Dallas and New York based artist Tony Bones has made about as many enemies as he had fans with his years of prominent graffiti. Many have entered the debate as to whether his work actually qualifies as art. Tony’s luck has caught up with him in his home town, though and now he is forced to face the ugly consequences of his illegal activities. Fortunately for the artist, enough of an audience exists that a transition to galleries has become his main focus. The N. Period had the chance to sit down with Tony Bones recently at The Public Trust in Deep Ellum, where he has an upcoming solo show.
N.: What was yr first experience with graphic art/design?
Tony Bones: I got started really I guess doing doodles. On school papers, on my school tests, like in the margins and stuff. Then it moved on to my desk, and then I started writing in the bathrooms at school — it just went everywhere from there. All city, all over the place. It was an evolution, then it consumed me, the whole graffiti thing.
N.: I know that you are from East Dallas, which is one of the most culturally diverse parts of the city. When you were growing up, did you know how great of a neighborhood that you were in?
TB: I didn’t really have anything to put it against, but I definitely had an appreciation for it. East Dallas has more of a neighborhood feel, kinda like an old flavor, more of a sense of community, I’ve always had a lot of love for the East side.
N.: Who were your influences once you got into graffiti?
TB: The first graffiti that I ever saw and realized it was graffiti was that dude KIDS. I thought it was a gang, more than one person. And then there was Eon from IC [the Infinity Crew]. I started emulating that style a lot. Those were the two biggest influences. Also as a kid I was always reading Shel Silverstein and Calvin and Hobbes, so there’s a bit of that flavor in my earlier work.
N.: So at that time was getting up your main goal or did you have other ulterior motives?
TB: It took two to three years before I started worrying about getting up and rep, you know as a writer [graffiti artist]. At first it was about fun, going out with your homies and bombing shit, you know, just write on stuff. It was fun to see your own stuff. But after that I realized it was a whole other world. I was like, “this guy’s one-upping me, I gotta go hit the city.” But it’s mostly been my personal drive to do it over competitive nature.
N.: Now that you’ve gotten in trouble, does that mean that you don’t do illegal graffiti any more?
TB: Yeah, thats pretty much where I’m standing. I’m now focusing on the gallery thing.
N.: So what are your goals with your art now that you no longer do it illegally?
TB: I’d like to have shows outside the country. I’d like to have my art pay my plane ticket to Paris, Tokyo — to see the world through all this.
N.: What work of yours are you most proud of?
TB: I’m always gonna say that I’m mots proud of my street stuff. But I’m also really stoked on the neon signs I’ve made recently. That’s what I’m most excited about cus it’s totally new shit.
N.:How did you get into the neon?
TB: My friend Bruce Webb over at the Webb Gallery. He and I were talking and he said he had a friend that did neon. I’ve always really wanted to get into that. I never got a hold of that guy — I wound up going to someone else actually — but Bruce Webb planted the seed. The Public Trust really facilitated my first neon signs.
N.: Any quick image search on the internet, especially flickr, and you’ll see that Tony Bones has quite an online presence. It’s easy to see that a lot of people admire your work. With the extra exposure, do you feel that you have an extra responsibility with the message of your art?
TB: I’m always just gonna do what I’m gonna do. I was never in it to be a role model. If a little kid comes up to me and says, “I wanna be like you what should I do?”, I will definitely have some words for him. But on a personal level I’m not gonna change what I do just because I feel like I have people looking at me now.
N.: What themes do you like to touch on in your work?
TB: Well before it would be very simple, like one small action. I’d have somebody puking or or getting stabbed. But now I’ve been getting into more of a little story because I have more time to do that here in the gallery setting. I like doing art about love, hate, death, destruction — all of those basic things that kinda eat away.
N.: How does someone from East Dallas make the transition to being an artist in New York City?
TB: It was tough. I definitely had to hustle just to keep my head above water. I had some shows, I sold some work out there but I wasn’t doing it for a living. I was hustlin doing delivery jobs or other random jobs. I was doing every little thing I could. New York’s a hard city to live in but I did definitely get my art up there. I met a lot of people through graffiti.
N.: I was watching “Flight of the Conchords” and I saw some of your work on there, have you seen that?
TB: I actually haven’t but someone told me about it.
N.: I have it right here. (Shows to Tony on laptop)
TB: O yeah, I remember the night I did that. It was my last night in town one time. I stole a can of black from a friend of mine, I took it and just like THAT!
N.: Any other other high profile accidents like that you know of?
TB: There’s another time in NY. There was some stupid tag, an ugly one on some stairs. Some dude was sitting there on Puff Daddy’s “Making the Band.” And there was also another one — a paparazzi shot that was in “People” magazine. That kinda stuff happens all the time in New York, I’m sure that there’s lots that I don’t even know about.
N.: What kind of stuff would you like to see change as far as art and culture go in Dallas?
TB: There’s a lot I’d like to see change. Things have been going in a weird direction lately. There’s all this money coming in and all these buildings going up. The neighborhoods are changing. It feels like they’re importing a lot of culture instead of cultivating what’s already here or creating around what’s already here. They’re just building new shit. So all the people that come to see stuff that’s not really Dallas, Dallas is just a stage for it. I’d like to see more organic stuff but that’s never gonna happen. The money is not allocated for that type of shit. People are always gonna put their money into the big fancy hotels. And look at Deep Ellum. Deep Ellum’s all dead because there’s more money to be made at Victory Park and stuff like that.It’s kind of a bummer but at the same time I love Dallas. I just don’t think it’s right for me in light of that type of shit. I want to see the world.
N.: I’ve heard people compare you, both stylistically and in making the transition from the street to the gallery, to Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
TB: I’ve heard that and I love both of those dudes for sure. They’ve both always ben big influences. There’s that raw natural vibe that often comes when doing graffiti, a very simple … je ne sais quoi that I identify with. It’s like small natural stuff that just comes to life.
N.: Last month the UK newspaper Mail on Sunday ran a story that allegedly exposed the identity of Banksy. What effect, if any, on him and other cultural torch bearers like him?
TB: I don’t know if anybody will do anything about that. It’s like he’s above the law at this point. His work is so valuable nowadays. I think I’ve seen him sell a print for like 40 grand. I don’t know how much taking away his anonymity will take away from the value though.
N.: And with your art?
TB: Anonymity has always been really important to me. It allows me to work more freely without the scrutiny from people. Also it protects me if I make some kind of mistake. It’s not connected to you so much. It’s like Superman or Batman or Spider Man. They d all these great things, but behind a mask so they can live their own lives. It’s nice to have affirmation of your work but I’m not tryin’ to be a celebrity. I like to present [the art] and let it have its own life.
N.: How hard is it not to write on walls?
TB: It’s always gonna be a compulsion. But as long as I have an outlet I can control myself. It’s been really hard but I’ve learned to.
N.: Today everybody is about cross-marketing. The popularity of yr art seems ready-made for this. Do you have any interest in this and if so what is the future of the Tony Bones brand?
TB: I probably would not do something like a clothing line. That doesn’t appeal to me at all. I like to keep it as much fingerprint as possible, like brush stroke, proof that there was still some sort of human being behind it. I like my stuff to be personally produced, so mass producing or branding doesn’t appeal to me at all.
N.: Tell me about your show.
TB: It’s here at The Public Trust and it opens Saturday August 9, with the opening that night from 7-9 and running until September 6. I’ve got I think 28 panel pieces of various sizes ranging from 1 ft x 1 ft to 6 ft x 3 ft, three neon pieces and this shadow box thing that I’m actually about to start on after we do the interview. And there’s a print series. Seven different prints, one I think is a series of 100, another of 60. Those will be coming out Saturday here.
N.: I’ll let you get back to work.