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Philly Street Art Interviews: Through Thick and Thin, Under Water Pirates Continues to Evolve

June 5, 2019

(Photos by Streets Dept Contributor Eric Dale)

Welcome to Season 2 of 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.

With nearly 15 years under his belt (or, should I say, beanie), Under Water Pirates is a true OG of Philadelphia sticker art. Since day one, he and his sticker crew, known as 33, have abided by several values that are core to all forms of street art: quality, innovation, and dedication. Just last month, he received a well-deserved acknowledgement of his achievements when he was featured (together with New York’s Jayel) in Tattooed Mom’s Sticky Art Machine, curated by Bob Will Reign.

Unfortunately, the hand-drawn stickers of Under Water Pirates, or UWP, have become a rare sight in Philly. In the artist’s own words, “you have a better chance of seeing Bigfoot than one of [my stickers] nowadays.” It’s not due to a lack or interest or time, though. Ironically, the thing slowing him down now is the chronic pain that brought him to sticker art in the first place. But regardless of how bad the pain is, UWP is still drawing, still evolving, and still—when he can—stickering.

Streets Dept’s Eric Dale: Let’s start with your origins. The story I’ve heard is that you got into stickers when you were stuck in bed after a skateboarding injury—is that true?
Under Water Pirates: Yeah. I skated my whole life, and I was, like, getting sponsors and doing contests with local skate shops and all my buddies that I grew up with, and we started traveling around and all this shit… I started getting some shoes from iPath—nothing crazy, but, you know, you had to supply them with videos. We were filming for… maybe a skate shop video? Anyway, I broke my foot trying to crooked grind this handrail. I didn’t go and get it checked out; you know, you just figure shit’ll heal up and it will feel better in a month. And in a month of trying to, like, hobble it off, I totally blew out my other arch. So basically, by the time I went and got it checked out, I had ripped my arches off of my heel bones. The doctor was basically like don’t walk for six months, and it will be ok-ish. And now I have these inserts, and nerve damage, and can’t skate anymore…

So anyway, yeah, I was in bed, doing nothing. My sister, Ticky—she worked at CVS, and brought me home Sharpies and labels that were in the clearance section. And was just like draw on these! And then I could stick them for you! Coming from skateboarding, it seemed like holy shit, why have I never made my own stickers before, you know?

SD: Had she already become Ticky?
UWP: No—she was always way more into art and drawing and painting than I was, and I think that with me sitting around for so long, she kind of started hanging out with me to keep me company, so she got back into drawing. So I think it was like her noticing whoa, we could draw on these [together]. So I started drawing, and once my feet got a little better and I could start hanging out with my friends, we would put stickers up. And then she was like if you’re gonna do it… You know?

SD: That sounds like a nice bonding experience!
UWP: Yeah, definitely! We were always friends, and tight, and I think that time period really solidified that we happened to be brother and sister, but we were best friends.

SD: Had you been drawing before you were stuck in bed?
UWP: Yeah. I always drew. Even as a little kid, I would watch The Simpsons and try to draw Bart along with it. When I was in high school, I went for advertising, arts, and design at this vocational school, so we had to keep a sketchbook. But that was more like, you had to draw a bowl of fruit, or you had to sketch a portrait, and I couldn’t do that, so in my brain, I was like I can’t fuckin’ draw. I can draw Bart Simpson, but that isn’t worth shit. I liked the idea of doing art, but I didn’t do art. I never even thought of going to college, or anything like that.

SD: Where does the name “Under Water Pirates” come from?
UWP: Well, now I’m not sure if I actually saw it on TV or if I dreamt it, but I remember there was this story of this sunken ship off this little island. The military from somewhere sent out people to dive down and bring all this shit up, like the treasures or documents. So they get all the way out there, and they put on all their SCUBA suits, and they dive way down, and there’s these little kids down there, just holding their breath, like, putting shit in their pockets and in bags and swimming all the way back up to the top to these little boats, where they’re putting their stuff, holding their breath and then swimming all the way [back] down. That’s just what they did, the natives of this island. They’ve always done that. So the military people referred to them as “underwater pirates.” And I just thought that that was like the coolest name ever. These little kids [were showing that] you don’t need all this shit to make something happen. I just really liked the name, and the ring to it. But I don’t know if I dreamt it or saw it on the History Channel!

SD: Tell us about your character.
UWP: I don’t know where to start! Well, he doesn’t have feet or legs, because I’ve messed up my feet and legs, so I just didn’t want anything to do with it. He doesn’t have a nose because I couldn’t draw noses when I started drawing. The big fat arms are actually supposed to be like big flat flippers, I guess like a fish has fins. Kind of like a flipper/fin. And a big beer gut. Really, I thought that if they sat like that on the bottom of the ocean, they would kind of just move the way seaweed would, and then if they’re up on land, they would kind of sludge around the way slugs do. The hat-type of beanie thing is literally just because I wear a beanie or a hoodie all the time. So I figured if I wear it all the time, they should wear it all the time.

SD: So is it a representation of you then?
UWP: I think it didn’t mean to be, but it kind of turned out that way. When I started drawing, I couldn’t draw what I wanted to draw. If it was up to me, I would be drawing realistic skulls and demons and all that, but I can’t do that stuff. I can do, like, cartoony-lookin’ character things. It was the best, I guess, I could do at the time.

SD: You were the founding member of the 33 crew, right? That would have been the second sticker crew in Philly?
UWP: Yeah. NBC was before us.

SD: Oh! I thought that Sticky Bandits was the first one!
UWP: No, NBC—News Bin Cartel. Sticky Bandits kind of evolved after. But yeah, I started 33. The original people were me, Soma, CZR, and Ticky. That was 33. Sticky Bandits kind of evolved from, like, the people in both crews. Some people kind of moved on, some people kind of went a different route with their artwork at the time, and I think the ones that were like we’re still puttin’ stickers up every day and we still wanna do sticker shows kind of merged together.

SD: So 33 and NBC merged to become Sticky Bandits?
UWP: Pretty much, yeah. It was just power in numbers, really. It was like why are we competing with each other if we’re the only ones really doing it? Now, I think stickers get way more credibility and way more respect. [But back then, it was weird, because] graffiti artists, at the same time that they didn’t respect any of the sticker artists (in my opinion), they still did stickers! But if you put stickers up, writers were gonna go over them. They just were. I think over time, we realized we’re all competing against each other, AND we’re competing against the graffiti guys. All for space, all for recognition; why don’t we fuckin’ group up and stop going over each other?

SD: Wait, were the two crews going over each other’s stickers?
UWP: I don’t think we were really going over each other, but there was friendly competition, definitely. I mean, I remember me and Ticky going out of our way to be like what color paper could we get that they don’t have? or what color spray paint can we use that they don’t have? Just any little thing to be inventive. Like, we’ll color half our sticker, spray it with paint, then outline it—just anything to be different. I think it’s Bob, though, that for real invented the inside stickers—on the inside [of the window] of the newsbin? That to me was like he’s a fuckin’ genius. So it wasn’t just a matter of you draw something and you go put it up. It was like quality, inventiveness.

SD: It sounds like it fostered a lot of innovation!
UWP: Yeah, definitely, definitely.

SD: I’m still a little unclear on the evolution of the crews then, because 33 is still around, and Sticky Bandits kind of isn’t, really. 33 is still a name that you see around—you know, #33isacult and all. So if 33 merged into Sticky Bandits…
UWP: Well, 33 has a lot of members to it. It was just the local Philly group of friends that were the ones from 33 that moved to Sticky Bandits. So it was just a couple of us that came from 33 to do Sticky Bandits. I think Sticky Bandits was formed more for the legitimacy of getting shows. We can say this is our art collective, and it features these guys, and da dada dada. With 33, there’s dudes on there like Werms Two—we’ve talked for a million years, but I’ve never actually met him face to face. I think it was just the core members of 33 and the core members of NBC that merged together to do the Sticky Bandits thing.

SD: What led you to form a sticker crew in the first place? And what have you gotten out of it?
UWP: Well really, it formed kind of weird. I went out with CZR one night to tag. I have the longest name ever, and this was pretty much the first time I was going out with him, like alright, we’re havin’ beers; we’re going out and doing this shit. The whole time leading up to that, I’m thinking what am I gonna write? Like, “UWP”? I suck at writing! I suck at tags! I can’t tag. What could I do? What could I do? And I originally had hurt my feet—like, the fall, the incident, was on March 3rd—so that’s 3/3. I was like ok, “thirty-three” rhymes with “UWP,” and I don’t see anybody else writing numbers… So I’m like ok, that would be different. I’ll just start writing these threes. By the week after, CZR was writing “33” on his stickers and Soma and Ticky were writing “33” on their stickers, and then the people that we knew, like Morg and Malic and Bloopa… You kind of start hearing around like what is this “33” thing? I liked that—I thought that was really cool that people noticed it at all. So I was like alright, that’s our crew! 33!

Over the years, it’s become respected and known, and people want to be in it. I get messages all the time. I can’t even answer all the messages. How can I get into it; what can I do; are there openings; is there an application? And it’s hard to answer because there’s no real answer. It’s like, somebody’s friends with somebody and you start talking. It’s the same way you end up meeting a friend or getting a significant other. It just kind of happens.

SD: Well, let’s answer all those people right now! How does one get into 33?
UWP: How does one get into 33… You kill it! Like, basically you’re not a carbon copy of every other thing out there. It’s not a matter of [whether] you can draw or paint the best. You don’t have to be the best. It’s a matter of… you’re getting recognition; you’re putting stuff up; you’ve been putting stuff up; you’re here now and you’re gonna be here three years from now. As you get more recognition throughout the sticker culture, you’re going to start talking to people, meeting people, traveling around, and that’s kind of how it happens. It’s really just about making an impact on sticker culture for no other reason than you love it and you want to. If the Internet shut down tomorrow, there’s no more paint markers, and adhesive labels fell off the planet; and you would still find a way to make stickers and go and put ‘em up, just to make your own self happy; then you’ll probably end up in 33.

SD: What impact do you think you’ve had on the sticker culture? Brag a little!
UWP: I use thick lines, and I use thin lines—really only two different sizes. And the thin lines started from where shading or cross-hatching would be, but they were also kind of to show maybe one layer was above another layer. I think, in a way, nobody did that before, and now a lot of people do that. I think I brought a little bit more detailing to it. And a lot of people learned how to draw a lot of different tongues from the tongues I was drawing.

SD: That’s funny! You do do a lot of funny mouth expressions.
UWP: Yeah, yeah. Man, what the hell did I bring to sticker culture…

SD: 20 years from now, when someone’s looking back on the career of UWP, what are they going to say about you?
UWP: I hope people recognize I tried to do a real healthy balance. The way traditional graffiti is, there’s like tags, and burners, and pieces, and throw-ups, and they’re kind of stocked on different levels. I think stickers should kind of follow that. You should have your basic, quick, easy-peasy sticker, but then you should also have your stickers that you spend an hour on. They’re both just as important, and they both should be put out there. So I hope years from now, people are like, he did a little bit of everything, and he busted his ass.

SD: That is fascinating! I love that concept of pieces, tags, burners, but for stickers.
UWP: I’ve always thought that.

For a while, me and Ticky, when we both still lived at home and we were doing stickers, there was this back office room that was kind of like my parents’ computer room, and it wasn’t being used, so we basically moved our sleeping bags into there, and took the desk that was there. We both didn’t have jobs, so we would drink coffee and make stickers, literally, for about a day, like 24 hours. Lay on the floor, go to sleep, wake up, go to the city, put them all up, come back, and do it again. That’s like, all we did, all we did, all we did, all we did. And we had a rule where you couldn’t go more than three days without going to the city to put stickers up, and you couldn’t have less than 200 stickers in your pocket. And with that, we would have it divided up: your back left pocket was just throw-ups, your front left pocket was throw-ups that were colored, your right front was like maybe you had colored it a little bit, and back right was the really good shit—like collabs and stuff.

And everybody used to order the DHL labels. So we would draw a bunch, go out, put ‘em up, and we would keep the backing on the roll intact, so when we came home, we’d set up collabs on it—we’d peel stickers and put them on the roll…

SD: So you don’t have to do the stupid fold-y thing?
UWP: Yep. So we’d put ‘em all on that, roll it all up, and then in your bag, you have like 20 different rolls to pull out. And that’s actually how Dash and Willy The Fool learned to do combos. We had started hanging out with them and going up, and Dash would be pulling one sticker out, peeling it… peeling it… We’re like WHAT are you DOING? You just *machine gun noise.* They were like holy shit, that’s ingenious. Hopefully, 20 years from now, people are like he was pretty inventive.

Man, I don’t know where this falls in, but I want to say that one of the big things is that when we started, there was a huge [amount of] trial and error. It wasn’t like you knew where to get the stickers. The first ones were these blank labels that Ticky bought and brought home with Sharpies. So we draw on those, and go put em up, and they fade in two weeks and fall off a week later. Now, kids can Google it. You can be like oh I need paint markers. Oh, not just paint markers, paint markers with Xylene—stays up the longest. There’s like specific brands that make labels for this. I think nowadays, you have a way better head start, in a way. But back then, that’s what was fun: learning it, and evolving it, and getting it to where it is. So hopefully in 20 years they’ll think of not just me—Ticky, and Toro, and Bob, and Nose, and all those guys, as the ones that fuckin’ figured that shit out, like, made it so other people could be like that’s how it’s done. We made the jumping-off point in a way.

SD: You used to write “UWP must die” or “UWP is dead” on your stickers. What was that about?
UWP: It’s still May, right? May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Basically that’s me dealing with my own depression, really. I think part of the gloominess of the pirates is that because I messed up my feet, I permanently have a disability. I’m always in pain. I’m going to be in pain now for the rest of my life. And that definitely brings you down a notch. When I wake up in the morning, I guess I’m starting at 70% where other people get to start at 100%, you know? So yeah, that’s just me really dealing with the depression of the change of life.

SD: And not being able to skate anymore.
UWP: Yeah, like, I had a whole plan—I’m gonna skate and ride this out; all my friends skateboarded, had started traveling, like I really thought…

And then you get knocked down, and you have to find this other way. The same way they say write a letter, get it out, talk to somebody, just get it off your chest, I think the stickers for me, in a big way, gets it off my chest. I can write whatever I want on a sticker, and put it up, and it’s gone. Just going out and leaving your mark all over the world, where maybe you’re not supposed to, it’s just a little bit of stabbing back at whatever. I got nobody to yell at for what happened to me, so I’m just kinda yelling at the whole world through it, I guess. I don’t think I’ve ever been too happy of a person, but I don’t think anybody should read one of those stickers and think like oh god, Under Water Pirates is going to kill himself. It’s definitely not that, but everybody doesn’t have to have a good day. You’re allowed to have a bad day. My stickers shouldn’t have a fuckin’ smile on them every time if I don’t have a smile, and I guess that goes back to how they’re like a representation of myself.

I think with the skateboarding, when I would go and do the contests and all that stuff, it is you. It’s your name being called; it’s everybody watching you; people might have heard your name before; there’s an expectation; there’s a performance; it’s all on you. With artwork, and the stickers, or even an art show with canvases, what I really like is that it’s not me. It’s that image, it’s that thing, it’s that name. Who put that there, or who drew that, or who made that [is a secondary thought]. The first thing is oh, look at that. That’s an Under Water Pirate. I like that—I like not having to be the person that’s out in front. It’s weird, because I want to stay in the back, but I still want to yell from the back, so I have the pirates yell it for me or something. But it really is therapeutic, I think, to draw a bunch, and throw ‘em all out.

Both my parents recognized that what I was doing at the time was a little bit destruction of property, but at the same time, I think they saw how much I as a person was benefiting from it. So they were like just keep making art, it’s really good. Me and Ticky used to go out for sticker runs at night. My mom would yell down the steps where you going? We’d be like Philly. She’d be like for what? We’re like stickers. She’s like bring your ID so they can identify the bodies.

But again, she didn’t stop us, cause she knew it was good for us. I think skateboarding did that for me—it was my release. And then not having it… I think the stickers [became my new] sort of release. Now though, over time, the nerve damage in my legs and in my feet is getting worse, and that’s why you see less and less and less stickers out. I can’t even take the walks that I used to take anymore. It’s funny, because this injury is what brought me to stickers, and I think this injury is also what’s gonna eventually take me out of stickers. I mean, I think I’m always gonna make stickers and put ‘em up, but these little kids that can, like, every day after school, run around, skate around—I’m so jealous.

SD: I’m sorry to hear that.
UWP: Thanks man. It’s been a weird trip. A weird run.

SD: Well yeah, you’ve been in the game for almost 15 years. I was going to ask what keeps you going, but it sounds like it’s more a matter of what’s keeping you from going.
UWP: Yeah, really. I mean, the want and the will is there. I’ve got shoeboxes of stickers at home. The stickers are made and they’re ready, it’s just that there are some days where I can’t get out of bed that well—I can just hobble around the house. And there’s other days that I could walk like 30 blocks. The problem with nerve damage is you never know when it’s gonna act up, and the pain from it. But bottom line, I always want to make stickers, and I’m always gonna put ‘em up. I have a niece who just turned five a couple months back. She grew up watching me draw stickers, and drawing with me, and coloring stickers that I’ve drawn for her, and I can’t wait to take her out to go stickering. I mean shit, if anything, nobody’s gonna give you trouble! That’s what I keep telling [a sticker artist friend of mine]! I’m like dude, you gotta take the stroller out! Cause a) it can block the news bin while you’re doing stuff, and b) nobody’s gonna arrest a dad!

SD: Plus, you can carry so many more stickers in the back!
UWP: Duuuuude, for real! I didn’t even think of that! Holy crap, man! Yeah, you could set that fucker up! That’d be great.

Anyway, it’s like anything else, you know? You get a job and the next thing you know you’re like holy shit, I’ve been here for five years. Time keeps going by. I couldn’t ever see myself stopping, and it’s really an addiction. I think once you do anything long enough, you can’t not do it. If I don’t draw for two or three days, everybody I know is like dude, fucking draw. You’re freaking out! You’ve had your coffee, you’ve had 12 cigarettes… I don’t know, I think it’s just something that has to happen. It’s just a thing that has to be done. It’s like those people you hear about with the addiction to jogging or running.

SD: So how have your character, style, and career evolved over the past 15 years?
UWP: Well, at first they were just the standard oval head with the big arms and the belly. I liked how Bob and Toro were a character and a logo at the same time. But then, eventually—there was this dude named Moose who was crazy at drawing. A Little Birdie, Nose, Fingaz… doing collabs with them dudes—like, they can fuckin’ draw. They can draw every which way, in any position, upside down… I was like ok, I have to at least learn how to take this character and move its arms, or make it look forward. The ones I do now, with the brim, and the hat, and the dude, and the mouth—that’s like the Toy Story version of the original [cartoon] ones. I don’t ever wanna stop doing the original ones. Some people are fans of that, and some people are fans of the evolved stuff. I think if you do anything long enough, you just can’t help but being like what would it look like if I try this.

SD: It makes me think of Google Doodles. Usually it’s the logo, but sometimes they switch it up—and it’s still Google, but a little different.
UWP: Yeah! I was worried at first, when I started doing it, that if I didn’t put “33” or “UWP” on there, were people going to know that I drew it? And Ticky was the first one that said you could draw anything—people at this point know what your lines look like. Don’t even worry about it. For the first couple years I was doing it, when I would go to art shows and meet new people, lots of people thought because it was named “Under Water Pirates,” it was already a crew or collective of people doing it, and that’s why some were drawn this way and some were drawn that way. I was like it’s just me! Just tryin’ somethin’ new!

But I definitely want to keep going. Dude, like the shit Toro’s doing is crazy. The figurines, and the poses, and the little animations, and the spoofs on the logos… I never called myself an artist—everybody else did. So that’s on you guys. But Toro is a for-real artist, with real ideas. So I look at [his work] and I’m like I gotta come up with somethin’! I want to keep going and keep evolving. I started doing these stretched-out heads this year, and at first I hated them, and now I like them. So I don’t know, in another ten years, another fifteen years, if I’m drawing, like, an upside-down mermaid that looks like a square or something; if that’s what it’s evolved to, I’m cool with it. The original logo we’re gonna keep, but everything else, we’ll just see what happens.

I wish I could remember the exact quote, but people with depression—like, the way that I talk to myself in my head? I wouldn’t be friends with somebody that talks to me like that, so why do I talk to myself like that? So I think I’ve really tried to look for things that I’m going to feel good about. Like, you’re the shit on that one. There’s really not much—drawing the pirates is like that one thing. So I definitely don’t want to cap it or draw the line anywhere. I just want to see what happens and let it keep going. Even this year, I started doing these wooden cutouts, which is just a little something different, and I wouldn’t have touched something like that before. Now, seeing Toro do these sculpture things, I’m thinking why not? Even if you fail at it, just try! Lots of times it’s weird to try something, and then two years later you’re like oh, that’s how it works. I guess I hope ten years from now we’re having another interview and you’re like what the fuck is this?

SD: What do you draw when you’re not drawing UWP?
UWP: I draw a lotttttt of letters and graffiti letters. I like drawing people’s names… Oddly enough, for a while, I was working at this jewelry store, and I would end up drawing the calligraphy names that we were engraving on people’s pendants. Last year, for a while, I had to, like, relearn cursive! So I kinda mess around with that? I’ve definitely filled up books trying to learn calligraphy. It’s something that I would definitely want to learn how to do. People make bank right now doing invitations and shit. That would be pretty sick.

SD: Now, we’re sitting here at Mom’s, I gotta ask: what’s your lunch order at Tattooed Mom?
UWP: It’d be a vegan cheesesteak, tater tots, and a Coca-Cola.

SD: Thanks so much for coming over to the city to chat with me!
UWP: Yeah, man!

______________________________________________________________________

Read past articles from our Philly Street Art Interviews series by clicking the artists name: Hope HummingbirdFaithsFunnnBob Will ReignTaped Off TVLow Level, Void Skulls, and Kid Hazo!

Y’all, and be sure to check out the Sticky Art Machine next time your at Tattooed Mom, they ALWAYS sell out quick so don’t wait!

 

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