Kai Aspire is the only Los Angeles street artist I’ve encountered who is actually using his art to help spread a positive message. While most other artists are concerned with ripping up the city with their brand, Kai is up at night restlessly thinking about how he can use his art to inspire one more person to stop abusing themselves with drugs. And in addition to his vast output of stickers and wheat pastes, he also curates the wall at Melrose and Spaulding which has featured guest artists like AMK, Snyder, and Gregory Siff – who I interviewed last month. In the following interview Kai Aspire sets the record straight about his unfortunate controversy in the early days of his career as well as shows firsthand that you can take street art to a higher level of consciousness…
Daniel Rolnik: Was anyone in your family affected by lung cancer?
Kai Aspire: My dad smoked for the longest time and eventually quit – thank G-d. My biggest fear was that he was going to die before I got to a certain age, but then I learnt that my great aunt who had started smoking when she was 14 and quit when she was 36 still had problems from cigarettes 40 years later, which really shocked me. I don’t understand how the government allows harmful drugs like alcohol and cigarettes to be bought and sold, while graffiti and street art remains illegal.
DR: Why are you straight-edge?
KA: There’s already so much going on in my mind that I feel like if I tried enhancing myself with drugs I’d just lose myself.
DR: Do you have a new message you’re unleashing?
KA: I’m working on a series about the price of gasoline and how it’s not the only solution for our transportation. I mean there are other ways to get around town that are better for the environment, like electric cars or bicycles.
DR: Have you ever been caught by the police while doing street art?
KA: My friend and I got pulled over in Beverly Hills after we put up about 100 stickers. The cop asked me to step out of the vehicle and cuffed me. Then they sat us on the floor while they searched the car. They ended up finding all of my posters and stickers inside and laid them out on the floor. I started to panic because if they had connected everything I had done in the past I was going to be fucked. They ended up bringing in 3 more cop cars and one of the officers looked at me and said You’re spreading a good message, but why did you decide on this neighborhood? And I told them the truth, that I had a friend who lived in the area who told me everyone there was really stuck up and needed to have some kind of inspiration to understand that everyone is equal – so a lot of the stickers I put up said things like Stop Judging, and Stop The Abuse. Another cop even came up to us who was holding one of my Absolute Vodka parody posters and said I used to be an alcoholic and this poster is really inspiring to me, can I have it? So I gave it to him.
DR: But meanwhile you were still handcuffed right?
KA: Yeah, but after an hour of being on the floor another police officer walked over and said I’m going to follow you as you take down every single sticker that you put up tonight and I don’t want to find you here again – but I really appreciate what you’re doing. So we ended up stripping all of the stickers down and not having to go to jail.
The body paragraph on the bottle reads: This mysterious potion has been known to make one let themselves live life fully. It has the power to create a different way of seeing things while feeling free and empowered. This potion is commonly used eliminate anguish. However solitude and denial are the most common effects of habitual consumption. enjoy.
DR: Didn’t that take forever?
KA: It only took us about half an hour.
DR: Is it difficult to line up the stickers with the stop signs?
KA: Not really because I have my own little system down now, but the first 30 I put up looked really bad. They were along Clinton Street in Los Angeles and luckily some guy took them all down, so I got the chance to go out the next night and redo them. But The color of the sticker is just as important as lining it up though, because if it’s not exactly right it will look funky.
Photo by Nobody Photography
DR: So how did you get the stickers to be the right color?
KA: I went to a construction site and picked up a couple stop signs to be able to use them as references in my studio. And then I worked with some friends to match the color as close as I could, but there happens to be over 100 variations of stop sign colors in LA because the city is always coming up with new shades that won’t fade in the sun.
DR: Were you one of the first people to paint the huge wall at Spaulding and Melrose?
KA: Yes and I actually curate the wall now – so every 3 weeks I find a new artist like Snyder or AMK to make a piece for it.
Photo of Kai’s hand painted Boundberry mural on Spaulding Ave. – look at the fine details
Photo by Melrose&Fairfax of Kai’s BoundBerry mural after it was vandalized
DR: Why did you stop putting up the Blackberry-esque BoundBerry pieces?
KA: I stopped doing them because people thought they were ads, even though they weren’t. I guess they couldn’t see the person trapped in the screen or how I changed the keyboard to say LIFE IS NOT VIRTUAL IT IS LIVEABLE, WHERE’S YOUR MIND. And I figured the last straw was when someone splattered red paint all over a mural I painted that took me 4 days to complete. I’m still really torn about the piece because I like it a lot, and feel it carries a strong message especially now that so much of our lives are spent behind screens. I just feel like saying come on, go out and live life, but I couldn’t stand having the blackberry piece called an ad, so I stopped doing it. I have other pieces with the same message, but if someone really likes the blackberry piece, I’ll send them a few stickers.
DR: Have you had a fight with any other street artists?
KA: Only by accident – I had some friends help me put wheat-pastes all over town, but I forgot to tell them not to cover up other people’s work since it was sort of a natural thought to me. They ended up covering all of Alec Monopoly’s pieces and were having a mini war with him that I didn’t even know about until Alec sent me an email. But as soon as I read it I called up my crew and got them to stop.
The piece featured above is actually based on a painting Kai made of black acrylic paint over a collage of cigarette packs
DR: Where did you do your first wheat-paste?
KA: It was at Pico and Beverwil. I put up 5 of the Morons posters in a row and while I was doing it someone pulled up in their car screaming Oh My G-d it’s Kai!!! I was already nervous before they showed up since it was my first big piece and that just threw me into such a shock that I dipped my hands into the bucket of glue and did the paste with my hands.
DR: Why is it important for you to have a message behind all your work?
KA: My favorite pieces of artwork have always tended to have powerful meanings. And it actually really bugs me if I see a piece that doesn’t have any. So in my own practice, I make art that speaks loudly on subjects society still doesn’t realize are hurting them, like tobacco which kills nearly half a million people every year. I want everyone to connect and get them thinking. If I can just get one person to change their mind about causing harm to their bodies that means a lot to me, after all, I’m really just trying to help make world a better place.
Answers by: Kai Aspire
Questions by: Daniel Rolnik
Additional photographs by Nobody Photography, Kai, and Melrose&Fairfax