical Center]. So I think that’s what started it, but then once I became an artist that people recognized it was just like, Ok. You’re Sike. We know who you are. So it probably ended maybe around 2002?
LA: So you sort of morphed into a singular persona around 2002?
PS: Yeah, because once you stop doing anything illegal, then your need to be this mysterious character kind of goes away. And when you want to make a business out of your art you kind of need a face, unless you have some crazy pr people to do that for you, which I don’t. I was my own pr person. So the division really stopped after I stopped putting up wheatpastes and stuff like that.
LA: Do you consider Sike Style as a true persona or simply a personal brand?
PS: Oh it’s just a personal brand.
LA: With regard to street art, few would dispute that New York City is the birthplace, spawning a worldwide artistic movement. Was your decision to work under an artist alias influenced by your Brooklyn upbringing?
PS: Completely. You know, it wasn’t just the culture of seeing graffiti on the train, but it’s the whole thing. It’s like, I grew up with hip hop as it grew up itself, you know? I remember walking down the street singing Brass Monkey when it first came out. Me and my friends were going to perform that at some 3rd grade talent show or something, like goofy stuff. (he laughs) I remember being asleep and someone walks by with a boombox that was playing the Show, that Slick Rick track with Doug E Fresh. (he mimics the chorus to the Inspector Gadget theme song) Everybody was into some form of it. I’m talking like ’85, ’86, ’87. It was what all the kids were into, but being in New York you get a different perspective of it because you get to see the boldness of it like destroyed subway stations completely covered in graffiti, top to bottom. By the 90’s though they were all gone.
LA: I guess you sort of answered my next question: What was the vibe on those city streets in the 1980s?
PS: I was about 6 or 7 years old, but seeing painted letters that were taller you on the side of a building was just like, what is this? And no, I didn’t know any graffiti writers. I didn’t meet any graffiti writers. I was just a kid, but when I got into high school was really when I met other kids who were into graffiti and into hip hop too and there was a kind of resurgence, because in the 90’s graffiti was huge on a completely different level. It had spread to the rail systems; there were underground magazines for it. Underground hip hop was crazy by then, ’93 to like ’97 were great times for hip hop, especially the backpack movement, which I was a part of.
LA: What is the distinction between graffiti and street art? In other words, where does personal expression end and vandalism begin?
PS: Well, vandalism begins when it’s not your property (he chuckles) and then someone else gets mad at you. But you’re expressing yourself no matter what you do, whether it’s vandalism or street art is really up for interpretation. There’s a set of rules involved in being a graff writer.
LA: These are unwritten rules?
PS: Yeah. They’re known because they’re passed down. They have evolved because, you know, when you’re a writer in New York in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s you represented your block and you were trying to king the lines, so you were trying to get up on all the subway lines that you’d take through your neighborhood. Then from the streets it expanded so there’s all these unwritten rules about it that street artists that go to put something ironic up on the street just don’t understand… (he trails off thoughtfully)
And I just don’t think those two jive [street art and traditional graffiti writing] because, I mean, graff writer dudes are like hardcore dudes (he pounds fist to palm) If you’re talking about true NYC graff, they’re abrasive, they’re loud, it’s just that certain type of people that have that kind of bravado, you know?
And then there’s the kind that are like, ‘well, I can’t tell you who I am because I will literally get arrested the moment someone knows my name.’ So it’s evolved so long but it’s still based on the idea that you don’t go over other people’s stuff unless you are trying to fight. And that could be physical or just artistically battle. There’s a thing about going over top of someone’s stuff, that’s another form of disrespect. There are all these little things that go back that street artists today don’t quite get. And that’s when the graffiti artists start talking smack about street artists because they don’t respect the same rules.
LA: So there is a whole cultural etiquette that has evolved, at least in this country.
PS: Yeah, and of course this spawned the rest of the world, but it’s that early 1970s New York graffiti etiquette that is basically the grandfather of what people now call ‘the code,’ loosely.
LA: And how does the ephemeral nature of the work have an effect? How does it feel as an artist to put your work on a vulnerable façade and see it defaced or painted over?
PS: Well, it was in the late 90’s that I was putting up wheatpastes all over town and that’s how I sort of became known. And yeah, I understand the graffiti background even though I was never a ‘writer’ and so people call me graffiti artist because my preferred medium is a paint can, but I’m not a graffiti artist. I never wrote Sike on trains or buildings or anything. I was always putting up posters. I was looking for this medium thinking how can I do graffiti, but still be in a gray area where I won’t just get arrested for it?
I stopped doing the wheatpastes because one, I got a day-job and couldn’t stay out until four in the morning anymore, and two, because I just got really disheartened. Like, I spent all this money, I put up these posters, and then a day later they’re just gone (he emphasizes with a sweeping sound effect)
So it hit me. It was frustrating for me because I was putting up wheatpastes on abandoned buildings, putting stuff in the windows, but it was just taken down too quickly and just sort of bummed me out. So then I thought, well, I’ll just get up in a different way. I’ll get up on shirts. So I started making shirts so people could wear my tags. (he laughs)
LA: Let’s talk about the current work of Sike Style. Recently you had a solo exhibit, “State of Shock” here in the Kansas City Crossroads arts district. Did you feel a need to make a statement about the chaotic unrest of the world?
PS: That’s what the majority of my work is about. Even if we are talking about these abstract paintings (he motions to a few hanging behind him) the shards are always about the chaos, and the deals that I do, so there’s always these hands making deals. That show reminded me how violent my work is, in a way, because there were people who told me, ‘We’d really like to buy a piece, but don’t know if I can hang any of these in my house’ and I said ‘I totally understand!’ (we both laugh)
Yeah, so the whole show was based on civil unrest, you know, people fighting back for injustices against them. And it doesn’t just go from here to Ferguson, it went all the way around the world. So images I used were from Greece, from Ukraine, and even from the past: marches on Washington or children being led to desegregation schools in Little Rock; so it kind of has this people’s movement theme to it. And sometimes it just gets abstract, like, these are people standing up for something somewhere, somehow. Is this guy a terrorist? Or is this guy defending his homeland and telling his son to do what it takes to hold it down? Or is this somebody recruiting for extremist purposes? You don’t know, and these are questions I find interesting.
LA: Aside from worldly events, what else inspires you?
PS: Physical objects? I get inspired by the abstraction of nature, like camo[flage] patterns. I love patterns, in general (he points to a large stencil of a tire tread pinned to the wall). You can see on those boxes over there, stars, flowers, camo, hexagon patterns, mixed and layered with the dog paws. The layering of patterns and textures is a huge part of my work.
LA: Is there any other recent work you’d like to highlight?
PS: Oh the zebra. [Referring to Angry Zebra] So 2012 was when I painted my first mural, and it was 22” tall by 40’ long. It was tiny! And this year I painted the biggest thing I’ve ever painted, which is roughly 50’ by 14’ and so I went from that tiny thing to people telling me I can just go big and really make a statement.
LA: I sort of fancy you as a Batman-esque character: Corporate graphic designer by day and community-building street artist by night. Could you tell us about your work at KU Medical Center?
PS: My job at KU Med is the reason why I can be this sort of Batman character, because it’s my foundation. It’s my mortgage and healthcare and everything, and it gives me the flexibility to do what I want. It gives me the equipment that I need. And I also need to give them credit for being my biggest patron for the last 14 years. They’ve supported me in my art long before I had my first solo show. Long before I did a mural.
LA: What is it like to straddle the corporate work environment and entrepreneurship?
PS: Over time, you learn how to own your job, I feel. So for the first, I don’t know, 7 years I was just like oh, here I am, I’m doing this, but then I’m going to take some time off and go do Warp Tour. So whenever I was travelling I was on paid vacation, unlike my friends who were taking time off from restaurants, or the movie theaters, who didn’t have the stability that I always did. And then eventually I started working this kind of European schedule where it was four days a week and didn’t work on Fridays. And that was less stress for one thing, and it allowed me to just be other places, like my studio. But now I do show up on Fridays because I’m the only person there, but now that it’s just me I can own my job even more.
LA: Obviously, you have achieved true longevity in the corporate workplace. What are your techniques for keeping a fresh and relevant eye for design?
PS: Travel. I’ve used KC as a base, a base of operations. Eight hours in each direction and I can get to Denver, Chicago, somewhere in Tennessee, Cincinnati, maybe somewhere down in Texas, if I dare. Plus this place really has a great art scene.
LA: Right, and surely you do not lack in local artistic support. From what I understand, Kansas City fosters a true sense of community among artists. What can you tell us about the special nature of the local talent pool?
PS: The special nature is that if you’re in with them they’ll hook you up! I mean, I don’t have any of this stuff without my art friends. It’s this small world, like everything builds on one another kind of thing…the scene. They’ve put me on to stuff [freelance graphic design gigs]. I mean, if you’re friends with these people and you’re a cool person they really do look out for you. And I try to give back.
LA: Since coming to Kansas City you have clearly built a solid reputation. How would you characterize your role within the KC arts community?
PS: Well, now I get to be a mentor. Finally. So I do consider myself as a competitor, a mentor, an entrepreneur, and just an artist. So I’m gonna do stuff just for the art’s sake, I’m gonna do stuff for business’ sake, and I’m gonna do stuff for the greater sake. So the kind of philosophy me and Lucid [fellow artist, Daniel Bartle] put together was like, ‘One for Free, One for Fee.’ So we make money off of one thing, but then give back one other thing.
LA: Well, it is the last day of 2014 and time to meditate upon what we want for our lives in the coming year. If we meet again one year from today what is it that you would like to have achieved, created, or experienced?
PS: The way I look at my life is more like a progression. There’s no one achievement that I’m after. I just want to get better at what I do, just sort of be like this [snaps his fingers] and be more versatile on the big walls. I want to get good at painting murals. I’m a designer; I can create something that’s been thought out, but I’d like to be able to show up with five colors and maybe a straight edge and just make something up.
I want to do another Sike Quest. Sike Quest this year was a month in LA. Sike Quest 2015, man, I don’t know how I’m going to do this, but I’d like to go to the northwest: Portland, Seattle, Vancouver.
And another goal I have to check my progress is a mural of any size in all 50 states. I’ve got 3 down, 47 to go! (he laughs wholeheartedly)
A formidable goal, but I have no doubt it will eventually come to pass. Sike Style’s artistic talent truly speaks for itself and his kindness and charisma can only increase his powers of persuasion. We can all look forward to a world with more of his art surrounding us, replacing the mundane with bold color and powerful statements. Surely he would relate to the great Emile Zola, who explained, “If you ask me what I came to do in this world, I, an artist, will answer you: I am here to live out loud.”
Images courtesy of the artist.
This essay is published in partnership with Plug Projects.