3.13.2015 @ 11:04AM
It’s a warm, sunny December day in Miami during Art Basel and the 28-year-old Los Angeles-based graffiti artist who goes by the name of Alec Monopoly has been keeping busy. He painted the façade of the SLS Hotel and a giant duck poolside, a double-decker bus and a fleet of supercars, unveiled a series of new paintings – some on custom-made shaped canvases that he’s working on for the first time – and debuted Mini Monopz, a limited-edition toy sculpture he designed in collaboration with Juan Faustin, creator of toy upstart Expressalo. Initially launched in an edition of 150, which will be followed by additional versions and editions of the character in 2015, it marks Monopoly’s first foray into sculpture and toy figure releases.
Artist Alec Monopoly (Photo Damon Kidwell)
When we meet, Monopoly is dressed all in black sporting long gold chains and a top hat, echoing his signature portrait of the mustached, tuxedoed Monopoly board game character he’s best identified with. He has done away with the bandana he usually wears as a mask to protect his anonymity when he carries out illegal street tagging, where entire cities become his temporary art galleries. Aware that he could be arrested simply for putting work up in the streets, he understands that this vulnerability is all part of the game. “I can’t count on both hands how many times I’ve been in trouble,” he relates. “You just accept it when you start doing graffiti that it’s going to happen at some point. It’s more about luck: at that time, a cop drives by you. But I’ve shifted my focus to doing walls where I have permission, where I can spend more time to define the piece rather than just doing stupid tags.”
So who is the real Alec Monopoly? While his true identity remains a mystery, chances are if you live in Los Angeles, New York, Miami or London, you’ve probably driven past one of his street murals featuring widely-known, wealthy pop-culture figures from childhood, like the Monopoly Man, Richie Rich or Uncle Scrooge, or his interpretations of celebrity icons such as Michael Jackson, Bob Dylan, Jack Nicholson, Goldie Hawn and Twiggy. He has also painted on Richard Corman’s photographs of Madonna from the 1980s. His client list includes Robert De Niro, Adrien Brody, Benicio del Toro, Nobu Matsuhisa, David Blaine and Seth Rogen, and his artworks today sell for between US$20,000 and $50,000. He says, “If I could just paint on walls all day long, that would be all I do, but I’m not selfish with my work. It’s important to do canvas work because one day the walls can be painted over or taken down, but the canvas will live on forever. Painting on walls is more fun for me because it’s exposed to everybody, not just art collectors or enthusiasts. But my artwork is based around my graffiti, so I’ll make a graffiti piece, then a canvas.”
The Goldie mural located at 8126 Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles in front of Planet Salon was created centered around Monopoly’s artistic rendition of famed actress Goldie Hawn. The actress later visited the mural and posted a photo of it on her Twitter account (Photo courtesy of Alec Monopoly)
After first painting variations of the Monopoly Man in 2008 when the economy crashed as a commentary on capitalism, consumerism, corporate greed and the scandals rocking the banking industry, there was an immediate response that garnered Monopoly overnight fame as it spoke to people, and art dealers and collectors contacted him to do shows. He recalls, “I was playing Monopoly and watching the news, and I saw Bernie Madoff being arrested. And it hit me, it was like a light bulb and, that night, I started a canvas of a Monopoly guy that I never finished. It’s a Monopoly guy half-painted, and I went out on the street and just started tagging the Monopoly guy. The response was so quick. It was picked up on the Internet and in magazines, so I just went crazy with it.”
There’s the Monopoly Man behind DJ turntables, holding a can of spray paint, running off, flying away, with empty pockets, crucified by Wall Street and holding an umbrella (in reference to Hong Kong’s recent pro-democracy protests, which he witnessed firsthand). This led Monopoly to bring more of his creative studio artwork onto the streets, as before that he was just tagging and skateboarding. Today, he has fully appropriated the character, which has come to symbolize the artist himself, representative of success and achieving one’s goals, thereby serving as a source of inspiration to young people. He divulges, “I like painting for my own happiness. Graffiti is my true passion and I like seeing the reaction of people when they walk by my work and it inspires them. Kids start painting because of me. I like putting a positive message out there that makes people happy.”
Sailing Away Richie, 48 x 36 cm, vintage Richie Rich comic book, acrylic, spray paint and resin coating on canvas (Photo courtesy of Alec Monopoly)
Born in 1986 in New York City (where graffiti has a rich history), the college dropout has been drawing and painting for as long as he can remember, as his mother is an artist, and he began tagging from the age of 12. “My mom is a classical style painter, who does oil paintings,” he notes. “When I was learning to write and spell, I was learning to draw, so when people ask me how long I have been doing art, I can’t even remember because it’s been my whole life. My grandmother was an amazing painter, too. I come from a long line of painters. Growing up in New York, in middle school, every kid has his tag. It’s part of New York culture, like skateboarding, so I was doing straight graffiti and tags. But I knew my whole life that I was going to be an artist. Ever since I was a little kid, I just wanted to be an artist.”
When Monopoly moved to Los Angeles in 2006, he met fashion photographer Michel Comte who invited him to live and work in his mansion in the hills above Sunset Boulevard. He states, “LA was where I really was inspired by street art. It has grown to be one of the number one street art cities in the world, together with Berlin, so I was fortunate to choose it as my headquarters. It’s a great city for me because there are so many walls, being so spread out. In New York, there’s the NYPD vandal squad that just looks for graffiti. That’s one of the reasons I moved to LA, to get out of that, relax and spend more time on my graffiti pieces. There are a lot bigger issues in LA, so they’re not as worried about graffiti. I’ve been painting on Melrose, my favorite place to paint in LA, and the cops literally stopped, looked at me and just kept going. And now the city has embraced me. I started doing graffiti illegally all over the city; today, I get offered walls all over the place.”
Monopoly in his atelier working on Monopoly Gifts Goldie, 48 x 60 cm, 24-karat gold leaf, acrylic, spray paint and resin coating on canvas (Photo courtesy of Alec Monopoly)
For his canvases, Monopoly works out of his Beverly Hills studio. “It’s a big open space with a lot of bright light, half inside and half outside because I’m always using spray paint,” he says. “It’s always a crazy mess because I move so quickly. I have really bad attention-deficit disorder so I work on three or four different paintings at once. I get bored with something and start working on another. I make maybe 70 art pieces per year. I like making each piece myself. I have one assistant here and there but, most of the time, it’s just me. So that’s a way I limit myself because I’m making them all myself.” He uses spray paint, acrylic, resin and newspaper clippings from the Financial Timesand Wall Street Journal for most of his work, and ladders and lifts for large murals. While the actual painting of a mural may require a day or two, coming up with the concept can take months.
Monopoly stands out for his unconventional graffiti style that is colorful, happy and positive rather than a gritty, underground representation in a part of the art world associated with crime and vandalism. The pop art nature of his work sees him referencing popular culture, ranging from the movie character Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver to Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans, as he wants people to relate to his images in the aim of appealing to the masses worldwide and not just street art fans. “The streets are my main inspiration, looking at other graffiti pieces, advertisements, what’s going on in pop culture,” he explains. “I also study a lot of old artists. Dali is one of my big inspirations, but I really enjoy Picasso, Keith Haring and Basquiat because they were graffiti artists as well who transferred to fine art.”American financier, entrepreneur and producer Marc Bell, who collects Monopoly’s art and bankrolled his exhibition during Art Basel together with Marc Leder, comments, “I love the look of graffiti art, and that mixed with childhood icons such as Richie Rich and the Monopoly Man makes Alec’s work so much fun to look at.”
Dali, 38 x 36 cm, acrylic, spray paint and resin coating on canvas (Photo courtesy of Alec Monopoly)
Having done gallery shows since 2008, Monopoly is concentrating on Asia in 2015. His next exhibition will be held at Armani/Aqua in Hong Kong in March during Art Basel (his first solo show in Hong Kong), where he will unveil a selection of new works made specifically for the city, followed by an installation in a brand-new restaurant-nightclub at Chijmes in Singapore set to open in March by the owners of boutique bar, House of Dandy. On May 2nd, he will open his first-ever solo museum show at MOCA Bangkok (the first Western artist to be given a solo exhibition there), featuring installations, sculptures and a major live performance on-site, where he will paint an entire room of the museum. His first-ever solo exhibition in Jakarta, Indonesia, will take place in September at Glitch gallery. An exciting collaboration with a well-known American high street fashion label will also be announced soon.