Real Recognize Real
From living in his car to running three successful creative businesses, Benjamin Barnes has hustled for everything he has. Everything.
The word “artist” has changed. When we hear the word these days we think of Andy Warhol in his factory, or Damien Hirst studding a human skull with priceless diamonds. Perhaps someone filling a purse with their own hair and putting it on a pedestal, or taking a shit on a canvas and calling it a day. Contemporary artists are not craftsmen. They’re separate from the people who photograph weddings or paint family portraits. Style and function are no longer intertwined.
It used to be, however, that these were one and the same. Van Gogh painted portraits for cheap so he could afford his next canvas (and food). Three hundred years earlier, Rembrandt was cranking out portraits like iPhones—he was at least as much of a businessman as he was an artist. It wasn’t until the 20th Century that artists became what we know them as today—idea havers who toy with the limits of culture, not hustlers creating to survive.
In this sense, Benjamin Barnes (Yo Chubs) is a throwback to another time. The well-known OC graffiti artist once slept in his car for two-and-a-half months while trying to turn his talent into a living. On the verge of total destitution, he walked into a crossfit gym under construction in Valley Village and asked if they needed a mural. They loved his work and paid him up front. Gym murals became his bread-and-butter, allowing him to survive while opening up the doors to bigger projects and patrons that would become his career.
Today, he is a man of many hustles. His murals, sometimes for brands, sometimes for government agencies, fill downtown Los Angeles. He runs a clothing brand in Boyle Heights, where he is also in the early stages of a tattoo practice. His reputation has caught the attention of the Boyle Heights art invaders—a controversial situation to say the least—but he has refused their offers to show at their galleries.
Chubs is at the nexus of a lot of disparate worlds. Artist and craftsman. Gentrifier and gentrified. He handles the pressure not through ideology, but with a relentless drive to create…
How’d you start out?
I’m originally from Springfield, IL., moved here eight years ago. A lot’s changed about me since moving here, man. I was in the O.C. at first, which was a huge culture shock. Around senior year of high school, a guy came to me and asked if I did graffiti. I said, “No, I can’t draw to save my life." He told me I should try it, and that’s really how it all began. I saw it as an opportunity to not eat lunch alone. I started doing sketches in black books, slowly progressing to paint walls, freeway signs, billboards. As I got deeper into that world my name started catching the breeze, while my friends were catching felonies for it. Getting time for painting walls.
Realizing I needed something different, I began painting canvas. Honestly, I’d just be on the train and talking to people—sharing that I did personal pieces for people. I saw it as profitable because I could make $5 here, $10 there.
You had never drawn before?
Nah man; it’s crazy how it even came about. Even today my family’s like, “what the hell?” And they know art. My mom runs a dance studio/arts rec center—so I had it around, but it was the rebelliousness of graffiti that captured me. I learned how to do graphic design at this school in DTLA on 11th and Broadway. It’s where they shoot a lot of movies, and it’s where I did one of my first murals, which was for a production set.
How did you rise up in the ranks of the graffiti game? What made you someone good versus someone average?
There’s a few factors to that. A lot of California artists have a very wild style—either unreadable or lots of crazy colors. I was really inspired by the New York style—old school, 80s/90s feel. Off that, I was different. I was one of only like three black artists in the O.C. then. But I didn’t even really notice and I didn’t think that mattered. It was always about pushing myself, quality over quantity. I wanted people to respect it. Even to this day, none of my work has ever been painted over. I have some pieces that have been rockin’ for 4-5 years, legal and illegal. Never been buffed. A lot of people get tagged over because they may not pay their respects to the culture. Some are trained man, classically trained, then go to paint murals. It’s stupid.
How’s the money in this industry? Are you getting art money or is it a pretty good living?
Yeah man, it’s pretty good, especially if you’re hustling. Like that first gym I did, that was three grand right there, and it took me less than a week. And that project at the time really changed my life because I was homeless—but by choice. I’m one of those people where really crazy situations make me do really good stuff. I was in the car my brother had given me, working at Home Depot, but I felt complacent. I wasn’t challenging myself because I felt safe. After quitting that, I moved to DT and lived out of my car for 2-2½ months. I was walking around downtown talked to this guy that owned a gym under construction. He said they were actually looking for something just like it, and we made a deal right there. So this first gym, it took about 500 cans of paint, and it was cool too because I was paid half upfront, and didn’t have to pay for the materials.
"I’m one of those people where really crazy situations make me do really good stuff."
What was living in your car like?
It was a ’96 Camry, forest green, windows weren’t tinted. I had to put a bed sheet in the windows and lay in the seat back.
How many hours of sleep would you get?
Ohh…4 or 5.
You ever get harassed out there?
Nah, but sometimes people would ask what I was doing—so I’d just have to park in different places after a bit. You’d definitely have to jump, man.
Where might I have seen your pieces today?
I did this campaign with Nike for an NBA All-Star weekend called Los Fearless; it was about L.A. culture. I have one that’s about 4-5,000 square feet. It’s a two-story building in Downtown on 4th and Hill. The story behind that one is funny too. There was this campaign called Bringing Back Broadway, and one the chairs lived in my building. I reached out to him and said I wanted to be a part of it, I did this kind of work, and he asked what art school I went to. Of course I didn’t go to one. He said, “I don’t know what a self-taught artist can do for this committee.” So I figured out a way to paint a building right outside his house, that way he’d have to see it every day. And it’s 4,000+ sq. ft. And because of that mural, that building is now historic. So, I slipped that note under his door to be like, “Yo this is what my art can do.” It’s like…you can’t tell me “No.”
Also, I have the only mural in the Grand Central Market. It’s at the Pasta Meat & Co. above the bar area where the vegetables come in, the pasta comes out.
"So, I slipped that note under his door to be like, “Yo this is what my art can do.” It’s like…you can’t tell me 'No.'"
Where’d you come up with that idea?
Bruce man, he’s a cool dude. He’s the owner of the restaurant, and he has these sick sleeve tattoos—realistic and traditional—and he said he wanted to convey that with his pasta on the walls. So he started showing me all the things he uses to cook with, all the colors, the beets, everything man. Even squid ink, which I actually used on the piece too.
You used the squid ink in the mural??
Yep, to make the blacks.
That’s some fine art shit right there.
Well, we wanted to make it official, y’know.
Would you ever want to do fine art? Like Retna, get a big gallery and sell to collectors?
I’d had offers from a few galleries, Agorra in NY, a couple in Boyle Heights reached out just recently, but there’s a big thing about that right now.
Yep, all the controversy over the gallery kids being gentrifiers. What do you think about that?
I saw it comin’. You can’t not show the community love, especially not Boyle Heights. Boyle Heights is known for gentrification, so they’re not taking this from us.
What are they not doing? I know there’s tension, but I’m not really all that familiar with what’s happening.
So, a lot of them are not from the neighborhood, bringing in other artists instead of the ones in the neighborhood. It’s really a tough thing, man, because like I said, you can’t not support local artists in local communities and expect them to be behind you. That’s why they reached out to me. That was kind of what their angle was there.
Were you like, “you’re not going use me!”?
They offered me a spot in a show! Just last night, and I vaguely knew of the protests and what was goin’ on. And that’s where I come in—the local artists that get turned down come to us, chill with us. The galleries caught wind of that and were like, “Hey, would you like a show with us?” and I’m like, “…no.” I mean, I’m new here too. The community is just now accepting me; I’m not gonna blow my thing for you. I’m willing to work with you, get local artists in here and build a relationship, but I’m not going to risk my stuff for you, dude. That’s my business, man. I’ve put in everything I have. Never taken out any business loans. It’s all straight out of pocket.