Ron English could have been in jail right now. The artist opens his new show TOYBOX: America in Visuals this weekend at the Corey Helford Gallery, but he had to dodge the police in Philadelphia to make it to his own opening. As one of the world's most famous street artists, English still has a target on his back, and yet he continues to produce masterful visual commentaries that critique everything from Donald Trump to cannabis prohibition. English is an art icon who needs no introduction, so here's what the Pioneer of Pop Surrealism had to tell PRØHBTD about escaping the police, rebranding cannabis and his epic new show.
TOYBOX is one of your largest shows with 36 new oil paintings. What can you tell us about it?
I really worked my ass off. I'm not sure how many more epic shows like this I can do. I'm getting old. I mixed in street art and the pop surrealism—usually I just do pop surrealism—and I'm proud of it. I think it's relevant, and we'll do an installation out front on a couple billboards. Remember the statues controversy? I play around with that [theme] a little bit. I have a Bin Laden statue that says "do not remove," and I have a kneeling football player and a statue of a protester. There's never really been a statue to a protester, only war heroes. People who were anti-war don't get statues. It's kind of like a year-in-review. Let's all reassess what the fuck just happened.
In what ways does the title TOYBOX reflect the visual themes in the new works?
My title was actually America in the Visuals, like a play on "individuals," and then [my wife] added TOYBOX.
You often parody corporate logos and mass marketing themes. Do you find yourself gravitating to any new logos, industries or companies in your latest works?
The [corporate logos] have a life of their own at this point. I'm now working on a whole different career with characters like Slo Moe [Snapper] and Beau Leif that don't reference anything in pop culture. They are complete standalone characters, not parodies of something else, as I introduce this whole world [in my new works and rock opera]. Most of the logos I create now are completely original and represent these new characters and concepts. If I do a Mickey Mouse grin, people already know who Mickey Mouse is, but I don't have that anymore with the new characters.
The show introduces a new cannabis-themed Skunk character. I absolutely love the piece.
Yeah, that [character] is a collab toy I'm going to do with Wiz Khalifa. We're in negotiation, and we're trying to have it out for 4/20, but there's a giant painting of that in the show. He's doing a video game, and maybe that character will be in the video game. We're just kinda playing around. I've been looking to do more things with other people, more collaboration-type projects. I made that pitch to him because he's kinda the weed dude.
And I can't think of any great weed characters currently out there.
No, not at all. It's typically just a weed person with a leaf head. I don't know. It gets pretty bad.
When you say you're trying to get something out by 4/20, would it be the video game or the toy?
I think they already have the video game rolling out, and we're trying to get the toy done by then, too. Maybe the character will be in the video game. We're just kinda playing around.
Do you see more cannabis-themed toys coming?
We have one other coming for 4/20. I did the sunflower [sculpture], and this one will [be similar but with] tiny marijuana leaves instead of petals. The center will be this weird brain, and the two sides twist into a yin yang. It's already sculpted and ready to roll so we should be good. I've got a feeling that one is going to do really well.
How can artists help rebrand cannabis culture in positive and uplifting ways?
They can help just by openly saying they smoke cannabis. My idea of government is maybe different than other people's. There are certain things we can't do as individuals so we form our government to do things like create highways and put together national defense systems, but these people work for us. Now the whole country wants to smoke weed, except for a very small percent, and then we have the people we hired put us in jail and terrorize us and spend all our money on cannabis prohibition. Does that not seem like a problem?
It would be like I hired a bodyguard that beat the shit out of me, and then I hired him again tomorrow, and he beat the shit out of me again. At some point it's like, "You're my fucking employee. I'm paying you to keep me from getting beaten up, and you're beating me up." That's the way I look at all of that. People have to say, "Look, this is bullshit."
A lot of people don't want to say they smoke weed because it's illegal and somebody is going to arrest them. I worry about that shit. My house is full of precious art. If the DEA ever decided, "Fuck it, we're going to raid this guy's house," they will tear shit apart. They break everything to see if there is weed in it. They would destroy my whole life, and then they walk away with one joint going, "Look at this motherfucker." I have to remind myself that these are my employees. These are the people I hire.
I totally agree about speaking out, but at the same time, artists like yourself and [Anthony] Ausgang and Jeremy Fish have all helped give the cannabis movement a new look. That appeals to the masses and helps affect change.
I believe deeply in visuals, obviously. You sell Coke with visuals. You sell concepts, you sell products, you sell everything with visuals. It's good to break from the old way of doing it… the Robert Crumb hippy attitude or whatever. You have to rebrand things. It always works to rebrand things.
Think about beer. Everybody drank beer in college, and then people grew up and thought, "Well, I want something better than cheap ass 7-Eleven beer." Many of them moved on to wine and became connoisseurs, and the beer drinkers got left out. There was this whole culture built around wine, but there wasn't really a high-end culture built around beer. Now there is. They rebranded beer. You can buy these boutique beers for $80 a bottle or something. You can be connoisseurs of beer instead of just chugging Schlitz or Budweiser or whatever. They can actually appreciate it more now. They have a culture to support it when they didn't before. They rebranded their culture. They reinvented it.
I think that's all it's going to be [with cannabis]. Putting [cannabis] in art galleries is good because it puts it on the same level as champagne and wine.
Was your first cannabis-related art project the overlays you put over food boxes, or was there something before that?
Actually, when I moved to Dallas in the '70s, my very first mural was this weird, insane landscape that looks like the same stuff I do now. This lizard's crawling up into the foreground, and right in the very front of everything is this joint that's kind of lit up, and he's reaching for the joint.
I thought weed would be legal by now, but I guess it's because we got the wrong guy in office, right?
Are you still doing the box overlays?
Yeah. We're playing with a lot of different stuff. We have a pop-up in the back [at TOYBOX], and I think we might take some of those packages and put t-shirts in them or something. We [call it all] POTaganda. We tried to get POPaganja, but we couldn't trademark that name because there is already Potaganja, and the trademark is too close. So we got POTaganda. We want to exist in that space, and we still want to develop our strain, and we already talked with a lot of different farmers. I like a certain kind of weed that makes you more creative. When I made that mural back in Texas, everybody wanted to know what kind of weed I smoked to see that vision. In a way, this will be a fulfillment of that concept. Yes, there are types of weed that make you super creative and see everything like a beautiful cartoon. I would like to develop that strain so that when people ask, "What did you smoke to see that?" I can say, "This."
For creativity, I assume you prefer sativas?
Yeah. There was also a perfect strain a long time ago, and I would like to recreate it. The strain wasn't too strong. It was just [strong] enough to make everything [look] like a cartoon. Everything looked like my art.
Over the decades, you did a lot of illegal street art, but now many cities welcome it. How has the shift changed the personal satisfaction you feel in creating a piece for the streets?
There was no internet back then, and it was great to have an idea and get it in front of a lot of people very quickly without anybody censoring it. People are fucking nervous as hell, and they are constantly saying, "We can't say this, we can't say that." I never bought into the "can't say that" kind of thing. I'm a lot more aware of how scared people are now that I have kind of joined society.
What do you mean by scared?
People are scared of everything. I think I just had a cocky attitude before where I just did whatever I felt like and didn't really worry about the consequences or who I might offend. Now we live in a weird hyper-sensitive world. Maybe we always did, and I didn't realize it.
But was there more satisfaction when you were breaking the law?
Sure, of course, but there was also a level of anxiety that I had to live with that is not very pleasant.
In high school, I had a best friend who was a little wild child. I had a gym class, and he decided to skip his class and come to my gym class, and he figured, "Yeah, I'll take the detention, I don't care, whatever." We played volleyball together, and we had a good time. The next day he came again and said, "You know what? I didn't get caught. We're doing gym class together again." This went on for a month, and now he's in my gym class and on my team.
Well, it turns out they caught him—every time they caught him—but they didn't like him. After a certain amount of time, they said come to the office. "You skipped on this date, and eight skips equals an expulsion so you're out for three days. And when you come back, you skipped this date, this date and this date so you're out again. We can't suspend you for the year for these minor infractions, but every time you come back, we're going to give you another suspension so you're not going to sit in your class for the rest of this year. Would you like to quit?" He did quit, and his life turned out terribly. That's how they took him down.
Those billboards are second-degree felonies, and I have hundreds and hundreds of them on the books. At any time, I could go to my studio, and there could be a bunch of guys standing in front, and they could just throw me in prison. Just knowing that always hung over my head... it was exciting to do what you want, but it was also realizing they could take you out. A lot of them let you ride for a while. They caught a lot of graffiti guys like that. They just let them roll for a while and commit enough crimes so that they can put them away for a long time instead of trying to stop them in their tracks. I always had that hanging over my head.
Two weeks ago I went to do a signing in Philly. New Balance flew me out, and I'm sitting in the hotel waiting for them to come get me and take me to the event. They arrive and say, "We can't take you to the event. There's eight police standing out front for your arrest. We don't know what to do. They just showed us they have a warrant, but they won't tell us what it's for." I had to get a car service and go all the way back [to New York]. I couldn't go to the airport because that's another pinch point. I've never committed a crime in Philly. I don't know.
The point I'm trying to make is that's the way I lived for so long. The residual effect is that a lot of people sort of have a hard on for you.
David Jenison (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD.