When you're meeting up with a skateboarding design-graf-tattoo art giant, you prep a certain kind of question – 'how do you post your art on your website without getting arrested' comes to mind. But when I hung with Bay legend Mike Giant this week while he put the final touches on the pieces for his upcoming fine art show at Guerrero Gallery (opens Sat/11), I found myself ditching my notes for another line of inquiry.
Which followed this line, roughly: where do I find some of what he's smoking?
Maybe what he's meditating on would be a more apt way of putting it. Giant, the founder of zine publishing house Skullz Press and skate brand Rebel 8, has been pursuing enlightenment for well over a decade now – he used to lead a regular meditation session in Dolores Park followed by a group bike ride before travel and a brief stint back in his hometown of Albuquerque took him away. He finds it a integral part of his creative process. “I'm the observer to my thoughts, not the thinker. It feels like I'm just watching it happen.”
Oh wait, that was him talking about what happens when he smokes weed before he draws.
But it all comes to the same end: what Giant is searching for is a way to step back from the small urgencies and literal dialogue of life and connect to a larger undercurrent. It's a slightly abstract artistic statement -- one that fits with his scraggly, shoulder-length blonde hair, bushy beard, and elder hippie statesman status in the circles he runs in -- but it's pretty refreshing to hear someone with firm roots in street culture get up on such a positive level.
Above, Giant getting up in Western Addy. Below right, cruising through Guerrero Gallery. All photos by Andres Guerrero
The 16-odd works that Giant is showing at Guerrero were already hung on the gallery's walls the rainy day I trekked over, half of them magazine image collages and half of them single design human hearts and skulls, fine art pieces that he's created with sign painter's enamel (“it's another low brow homage.”) The collages are collections of magazine images with alternating feminine and masculine themes, accentuated with small, handwritten notes from Giant.
Here, a transcription of an ex-girlfriend's apology for a tumultuous relationship, there, turn-ons and turn-offs. A list on a piece stacked with photos of women displays a neatly-written “things that make girls ugly” that lists coffee, cars, corporate jobs, meat, and cigarettes. Giant's bike leans by the gallery entrance, his constant companion whose front basket has been known to hold three cases of beer at a time. There's eloquent meditations, mundane journal-like entries – another note on the same piece reads “don't be surprised that I like girls who can deep throat.”
Three days before the exhibit's opening reception and the works are done. And yet throughout our interview Giant hardly stops messing with them. I watch as he tags an empty corner of one of them with one of his impossibly precise characters. Giant is known for the cleanness of his lines, and has cultivated an image of responsibility and dedication in the skate and tattoo art worlds. “I work hard. All my friends will tell you I work every day for quite a few hours in the studio,” he tells me when I remark that he's thought of as a “smart” artist.
Hard-working, but business savvy is surely another contributor to the guy's success. He's landed partnerships with Pabst and Vans – the big guns in hipster advertising – and has struck upon what he sees as the secret to ensuring one's economic worth in the art world: repetition. “It increases the value, the more that image has life on the marketplace,” he counsels.
And correspondingly, Giant's aesthetic is fairly solid: the cholo imagery that made him a star on the tattoo scene runs throughout his design work, and onto the enameled canvasses that hang on the wall at Guerrero.
After a decade of physically grueling work he's now retired from tattooing anyone but friends, the guy's Facebook fan page is still overrun with entreaties to do one last tat. “How do I get work by u?” asks a gentleman named Corn Nut, into the Internet abyss. A few years back Giant did a photography series of hot chicks on bikes, drawing over the prints to make the girls into inked idols. He loves making art on skin, it's just that his body's not up for it anymore. “Ten years,” he says. “That's how long most people figure you can do in tattoos.”
Although still busy with designing T shirts for Rebel 8, Giant figures that having been on the scene this long he is afforded a few shifts in medium. “I'm allowed to. I'm at a point in my career now where I don't think it matters -- I've started to think of the fine art thing as the place to experiment.”
He does look pretty happy in Guerrero with his fist full of Sharpies, having just smoked a humungous joint and waxed poetic on the beauty of meditation for the better part of an hour. A beauty unto himself, really, so I'll give the last word to the Giant.
“Meditation... the whole point of that is to break your heart open. It's way crazier than an orgasm, than a crazy LSD trip, than the greatest love you've ever felt. It's important to keep in mind that there's a different level of this. I do think I've felt the hand of God.”
Mike Giant: “Reflections on Past, Present, and Future”
Opening reception Sat/11 7-11 p.m., free
2700 19th St., SF