"It Takes Time and Patience, But You'll Get There"
While Andrew was painting his most recent mural two weeks ago, he sat down with me for a few minutes to talk about where he came from and what's been inspiring him lately. Here are a few of the things he told me.
Andrew Hem: The title of my upcoming show is "Cold Water." It deals with a lot of cold places — you know, everybody goes through troubled waters. I wanted to show that cold environment to get that mood across... a lot of snows and waters and that dark place, that monochromatic kind of feeling. I’ve always done every show around culture and what inspires me and what I’m fascinated with. Recently, there have been a lot of things going on in my life, and I just wanted to put my heart on my sleeve and paint what’s been bothering me.
I think that in graffiti, you always gotta have this kind of rapper’s mentality, where there’s always gonna be beef and there’s always gonna be rivalry with somebody. I feel like when beef happens, you always rely on your crew to back you up. But lately, there’s been a lot of crazy stuff going on, and it’s hard to get your friends to back you up, when one of your good friends got deported, and then you lose another one... and then you’re starting to feel that there’s a shortage of crew members, and slowly, a lot of them shift away.
"It Will Eventually Drift"
I’ve been including a lot of water in the paintings, because water, it never stays still. People always drift away. I would like for it to be the same as when you were younger, when you have this tight bond with all your friends. There are certain things I like about graffiti, but I would like for it also to be more like it is with artists in the art scene, where there’s no rivalry, there’s no beef, there’s no tension, there’s just everybody loving doing art. That’s one thing I really hate about graffiti, that there’s always beef involved. When rappers beef, you don't know if it’s just hype, you feel like it’s kind of promotion, that it helps them. I don’t know why graffiti artists beef, to tell you the truth. This year, there’s been a lot of negativity and beef that’s been going on in my life, and it’s been hurtful and it’s been hard for me to even paint. So I just wanted to show that.
In the beginning of the process of these paintings, I was in that crazy place, but towards the middle of it, I started making new friends, which was kind of crazy, and towards the end, I met a girl, and she’s helped me a lot. At the end, in the last piece in the show, it has the most dramatic lighting — it’s like walking through a tunnel and into this ray of light. It’s called "At the End of the Tunnel." But I didn’t realize that then, when I was painting it. When I put my paintbrush down, I was like, "Holy crap, this is my last one, and it’s the only one with a light source." So it’s like a finishing touch to the whole show. And now I feel I’m over that stage in my life, and I can move on. I’m not thinking about it any more. It bothered me a lot for the whole painting process. I had about 20 nightmares about tension and this whole beef and the situation that’s been going on, and now I haven’t had any more dreams, so I think I’m over it now. Hopefully.
"End of the Tunnel"
We’re in Culver City right now, and this is my biggest wall ever attempted. I always wanted to do something this big, and it’s great that I did it in my hometown. It feels like Culver City’s changed so much since I’ve grown up. It was really gang-infested, you couldn’t walk anywhere without being hit up where you were from, and now it’s kind of become this art district, which is amazing, to see that transition. I love where it’s headed now, and I hope it continues to go more artsy, rather than the whole gangster lifestyle. It was hard growing up in Culver City, but now I love it. It’s a beautiful place. I can’t picture myself living anywhere else, to tell the truth.
I got an early start in graffiti, mainly through seeing my uncle’s sketches and seeing the graffiti on the walls, the gangster writings, the Culver City gangster letters. And then meeting friends in high school, like my friend Alvaro Sanz, who really took it to the next level. I was just a freshman, and he was around 18 or something, and no one I knew besides him had a car at that time. He kind of took me around. I always took it into the sketchbooks, and he was the first person who gave me a spray can and said, "Hey, take what you’re doing in your sketchbook and let’s take it to the walls." And then I was doing a blockbuster and then taking it to the next level and designing alphabets and creating something out of it. Graffiti really helped me out, it helped me meet people. I met a lot of my friends through graffiti. You know, at a young age, either you’re going to get into that gangster lifestyle or the graffiti lifestyle — there wasn’t any other outlet other than that. This was my neighborhood at that time, and I picked graffiti.
My parents came here from Cambodia when I was four months old, and I never went back there until two years ago, and that’s when I met all these family members that swear they know me, they recognize me, I guess because I look so much like my dad. So I just wanted to bring some of that here, some of that love that was shown to me over there. And now people from Culver City will see that. This mural is inspired by the portraits I took while in Cambodia of family that I met for the first time. So it is a little bit of a family portrait thing. It’s cousins and aunts I met for the first time, and my mom’s side of the family and dad’s side of the family. It was amazing going there, and everyone coming up to you saying, "Hey, I’m your family, I’m your family." And you’re like, "Whoa, who are you, I never met you before." There was a whole town that was like that. They were related to me somehow. And I don’t have that many family members here, just a couple of cousins in Long Beach, and when we got over there, there was this huge family, so I wanted to document that, how happy I was over there, and try to bring it over here. You know, close family is something that I don’t have much of, and now they’re here, on this wall.
So a lot of graffiti crews have these names of their crews, like we’re the baddest, we’re the toughest, we're the most skillful in L.A., which we couldn’t claim, because it was totally not us, we were kind of the opposite of that. Our crew originally started as Down 2 Rock, and we started writing that for a while, but we realized that Dreams 2 Reality fit us better, that we had all these dreams that we wanted to accomplish. We were just young guys growing up in West L.A. and Pomona, and we had such high hopes. We wanted that voice heard. We wanted so much for people to see our work, and we thought that was impossible, because we came from such tiny places and the art world seemed so huge. But we didn’t want to give up, so we started thinking, "Hey, Dreams 2 Reality would better suit us," and we started pushing that pretty hard, and it’s been stuck with me ever since. No matter how old I am, I’m still gonna continue to push Dreams 2 Reality. I feel that slowly but surely, we’re taking steps to making our dreams come true. Still far from it, it’s gonna be a long path, but it’s getting there, slowly but surely.
Andrew Hem's solo exhibition "Cold Water" opens on Saturday, July 16th at LeBasse Projects in Culver City from 7-10pm. Come a little early to allow for Carmageddon delays and check out Andrew's new mural, just down the street at Washington and National. Also, if you get there early, you can take a look at Tran Nguyen's show next door at Thinkspace, which will be open from 5-8.