After diving into familiar waters that had suddenly shifted, Apexer died and came back to life. He saved himself with sheer mind power, which also miraculously healed his shattered vertebrae without surgery. Indicative of his new approach to life after that accident, he recuperated by painting a six-story mural on scaffolding while wearing a neck brace.
He is now a wise shaman, one who speaks in metaphors, genuinely connected to other dimensions. Abstracting many years of writing his name on walls, he now rides the public art wave, traveling the world to bless new cities with his suave energy. I’ve been lucky to spend four mural festivals with Apex over the years, both of us repping San Francisco at the airport, me all messy and nervous, and him, fresh as fuck and full of good advice.
While painting the visual identity for a new joint in The Mission, he took a break so we could catch up. This conversation made me laugh, cry, and realize that “street art” is a useless label. Y’all ain’t ready.
Kristin Farr: What’s up with all the crystal shapes in your paintings?
Apexer : I’ve loved crystals and geodes since I was a kid, digging for them, cracking rocks open, and I like to pull more of who I am into my work. It creates more meaning and depth in that moment when I’m doing public art.
You’re very new agey.
Yes, but my family is also very country. I was just telling my dad the other day, “Don’t forget you’re country!” For language purposes, I’m new age and organic, but it’s the same as my childhood, visiting my parents and all their country-ass friends and relatives. It was all organic farming.
Where was this?
Alabama and Louisiana. My mom’s from Louisiana… like Beyonce
Your “Daddy, Alabama... Momma, Louisiana?!”
Tight. I’m basically interviewing Beyonce. So, anyway, you and I recently painted in Worcester, Massachusetts for POW! WOW! and it was a special trip. I get mushy about it.
What made it unique for all of us was that Che Anderson, who organized it, wanted to go into a community and really engage people. He wanted to bring the festival into neighborhoods that didn’t see art. Where I was painting, those kids had never seen anything like it. The whole neighborhood suddenly had their eyes open. They wanted to know who we were and why we were there. A lot of barriers across social issues were broken when they realized, “This is for us.”
I was watching those kids play basketball, and they don’t have a hoop or even a crate with a hole in the bottom, they just hit the ball off a particular concrete spot on the building, and that’s how they know they’re making a basket. That inspired me. They were making something out of nothing, and these kids were still these bundles of light. I could tell they wanted to learn, and how could I hate on that? I brought them in to help paint because they were going to experience the work and live with it. They were sharp and got over the learning curve quickly. If I told them to move the spray can closer to the wall, they did it perfectly without missing a beat. And one kid came up, three days in, and politely said good morning and asked to paint. I spent a lot of time with him, and we talked about hot and cold colors. It was a whole different level from the first day, when he was bouncing off the walls.
As artists, we come into a community, and so often, they want to dictate what we do. But this community wanted to know what we were doing, and they wanted to participate. They saw the potential of what murals could do for kids and adults. The play on words of what POW! WOW! means, coming together, what Jasper Wong and Kamea Hadar started… it was a group of friends who wanted to do something positive, and now it’s expanded to everyone’s idea of what positive means for their city.
It’s like instant family.
We’re all creatives. How many times are you in the studio or on a site alone? At the school where you were painting, any creative question could be answered instantly. So many heads.
It’s all positive, although some would disagree.
In this instant gratification world people live in, the true story doesn’t always get told. All the individual struggles that led up to a particular artist getting invited, people don’t see that. The background stories are deep, but the drawback is that people want to do it themselves, or wonder how we do it, and they immediately assume you’re getting 20 grand to do it. Yes, we get flown out and put up, but we don’t get money. We do it for the love of it because that’s who we are. People think there’s 20 of us and we’re all getting thousands of dollars each to paint schools? No.
Leaving money out of the equation makes it a very pure art experience.
People should just view it, have an emotional connection, and just let it be that.
It’s a better feeling when the work is not a commodity.
But that’s for the artist. Not for the aspiring artist who is navigating their parents or peers, who know they have to go into society and make money, and think maybe painting walls is a way to do it. The divide happens at that moment where you have to choose the capitalist world or the real world.
Historically, society thinks of artists as broke. It’s the power of that thought, internally, that we have to struggle with, since we are really living by our true purpose, and we are showing signs against society to live that way, versus the majority of society and corporate American capitalism. Society wants everyone to be plugged into that and attacks the artist because we choose to live by our soul. And because it’s a system, it accepts the few who are successful as the dangling carrot in front of all the other artists, so we have a false sense of possibility without knowing how to achieve it.
You have to fight against everything you know, which means, in this day and age, educating yourself outside of the school system so that you can strongly say no to everything and live by your purpose, which everybody feels; but a lot of people have to make that feeling disappear.
There are a billion layers to keep artists down, because if every artist was successful, the capitalist system wouldn’t work. Any negative thing associated with artists from outside, we’ve learned to apply to ourselves. People say, “I could do that,” but they couldn’t. They’re supposed to do something else.
In the situation with my out-of-body experience, the reason everything became so peaceful afterwards is because everything was in place and I knew what I was supposed to do. That’s why you can see a video of a lion, a caribou and a crocodile drinking water together.
Where there’s harmony?
Yeah, and some OG guy is doing the voiceover about how the crocodile ate already and it’s full, so it’s chill. Animals know things instinctively because they’re all connected. The lion ate already, and the caribou knows that. He’s gonna run far away after he drinks water since the clock is ticking, but at that moment, they’re connected. Society doesn’t want us to be connected like that. It has made us pejoratively forget our connectivity. Who’s the provider and who’s the controller? All of that informs my work and guides me along the path. That’s my vision when I’m looking around at people. Even if they’re plugged into the system, they’re still my brother or sister, and I’ve got nothing but love for them. Even if you don’t like me or say something crazy to me, I know that’s not me, it’s you, because I know I’ve got your back.
Forgiveness is healthy.
I had to dive in the water, crack my head open, be paralyzed and have three years of rehabilitation to find that center of peace. Even when I forget, I get the reminder to say no to the ego.
Most would argue that art can’t save the world, but I really think all that love at the mural festival contributed to positive change.
As artists, even living our passion and truth, we can’t change the world individually. It’s not built that way. It’s a group that can change the world, because it’s all about that universal connectedness. You know there are people you’ve touched through art, even if just for a second. One moment is not supposed to fix everything. In an expanding universe, it’s the next inch. That’s why it’s so nice when you have an art festival, or a group of artists hanging out. We’re all celebrating, socializing, having a great time, these moments of happiness and new perspectives.
You painted wings in Worcester, like protection for the neighborhood.
I had the option of one or two walls. How often do you get two walls next to each other? My initial intent wasn’t to do wings, but when I got there—and here’s where my accident informs me every day—I just walk that path of intuition. That just came to me and unraveled, and it was fitting on every level for that community.
Did that near-death experience affect your art?
Hugely. It affected my whole life. My life/death out-of-body paralyzed experience… I hold it super close and it crosses my mind every day. That little kid inside of me is always like, “Yo! I saved your ass. Don’t do that again.”
There’s a million stories and steps that led up that accident, and a bunch of signs I didn’t listen to, so, since then, I listen to every sign my intuition gives me. I’m intuitive but I don’t dare claim that I do art. I produce it, but I don’t know what I’m doing, I just let it unravel in front of me.
It’s coming through you but isn’t directed by you?
I’m a conduit.
Me too. Was there art on the street you noticed as a kid that was significant?
For me, it was 1986, looking out the car window. Throw-ups, tags, handstyles, it was everywhere. It looked great. There were colors and it was something. Something, you know? In school, my buddy had an older brother who was a writer, and he would have all the markers. In math class, there would always be a competition between me and this girl, she had all the cool gel pens, and we would try to do the best notebook cover with bubble letters. That was my beginnings. I saw it on the street, and I had good hand-eye coordination and acute visual memory.
Graffiti culture and street art isn’t really graffiti. That’s a media thing attached to capitalism and ownership and all that shit. Young kids weren’t thinking about that, the kids who created the movement I come from, like the New York school of train writers. It was called writing because we were writing our names on the wall.
Did you always write APEX?
No. That came in high school. I wrote TAKE1. Then Wu-Tang came out and I wrote GZA, like a little boy with an ego, and then KNOTR because my style was all complicated and knotted up, then KNOTS, NOTER, and then I came across APEX. I liked the challenge of the letters, and that an apex is the highest point, the peak. I don’t think I can ever achieve that, but in the pursuit of it, hopefully I can produce some great work.
Even your abstractions are based on writing and parts of letters, right?
In ’07, I was experimenting and trying to figure stuff out, but the majority of my career, I was a writer. When street art became a thing, I would hang out with Mike Giant, Damon Soule, MARS1, Sam Flores, all these San Francisco guys, but I was still a writer. I met a trained Chinese calligraphy artist, and she wanted to do a study looking at the similarities between writing and calligraphy, so we met up and quickly realized it was all the same thing, mastering a line, like perfecting the math behind the style.
With calligraphy, you have the “stroke of one,” which is the approach with your brush, the landing, the pull, and the exit or take off. In writing, it’s the same thing, how you angle the can to the wall and how far away it is, that’s the approach. How hard you push, that’s your landing, and how you end it becomes the expression of the line. Calligraphy artists will study the stroke of one for ten years, and when they’ve mastered it, they can use it to build characters, and they know how to get that whispy point, and the flow from thick to thin.
To me, the letter A is three strokes, and, as writers, we manipulate, bend and curve the letters. If I’m trying to do a tromp l’oeil 3D look with my letters, maybe I’ll cut everything off and just have one bar, and maybe I’ll flip it or extrude it, and then twist it. The nature boy in me can do my version of a vine—painting something in motion. It’s not just a stagnant thing on the wall. Colors help it live and communicate the frequency of that vibe.
Yes, it’s all deeply based in writing, and writing was my schooling, all the way through my masters—that’s what I tell people. I got my MFA in the street, and I brought that aesthetic and history into my street art. Street art is anything. Writing is your name. Letters.
And graffiti is just a label. Categorizing is the death of everything.
It’s album two. You know, album one is raw and everyone loves it, but with album two, they’re all commercial and it’s like, meh, ok.
I tag my work as public art. It’s all public art. There’s no need to call it street art, that’s redundant. We’re just artists. We’re professionals and we know what we’re doing. We’re not just sneaking around anymore. That has its time and place, but if it’s a sanctioned mural of any kind, and it’s right on the sidewalk with thousands of people walking by, that’s public art.
Let’s talk about color therapy.
I’m drawn to color because of what it does, and how it jumps out, and the challenges of it. I like to appropriate techniques from other fields, like how I can translate digital art into spray paint. Oil painters have these transparent layers, and there are sunlight frequencies that affect how the light reflects, how our eyes pick it up, and how our brains translate that into emotion. If the whole rainbow is presented to the viewer, it doesn’t matter what their mood is, they’re gonna like some element of it. If you have a big heart, you might like turquoise or green. I love when it’s abstracted. I’m not slapping you over the head with it. You don’t know you’re getting color therapy, but you’re gettin’ it! You don’t know why you like the painting, but one little piece will grab you.
Are you a purist about anything?
Doing whatever the fuck I want. I try to live my life as free as possible, and I don’t listen to anything that tries to limit that. Everything in the world tells us what we can or can’t do. Think about our friendship. I’m always telling you to go and do whatever you wanna do, Girl.
And I appreciate that. Do you see yourself as the last man standing in San Francisco, in terms of your writer roots?
That’s what brought me back to life on the beach during my accident. I had shit to do. I try to push away the negative to give myself space to figure out what I’m saying. With writing, I do feel like I’m holding a torch for the Bay Area. I was here during the heyday, and I was here when it died because some major landmarks disappeared and a cultural transition was happening, and writing, lowbrow and street art were fusing, and the economy was kicking all the artists out. And I was like, fuck that. This is my city. I’m born and raised here. I’m staying.
I love to travel and hear stories from other places, and then come home with new perspectives, with ideas to kick off and inspire the next generation. I pass the torch, and the torch was passed to me by the pioneers. Like you and I talk about—we love this shit and we’re trying to live it to the fullest and expose other people to it.
Right! Did anybody ever make a comment about your art that made you cry?
There was a pretty dope one that didn’t make me cry, but it made me reflect in the middle of pouring my heart out onto the wall. It was in the Tenderloin in 2010, and I painted a huge mural with Neon and Chez, and this guy comes up to me; he knew my other murals around town. He lived on the street, and he asked if he could sleep next to the wall because he felt safe underneath my mural. That was a moment of realizing the effect of art in certain neighborhoods. I was giving him security, basically. Love and security for a couple hours.
That piece also had words by a local poet incorporated into it. This woman wrote a poem called The Tenderloin, and I copied it into the middle of the mural and gave her credit. What I didn’t know was that she’d been watching us the whole time we were painting, for three weeks, and she wrote this poem about us and the neighborhood.
Now I’m crying. This interview is hella emotional. What do you want to come back as in the next life?
I don’t want to come back. I want to live this human experience to the fullest and then I want to ascend into higher dimensions. And then, toodles! I’m out.
Nobody says toodles anymore. Toots!
Toots! I’m outta here. I’m doing the next universe.
APEXER’s next solo show at The Luggage Store Gallery in San Francisco is coming up in 2018.