Street Artist Kai Aspire Spreads the Love at SOHO’s Rag & Bone
Challenging the world to practice love and awareness against a tide of warfare and digital apathy, street artist Kai has been expanding his reach into the most iconic streets of the world. His most recent works include a mural at Bel-Air Fine Art Gallery in Miami, created for this year’s Art Basel Miami.
Of course, the artist’s wide-spanning reach wouldn’t be complete without works and exhibitions in New York City. One of the most notable pieces Kai has painted as he makes his way back to Los Angeles is Love versus Money, which is housed on the side of Rag & Bone’s SoHo boutique. The piece depicts Kai’s character IF—short for Imaginary Friend—weighed down by a sack of money and lifted by a heart-shaped balloon.
Earlier this fall, Rag & Bone held a reception to celebrate the unveiling of the mural. Kai, who opts for Banksy-esque anonymity and chooses not to show his face on camera, took a moment to speak with 20s about New York City, modern-day dilemmas and the intentions and passions that make his work so groundbreaking and relevant to contemporary society.
You’ve mentioned before that when installing works in New York on your World Tour, you chose some pieces that focused on the dilemmas of capitalism and brought to light the worker-bee mentality of the city. How does the piece you chose for tonight’s event compare to those themes?
The piece for this event is my most iconic piece, Love versus Money. The idea behind Love versus Money is everyday life. We’re always caught in that decision : do I do what I love? Do I go back to work? Do I stay at work a little bit later? Will the person I care about be okay with me not being home? For me, the question is : should I keep doing art or should I get a nine-to-five? I think that thought process happens everywhere in the world. In New York in particular, with the crazy mix of artists or creatives and Wall Street businessmen, there’s a very strong pull between those two.
If you’re a creative and you see your friend who works on Wall Street making six figures, you say maybe I should work for six figures, but I love what I do. If you’re the guy working on Wall Street and you see your friend following their dream, you think maybe I should quit my job and follow my dream. You can feel that pull a little stronger here than you can in smaller cities; you can find it in Paris, LA… but New York has had that iconic pull forever.
Your work is expressed through the depiction of Imaginary Friend, who cannot be categorized in terms of gender, religion, race, class, etc. How does this affect the depiction of the concepts – love, money, happiness, war – that you bring to attention in your work? How is IF’s perspective both inspired by and separate from your personal experiences with these themes?
Imaginary Friend, the concepts and themes he explores are everything in life. And yes, some of them can be personal, but they can also be drawn from the personal lives of my friends or my mom or my sister. But the idea is to broaden these concepts and to break them down so that they are accessible to everyone; that’s what takes the most time.
Love vs Money is a struggle I’ve had my whole life. When I stopped going to college, my friends were making six figures out the doors and I was literally eating rice for dinner every single day. They’d invite me out and I couldn’t go out because I couldn’t pay for myself; the embarrassment of not being able to pay for yourself, but loving what you were doing — that was my life.
The ideas that I pick, they are personal, but they are relatable to everyone. I could have touched on the theme of Love vs Money in a much more personal way — the idea was to break it down, and to make it as simple, clean and minimalistic as it could possibly be so that everyone could understand it. I think everyone has a Love vs Money issue; they feel like they’re caught in a hamster wheel sometimes, they keep going and going and going and don’t see a finish line. Lately everyone feels the power of “Big Brother” or the government over their shoulder.
The idea is that we all feel this in different ways, but how can we say it so that everyone understands it? Let’s not exclude anyone, let’s make this universal. Let’s make everyone come together and understand. When you bring groups of people together, that’s the power in art.
I think it’s fair to say that the relevance of the themes you explore is heightened, as well as made controversial, in today’s politically aware world. How do you hope that people — particularly younger, activist-minded 20s – will perceive your art? Are your pieces meant as honest observations, as a call to mindfulness or action, or something entirely different? Does creating a piece incite mindfulness or change concerning how you interact with a particular concept in your day-to-day life?
I have this mission statement I made myself: plant a seed in someone’s mind, and let them decide if it grows. The idea is when you see one of my pieces, I give you a seed. You could hate it and walk away and never talk about it again, never see it again — but at least I planted my seed. The other options is, I plant my seed and it touches you and affects you, and you go to your friend and you talk about it; you go to dinner with your parents and you talk about it. You might not talk about the artwork itself, but it touched you and subconsciously that message affected you and now you keep talking about it. I don’t know if it’s about people in their 20s or people in their 60s, but the idea is to plant seeds in people’s minds and help them be more aware of what’s happening.
I don’t think we realize how much time we spend on our phones instead of saying hi to the people around us. I don’t think we realize how much time we spend in the car or in transit. I don’t think we realize that we can walk home and enjoy everything that’s been built or put on this earth for us. My idea is just plant this seed, and if you want to make it flourish, then please do; and if you don’t, then thanks for taking the time to just look.
You’ve studied at art school in Paris as well as in LA — do you think that a formal arts education is necessary in order to become a successful artist today? What are its benefits and pitfalls? Do you have any advice for current art school students?
I’ll start with advice : if you’re an art school student and you’re not sure that you want to be an artist, don’t do it. You will go through so many lows before you get any highs; if you don’t have the stomach and you don’t really really want it, do something that will make you happy in both realms. In the choice of Love versus Money — find the middle ground, because if you don’t you’ll be very hurt and depressed. It’s a very hard industry, but I encourage everyone to try. Give it a shot; at least go for it.
As for whether you need an education or not, I was lucky. When I went in to art school, I had made the decision — cemented it in my mind — that I was gonna do this forever. Even if it meant eating nothing but rice for the rest of my life, this is what I wanted to do. I wanted to be able to communicate with people without being outlandish and in their face, and I thought art was the best way to do this.
I was lucky enough to attend art school for two years before I ran out of money. The first year at Cal Arts — it’s a very conceptual school. They don’t care if you don’t make anything, they don’t care if you never pick up a paintbrush or a pencil or make a sculpture; they care that every concept you put out is thought all the way through. So that helped me later on when I finally got the techniques; when I went to Beaux-Arts de Paris, I was lucky enough to learn techniques of the old masters that had been around for hundreds and hundreds of years.
Those techniques as well as what I had learned the year before at Cal Arts — to make everything important and make everything mean something — I combine those two to do what I do today.
When I decided to work with cement in the street it wasn’t a random thought, it was the streets are made out of cement; let me put something in the street that’s beautiful, but also made from the street. Let me bring the street back to the street, and make the street meaningful again. The idea was to use the most simple things, and make things that were powerful with them.
There’s this whole secondary play on how God turns dust into people; my idea was to turn dust into something that’s just meaningful. I’m not tryna be God, but the idea was to take something that’s meaningless and give it meaning. That’s the idea of making every message out of cement : you take something that has no value to anyone — you can buy fifteen pounds of cement for five dollars, that’s cheaper than flour — and make it meaningful by really working it and giving it love. That’s another, deeper message: that anything you give love to can become something valuable.
There are all these interplays that I’m able to consider because I went to Cal Arts, but I think that if you work at it long enough it starts to become second nature. I might not have needed to go to school to develop this conceptual thinking, but it sped up the process a bit. If I kept working, I would have gotten here eventually.
You just have to love it, that’s my thing. Love it, hit the ground running and don’t look back. Whenever anyone asks aren’t you worried about your healthcare? or whatever — no. I love what I do, I wake up happy, and that means everything.
Had the privilege to be a part @therawproject_ This piece is about going after your dreams and ideas, I thought it was perfect for a school because it could inspire kids to keep going. But it's also perfect for everyone who has DACA, don't stop dreaming and don't stop fighting for your dreams. This whole situation saddens me and is effecting people close to me. #daca #dreamers Denver, Colorado 10.1 #kaiworldtour
You’ve exhibited in galleries as well as displayed your works on the streets. In recent years, it seems as though those two spheres have been intersecting in an increasing amount of ways. Do you see this union as a positive shift that promotes equality among artists of the different realms, or does it represent an appropriation of street art’s aesthetics into a still-elitist art world?
I think it’s interesting because when you take someone like me, for instance, I’m street at my core. If I don’t put something up in the street at least three times a week, I start to go crazy. My friends are like why are you in the streets right now? Because this is what I love.
When you love the streets, everything you make has that feeling. It sort of blurs the line between commercial and street. So yes I think there’s a little bit of the commercial world taking advantage of us because we love what we do so much, but I don’t think we would be able to put anything out that we didn’t love.
You can’t expect someone to hang something in their house that they don’t love. Likewise, I have to love and be able to live with anything I put into a gallery. You look at my artworks — they’re literally pieces of wall cut out and put in frames. That’s because that’s what I love to look at, that’s what I love to feel. When I go into my dining room and there’s a piece of a wall in my dining room, I’m like wow, this is home.
If you take a blank white canvas with a red dot, yeah, it’s art to someone, but for me to be able to love and live with a piece, it has to feel street. That grit… It’s what made me, and that’s what I love and want to be around, and if that happens to be what other people want to be around, then thank god that I can do what I do.
This collaboration with Rag & Bone — you could call it almost an extension of your typical street-based work. Are you hoping to continue strengthening this relationship with fashion with your art in the future?
As we see with Supreme, as we see with Diamond, Hundreds — that’s my generation. People who love the street push the street into different realms, and I think that if you collaborate and work with someone who has the same ideals and the same thought process as you, then yeah the relationship can continue. But I don’t think you’ll see me working with Gucci tomorrow, and I don’t think you’ll see me working with Mercedes Benz because that’s not what I believe in.
I’ve been in New York for six days. I’ve done six pieces — I’ve been out until one o clock in the morning and up at six o clock every day. That hit-the-ground running, do as much as you can — those are the people I want to work with. I want to work with people who believe in the working class, who believe that no matter what you do hard work will get you to the finish line. I might collaborate with other brands, I might move more into fashion, but I think the partnerships I make have to have the same ideals and the same vision as I do.