I must have walked past Mensa a total of 5 times – running back and forth from one press pit to another to cover sets of performances – before I began to really notice how intricate his work had become since my arrival at the festival that morning. With a paper taped to his back proclaiming, “It’s my birthday!” in bold permanent ink, I thought to myself that I had a legitimate excuse to approach him and ask about his graffiti. As I am a huge fan of all elements of hip-hop, learning more about one of its more rarely practiced forms of expression was something I had been dying to dump off my bucket list.
Mr. Kondo was spray painting a black wall set in between the Red Stage and the Red Apple Beer Gardens when I approached him, finding him lost in concentration and great focus as he paused – and worked – paused – and worked – designing with nothing but aerosol paint and a steady hand. I didn’t have the nerve to tell him ‘Happy birthday’ though, so I kept it simple with a brief introduction as a rep of freelance press and grew to know him as Mensa Kondo. I then followed up this genuine exchange with a bold, and possibly overly suggestive question: and if I could recall the conversation correctly – as casual as it was – I asked him something along the lines of, “So what is this thing?” Of course he replied kindly, with his encouraging tone he usually speaks with, “You’ll have to wait and see what it is when I’m finished.” I thought, Shit, I gotta stay here until late tomorrow to see what this purple monster is? I knew it would be worth while interviewing him in between him completing his piece and witnessing it grow more intricate and magnificent every minute, so I asked if I could speak with him later about his work in an interview. To my surprise (but more from self-consciousness than actual doubt), he agreed. I scheduled to meet with him the following morning so I’d have more time to gauge my insight into his work – and also to think about what I’d ask him. I mean, what do you ask a guy who seems so sure of himself, questions seem more of an affirmation than candor inquisition?
I arrived to the festival pretty late – around 2pm – and felt a deep pit in my stomach start to swell, intuitively thinking that I just fucked up a potential relationship with a spellbinding artist considering my lack of punctuality as a press rep. I rushed back to the black wall at the Red Stage and found him working as diligently, or even more, than I had left him the day prior. He greeted me with a familiarity I have only experienced with close friends of mine, keeping a cool air in his tone and melting away all the rust of anxiety from my nerves the second we started conversing in our interview.
Only after a 9-minute session of listening to him detail his background, perspective on graffiti as an illegitimate form of art, and revelations on the practice as a whole, I could see that Mensa was on a totally different planet when it came to using one’s 3rd eye. An extraordinary individual, his metaphysical vision for detail and structure within a cursory art form is understood both as incredible and inconceivable. One thing I learned from this “free human,” as he claims to be, was that art does not really have to do anything for it to genuinely be something. As he schooled me on the basics of the practice and his informal relationship with graffiti, the art form is not necessarily political as it is expressive. Fleeting in detail, spray paint seems – to him, at least – too much of a blunted paintbrush, incapable of sharpening muted points of profundity in his work. Despite his “loud” aesthetic found in many parts of his art, Mensa is modest, unassuming, and temperate in demeanor and communication. But what truly gives him that bold accent mark on his work is his liberal mindset on participant spectatorship. Relinquishing much of what artists hold selfishly to themselves, and at times misuse as a tool of blind influence, is the power of viewers to speculate and inject meaning into a creative process they were never active contributors of. But in all actuality, we are all actively contributing to an artist’s work when we express our sentiments toward a piece. The intent of the creation then becomes more grand, more influential, deeper with implication and dimensional in value. It’s a beautiful concept.
Keep a look out for Mr. Kondo. Seriously. Regardless of his starling resemblance of the late Jean-Michel Basquiat, he has a long and profuse future in the healthy propaganda of our neglected sensory systems. Check out the full text of my interview with Mensa below, a gallery of his prints and previous work, his collab with his mentor, Coby Kennedy, as well as a cameo from 8th Creation Films covering a noted work of his last year. I will be producing my own documentary on Mr. Kondo at the top of 2014.
MENSA KONDO in Red Beer Gardens
AFRO PUNK FESTIVAL 2013
AUGUST 25TH, 2013
NANCY: Alright so, can you start off by introducing yourself: your name, where you’re from, what you do, what’s your deal? You know, like what do you do? Are you a graffiti artist? Etc.
MENSA: Well, my name is Mensa Kondo. I’m a fine artist, I’m from DC, I come up to New York a lot. I don’t really do graffiti, but if they [Afro Punk] give me spray paint to work with, I’ll work with spray paint, or just, you know, whatever I can get my hands on. But, my forte is really in printmaking. I like printmaking a whole lot. Painting is also fun – I’m mostly into oil painting. But, I don’t know how long I’ll really be able to hold on to that medium. It’s not as good as printmaking to me, so, I might divorce it at some point.
M: I don’t know! I mean, painting is just…it takes me a lot longer and it’s sort of strenuous for me. But, printmaking is something I really really just love doing, it’s just really textured, really detailed, has more substance to it. So, that’s the one meditation I can do all day, everyday.
N: So just a little background for people that don’t know you that aren’t from the DC area, can you tell us where did you start your career in the fine arts? What was your launching point to graffiti, or printmaking rather, since you said that was your strongest medium before?
M: Well, I did graffiti, or rather, started practicing graffiti in or around the 6th grade. But, I only seriously started doing graffiti consistently in the 9th grade. But I mean, I would consider it a “youth” kind of thing. It’s something I would never take into the art world willingly. I mean, I don’t think anyone should. It’s not really…”poppin” in the fine art world, you know?
N: Do you think it doesn’t get as much respect as other forms?
M: I mean, it got washed up early and after it got big. The commercial world took hold of it, everything – really – took hold of it. Graffiti as art, or even an element within a culture, is not really something I really like. It’s very very very competitive and sometimes negative. And that’s what I’m really not about. So, it’s something I don’t do really. I’m a fine artist. Graffiti is a quiet hobby. I actually just got into my favorite crew of all time, but I’m not telling anybody back home. I’m just gonna keep this one close me. It’s just a personal, quiet kind of thing I do. And sometimes, I don’t tell anybody about anything. I just, do it sometimes to do it. But, my fine arts stuff is like a separate life completely, even though this [referring to work on a wall] is a thin line between fine arts and graffiti, mostly because it is aerosol paint, you know? This is closer to my fine arts stuff than anything else.
N: So, have you ever thought of graffiti as a political form of art? Or is it just aesthetic based?
M: Well, I wouldn’t say it’s a political tool. It’s really an honest form of art. That’s the one thing I do respect about graffiti. It’s very honest, and it’s almost like if a person has something to say, and they just wanna go right out and say it, it’s very very loud. It’s about as loud as a billboard. But that’s probably why it’s illegal because only the people who have money are allowed to do legal graffiti, and to me, that’s horrible.
N: If you have any other personal things that you would like to share with our readers before I start asking you about your work, you can go ahead and share if you’d like?
M: Well, my work is semi personal. But my work can end up understood in many different ways. Some things that I create may come through that aren’t exactly perceived as positive. But the job of my work isn’t really to be completely positive. It’s sort of to expose certain things. Like, [points to side panel with work] this might be a portrait of someone that I know, right? Or it could be my artistic interpretation of someone that is really just a bad person. So, it can also be very literal. If you’ve met a person that’s extremely ugly who has no moral respect, or virtuosity, sometimes that’s what my work really illustrates, you know? It could be a president. It could be anybody really. Maybe [George W.] Bush? Sike, I like Bush. He’s really funny. He’s just an idiot. So like I said, it can be very literal, it can be very figurative, but at the end of the day, it’s usually up to the viewer to decide really. As an artist, I know what I have to say, but I would like for other people to think of my art in other ways, too. So, I made sure I didn’t really “say” too much of what I was thinking when I was making [this work].
N: Right. So I’m just gonna contextualize this a little bit – from your work and from what you just told me already. So what I’m mostly curious about is how this form of art is an expression of maybe who you are and how you have experienced being black or what does that even mean through art? Do you do that through art? And just Afro Punk as a festival itself – I guess, fitting all of those ideas into a nice box and your art being an expression of yourself and who you are and how you project yourself as. I don’t wanna lose the question buried underneath all of my colloquial language. Haha.
M: Well, you know. We all project ourselves in everything we do regardless of what we make. This in particular, I think I’m actually a little prettier than this [looks specifically at purple monstrous figure in work]. But, this is not to fill in space, but rather a fun approach to my particular situation. My mentor [Coby] on the other hand is actually basing everything he’s doing off of a series he’s made that’s sort of post-apocalyptic, very dark, but very fancy. So, what I’m doing is just representing the negative undertones of his series in my own work. So, currently my work is somewhat of a reflection of me working with him. But some of my work does really look like this. But for this, I am producing work more along the lines of what he’s doing more than what I’d probably do on my own.
N: Okay, so this is almost a collaboration then?
M: Yeah, it is a collaboration. Yeah.
N: Could you just state who your mentor is, his series and basically an overview of what his series comprises of?
M: Alright. Well, he’s only one of my mentors. Coby Kennedy.
N: Oh, the guy over there [points to other side of Red Stage wall]?
M: Right. His series is on the Royal Family of Brooklyn, and it has a lot of other stuff. It’s actually very real, and some of the stuff he’s creating is already sort of happening in real time, capturing lineages and imagery of the familial composition. But his work is clearly an over exaggeration of [the Royal Family of Brooklyn], you know? A hyperbole.
N: Is it of anything in particular?
M: No. I don’t really know. To be honest, I don’t really know his whole project myself. He’s very private about the details of his work. Considering it isn’t my series, he could probably expand more on his work to you better than I could.
N: Yeah, he is pretty private about his work. He told me he doesn’t do interviews, so I guess I’ll have to do some research on him and approach him another time then. Alright, so that’s about it. Thank you so much letting me steal you away from you work for this long. You’re an awesome individual.
M: Please, don’t worry about it. And as you are too. You’re welcome.
- Executed:Teen graffiti artist dies after Tasering by Miami Beach cops (sott.net)
- Graffiti on Sleeves (beatprints.wordpress.com)