Does Skid Robot's work exploit homeless people, draw attention to their plight, or some combination of the two?
Los Angeles's Skid Row is littered with cardboard boxes, sleeping bags, and weathered tents that serve as makeshift shelters for the thousands of homeless people who live on the streets. But on a particularly auspicious day on Skid Row, if you find yourself on just the right block, you can sometimes see the Taj Mahal.
That's the work of graffiti artist Skid Robot. His artwork creates a frame around homeless people throughout Los Angeles: a dream bubble emerging from a person passed out in a sleeping bag, a throne behind a man in a wheelchair, a camping scene surrounding a man who lives in a tent. He's painted just over a hundred of these dreamscapes, which he chronicles on his Instagram. I caught up with him to ask about the ethics of using homeless people to make art and what he's trying to achieve with his work.
VICE: How did you come up with the idea to spray paint these scenes around homeless people?
Skid Robot: My roots are in graffiti and I wanted to do something different other than, you know, write my crew or write my name. I was cruising around Skid Row one night with my girlfriend. In all honesty, she was the one who suggested I go out and paint it. After the first one, which was the woman dreaming of the dollar signs, it was like a fire [in me]. So that night, I probably did about four or five.
Did you feel bad about it at all?
At first I felt like a dick doing it—because, you know, I'm somewhat using them as props. But then I realized I should be doing more while I'm out here doing this. So the next day, I went to the 99-cent store and bought snacks and toiletries and made care packages for these people. That way, when I do roll up, I have something to give them.
When you draw around someone, do you talk to them first and ask them about their lives and aspirations to figure out what to paint? And do you get their permission?
It depends on the kind of state they're in. If they're not completely passed out, intoxicated, sleeping in their own urine—then yeah, I'll talk to them. Some are friendly, some aren't. But if someone won't wake up, I'll just go ahead and do the art over them and leave them with a care package. If someone does wake up, I usually talk to them, introduce myself, show them some of the art that I do, and offer them a little bit of money, and of course a care package. And normally they're OK with it, but there's been times when they haven't.
I had a woman pull a shank on me, so that got kind of real. I had another guy chase me down the street.
Oh shit. What are the reactions that you normally get to your art?
Most people enjoy it. It's something to be amused by, but at the same time, something to make you think of an issue that you wouldn't normally think of. The reception by most people has been positive, and not many people view it negatively, except for the fact that it's like destruction of somebody else's property.
What about the homeless people? How do they react?
When I offer food and money, they're usually hella down with it, and cool to participate. Birdman (the homeless man in the above photo), for example—we got him Chick-fil-A that night, and he'd never had it, so to him it was an extraordinary treat. We talked to him, and he shared with us some of his Hollywood stories. It got real personal with Birdman. We came back to talk to him after the first night. We asked if there was anything we could bring him. And what he requested was a lobster. He said he hadn't had lobster in over 25 years. So me and my [art] partner—his name is Captain Save-a-Homeless—we went to get a lobster for him, came back, and documented the whole thing on film.
And then you just hung out and talked with him?
Yeah, we did. It gets deep. Sometimes people aren't really looking for money; they're looking for compassion. That's the main basis for what I'm doing. This is art for compassion; it's saying that if we can care about those who are around us who are in need, [we should] help our neighbor, help our fellow man.
How do you choose what to paint around someone? I mean, some of the art is as simple as a thought bubble and some of the other ones are these really elaborate dreamscapes.
On rare occasions, someone will have a request. But most people that I do art around are happy just to get food and money to participate. With something more elaborate, it's more from personal ambition. As an artist [I want] to see how much I can pull off in this guerilla art form.
At the same time, you are essentially using homeless people as a prop for your art. How do you respond to criticism that this project is exploitative?
The bigger issue is: Why is this person sleeping there? There's a bigger injustice taking place there that I'm addressing. I'm painting an image that makes people reflect upon things; makes people stop and look at the homeless person that they've walked by a thousand times, and probably never bothered to lend a helping hand.
So you want to physically change the context in which people look at homelessness?
It's taking something that is nothing and making it something that people enjoy. Not only changing the context in which people look at the issue of homelessness, but also changing how people feel within themselves. By taking something heartbreaking that is overlooked as nothing of importance and artistically transforming it into something with meaning that people can enjoy and be inspired by. Plus, Birdman probably makes like $50 or $60 a day off of people trying to take a picture with the art.
Have you done this kind of art outside of Los Angeles?
I've done some in New York, I've done some in Miami, and I've done some in Baltimore. That's part of a new project I'm working on, to try to get around the US and deliver the message.
The medium for your art—street graffiti—is technically illegal. How do you work around that?
This is living art. The art is only there for a matter of a few hours, depending on what time the person wakes up and when they put their tent down. Fortunately for Birdman, the city doesn't really go there often and buff out the art. But I'd imagine they'll be there in a week or two. Birdman said that the cops went up to him and told him, "Whoever is doing this, tell him that if we catch him he's going to jail." That's not going to stop me from doing what I'm doing. I doubt that they're going to set up a sting operation and wait for me.
See more of Skid Robot's artwork here.
Follow Arielle Pardes on Twitter.