/ Art

09/18/2017

ERIC HAZE

Hidden behind an unassuming roll-down industrial door, on a tree-lined Brooklyn side street, is a treasure trove. It’s not a pot of gold, but for those who obsess over New York’s cultural history and the development of the city’s hip-hop scene in the 1980s, it might as well be. There, artist Eric Haze owns a workshop filled with treasures: flat file cabinets full of printer proofs, canvases covered in rough geometric brushstrokes and photos documenting Haze alongside pals like Keith Haring. (There’s also a massive, restored 1983 GMC Vandura that’d put the A-Team’s ride to shame, for good measure.) “I have every sketch, every flat, every color sample of every T-shirt we ever printed in the ’90s,” says Haze, 56. “My assistant spent a year digitally archiving what we’d scanned. I’m the archivists’ archivist.” It’s all in preparation for a book he’s been planning to shop around to publishers—a tome that chronicles his work as a seminal graffiti artist, his decades in the NYC art arena and his influence on the rap world’s aesthetic—via the imagery he created for some of the biggest stars in the game. “At this point in life, it’s the only thing I have to do before I get hit by a bus,” he laughs. “It’s long overdue.”

Long before his art career started, Haze says he was “an absolute wild child. I was the kid getting everybody to light matches in the corner. I got the other kids to start writing on the walls at school, and got 20 people called into the principal’s office. I was that kid.” He grew up in the then- “bombed-out” Upper West Side of Manhattan, in a brownstone his father had bought for $31,000. “Lower Manhattan, Tribeca … everything was tumbleweeds back then,” he says. “It was the wild wild west.” Haze recalls being “aggressively downward-mobile,” starting around age 10. “I was a long-haired white kid who’d get on the subway, ride it to the end and go walk through Brownsville to see what the train yards looked like.”

Naturally, he ended up as a graffiti artist. “Our crew was known for going out and doing 200 pieces on a weekend—the city would be lit up on Monday morning,” he says. Though he wasn’t in the first wave of NYC graffiti legends, Haze describes himself and his contemporaries as the first to consciously make themselves into artists. Back then, he says, “graffiti was sort of a style competition. Out of the gate, you became conscious of having to become better at your craft.”

He was only 18 years old in fall 1979, when the Village Voice did a front-page article on him and his cohorts. A year later, their work was appearing in major exhibitions next to that of Basquiat and Warhol. (Though he still needed side hustles to bring in rent money—Haze was even an NYC taxi driver for a few years.) Once he made a name for himself in the scene, his design aesthetic became in-demand for a host of hip-hop luminaries. The writing on the cover of the Beastie Boys’ 1992 classic Check Your Head? The Tommy Boy Records image with the b-boy silhouettes? The EPMD logo? The LL Cool J logo that winkingly plays off the Kool cigarette box? All Haze. “After the Beastie Boys, everybody wanted me to use that hand-lettering for stuff,” he says. “But I didn’t want to water down their identity and disrespect what I created by giving it to anyone else. My motivation as a logo designer was to make work that would stand the test of time.”

Meanwhile, Haze built a thriving streetwear brand, and spent 12 years building up the company in L.A. But eventually he felt the pull to move back to the East Coast. “My family’s here, my roots are here,” he says. “I always knew that day would come.” These days, he regularly partners with clients like Nike, New Era and G-Shock on creative projects like packaging and brand identity. And he’s still pushing his own boundaries as an artist, though this time around he’s got a paintbrush in hand, not a spray can. “As soon as I got home from my last exhibition,” he says, “I started working on my next one. I’m continuing to create what I consider to be complete bodies of work, and finding the right home for them.”

And, of course, there’s the book he’s planning to complete: a labor of love so many years in the making. “I’ve lived through and participated in so many cultural waves and styles,” says Haze. “My career arcs squarely from the pre-digital age through the birth of the digital age. I want to write a book that touches on the people, places and movements through the decades—it’s not going to be ‘my book, by me, about me.’ The bad news is I haven’t done it yet. But the good news is that every year that goes by, it gets more interesting.”

 

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