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Philly Street Art Interviews: Fear as Inspiration, with Sticker Artist As Above So Below

January 9, 2020

Welcome to Season 3 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. (Photos also by Eric Dale.)

What are you afraid of? Death? Fake news? The paranormal? From ghosts to government conspiracies, As Above So Below is trying to keep that fear in your subconscious—not to scare you, but to help you recognize it and face it.

Featuring a creepy character and odd little phrases, As Above’s stickers have been contributing to the gritty aesthetic of Philadelphia street art for a decade now. Their creator has too: even before he was As Above So Below, he put on several shows for the Sticky Bandits sticker crew at a bar where he used to work. Now, he’s a fixture at Philadelphia street art events and shows.

We sat down recently to talk about fear, conspiracy, the occult, and sticker art. So open your mind to the unexplainable, and read on!


 
Streets Dept’s Eric Dale: Thanks for coming by for an interview!
As Above So Below: My pleasure.

SD: So first of all, I want to give you props for being a pillar of the sticker art community. After 10 years on the scene, you’re still constantly making hand-drawn stickers, actively trading and collaborating with other artists, and showing up to help out with Characters Welcome and other events. What has kept you going?
AASB: Community, I think. The introduction of social media is a big part of it. Before there was that style of internet connection, there was, like, AOL rooms—I mean, even 4chan existed before then too—but it wasn’t to any pinpointed area. It wasn’t until Instagram, where hashtags to a certain city would open up other people’s work.

That and hoofin’ it, too, and recognizing things. I had an eye for that stuff, every since I was a kid. I would take a trolley to 69th Street, and then from 69th Street I would take the Market-Frankford, and I would see all the rooftops. And as a kid, it was like wooaaah, look at that one. And it was right by the old Sears building—they destroyed it—but there was like SUROC, RAZZ… all these old, really hard-hittin,’ kinda post-Cornbread-ish era, like, late 80s–early 90s type of stuff. Yeah, I was obsessed with that.

And then of course the whole South Street culture, being here when you’re a 16-year-old buying your first bowl, and 7-inch record, and pair of Doc Martens. Hahaha! It’s definitely not the street it used to be. It’s kinda sad. It’s symbiotic with the whole technology thing: for everything that social media opened up for art, at the same time, e-commerce destroyed retail. So the technology giveth, and the technology taketh away.


 
SD: Your artist name is quite unusual—in its length, and that it’s a phrase—how did you come to be called As Above So Below?

AASB: Interest in the occult. Hermeticism; the idea that everything in the heavens is that on Earth and vice versa. For everything in this dimension, something else affects it in another… It’s weird—some of the first times I ever sticker tagged was after I had a paranormal experience in a cemetery. I can go into that now if you want…?

SD: Sure, yeah!
AASB: So yeah, back in the day, all those ghost shows were popular—Ghost Adventures, Ghost Hunters… I used to watch that shit. So I was watching those shows, and they had the same software I had that I used for music production, making weird electronic stuff. I was like they’re just using a regular microphone, so I took my iPhone 4s, at the time… and the topnotch microphone that you can get on the market is built into the iPhone, so I used it for field recording.

I go into Laurel Hill Cemetery, I put my hands in mausoleums, and I read off names on the mausoleum walls, and I just go about my way. It was just a day in the cemetery with my girlfriend—

SD: Why were you doing that in the first place?
AASB: Just to mimic what they did on the show! Basically, I was like if they’re gonna do this, I’m gonna try it at home. Cause as I said, I had the same software—you create a WAV file, you take the WAV file, you put it into the software, you process it, and you can see physical spikes from where you’re talking. And then the spots in between are dead air—silence between where your voice is not talking.

And knowing that no one’s around, you record. And the thing is, at the time, I didn’t know I recorded anything. It wasn’t until I got home—I put my headphones on, I go into the software, and I hear what was talking back to me. And I’ve replicated this a hundred times. And that’s what made me do it—these shows do it all the time—pulling voices out of thin fucking air. And you can get intelligent responses. So that was life-changing. I was, like, a post-catholic, atheist, kind of punk kid who all of a sudden was believing that there is something out there. So that paranoia kind of flooded into my street art as well, because my first flood of stickers was like “ghosts exist.” And then I started doing “ghostsexist” as all one thing but it looked like “ghost sexist.” Hahaha!

But that one little thing gave me a little fire under my ass, and that also tied in with the other occult stuff I was getting into at the time—like, I was making noise music. There was another street artist who was making noise music/street art at the time. His name was Oneiric Emperium [later known as Viva Lux]. Weird dude—kind of like your crusty punk… he’d always have a shaved head, all black, but that guy got UP. Because he was mostly train hopping and doing West Philly kind of things. But he used to do these amazing wheatpastes. He used to do large, huge graffiti pieces, and he had his own style which was almost based off D&D. But this guy was really into the occult in his music and his street art, and I started getting into that aesthetic as well, because I was making my own form of noise music. It’s all attached to my As Above So Below profile. There’s a group Pork Tamer I was part of. That was a duo—we played for eight to nine years in Philadelphia. We played all kinds of weird shows. We opened for MC Chris from Adult Swim, we’ve opened for Xiu Xiu, even back when North Star Bar—Tritone was there… but once again, Philly is not the scene it was.

…Where was I?


 
SD: You were incorporating the occult into your stickers…
AASB: Oh yeah! So yeah, the paranoia of the occult… And “as above so below” is more of an occult statement.

SD: What does that mean?
AASB: As I said: everything in the heavens is that on Earth. It’s the belief that everything in this world is that of the next. But also it’s ridiculous because it’s so long for a tag. So I chose it [because] I’m tired of everybody doing four or five letters. I was just in northern Spain, and their graffiti scene is ridiculous in Spain! Like every square inch of anything abandoned is tagged up. It’s a mimicry of the American style, but everything is four to five letters. Characters are almost nil. And I was thinking why doesn’t anybody do, like, a full sentence? Has anybody ever done a paragraph? Haha!

SD: You’re making me think of UnderWater Pirates, where he’s like ‘man, I like this name, but it’s too long. I’m just gonna do UWP.’
AASB: Well I used to joke about that one band, And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead… Or Godspeed You! Black Emperor… hahaha!

SD: What do people think of your character? Is he a zombie, or just a creepy dude…?
AASB: It’s kind of a blank expression, but he’s not dead; he’s not alive… He’s kind of got a big bulbous head… and the overbite is kind of a big thing—never done an underbite. [Garbage Grease and I] were just joking about it—[he] was laughing cause his character has an underbite and then mine has an overbite.

But nah, he’s just, like, a geekin’, sweaty, gross… I would even say it would be a tribute to—what’s the guy who did Ren & Stimpy—Kafuski [sic]? [John Kricfalusi] would do those extreme close-ups where you see zits, pores, hairs, and everything would be extra textured and gross. But his style of art—he always drew women sexy and he always drew men disgusting. And I always loved that close-up of his, where he showed all the gross pimples, zits, exposed gums, teeth… It was nasty. So I was always inspired by that. I would say also a little bit of that West Coast, like, late 90s Juxtapoz Magazine style. I would say there’s a little bit of Rat Fink in my style. And that’s an artist [Ed “Big Daddy” Roth] who did all that rally car artwork. It’s like outsider art back in the 60s and 70s.

SD: You’ve previously said that your stickers are meant to represent fear and the paranormal. Why do you focus on those themes?
AASB: Well, I would just say general fears. It’s not focused on anything, it’s just the paranoia of the time. Towards 2012, I was writin’ stuff about how weird comments are gonna come and destroy the planet, cause, you know, I’m sourced with all the weird information and misinformation [that is] the Internet. I mean, that’s a big part of our political landscape now—fake news and what we absorb. I am definitely a product of what I have absorbed, but I’m definitely interested in other people’s weird and paranormal experiences.

So as I said, it’s a reflection of whatever [people] fear at the time. So a lot of my stickers even reflect the idea of societal collapse. We may very well be in the middle of a civil war as we speak. So I wouldn’t say it’s any paranormal fear, it’s just fear in general. And this is a good way of expressing it and making it visible for other people to have their own fear. Hahaha! I hope something sits in somebody’s subconscious. I don’t know if people, like, glare at my images, but it definitely resonates with people who have seen it.


 
SD: Do you think there’s value in feeling and experiencing fear?
AASB: Oh, of course! It’s like the Dune quote: ‘fear is the mind-killer.’ But recognizing what your fears are is the first step to overcoming ‘em, I guess. If I can implant that fear into someone’s subconscious… they’ll recognize it when the time comes, I guess.

SD: So what fears are you trying to implant?
AASB: I don’t know, I guess the same counter fears that are implanted on their own. The news does exactly the same thing. I mean, my own family has the impression that Philadelphia is a murdering, raping, pillaging, Pirates-of-the-Caribbean-style village. And I’m like no, come down, let’s have dinner! They’re like I saw on the news someone got shot! And it’s true—statistically speaking, all those things are happening around us. I mean, I signed up for the Citizen app, and I’m terrified of my own neighborhood now. But fear is a product of what keeps things in check.

Even advertisements put fears in people’s minds—body fears, body shaming… Street art is in competition with actual trained, psychologically driven ads. I mean, they’re everywhere. You know? And the Kool cigarettes and the Newports—why are they only in certain neighborhoods? You don’t see Colt .45 ads on the Main Line… You see that everything is affecting you and everything is a form of fear or joy. And that’s all I’m playin’ at.

SD: Why do you think there’s so much creepy street art in Philly?
AASB: Hmm. Philadelphia is a creepy city! I mean, it’s one of the oldest… a lot of fucked-up shit happened here. I mean, I’ve been in Fort Mifflin—very haunted place; I’ve worked in Old City at some historical location, and that was a very haunted place… Even some of the old hardcore bands—Ink and Dagger from Philadelphia is a hardcore band, very popular, but their whole motif is the idea of psychological vampirism. It was a very Philly-pride-ish kind of hardcore band, but even they were kind of a creepy vibe. I don’t know—it’s a good question!

SD: Cause it does seem like there’s a lot, right?
AASB: Well, we’re halfway between the Sodom and Gomorrah of New York, and the abyss that is the political capital of D.C., so maybe being drawn between those two negative forces gives us our own identity.

SD: Haha! I like that theory. A while back, I remember you asking your Instagram followers about their favorite conspiracy theories. Is that where you get some of the phrases you use on your stickers?
AASB: Oh yeah. That was more of a poke at where people are at in their own fears. It’s kind of interesting, because, at the time, it was stuff like extra dimensional creatures… Some people have night terrors, where they have sleep paralysis and they see shadow people. And I know a lot of people who are experiencing that as we speak, every night. They actually have to take medication that will put them into a deeper sleep quicker, because otherwise they will be awake, yet paralyzed. There’s a documentary called The Nightmare—fantastic!


 
SD: Are there any conspiracy theories that you subscribe to or believe in?
AASB: Oh, I heard a good one recently; that the Trumps are time travelers.

SD: Ha! From the future or the past?
AASB: Uh, I forget, but a lot of it is alluded to in how Back to the Future 2 is kind of almost all coming to fruition? Even that sneaker design made it out into the public… But when Marty McFly goes into the future, Biff accidentally got the sports almanac, so basically he had every sports result, so he bet and became the richest and most powerful man in the world. So fast forward to where we’re at now—Biff was painted to be a Trump. They even made his house like Trump Tower, they gave him a fake wig like Trump, [so maybe this is] Hollywood trying to tell us Donald Trump is a time traveller. Hahaha! Not really, but at the same time, it’s so much fun to read about it.

The other good one is skinwalkers—this one’s a good one. In northern Utah, famous people—there’s actually a famous billionaire who’s funding research on this one ranch—he’s already lost millions on it because it’s been a giant fiasco, because of the results. Things are disappearing… Even the famous singer Robby Williams, he’s now onto the chase with all this, but they believe that this one area of northern Utah, which was avoided by Mormons, Native Americans—and now the U.S. Government is starting to get their dips in there—but paranormal things have been happening, where cattle have been dissected perfectly, completely stripped to the bone, or chunks would be taken out at random. There’s been accounts of where whole pens of cattle would be shoved into a locker, like, stacked on each other, and locked inside a locker without anyone knowing about it or hearing it. There’s been lights in the sky… The idea is that creatures called skinwalkers, Native American witches, have power over this realm of some sort, but they’re basically getting all these creepy results in northern Utah. And this is all documented.

It’s like when can I take off the tin hat? Because all this shit is happening now in the digital age, with recordings—even with all these ghost voices, there are a billion ghost voices recorded, yet there’s no acknowledgement from the scientific community that there are results like this. So at one point, how much of this is suppression, how much of this is fantasy? You can say things are pareidolia to a certain degree, but the scientific method states that if you get results…


 
SD: What about the latin? ‘Omnia ab uno, ordo ab chao’…
AASB: Oh, ‘ordo ab chao’ is order from chaos, and ‘omnia ab uno’ is all from one.

SD: Are those also occult phrases?
AASB: No, just latin phrases in philosophy, the idea that everything comes from one singularity… That all matter that we have around us is formed from one thing that exploded at one point… Every little piece of matter, every ferrous metal, every bit of hydrogen and helium, everything in the periodic table, everything that makes up reality that’s vibrating matter, is all from one little pft. So everything’s your brother.

SD: I’ve noticed that you tend to put your stickers up in the same spots over and over again, sometimes even going over your own older stickers. Why is that?
AASB: Just upkeep and traffic. There’s only so many places you can put a sticker, unfortunately, and I try to adhere to at least some code of placement, where I’m not damaging a business. [The City of Philadelphia], not so much, haha, but at the same time, I also could sleep at night knowing that most of my stickers are a temporary form of art, that over time they will degrade and fade and peel, or someone will scrape it; the buffman comes through and buffs it… So yeah, I guess to keep up on the traffic in certain areas. The Italian Market is probably where you’ve seen most of that because I also go to the Italian Market often.

SD: I guess it just seems like a behavior that I haven’t seen anyone else doing, really.
AASB: That’s one thing I’d like to call out with most people on the sticker scene: a lot of sticker artists are infatuated with the whole Instagram aspect of it, and not enough being UP. Like, I’m glad I see your picture is vector graphic-ed and put up on an image board; I’m glad you have a drawing of it on your drawing desk or in an envelope sittin’ there in your hand, but I want to see more pictures of your shit up!

SD: I keep hearing that.
AASB: Yeah. Like, that’s great you have this 18-person long collab… Put it up! Almost every one of my pictures I’ve posted is something that I’ve mounted myself and put up. [That’s related to why I’m] not keeping a sketchbook—I had an incident with my artwork. So I studied graphic design and such for a little bit of college. Dropped out, studied communications after that, but while I was in there, I accrued quite a portfolio of work, digital and physical.

[The house I was living in] was off of City Line Avenue, like West Philly toward Overbrook. And I was making out with this girl on the third or fourth floor, and I picked her up and I sat her on a sink, and the sink just broke, and water shot to the ceiling in a very comedic, delicatessen movie-style scene, of like, me holding back water… And it flooded the whole house—it destroyed every floor of the house, because we didn’t know how to turn the water off. I lived in the basement, and it flooded the basement all the way up to the waist. And it destroyed everything I’d ever owned.

I used to go to Barnes & Noble and get hardcover blank sketchbooks and fill them nonstop. Ideas, concepts, sketches, early versions of my character and such. But all of that was gone, so it was like what the fuck’s the point of having a sketchbook when I can sketch something, take a picture of it, and put it up? Then I’ll always have it there. So not so much owning something in the physical. That’s why I can draw 100 of these and crumple them up in front of me and be like whatever. As long as I have a photo of it, I’m completely comfortable with it. So it’s another way of keeping tabs on my work. This is a form of artwork too—taking the photo.

That’s the other thing—it’s an open source artwork—anybody can approach this.

SD: I’ve never heard it described that way, but it totally is.
AASB: You have a sharpie and a free sticker that you have to go get at the post office. Boom, you’re an artist. But it all depends on how much work you put into it, like everything else. I’ve seen lots of concepts come and go, and I’m proud of every one of them.

I also love the community itself. Everybody kind of supports each other. Just this Sunday, I was hanging out with Kyle Confehr at Tiny Room for Elephants. He hosted a little sticker jam there. We all showed up, we traded resources, it was kind of like a knitting circle. Everyone was sitting around, listening to the radio, drinking soda pop… Yeah, it’s a community in its own, but it’s a very affordable community when it comes to art. A lot of art has a huge price tag or investment. You want to become a printmaker? That’s gonna be a couple hundred dollars. You want to get into fuckin’ silver gelatin photography? You’re looking at maybe a couple grand! And that’s not even including the classes, the studio time—ceramics! That’s a whole other one.

SD: Or even just painting! Any type of painting!
AASB: Painting, yeah! So just illustration on free materials is like—I think any income can approach it. Blue collar, white collar, gray collar, all of ‘em.

SD: What’s gray collar?
AASB: It’s somewhere in between.

SD: Did you just make that up?
AASB: Yeah, I just made that up! Haha.


 
SD: What do you think about the current state of Philly sticker art?
AASB: It ebbs and flows. It’s constantly up, but right now I think it’s in a waning position. Even my own interests—I don’t get the traffic I used to. But at the same time, you see everybody else that comes through this city—it’s a four to eight year plan for most people, and then they bounce off, because this is a big college town. You’ll see somebody come through, probably graduate in graphic design, got a job or two, worked in a bar, then he bounces out to oh… Memphis, or New York, I don’t know. I always feel like a lot of people aren’t puttin’ down the same roots as the art community. The ones that have are the ones you see, like myself. I haven’t gone anywhere because I live here. Haha!

SD: Alright, I want to do a quick-fire round. I’m gonna say a phrase you’ve written on a sticker, and you tell me what it means to you or why you wrote it.
AASB: Alright.

SD: ‘Monsters are metaphors.’
AASB: ‘Monsters are metaphors’ is close to Francisco Goya’s The Sleep of Reason Brings Demons [sic].

SD: ‘Empty vessels ring true.’
AASB: That is a line from the band Coil. I think it was in the song Red Queen, and it resonated with me. Like, the more empty the vessel is, the louder it is.

SD: ‘Think outside the tesseract.’
AASB: The tesseract is the impossible box. So it’s the box beyond the box. A box is a 3D cube, and the tesseract is a multidimensional cube, so basically that’s the next step of thinking outside the box—thinking outside the tesseract.

SD: ‘Creatures from other dimensions watch you sleep.’
AASB: That one’s self explanatory! That’s more of a statement.

SD: ‘Fluoride turns your pineal gland to stone.’
AASB: That is something I read recently—the idea that the introduction of fluoride into water systems will calcify or leave calcium deposits in the pineal gland in the brain, which is the seat of human consciousness in a lot of beliefs, including Descartes, the philosopher. So the idea that the human consciousness is being calcified is kind of a weird, creepy idea. That maybe it’s a bit of a mind control thing.

SD: And ‘Donald Trump has a time machine made by Nikola Tesla.’
AASB: Hahaha! That goes back to what I said earlier. Some of these are copy and pasted from some great internet conspiracy blogs. Look it up! Google that!


 
SD: What’s your lunch order at Tattooed Mom?
AASB: Every time, I definitely get—surprisingly—the Vegan Pickle Fried Chickn Sandwich.

SD: Why surprisingly?
AASB: Because I’m still amazed that that tastes like real chicken.

SD: Ha! Well thanks for doing this!
AASB: Yeah!

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PHILLY: Join Tattooed Mom for The Sabbath: Metal Dive Drag Brunch on January 18 starting at 2PM (21+)!

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Hosted by Retrograde Productions with Performances by Ron Binary, Yari, Mercury, Lorna Doom, and Samantha Genesis… Learn more now here!

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Read past articles from our Philly Street Art Interviews series by clicking the artist’s name… Season 1: Hope HummingbirdFaithsFunnnBob Will ReignTaped Off TVLow LevelVoid Skulls… Season 2: Kid HazoUnder Water PiratesSymone SalibSEPER, Morg!

2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 9, 2020 10:34 pm

    My favorite street artist! I call that toothy guy Mr. Silly.

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  1. Philly Street Art Interviews: Hysterical Men Depicts the Female Experience by Subverting Sexist Language | Streets Dept

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