The Flower Guy Looks Back On 25 Years Of New York Graffiti: Gothamist
Michael De Feo, also known as The Flower Guy, has been wheat-pasting and painting on the streets of New York for 25 years. This month, Abrams published Flowers, a book documenting his street art and indoor paintings, with an introduction by FAILE. This Thursday, he is throwing a Pop Up exhibition and book signing at 198 Allen Street from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m., with open hours again on Friday from 10 to 5 p.m. Ahead of this, we interviewed Michael about his years on the street and current work.
You grew up in Westchester and came to the city for art school at SVA. Do you remember your first encounters with graffiti? Did you have any favorite artists in those days?
On car rides as a child to see relatives in Long Island or on our drives in and out of Manhattan, my dad would sometimes point out spray-painted tags on overpasses and walls accompanied with a statement about how horrible it looked. I never really cared one way or the other; it was just something he’d occasionally complain about. Later on, in middle school, a twelfth-grader showed me a copy of Subway Art by Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant. I was blown away by all the colorful work and how so much creativity existed without permission and only about 20 minutes from where I lived. It was different from the highway tags I’d seen earlier, and so much more ambitious, with huge walls and full trains covered front to back. As exciting as it was to see and learn about, it didn’t prompt me to do graffiti on my own but it definitely planted some seeds.
In middle school I’m not sure who my favorite artists were but probably some along the lines of M.C. Escher or Dali. I was in the beginnings of my love affair with rock and roll (I was an instant Led Zeppelin fan upon hearing “Black Dog” in the 9th grade on the back of a bus) and my tastes were probably reflective of youthful rebellion and reality-bending surrealism.
Your introductory essay begins with a funny quote from your dad: “If you get caught and thrown in jail, don’t bother calling me! I won’t come and get you!” In all the years you’ve been working on the streets, did you ever get arrested? Any good stories there?
I’ve had many encounters with the police over the past twenty-five plus years, both here and abroad. I received a summons once in 1994 on the 6-train platform, and plenty of warnings, but never arrested.
On another occasion, also in 1994, I was caught painting a large flower on a wall in SoHo. I was at the old parking lot on the southeast corner of Prince and Mercer Streets, across from Fanelli’s. It’s now a Nespresso or something. I had always wanted to get up on that wall so one morning at about 2:00 am I lugged my fold-up ladder to the subway and took it along with a backpack of paint supplies downtown. I got to the location, set up and worked as fast as I could. At that hour in SoHo, it was eerily quiet except for the occasional noises made from other night dwellers that were blocks away: a glass bottle clinking on the pavement or a car honking. I sensed something from the empty streets behind me and turning around, saw an old town car slowly driving down Mercer with the driver and other men inside all staring at me as they passed.
They continued along but I knew my time there was numbered. I rushed to complete my flower and as I was finishing up the last bits at the bottom, the same car now came speeding now down Mercer and screeching to a halt in the parking lot. Four plain-clothes men got out of the car and came straight at me. I jumped off the ladder as they reached me and they grabbed me and threw me into the wall. They spilled my pail of paint onto the ground and emptied my backpack kicking the contents around. They were all yelling at me with one guy calling me a “wannabe artist” because of the coveralls I was wearing. I wasn’t sure if they were undercover police, local mobsters or just a bunch drunken thugs looking to mess with someone. Whatever the case, they left me alone almost as quickly as they arrived. I gathered my things and split, pleased that I was able to finish my work.
Paintings flowers and other friendly imagery has given me a bit of leverage over the years during confrontations or when dealing with angry people or the authorities. I suppose you can say its flower power.
5 Pointz. (Gavin Thomas)
You started wheat pasting and stenciling in the mid-90s, which was several years before that kind of street art got popular in New York (though there were some interesting antecedents in earlier waves of graffiti, like Richard Hambleton, John Fekner, and REVS/COST. What inspired you to adopt those techniques?
Initially I just wanted to be become a literal part of the city I loved and it was an exercise in solving the problem of how to reach people. Using a stencil was an effective and speedy solution. I had also seen the wheat pastes of Phil Frost, Pam Butler, and others, and it made sense to employ the same technique to share the flower prints I had made in 1993. It didn’t take me long to learn that the ephemeral nature of wheat pasting paper prints was a much more desirable technique for me over the spray stencils. The decay and disappearance of the flowers are an integral part of the work and connects it to the concepts of the cycle of life and regrowth and renewal.
I enjoyed seeing your early work, where you were experimenting with some other shapes, like moons, minnows, and kittens. What made you pick the flower for your emblem?
In the early 1990’s as a student at SVA, I was using imagery I had been experimenting with earlier, in high school. They were essentially positive, child-friendly images and symbols of suns, moons, eyeglasses, butterflies, flowers, etc. On September 30, 1993, using black paint and a fat brush, I had filled a wall full of paper sheets with these types of images. This one flower in the center had a presence that made it feel like it was leaping off the wall at me. I was attracted to it and wanted to see it in a multitude of colors. I immediately made a silk screen of it and in no time had a full rainbow of flower prints. The next step was obvious to me; I would share it with others via the streets like I had already been doing with my stencils of minnows and crescent moons.
There’s something a little maniacal about putting the same shape up thousands of times. Have your feelings for the flower changed over time?
Although I’ve used the same iconic image for over twenty-five years, I’ve also embraced alternate ways of expressing the concept. From gestural free-hand renditions on walls with bucket paint, to flowers that are tag-like using sponge-topped Krink applicators, to neon sculptures and more, the flower has become a springboard into other explorations. A handful of years ago I began utilizing flowers as a sole subject and inspiration in my studio work. I created a series of paintings inspired by my love of Dutch 17th century still life works and Vanitas paintings and have used the concept of growth (botanical and otherwise) as floral interventions on fashion photography and reproductions of art historical works.
Street art has come a long way since the mid-90s. I felt like there was a real flowering, so to speak, in the early 2000s, culminating with the 11 Spring Street show in 2006, but in the last ten years, things have gotten less interesting, and a lot of the best artists seem to have moved indoors to gallery shows. How do you feel the scene has changed? Are there any current artists who really inspire you?
I’m reminded of being contacted by Marc Schiller for the first time in 2002, before he and his wife Sara had created their blog, the Wooster Collective. They invited me to their SoHo loft and I remember Marc had asked me where I thought the street art scene was headed. I didn’t really have an answer, as I had always just focused on my work and not the growing scene or its future. I believe that he had sensed big things were coming and although I had seen the budding signs of it, I had no idea it would climb to the attention grabbing heights that it did. I feel that we’re in a new phase of its development where most of the street art now in New York are sanctioned murals. It’s wonderful since, I believe, murals are beneficial to a neighborhood and its community. On the flip side, there’s less and less gritty outlaw stuff happening, which I miss. I think that’s due to both the changing street art scene as well as our ever-changing city. Gentrification surely plays a large part.
As for artists that inspire me, it’s really a running and changing list based on what I’m currently looking at. I’m fortunate to live in New York City and have exposure to the many different types of work that comes here to our museums, galleries as well as the streets. I also try to travel frequently and am always seeking things out then, as well. It’d be unfair to single out and name some artists as the list is ever changing.
I love your poster work that combines flower painting and repurposed images- especially the ones you put up in bus-shelters, which really remind me of KAWS’ breakout Calvin Klein work from 20 years ago. How do you pick the images you’re repurposing? There’s such an interesting interplay between the fashion images and the Pre-Raphaelite paintings.
Thank you. When I first began using the bus-stop shelter ad vitrines, it was for installing a series of painted bouquets on plain paper. All of the advertisements I removed at the time just happened to be fashion ads. I decided to experiment by painting on them and I liked the results both aesthetically and conceptually. I was subverting the advertisement, however, in a somewhat harmonious way. I then reinstalled the painted ads into the bus-stop shelters where they seemed to fly under the radar. Most people paid them no mind since they perhaps, appeared to be designed that way. I found this all very encouraging. Because street-level fashion ads were limited in quantity, I began painting on pages I’d pull from fashion magazines where I could find them in abundance.
My interventions of Pre-Raphaelite paintings are a fitting next step to the fashion photography works. Idealized or manufactured concepts of beauty are evident in both genres. Anya Firestone beautifully expounds on this and more, in her essay in my new book, Flowers.
What’s next for you? Are you still hitting the streets? Do you think you’ll be pasting flowers in 20 years?
Producing my new book has taken a lot of my attention the past two years and now we’re in the book tour phase of the project. This Thursday, April 25th, we’re throwing a pop up celebrating my book’s launch with a party, exhibition, book signing and release of a new limited edition silkscreen print. It’s here in New York, at 198 Allen Street, from 6:30 – 9:00 pm. The tour will continue to museums and select locations around the U.S. and Europe with the last stop being on June 8th at The Garage in Amsterdam.
I still get up on the streets but not with the frequency I’m used to lately. I’m looking forward to getting back to my studio after the tour.
For complete tour details please visit mdefeo.com and @theflowerguy on Instagram.