Graffiti is an art form, originated in New York City, and now covering walls across the world. Even small Montana towns have bright, vibrant walls, all thanks to the community of graffiti artists that strive to make our towns look better. I sat down with Billings artist, Shylo, who is making national headlines with a huge suicide prevention mural. Here is our conversation.
DW= Dillon Weickum
DW: What’s your background in graffiti? How long you been doing it?
SH: Five Years.
DW: So, where did you start?
SH: In Miles City, [Montana].
SH: I started in a church. Of all places.
DW: What was your piece of in that church?
SH: I did a piece for the youth room of the church that was called, the “Impact Zone”, so I did the words, Love, Serve, Impact. And that was by far the weirdest wall I have ever done graffiti on.
DW: Why is that?
SH: ‘Cause I literally had to build a false wall over the old wall. It was half cork board tile, half tar. Why that was on a wall, I don't want to know.
DW: When did you start getting really interested in graffiti? Starting to sketch and paint?
SH: After I did that church piece. Before that I never did anything artistic at all.
DW: So that was like your first intro to art. You just went out and painted with Aerosol?
SH: I never did anything. I never took an art class in my life. I’ve never touched a paint brush in my life either. All I use is spray paint or marker.
DW: The article I saw said there was somebody in town you were kinda apprenticing under? Who is that?
SH: His name is Tyson Middle, he owns the graffiti shop here in Billings.
DW: I didn't know there was a graffiti shop.
SH: It’s called Underground Culture Krew. It’s a graffiti shop/urban art gallery.
DW: That’s awesome. Didn’t know there was something like that here. So he helped you out with techniques and that kinda stuff?
SH: Yup, I learned a lot from him, and I’m friends on Facebook with a family of graffiti artists. Actually a family of christian graffiti artists, from all over the world, gave me tips and feedback on my pieces.
DW: So, how many pieces do you have up in Billings then?
SH: Lets see, there are the 2 walls for suicide prevention, there is a downtown Billings cityscape mural that Tyson and myself did, there is a piece a just did in my alley, and then I think about 5 pieces that are still up in the downtown public art alley. That places is kind of a free-for-all so if someone wants to cover up your piece they can do that. I did this one garage door that said, Love, Victory, and no-one has touch the word, Love, in over 7 months. Which is literally unheard of in that alley.
DW: So it’s just this alley that anyone can go and paint without any repercussion?
SH: Ya. It was the full alley that could be painted, but now it’s limited to 3 spots ‘cause one of the business owner backed out because he got pissed off. He was fine at the start when it was nothing but art, but now it just looks like a giant mess of spray paint.
DW: Bozeman doesn’t have anything like that. But we have the Baxter parking garage where everyone just goes and sprays anyway. It’s this run down parking garage, and it’s just a mess of, usually really bad graffiti, but there is some good stuff.
SH: Yeah, this owner was also mad because one of his buildings in the alley has a garage door that he didn’t properly seal, and he has 2 classic cars behind that door. So now, they are covered in spray paint from the over spray.
DW: Oh shit. That was it for him, he was over it after that?
SH: Yeah, after that one day there was like 8 cops that swarmed the alley looking for all the taggers, just cause that one owner pulled out and called the cops on all the artists. I was like, “I haven’t been down there for months, don’t look at me”.
DW: That’s cool to have a spot like that. At least some space to paint still.
SH: Yeah, there are 3 business in that alley that are all for it.
SH: When the “Art Alley” opened I was one of the top 3 artists that got to do the first pieces. At that time it looked pretty good. It’s funny, I thought I would only paint a few times in that alley for fun and that was it. I ended up painting 9 pieces, 3 murals, and spent $1200 in paint in 2 weeks.
DW: So it sounds like most of your pieces have been city sanctioned for the most part, or at least legal.
DW: How do you feel about legal graffiti and that stigma that it’s not true graffiti if it isn’t illegal places?
SH: I never have a problem looking at illegal graffiti and liking it, as long as it is tasteful and not any kinda slang words or aggressive toward anybody. There is a lot of great art out there, and a lot of great artists that start illegally and then work their way toward legal or do half and half. One of the artists that helped do the second wall for suicide prevention mural, he did the 20 foot tall Buzz Lightyear, he is 14 years old and he does half-and-half, legal and illegal. But the illegal stuff he does it tasteful. He does this weird, Frankenstein, looking character head and he just throws it up all over town, and I have never seen anyone cover them up.
DW: So did the city approach you for the suicide prevention walls?
SH: Actually, no. What’s funny is I had no plans to make the mural. It was just a simple sketch in my sketchbook. And usually if I do a fully detailed sketch in my sketchbook I will post a picture of it to Facebook, and one of my friends saw it and sent it into Billings Hardware, and then all of a sudden 2 business sent me messages on Facebook and said, “We want to be a part of this.” and I was like, “Ok, i guess I am making this a mural”.
SH: Billings Hardware were the people that provided the first wall and all the base coat for the walls. Then about a dozen businesses stepped-in and donated all the rest of the money for the spray paint.
DW: And those businesses, those are the ones listed on the top of the mural in the builds?
DW: So both of these suicide prevention pieces were payed for?
SH: Yup. The first wall was done with money from all 12 businesses and the second wall was done with a grant from a mental illness organization.
DW: A local organization?
SH: Yeah, they are called Nami.
DW: Having two graffiti pieces fully funded by the community is a great feat.
SH: It costed $2700 just for the spray paint, I don’t even want to know how much the base coat was.
DW: That is insane. How long did it take you?
SH: The first wall took about a week.
DW: It was you and 2 other people?
SH: Tyson, myself, Kryptic (the 14 year old), and my friend Alejandro did both walls. The second one only took 2 days though. Five of the days I painted in the rain, which was weird, and the last 2 days I spent just writing the names up on the leaves at the top.
DW: And what is the purpose of the names?
SH: Those are the names of people lost to suicide. There are 229 up there.
DW: Is that people just in Billings.
SH: All across Montana for the most part.
DW: Did you have a personal, emotional connection to doing this mural?
SH: Ya, I have lost 2 friends to suicide. I put their names on the wall. And then, I myself, attempted [suicide] when I was 17, so 5 years ago, right before I started graffiti.
DW: Art has saved you? Helped you out of the darkness?
SH: Oh yeah.