Last month, I attended a signing at The Last Bookstore for Stay Up!: Los Angeles Street Art in my ever-present goal to keep up with the street art scene. I came across quite a few familiar street artists but a name I didn’t recognize was THEFL, also known as The Forest Lawn. Intrigued, I researched the artist when I got home and discovered pieces–from as small as a postal sticker to as large as a mural–that contained fantastical creatures and people. THEFL’s whimsical, detailed pieces struck me for their ability to exist on a variety of canvases; as a street art fan, I always enjoy talking to artists about what encourages them to create outdoors. THEFL is featured in Stay Up! and will also participate in an upcoming show also celebrating the release of another book entitled Billboard Bandits. The show will feature billboard designed by some of the artists in both books. I called THEFL to chat about the show, his work and art in general.
When did you start making art?
I started doing visual art shortly after high school. I couldn’t draw a stick figure at all, really, and I would hang around my friends who were all artists; it was a comfortable area where I could learn to draw and not be judged and develop my own style from there. I’m 30 now and I started drawing when I was 18. Before that I couldn’t really draw at all. I literally couldn’t draw a stick figure and then probably when I was about 23 or 24 I started just doing little things outside – little stickers and little pieces here and there but nothing prolific. It was more when I had the time and I got a lot more active about three or four years ago.
When did you decide street art was the way you were going to go?
I don’t even know if I decided it was the way I wanna go or if I want it to be something that defines me as a visual artist. For me a canvas is really everywhere and it’s [the street] another canvas to work on. There’s something really freeing about working in an open space and being able to move your arms with a can when you can’t do that on a traditional canvas. There’s something liberating about creating something on a larger scale like that. Being outside is a gratifying thing to me so I think I’ll continue to do it but I love sculpture, collage, assemblage and different ways of expressing yourself visually as well. I’ll just continue to create. Now that I’ve been working outside so much I don’t want to let that go but I don’t want it to be the only thing that I do. I also do music and write. I try to practice what I think are the three the ancient universal forms of communication: the written, visual and audio.
What instruments do you play?
I’m self-taught on piano and I play a little guitar. I do a lot of different electronic music experimental hip hop.
Where did the idea for the name THEFL come from?
The original name was the one I went by for music and writing which was ‘The Forest Lawn.’ I’ve always been interested with cemeteries and I find them peaceful. I used to go to them as a kid. The moment of death is really interesting. Not the circumstances but the moment I think is really beautiful. When I started doing more stuff out on the street, I kept the name but it was too long to write every time so i truncated it to ‘THE’ and then ‘FL.’ I don’t really know how to pronounce it… i just say T-H-E-F-L. That chunk of five letters I don’t attach a lot to it anymore in a weird way but that’s how it came about – just necessity.
Is the name related to your characters?
Most of the stuff I do is unplanned. I’ll find a wall, bring my paint and start painting. I never have an idea in mind about what I’m going to make. I’ll do a mural and bust it the next day because I don’t like it. These characters come organically. I’ll put really simple words like ‘feel,’ ‘fear,’ ‘give,’ ‘love’ – simple words that people relate to but don’t really know what they mean…They’re selfish things for me. They’re stories about what’s going on in my head and my own life.
The characters are kinda separate from The Forest Lawn other than that they die and that’s the gratifying thing about street art. You’re consciously putting something up there knowing it’s not gonna be there forever and it’s gratifying to kill your ego that way. Some people protect their stuff and I get that but for me it’s about the process of creating that and letting go. I think that’s beautiful.
You use a lot of details in your work – is that important to you?
I’ll try and use whatever I can. I’ll go to paint recycling centers and find old paint. I primarily use a lot of spray paint now but I’m looking to venture more into using other stuff. I started with stencils which were fun to cut, but applying them is really boring because you spend about ten seconds and the process is over. I had all these stencils and I’d bring them with me and create these characters and take bits of them and create all these details. I’d pick an eye from one, a nose from another. I would just spray bits – like part of an eyebrow – and use a character’s clothes and just recycle what I had on the fly to make it more of a collage of stencils. It was more gratifying that way.
How do you feel about being included in Stay Up!: Los Angeles Street Art? and the upcoming show?
For me, it’s just really humbling. I didn’t expect to be in there at all. It’s humbling to be there with other people that have been doing it [street art] for a long time. “Billboard Bandits” is a bit intimidating because street art and graffiti art are two completely different lifestyles so it’s humbling in that regard. I’m grateful to be a part of it. I’m also grateful to meet other artists and meet Lord Jim who’s an amazing human being. I didn’t know Jim and eventually being able to have a really good relationship with him. That’s the most gratifying part.
How are you preparing for the show?
I prepped my little billboard that I’ll be painting. I’m actually not sure what I’ll do with it. I usually don’t like thinking too much. I’m not conceptual, I’m more of a process artist. I try and not do a lot of prep work. Overthinking takes away the whole reason I do art which is to not think and be in a stream of consciousness and be okay with mistakes and flaws and imperfections and get paint on my hands.
CARTWHEEL focuses on collecting and looking at the process of collection. Do you want people to take your art home or do you prefer that they see it somewhere public like on a mural?
Any way that someone is going to be affected by the art I do whether in good or negative way or if they’re just passing them on street and it touches them for a moment or they’re generous enough to take one of my pieces home. Both ways are cool with me. It’s more just as a therapy for me and a creation process. For them to take that and find something in it for themselves means the world to me. On the same hand, I’m not attached to a lot of the things I make. I do tons of paintings. A lot of my paintings have paintings under paintings under paintings… people don’t realize they have a canvas I’ve been painting on for seven years with different things on them.
Does it feel different knowing someone will buy your work?
It’s just being okay with letting something go. I know when I leave stuff outside, whether a sticker or a giant piece, there’s not a permanence about it. When I make all canvases I don’t want to hoard all of them. I want to give them to other people or have them purchase them or take them home which was hard for me to do for a long time. I used to hide everything because I didn’t like what I was doing.
The cool thing about creating is someone always sees something different that you’re not seeing. As I’ve gotten older I’ve been okay with making stuff and knowing I can’t see everything I’m making and everyone will see something else… art is a solitary thing but when you share it with someone it sparks a conversation whether with the artist or random stranger which is always a nice thing.
The Billboard Bandits and Stay Up! art show opening receptions will take place on Thursday, December 13 from 6 p.m. at the Downtown Los Angeles Art Walk Lounge. The Lounge is located on 634 S. Spring St. Los Angeles, CA 90014.
All photos by Erwin Recinos.