A Conversationg with Dan Colen & Kunle Martins
Dan Colen: I remember the first time I met you at the 7th Street apartment that Ryan McGinley and I shared, which functioned as a clubhouse for IRAK. You blew my mind. I’d never met anybody like you before. That whole summer of ‘99 was a real mind-opener for me. You actually were a big inspiration for the direction my work went in when I got back to school that next fall. Can you remember how you would have described yourself in 1999?
Kunle Martins: Although I (Young Kunle) was a much less evolved version of the person that I am now, I still had the same basic values. In 1999, I was 19 and still thought (like most people) that if I was of above-average intelligence and was willing to work harder than most people that I would be great (and not poor). That was proving to be the case until the economy got its period in 2006.
Dan Colen: How would you describe yourself now in 2015?
Kunle Martins: I’m not sure I would want to describe present Kunle (still evolving). I love the potential of the internet and believe it is the key to saving humanity from itself. I find myself looking for and finding creative solutions to social issues. Making endless connections between everything that’s happened on earth and using that to explain present life as well as predicting the future is what I’m into lately.
Dan Colen: When I first met you it was your identity that blew my mind. You were so complex – sexually, ethnically, economically, and socially. There was something so precise and so natural about you from my point of view. I went back to school that Fall and really questioned my own identity. I became very obsessed with the question, “Who am I?” Do you often ask yourself that?
Kunle Martins: My entire young life was spent asking myself who other people were. I seemed to know who I was early on. I wasn’t really conflicted about who I was, but rather how I was going to be able to relate to everyone else. That concerned me, because I realized that people (adults and teens alike) weren’t honest with themselves, so they couldn’t be honest with me. So finding like-minded individuals was my motivation for running away at 16 and the reason I started IRAK. I needed to not feel crazy.
Dan Colen: Before we get any further into this, can you describe, for those who don’t know, what IRAK is, what it was, how it came to be? Share any thoughts, who it was, what we did, etc.
Kunle Martins: So, basically, Young Kunle runs away from home, because he feels he’s a financial burden and is tired of hiding his skateboard along with his true feelings on life. But actually, it was the friendships I had with a shoplifting breakdancer buddy from Brooklyn, Wak STF, and then a North-Face-jacket-rocking, high school peer who wrote Jee KD, that actually gave me the confidence to leave home and start my adventure. Jee, the then-prince of the Bronx (and Cope’s little brother), insisted I had the skills to rack and bump “powders” (Enfamil) to support myself, like so many other racking writers. After being a homeless skateboarder for a few weeks, I met Young Rehab and eventually Young Dashiell [Snow]. Rehab insisted I rack with him more to pass the time. Dash liked the idea of racking but mostly wanted to paint and party. Rehab’s friendship was key to understanding the Bronx’s graffiti community. I also learned a lot from his unique experiences and perspectives of New York. Dash’s friendship, as a shining beacon of privilege and sophistication, opened another world to me, and it was clear that we were only separated by circumstance. I decided to maintain friendships with both Dash and Rehab despite their lack of skateboarding passion. I had to pick and choose people that existed as parts of other crews and circles to curate a group of people I could relate to and respect. Some were crispy white kids from downtown, others weren’t. Lots of beefing, name-calling, fighting, getting arrested, painting, screaming, taking photos, and of course, racking. After I met my first boyfriend, Paul Rossano (no longer with us), I was able to call someplace home, and I finally started to see the value of socializing and the fun in finding myself through drug experimentation. Earning the respect of other downtown crews like SKE team and RFC proved to be a worthy challenge. I believe the rest is history.
Dan Colen: I remember seeing your drawings back then – specifically the one of the face you had tattooed on yourself, but a few others like that. These newer portraits are much different. When and why did your drawings start changing? What was the progression?
Kunle Martins: Well, my drawings (mostly abstracts and self portraits) lacked direction, so I was personally unhappy with them. I started to teach myself how to use Illustrator after I got a laptop, because it was so new and tech. That led to making t-shirts and designing stuff. The “fashion business” turned me off so much I decided to go back to strengthening my draftsman skills. It turned me on to be able to draw exactly what was in front of me. Like being able to distinguish fabrics, textures – all from a pencil or pen drawing of a person. Then I got into drawing older men’s faces as a way to record and decode the features that lead me to be attracted to them. From portraits I moved on to nudes, again to scientifically understand the anatomy of my attraction to older men.
Dan Colen: The first time I saw one of these more recent portraits of your boyfriends I was really blown away. I found the work immediately touching. I also had a memory immediately after seeing them: I thought of the photo Ryan took of you jerking off to that porno – the page that’s open in the photo looks like a pencil drawing of an old fat guy. Am I remembering correctly?
Kunle Martins: Yes, you remember correctly. That was the only kind of older-man-porn Ryan had. Luckily he had something.
Dan Colen: Are these drawings about a sexual attraction? Or are they about more of an emotional connection? Do you mostly only draw your boyfriends?
Kunle Martins: Yes, I started drawing lovers and men I was attracted to, then I branched out to friends and celebrities.
Dan Colen: Is it mostly only about people you’ve had sex with? Are these drawings about sexual attraction? Or are they more about an emotional connection? Or are they just art?
Kunle Martins: The drawings are another way for me to break down my attraction to older men into math/science data.
Dan Colen: Can you describe the process with these drawings more? Are they done quickly? From memory? Or over long, repeated life sittings?
Kunle Martins: These drawings are all done in one sitting as quickly as possible.
Dan Colen: Are they foreplay? Or more of an appendix to a sexual/love relationship?
Kunle Martins: They are to document what I like. But the process of drawing them is about trying to understand why I like what I’m looking at as I figure out how to draw it. Like porn meditation or something.
Dan Colen: For me, it’s impossible not to think of Tom of Finland when I see your drawings. I imagine he must have been an influence on you. But I think of the differences between you two more so than the similarities. It really helps clarify for me how unique and special your drawings (and you) are, and it makes me think of some of your bigger philosophies on life. Maybe you can elaborate on some the ideas you have about love, as well as some of the ideals you have about love?
Kunle Martins: Well, being a man who’s always been attracted to older men, I realize that the conventional idea of love isn’t real. Love (like religion) means something different to everyone. And as a young black guy who was physically and mentally attracted to older (mostly white) men, I felt lots of pressure to constantly define my feelings to myself. Didn’t like the mainstream lame gay scene, and even the more down to earth, older leather scene had disintegrated quickly after I discovered it. I basically started to make my own niche. It was smarter that way, less beating my head against the wall. Plus the internet happened, changing dating forever.
Dan Colen: So, going back to Tom of Finland – Tom was trying to create these ideals in his drawings. But he was working within universally agreed upon standards. He had a fetish for a type of man that not everybody has a fetish for necessarily, but we can all agree on their classic, idealized beauty. Tom’s drawings are about fantasy. There’s a good chance I’m wrong, but they seem very voyueristic, like Tom is always on the outside of the situation. Your drawings seem the opposite in all ways; your portraits are of a much different type of man – older and fatter than Tom’s. Your men are real men, imperfect men. But you love them and you are attracted to them. These feelings come through in the drawings and are presented to the viewer. I couldn’t help but feel the men’s sex appeal and their realness. Does your life in graffiti connect to these drawings at all? Do you see an arch from one to the other?
Kunle Martins: Yes. So, I loved Cost KRT’s tags and Skuff YKK’s tags because the seemed so perfect to me, and I wanted my tags to be perfect as well. But after I acquired the hand-style skills to catch decent tags, I was quickly over it. I noticed that there were young graff toys who could catch perfect tags every time, and that there was something more original in certain kinds of flaws. I made the link between tags and everything else in my life soon after that. Currently I’m using the tag as a way to unlock the mysteries of the universe. lol jk.
Dan Colen: They’re obviously very different. Graffiti is such a wild, physical, aggressive art form, and these drawings are so subtle, so quiet, so beautiful, so tender. But what do the two practices share?
Kunle Martins: A good graffiti tag is subtle, soft, and tender. It’s easier to take a tag that has lots of erratic emotion in it, every toy will tell you that. Tagging is about maintaining composure (technique & penmanship) under stressful situations, similar skills make a good draftsman. Controlling the amount of emotion is key.
Dan Colen: I think of graffiti as a form of self-portraiture. Could the drawings be seen as a form of self-portraiture? I do some self-portraiture every now and then, and instead of using myself I prefer to find a stand-in for me. Sometimes the stand-in is actually me/my body but “in character,” and other times I present myself in a different form than my actual one. Are Earsnot and Kunle the exact same person? Do you think of Earsnot as a different character? Is graffiti about fantasy? About being somebody different than you are?
Kunle Martins: Earsnot used to be a reckless separate entity that was reacting to lots of different things, but through understanding, has increasingly become a valued contributor to Adult Kunle’s life. The escape factor of graffiti is less effective the more I understand why I do it. As I get older, the idea is not to escape but to change the actual reality.
Dan Colen: How do you feel about getting older in general? But also, more specifically, given that you’ve always been attracted to older men, what happens as you close in on their age? You’ve brought up the science and mathematics of it all several times – does you getting older change the chemistry of the attraction? Is your type now still the same as it was in ‘99?
Kunle Martins: I love getting older. Being young is confusing. Understanding is everything. Age brings understanding. As I get older, the entire population of the world ages also. Except for older people. Older people get younger as time goes on with the aid of science and technology. So a man or woman that was 60 in 1990 is like a 75-year-old (not an 85-year-old) by today’s standards. So older men are crispier, more progressive, less scared than they used to be. I’m lovin’ it. I do enjoy the new and improved higher quality of older men that exist now. They’re healthier and happier than ever before. I also have noticed that older men and women, but especially men, have this ability to be childlike in their older age. Men become super fun to be around when they reach their early 50’s through their 80’s, depending on the guy of course. And as time goes on, they’ll be cooler for longer. It’s win-win.
Dan Colen: A lot has changed since ‘99. Irak really was a beautiful thing. The people that were a part of it told such a complex story of the city: high, low, rich, poor, uptown, downtown, Brooklyn, Staten Island, Jersey, gay, straight, white, black, Latin, Jewish, Asian. We all wanted to change things, we all wanted things to be wild and open and free. We all wanted to destroy things and rebuild. But you were the most radical. Graffiti was different then, downtown was different, kids were different. It was so radical to watch you knock somebody out over graffiti beef in the middle of Soho and yell at them while they lied on the ground, “You just got beat up by a faggot!” There were no gay graffiti writers. There were no openly gay skateboarders. And there definitely were no openly gay rappers. It’s so different now, and I really don’t think that people from Young Thug to Jason Collins could necessarily have come to be without you and your presence downtown in the 2000s. I see your impact in artist like Mykki Blanco and Ryan Trecartin. I see your influence in shows like the New Museum triennial that’s up right now. Honestly, I think even Pharrell and Lil Wayne would have been different without you. Do you think about the way in which downtown culture has changed over the past 15 years? Do you recognize your impact?
Kunle Martins: Well, that’s quite a question. In a word, yes. I think it’s rare for a person to fully comprehend a scene that they don’t feel necessarily represents them while also, eventually, influencing that scene. Somehow. Just Kunle being Kunle, I guess.