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Artist Greve on Art, Chicago, & Bill Murray

Naming Diego Rivera, the Garbage Pail Kids, and even his mother’s Madonna figurine as inspiration, visual artist Greve created over 400 outside murals during his career as a painter in the advertising industry. Driven by integrity and creative freedom, he has since gone out on his own, spray-painting his bold, intricate aesthetic from coast to coast, and dabbling in everything from filmmaking to airbrushing on the side. A Chicago native, Greve stopped by Threadless to create the first piece he actually categorizes as “street art”, and even filled us in on his story, style, and the many reasons he loves Bill Murray.

Hey, Greve! We’re super excited about the mural you created at Threadless. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Thank you! I love what Threadless does for artists so it is an honor.

I’m a visual artist born, raised, and based out of Chicago. In the early ’90s, I began writing graffiti at 13 years old. At that time, the world didn’t accept anything that came out of a spray-can or marker as art; the consensus being that people painting their names fancily was not art, but self-righteous masturbation. I can’t really say that I had artistic intentions in the beginning, I was young, and my primary attraction was the thrill.

Throughout the years, I developed a real passion for art. Inspired by the old school sign painters, I worked on over 400 outdoor murals for various Fortune 500 brands. In a nutshell, I traveled city to city painting photo-quality reproductions of advertisements on walls, while racing vinyl of the exact same ads going up on billboards. It was as stressful as you can imagine, and eventually I quit doing advertising walls.

These days, integrity and creative freedom are extremely important to me. Spray paint is a tool that I am quite familiar and comfortable with. All I would really like to do right now at this point in my life is paint a ton more of these walls that I’ve been doing lately, in as many new locations and towns as possible.

2Greve Chicago 2014 picture by Jesus Arellanes
Artist Greve paints in Chicago, 2014. Photographed by Jesus Arellanes.

How and when did you initially become introduced to art?

I was drawn to art and the artistic side of many different things as early as I can remember. My mom is creative and probably opened my eyes to art;to this day she sends me new art books for every birthday and Christmas.

I remember being in the third grade and competing in drawing battles with fellow classmates, where we would have to come to school the next day with our best version of whatever the topic was, usually coolest concept car drawings. All of the other kids would judge, so not unlike street art and graffiti, it was partially a popularity contest. Looking back, I feel like there was a lot of tracing and cheating, but at that age you have to consider those forms of cheating as at least having some sort of a process.

I was athletic and I played sports, and I still love sports. I remember In the ‘80s, there were these Donruss brand baseball cards of all the best players painted in oil by Dick Perez, and they made me want to paint baseball players. Things like that and Garbage Pail Kids, and everything from my mother’s Madonna (Italian version of the Catholics’ Virgin Mother of Jesus, not the rapidly aging pop star) painting collection to Erich Sokol’s comic strips in my father’s Playboy magazines that I wasn’t supposed to know existed. It all blew my mind and made art ridiculously cool and very appealing to me.

As far as being introduced to art that would make me want to actually make art… besides comic books and things like that… I grew up in what became a primarily Mexican neighborhood, on the southwest side of Chicago, near the original Home Run Inn pizza location. Getting coached on Diego Rivera and muralists of the Mexican culture like Orozco and Siqueiros definitely had me interested from early on, and perhaps influenced me more than I usually stop to consider.

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A Greve piece in Denver, 2015

Why did you decide to pursue street art, and what about it did you find intriguing?

To be entirely clear, the mural at Threadless HQ is really the first time I’ve set out to make what is hashtagged on Instagram as “streetart”. In retrospect, I think that I have made many pieces that could be categorized as street art. Furthermore, I think that these are all just labels that will continually be more and more blurry as spray-painting and public art progress. There is a fine line between pushing the envelope and paying homage to muralist traditions. I’m trying to ride that line until I get kicked off of the train.

Street art is ultra-interesting to me because it is much more mainstream than graffiti. Street art ranges from low comedy to high satire and political commentary, engages participants from every walk of life, and often forces the public to reconsider what art is, and what it can be. Beyond the allure of fame or fortune or whatever fires up kids today, street art can give an artist true freedom of expression, and to me, that’s the bottom line of all of these urban pissing contests all across the globe. Street art differs from nearly every form of art in that there are no rules, and it’s incredibly accessible. That’s a true art of some incredible sort in my mind.

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Greve makes his mark on a Chicago ‘L’ train, 2006

In your opinion, what makes Chicago street art unique from other cities?

The first thought that comes to mind when you ask me that is… What’s even scarier than 85%+ of the population in Cook County jail being gang affiliated? The fact that just one dentist services all 10,000 inmates — and he only deals in extractions. More than 25% of them result in infection. Nobody wants to go there, but some people may be built or brought up better to handle it. I hope your dental hygiene history is on point before you try to get infamous in Chicago, haha.

I have the extremely fortunate vantage point of traveling throughout the United States my entire life. I’ve been to 45 states in America, all throughout Mexico, as well as Windsor and Toronto in Canada. I’ve had the bird’s eye view of seeing all of these different street art movements begin all over the country in the past 20 plus years.

Our current community is very vibrant, the second wave of Chicago street artists are really blowing up, and a rowdy third generation is becoming active in the streets and galleries. The general dynamic of street artists in the current decade is not as subversive as the typical cats I am used to dealing with in graffiti, but perhaps they are equally as anti-authoritarian. With the buff slowing down after Daley’s long mayoral and anti-graffiti run, the door opened to usher in a scene where people can make a difference. From the streets to galleries and clothing, there’s so much activity, creativity, and ingenuity happening by hardworking individuals, and I have to note; Threadless is an absolute pioneer here.

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A Greve piece in Brooklyn, created in 2015

How has the culture of Chicago street art changed and evolved since you got in the game?

I’m not sure that I am even qualified to answer this question. That said, I’m excited about where it’s going; the community is wonderful, and all of the people are generally super nice.

What I can speak on; in the early ‘90s before the 1996 World Cup inspired city-wide buff, Chicago’s graff scene was absolutely amazing! Riding the trains was like going to the world’s largest street art museum, with some of the most unbelievable style and bravado I have ever seen. There are no words to describe it. It was as much of a feeling as it was visual, and it was the golden era of Chicago graffiti.

It would be a complete disservice to back then to say that the amount and quality of graffiti and street art that I’m seeing around the city right now is akin to those important years in Chicago graffiti history. But, because of the internet, street art and graffiti are now both national and even worldly games. People around the globe are pushing the bar higher every day, and I can see it all with a few strokes of my thumb on my phone. Everyday I see increasingly better public art in Chicago and in my travels. In many ways, both street art and graffiti are at the highest level that I have seen since that early 1990s golden era of graffiti that I spoke of.

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Greve recreates captures a pop culture moment in Chicago, 2015. Photographed by Gloria Talamantes.

Your aesthetic is quite varied, ranging from graffiti writing to painting. How did you work to develop such a broad range?

I selfishly like to think that I love art more than most people because I want so badly to master painting outdoor murals, filmmaking, hand-painting intricate cursive, airbrushing, tattooing, and playing the guitar, piano or violin, tagging, pinstriping, exact portraiture… the list very literally goes on and on. Admittedly, many of these things I’ve never even tried, but they fascinate me all the same. Recreating the same letters through graffiti… well, there is only so much that you can bend a letter before it isn’t one anymore, using the same formula eventually became really boring. And then I did it a whole bunch more for years and years. But I was always interested in progressing the art. Art is cultural expression and it becomes more interesting and complex as each year passes.

I briefly spoke earlier about my work as an advertising artist and painter. The reproduction had to be extremely exact or you had three suits breathing down your neck about one skewed line or whatever. I don’t think exact reproduction was my strongest suit; I have a painterly style, and I play into that now. My pictures are not meant to be exact, they convey feelings and suggestions. Technical ability is not everything in modern art, something that gets lost on a lot of people with poor taste.

During my advertising years, I read and learned about many artists and their techniques. I tried to emulate their results in my finished product with my spray paint medium. I have to say, I could have never afforded, nor stolen, the books or the materials necessary without the corporate sponsorships. I think it comes down to incorporating your unique experiences as human into your art. Without that, it’s kind of just a rat race of people competing against each other without letting their inspirations breathe life into their finished product, whether it be music, painting, photography, and so on.

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Greve reinvigorates a dilapidated Chicago building, 2012

What do you find to be the most challenging and rewarding aspects of being a street artist?

Street art is temporary; it will either wear away, get painted over, or taken down. For years, I would paint things that I absolutely despised within a month or two, so by the time the expiration date had hit, I was ready for it to be gone. These days, I wish I could peel each piece off of the wall like a sticker and keep them at home. For the first time in a long time, I really enjoy my own paintings.

I think that to a lot of everyday citizens in Chicago and the Midwest, at the very least, there is no distinction between gang graffiti, street art, and graffiti art. I’m hopeful that through community partnerships and continuing to work together on creating appealing, next-level murals, we can open the eyes and enlighten some measurable percentage of the conservative nonbelievers and naysayers to understanding that spray cans can make real art. I will chalk that up as a win for sure. Causing a regular civilian to relate to your artwork and change their outlook on modern public art is perhaps the most rewarding aspect of public art to me. Not only is there a bigger audience, but there’s the potential to inspire someone at some sort of crossroads in life, to have a purpose and a passion.

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A white wall at Chicago’s Brooklyn Boulders receives a bold look courtesy of Greve, 2015

What led you to painting a mural at Threadless?

As I’ve mentioned a couple of times, I love what Threadless does for artists. I’ve never submitted designs, but I’ve supported many, and own a small collection of the shirts. Amuse126 made the initial introductions for me, and I thought that it would be a great to be able to try out painting some things that I’ve been eager to get back into for awhile. Threadless allowed me the indoor opportunity to do so during Chicago’s extended winter in a highly trafficked place. Considering their huge artist community and platform, I figured that Threadless was the perfect place to begin a new chapter in my own story. During the painting, I met some truly rad people/Threadless employees, and I hope that y’all enjoy the painting, and also my paintings that will follow.

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A work-in-progress shot of Greve’s Threadless mural

Tell us a bit about the mural you created for us and the inspiration behind it.

The easiest description is that the mural is all of the elements of masterpiece graffiti dissected into individual pictures. The formula for a graffiti burner defined by New York and Philly’s graffiti history, later refined by cities like Chicago and L.A., and even personally pushing that realm of tradition a little bit is as follows:

For a graffiti letter piece, a character or a portrait of some sort, the canvas has to be considered as well as tools to get your name up fast, such as stickers or markers or whatever. The pictures in the background are real pictures, and I know what they are, but I like that you don’t know what they are. As a viewer, it alludes to a surplus. They are essential to the story that I’m telling, but not pertinent to this piece of art itself. Bill Murray is Chicago, and represents the Chicago that I grew up in. He’s a Bohemian, so in some ways it’s a facetious self-portrait. An interesting note; in the original picture of the dragon on the CTA train that I painted many years ago, I portrayed him smoking. Cigarettes were a part of my everyday life. On the Threadless mural, I changed the dragon to have a strong arm because smoking cessation was one of the hardest and most important things that I have ever done.

I separated the singular elements rather than painting a piece. I found it more interesting to reproduce. Over time, I had lost track of what I was chasing or doing with my free time. Leading up tol 2015, I started asking myself if people will treasure any of this in 300 years. The dissection of graffiti elements that I depicted at Threadless is no more likely to be treasured, and I want to be clear I’m not alluding to that in any way. But it was much more fun to paint, and more uncomfortable and less robotic. And it left me with less time to ponder whether this world will exist in 300 years to allow treasuring of any sort.

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Greve’s final Threadless product

Creating a stack of painted “pictures” (for lack of a better way to describe it) is such an interesting approach. Is this something new you’ve been experimenting with?

Painting a pile of pictures is new in this exact application. On the surface, it’s just a still life of a bunch of pictures strewn about on my desk. In 2010 at Miami’s annual Art Basel, I painted a production of a fictitious magazine spread, abdicating my involvement with a graffiti crew that I antecedently was a member of. The spray painted spread depicted actual photographs of my graffiti on various passenger trains. In plain font lettering laid over the photographs, it read “Sometimes you want to throw it all away”, with some embellishment to further achieve a magazine-type layout. Similar but different. Before that, there were numerous graffiti productions that I designed and had a lead hand in creating, depicting graffiti on trains as would typically appear on a photograph of a graffiti writer’s documentation of their own work.

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Greve’s mural at Miami Art Basel, 2010

Decidedly, I have chosen to paint photographs as metaphor to reference the general street artist’s condition today, while drawing from my own personal memories. Color plays a huge role here; I try to keep a balance between hot and cold. There is repetition with this theme. The colors themselves squeeze the feeling out of me; the hot and cold, the warm and cool, the happy and sad – the range of human emotions in between. During the process and creation, I’m drinking a coffee or two and two beers, and then I repeat the cycle, so I’m pushing my own system up and down. There’s something throughout the course of that process that forces me to grasp and remember the emotions and feelings that I had creating the original artwork. The original artwork that became a picture I am now recreating to ultimately upload back into a digital format. Beyond the meta irony, the entire process has a very calculated personal purpose, with long nods to, and consideration of, printed documentation and the conclusively temporary shelf-life of digital media.

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Greve’s “stacked photos” grace a Chicago wall, 2015

We gotta know – are you a big Bill Murray fan? If so, what’s your fave Bill Murray movie?

Yes, I definitely am and have been a fan since I was a kid, and his legend just keeps growing. According to an article last year by Todd Leopold for CNN, and basically a ton of other sources, Bill Murray doesn’t have an agent, or a publicist, or even a fixed address – just a famous 1-800 line that I am still trying to crack. I love movies in general, but Bill Murray movies also hit some very nostalgic memories of being a kid. Space Jam and Ghostbusters and Caddyshack and Lost in Translation and… so my favorite movie? It’s definitely hard to narrow down to just one, but I’d have to say Groundhog Day, with a whole bunch of close number twos and honorable mentions.

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The man, the myth, the legend, as depicted by Greve

At the end of the day, what drives you as a street artist?

I have an insatiable need to compete and I love the competition factor, even though most people don’t view it as such in street art. There is plenty of greatness in modern graffiti art, but a lot of it is refined by decades of repetition, with 30-40 year olds claiming up all of the top spots. It wasn’t always that way, for the record. I’m intrigued by the talent and competition level of street art happening today. As mentioned previously, the line between different public arts is fading, and I hope to help erase the labels.

With street art, I am able to create my own narrative. My main vehicle for that narrative is currently @knowtrespassing on Instagram. Recently I’ve added a Tumblr and a Twitter, and you can find me as the same handle on both platforms, as well as knowtrespassing@gmail.com for any further inquiries. It’s been a pleasure!

Shawn Gauthier

Content Manager & Writer at Threadless. Into the usual stuff like words and music and internet animals.