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Philly Street Art Interviews: A Conversation with Punk Artist Low Level

February 6, 2019

(Photos by Streets Dept Contributor Eric Dale)

Welcome to Streets Dept’s newest series of street artist interviews, created in partnership with Philadelphia’s own unofficial official street art museum, Tattooed Mom. Each month, Streets Dept Contributor Eric Dale will sit down with one local street artist to ask them about their work. Together, we’ll learn more about the incredible artists getting up around Philly.

This month, I set out to interview Low Level, a street artist best known for his plywood installations featuring punk rock lyrics. But what emerged from our meeting was less of an interview and more of a free-flowing conversation. Low Level kept throwing questions back at me, and both of us kept interjecting. Rather than editing the hell out of our conversation to force it into an interview format, I decided to preserve our back and forth. I try to make all of my interviews conversational, but this one really took it to a whole new… level.

Read on to hear Low Level’s thoughts on what punk means, why graffiti writers deserve respect, and how to travel in style.

Streets Dept: First off, what does the name Low Level mean?
Low Level: When I first started making t-shirts, probably about 15 years ago, just spray-painting stuff, I called myself Subterranean Culture. It was very short-lived, and not really a thing. So Low Level was just kind of a progression of that name, for me to take my art more serious and get into more things. I don’t love the name, but I’ve been using it for art for so long that there’s no turning back now. I could use my real name for a lot of my earlier art stuff, but maybe 3 or 4 years ago, I decided to go full force and just use an art name.

SD: Yeah, it can be intimidating and overwhelming to try to rebrand something that’s been around for so long. I just rebranded my own freelance business, and it was, like, an effort!
LL: Yeah. And I also have a zine called Low Level.

SD: Oh! Tell me about that!
LL: I’ve been doing the zine sporadically probably for about 6 or 7 years. It’s copy machine cut-and-paste, with lots of writing, and it’s similar to some of the art that I do for the paste-up stuff, but that’s more just for the cover art. It’s mostly just full of writing.

SD: Your writing, or other people’s?
LL: I write all of it. Which I’d like to get back into more. You gotta commit a huge amount of time to making a zine, just to gather so much information to put in there. That’s the hard part.

SD: How can someone get their hands on that? How do you distribute it?
LL: Haha, I don’t really distribute it. I don’t have it available online. I’ll have it at pop-up shops, or just bring them and leave them places. Like a lot of my art, I’ll make stuff and leave it at shows or at bars. Like pin packs—I’ll make three or four of a very limited edition-type thing and just leave it somewhere.

SD: So people should keep their eyes out!
LL: Yeah, you just gotta be in the right place at the right time.

SD: That’s how it is for street art in general lots of times!
LL: Yeah.

SD: So I think your spray-painted wooden coffins that you screw onto to telephone poles are surely your most iconic work. Can you tell me about that series? Do you agree that it’s your most iconic?
LL: I agree that it’s my most iconic, and that’s like the only reason I still do them. That’s what people recognize. I first started doing them as… like, a plea to get an ex-girlfriend back. It was like six or seven years ago—I made ten or twelve of the same coffin and hung them all up around South Philly, hoping that someone would see. 

SD: Someone in particular! And what did they say?
LL: Well, I don’t think it worked! But I’m glad I did it, because I got a different outcome from what it was originally intended for.

SD: In that it launched this series?
LL: It basically launched my street art career, per se. After I did that, I started doing a lot of other types of paintings and putting things in the street.

SD: It’s amazing how everyone has a totally different way that they came to street art.
LL: When I first started doing artwork, I showed a lot of my stuff in galleries. Not huge galleries, but lots of group shows. But then it just kept getting harder and harder to get into these shows. It seemed very clique-y—the same group of people was always in the same shows together. It was hard to break into it. The reason that I started doing the street art is I was just like fuck this, I’m not even going to try to get into these shows anymore; I’ll just put my art up in the street so at least SOMEONE can see it. And then that’s when I decided I would just put on my own shows. I’ve done shows here [at Tattooed Mom], I’ve had a couple shows at my house… Just getting similar-minded people that don’t really fit into that art world either. Like, kind of creating somewhat of our own scene.

SD: That’s great! So something I’ve always been curious about is the staying power of wooden installations like yours, as opposed to wheatpastes or stickers.
LL: Some of these coffins, some people will take them, which I don’t mind, so they might last a week, but others… Like, there’s one on Washington Avenue that’s been up for five or six years. So they either get taken quickly, or they’ll stick around for years.

SD: So it’s not a bell curve; it’s really one or the other. Interesting!
LL: Yeah. And they hold up pretty well to the weather. I’ve also reclaimed a few of them that have gotten really beaten up, so I have a small collection at my house of stuff that’s really weathered. And then I’ll go out and replace it with something different in the same spot.

SD: Do you have any plans for the beaten up stuff?
LL: If I get enough of them, I think it would be cool to have a show of my beaten up work. And maybe have it side-by-side with a brand-new one of the same thing.

SD: That’s a cool idea. I love that. Let me know if you do that!
LL: Sure.

SD: As I started preparing for this interview, I learned that most of your work features punk rock lyrics, which I guess says something about my musical taste, but I think it also says something about punk rock—that it’s maybe more poetic than people think it is? What’s the relationship between you, your art, and punk rock?
LL: Punk is a huge part of my life, almost as like—not a reason for living—but it gives me more of a purpose and makes me feel more comfortable as an outsider to the regular world. Like, at least there’s some small place that I can go to feel like I’m a part of something. Probably 99% of my work is references to punk music or lyrics, but you don’t have to like punk to like the artwork. A lot of the stuff people can relate to just because it’s a meaningful phrase or saying.

SD: That’s exactly what my experience has been!
LL: Yeah! My fanbase is not really a punk fanbase. It’s just people that like how it looks and they can relate to what it’s saying.

SD: So you’re spreading the punk gospel?
LL: I’m not trying to! I would rather have more peers in my fanbase. Some people in the punk scene know that I [make art], but for the most part they have no idea. But I do try to keep myself somewhat anonymous.

SD: But you told me you’re ok with your face being in photos today!
LL: Yeah, I think it’s time now. I’ve put in enough work where maybe I could use some recognition.

SD: You brought some pieces to hang today in an old-fashioned briefcase that you’ve stenciled onto. Why did you start using vintage briefcases as canvases?
LL: I’ll find vintage suitcases at thrift stores for a dollar or two. It’s cheaper and a lot more interesting than a plain 16×20 canvas, and it’s versatile in that you can hang it on the wall like a piece of art, but also use it for what it’s meant for and travel in style. I transport all my stuff in four or five of them whenever I have a show or pop-up shop. And whenever I fly I take one, too. It’s slightly inconvenient, but style over comfort any day.

SD: What about the ones you’ve hung on the walls here at Tattooed Mom?
LL: I like to bring in a minimally-painted suitcase, maybe with a single line stenciled at the top and a blank background of color, and hang it on the wall at Tattooed Mom and let it sit there for a few months to see what happens. I’m sure people think they aren’t supposed to write on it, and that’s why they do. But the joke’s on them because I want that shit as covered as can be so I can reclaim it later on.

SD: Haha what?! Then what do you do with them?
LL: Hang them in my house.

SD: Wow! Ok, so your Instagram bio says “master the forces that control you.” What does that mean to you?
LL: I found that phrase in a craphound book—

SD: A what?
LL: It’s like almost a series of zines, with old images that I use to make a lot of flyers and a lot of my artwork. It’s just like a magazine. One’s called Death and Telephones, so it’s filled with old images of telephones. And coffins and spiders and tons of weird stuff like that, and that was just a phrase I found in there. It just kind of jumped out at me. And—well, what did you think it meant? What did it mean to you?

SD: I think at first glance, it feels like it’s about self-sufficiency, like every man is an island and that sort of thing. But it feels more profound than that—just the sound of the words. I feel like maybe on the surface it’s like take control of your life, but then on a deeper level it’s like fight back against having a life that you don’t want to have. Like, fight back against falling into a rut.
LL: I think it’s kind of—there’s a lot going on in the world. We have to do a lot of things we don’t want to do, and it’s about finding a way to do something that you want to do while still conforming, in a sense, to society.

SD: So it’s like be a punk in a world of conformity?
LL: Sure.

SD: Speaking of stuff going on in the world, you’ve recently ventured into more political work, including pieces referencing both Trump and Pence. Do you see yourself continuing in this vein?
LL: No. I like to try and stay away from anything political. Which Trump one are you referring to?

SD: The yellow one that was at 5th and Bainbridge that said “you’re such a liar, you wouldn’t know the truth if it—“
LL: That wasn’t actually even a Trump one.

SD: Really? I thought those were his eyes on it.
LL: That was just some eyes I found in an old book, and it—surprisingly—did look like Trump, and it did fit the bill.

SD: So that’s kind of referencing Trump, isn’t it?
LL: Yeah, but those were lyrics from a Clash song. And that was more of a personal thing to someone that I knew in the past. A lot of my artwork is aimed toward people in a negative way, as an outlet to fight back without physically harming them. All of my artwork is more personal than political.

SD: I assume you want to stay away from political stuff for the usual reasons?
LL: Yeah. I don’t care about politics. I would consider myself more of an anarchist, just because I don’t believe in anything. Not in a negative way, really, but it’s more like a positive nihilistic existentialism, if that makes any sense!

SD: Haha sure! Fair enough. So what’s your favorite thing about the Philly street art scene?
LL: I like how it kind of brings everyone together, in a scene of outcasts. You do feel connected even if you don’t really know them that well. A lot of these people come from totally different lifestyles, and they are anonymous for the most part, so when you do meet them, it’s a little surprising to see the face behind the art. But everyone that I’ve met has been really nice and open.

SD: It’s amazing how everyone is on the same page about that. It’s so great!
LL: Yeah. I haven’t really met any street artists that have been an asshole to me.

SD: That’s great. But I saw a comment on Instagram where you said that you find it easier to connect with graffiti writers than with newer street artists?
LL: Maybe as people…

SD: Why is that?
LL: Graffiti seems more like a dangerous, people-you-wouldn’t-want-to-mess-with type of thing. That’s just a stereotype, I guess, but from seeing graffiti on the subway trains in New York City in the 1970s, it seemed like a dangerous, badass thing. Like, these guys are kinda scary. And I still think graffiti is like that today. Some of these graffiti artists, you don’t want to fuck with. But then a lot of the street artists, it’s almost like… arts-and-crafts-y. Not to take away from any of their art! I don’t want to sound like I’m talking shit on the street artists, cause I’m pretty much doing the same thing.

SD: So why do you feel more of a kinship with the scary side of it?
LL: I just feel more comfortable, and like I connect more with those types of people, because I come from a working-class background. It just seems a little tougher.

SD: Interesting. Have you ever done graffiti?
LL: No, I don’t think I could ever do it. I think it takes a huge talent to do that kind of stuff. It amazes me how these writers can do what they do in such a short amount of time. The speed is impressive. Some of those guys are amazing artists, and I have no idea how they do it.

SD: Well, I don’t think you should sell yourself short! I bet if you put your mind to it, you could do it. But I totally understand not wanting to do it for other reasons!
LL: No, I feel like I’m cheating, almost, cause I’m taking my time at home doing this stuff, and then going out and hanging it up.

SD: What do you mean? Like it’s cheating that you don’t have to do it at the spot?
LL: Yeah, I can take my time at home. These take me awhile to do [gestures to a piece he just installed]. These are more crafted pieces that I kind of just give away. I could probably sell that online for a hundred bucks, but you know, at least people are going to see it here. I have a little electric saw I use to cut everything by hand, and a yardstick and pencil to mark everything off. Then I spray paint prime it and spray paint a few coats and different colors onto it, and then stencil it. It takes time to make that.

SD: The gradient is really impressive!
LL: Yeah, I’m trying to bring more color into some of my stuff. I’d like to try to get away from the coffins and do more things that pop a little bit more like this—I think they would get noticed more in the street.

SD: Mm-hmm. I remember spotting your relatively-new piece, the “ain’t it a shame” one, recently, and it really popped!
LL: That was an experiment to see how something like that would go. I didn’t get that great of a response on it though.

SD: Really! It’s in a high-traffic spot!
LL: People just like those coffins. I’ll never stop doing the coffin—I’ll always have a few new ones every couple months. But now I’ll only make two of them—one to put on the street, and one to sell. Whereas before I would make multiples—six or eight of them at a time.

SD: I’m sorry you feel so chained to those.
LL: I don’t feel chained to them—I just think I’ve done it for so long, I don’t want to get stuck in that rut, you know? And be known just for that.

SD: Well I love these two pieces you just installed.
LL: Thanks.

SD: So getting back to your thoughts on street art… it sounded like you’re not necessarily thrilled with how newer street artists approach things. What do you think new artists should be doing differently?
LL: There’s a lot of art that I think gets a lot of recognition that isn’t as carefully made as what I do. Maybe it’s like a sense of jealousy that I’m not getting recognized as much… Because I have been doing it for a long time, and just want my stuff to go to the next level.

SD: So you want to get to ground level. Haha!
LL: Haha, yeah. I just want to see stuff that’s—I like really bold, bright pieces, that stand out. I would like to see more installations like I do. People don’t really hang stuff in the street like I do. Can you think of anyone else that does those sorts of paintings?

SD: Uh… Well, Die Slow has done a fair number…
LL: There was the guy doing those baby heads…

SD: Yeah, Dr. Ceroz.
LL: I don’t know if he does it anymore.

SD: Pnub has one gumdrop I can think of. Garbage Grease has done a couple. But yeah, no one does it as their main thing, the way you do, that I can think of.
LL: I guess it’s a good thing that no one else is doing it—it sets me apart, in some sense!

SD: D.T. has been doing a fair number recently. I really like his stuff—it’s totally abstract and really brightly colored. He’ll sometimes have like, bike gears and metal pieces attached?
LL: [Looking at Instagram] Oh yeah, I’ve seen this. It’s definitely different, and strange! It’s more artistic. I like text, and things that are really slam-you-in-the-face. My biggest inspiration is ESPO—Steve Powers.

SD: Yeah, I can see that!
LL: I feel like I rip off a lot of his stuff!

SD: Hahaha! No, you just rip off punk musicians!
LL: ESPO and punk musicians. Haha! But, I mean, have you ever rode the El in West Philly? His stuff is everywhere. It’s all text. He has that one big thing down on like 21st and Dickinson—it’s pink. It says like “a seed will grow…”

SD: Oh, yeah—“…we are the root and the seed.”
LL: Yeah. He’s my favorite artist of all time, and probably one of my biggest inspirations. He had a pop-up shop on 8th and Chestnut, maybe 10 years ago, but his stuff sells for big money now. He’s been doing murals all over the world—Baltimore, Dublin… everywhere. He’s a really cool, down-to-earth kind of guy. And I think he’s brilliant. His stuff is so simple, but sometimes simpler is better. That’s what I try to do.

SD: Is that where you want to take your work in the future? Traveling around the world, painting murals?
LL: I don’t think I could paint a mural! That seems hard to do. I just don’t know how to pull it off. I’m so impatient—everything I do, I need to get done as soon as I think of it. That’s why I like making zines, because I can just do it myself with a copy machine. Write something, make it, have it done in like one day. It’s the same with the stencils. I’ll have the idea, cut it out… I can cut the wood and just paint it and it’s ready to go.

SD: That’s so funny, because I wouldn’t think of that as being an immediate thing. You were saying it takes so much time! But I guess if you just do it right away…
LL: Once I get the idea and I figure out what I want to do, I just pump it out. With all my work. I have a pin press, I have a screen print, and a copy machine, and that’s all I need. I don’t really use any type of computer—it’s pretty much all analog. I think I have a sickness—some type of compulsion. The only thing I use a computer for is to print text out.

SD: That’s definitely something that sets you apart in your process.
LL: I don’t know if people understand that so much! But I want to concentrate and get more things done this year and put more stuff out in the street. Last year, I didn’t put as much out as I have in the past. I don’t know if anyone notices that it’s missing or not… But I want to try to do some different stuff. Besides the coffins.

SD: Well we can’t wait to see it!
LL: Thanks.

SD: Lastly, of course, what’s your lunch order at Tattooed Mom?
LL: The vegan pickle fried chicken sandwich. And the barbecued tots. That’s what I’ll get pretty much every time.

SD: Thanks for coming here straight from work to talk with me!

Low Level’s work is available on his website or on Etsy.

PHILLY: Join Tattooed Mom’s for “Call Me,” a Valentine’s Day group show and funhouse experience on February 14th starting at 6pm! There will be art for viewing (and purchase) from Low Level, Lauren Cat West, Porous Walker, Billy SandersCaitlin McCormack, and Adam Wallacavage!

The event will also offer an entire floor of exciting and romantic visual wonders including a “A Tunnel of Love,” swan boats, and an adorable Valentine’s Day cocktail… Don’t miss it, learn more now here!

Read past articles from our Philly Street Art Interviews series by clicking the artists name: Hope HummingbirdFaithsFunnnBob Will Reign, and Taped Off TV.

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