Inspired as much by endless, world-swallowing war as he is “making empathy sexy and powerful”, Alexander Heir’s disarming visual identity and feverish work ethic have both become a flag and model for what it is to be an active, future-fearing punk within the context of 21st century downfall.
However, Heir’s vital influence on contemporary NYC punk isn’t simply subject to the subculture, but often escapes – permeating such worlds as tattooing and fashion, as the multi-disciplinary artist, designer and musician continues to surf the line between master of many crafts and apprentice of few via his propaganda-inspired outlet, Death/Traitors. Here, the New York-based champion of resistance speaks to his compassion-led world view, the deceptive nature of evil and how you can always turn literal trash into art when resources are thin.
There’s an incredible sense of space and balance to your work that leads almost everything you do to feel somewhat “tattoo ready”. Can you speak to your relationship with tattoo-art, and how it has come to influence what you do?
I think my interest in tattoo culture started around the same time as my interest in punk. I think they go hand-in-hand in being on the outskirts of society. I’ve come to appreciate tattoo-art as an art-form in itself, but I think that initially I was responding to the idea of tattoos being a way of marking yourself as an outsider in the same ways that punk clothing did. However, now that I’m older, tattoo-art – specifically American-traditional and Japanese work, has really influenced me. Stylistically, I love it. Because of the way tattoos are applied, there needs to be an outline, and that’s the way I draw too. I think I look at a lot of the same influences as tattoo artists do, and I’m certainly looking at tattoos, but I wouldn’t say that tattoos themselves are what I’m thinking about when I’m making art, unless I’m drawing a tattoo, but looking at the same Japanese wood-block prints or looking at the same weird comics or war patches, and coming to the same conclusions. It’s just that my work isn’t being applied to the body.
I think, especially in the punk world, there’s not a lot of ways of making a living with your illustrations or artwork.
You can either freelance, or work a really corporate gig, but if you’ve really got to hustle, then tattooing is one of the few ways to make money with art. I think one of the reasons why some of my work is “tattoo ready”, is that, similar to clothing and posters, tattoos have got to grab you. They’re not hanging on the wall of a gallery, and you can’t always take your time to look at them!
Your work has this near-historic, all-encompassing quality to it that draws as much from death and ancient occult mysticism as it does societal collapse and modern-day ruin, but somehow manages to exist confidently out of place and time. What is it you are trying to achieve with your work? What do you feel gives it this untethered identity?
I think the historical element comes from what I’m looking at. I think it’s important for artists – regardless of style, to look at all sorts of art from different times. I’m always saving images or taking photos of stuff or picking up books, and I think that influences my work subconsciously, but somewhat purposefully I want my work to resonate outside of the context of the time it exists. Even if you like someone else’s work, you have to embrace your own hand and your own style, otherwise you end up doing yourself a disservice by not being true to yourself. I think my style is a battle between what I see in my head and my own capabilities. I don’t think I’m a naturally talented draftsmen, and a lot of my work is very processed. I can’t just sit down and spill out the piece I want. I’ve got to carve it away, but I think that battle is where the interesting stuff happens – the crudeness of what I can naturally do and the refinement of me spending the time to get it there.
There’s also this propaganda-like quality to what you do that is pushing for autonomy, self-reliance and self-empowerment. Can you speak to how these positive messages fit into your macabre world?
I think my work and my world-view is based on empathy and compassion. It’s a terrible world out there. “Hippies are mean people that look nice and punks are nice people that look mean.” I think that can be very true. If you don’t think the world is macabre and fucked, then you’re either part of the problem or you’re ignoring it. Part of the concept of Death/Traitors was wanting everything released to be very much propaganda. Look at how much the Nazi aesthetic has influenced fashion since then. Even though they had such an unquestionably awful message, the power of the clothing was so strong. They specifically had designers work on those symbols and the clothes so that they resonated with people and looked powerful.
I thought that I could take that same strength and make it about anti-war and compassion, and show that it could be equally as powerful.
These things don’t have to be represented by flowers or whatever. I’m militantly all about peace and compassion. I think you win people over by making anti-fascism, and making empathy sexy and powerful. The people that believe in this stuff have a pretty macabre world-view. I mean, if you think the world’s great, you wouldn’t have a problem with it, right?
You’ve been known to turn what most would deem trash into what you describe as “precious objects” – subverting our ideas of art and the tools we might use to create it. Where do you feel these industrious instincts stem from?
The first piece of art I can remember thinking about or enjoying was ‘Cirque Calder’ by Alexander Calder. I was five-years-old, and I remember it being this sculpture made out of trash and thread and old springs and pieces of machinery – stuff he found around the house, essentially. It was dilapidated, that they wound up having to put it into storage as it was falling apart, but it was just this beautiful thing that was so fun and cool, and because that was my founding experience of art, the idea that trash is just art waiting to be turned into something else is essential to me. I think it’s ironic that, particularly when I was in school, there were all of these sculpture majors who’d put together these installations where they’d just fill a studio with trash.
I didn’t really have much enthusiasm for that kind of stuff, but I think everyone inherently feels that the waste that capitalism produces is such a shame, and as creative people we can find ways of using it. Later, when I got into punk, the aesthetic is based on trash. It’s all about the rejection of fancy status symbols and the political importance of reusing things, and appreciating the beauty of something that is worn and has time put into it. Some stuff is beautiful because it’s clean and perfect, and other things because they’re destroyed and ugly. I think that relates to my own work, as well. Through taking the limited skills I have, I’m trying to make the best out of it. I’m trying to take the trash that first comes out of me, and turn it into something precious. I also think it speaks to the condition of our generation. Unless you’re born wealthy, you’re not gonna have access to bronze and gold and silver, and other materials that masters work with. Sometimes you’ve got to work with what you can afford, and sometimes that’s nothing, but at the end of the day, if you have true skill or a great idea, the materials generally don’t matter.
What would you say is the “red thread” that runs through everything you do – from visual art to music to clothing?
Conceptually, I think the themes that tie everything together are resistance or opposition. There’s a certain political vibe running through my work, but I’m unsure whether political is the word I’d want to use. It’s more of a resistance to this world, and this life, in a general way. For lack of a better term, “be the change you want to see” through art – creating the visuals and messages that I want to see, but I think, visually, the “red thread” is balance. I’m trying to carve out what’s important in every piece, and taking away the unnecessary things. I think it’s a sense of empathy and love for humankind and a hate for the systems that oppress us and hold us down, and I think as I get older and evolve, hopefully the work does too.
How did your relationship with Punk develop, and what was it like to discover Punk when growing up in the 90’s?
I was born in 1984 in New Jersey, so I was 11 or 12 when Rancid and Green Day would play on the radio, and that was probably my first big interaction with punk. Soon enough, I was being led to local gigs. Every weekend, there’d be at least four shows happening in the tristate area – all kinds of genres, and looking back a lot of it was corny. I got into street-punk, and I had a big mohawk and this fully-studded jacket. That whole vibe hasn’t aged so well, but it was really important to me. It was how I identified myself for a really long time and the lens through which I viewed the world. It was how I got into art! The whole thing turned me onto all kinds of stuff you’d never see in a museum.
Did moving from New Jersey to New York change your work, or how you work, in any way? How does the city influence what you do?
I moved from New Jersey to New York to attend art school, so I think that no matter where I would have gone, my work would have changed. As leaving home probably feels to everyone, it felt as though I was finally where I should be. Since I was a child New York was where I imagined living, and to this day I can’t imagine living anywhere else. There are so many different cultures living on top of each other – subconsciously soaking up different influences and perspectives, even when you’re not trying to. I’ve got so many different friends that are so talented, and everyone I know lives within a square-mile of me. I can walk to half of my friend’s houses, and it gives the spot this familial atmosphere. It can sometimes feel like it’s you and this family you’ve gathered against the city, or the world at some points, but I think that’s a nice a feeling to foster within the chaos of the place.
I think the city influences my work so much in that it’s like being in this super weird almost belly-of-the-beast situation.
We’re living in this hyper-violent police state, and everyone’s fighting to get by – working all of the time and living in these meager situations next to these people with a seemingly endless supply of wealth who don’t seem to be grinding too hard for it. It’s this weird dystopian thing, which I feel is a huge underlie in a lot of my work, for sure.
Tell me about your relationship with Sacred Bones.
I’ve known Caleb for a few years, thanks to the music scene. He was always someone who was a friend, and I’ve always respected what he does. When he asked me to work with the label, I didn’t have to think about it at all. He’s totally independent, and completely respects my vision and what I’m comfortable and not comfortable with. It’s nice to have someone help me navigate the world outside of punk. I think with everything he does, the concern is having the best work possible and keeping the artist happy. All of the staff there are friends, so it really feels like a family. It’s not just a professional relationship. I have a relationship with Caleb that’s founded on a mutual respect, but ultimately, we genuinely want to support and help each other as human beings.
Can you speak on the title of your new publication to be released via the label, ‘WARRR2k∞ // Work 2014-2017’, and the suggestion of eternal war that lies within it?
The title refers, obviously, to the current political state of the U.S. and the seemingly endless war on terror, but also the personal battle of creating things and being an artist – fighting through your ideas and finding your vision or voice. Almost every piece I make is some-kind-of battle between myself or the client or the materials. I think there’s both a political and personal meaning at play, and when it comes to the bigger picture, there’s also the battle or war to become a conscientious, thoughtful and full human being. I think a lot of my work is centered around violence and war. It’s just a sign of our times. The U.S. has been at war for as long as a lot of millennials have been alive, and with the militarization of police bringing all of this military technology home-front, trying to exist as someone with morals or ethics in this world is a struggle in itself.
Although expanding upon your on-going exploration of political crisis, there’s a strong vein of other-worldliness that runs through your recently released compendium of work. To coincide with the release of this new book, you also applied your impeccable sense of design to the “Demon Kite”, and with the kite commonly being a symbol of sincere joy and child-like abandon, would you say that turning your mind to fantasy and playfulness is an active response to the dangerous levels of political pressure that have ivied the past few years? Do you think that creating opportunities for people to temporarily “check-out” of heavy political weather is an act of resistance? Can you speak on your love of kites?
My work has a lot of otherworldly or sometimes childlike elements involved in it because that stuff is important. I’m always trying to find some spiritual balance or humour in everything. Ghosts and monsters are such a good visual representation of feelings that we can’t otherwise describe, but looks can also be deceiving. There are so many scary or evil things that actually aren’t, and so many things that appear benevolent that are also the opposite of what they seem. I think everyone engages in some-kind-of fantasy to escape the horrors of the everyday. Myself and my community are so engaged with music, and I think there’s definitely a lot of escapism involved in that. In the best way, it’s creating a space and an autonomous zone within your community to create your own world. In some ways, that is simply escapism, though.
I wouldn’t say fantasy, because it’s real, although it only exists in these temporary spaces and times.
I don’t think it’s inherently an act of resistance to “check out” of the crazy political climate, but as human beings we need to time to recharge no matter who you are. The idea of working constantly is such a cpailatistic idea anyway. The whole point of this is to live free and how you want, and part of that should involve not working. I think, to stay sane, you have to pull your brain out, but I see people engaged in complete fantasy – adopting the role of a radical just to shirk their responsibilities, but I think art in general is the medication, or can be, for life. Be it fantastical imagery or not, art takes the viewer to another place, or should, at least.
The kite project had been something I’d wanted to do for a really long time. Growing up, it was something I’d always liked. I have memories of being so young, and flying kites with my Grandfather at the beach. As I got older, its been something I’ve found very zen and childlike and relaxing. As I mentioned before, I’m very influenced by Japanese imagery – particularly illustrations of folklore, and a lot of these ghosts or demons aren’t necessarily evil figures. Some of them are protective, and others even haunted themselves. I kind of envisioned this thing as a protective spirit, kind of like punk where it looks a little scary, but it’s actually a good thing. There was also an appeal in getting people who wouldn’t normally fly a kite thinking it’s cool to take one out because it’s got this gnarly looking thing on it. The kite is also such a great metaphor for me when it comes to creative process. Sometimes you go out to fly and it’s easy. Sometimes you’ve really got to push and be dedicated to make it happen. Sometimes you’ve got no wind, and you’ve just got to know to try another day.
The new publication features a number of more recent paintings, and with these, an exploration of colour. Can you speak on your thinking behind approaching colour, and what you wanted to get from these paintings creatively that you hadn’t received from anything you’d produced before? What were you trying to source from this work? What did you want to communicate?
Working with colour has been a challenge with me as an artist for a long time. That’s kind of the reason the first book was in black-and-white. It’s the medium I was comfortable with. I was still learning how to draw, and tackling colour was something I wasn’t ready for, so that was a goal for the book and as an artist in general. I think what the colour allows me to do is more flesh out or explore this other world or space that I try to get to in all of my pieces. When you introduce elements of colour, you make the mood or place feel a lot deeper and richer than if you’re just using black-and-white. I like working with a lot of visceral subjects like skin and body parts and blood. Colour lends itself so well to feeling and seeing those things. So many of the older pieces were meant for t-shirts or fliers, also. I had to be very limited with my colour palette because of the printing process. When not having to think about the final outcome of some production process, I can get a lot more loose and wilder with the line-work and pallet. My painting style has grown to be influenced by more pulp stuff, particularly Ghanaian movie posters. They really have this graphic, bash-you-over-the-head vibrancy to them that I just love. Again, the black-and-white stuff can’t really convey that. Of course, there’s a lot of renaissance and classical painters that I’m influenced by, but there’s something about the crudeness of the less masterful painters, not to mention the crudeness of my own abilities, that really excites me.
Not only does the new publication feature illustrations and paintings, but displays a boundless creativity that can seemingly be applied to any and all mediums. You’ve spoken on your first book, ‘Death Is Not The End’, being more of an introduction to your world, but how do you feel collating your work in the manner you have with ‘WARRR2k∞ // Work 2014-2017′ contextualizes what you are trying to achieve?
In the context of musicians, when they release their sophomore album, the first record is always saying, “This is who we are!” The second, “We’re not just a one trick pony. We’re not just one thing. We have a bunch of different tricks up our sleeve.” This is still just an early part of the journey for me as well as the viewer. I’m still learning so much. Even when looking back at ‘Death Is Not The End’, there are still plenty of pieces that leave me thinking, “Damn, I could have done that differently. What was I thinking?” There are pieces in this book I’m just putting out now that leave me feeling the same way! What I’m trying to communicate with these publications is that this is the beginning of a big body of work that can go in any and hopefully lots of different directions. I’m more comfortable with my work now, so there are some pieces featured in the book that are very tight and some that are very expressive. I also think that, personally, I can look back at this body of work and feel pride and surprise at how much I have grown as an artist – making things I never thought I’d be able to or accomplishing things that I feel will always be important in my catalogue, and just being more ambitious in general.