On any given day you can find Danny Babcock transforming walls and buildings into entertaining, edgy and memorable masterpieces. Constantly challenged with new spaces he’s reimagining and bringing to life by combining history and present-day culture, Babcock spends his time creating murals and large-scale paintings for a range of clients including lifestyle brands, amusement parks, corporate spaces, creative offices, school classrooms, bars and gyms.
Babcock is founder of the mural collective called Higher Level Art, a group of creators and artists based out of Cincinnati, Ohio. Besides murals, the collective’s work also includes signs, exhibitions and fine art installations.
We interviewed Babcock to find out: how does a street artist use walls to tell stories? And what does he mean when he says, “if it isn’t digital, it isn’t real”?
Batterii: Within Batterii, people are able to create, build and synthesize information on digital Walls that mimic physical walls. How have you used walls to tell stories?
Danny Babcock: Walls can be used for internal stories or dialogues. Sometimes, they're for public use and public digestion, but usually not both. In some cases, like when Terrell Owens (T.O.) signed with the Bengals, we painted a wall with portraits of Chad Johnson, T.O. and Chris Henry.
The press release was at about 7:00 PM that night and we started that painting at about 7:45 PM, around when T.O. was signing the papers. We did this intentionally so that when the sun came up, there was a cool visual to support an actual story.
When thinking of walls and the stories we can tell through them, I think about highly embellished, editorial illustrations in the street—on street surfaces—that live in the same world as the people hearing [the stories] on the radio. Like the class line, “You heard it on the radio, seen it on a TV show..." We’ve told stories that way—aligned with a couple of news stories—such as when T.O. came to Cincinnati. We decided to do this project because we had never seen it before, and wanted to tell this breaking story on a physical wall.
A lot of walls are painted for fun, but, in the case of wall artists, we think first about the story that we want to tell and then craft the story and share the story through art. Artists are consciously doing this, and leaving visual cues behind on any given wall. It's a subconscious-conscious thought during creation: you're intentionally planting these little flicks of the wrist, or movements of the leg, or like a Samurai sword stroke in a place that a normal person may not recognize.
A “lay person” would see it and say, "That's beautiful." But an experienced painter or a journeyman painter that is interested in that world, would see it and look and see the deeper meaning, and details, and imagine the body mechanics that it took to create those details.
Batterii: It sounds like different people can interpret or find meaning in visuals in different ways. Do you agree?
Danny Babcock: Yes, and in general, if I'm telling a story in a painting, it is as if I'm planting these tidbits throughout the story. I'm painting for the viewer that knows what they're viewing.
I'm also painting for the viewer that has a Polaroid camera and wants to document the snapshot. They're going to see one thing, but the people that know what they're looking at are going to see it deeper, see it differently, and they're going to question and answer according to their interpretation of the art, and I want them to be better for it. I want to create art that makes people question, “How can I do that, and why don't I see this more often?”
Batterii: You have talked about the power of telling stories and about changing someone’s environment through your art. What is the goal of your art?
Danny Babcock: Transforming spaces is what I do for a living. You can transform a space in a socially negative way and also in a positive way.
Transforming a space for the positive means looking at a blank space that people are happy with—neutral, flat, plain, hypnotizing, or boring structures—and activating it with an image—something much more than just a framed picture on a wall.
The goal of any space that I transform is to encourage people to want to be in the space. I want the transformation to reflect them, inside out. And I want it to be something inspiring.
I would equate it to getting the back of your hand tattooed. You carefully select the artist that does the work because you will see that image constantly. You want the image to be a reflection of you, and inspiring to you. You want it to reflect your best self.
Batterii: And what are some examples of where you have done this?
Danny Babcock: Changing the environment in a corporate space can help people to visualize a shared goal or manifesto. It can also work in an educational space to inspire students about the bigger picture of the life that they are building. It can also be a homeowner who wants to walk through their space and be reminded of who they want to be, not who they are today.
Batterii: You said in your TED Talk, “If it isn’t digital, it isn’t real.” Can you explain what you mean by that?
Danny Babcock: Covington [a school located in Kentucky] schools were the first school district we painted. We were eating lunch at the school, and sitting at the same tables that the kids sit at. While we were sitting there, I was looking at the tray and I noticed how pliable the trays were, and how everything you could eat didn't need a utensil. I saw that the chairs we were sitting in had tubing that was attached to the table.
I looked at Matthew Dayler, [a Higher Level Art artist] and I said, "Hey man. This is like painting in a jail. This is like a jail environment." I started to think how sad it is was to be in school today—in that kind of an environment—and how this is the world where kids are educated.
Every day, kids go from a prison-like environment at school to a Technicolor world at home. When they go home at the end of the day, they have Xbox, PlayStation, Call of Duty, PC games, WiFi, cell phones, tablets, Technicolor moving touch screens, and constant mental stimulation through florescent screens that are engaging them all the time. They have constant stimulation, with strong use of color and continue learning in that environment.
With our “if it isn’t digital, it is isn’t real” assertion—in painting and otherwise—we transform students’ learning spaces into active, inviting spaces. Our goal is to make kids’ classrooms as awesome as their cell phone, and we do it through our physical paintings. But, changing and improving their environment should not stop at the paintings: kids need to be stimulated at a digital level, or they won’t be engaged with their learning.
Kids believe that if something is not digital, then it doesn't really exist, or it’s irrelevant. Modern life is obsessed by telling stories that exist in the digital world, and our goal is to create physical spaces that are just as vibrant as the digital world.
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