Create to Destroy! with artist Sean Slaney
I met artist Sean Slaney in 2007 when he was living in East Harlem. He has lived in Manhattan since 1990 and has watched New York transform rapidly in the last few decades. Sean has a thick New England accent, a sharp sarcastic wit and good stories of old CBGB’s. We had mutual friends from the older punk-turned-rock ‘n’ roll scene. We bonded over punk influence in fashion and the Boston, Not L.A.-type bands he grew up on in the outskirts of Boston. Here is Sean Slaney!
When did you start doing art?
I have been drawing since as far back as I can remember, ever since I was a little kid. I had sketchpads that I would fill with drawings of things both from real life and my imagination.
How did your art change when you discovered punk?
As a kid I went through many stages — in junior high I drew things influenced by NYC graffiti like block letters. I came up with the name “Slinky” and would draw some B-boys with shell toes and fat laces, etc. Then in high school I was influenced by classic rock, psychedelic and metal album art. I would look at albums my classmates had and copy the covers of Iron Maiden in ballpoint pen on my school desk. Throw that with early MTV, Looney Tunes and skate graphics into the meat grinder and that was my stuff. After moving to NYC going to art school, I learned about German Expressionism. Artists like George Gross and Otto Dix, who criticized society by showing its underbelly and ugly side. I updated that with punk non-conformist and anti-establishment ideas. My work became darker, angrier, and more sociopolitical but simultaneously contained sarcasm and black humor.
You grew up in a suburb of Boston, right?
I’m from the town of Braintree, it’s the last stop on the T’s Red Line. It’s also home to the early hardcore bands GANG GREEN and JERRY’S KIDS. A kid from my neighborhood was cousins with a member of GANG GREEN, who was apparently the black sheep in their family. This was back in the ’80s.
What was the scene like back then?
I didn’t really go to shows then. But, I would listen to WERS — a local college station to hear underground music that wasn’t on mainstream radio or sold at The South Shore Plaza, my local mall. I remember hearing “What’s the matter are you queer / Why won’t you drink fucking beer” blasting on the radio at Quincy Records and laughing (eventually after moving to NYC I bought MURPHY’S LAW’s first album which had that song). You could buy underground records there or go “in town” to Newbury Comics’ original store. Local Boston rock radio station WBCN had a show on Sundays at midnight called Nocturnal Emissions which always played new, underground bands. WERS had To The Core once a week as well.
What was your first record?
My first record was a Charlie Brown record I got as a Christmas present, but I would listen to my brother’s records as a little kid and I loved Dirty Deeds by AC/DC, “Rocker” on that album is kinda punk, Chuck Berry on speed. But my first punk album was the Repo Man soundtrack, and my college girlfriend made me a cassette at that time that had YOUTH OF TODAY “Break Down the Walls,” SICK OF IT ALL “Blood, Sweat and No Tears,” KILLING TIME “Brightside,” and D.R.I.’s “Dealing With It.” That’s the great thing about hardcore, you can have four full length albums with room for a few other songs on a cassette! She also put the WARZONE song “Dance Hard or Die” on it which is great.
You went to art school in New York City to study what specifically?
I moved to NYC in 1990 to attend Parson’s School of Design where I studied illustration, but spent most of my time in the print shop making etchings.
What was the difference between Boston and New York hardcore at the time?
Being that I moved to New York when I was 18, and hadn’t really ventured into Boston too much, I only really experienced the NYC scene. All I had to do was walk out of my dorm, go down the street and there would be bands to see. Every band at that time was influenced by punk in someway or another.
What was the hardcore scene like?
The hardcore scene was a bunch of young working class guys with shaved heads, tattoos and hoodies — myself included. It was filled with vegetarians, straight edge, youth crew, and Revelation Records bands. A lot of the bands were connected to the DMS Crew. I remember seeing the band CROWN OF THORNZ, and the singer Ezec was introducing band members on stage. As he gets to one of the members he says, “He hates everybody” and that is exactly how I felt. I really didn’t want to be part of a scene. To me at the time, I loved the music but I didn’t want to belong to any group, or groups within groups, and so on. To me true rebellion is even rebelling against the rebels! I liked when FUGAZI came to town and their shows were always $5. The crowd was diverse and had more girls and they would speak out about people getting crushed up in the front. They were unique. Don’t get me wrong though, stage diving was fun at those old NYHC shows!
Where did you live? Where did you go to shows?
I lived in the East Village and Lower East Side. CBGB’s no longer had the weekend matinee hardcore shows because somebody got stabbed. It seemed that any club would show any band. I mean I saw SICK OF IT ALL and SHELTER do a show at Limelight — which was completely weird! A Krishna-core band playing at a former church that was then a drug den weirdo dance club…I saw AS$TROLAND play in a friends basement in Bushwick years before Bushwick was cool. I went to some Hardcore Super Bowls, but I don’t remember where. There was no home base.
What was the street art like then?
There was Cost and Revs everywhere then, which was super cool. Besides that, it seemed to be mostly tags. Then arty kids started breaking away from traditional graffiti like the Andre the Giant stickers and Kaws, doctoring bus shelter posters and similar antics. That was the beginning of that so I played around with that type of stuff. I experimented with one off maker drawn stickers, having characters. A sticker of Luther, my pit bull puppy’s head was everywhere at the time. This was mostly thanks to my girlfriend of the time who would print them on mailing labels at her work. Complete strangers would tell me that they had my dog’s head on their fridge.
Did you do subversive street art?
My personal artwork can be subversive, more of less. I used to have a character that was the Potato Man. He was a symbol of “the Man” — he wore a crown and he was based on the idea of meat-and-potato-eating Americans. He was a supreme ruler with a robot army. I would draw him here and there sometimes on stolen mailing label stickers or just with Magnum marker. But he wasn’t the strongest character — too much story without explanation for the quick read of the street. I then moved on to a stencil that was a smiley face that said “I Defy You,” which was inspired by the band 108’s song of the same name.
What media do you usually use?
Basically my work is mixed-media. I use whichever medium is best to get whatever idea I want to convey across. Mostly, I use spray paint with stencils and acrylic paint. Lately I have also been making matte medium transfer drawings. For my professional work, I get hired often to build props out of wood.
How did punk influence your art?
The DIY ethos, and the raw grittiness of punk influenced me greatly. There was definitely some spray paint and stenciling being done by early punks. The “stick to your guns, never sell out” idealism is a part of me. I make my art for me first. If you don’t like it, I’m not going to conform to your taste.
What are you working on now?
Currently I am working on large scale realistic paintings based on fashion magazines and print advertising. I then go back and spray paint stencils on top, graffitiing or in a way defacing my own artwork. I like the way mixing styles looks. For example, flat versus modeled, graphic versus naturalistic. In taking the original image out of its natural context, it becomes more sexualized which is funny because a lot of the source material is from women’s magazines with the intent of selling them expensive clothes. My treatment of it plays with questions of what is art and what is beauty? To some a realistic painting of a glamor girl is cheesy while others might find the technique or scale impressive, some might think I’m ruining a good painting while I think I’m making it better. I also make paintings completely of spray painted stencils, which create patterns somewhat like twisted strange wallpaper. The next step is getting this work into the gallery.
Where can we find your art?
You can see my work at seanslaney.tumblr.com. There is a mix of my professional display work, which is how I pay my bills, as well as my personal work. I try to update it often. Also I have a couple pieces on the arts quarterly website Works & Days, in their current issue.
Any last words?
My stenciled red face character is named Angry Red. He looks the same upside down and right-side up, he doesn’t smile. I have stickers of him if you want.