Before he had an agent, before he was holding exhibitions at elite galleries in New York, London and Tokyo, and before he was doing commissioned artwork for mega brands like Nike, Volkswagen and Target, Mark Paul Deren – the artist better known as MADSTEEZ ¬¬– was a surfer – and a damn stylish regularfooter at that (would you expect anything less from a guy named MADSTEEZ?).
However, surfing imagery has never figured into MADSTEEZ’s signature multi-layered murals and colorful graffiti-inspired art. Until now. When Rip Curl asked MADSTEEZ to create the artwork for this year’s Rip Curl Cup Padang Padang, he jumped at the chance and delivered what many are calling the most iconic surf contest poster in a generation. According to MADSTEEZ, Bali is where his inspiration as an artist was first born, so it was only natural to come full circle and bring his spray cans back to Padang Padang and The Island of the Gods. We caught up with MADSTEEZ at his makeshift art studio in the backwoods of Uluwatu to learn more.
First off, what are we doing in this backyard shed?
MADSTEEZ: We’re in Bali and I'm painting a mural for the new Rip Curl store at Padang Padang beach. We’re using my friend’s shed as a studio.
How much paint did you buy for this project?
About 50 cans of spray paint, a few gallons of house paint, and then probably about 25 tubes of acrylic paint.
Where do you live and how is working in this kind of environment on the road different than working in your studio at home?
I live in Brooklyn, New York, so I came (to Bali) on a 28-hour flight. Basically I paint all over the world, and I'm actually most comfortable in whatever environment I am in. It doesn't matter if I'm in my studio, in a makeshift shed in the middle of Bali, or if I'm hanging from a 50-story building. I love being, and painting, wherever I am at that moment.
Because canvases are too small. Every canvas I paint I feel super contrived and I can't fit in what I want to do, so the bigger the better for me. I like that power of painting on a large scale. That excites me as opposed to a little painting in somebody's bathroom. That is my worst fear, to be a painting in somebody's bathroom.
How did you get into big murals in public spaces? Is it hard to find a place to do that, especially when you were still an up and coming artist?
I definitely had a past in graffiti. It was a transition from creating art in the studio to painting stuff on the streets. Basically the evolution was painting walls, painting buildings, painting just larger scale projects. I don't know how I got into it to be honest. My career, or my art career, has been basically one snowball. One thing led to the next, which led to the next, and before you know it I'm building this creature that is basically Stephon (MADSTEEZ’s signature character).
So you did a lot of street art before?
The word “street art” didn't exist back then. For me, painting illegally is the funnest thing possible. You have this crazy rush, you don't know if you're going to get caught, you don't know who's going to see you, so the excitement of that is kind of what it’s all about. I'd say it's like pulling into a giant barrel at Padang Padang. That's what makes it exciting. So the more prolific you get, the more you could potentially get caught. You dance around it in other countries and stuff. You have to tiptoe on a fine line.
Do you ever get nervous anymore when you get commissioned to do a huge piece in a public space?
I get nervous every time. People don't believe me when I tell them this, but I was the quarterback of my high school football team, and I used to throw up before every single game because I would get so nervous. To this day, before every piece, every project, you're like, super nervous. You don't know how it's going to come out. Even this project (Rip Curl Padang Padang store macro painting) I didn't even know what I was going to paint. So it's kind of the anxiety of what's going to happen. Who's going to be there? Every time I get super nervous, but once you put paint on the canvas, it just starts flowing.
Weensville, California. I can't find it on the map. Where exactly is Weensville and what is a Ween?
Weensville, California is right there in the middle of the Ween o'verse. It's a secret location where you either have to be a weenimal or invited personally to come visit. A ween is a character that I started drawing, his name originates from Mr. Ween and his eyebrows, his eyes, spawned other forms: ween shark, ween giraffe, ween cow. Basically anything can be “weenified,” I like to say.
What’s it like having only one eye that works?
A lot of people don't know that I'm blind in my left eye. It's not blind in the traditional sense that it's all black. The way your eye works is it's basically a perfect circle and light comes in and bounces a million different ways. I have an extra mound of tissue in the back of my eye that's basically a mountain that sticks out. So when light comes in it bounces in super crazy ways. How I see out of that eye is gradients, prisms. It's basically like a kaleidoscope. When you're turning a kaleidoscope, it refracts the light and results in all these different colors and patterns. That's basically how I see out of my left eye.
How has having only one good eye influenced your art?
It’s totally affected my art because my colors, my compositions, everything basically relates to it. I'm basically not balanced. I have an asymmetrical way of looking at things, even just the way that the light comes in. I don't even know how it's affecting me because I don't know any other way to see. It's been from birth so I don't even know how you're supposed to actually see. So, I just see how I see, and that's how I see the Ween o'verse.
Does it affect the way you surf?
Going left (backside for Mark), I don't know what's going on over here, I have to look extra hard with my trailing eye.
You shred on a surfboard, but from what I've seen it doesn't look like surfing actually plays that much into the imagery of your art. Why is that?
Surfing is basically non-existent in my actual art because I'm not a huge fan of surf art and I didn't want to make art that already exists. I basically create art that I want to make, that I want to see. Surfing's been such a big part of my life, it's strange that I don't want to paint waves. But that bores me. I want to paint people, I want to paint interesting subjects that move me.
So why were you excited about this opportunity to make the artwork for Rip Curl Cup?
I moved to New York City last year. Before that my life revolved around surfing. But since the move, I've transitioned to my life revolving around art. Basically it took surfing out of the equation. When Rip Curl came to me it was a really cool opportunity to keep surfing in my life. We're doing two collaboration collections and also doing key art for different contests. There's Bells Beach, the Rip Curl Pro Portugal, and of course the Rip Curl Cup Padang Padang.
Does being in Bali inspire your art?
The first project I'm doing with Rip Curl is the Rip Curl Cup at Padang Padang. For me that was awesome because Indonesia is literally one of the best places to get barreled in the entire world. Bali was such a huge inspiration for me, just even becoming an artist. I had a midlife crisis at 20 years old and went to Bali for the first time in the year 2000. When I came back home to the States I started painting. Bali was the catalyst from being who I was as a kid to transitioning into a full-blown artist. Coming back to Bali and doing the Rip Curl Cup artwork has been special for me.
Have you seen the lineup of invited surfers for the Rip Curl Cup this year?
There are some amazing surfers in the draw, but I’m really excited about Mason. Mason's one of my favorite surfers and I've actually wanted to get him in the studio and paint with him, which I think would be super sick. So, Mason, get your ass to New York City and come paint with me, and then let's go surfing there too.