In conversation with Todd James

Todd James formerly also known as REAS is the New York City-based artist who first gained fame throughout graffiti. Today he is mostly known for his comic/cartoonish, very much vivid and parody paintings.

His, on the first note, light and satirical paintings are very often filled with (provoking) messages about the current world situation. On times it is hard to decode what James is actually trying to say, but that just makes everything so much more compelling. The use of neon colors adds particular likeness and sense of comedy to his acrylic paintings. His style is still very much intertwined with his past and his graphic nature of work. He is known for his collaborations with musicians such as Beastie Boys, Mobb Deep, Red Man, Eminem, Kid Rock, U2, Iggy Pop, Miley Cyrus, etc.

Todd James is funny, witty and on point. We sat down with the artist to discuss his involvement with music, emotions and his day to day life.

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Mr. James, what was your favorite cartoon to watch as a child?

When I was young, cartoons and other kids shows came on Saturday mornings. I loved Land of the Lost which was a live action show with costumes and actors. I also loved Spider-Man and Bugs Bunny, then, later on, I really liked Battle of the Planets which was a Japanese cartoon.

What did you want to be growing up?

A T-rex, then a comic book artist, animator or just an artist in general.

And somehow you got what you wanted. In your work, you regularly touch upon serious topics such as war, refugee situation, etc. That said, do you think that artists owe a certain responsibility to the public?

I have done some work that includes some of these global conflict situations, yes, but I never felt the responsibility to do it and I don’t think artists owe anything to the public.

Do you expect for people to react in a certain way when they look at your work?

You never know how people will perceive what you make or react to it.

Are you confident doing what you do, though?

Yes, but some doubt always exists and it’s healthy.

Has there ever been a time when making art more felt more like a job than a pleasure?

I’m trying to search for a specific memory when it has because it must have, but I can’t say when. Mostly it’s a great escape from other things in life that are a drag.

Do you think that when artists become public figures that affect their work?

I don’t think most artists are what I’d consider public figures. Maybe that’s possible if you reach the level of pop star fame, which is rare. Even then it depends on the person.

OK, with this question now I don’t even know where to start. Anyhow, you work is beyond vivid and lively even when the topic is dark, and if I draw from my own personality/experiences, when I am feeling down, colors and lively imagery are the last things I can handle. Even looking at something full of life can be hard, doing it, sounds almost impossible. How do you do it? Does it take a different kind of person to do so? Like your down is different than let say mine, or you just release your sorrowfulness differently?

I don’t think I go to the well of sorrow, but Morrissey does. We all have different wells and can tap into them at different times. Sometimes you just have to power through, or in the words of Skeme TNT’s mother, “You have to laugh to keep from crying,” and that’s the well I draw from, I think.

Todd, where did the tag REAS come from? What does it mean?

Like most kids who wrote in NYC during the 80s, it’s simply four letters that look good together. There’s no deeper meaning.

Do you still do graffiti?

No.

Did you ever do something with IRAK crew or they came much later on?

They come way-way later on, although I’m friends with some of them and appreciate their contribution. Style Wars documentary illustrates my timeline very well. I was active 1982-86, and then in 1988, I was done. I left when the trains were cleaned completely. That said, if you haven’t watched Style Wars, do it, you would like it.

In the past, you worked with quite a few musicians. Is it your love of music that brought those collaborations or their love for your work is what made it happen?

When I was younger, I would design logos mostly for hip-hop groups, so I started my art career in music. I love music, I always have, all kinds.

With U2 you actually worked on a film/video collaboration. Can we expect more music/video work from you or that was more of a one-time thing?

Well, actually I used to work on videos in the 90s with my friend Marcus Raboy who directed many classics. He first hired me to paint graffiti on a Das Effects video, and we became good friends and worked loosely on projects. We even made a Super Nintendo Commercial where we painted a huge graffiti piece on a building in Brooklyn. I painted the piece with Wane and Wen C.O.D. crew. Marcus hired the RZA and Old Dirty Bastard to do the voice overs for the commercial. Prince Paul made the music for it, and I was eventually cast in the commercial painting it. The commercial never aired because this was before companies understood the value of something like this. It was ahead of the curve when it shouldn’t have been. I also worked with Diane Martel who an amazing director, I designed all the bears for her and Miley Cyrus on the famous VMA performance she did. Aside from that, I created some animation, one for the Aqua teen hunger force movies theme music sequence and a bunch of other TV Shows and projects both commercial and non. This question sort of jarred my memory.

That is good isn’t it? So, what kind of music do you listen to while working?

Yacht Rock, I need to keep it mellow.

What has been the best decision you’ve made?

I don’t know, some of the best decisions when I think about them too long feel like they could also be the worst.

Do you feel like an adult? Do you remember the moment that made that shift for you? From youth to adulthood?

I feel like I have the responsibility of and adult but the sensibility of a 17-year-old. The shift happened when I had to pay bills I guess, but it’s an ongoing shift. I’m still not all the way shifted.

What is your day to day life like?

I get up, have tea, go to my studio, listen to yacht rock, maybe play some ancient history things on Youtube where they talk about giants or what is under the Arctic ice, and then I paint.

Interview: Katja Horvat

Photos: Courtesy of the artist

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