Sickid: The New Folk
Sickid is a young, Los Angeles-based graffiti artist and painter, best known for littering LA with an ever-changing cast of cartoon characters and situations, most notable for his work on billboards. His fine art painting includes Angeleno folk art, comics and the irreverent, as well as subjects in a more autobiographical realm. His depiction of scenes growing up around the Catholic Church, the naive painting styles of immigrant neighbors, street characters, and other untrained and raw influences also hint at a style influenced by the likes of Neckface and Barry McGee, and has evolved into a uniquely vibrant, colorful universe of its own. He debuted at Superchief Gallery LA in July 2019 with his first exhibition, Smile! You're on Camera, followed by a second solo show, Pillow Talk, opening December 3rd, 2020 at Superchief NY.
William Dunleavy: When did you get interested in making art, and how have you seen yourself and your style change since you started out?
Sickid: I don't know. I don't want to say it was when I was born, but for sure when I was a little kid, I was interested in art. I was always into cartoons, and redrawing them. I liked drawing stuff from Cartoon Network, Dexter, Jimmy Neutron, the Simpsons, and Powerpuff Girls. "Him" from Powerpuff Girls definitely made me sexually confused. As a kid, I loved drawing wrestlers and toys, so I guess that was really my first form of art.
I started finding artists I liked around middle school, and it blew my mind that people could do it for a living. That it could be a job was really baffling to me. Then I ended up going to a performing arts high school in LA where they were more focused on music and theatre. But I went into the visual art department, and that was super good for me developing as an artist. I did a lot of finding myself artistically by mimicking other people's shit and thinking about who I am, and what kind of communication I wanted to put out in the world. I think that once I finally started to become comfortable with myself and learn that I don't necessarily need validation from people, it kind of changed into a more "me" type thing. I'm still bad at describing my style and all, but it felt way more authentic once I stopped caring. I don't feel like I need to describe it for it to be valid. If the work speaks in its own language clearly, then it's good.
Wrestling has seemed to play a big role in your life.
Yeah, it played a huge role for me. My older siblings were into it, and some of my earliest memories are from wrestling. Like, wrestling is literally the first thing I can remember in life. That, and I grew up playing with wrestling toys and shit. Sometimes, when I get tired from working in the studio painting and stuff, or get down on myself, I'll listen to wrestling promos to get hyped up. It's like a self-motivational tool for me. Basically, what I'm saying is Eddie Guerrero is the shit. RIP.
What's the meaning behind the name—you think you'll keep it when you get older?
The origin behind my name is that it came from a sophomore in my high school when I was a freshman. He used to bully me and stuff, and I hated going to school because of this motherfucker because he was so mean. He would talk shit about my drawings in art class, and talk shit to me about my outfits and shit like that. He was a Jehovah's witness kid who believed in god and all that. I'm a skateboarder, and I wore like a Suicidal Tendencies flip hat and flannels and hand-made punk shirts, Emericas. But anyway, he would always say that his drawings were better than mine, and call my shit ugly. One day I was drawing on a little postal sticker drawing, like a Creature from the Black Lagoon-type of monster, and he came over like "Oh, you're shits nasty, you're a sick kid, man." Like sick-in-the-head—like not cool. But that's where that came from and I just liked it as a name.
Everyone dislikes their name, I think. I'm pretty ashamed of it. I don't care that much about trying to restart with another, so I'm just going for it because it reminds me of when I was younger.
Are you planning on ditching the name when, eventually, you’re no longer a kid?
Yeah, I guess so. Recently, it's been like, wow I can buy cigarettes. I should probably not call myself Sickid anymore. But Sickid, I guess, is like my Outsiders name, you know? It's like I'm in The Outsiders and I'm Ralph Macchio. It's like my internet screen name. And I like that it's pretty symmetrical as a word; it's like 3-3 and divisible by two. S I C K I D. You can also split it in threes. So it works really well for graffiti, which I do a lot. But, luckily, I do mostly character-based graffiti, so it wouldn't be a huge deal if I changed my name. And, like, I don't necessarily have to write a name every time I do graffiti. So one day I can be a 30 year old and not have to embarrassingly write "Sickid" on the side of a building.
I feel like the art came first for you, since you were always interested in doing art. Then you started doing your art illegally on the street and that's how you became a graffiti writer. I don't feel like most artists go and do that. It's one of my favorite parts about you as an artist.
I think a lot of graffiti culture is kind of bro-ish and angsty. But for me it comes from a place of, "Notice me!” Because half the people I knew didn’t take me seriously when I was younger. But now I feel like it's transformed into something different where it can be for other people, or a service to other people, but also myself at the same time. I definitely see it as a less selfish activity now.
Right, I feel like we should mention that right now it's fall 2020, so obviously there's been a lot of protest stuff going on right now. You recently did a Breonna Taylor billboard and turned some of your vandalism into activism.
I'm not an activist artist or anything; I'm not making protest art. But I feel like I have the ability and the skillset to do something to help spread the message right now. Not like I'm a saint or anything, but it's something I know how to do, and if people are using their skills for the greater good right now, it's worth doing it.
I'm really not a fan of commodified "activist art" in galleries for lots of money. I think that can be really sketchy. It seems like the opposite of what it should be. That's why I generally don't like activist art in the art world. But yeah, my practice has become more like trying to make you feel a certain way, whether that's awkwardness, or feeling a little bit weirded out, and it doesn't have to be on-brand or communicate the same thing over and over again. My art is just me, so I go through a lot of changes and see it as more 3D and playful.
It seems like your work has become a little less offensive and irreverent recently, sometimes almost like LA folk art. What are some of the things in LA that inspire you and what are you hoping to express in your art?
I think there's a bit more quiet moments now, but I still like to go back to that stuff because it makes me happy. I like doing the gang-bang triple anal scenes as much as I like painting a scene that is reflective of my life and my city.
I think the word "naive" can have a lot of negative connotations to it. But, to me, the city of Los Angeles is naive in a really awesome way, like being purely unselfconscious and just doing things because they look nice. Like if the owner of a dollar store keeps getting their building tagged, they might decide they're just going to paint a Virgin Mary on it, like a Guadalupe. But they've never painted in their life, so it's not to scale, and they never painted that large before. I think that's fucking awesome, and it looks way better to me than someone who can render the shit out of a building and make a giant mural. That it’s so naive is what I love about it. Personally, I feel a lot more inspired by a religious landscape mural than by a "brand artist" who has painted a bunch of murals around the world, or is doing a mural to promote a product.
I think sometimes there's a direct correlation in the level of authenticity something has and its level of commodity, shit that is a product for an ad agency, versus something a person did because they wanted to create something nice there.
For sure, that's what I like about LA. You can feel the hustle and the honesty in a lot of what you see. Like religious candles next to toilet paper, next to a 1960’s lamp. Someone from another place in the country maybe doesn't quite get it, and that's what a lot of “gentrifiers” are kind of missing, that inner beauty and that honesty. Like they'd rather just see a modern condo that's just like postmodern or whatever on the edge of Silverlake.
I think that's one of the best parts of Latin American culture, in general. There's this ethic of DIY beautification of your surroundings, maybe building an altar, painting the side of your store, or painting your religious iconography because you'd rather do that then print something out.
Yeah, I feel like painting it yourself is awesome, and humans have a need to make shit. You know what I mean? I think it's therapeutic, even if it's challenging, because there's more reward to it. But I am so sad to see Los Angeles dissapate into a kook town of modern buildings and condos and shit, with white people not giving a fuck, getting coffee at some new coffee shop.
So would you say that there's a lot of intentional naivete in your art that's kind of a tribute to that immigrant art you grew up with in LA?
Yeah, I think there's some of that. But also, my own naivete too. I like seeing my mistakes. Sometimes I prefer my sketches to my paintings, you know? But there's more of an instant, no-thought kind of feel to them. I like art that feels less experienced and unpracticed.
This interview first appeared in the Winter 2021 Quarterly. Get it here now.
Sickid's Pillow Talk opens at Superchief NY on December 3, 2020.
Portrait by William Dunleavy