Chaos & Grace: Thrashbird on the State of Street Art, Billboard Takeovers, and Doing Illegal Shit [California Summer Series]

A Q&A with Los Angeles’ most infamous street artist, Thrashbird. The discussion covers everything from social media ruining art to the story of his first billboard takeover.

Written by T.K. Mills

Last summer I flew out to the west coast with a mission – get interviews with the best street artists in Los Angeles.

LA’s Thrashbird is arguably one of the most relevant names in the game. Respected for his billboard takeovers, Thrashbird’s repertoire of punchy political commentary mixed with clever vandalism have earned him global recognition.

Late one night, we met up at a café to talk. Over burgers and cigarettes, we talked about everything relevant – from his career and his message, to social media’s corrupting influence and artists who are in it for the wrong reasons. Read the transcript of our conversation below.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and concision. 

TK Mills: How long have you been making street art?

Thrashbird: I started taking it seriously — as the one thing I felt, I really wanted to pursue in life — around 2011. I was going out four, five nights a week. Pasting, stenciling, that kind of thing. But I dabbled as a hobbyist since I was a kid.

How did your style develop? 

I wanted to have something… that was recognizable. Like, ‘oh, that’s Thrashbird.’ Something topical and poignant, of the moment. At the time, smartphones were relatively new. I started to notice, I’d go out with friends and everyone’s head would be bowed down, nonstop texting. It was annoying. Like, are we gonna hang out or are you just gonna text people all night? It became so pervasive. You’d look around, and everyone on the street would be stooped over on their phone. … So I started making the clones.

Tell me about the Clones.

Everything about the character was designed. I took notes from things I’d seen in the past, things I’d seen getting up in Los Angeles. One of the reasons the clone looks the way it does… When I first was doing street art, I was experimenting with a lot of different styles. I was trying to see what was engaging people. At first I was doing different forms of art, under two different names. One was called: To Be Determined. It was all photographic installations and wheat pastes. The other was Thrashbird. What I learned was, when you’re in a city with little walking traffic, the only way to grab people’s attention is with simplicity. As soon as it gets complicated, they tune out. 

So, the silhouette appealed to me for its basic design. I wanted the posture to look grotesque, hunched over with bended knees. The idea was this obsession, the involvement, the total and complete immersion into this device, as opposed to the outside world. I added small details to the hands and face. It added so much value to the piece. The details humanized it, in a way.

One of Thrashbird’s Clones in LA

Where does the name Thrashbird come from?

Failed band in high school. Not even a failed band, it was a joke… we were drunk at a house party and there were instruments downstairs. We were really into metal at the time. Judas Priest, Quiet Riot, Van Halen, The Scorpions, Iron Maiden… So we were bouncing around these names, like what are we gonna call the band? I can’t remember exactly who said it, but we got excited when we put it together, like ‘Thrashbird!’ It was a running joke at parties.

I liked it, so I held on to it. I thought it was an interesting dichotomy between two words that didn’t really go together. Birds to me represent grace and fluidity. Thrash, obviously you think of chaos and disorder. I loved that because as a person and an individual, that’s kind of my own duality… I was very destructive and self-sabotaging. Thrash was that need to revolt. The bird was the part of me that was soft and gentle. The side of me that cares about humanity. Especially now, I feel I’ve become that. I’ve become Thrashbird.

When did you start hitting billboards?

The idea started long time ago, before even street art. I wanted to do that kind of defacement on a large scale, the stuff that leaves people wondering like, ‘how’d you do it?’ In the 90s and early 2000s, the Indecline videos were coming out and old graff magazines. At some point I saw my first billboard takeover, I think it was the Billboard Liberation Front, but I didn’t know at the time. Still, I was like, ‘that’s fucking amazing!’ So when I started doing street art, it was like everything was working toward that. I never wanted to be a muralist. They’re great, but I think the power and importance of street art lies in the act of illegally putting something up with a message.

My first billboard was a McDonald’s takeover in 2012. I used to run this photograph, which was the calling card for To Be Determined. It was in Echo Park on top of a building. The billboard wasn’t too high, only like 10 feet off the roof. Bucket in one hand, poster and pole in the other.  I get up on the roof, really nervous and panicky… I fucking rushed the job… I saw the ladder and ran over. It had a frame with a crossbeam I didn’t see. I fucking knocked myself to the ground… I still have a bump on my head from it. I didn’t knock myself out, but GOD! It hurt.

I had just cooked a fresh batch of wheatpaste and the top popped off and spilled all over me. The pole went flying and made the loudest noise. I was trying not to scream or yell. I felt this wetness, and I thought it was the wheatpaste. Even though it hurt, I was still gonna finish the job. So I got up and did it and went back to my car. I was freaking out, I thought everyone in the neighborhood had called the cops. So I tossed everything in the trunk and sped off. And then I looked in the rearview and saw there was blood all over my face! I didn’t realize I’d popped myself that hard. [Laughing.] That board is still there, though I’ve never taken it over again. 

How do you scope out your targets?

I listen to the board. I look at it — and some people won’t see anything, just some shitty ad — I’ll see an ad and realize I can manipulate it in a way to make it say something. It’s being crafty with the wordplay and the visuals. … Or why sometimes it’s a specific company? Well, McDonald’s is a good bad guy.

A McDonald’s billboard that’s been given the Thrash treatment

What do you think about incorporating politics into street art?

Here’s my take on that… I think artists are pretentious, self-important, self-obsessed assholes. For the most part. To go out and do street art that does nothing but sell your style of art… to me it’s a fuck you to everybody who came before you, that put their heart into street art. Who used it as a way to express themselves, to lash out, to raise awareness, to speak on injustices. At the heart, that’s what so beautiful about street art. It gave us all that opportunity. 

I’m not saying you have to do political art. But if your intention is just self-promotion, then fuck you.

A political mural by Indecline, who’ve had a big influence on Thrashbird’s art

How does social media influence street art?

It’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the voices got bigger. It has so much power to unite people and raise awareness for change. On the other hand, it’s a blatant self-promotion monster.

Honestly, I believe it is ruining art across the board. So many people are getting involved on social media to reach a bigger audience, but pretty quickly it devolves into: what does my audience want to see next? How can I please them next? It becomes about validation. 

That starts to dominate the visual landscape. We see that now, where people are just pandering.

I fall victim to that validation too. I know if I pull off a really good political piece on a rough subject, it’ll get a lot of likes. But that puts me in a weird psychological place, where I’m benefitting off other people’s pain. I don’t like that. It makes me not want to do political stuff… Specifically with gun control. That’s really important to me. That’s something I’m passionate about. But I don’t like the idea— it’s like, people will comment all these nice things to me. And it’s like, this message is about dead kids. 

Thrash hitting a wall in LA’s art district with a spray-hydrant

What does it mean to have integrity as an artist? 

Integrity as an artist is just… telling the truth.

Tell me about Thrashbird’s Valley of Secret Values.

When you ask someone, what’s most important to you? No one is going to say their shoes. They’re going to say their family. They won’t say ‘my purse,’ they’ll say ‘my parents.’ But the reality is different. What do you spend your money on? Where’s your money going? We’re products of American indoctrination, where stuff equals importance. We’re conditioned to believe that status is everything. Money brings the stuff.

I’m not saying buying stuff is bad. I’m as guilty as anyone else. But I always try to think, what is the real cost of anything I’m purchasing. Who suffers on the other end of this? It’s a call to these brands and their products. Like, can you give us the better option? Can you offer fair trade? It takes people time they don’t have to research what’s the most [sustainable] pair of pants. But if companies offered it, people will take it. So I’m saying to all those brands, give consumer’s the option and we won’t let you down. … We live in a throwaway culture, because that’s more profitable and that system has to change.

Thrashbird’s Clone at Rag & Bone NYC – Photo Credit: Just_a_Spectator

What do you think of your reputation within the street art community? How do you think you’re perceived by other artists? 

I think artists think of me in one of two ways. One, he’s an asshole. Two, he gets up a lot. Outside of that, there’s probably people who like me and what I represent. Who respect that I try to live true to my values as best I can.

I want to preface with something. My art is not yelling at the world, saying ‘you need to do this.’ Street art gets misinterpreted that way. I did a little bit of barking at people in the beginning, but I realized that’s not a good way to get a conversation going. Because no one wants to be told what to do. 

Shutting people down is not an effective solution. I believe, everyone has the capability to think about things in an alternative way. With my art I want to reach people and make them question things. The best way to do that is being clever. That’s why billboards are so brilliant as a medium. [Billboards] are designed to subtly plant an idea in your head. So I use them to make people ask questions.

Thrashbird on a rooftop

Do street artists who show in galleries compromise their credibility?

It doesn’t matter to me. Even if I was in a bunch of galleries, I’d still do my street stuff. I’m going to toot my own horn for a second. I worked hard to become the definition of street art. That’s another thing I think other artists will say about me: ‘the dude is legit.’ Honestly, I’m proud of that.

Going back to the social media question — so many artists came before me, to give street art the credibility that it has. Artists who validated street art, artists who are the reason people even give a shit about street art. And then you have all these artists on social media who don’t really participate in the movement, but are capitalizing on the aesthetic. That makes me absolutely sick. 

I use this analogy: I like to bowl. I love to bowl. I think it’s the coolest game. But I wouldn’t go around telling everyone I’m a fucking bowler. And I would never try to make money off of bowling. People can take and interpret it as they want, but my feelings are pretty clear.

Street art has become a very marketable aesthetic. What are your thoughts on the state of street art?

Street art has gone so commercial. Simple, self-affirming, padded shit is going to sell. The harsher pieces that really say something? People aren’t going to hang that in their house, no matter how cool it looks aesthetically.  The reality is, [some artists] are just putting out ‘Hallmark Cards.’ Noninvasive, warm and cuddly. Pop culture bullshit. That’s what people buy.

Anyone you want to give a shout out to?

Shout out to the Indy Boys. Shout out to Bandit, who’s fighting the good fight. Shout out to Acool55. And shout-frown to guys who are doing it wrong.”

Closing Thoughts?

Basically, I want to leave people with one thing. If you’re getting into street art, and your sole purpose, your dominant priority, is to sell art work… then get the fuck out. If you want to be a street artist… you’d better get outside and do some illegal shit.

In the months since we sat down for our interview, Thrashbird has continued to blow up. He made national headlines when he bombed LA’s famous ‘selfie wall’, a pink brick building that served as a popular background for photoshoots. Instagram influencers across the city shrieked in terror when they saw the black spray-painted words: “Go Fuck ur Selfie.”

With each ‘activation,’ [as Thrash calls them] the street artist has managed to strike a blow across society’s consciousness. And the daredevil vandal shows no sign of slowing down. Even now, he’s cooking up something even bigger and badder.

If you want to contribute to his cause, check out his Go Fund Me: Thrash 4 Reform.

Thrashbird Mural on Melrose Avenue

Written by T.K. Mills

Photos provided by T.K. Mills, Just_a_Spectator & Thrashbird

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