UMASKING THE ARTIST. During his visit to Jakarta, TAG Heuer brand ambassador and “Art Provocateur” Alec Monopoly chats with DA MAN about street art, watches and running from the law
These past few years, street graffiti has become more and more accepted, with quite a few street artists gaining the popularity of rock stars while still preserving their anonymity. A gr eat example of how far this acceptance has g one is the one and only Alec Monopoly, who has been appointed brand ambassador and “art provocateur” for Swiss watch brand TAG Heuer. Known the world over for his works—many featuring his signature take o n Mr. Monopoly (yes, the one from the boar d game)—the masked artist now collaborates with the watch brand by adding his artistic touch to TAG Heuer boutiques and even watches. Still, he maintains that rebel attitude of his “guerilla” days.
DAMAN: Tell us about y our first encounter with ar t…
Alec Monopoly: It ’s hard for me to remember, because my mom is an artist. Ever since I could remember as a child, I grew up around art, painting and drawing. So, it ’s just been a par t of me.
DA: How did you get involved in the street art scene?
Alec Monopoly: You know, it ’s part of the culture growing up in New York. It ’s just a way of life. You know how every kid has their own little tag? It ’s stuff like that.
DA: Have you always wanted to be a graffiti artist?
Alec Monopoly: I always wanted to be a successful artist. I knew that was my passion, that ’s what I wanted to do with my career and my life. And then, when I was in my teens I was doing graffiti out in the streets. It wasn’t until later in about 2008 that I brought my graffiti with my artwork. That’s when I star ted bringing some of my paintings outside.
DA: And no w you’re collaborating with TAG Heuer. How did that come about?
Alec Monopoly: It star ted kind of organic ally with Jean-Claude Biver. He’s the [CEO of TAG Heuer and] President of the LVMH Watch Division; we just met and he was collecting some of my works and we just really hit it off. And, I mean, as you guys know, I’m a big watch collector. I know a lot about watches, so, it was just a beautiful marriage.
DA: What does being a TAG Heuer brand ambassador actually entail?
Alec Monopoly: Well, I’m actually the “Art Provocateur,” so I ’m an ambassador but I’m also more of an art director. I create original artworks for the brand and w e transform boutiques into art galleries, which is something that ’s never been done. And for me to be a graffiti artist working in the brand’s factory in Switzerland is amazing. It ’s also been a lifelong dream of mine to design my own watch and have my artwork on the dial of a watch, which we have coming out soon.
DA: Was it easy transitioning from working on canvas and hug e walls to the tiny dial of a watch?
Alec Monopoly: No, it ’s a major challenge. I mean, I was in the factory and actually tried putting together some of the timepieces and it ’s very hard. I mean, I have very steady hands fr om painting, but those guys at the factory are artists themselves. But at the same time , a watch is probably one of the most important accessories you wear. It ’s on your wrist; it ’s so c lose to you. There are so man y feelings to it and you’re always looking at. I think it ’s amazing bringing those emotions of art onto someone’s wrist.
DA: What would you say has been y our greatest work to date?
Alec Monopoly: It ’s hard to say. I mean, I think there’s always a new “best work” because, as an artist, you always have to grow and develop your work. Your talents are always getting better and you’re always trying new things. So, there are always new ones that come up. But a moment in my career that was amazing is a show I did at Moca Bangkok, the museum of contemporary arts in Thailand. That was an amazing thing for me. I think I was 29 at the time , which is very young to have your first solo exhibit at a museum and that has always been a dream of mine .
DA: You’re primarily known as a graffiti artist. Has it also been a challenge to present your art to more mainstream or contemporary audiences?
Alec Monopoly: It ’s a big challenge because you’re categorized. But now, people are catching on to it. It ’s been a number of y ears and with the success of Banksy , he has really brought life to the graffiti art movement, and people are really seeing the graffiti art movement as the next generation of art. You know, there was modernism, cubism, pop art, the ’70s. Graffiti art, I believe, is the next movement.
DA: TAG Heuer has a reputation for selecting “disruptive” brand ambassadors. Does that description fit you?
Alec Monopoly: I think it f its me exactly. I mean, for me to be an ambassador and an art provocateur, and have a place in a Swiss watch company, is very disruptive for the market. Because no watch company has ever brought on a graffiti artist.
DA: You’ve certainly come a long way. What was y our early life like?
Alec Monopoly: I grew up in New York. My mo m is an artist. She taught me all the skills of art, and then, when I was in my teens I was skateboarding and doing graffiti in the streets. Then I had an art show in New York and that ’s when the police started catching up with me . They actually came to my art show and the y tried to arrest me, and that ’s why I cover my face and hide my identity. It ’s for all the illegal graffiti that I’ve done, because in the States, they’re very strict about it. So, that ’s when I ran from New York and went to Los Angeles, where they’re a little more lenient. And there are a lot more walls to paint since L.A. is a huge city. At first I was just kind of hiding out but then I ended up living there.
DA: What was it like being on the wrong side of the law and being arrested?
Alec Monopoly: It ’s the worst: Having y our freedom taken away and you have zero inspiration there. But now, I’ve grown up and I’ve learned a lot. I express my art in more of a positive way, and when I do graffiti murals, I usually get permission first or it’s on an abandoned building that no one really cares about. So, I’m a lot more cautious now.
DA: But street art is becoming much more accepted nowadays. What do you think about that?
Alec Monopoly: I think it ’s good that there is acceptance of it, but at the same time , if it was allowed it wouldn’t be as much fun f or me. I kind of like the aspect of breaking the law and running. I think that ’s what makes it interesting for me. If everyone was allowed to do it, I probably wouldn’t be as excited about it.
DA: Moving on to y our works, can you tell us a bit about your technique?
Alec Monopoly: I’ve really developed my technique a lot. I used to just paint all acrylic or oil on canvas, and then when I was outside , I would do just spray paint. Now my style has developed where I collide both. Like, the background is spray painted as if it was graffiti and then the Monopoly Man and the tighter images are painted using acrylic and paint brush.
DA: Which artists have inspired you?
Alec Monopoly: I would say, Basquiat; he’s a big inspiration. He was one of the first street artists. Andy Warhol for his colors and his imagery. And also Keith Haring. I like his line work and his cartoon images.
DA: And what are you busy with today?
Alec Monopoly: Right now I’m doing a tour with TAG Heuer where I’m going to be in a lot of different parts of Asia. I also have a watch coming out with them that I actually designed with paintings on the dial. We’ll be releasing that at Art Basel in Miami, which is a big art fair f or me.
DA: How do you approach watch design?
Alec Monopoly: I express myself with colors. I use a lot of the bright colors and I use characters that people identify with my self and my work. So, it ’s like the y have a piece of my artwork on their wrist.
DA: You’ve mentioned that you’re an avid watch collector. What do you usually look for in a watch?
Alec Monopoly: I’m a sophisticated watch collector. So, I really look for the complication of the watch. I like diamonds as w ell. And this is something completely new to me, the Connected Watch. This actually works very well for me, because when I ’m painting, I do n’t want to take my p hone out and loo k at it, but I c an see who ’s calling or texting o n this.
DA: Looking even further ahead, what are your long term goals? What do you want to achieve next?
Alec Monopoly: Early on, the goal was to do a museum show and to be immortalized in art history. I f eel like I kind of obtained that. So, now, it ’s more about giving back. You know, inspiring the next generation and doing charity work. I recently did a piece for the hurricane in Houston. There were a lot of my friends affected by it, so I auctioned a painting f or that. It ’s not easy to create a work—it takes a lot of time. But it ’s easy to raise a lot of money and give it back through my artwork.
DA: Lastly, are you ever worried that people think you’re selling out by collaborating with big brands?
Alec Monopoly: That’s how people can see it. But see what I’m painting and the subject matters. I think it ’s kind of funny anyone can go “Oh, you’re selling out”, but see first what my work is really about. And for me, I’m very selective about the brands I work with, actually. So, it ’s not like I work with just any brand. TAG Heuer is a very cool brand. I’ve been a fan of their watches forever and it ’s part of my dream to create my own watch. Some people can say what they want, but I ’m just living my dream.