Understanding the Pursuit of Self Integrity with Legendary Artist Mike Giant
If you know the name Mike Giant, then you’re familiar with the legendary artist’s black and white art designs, old school Americana-style tattoo work, and OG graffiti tags, as well as his association with brands like REBEL8 & Stay Gold Tattoo, as well as the plethora of art books–all the makings of a bona fide badass plus the motorbike. If you’re unfamiliar, then for shame. The man has influenced a wave of artists, illustrators, writers and designers who all want to live and breath that fast-lane lifestyle while still being able to produce amazing work. So amazing in fact, that brands are knocking on his door–not the other way around.
During the recent annual street art festival POW! WOW!‘s Long Beach edition, I was fortunate enough to chop it up with Giant at his hotel, where I watched him get blazed with a cocktail joint (weed & hash rolled in wax coated paper dipped in more weed trimmings–courtesy of our photographer Birdman), before embarking on an in-depth train of a conversation about what it takes to survive as a freelance artist in today’s landscape. Having lived 100-miles per hour all his life, the tattoo/graffiti veteran has found a new pace in his new home in Boulder, Colorado where the act of solitude painting is offering the icon a place of solace, where he’s been able to reflect on how the hell he’s ended up where he is today. Read on to find out how to make it as an independent artist through that old school mentality, which we find out isn’t necessarily old school at all, but rather a timeless ethos handed down by OG’s like Giant himself.
To start off, what have you been up to as of late?
Well, for the last year or two I’ve been relying on pretty much poster sales, and selling work in galleries, as well as occasional freelance jobs… and that’s about it. But on top of all that, I’m still and drawing pretty much all day, everyday In the studio–not much is changed in that way. And I don’t have a regular salary anymore, but it’s been fine. You know… it’s been funny actually because it’s like, after having a salary for so long, I really had forgotten how irregular finances can be if you’re a freelancer. So it’s been a real interesting year or two. It’s been fine, but it’s just funny ride of getting down to a hundred dollars in my account, and then the next day I can be back about ten thousand… but it really does get down to a hundred dollars sometimes–it’s funny.
It gets back to the roots of doing something for you and your friends that’s different, something that you’re not seeing.
I was the same for me with freelancing actually. It’s easy to say to yourself, “I’m going to get the ball rolling and get enough retainers to keep me going and keep that bank balance up, but I’m beginning to think finding stability like that is even achievable. What do you think?
I just think that this is the lifestyle. It’s just this is the nature of it. I mean, it’s as simple as getting a check from certain people that I work with, and then they all pay me on PayPal. All of a sudden I have tons of money in PayPal, but I can’t pay my rent with that… So those little bumps… boy, those can get real sticky real quick! It’s funny like that, like I regret giving people my PayPal address at all. You know, I still needed in my bank account. And I realize I could jump hoops with PayPal to move things around, but I’m still trying to keep everything super simple, and I’m always trying to work and pay my bills so I have a lot of freedom in my day-to-day schedule–it’s important.
Have you noticed there being a change in the landscape of how companies are now working with artists? Whether they’re full time whether it’s a commission job?
Sure, I mean I think what happened in a big way is that streetwear kind of got co-opted by bigger brands, because those brands then started going to those artists in hiring them to do the same thing that they have been doing for the independent brands.
So they sort of poached these artists?
Yeah, just as much as them poaching the whole thing–the whole streetwear thing. And I get it, you know… I think streetwear was the thing that was separate from the regular fashion world, but now it’s really hard to distinguish. It’s just different… I’m not hating on it at all.
Who would you say are the last bastions of keeping the integrity within streetwear?
well, that’s the flip side. Just as much as the big brands got into the street gig, printing and design was put in the hands of the people in a bigger way, so it’s like every city and every town–or even every college–has one or two brands. And I think that that gets back to the root of what street where was, where it was localize. Like when I was a kid, I went to San Diego in the eighties to go skateboarding and hang out with the family, and I always wanted to but the T-Shirts from the skate shops there that have the address and the phone number and stuff on it, because when I went back to New Mexico, I would have something that nobody else had. I had to physically go to the store to get the thing. To me, that was a really big deal, and I think that’s what’s interesting about all these little pop up brands that may only last for a few years. But it gets back to that thing where you’ve got your friend’s branded T-Shirt on and you’re walking around your college, and you run into another kid that’s got the same T-Shirt, and you know that your friend is making them, so it’s just such a small circle where you wanna say “hi, where’d you get your shirt?” you know and so on. It’s this little family thing and I think that that is really the root of it, and that and that’s where it’s come to. We’ll see where that evolves to.
I mean, now the fact that almost anyone can make their own brand and have the resources, and have the avenues with social media, etc., is it the same thing that’s just now on a larger scale?
Yeah! I mean again, it gets back to the roots of doing something for you and your friends that’s different, something that you’re not seeing, so you do it yourself–that’s punk rock. I don’t think that mentality ever died. I think it just rises and falls, and the general marketplace infiltrates it here and there, but at root there’s always going to be those people who are self motivated, who are working behind the scenes, and maybe some who aren’t really trippin’ on the financial gains as much. I mean there’s a few people that I really respect that I feel like have always done incredibly creative work, and have worked for some really interesting clients–some really big brands! Yet they’ve continued to push themselves and their work their whole lives–it’s super inspiring.
So for kid out there that is aspiring to be an artist or illustrator, anyone that has their style who are looking to work with a company or brand, what advice would you give that person in today’s industry landscape?
Well, I guess this is the one thing I’d say is to make your works so good, and so interesting that they come to you. If you’re going to brand with your work hoping to get in there, usually they’ve got a program gong, and they’re not looking for outside artwork. And that’s kind of the whole point. That’s why you start it yourself–that’s what I would say to do. Work really hard on what you do, make your own T-Shirts and stickers and posters, and use social media and what not to push your work out there–it’s easier than it’s ever been to do that–but you still have to put in that work.
It’s like I never would have thought that my credibility in the graffiti scene would help me professionally.
So show these brands what they’re missing.
Yeah! Exactly, I haven’t really ever gone to a place with a portfolio hoping for work. It’s always come to me, and it’s just been by making stuff and continuing to push it just on my own. Just living my life, it happened to have attracted attention. It’s like I never would have thought that my credibility in the graffiti scene would help me professionally–I never would have thought that. I would have thought the opposite really… But, what do you know, now you can kind of see that an artists that also has a street rep and some infamy, might actually get calls from galleries more than somebody who’s just as talented, but hasn’t really… well, run from the cops a few times!