Against a circular, subtly three-dimensional, background, two-sided spikes emerged, each side a different color. In the center, there was a seven-pointed star. The mural contained many minute details, such as the less-than-perfect symmetry of the spikes – likely an intentional choice. The entire work resembled a pinwheel, or perhaps a mandala. I also marinated on the mural’s role in its environment. It seemed to radiate an overall vibe of positivity, yet there was also something alerting about the contrast between sharp lines and a rounded backdrop. Upon further reflection, it appeared to be a beacon transmitting crucial cultural information, and/or a portal into a magical dimension of infinite creativity – a neighborhood Stargate, so to speak.
A short time later, a distinguished-looking, yet streetwise, mustachioed gentleman with cocoa-hued skin ambled up, wearing a beanie, hoodie, and jeans. I got a sense of déjà vu, and realized we had crossed paths before, 15 years prior, in the office of a now-defunct hip-hop magazine. There are no coincidences in life, it seems. This is especially true in the Bay Area, where cultural art circles are defined by degrees of familiarity.
After snapping a few pics, we walked down 18th, toward Mission St. As we walked, Apex began to talk about this particular mural. What followed was one of the most enlightening and informative conversations about art I’ve had with any visual artist. It’s not just that Apex is a visionary who understands art’s transformative nature and approaches his creative process with intentionality toward that end. It’s also the fact that he’s able to clearly articulate that process, as well as the communication connecting the artist, the viewer, and the environment.As we walked, Apex confirmed sacred geometry was indeed embedded into the Mission District mural, but in a way which veiled it away from the obvious. “Let me take all that I’m into, juice that into an abstract form, so when they take a moment, that’s what’ll hit them,” he explained.
“I need to be conscious when I’m producing work in a public environment, especially an urban one, of all the layers. Layer one for me is, am I balancing the equation of the visual landscape, as I go through it?,” he said.
Surveying the locale, he added, “If you look on this block, it has everything the modern urbanite would want, but they didn’t have any artwork. They didn’t have anything coming from the soul, and speaking to the soul.”
While he was painting the mural, he related, many longtime neighborhood residents thanked him profusely for doing it. “People were like, ‘we got this restaurant, we got the park, we got this grocery store … we don’t have anything cultural.’”
As a muralist, what Apex does is alter the iconography of the visual landscape – the idea that everything in an urban environment perpetually informs your subconscious, whether you’re aware of it or not. Murals transmit coded information, just as billboards, bus ads, streetlights, and sidewalks do, but their messaging is often one of rebellion, not conformity.
“If you look at a billboard, it’s [put there by]people who have a certain amount of currency to allow them to express their vision,” he said. Such messaging, he elaborated, guides everyday people “in a direction outside of ourselves and not internally. Which goes with the program.
“Then you look at street art… Before society labeled it graffiti to make it negative, the people practicing it called it writing, because we were writing a name on a surface. Practicing the root of language, of letters.
“That raw vision coming out of a disenfranchised community in New York, Philly, that time period, was just kids who were acting out, expressing themselves, what they knew at a 10 to 14 year-old age. Society was like, ‘whoa, that wasn’t supposed to leak out’… These labels weren’t what we called it. Little kids running around, you see, oh, he got some paint on him… ‘What do you write?’ That’s how we spoke to one another. We didn’t say, ‘what’s your graffiti name?’”
A big part of the aerosol subculture, Apex explained, is the manifestation of individual identity—which also happens to be completely subversive, because “everything about society is saying, ‘no, don’t be an individual.’”He remarked emphatically, though, that “I’m not here to navigate, commissioned, non-commissioned. That’s neither here nor there. It’s like, what is the person saying? Why are they doing that? From there, that’s when we start to move society forward.”
For Apex, everything literally starts with the letterform. But it doesn’t stop there; rather the letter becomes a template which can then be reformed to create new meaning. “My abstract work is based on the letterform. So, Apex, if I just take the letter A, how can I abstract it fractally, to then get a new communication that everybody can understand? If I just put an A on the wall, people are gonna go, ‘ah, that’s an A.’
“But if I abstract and fractal it and break it down… I started finding out, oh, there’s other things I can inject into this. Someone’s gonna stop and look at it… you only need a second out of your routine. Who knows how that’s going to affect that person, and what they might do with that information that they just downloaded?”
In just 13 words, Apex summed up his methodology: “I’ve taken the essence of letters and used that to communicate with people. “
He continued: “From a design point of view, if you take the generic letter capital A, what’s the extreme essence of that letter? If you see a triangle, the center part, that’s it. If you see three horizontal dashes stacked on top of each other, you’re probably gonna think of a capital letter E.”
Letterforms, he repeated, are the “fundamental roots” of his style. “I’ve taken that and gone even more extreme.” The aerosol alchemist then explained the science behind the art, i.e., how letterforms can be combined to create a visual language which pushes in new direction while still communicating the artform’s essence.
In conversation, Apex came off as soft-spoken, intelligent, and disarmingly humble. Yet his resume—which includes murals, installations, sculptures, and commissions for the likes of Outside Lands, Nissan, and SFMOMA—makes it clear he’s a M.F.A. (Major Fucking Artist), at or near the top of the San Francisco street art scene.
If you know anything about the aerosol subculture, you know that it’s both highly-competitive and highly-ritualized. Masters of the art form aren’t known for small egos, and Apex certainly qualifies as a master. Yet throughout the interview, he seemed not just personable, but a person who has considered other people’s perspectives, while carving out his own niche. If you thought wise old aerosol kings only existed in Adam Mansbach novels, you were wrong.
Of course, I had to get the 411 before talking to Apex. A pre-interview debriefing session with a prolific Oakland aerosol artist resulted in effusive praise for Apex’s “can control” (precision with the spray paint medium),and an addendum that he’s known for using unique colors, and for both his collaborative efforts and solo works. He hasn’t faced much backlash for his commercial endeavors, possibly because he refuses to compromise on aesthetics or let others dictate what his process should be.
“I will turn down work if they try to change my creative process,” he said. He prefers to operate from a place of mutual respect, “because then you can be free of ego and be able to communicate the outcome… Once again, it’s art trying to move society forward in a positive way.”
Born and raised in SF, Apex’s history as an artist has been one of constant evolution and elevation. Beginning as a 3rd grader imitating the street art he saw blossom throughout San Francisco’s neighborhoods, his artistic emergence coincided with the development of the city’s homegrown aerosol scene into international recognition, which led to mainstream art world success for Barry “Twist” McGee, but also established the city as a prime location for graffiti tourists – visiting artists with no sense of hometown pride.
Apex was around for the Psyko City era, a legendary period—he likens it to Wu-Tang’s first album—where a quasi-legal wall in the center of SF’s downtown became a magnet for local spraycan artists. He continued to evolve artistically with each piece, each collaboration, and each curated project. After going to school for graphic design, he applied what he learned with what he already knew. He then took his artistic practice to an even higher level by doing commercial commissions and gallery work, yet he maintained his roots by continuing to do street art projects. He’s determined to keep evolving; his next series of murals, expected sometime in 2017, will be rendered without using a single drop of spray paint—a revelation some purists might consider blasphemous.
But Apex isn’t concerned. He’s unafraid to step outside the box, probably because he sees boxes as too confining—in art, and in life. “For me, all my work is about stripping any label. Labels [are]what people get stuck with: “Oh, I’m white, I’m black. People get stuck on that. And then they forget that we’re all connected as people.”