For as long as I can remember, the word HELLBENT has been tagged on the top of my loft building in Bushwick.
First, I thought HELLBENT was an adjective, you know, like someone was “hellbent on graffiti.” After spotting the tag in several other crazy places, (this was before Bushwick became the new 5 Pointz1, so you’d actually notice things like this) I realized that HELLBENT was probably the name of a tough renegade graffiti bomber.
This was my theory until a few years ago I started seeing beautiful pieces of art on the street delicately signed by “Hellbent” in cursive. Wheat pastings and plaques with bright colors, lace and flower stencils, wooden cut-outs. And later I became enamored by his murals – intricate patterns, lines, layers, textures and vibrant juxtaposition of color. It felt new and fresh, and completely different from the typical figure, character and lettering that adorned the streets. I wanted to touch it, feel it, wear it and live in a magical place where all surfaces were covered in a Hellbent mural.
It turns out that the mysterious Hellbent is my neighbor.
I thought this issue was a perfect excuse to meet him and feed my curiosity about him and his work. So we sat down at his studio perched above a laundromat on a quiet street in Bushwick.
Kaitlyn Parks: What’s the story behind the Hellbent tag on the top of my building? It’s been there for a LONG time, and I don’t think my landlord has any intention of buffing it…which is good because I’ve grown attached to it!
Hellbent: I used to do a lot of rollers. Back in the day, I bombed. I did tags. I did a lot of rollers out here.
That thing's been running for… probably 6 years…
That one’s nice… It’s got three L’s. I messed up.
I liked doing rollers. It was fun. You’re climbing up on shit, you’ve got your gear, you’re getting set up. Once you’re there it’s fairly chill, but you do gotta worry about people coming up, cops… we’ve had cops from the street spot us. But there’s the adrenaline and then the tranquility with feeling like you’re sitting on top of the city, it’s quiet, it’s late, and there’s no one around. I miss it. Kind of. I’m a different person now… I have a kid. Running around at 4am getting chased by cops is not as appealing as it used to be.
Violet Hour, Chicago. 2014. Photography by @drewinchicago, drewinchicago.com
KP: How did the evolution from bomber to fine artist/muralist happen?
Hellbent: 10 years ago I took up the name Hellbent, and was bombing for several years.
I got bored of it, well not bored, but I felt like I had more to say than just going all city and writing my name. I was painting on the side and then started wheat pasting some of my paintings up. I was really influenced by the Mission School. Barry McGee, Margaret Kilgallen… a lot of that hand made folk art style. Coming from the south that’s something that I’ve been inundated with for awhile. Like Howard Finster and stuff. I liked the element of putting something handmade on the street.
From there I guess I was trying to figure out what I wanted to say. Like any artist you have something to say and then it’s about how do you get it across. So I started doing these carvings and the backgrounds were bright colors to grab people’s attention – they’re on wood, they’re hand carved. Then there’s the craft element of using lace as a stencil. It’s very not tough.
It’s the irony thing I was playing with. I would sign Hellbent in bubble letters, or in pastel colors, in cursive.
I met this guy and he’s like, “You’re Hellbent? I thought you were like a 6 foot 5 Puerto Rican dude.”
I was playing the mediums off themselves and having fun with it.
At the time there was UFO, Gen2, 907 Crew they were all doing something cool, it was like graff but pushing it a bit. A lot of those guys, like Earsnot… their work was like the anti-tough, which I liked.
The plaques and wheat pastings grew out of a frustration of wanting to show work, not having an opportunity to show work, and just wanting to put it on the street and get it out there.
There’s also the marketing part of it. I was doing a lot of different things. Then I took advice from a friend which was "you gotta do the same fucking thing, keep on doing it, and when you’re sick of it you gotta keep on doing it, and when you’re ready to rip your eyeballs out of your head, then you can start thinking about maybe doing something else but not quite yet..”
I was posting my work around town, looking for spots, it had a lot of the makings of bombing but on a different level. It was for people to see, but I didn’t think about it like getting on a blog or anything like that. At one point I googled myself just to see, and I found all of these people and blogs who were taking pictures of it. Which was pretty interesting. To start thinking about it like that. That started a series of more complex carvings that ended up going into galleries. They were more art pieces.
Exploring constructions of tape scraps and doodling with left over materials led to the newer work. I did a show in LA with remnants of the street stuff, carvings and things. I had all these tape sketches and wanted to do a mural with that and see what happened. The first mural I did like this was for a collector’s garage. With the old stuff I got to a point where I didn’t know if I could take it any further. The evolution of it had happened. I was stagnant, and this opened up a new door for me.
I liked murals, you have more time and don’t have to worry about legal stuff. With the plaques I could take my time in my studio to create and then go put it up on the street. Opposed to having to rush through something like when I was bombing with the ‘get it up and get out of there’ mentality. This was something new where I could take time. I can see more possibilities of where I can take this. Doing the same thing continuously–some people like it–but for me as an artist, it’s not enough to do.
It took awhile to get there but I’m glad I got there. There’s so much I feel I can do with it.
Domino Factory. Kent Ave, Brooklyn. 2014.
KP: With bombing there’s clearly a thrill to the experience. With murals, how would you describe that experience/process?
Hellbent: I like that it’s out there in the world. I like that while I’m doing it the conversations I get into with people is nice. If it was open studios and I was in here painting, somebody might look in and then walk out, like “oh he’s doing something.” But when you’re on the street doing the same thing, people are like “What are you doing?” “What’s that going to be?” You’re in a public space, you’re in their space and they want to interact. Which is great. And maybe those aren’t necessarily people that would go into a gallery, or they feel intimated about going into a gallery. But on the street, it’s like they want to know. And that’s exciting for me. Just connecting with an individual. And after it’s done it’s the same thing, people walking down the street and coming upon it and maybe they have the same conversation in their head.
And then you’re forced to contend with the elements. The surface itself most of the time is not ideal so it makes you do things that maybe you normally wouldn’t do. You have to problem solve - maybe there’s a gutter or this obstruction here so how am I going to make that work? And that opens up stuff, and when you come back into the studio you’re thinking about that approach. It’s a good exercise.
I was recently in Chicago, had a solo show out there and did a mural. They call it the windy city, and yeah, it’s really windy and that fucking sucks when you’re trying to do stencils. It’s frustrating. Love the town though, it’s gorgeous. The mural was in Wicker Park (Violet Hour) and the show was at a gallery nearby called Maxwell Colette.
KP: I used to live in Wicker Park!
Hellbent: I dug the area. For me, being from here, it was like so nice and clean and fucking awesome. The funny thing was I could never find a trash can to throw anything away, but there wasn’t a bunch of trash on the ground. I didn’t understand how that worked. And then I was talking to someone and they told me all the trash is behind in the alleys.
KP: Yeah! They have alleys in Chicago!
Hellbent: I’m like oh my god, alleys are genius! You don’t have a pile of trash on the sidewalk every two days.
Anyway, everyone in Chicago was super nice. And I got a really great response from the mural and the show. It was a good time.
Right before I went out there I had done a mural at the Aqueduct Racetrack (in Queens), which was in early spring. It was 85 feet tall which is the highest I’ve ever done, and it was windy and a little unnerving, but once you get your sea legs on it’s fine. At first it’s like ok, wow, here we go.
Aqueduct Racetrack, Queens. 2014
Then when I got back from Chicago I was prepping everything for Domino. Which then became my biggest one at that point, 500 feet long. Got done with that and then churned out like 8 paintings for this gallery show2 [in Chelsea].
Right now I’m really burned out because I just did a lot. The the thought of going outside doesn’t appeal to me. And even the thought of putting anything on canvas doesn’t appeal to me! I am just recharging my battery, so it’s hard to think about all the good things of doing murals right now. I am looking forward to doing a new piece in Bushwick and have some collaborations that I have I have been talking with other artists about that hopefully see the light of day. And murals are a great calling card – I’ve gotten followers and fans from Chicago and also LA where I have a lot of pieces. A gallery show comes and goes but a mural will stay (maybe) a little bit longer.
KP: Last summer, right before Bushwick Open Studios in June, you had just finished an awesome mural on a gate in Bushwick. You had literally just finished it that day, and then that night I saw this dude pull up in an old school Volvo and spray paint a big tag over it. It was tragic because the mural was so beautiful. I couldn't believe it, and documented the whole thing going down. I have pictures!
Hellbent: You do? Oh shit. I think what happened was for some reason, somebody thought that NEKST3 had a piece on that door which is funny because before that door there was just like an iron gate there and then it got changed out and I put a piece on it. And some how this dude thought that I had gone over a NEKST piece. NEKST had passed away about two years ago, so it was right after he had passed. That’s why someone came up and tagged “NEKST” on it. They thought they were reclaiming the spot for him.
Reid, the painter who works next door, he came outside because he heard the can. Oh that’s Reid right there [in the picture] probably texting me.
It was a misunderstanding – because I don’t go over people or do any of that. NEKST is a legend and he’s awesome.The thing is, if they had a problem with me I have that other mural like half a block away, which is much bigger, and they could have tagged that. Which is what makes me think it had to do with that spot in particular.
The intricacies and pitfalls of bomber culture are insane. Nothing that I miss really. It’s part of the game.
1Art space in Long Island City considered to be the “world’s premiere graffiti mecca.”
2 YELL-O group exhibition, C24 Gallery, June 26 - August 23, 2014
3 Influential NYC graffiti writer, part of MSK crew, link