From Los Angeles to New York and everywhere in between, Dirt Cobain is popping up and rocking murals.
This article was conducted over several interviews between Summer 2018 & Winter 2019.
Dirt Cobain’s made a name for himself, racking up recognition inside and outside the industry. He’s been profiled in Sold Mag, Complex, and was featured in ArtNet’s Top Ten Street Artists Who Are Taking the Art Form Beyond Banksy. Dirt’s been getting up, hitting walls on all over the country, leaving his mark everywhere from St. Marks Street to Melrose Ave.
Despite the hype, you’d never know it meeting him. Dirt stays humble, focusing on perfecting his style, rather than the fame. I caught up with him at Bushwick’s Gallery Bar for an interview, to learn more about the artist behind the name.
What’s in a Name?
‘Dirt Cobain’ grew out of an old nickname. His friends called him Dirty D, a play on his real name. Dirt was a fan Mac Dre and his lyrical puns, and took a cue from the MC. At first it was just a joke among friends, but as his career has grown, the name has come to mean more.
At 15, Dirt picked up his first spray can. In the beginning, Dirt was just doing tags, enjoying the days of teenage hooliganism. Sneaking out with his friends, smoking weed in the park, and running about the night. It was his first taste of the rebellious spirit.
“You get a natural high from doing something you know you’re not supposed to be doing.”
When Dirt moved to LA, his neighbor was old-school rave legend, Jessie Brooks. Jessie took an interest in Dirt’s work and encouraged him to submit to a gallery which was near the Melrose Fame Yard.
He submitted as D. Cobain, as he wasn’t confident in his moniker. The gallery owner was up-front with him – ‘Look I need a name.’ And so, he went with Dirt Cobain.
“That’s when I decided to roll with it, and it’s been pretty well received ever since.” Dirt explained.
U Get Me So High
Since 2013, the year he decided to pursue art professionally, Dirt has worked up a recognizable palette of images. His distinctive dirty style pieces stand out. When you see a 40 oz. or a pill bottle, you already know who.
“It’s a reflection of where I come from.”
Given the apparent drug references, one wouldn’t expect that Dirt’s iconography was born in rehab. Realizing his party habits had gotten a little out of hand, Dirt voluntarily checked himself into a facility.
“It’s not something I’m ashamed of, but it’s not something I always talk about either.”
“It was a good choice. I just needed to get my act together… to insulate myself from opportunities to party. I needed a break.”
In rehab, Dirt didn’t have his phone or internet access.
“It’s part of the deal. They take all your shit away so you can focus on yourself.”
Left with nothing but a pen and a pad, Dirt took to his passion to pass the time. As a joke, Dirt sketched a pill bottle scribbled with ‘Drugz n Stuff.’ It was a spoof, but everyone loved it.
After completing rehab, Dirt cleaned up, but kept the image. The pill bottle has become a staple of his visual lexicon. However, the message has evolved. Dirt varies the texts on his art – most notably ‘U Get Me So High.’
“It’s a representation of obsession, or addiction, or anything you just can’t let go.”
The words don’t just refer to drugs – it can mean love, or sex, or partying. Anything that gets you high. He elaborated: “I like to let people interpret it their own way. … Art is supposed to make you think.”
Dirt’s art is meant to touch on the subliminal, not just the surface level.
“People don’t know I went through a big thing with sobriety. It’s still something I go up and down with, back and forth with. It’s an everyday challenge.”
Dirt channels his past with his painting. He’s built a reputation by getting up. Now when people see Dirt’s work, whether it’s the pill bottle, the 40 oz. or his bunny-skull tag, they recognize.
“People catch it like a stamp. They don’t even need to check the name.”
On the Real
In 2017, Dirt came to New York for a week. By the time he left, he realized one week was not enough.
“I said: Fuck it, I’m gonna move to New York.”
“When I came here, I wanted to establish a presence. You know, just get into the vibe…. I wanted to grow a reputation, and grow friendships.”
In 2018, he did a collaboration with OuterSource at the heart of Old New York bohemia — St. Marks. The piece depicts a woman, her blue lips shining against the background of stars. On the building side, a ribbon reads: U Get Me So High.
Dirt took a lot of pride in this piece. There’s not many murals on the street, and the historical significance of St. Marks gives it a certain shine. Dirt also has a wall on Haight in San Francisco, another road of cultural infamy. Having hit two of the most notorious streets in the world made Dirt reflect on his own milestones.
“It’s made me think back for a second, like, ‘yo I’m so fortunate.’”
As we talked, the conversation shifted to street art and social media more broadly.
“I like to let my art speak for itself. I try not to get wrapped up on Instagram shit.”
Still, he recognizes the role these platforms have in promoting art. However, there is a dark side to the accessibility of images. Some claim the title of ‘street artist’ without ever earning their stripes. There is a tendency for social media to inflate the ever-fragile ego.
“The vast majority of people can see if you’re real or fake. Especially in street art. Even though things have changed, there’s still that street culture.”
There are certain artists, who use they’re insta-following as a bully pulpit, wielding their influence to push others around. Others are true to the code. Dirt cited LA’s Thrashbird as an artist who he feels represents the real. Thrash’s ‘You’re Not a Public Figure’ wall talks truth.
As to his own reputation, Dirt has a modest pride.
“People see that I’m true to what I’m doing, and who I am. They know that I work hard. They see the motivation. They see the dedication.”
Keep It Movin’
Dirt’s flirted with fashion, selling merch as a hobby. Like many in the game, Dirt is also an avid collector. Occasionally he makes stickers, pins, and shirts. For Dirt, it’s a way of sharing his art with those who can’t afford a canvas.
Dirt’s goals are to stay on the hustle, and continuing popping-up on both coasts and elsewhere.
“I don’t wanna stay in one place too long… I want to be all over the place, but nowhere at the same time.” He said laughing.
On a personal level, it’s his friends that motivate him most.
“It’s like a fun competition sometimes. You see your friend doing something good, and it’s like ‘ah I better get off my ass and do something good now too.’” Dirt explained. “OuterSource, SacSix, Lucky Rabbit, Turtle Caps… All those guys. When I see people I know doing good, it pushes me to step up…. That’s what it’s about – inspiring each other to wanna be your best.”
“I work my ass for every wall I get, every sale, it’s all hard work… Straight work, work, work. Grind, grind, grind.” Dirt grinned. “People respect that.”
“I try to remain humble, stay true to my formula.” Dirt grinned. “There’s an old saying – real players do what they want. Suckers do what they can.”
And Dirt’s doing what he wants.
Taking it to the Next Level
Dirt has stayed on his grind. He celebrated 2019 with a new mural in El Paso, Texas. In February, he returned to New York for a show at Maison Ten. Three months after the launch of a candle line with Thompson Ferrier, the show was to commemorate the hanging of Dirt’s art, the first street artist to be represented in the upscale boutique.
“I know a bunch of people were looking at me, like ‘what the fuck are you doing selling candles?’ But I’m pushing the envelope. I’m raising the bar. I’m not just doing pins and tees. Who else has a candle?”
The collaboration began when Ferrier, whose office is in the Flatiron district, walked by one of Dirt’s murals on 6th Ave & 24th Street. After passing it by everyday for work, he looked up Dirt’s Instagram. Rather just have Dirt do a design, they took it one step further and crafted the candles to look like pill bottles, complete with the classic white lid. Plus, they smell fresh.
Through Ferrier, Dirt got connected with Maison Ten. Last November they launched the candle line, while this year he was brought in to hang his art and present a speech. I listened as Dirt told his story to the inquisitive crowd, as hands shot up and a flurry of questions flowed out.
And just as quickly as he arrived, Dirt is heading back home to California for another major show, this time at the Mayfair Hotel. The hotel hosts a gallery, and has featured big name street artists such as Seen and Risk. When he originally connected with the organizer, it was intended as a solo show. Instead, Dirt opted to bring some friends along. ‘Dirt Cobain & Friends’ will open on February 28th, 2019.
“Whenever someone brings me in, I ask that they trust me and my artistic input.” Dirt recalled, explaining how the show developed.
Beyond the Mayfair show, Dirt is also helped to curate a charity show for DIFFA (Design Industries Foundation Fighting Aids) that will feature his, and other street artists’ canvases.
With so many big events on the horizon, I asked Dirt what it’s like, now that he is taking his art work to the next level.
“I’m going to be more selective. I want my art to be a little more exclusive. I want to make sure I’m showing my art in places that deserve it. As an artist, I have to know my worth.”
With six years under his belt, murals in major cities across the country, and a merchandise line that spans t-shirts to candles, Dirt’s earned his stripes. But for everything he’s achieved, Dirt Cobain stays true to himself. Humble as he is, Dirt’s still one of the hardest hustlers out there.
Written by T.K. Mills
For more by the author, check out his website tkmills.com