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Philly Street Art Interviews: An Animated Conversation with El Toro, One of Philly’s First Sticker Artists

April 10, 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 by Eric Dale and Conrad Benner.)

A quick note on how COVID-19 is affecting Philly Street Art Interviews: as you probably know, this series is created in partnership with Tattooed Mom, the bar and restaurant that also serves as Philly’s unofficial official street art museum. Normally, we conduct all the interviews on location, so we can get photos of artists installing work there. Obviously, that’s no longer an option, so the remaining two interviews this season will take place over the phone. Today’s interview will appear normal, however, because it took place in January due to unrelated scheduling constraints.

With so many things on hold right now, we’re grateful to Mom’s for continuing to support Philly Street Art Interviews. If you find this post to be a valuable distraction from the news, please consider donating to the GoFundMe for Tattooed Mom’s staff (many of whom are artists!) And if you’re in the Queen Village/Bella Vista area, you should definitely order from their takeout/delivery menu!

Ok, on with the interview!

In the Philadelphia street art scene, El Toro is known to all as one of the first two sticker artists in Philadelphia (the other being previous interview guest Bob Will Reign). But sticker art isn’t the first medium he explored, and it certainly isn’t the last. Since childhood, art of all types has been an important part of El Toro’s life, whether it’s his career, his relationships, or his hobbies.

Happy to follow his artistic interests far beyond the edges of a 228 label, the El Toro character has experienced an extraordinary evolution over the years. From single-color, hand-drawn stickers, to full-color vinyl stickers, to large wheatpastes, to animations and even a plastic figurine, El Toro has taken the street art traditions of pushing boundaries and constantly experimenting to new levels.

What’s next for El Toro? Well, to become an icon, it seems! Read on to learn about El Toro’s future (and past!)

Streets Dept’s Eric Dale: I’m so glad we could coordinate this interview, with you now living in Los Angeles!
El Toro: Seriously, man! I think this is our… third try? Haha.

SD: Tell me if I’ve got this right: you started drawing when you were a kid, developed an interest in graffiti while growing up in New Jersey, started writing graffiti in college under the guidance of some old school Philly and New York writers, then switched to primarily drawing on stickers after being exposed to the European sticker scene on the early Internet and developing an interest in creating your own unique, recognizable mark.
ET: That is correct. I’m trying to figure out if the European scene came after or not. I don’t know! I was influenced by them, but I think it was just kind of like oh other people are doing this at the same time. It was really weird.

SD: Do you find it interesting how similar your background is to the evolution of Bob Will Reign? You’re almost always mentioned in the same breath. Why do you think you have such similar stories?
ET: I think it’s just a weird kinship, you know? We kind of have parallel paths, of being writers. I think that’s very important, as far as our approach and our mannerisms. We’re one layer away from graffiti, so we still have the same kind of codes and ethics, whether it be not going over any religious spots, making sure to have respect for writers… Cause we know we’re the bottom of the totem pole, if we want to exist and play in that field. So it’s that common respect. And then meeting each other, we were like oh, look at that, this is perfect, and we just motivated each other that way. But it is weird though—like step brothers.

SD: So I gotta ask, once and for all—who came first: Bob or El Toro? Or do you guys have a pact to never reveal who the true OG is?
ET: I have no clue. I think he definitely came up with the Bob character first. For me, I was doing other, like, weirder characters, that I was just trying out. I had one that had a stubby arm… A poop monster… Like, it was just me trying to explore this character-based graffiti art. I saw other people doing letters and then characters by their side, and I was like oh, I like that more; let me focus on that. It’s kind of my background, with cartoons and comics, so it was like yeah, this makes sense. So I had [some] other characters… and then I noticed Bob. Then something happened where I was like I think I should just make one, and then El Toro kind of evolved from there. But I was definitely drawing weirder shit—character-based, same postal stickers and that kind of stuff, but it wasn’t like Bob. I respected that he had a nice handstyle with his character. I was like oh shit, you can do both. So yeah, I have to credit him.

SD: You’ve put more work into experimenting with and evolving your character than pretty much any other sticker artist I know of. What are some of the ways El Toro has changed and expanded over the years?
ET: Man, I mean, I think he just grew up with me, you know? The more things I got exposed to, the more he grew. When I grew as a designer or artist, or as I was exposed to more media, I was like oh, it would be dope if El Toro did this. I just did one of those stupid Instagram filters, of “which princess are you?” I was like I think I can do that with El Toro, and I just made one. So I think with how malleable he is, and then just with my design background… I’m just exposed to everything. To video, to GIFs—I’ve been doing more with GIF-y stuff—animation… And I think a lot of that credit goes to California, and moving there. It was just more exposure to all these things.

SD: So El Toro is an empty vessel into which you’ve poured whatever you’re doing.
ET: Yeah! Yeah. He evolved from having ten or six teeth at one point, [and from being] a very square-headed block, to now a more uniform logo with four teeth, and then from there he evolved to a mouth cause I needed him to speak, to be more verbal and more expressive. And that’s when I was trying animation more, cause with animation, you need a mouth to move and speak. So there’s always more to play with.

I think a lot of these character artists are coming up with the same thing. I just heard Chris [Robots Will Kill] talk about this on his podcast, where Dalek, or any other bigger artist is like can I stop drawing this one thing? Like space monkeys—Dalek stopped drawing space monkeys at one point, cause all the people just want to see space monkeys, and he’s like no, I can do more stuff man, look at this! He stopped, and now he’s back, so it’s like oh, awesome, I love those things.

SD: That’s so interesting, because, like, Aviz has two characters, and UnderWater Pirates kind of has two different styles of his character, and Faith does narwals and cats, but she also started doing a different style of cat…
ET: Right, and then your style kind of just evolves with it…

SD: And then there’s the new stuff Bines has been doing…
ET: Exactly! Character-based, but on a weirder, more experimental level. I think once you get boxed in and known for that one thing, they just want to see that. Which makes sense—going to see your favorite musician, it’s like play the hits. I don’t want to see this new album nonsense! Just play the hits! I’m here for the hits.

SD: Haha yeah, that’s a good analogy. Speaking of evolving, you actually mentioned your desire to create a vinyl El Toro toy in an interview you did ten years ago. Where are you planning on taking El Toro over the next decade?
ET: Man, I think animation is my next foray, as far as trying to make him come alive. To have, like, a story. I’ve been definitely trying to craft a story with him. Again, just being more exposed to California and the illustrators there and animators—I’ve been to a bunch of conferences and extra classes here and there, [and I’m learning] how to tell this character’s story. I think in the future, I’d love to get some sort of short together, to make him alive! Cause he’s almost there. And then the toys and that kind of stuff just relates better. I think it’s less explaining. Who is that? What do you do? Just watch this. Done. Three minutes. My main thing, when I get asked about him, is you know Mickey Mouse or Bugs Bunny? He’s kind of like that for me. El Toro’s my Mickey Mouse. He can evolve, and he’s ageless.

SD: I’ve never thought about it that way! That’s so awesome!
ET: A lot of those cues—if you look at Mickey Mouse, you know the three circles. You know his shape, his silhouette. And that’s kind of like my character, where you have the two horns. That’s one of the things that I look upon. These old-school cartoons that I really love were very iconic, just because no matter what form they take—Bugs Bunny wearing a dress is still Bugs Bunny. Mickey Mouse as a sailor… all this stuff.

SD: And they also have a personality that is very uniform, which I would say El Toro has, for sure.
ET: Trying to—that’s definitely one of my goals. I think I like too many things? So it’s like alright, just narrow it down just a little bit more. But yeah, hopefully ten years…

SD: Well hey, you did it last time! Ten years ago, you said I’m gonna do a toy. And then—what was it—two years ago? You made that toy!
ET: Yeah, two years ago was when I got the prototype made, and now that I have the files and everything, I want to expand on it.

SD: What has been your most significant evolution as an artist? Is there any skill, technique, or medium that you think has advanced your work more than any other?
ET: Maybe Procreate, on the iPad. Every year, I have to archive all these sketches on paper, and it’s like ugh, god damn. There may be gems in here… I still like these sketches… Since buying an iPad and Procreate, I don’t have any more loose papers to archive! So that really helped. And then the animation I’m doing now is all on Procreate, for the GIF-y, fun stuff. Again, I’m a designer for my 9 to 5, so that’s just evolved to more video, cause now I’m doing that with my job, so it’s like let’s do some video editing with El Toro!

SD: What’s been the most surprising part of your creative journey?
ET: I guess it’s the friends that I’ve made. I was never really banking on that, as far as being exposed to these other creators that have the same passion, the same jokes, the same kind of viewpoints on life… That was very extra. For me, it was always the art, getting up, being recognized, being out there, but then it evolved to forming these relationships with the Sticky Bandits, with the 33 Crew—and that’s like everywhere in the United States, from Ohio to Florida, from me on the West Coast, here to Philly. That family? Most surprising thing I can take away from this whole art experience.

SD: You’ve described art as being your “north star,” guiding much of your life since the age of 7. Why do you think art has had such a powerful influence on you?
ET: It’s just been like a friend, you know? Wherever I am, there’s always art to turn to, whether it be looking at art, making art—it was always just there. I was alone a lot as a kid—not like “play by yourself,” but I was fine by myself because I always had art. It’s guided me since I was small, and it’s the only thing I liked 100%. So it was like let’s just bank on this! Why not be more passionate about that in as many forms as possible? It hasn’t done me wrong, ever. Any life decisions I’ve made, it’s like as long as there’s art involved, or creation, I’m cool!

SD: Well I’ve heard that you actually met your wife through sticker art. Can you tell me that story?
ET: Yeah! She knew me before we even met. She was in that Jade Gallery show that me, Nose, and Bob had. So she knew about street art and was exposed to it and interested in it—and that’s a common bond, man. That’s really hard to find.

SD: You’ve talked before about the importance of passing down knowledge to the next generation. What knowledge have you tried to pass down? And what do you think is the most important thing for new artists to learn right now?
ET: I guess just respect the game. I’m hearing a lot of artists that are getting into what we’re doing, and—it’s just my philosophy; I don’t want this to be like “El Toro’s Rules,” but it’s what we were talking about earlier with me and Bob, of how we came from writing—those rules were already established before we even started. The fundamentals are very important to me. Once you learn that, then you can explore and you won’t cause too much ruckus. People will do whatever they want to do as far as causing a ruckus, but for me, I feel like that’s how we survived this long. Just make sure you don’t go over writers… they take that very seriously… That’s the number one rule, for me at least.

And then practice. Practice practice practice. It’s the longevity of this whole thing that kind of appeals to me now. Just because I’ve seen so many writers or sticker artists fall off, fall on, in waves… El Toro just grew up with me that way—every day trying something new, evolving, and not being stuck. As long as you’re moving forward, you’re doing a good job.

SD: I want to do a couple rapid-fire compare and contrast questions with you.
ET: Oh, fun!

SD: Yeah! After decades working on the street, I’m sure you have nuanced opinions, so that’s what I want to get at, but I do want short answers—just whatever comes to your mind first, ok?
ET: Let’s do it.

SD: What’s the difference between graffiti and street art?
ET: Graffiti is not marketable; street art is marketable.

SD: What’s the difference between art and illustration?
ET: There is no difference—illustration is [a type of] art.

SD: What’s the difference between respect and reputation?
ET: Respect is earned, reputation is self-earned.

SD: What’s the difference between being popular and being a culture vulture?
ET: Culture vultures don’t know the history, so [they’re] cashing in versus buying in.

SD: What’s the difference between hand-drawing and printing on vinyl?
ET: Hand drawing takes time and printing on vinyl takes money. So [depending on] whether you have time or money, that’s where you go!

SD: What’s the difference between El Toro and Frost?
ET: Ooooooh. Frost is just graffiti. He was the first name I took. Frost is just a name, and El Toro is the character.

SD: What’s your lunch order at Tattooed Mom?
ET: Definitely the ass basket, pierogis, and then cheesesteak, in that order. Depending on how hungry I am.

SD: And depending on what day of the week it is!
ET: That too. I mean you gotta get pierogis on Thursdays!

SD: Thanks for making time for me during your visit!
ET: Aw, thanks man. I’m glad we had good scheduling this time around.


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 SalibSEPERMorg, Lace In The Moon… Season 3: As Above So Below, Hysterical Men, Reed Bmore!

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