New York native Jeremy Fish immersed himself in the skate lifestyle during his youth, and the graphics associated with the scene helped stir up an artistic talent that broke out once he moved to San Francisco in 1994. In the decades since, Fish had such a meaningful impact on the local arts scene that San Francisco’s City Hall made him its first-ever artist in residence in 2015. The skateboard-loving artist is also a cannabis advocate who’s made art for dispensaries and Seattle Green Bud and took an active part in the effort to pass California’s medical cannabis initiative (Proposition 215) in 1996. PRØHBTD spoke with Fish to learn more.
Your most recent L.A. exhibit, Los Angelurkers, documented mythical beasts hiding throughout Southern California. Did you actually see things in Los Angeles that sparked the idea?
No, not at all. I hadn't been to LA since my last show there in 2014. I just finished with two kinda serious historic-based bodies of work, a residency at San Francisco City Hall and a huge installation at Levi’s Stadium for the 49ers. So afterwards, I wanted to create work that was lighthearted, fun and purely imaginative. I have a lot of strange amazing friends that lurk in hidden parts of Southern California, and I suppose they originally inspired the idea and the title for this body of work.
Can you tell me about the mythical beasts?
Some of the themes came from things I knew and loved about LA as a little kid. I grew up in upstate New York, and LA always seemed so fucking cool in film and television in the '80s. I loved Fast Times [at Ridgemont High], Cheech & Chong, The Big Lebowski and The A-Team. At thatage, I was also deeply fascinated with BMX, skateboarding and all things Disney. So I started by making lists of things I loved about LA and went from there. The ideas for the lurky "beasts" grew from my list of things about LA I loved, combined with some very inspiring friends who live there and past experiences I have had over my 22 years living in California. My imagination went from there and delivered these 22 new beasts in the form of drawings and paintings.
In terms of style and color, how would you describe the exhibit, and in what ways did the pieces push you artistically?
My shows tend to be monochromatic in terms of each isolated body of work over the years. This batch is very colorful, and not all done in one universal color scheme. Also, I won’t be painting the whole gallery with a background environment, as I have been doing for solo shows for the last 10 years. I prefer working small these days, less really is more currently. Thinkspace requested some larger works, so I had some huge frames carved and painted twice the size for the last two pieces in the show. They were fun to paint and a nice project to work on with my frame carver.
How did you come up with the Silly Pink Bunnies concept, and why do you think it connected with so many people?
It is an old skateboard gang I started with my friends in high school. This year we celebrated our 20-year anniversary with more than 500 members worldwide. An exaggerated article in the newspaper in my hometown was describing rampant "gang activity" in our city. My friends and I decided, if that was the situation, we would be the meanest gang in town, with the toughest name. We all moved away, made friends, and friends of friends made more, and 20 years later we all still meet up on Easter weekend somewhere on earth to celebrate our friendships.
Urban development led to the demise of the original sculpture and mural on Haight Street. What are your thoughts on the ways gentrification affects artists, and what are your thoughts on street art murals helping gentrify these same neighborhoods?
That’s actually not true at all. I destroyed the statue myself with a construction crew, a solo horn playing taps and a semi-formal street funeral with a few hundred guests. That "Urban Development" will provide one of the first official gay and lesbian retirement centers in the U.S., and also The Haight Street Art Center—which celebrates our city’s history of rock posters and psychedelic art—on a block that had been unused for years. The block had murals that were usually covered with graffiti. The murals themselves had almost nothing to do with developing an entire underutilized city block in a deeply overpopulated city. I am really happy to have my artwork, and the original symbol for my gang, at 11-feet tall in bronze, to sit on that block forever.
What is the status of the bronze bunny going up?
The final piece is finished and waiting to be installed. The Haight Street Art Center and the Haight Street Business Association used Kickstarter to raise more than 70,000 dollars to make a permanent version of the original Silly Pink Bunny statue. The statue is waiting at the Artworks Foundry for the Haight Street construction project to be completed. His new permanent home will be at what is known as "The Gates To The Haight" just outside the new art center doors. It will be the largest publicly crowd-funded public bronze sculpture in California. Drawings and paintings will burn, but an 11-foot-tall, 7-foot-wide, more than one ton bunny rabbit is what I consider to be my most significant "Major Work" to date.
You did some wall art and a large mural for the Vapor Room cooperative in San Francisco. What were some of the important visuals or themes that you wanted to make sure appeared in the art?
It is very sad subject for me. I loved the VR, owners Martin and Nicole, the staff and the patients. It was a special time for the medicinal marijuana movement in this country. The mural involved portraits of the owners, symbols for medicine and symbols I borrowed from old apothecary inspiration. It is a crime and a tragedy that one of the most significant, influential, well-designed and far-ahead-of-its-time dispensaries in the country closed on an incorrect technicality. The Lower Haight just hasn't been the same since. That said, the VR continues to thrive to this day as a delivery service to their loyal patients.
Have you worked with other cooperatives or dispensaries?
In 1996, I worked for Dennis Peron gathering signatures on the streets of San Francisco to get Prop 215 on the ballot for California voters to be able to legalize medicinal marijuana. I can say I personally collected close to 1,000 signatures and helped California change the whole fucking world. People forget very quickly just how, who and where the marijuana movement made changes in our country. I was there and witnessed real progress in California, and I am super proud of that time in my life. I have had a medicinal marijuana card since the first week they were allowed in the United States, thanks again to Mr. Peron and the voters of California.
How do you see the connection between the art and cannabis communities?
They both have an economy based on someone looking to make half the money off the farmers’/artists’ hard labor. Fortunately, dispensary owners haven't started putting their born names real big on the sign out front yet.
You did a lot of artwork for Aesop Rock. What is your favorite project you did for him?
I have been a massive hip-hop fan since I was nine years old. I have always been a huge Aesop Rock fan, and when he moved to San Francisco years ago, we were introduced and became close friends. My favorite project is one that we haven't done yet. Coming someday soon I hope. Aesop Rock is in my top five greatest rappers of all-time, and he’s a man I enjoy eating a burger with whenever we get the chance.
Aesop Rock said your art lives in “a world where gnomes travel via saddled dachshund-back.” When creating art, do you think about gnomes and dog saddles?
Yes, I would love to be a tiny gnome and ride a short dog like a horse. That would be fantastic. However, that comment was specifically based around a drawing of a gnome traveling by saddled dachshund I made around the time Aesop wrote that. He spent a lot of time at my studio back then. We ate a lot of burgers together and rode around in a burgundy Camry. It was a very inspiring time in my life. Dude is the best. Go buy his music.
You had a health scare about two years ago. How are you feeling, and how did the aneurysm change your view on art and life?
After two successful brain surgeries in 2015, my big olde aneurysm has been repaired. Following that ordeal, the symptoms that led doctors to find the aneurysm continued. These symptoms persisted and lead doctors to diagnose me with epilepsy last summer. My health has been up and down since, mostly up. For now, I just keep sticking that bumper sticker on my life: "What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger." Life is short, and I’ve made more art than most men my age. I have done almost 100 art shows as well as endless commercial projects and illustrations over the last 20 years all over the world. I am slowly and unsuccessfully trying to branch out and enjoy my life outside the studio a bit more. I have a wife and a cat and a van, and we live more or less happily ever after in the center of the greatest city in the world. Thanks very much for asking. It has been the craziest two years of my life.
David Jenison (email@example.com) is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD.