The final episode in the California Summer series. A conversation with Teachr, an LA-based street artist who aspires to help others learn.
California Summer Series Finale
Written by TK Mills
I first heard of LA’s Teachr while doing an interview with another Los Angeles legend, WRDSMTH. WRDSMTH explained how Teachr showed him some new stencil techniques, on the condition that he spread the knowledge around. I liked the idea of a street artist whose aim was to teach others.
While on my California trip, I got in touch with Teachr and set up the interview via Instagram. The next day I drove the rental car up through the hills to his home, where we set up shop in his studio/garage. The house cats played around as we took our seats, surrounded by painting equipment and stencil cut outs.
Teachr has lived a rather storied life. We talked about everything – from his life-changing experiences painting in Africa, to how his family influenced his street art career, checking your ego, and the struggle to find inner peace.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and concision.
TK Mills: Can you introduce yourself for the Mic?
My name is Keith Biel, and I go by Teach, or Teachr, asshole, dickhead, whatever you like.
When did you officially adopt the moniker, Teachr?
When I first got started, there was actually a street art blog that was going on, called Melrose and Fairfax. It’s actually still alive. The cool thing about that one was you could put up comments anonymously, which was good and bad. It was hard at first, because being “Teachr” I thought I’d be getting compliments and stuff but I had people ripping me a new asshole, giving me a hard time. I was like, ‘what the fuck?’ Getting upset and stuff, but then finally, this one guy was like ‘dude, once you start reaching a lot of people it doesn’t matter what your message is, there’s always going to be some people that hate the fuck out of you.’ They kind of helped me get over that.
And then once you get over the ego and the personal shit, there’s actually ideas. You can learn from it. You’re hearing raw shit from people. At the time I was doing things about education, and to me, any graffiti artist or street artist, if you’re putting up a message or an image or something like that and someone’s looking at it and they’re getting something from it, you’re a teacher.
I just wanted to pick a simple name. I didn’t want to pick anything fancy. But it also had a lot to do with what I was doing. And thinking back, it could have something to do with my high school art teacher, because she was the one who put me on the path. It was spelled the way “teacher” is spelled normally, but then after I got arrested I took the ‘e’ off. Just so it wouldn’t be the same file still. They have to make a separate file! Simple.
Why did you get into street art? How did you start?
I got into street art and graffiti mainly because of my twins. I’ve always been an artist from the beginning, finger painting, drawing things. Actually, the first art classes I had were in high school. I had a beautiful high school art teacher, she really kind of changed my life. I’m dyslexic so reading and writing is a pain in the ass and she was like ‘hey, you know there’s art schools out there.’
There’s a bachelor’s degree of fine arts, which is what I actually got. I started doing portraits mainly, because my major was illustration and you’re supposed to be able to be good at marketing, which they didn’t really teach us at the art school, how to network and be good at nagging people without really being like that. I just was not good at that, so I ended up doing commission paintings. It started with horses, dogs, people, and stuff like that. I also did a project that ended up putting me in the Pentagon, working on a painting. I became the first artist ever allowed to work on a painting in the corridors of the Pentagon. It was like a live art installation.
I turned making art into a community service because I started targeting places where people served the community; the police department, the fire department, the courthouse complex, city hall, I set up in all these different places and would sit there and work on a painting.
And what that did, is it actually increased the art appreciation market. Because these people who normally don’t get to go to galleries and stuff, or even if they do, it’s dead art. It’s nice, it’s decorative and everything, but if they get to see it happening… I had a fireman in my hometown come up to me after I was there for a week. I’d done an aerial painting of the town, a picture my dad had taken from an airplane. This one guy didn’t say a word to me the whole week. Finally, at the end of the week he comes up and he’s like ‘I’m not much into art or anything, but to get to see you taking that from a blank canvas to a finished piece and how long it took you, I now have more appreciation of art.’ I was like ‘wow, that’s fucking cool man.’
The funny thing was, anytime I ever mentioned it to another artist, the idea, they were like ‘oh yeah, I’d be down for that! So how do you get paid, who’s paying you?’ And I’m like ‘never mind.’ When I went to Africa and spent some time in Zimbabwe, hyperinflation was going on; you can’t do anything in a country like that. I had some art with me and I did an art exchange, I found a school over there and stuff and man, I tell you what, after that experience, that made a man out of me, going to Africa.
What were some of your reflections and emotions? How did it build you?
I actually set up and worked in the waiting area of an emergency room in Harari, Zimbabwe. Just being there, I saw a lady being pulled in a wheelchair, and the wheelchair kind of caught on something and fell over and she was out of consciousness, her eyes were open, but she just landed, her head smacked the ground and there was no movement or anything… It seemed like there was a lot of death around. But I was there working on a painting, and all the people were watching me, going back and forth watching me and the TV.
The Director of the National Gallery of Zimbabwe just happened to be visiting a friend and to be walking through when she saw me and said ‘this is interesting, what are you doing here?’ And I was like, ‘well I just wanted to give these people something else to focus on.’ She was like, ‘would you mind coming to talk to some students tomorrow?’ I’m like, ‘Students? Sure, no problem.’ Next day I’m at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe.
They put me in a truck and they take me to this area called Embara. It’s a slum area, but, they had a building that was an art studio and it was free art classes to students whose portfolio was good enough to get in.
My first trip over there, it kind of hit me hard because I was staying at this orphanage, doing some art projects with them also, show them how to do silk screens shirts. I had two $100 bills with me, and I had hidden them in this one room and right before we left we went out in the countryside for a couple days and we did some schools and then we came back those two $100 bills were gone. I made the mistake, the lady who ran the orphanage came in and said ‘what are you looking for, what’s wrong?’ And I said, ‘Oh I had a couple $100 bills disappear, I can’t find them.’ Oh man, I wish I hadn’t even let her know. The next morning, I woke up to hearing her whipping all fifteen because they wouldn’t rat on each other, they wouldn’t tell who took it. So she whipped all fifteen of them.
Here’s the thing, when I went over there the first time, they put us in this one room, and the two girls that were in this one room had to go and stay in the other room. (One of those girls was the one who took it by the way, I found out when I went back.) But I remember after hearing them whipping and finding out what happened, I went on a walk, and I didn’t care if I came back from that walk. I walked through town, I was just walking. I seriously didn’t care. Like if someone was trying to fuck with me, I would’ve got in a fight and died. It was a horrible place to be in my mind. But then luckily at some point I was like ‘god damn dude, you’re actually being a little selfish here. Because you got fucking parents, you got friends who are gonna be really let down if you die.’ That is when I started living a little bit more for other people than myself. And that’s why I say it made a man out of me.
The miraculous thing was when I went back the people were like… you came back? And the people in the orphanage were super happy, especially those girls, because when I arrived they were like ‘oh wow! You’re here, cool.’ Because I brought some money, I’d go get food for them and stuff. It was funny because I saw these two girls starting to get their stuff and move into the other room and I was like ‘no, no, no’ because there was a main room like where the TV was when there was electricity. And a couple of sofas, and I was like, ‘is it okay if I sleep in here?’ And everyone’s like ‘sleep wherever you want.’ And it made the biggest fuckin difference. That’s why one of them finally told me, ‘yeah, Miyasha took your money.’ I told her, ‘I would have too.’ So she appreciated that.
I had to go back. And then after that, I sent some art supplies over to the National Gallery. They were giving some to students that I went and saw. I was gonna go back a third time, but by then I had met my wife, and she was pregnant.
So you came back from Africa, you met your wife, she was pregnant…
Well yeah, she was actually going to do it on her own. When I first met my wife, she had had a boyfriend that she was going to start a family with and that didn’t work out so she was going to go do it on her own. She told me that within a week of meeting me, because she thought I was just going to be some summer fun. And I was like “okay that’s cool” because by that time I’d realized that kids responded to me really well, I actually did some mentoring in Florida, and I decided that if I ever met a woman who already had kids, I’d be fine with helping her raise them.
My wife is a mixture of Greek, Italian and Turkish. But she was raised in Frankfurt and she also spent some time in Greece. Most of her time in Frankfurt though. So, pretty much German. And right about when the twins came along, there was an article in the newspaper she showed me. She’s like, ‘your country’s taking money out of your education budget and art out of schools. They’re really doing themselves a disfavor.’ I’m like, ‘yeah, I agree with you.’
I came out here (to Los Angeles) in 1999 and I’ve been here on and off since then. I met her in 2008, and in that meantime, I did a little bit of artwork here and there and I had seen the graffiti and I thought it was cool and kind of wanted to do something but I couldn’t come up with anything. I actually airbrushed t shirts for a little while in this tourist area where I’m from in Destin, Florida, a little fishing village. So I’m familiar with doing bubble letters and stuff.
So you grew up in Destin, Florida?
Yes, I grew up in Destin, Florida.
And where did you go to college?
So in 1987, I went to Ringley School of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida.
Back on track: your wife, the twins, the street art.
I’ve always been passionate about my artwork, so when the wife showed me that news article, I was like, ‘sweetie, it’s time that I start doing graffiti.’ And I said, ‘the way I’m going to go after this, there’s a good chance I’m gonna get arrested, so just be prepared, one morning you’re going to get a call and you’re gonna have to come bail me out.’ And she’s like, ‘okay.’
And it happened. I got arrested December 15th, 2011. Little did I know, a little after I got started in April 2010, they changed the laws. I’d done some research and everything, put a couple thousand bucks aside for fines, but I didn’t know they changed the laws so that anything you do that costs more than $400 to clean and cover, is a felony. So these billboards, that I was hitting, I’m at a felony right there. Luckily, the night they got me, I was in Sunset Plaza, and I had a couple things on my list to do that night.
I had this stencil that I made that fit perfectly over these little yellow signs along the median, kind of a little caution sign. The stencil said, “teach each child.” So I would just spray it and go on down the street, hit like four or five in that area and the security guard saw me. And he said, ‘hey what’re you doing?’ I was like ‘whatever,’ and kept walking down the street, eastward from Sunset Plaza to the House of Blues because I saw the marquis out front which you can move the letters around on, it said “Freestyle Fellowship.” I could spell out “free school teach” basically, with the letters.
So I hopped up there and moved it around. Little did I know, there’s a security guard sitting in a room and they have monitors watching me. And the cops are already looking for me because of the other guy.
So I finished moving the letters and I hopped down to take a picture and at this time. As soon as I took that picture, two sheriff’s cars pulled up together. I had prepared for this moment. I had rehearsed funny things to say, because if you can make a cop laugh, you’re gonna get some mercy. The problem was, I’d never rehearsed it with two little bitty guys running up to me with guns pointed. So, I went blank. These two little cops are like what are you doing?’ I froze for a moment and it was almost like I went through every single thing that I thought was funny, in that moment, did not seem funny. So the first words that actually came out of my mouth were, ‘I’m just having fun man.’
$6,000 later… I went to court, and I could have done a better job myself, actually, than the lawyers that we got. I tell [the lawyer] the situation, and he goes, ‘oh dude, I’ll get this dismissed. You’ve been at the Pentagon, whatever. You’re putting up ‘teach each child’? We’ll get this dismissed. $1000.’ There you go, he calls me back like, “um, it’s gonna go to court. That’s another $2500.’ After the first hearing, they call me and they’re like, “so the judge, I don’t know if she was in a bad mood or whatever, they want either your driver’s license for a year, or 45 8-hour days of graffiti removal within six months.” That’s two days a week for six months. And I was like ‘what happened to getting this dismissed?’
Eventually, they dropped it all the way down to a misdemeanor, they did put me on probation for three years, that’s what kind of pissed me off. And I’ll be the first one to admit I let my ego get the best of me, and I decided that if they’re going to treat me like a criminal for another three years, that I was gonna fucking act like one. Because I had all kinds of other guys stepping up from the streets, after I got arrested, offering to be my lookout. A lot of guys didn’t know I was doing all this shit by myself, hitting all these billboards by myself without a lookout, I just committed to it.
I had it down to a science. I was careful, I was on probation. The guy that I ended up working with, you couldn’t have a better lookout. I just did a podcast with him yesterday, my buddy Scott. He’s a stringer. You ever seen that movie Nightcrawler? That’s him. He approached me, he’s like ‘hey man, I’ll be your lookout for you.’ He’s got eight police radio in his car, dude. If anything’s going on, he knows. If someone puts a call in, he hears it.
So this was 2011-ish then?
This was 2012, -13, -14. I was gonna go all three years up until the end of my probation. But I stopped two months early because we found out that my son was certified with sensory processing disorder. He needs me around, basically, until he becomes more stable in a few years. But if I got arrested again, I would have been gone for a while and that would not have been good. So that was when I was like, ‘okay, ego’s gotta take a fucking backseat now. Time to be a dad. I’ve already proved my point, I’ve done some of the craziest fucking billboards and you gotta be smart about this shit, you can’t just keep doing it. You’re gonna get caught eventually.’
Now, with Instagram and everything, you don’t need to hit billboards anymore. You can hit billboards to get respect, but you can still get your message out there just as much, if not more, with smaller pieces.
In terms of your style, it seems the ‘Teach’ piece is one of your core messages.
Right, I started with education but I hoped that I wouldn’t always have to be reminding people to put money towards education. So the “teach” piece basically came from my upbringing, the military. My parents were devout Christians, sweetest little old people you’ll ever meet, but technically they were mass murders for the military, because they built weapons of mass destruction. My dad was in the research and design and the armament laboratory at the Air Force base. And my mom was in the mathematics laboratory doing analytics for all the programs going in the weapons. This is like Bonnie and Clyde of the military, but I remember I was talking to my dad and I was like, “so dad, we’re Christian Right? I know one of the commandments is ‘thou shalt not kill’. Yet, you and mom are responsible for not just thousands, but tens of thousands [of deaths.]’
And for me, man I would have been a killing machine. Because I got picked on when I was younger, because I was kind of excitable and a little clown. And so I had anger issues, so now you’re telling me that it’s okay to kill people that aren’t good. But I remember going to see my dad’s office, and he took me over to the art section where the guys were designing and doing whatever… but luckily they let me pursue my artistic career and go to an art school. So instead of helping to make weapons of mass destruction, I took the path of making weapons of mass production. Peace. When you teach peace, that basically means anytime you help someone that’s dealing with conflict, deal with their conflict, you’re teaching peace.
What are your thoughts on the LA street art community?
I always think, as an artist, it’s good to try and collaborate with as many people as you can, especially people if you like what they do, or if you have appreciation or are inspired by them. But at the same time, you don’t want to get too diluted. So I try to keep a happy balance of that.
The first time I heard about you was during an interview I did with Wrdsmth. Could you tell me about your collaboration?
When I first started seeing his stuff it was just the little typewriters on the boxes, and I thought it was really cool. It was a great idea, and the guy hustles. I mean, that dude puts the time in. And I reached out to him and I was like, ‘hey, do you wanna make that bigger? I can show you my stencil technique,’ because I came up with my own stencil technique with the screen paper.
I said, ‘you gotta promise me though, if I show you this technique, that you at least gotta show one other person, if not more.’ And Wrdsmth was like, ‘what? I thought you were going to tell me not to tell anybody.’ I’m the type of person that I would rather see other people flourish and create things than to keep it to myself.
As far as the community here in LA, it’s almost like any middle school or high school. When you’re dealing with artists, you’re gonna have a lot of egos and personalities and some people who think that they’re better than everybody else or that they’re at a certain level and can’t do anything with anyone below them or anything like that, but I try not to be like that. I try to do collaborations with people that I have become knowledgeable of as well as people that I’ve known since I got started. For the most part, everyone is not that bad. There’s been some problems, there’s beefs that happen.
Anything closing thoughts, or things you want people to know about you?
I am not a peaceful person. I struggle with it. It’s my mantra, is what it is. A lot of people think I’m like this peaceful guy all the time, “teach peace” or whatever, and that’s not what it’s about. It’s the imperfection that I am, that I’m constantly striving towards. And I hope other people do the same.
Since we sat down on our interview, Teachr has kept himself busy doing personalized commissions for clients and co-hosting the Paint the Town Podcast (PTTP) with LAStreetArtGallery, curator James Shen.
Asking about any upcoming events, Teachr told me he was getting ready for a trip to Germany for a conference on paint coating. He was bringing along one of his innovations, the ‘three-er’ a device that can be loaded with three spray cans at once, to demo different coatings of paint. In addition to the Eurotrip, Teachr is helping to curate a group show at City of Industry, slotted for April 20th.
However, much of his energy has been devoted to the Paint the Town Podcast. Teachr explained how Shen, a patron of the arts and a creative entrepreneur, brought him on board for the show. At first, Teachr was unsure if he was up to the task, feeling uncertain about how to fill an hour’s worth of material with just talking. But after sitting down and getting in the groove, the podcast came easy.
The podcast was created as a platform to give artists the opportunity to talk about themselves and let their fans learn more about their work. Shen and Teachr recruit street artists that they feel have interesting stories to tell, and run the show in a Joe Rogan-esque open forum, talking about anything and everything. In particular, Teachr likes to ask guests about their family history and background, feeling it’s the best way to get to know someone.
As Teachr’s art and life can attest, there is always something new to be learned.