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The Story Behind Those Cryptic Billboard Messages All Over New York City

Billboards along the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway have been getting tagged with poetic graffiti for years now. We talked to an artist who offered clues about the bizarre urban spectacle.

Claire Kelley

I spent the last few weeks following a trail of mysterious, poetic phrases painted on blank billboards along the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. They're everywhere, but I couldn't find an explanation. My attempt to learn more about them led me to artist Lance de los Reyes. I wrote about wanting to interview him in a ​​blog post, and he subsequently agreed to answer some questions, which led me to his first solo show, Standing on the Shoulders of Giants, now on display at ​t​he Hole until Sunday.

When I walked into the gallery for our meeting, Lance was being interviewed by a Canadian journalist. "I was born in Texas and grew up in Southern California in the mountains around horses, rocks, and rattlesnakes," he said as we stood next to the bold, abstract paintings and a pile of rocks in the center of the room.  

Before he moved to the east coast, Lance was living with Shepard Fairey and other friends in Southern California. "I was just writing graffiti on trains and seeking out rooftops and finding architecture and trying to put my moniker there," he said. "One of my friends introduced me to Julian Schnabel's film about Jean-Michel Basquiat. ­I had never known anything about New York and never even considered art."

At the age of 21, he was inspired to go to art school. "I was working with Shepard Fairey, and in the middle of the night I would go into the barn and use all the house paint and start painting." After putting together a portfolio he was accepted into the painting program at the San Francisco Art Institute. 

"They encouraged me to go to new genres," he said. "I got into sculpture and performance (I sang to a sunflower) and hung a picture of my graffiti in the city on the wall after September 11. It was a performance piece. I tied it to into the narrative of the movie and approached graffiti like it was this alter ego. To me it was an obligation to a character. I realized the RAMBO thing had its own energy, and Lance just was the person conducting the energy."

When the vandal squad started looking for him, Lance left art school and moved to New York, where he got a job assisting Donald Baechler. "I got initiated in this really cryptic way into a society within a society," he said. "With art, the world doesn't necessarily need a great painting, it needs a great idea. It's all going to be up to the people who came before me who are overseeing this whole orchestra of actions. They respect you as long as you are aware that they can take it from you at any time. They can give you what you need to conduct your dance."

After the Canadian journalist left, Lance and I walked around the corner to a coffee shop so I could ask my questions. There was one in particular that I wanted to clarify right away.

Lance de los Reyes at his show in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Photos by the author unless otherwise noted

VICE: Are you being public about RAMBO? I was nervous in the email I sent you with my blo​g post about discovering your work. I mean, I saw the billboard, then I saw more and more RAMBO all along the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.
Lance de los Reyes: More poetry, you mean.

First, I noticed your style. Then I wondered, who is RAMBO? Is it a person? Or a group? I came from knowing nothing. And then, I found my way to you. It was a very dramatic moment for me. I felt like I made this discovery. Does that worry you? Couldn't the police do what I just did? Are you worried about that at all?
So what's your question?

How are you resolving your identity as Lance and as RAMBO?
There's nothing to be resolved. Lance de Los Reyes and RAMBO are two different entities. I am Lance. And I know the poet RAMBO you're interested in. Very well.

OK.
I know of him pretty well.

It's not you?
Like I said before, I am Lance. I just know RAMBO very well. We have friends in common and we all agree that RAMBO is very dedicated and his mission is greater than himself. He's a great guy, great guy.

Photo via Flickr user ​ancie​​nt history

So, maybe then you can tell me about this idea of "mastering" that pops up in the art. Like, MASTER YOUR HEART or MASTER YOUR B​ODY.
I think that when those were done, the conductor or the performer was playing with words. When I saw it, it said MASTER YOUR HEART, but then OUR in YOUR was over-scored. Language is a tool. It can be used to evoke a dialogue within a dialogue. And certain dialogues belongs to certain people who get it. You know people see things in different dimensions. MASTER YOUR HEART is probably this ancient thing that a lot of really important people have tried to accomplish. That's how I feel. I know that I've seen people cry after seeing that, and then meeting that RAMBO person.

Art is so important, especially in a place where you have so many beautiful hearts all in one city. I consider New York City the new Rome where all avant garde things are possible. It is the performer's job not only to master his own heart, but to do something that is beyond himself. I don't think that RAMBO really ever knows what people think about his work. But I know when I see it, it feels right. You can only leave it up to a third party to judge if someone is in tune with the dialogue that they're evoking, if they're thinking or performing with their heart.

And above that? What about the phrase BROTHERS AND SISTERS DUE THE IMPOSSIBLE?
It doesn't say "impossible." There is a space between the M and the P. It says I'M POSSIBLE.

And D-U-E?
Yeah, pay dues is part of being active and being of service to society.

How about KNOW GODS JUST WORK?
Well, KNOW is spelled K-N-O-W. The NO is circled. So, there again you have a play with words and spelling. I seriously doubt that God looks like the trendy image that is hanging in every church. But I know that every true person who is of their craft, it becomes their religion. It's something that they're trying to keep steadfast, and something that they are living and breathing. There's no part-timing this situation. Because you can't get away from it. It's always watching you.

I think that every man and woman could possibly consider themselves their own architect. In their mind and in their heart, they're trying to build an empire out of nothing. People trip themselves up a lot because things can get very dark. I think that if you can just keep it moving, and not stay idle, you're probably better off than just being stuck and spectating. You're either a doer or a spectator. You're either doing something, or watching something happen. And then there are those who have the audacity to make a mockery of other people's work.

I'm under the impression that RAMBO is hyper-sentitive and I can relate to that. He seems to be someone who pays close attention. But he's very active. And very site-specific. And very calculated. And very sincere. As much as he can be.

In terms of being site specific, there's a lot of blank space now on those billboards along the BQE because of the damage that one caused when it fell. Now there are these regulations. And they tower over us. Your gallery show is called Standing on the Shoulders of Giants...
To me, everything is one long, deranged movement of my senses. I have a big book going on in my mind. Energetically, I know what things meant to me. I am a firm believer that if I think about it enough, I can make it happen. And I like to challenge that in the physical too.

And on the KNOW GODS JUST WORK, on top it now says JULIAN SCHNABEL, but under that, there was something else before about Shepard and Banksy. BANK SY.
Well, I know Shepard.

Tell me about how you got to know him.
I used to play pool with him at a coffee shop in Southern California. I never knew that it was Shepard Fairey until, one day, I saw him cutting a Rubylith while he was waiting for me to show up to play.

There was this sign on this brick wall that said THE GUILD, this big neon sign. I had stood on that sign, off the side of building, which was a smaller platform than the one that the RAMBO guy does on the billboards. And I painted my name. And Shepard was like, "You're the one that stood on the guild sign." Even now when I think about it, the word guild, it becomes relevant and amusing to me.

OUR GUILDED LEGACY...
​Yeah. OUR GUILDED LEGACY / WHERE SILENCE BECOMES GOLDEN. This is a situation where one must never take their cloak off and remain in the shadows.

So I met Shepard, and he invited me to go to Los Angeles. I went to LA with him a couple of times. I lived with him for two years, and he brought me to New York for my first time.

When was that?
When I was 21 or 22. I'm a strong believer that you can't do things alone. You need your brothers and sisters. There's a caste system here. And everyone has a position to play. And everyone's of service. But it's very sacred and secretive to me. And I want to protect that as much as possible.

You have your solo art and your sense of collaboration.
I've noticed that RAMBO has brought a couple of people with me, and done work in public. Social media has put a real damper on things. People get a real sense of self-worth about how many likes they have on a photo, and how many followers they have. I think that they're really just following their egos instead of their heart. And that really saddens me. Even recently, there's a certain individual who RAMBO has shared the experience of doing work in public with. And he takes RAMBO's poetry and tries to make it his own. When he's just known writing his name. And he doesn't even know how to pronounce some of the words that are being written. I guess you just have to be compassion for those who are making a mockery.

It's a big collaboration going on in a city like this. Each person has their individual heartbeat, but there's one big heart that's beating here. And some people are beating to the same drum.

There's a lot of mystery and paradox in the wordplay.
The things that are being written in public, people see it and like it because it's there. And some people understand. Those are the people that I would bow my head to. And wink my eye at. And give a handshake to.

Over the years, I've realized graffiti is a sport. It's special and very cryptic. Like the synchronicities of different handstyles and different ways of approaching graffiti while writing your name. But how many times can these individuals write their names?

I listen to a lot of Manly P. Hall. Do you know him? He's a great teacher and philosopher and person who speaks about things that are really important to me. Men should be showing proof of maturing and transforming every seven years. I think that a lot of individuals who engage in graffiti are stuck. They're having real problems maturing and that saddens me.

You mention men maturing. What are your thoughts about women?
I think women who are very introverted are actually the ones casting the most powerful spells. And men, without even being aware of it, are cursed by the spells of women.

Photo via Flickr user ​RJ

I'm really also into the anarchy approach.

How do you mean?
I'm not here to break rules. I don't get off on doing things are illegal. I'm not trying to hurt anyone. I'm trying to contribute to the world around me and make my world a better place. To some extent. But, also, I have certain things that I need to--that I want to say. And I'm going to do that. No matter what.

I think artists have a responsibility. I think it's our responsibility to consider that people need art, because they need things to live through besides their cool outfits that give them this surface acceptance. People need paintings, but I'm speaking about art as a whole. It's one of the most vital things, and important.

What is the symbol on your hand? I've seen that before.
This is a trident. There's an art movement that Harmony Korine, the film director, started called the Mistakist movement. It represents using absurdity and realism to become a tool for your craft--being as absurd as possible but conducting that through realism. And you come up with these living archetypes, individuals that all have this certain thing they're trying to evoke and give back to the people.

You have three kids, right? How do they inspire you?
It's all for my children, basically. All I know is that when I look at my children, I know that they chose me to be their father. And I'm just here to protect them. I just want to make them proud.

Do they paint with you?
I​ndigo and Xavior, yeah. I've painted with both my four and two year olds. When my children are able to conduct their thoughts, and express themselves, I would want them to be proud of their father. That means a lot to me.

Related to that: Being high on the top of a billboard must be exhilarating and terrifying.
It's all that stuff. But I've been told I'm going to live a long life. I keep that in mind, and maintain situational awareness. That's the main thing. Maintain situational awareness and try to get as close as I can to the way the stars are aligning.

Photo by Nathan Schneider

It sounds like your spirituality is intertwined with art. And your bio note says, for what it's worth, you're also a believer. What does that mean?
That would be up to someone else that's amused by the work. I'm not trying to con anyone, even though I'm a con artist. I'm just a believer in the fact that whatever I want to accomplish, I'm going to accomplish it--through trailblazing, and leaving two and three-dimensional objects behind that could possibly become artifacts. I'm not doodling. What I am doing is definitely trying to have those moments where I get little hints of happiness.

Did you grow up with any religious tradition?
I grew up going to Catholic church. I was a rebellious child. I played sports. I was star of the lacrosse team; I was most valuable player on my lacrosse team two years in a row. I grew up skateboarding and surfing. Once I started going off into the night to write on things and be by myself, just listening to the environment and nature, I started to learn more about myself and what it meant to have personal ceremonies.

Tell me about your moral codes, your ethics.
I know the difference between right and wrong. I'm not perfect. I do bad things. I've been self-destructive before. I have vices and flaws. But inevitably my obligation to art will always win. It will always be more powerful than anything I could ever do wrong. It's either I become a great artist or I become like an assassin. And the government hires me to assassinate people that have done our country wrong (laughs).

What is RAMBO?
I don't know, you just keep bringing that up. I know RAMBO, the guy you seem so interested in.

The meaning.
Well there's Rimbaud, the poet. I've seen the movies, and I think it's this character who felt like he was dispensable, but he just couldn't die. He felt dispensable, but they made a bunch of them. He's an actor. He's a character.

It's been a real trial and tribulation expressing oneself in the public forum. But there's always people who are a little more hyper-sensitive than others, who care more than others. I think that those people, in the end, will earn themselves some sort of legacy, from people who are intelligent enough to be amused. And that's exciting. But of course, because it's on public space, and it falls into the hands of being stapled as graffiti, you have to deal with that subculture. And RAMBO has a lot of prolific friends who write graffiti. He's friends with the best.

In the movies, I don't think Rambo cared if people liked what he was doing or not, he was just doing what he was supposed to do. You can probably say that of any actor or archetype. It sounds fairytale-ish, or kind of not immature, but dramatic. But it is kind of all one big drama anyway. Why not keep it as dramatic and entertaining as possible? It's nice to be able to be recognized for certain evocations of just being yourself. It's very humbling. It's humbling, and challenging, and exciting.

That's how Lance feels. He's very humbled, and very excited. Just very grateful. That he could be so multidimensional and be given the opportunity to prove that being multi-faceted, and having different things for which you're capable of being shown respect or being recognized. But you don't want to give him too much--it's not over yet. It hasn't even begun. It's better to put it all away, and just let it continue.

Follow Claire Kelley on Twi​tter.