By: Jack Stanley
Instead of a mic, Bisco Smith freestyles with a brush and canvas. The American contemporary artist embodies the spirit of a battle emcee, portraying gestural brushstrokes of lyrics that come straight off the dome in his paintings. He champions a lyrical approach in his works, which are influenced by abstract gesturalism and what the artist calls “visual freestyle.” This signature technique channels the flow and complex musicality of hip-hop music through expressive markings.
Smith rose to prominence in New York City’s underground rap scene in the early 2000s. He sold mixtapes to passersby on the streets of SoHo and spearheaded freelance projects for Definitive Jux co-founded in 1999 by Run The Jewels’ El-P. The hustle and mettle of the disruptive music genre characterized his contemporary art practice. “Hip-hop is a special thing. There's no other music genre that has such a strong culture around it,” he says. “I can't believe that I’m carrying that visual energy from the scene I fell in love with as a kid.”
Apart from painting, Smith also works in various formats such as outdoor murals and metal sculptures. His signature, monochromatic works are sought after by collectors and art enthusiasts the world over. The artist has exhibited his pieces within fine art spaces including Seattle’s Treason Gallery, New York City’s GR Gallery and more. He’s also performed live painting events and partnered with creative brands such as Nike and Coach.
We sat down with the artist in his Brooklyn studio to discuss his upbringing in Connecticut, affinity for hip-hop music and unique visual language.
Bisco Smith’s Lyrical Approach
Exploring the otherworldly artworks of the Brooklyn-based painter and sculptor.
Brooklyn, New York
What was the graffiti scene like in Connecticut? You don’t really hear too much about this subculture out there.
Yok & Sheryo
Graffiti was bleeding down the I-95 from Connecticut to New York. As a kid, I found myself underneath the train lines and that’s where I discovered burners — the creative energy by those pieces just magnetized me. When I was in high school, I really got into underground hip-hop and graffiti. I got into trouble so many times with graffiti to the point that I got arrested. So, I had to switch it up and that’s when I got into DJing.
So, what were your first graffiti and DJ aliases?
I started writing “BISC” early as f*ck, I think I was 14 or something. Then it became BISC 1. When it came to DJing, I put out tapes as “Biscuit” for a while and then Bisco came at some point when I was putting out MC records. My first tag was “Aladdin.” I was sitting next to my middle school homie from Yonkers in chorus class and I was like, "Yo, I need to come up with a tag, bro." He's like, "You should write Aladdin" to honor DJ Aladdin. So I started tagging “Aladdin” and I think the Disney movie came right after I started tagging that name.
Erchen: It’s very important that each restaurant does different things. We’re inspired by many different eateries in Asia. So Soho is quite minimal, it’s very food focused. It’s in Soho so loads of people are coming in and out and they only want to spend maybe 30 minutes. With Borough we were inspired by the late night grill places and drinking places in Tokyo. We have a highball machine here. Everything revolves around the late night eating style. I think the inspiration comes from a different area but they’re all kinds of Asian eateries and it filters through different restaurants.
Wai Ting: It’s just trying to bring different elements of Asian culture to London. At Borough we did the KTV room downstairs, and we’ve got the hatch there, almost back to our street food days.
I found this expression when I was living in LA back in 2011. In my apartment, I had papers up on the wall. I was writing out my future goals on them, creating bubble charts and sh*t just to get my mind moving. Eventually, I turned on an instrumental beat during one session and it just hit me. I just started freestyling on the paper. It gives me chills just thinking about that moment.
How did you get into graffiti?
I got into graffiti through skateboarding and I started skating when I was super young, like maybe third grade or something like that. I was always into skate culture, maybe also the rebellion side of skate culture, maybe that’s what attracted me to graffiti. I was also doing little tags that looked like skate logos back then.
This piece in particular evolved as I worked on it. I didn’t have this idea solidified from the beginning, it presented itself along the way which sometimes happens and sometimes doesn't. It's just part of the process. And I let that process kind of take me where it needs to go because at some point if a painting is going to be speaking louder to you than you are to it, then that's when you know it's there. It’s a conversation.
Your freestyle calligraphy also merges music and art in a harmonious way. Can you tell us about how this approach came about?
Good advice is work a lot, experiment a lot, and see a lot of art. Find out who the artist is who you really admire and what do you like about their work, what can you bring into the work, but also how can you experiment with materials and make paint do something that's your own language. At least for me, that's always been really important to my practice.
“There will be a hip-hop club on Mars and I hope I get to DJ that sh*t.”
“You can tell if someone’s nice or not in graffiti by just looking at their hand style.”
Sheryo: Not as much as we like to. Now, we’re very busy with studio work and traveling to different locations in Southeast Asia.
Yok: Yeah, we’re busy finding places to do installations. It’s our new thing. We also travel often to learn niche handicrafts. We get stoked about going to places like Indonesia and spend months learning how to do Batik and making other local artisan works.
“There are elements of creativity in what I do but it's very process-focused work.”
Yeah around that time I started making mixtapes with four tracks. I would put out tapes with rappers on them. Tony Touch always had the dope intros on his rap tapes. He used to do this thing called 50 MC's where he highlighted 50 of the best rappers and put them on a mix. Some are still f*cking crushing it today. What inspired me the most was that he would always rap in the intro and that inspired me to start rapping on intros on the tapes I was making. I was selling these tapes on SoHo in front of that store called Yellow Rat Bastard back in the day.
You were making music back then too, right?
Yeah, it was a real conundrum to decide on whether I should pursue art or music. I had the good fortune of my parents saying, "Don't do either then. Take time off if you don't know." I ended up studying graphic design at Pratt in Brooklyn. On the first day at Pratt, though, I was asked by the student union to DJ for the f*cking orientation. They invited me over and over again to the point that I had to chill out on those music gigs because I was in art school.
During college, I would hang out at FIT more often because I had homies that attended the school. We would skate and chill with B-boys dancing in the backdrop. At that time, you could drink and smoke weed on the streets like it was nothing. The city was definitely way more chill, pre-9/11. At that time, I also met MERES ONE. This was around 1998. He pulled up on his little f*cking motor scooter and broke out black books from like 1992. It was these seven page foldouts that glow in the dark. It was the dopest graffiti sh*t I’d ever seen. It blew my mind.
You were involved in both art and music, did you ever feel the pressure to choose one over the other at such a young age?
Beyond, bro. My favorite sh*t is catching tags and the rush you get by doing it illegally. During that rush, you’ve got to have your own personal style. You can tell if someone’s nice or not in graffiti by just looking at their hand style. So in these expressions that I’ve been doing, I’m merging my passion for art and music because I’m also injecting freestyle thinking which takes me back to New York when I used to join ciphers and DJ.
It moved you.
So, my boy who I worked with at Definitive Jux moved to LA and we shared a studio in Venice. We decided to host an open studio where I would do a live painting on this big canvas I stretched. Someone ended up buying the piece I made and took it home. It was a crazy feeling. Someone not only loved the art I made, but decided to repay me for that energy I brought into the open studio session.
Tell us about your big break.
Where do you see the culture of hip hop and graffiti going next?
Mostly what I'm always doing with music too is writing about my future. I feel like I'm writing my thoughts that I need to hear to keep moving forward because I don't know what it is. I would say as an artist I feel like we need that self-reinforcement from time to time. That painting right there says “Stay open, continuous motion” and it's just about the mindset of being open-minded and moving forward. This one right here says “Stay peace in the belly of the beast,” which is me reminding myself to stay calm in this chaotic environment that we are in. This other piece simply says “Gratitude.” I got this idea from my wife who taught me about gratitude when I first met her almost 10 years ago — it shifted my whole understanding of the experience and this journey of life, man.
What are some subjects that you're talking about in these freestyles?
That's a good question. I think it was a pretty organic transition for me. I’ve always been attracted to spaces that aren't only hip-hop spaces, you know what I'm saying? I appreciate those spaces, I love those spaces. I facilitate those spaces, but I think it's nice to bring that energy into places that aren't built for that. I think we're living in a time too where there's people in their 30's, 40's, 50's, even 60's that came up doing graffiti and are now showing in these white-walled spaces. There's so much sh*t happening with fashion too right now. We're bringing in streetwear in high fashion because the people that are buying them were the same 50 year olds who grew up rocking dope sh*t.
With your graffiti and hip-hop background, what made you want to show your work in fine art galleries where graffiti is largely uncommon?
Yok: We would look at our drawings and imagine how it would be great if they were worlds that you could go inside, touch and move around. That's where the installation inspiration came from, I guess.
Sheryo: It was kind of natural, really, a progression from 2D to 3D. Yeah.
What about installations are you both most fascinated by?
Yok: We’re working on an immersive installation at the Paddle 8 auction house at the Lower East Side of New York City. We’re creating this nine-foot wooden sculpture of a middle finger with Donald Trump’s tombstone on top.
Sheryo: It’s this pretty big basement spot. We are making sculptures as well as creating the upholstery and benches. It has a really dingy and dark vibe. It’s kind of a lounge room setting. It’s going to launch this coming fall season.
What are you both working on right now?
Archie: We aim to hire people that are extremely multidisciplinary. But at the same time they don't have to have done everything, because in this studio, Jeff and I have not done everything and the principle of this studio is that we won't.
What most people don't have that Dillon, Phil and Ana all have is the rare layer on top of professionalism and the ability to design — the ability to not have ego, to want to learn, and to want to try things that aren’t comfortable. When you’re uncomfortable, good stuff happens because you’re able to fall back on and grow your basic skill set. Dillon didn't design shoes before he got here — he just wanted to. Now he's a shoe designer. To Phil's earlier point, that's why PLAYLAB is a school.
When you decided to grow your team, what qualities were you looking for in new members?
Dillon: Residency programs and other resources for artists — let’s make a school someday.
Jeff: I want to make a penny press called “Penny, Pressed.” The image that goes on the penny press is a penny. I'm not even sure if that’s legal, but it's in the works. I also want to make more art. I think we need more of it and that everybody thrives off of it.
Archie: I want to do it all. I want to see PLAYLAB continue to thrive and grow and morph and change, and I want to be surprised by it every year. I love the projects we work on, but I love the studio more than anything. The studio is the project because it's art.
What's next for PLAYLAB? Is there something that you've always wanted to design through PLAYLAB that you guys haven't touched yet?
When you work on projects with large corporate organizations, how do you manage to strike a balance between what the client wants and PLAYLAB’s creative identity?
Jeff: Back in the beginning when it was just Archie and I, we would get fired from projects because we would throw back ideas that they didn't ask for. But we just kept persisting throughout every year, we just kept making sure that people understood what we think. Now we've gotten to the point where people expect these ideas from us — everyone from big corporations to smaller clients.
Archie: We've tried to craft an environment where people come to us for us — not for a specific type of project. But at the same time I think that our job is to be honest about who we are and what we're doing and what we're interested in. We never present something to the client that we don't think is sick. As a result, sometimes the client isn’t the right fit. But most often, the client is like, “Holy sh*t.” And that's what we look for. The feeling in the studio when that hits is like a drug.
What is the most ridiculous request you've ever gotten from a client?
Dillon: We don't get ridiculous requests, we give them. We tell people to do some pretty outrageous sh*t, and a lot of what we hear back is, "This is f*cking amazing. Wait, rewind. How do we make this?" The more nuanced part is then making our ideas real, in tandem with other people, with a budget, in the real world.
Archie: It’s also just about ridiculous situations, which are the byproducts of working on projects with human beings. With the Louis Vuitton show, the moment nobody sees is Virgil texting all of the designers in the group thread saying he wanted to bring a DJ and throw a huge party in the center of the show right when it ended. Situations like that and learning the different ways people you work with think are the evidence of a project. Those little moments are like symbols, and every project has them.
“We want to be the studio that wraps its arms and collaborates with an infinite amount of people to learn — not to take full responsibility.”
What is the typical workflow of a studio that has “no particular focus” but also has many projects to focus on at once like?
Jeff: We have so many things going at once, so there's no typical day. On any given morning everyone knows they can walk in and we'll be like, "What you thought you're going to do today is not going to be anywhere close to what's going to happen, so let's shift gears." It's changing all the time, which is how we like it.
Dylan: Day to day is not a real thing in this studio. There's a rough energy level and thought level that we have to keep consistent, but in terms of projects we are always pivoting. When I come into the studio with a rough idea of what the timeline of my day looks like, it generally gets moved around because we're working on projects simultaneously that are all so different in nature and are always changing.
Do you find that working on multiple projects simultaneously makes each separate process stronger?
Phil: Yeah, sometimes your work for a project will have to be put on hold, but then you interweave it with some of the learnings you have from encountering another project in that time gap. Now you can bring some of those teachings back into that first project that you had to put on pause, and sometimes that can really work to the project's benefit, even if it's really subconscious.
Anna: It's really helpful that we're not working on all branding projects or all experiential projects. I can get inspired by something that we reference for a branding project at 9 a.m. EST, and at 1:00 p.m. EST it's one of the main ideas for a separate experiential project.
“The real magic of the project wasn't the two weeks that it existed and was beautiful - it was the drudgery of the work to get there.”
By: Keith Estiler
How did you maintain your passion for music while you were studying art?
Before I got into Pratt, I was interning for this independent label called Definitive Jux founded by El-P from Run the Jewels. I started doing solid freelance projects for them when I got out of Pratt. This culture merged music and art, it’d definitely been my guiding light up until now as an adult.
It's got to be museums. In the art world, people like Swizz Beatz or these people that are collectors of art have a great understanding of it, especially with economics. In the music world, it’s been proven with people like JAY-Z who’s legacy evolves, or Rick Rubin, people with a real economy behind them. These leading figures are the ones with the keys to validate graffiti, hip-hop, and whatnot.
As for the future of music, we'll be rapping in space. Seriously, on some Mars type of sh*t. There will be a hip-hop club on Mars and I hope I get to DJ that sh*t.
“As a kid, I found myself underneath the train lines and that’s where I discovered burners.”