Countless words come to mind when you hear about Skid Row: homelessness, poverty, crime, and drugs. The last thing on your mind?—Interior design and art. This all changes with Los Angeles artist Fisher King AKA Skid Robot, who is touring poverty stricken areas like Skid Row and other Los Angeles freeway underpasses,
and scattering the walls with painted bedroom and livingroom facades. The motivation is simple: start the conversation of homelessness while treating the homeless.
You’re an anonymous artist; what do you think are the benefits and disadvantages of being “unknown?”
By being an unknown artist it makes the art more about the message than my identity. My name, ethnicity etc. is insignificant to what I am trying to express with what I paint and the stories I share of the people I meet. Other benefits include: avoiding the police kicking down my door for the tons of graffiti i’ve painted all over downtown LA ; being a man of mystery, which is always cool; maintaining my privacy.
The disadvantage of being an anonymous artist is that it makes it difficult to participate through the normal channels such as working with the missions/organizations that work with the police. I have to keep my identity secret, which means being a bit of a lone wolf. This makes things complicated to network. Similar to Batman, people view him as a hero but to the authorities he is still a criminal. I have to be careful with who I work with because it could get me caught up.
“Fisher King” is your pen name, inspired by the Robin William’s 1991 classic where he plays a homeless history professor, right?
Yes, exactly. He was a history professor who suffered a traumatic event which caused him to lose control of his life and eventually his mind. This story relates to a lot of the homeless people who are impaired from their mental disabilities that have no one to care or provide for them. They are the marginalized and the abandoned. This is a very original and powerful piece of film that I feel gives a better understanding to the plight of the homeless and how society deals with the issue.
No one seems to know these people, these families, better than you; in your words, describe Skid Row.
Skid Row is a third world country living down the street from first class luxuries. It is often referred to as “the last house on the block” and it is a prime example of what happens when a society ignores its social responsibilities in dealing with the impoverished, mentally ill, elderly, and the addicts.
Despite all of this social chaos you will find a sense of community among the residents that live there. It is a dangerous environment to exist within and the only way to survive is to get in where you fit. I’ve been to many homeless camps where the inhabitants care for one another like family. Other areas are the exact opposite and it’s everyone out for themselves. Murder, robbery, drug dealing, and prostitution is everyday business on Skid Row. The streets are regulated by the “DTG” (DownTownGangstas) a gang that is composed of both the “Bloods” and “Crips” who work together primarily to keep the flow of drug sales running smooth.
There is trash littered on every block which keep the rats healthy; the sidewalk is a public toilet that makes the air reek of human waste. There are rows and rows of tents, make shift shanties and people lying on thin pieces of cardboard on almost every block. One trip here and you will most certainly be more grateful for whatever you have, even if its next to nothing.
What sparked this whole project for you? What’s your personal relationship with poverty and homelessness?
My personal relationship with these issues is that I am a human being and feel that housing should be a human right. It bothers me deeply to see so many people living in such terrible conditions not only on Skid Row but around the world. I have traveled to other countries and have witnessed extreme poverty at its worst. I grew up in a neighborhood that some people would call “the ghetto” and know first hand what it is to be poor.
Extreme poverty destroys the moral fiber of communities and breeds violent crime, drug addiction, alcoholism, and other social illnesses. The lack of employment and fair wages puts those who are unfortunate enough to be born into poverty very little options of surviving without being a criminal in one way or another.
The Huffington Post once said about your work; “Those who say graffiti doesn’t accomplish much haven’t seen the work of Skid Robot.” How has publicity like this affect you and the project?
The publicity definitely helped in making my graffiti and the project more accepted by the public. It was seen more of a “good” kind of graffiti as opposed to what people were used to hearing about. I see it as a step in the right direction for the graffiti culture. I would hope that it inspires more artists to use their skills to promote social change and awareness. If graffiti art can be used in a positive way, then perhaps we can change society’s perception about it and not label it as a felony criminal offense. It makes no sense and is terribly unfair to send a graffiti artist to prison with murders and rapist for vandalism. Sure it’s a dick move to tag on public/private property but it not worth ruining anyone’s life over—there are alternatives to the matter. The laws that are currently in place in some states are unbalanced and need to be reexamined and reformed in regards to the penalties for vandalism.
What do you think is still missing from the dialogue in and around homelessness?
What’s missing from the dialogue is the truth of the matter. The truth being that it actually cost more money to have people homeless than it does to provide a basic standard of living for them. These numbers don’t lie; it is the lack of action from our publicly elected officials that have continued to ignore the issue. Instead of offering a solution to the problem, they have chosen to criminalize being homeless and if that wasn’t fucked up enough already, they’ve also made it illegal to feed those who are starving on the streets. To put a law into place that makes being homeless a crime only serves the prison for profit industry and has no positive effect whatsoever on resolving the problem. It only makes the situation worse.
What can someone reading this article can do to help?
What would help the situation is to be less judgmental of the homeless and try to have a deeper understanding of this complex issue with a sense of compassion. They are the most marginalized people in society and are treated more often than not as sub-human. It has been said in many different ways that you can measure a nation’s greatness by how it treats weakest members. With 600,000 people living in extreme poverty within the United States, it is a farce for our politicians to boast to other nations that America is so great.
Other ways to help is to take personal action in your own communities and work with others who are fighting the same battle. Find the battlefield that you want to be on. You can give some time to a shelter, food, and clothing donations and attend public meetings about homelessness or take it to the streets with art and protesting. With enough people taking matters into their own hands it will cause a ripple effect of positive actions that can truly bring about a desperately needed change in our crumbling society.
Why stop in Los Angeles; do you plan on going anywhere else?
Los Angeles is my home however this is a global issue. Extreme poverty and homelessness are a humanitarian crisis which the human race needs to find a solution to. I have traveled to other cities in the United States and have painted pieces in Oakland, San Francisco, and New York. I am currently raising the funds necessary to take the project to every metropolitan city within the country documenting the entire mission. I will continue to paint my art and share the stories of the desperate dreamers of America. If anyone would like to donate to the cause you can purchase prints that are available online at www.skid-robot.com.
Our goal is to travel to other countries and establish a global network of artists, activists, and organizations who share this vision of a world of reason, who want to end homelessness, senseless wars and the destruction of our planet. This is a revolution of compassion and a fight to give birth to a new golden age for humanity. So let us all unite in universal brotherhood and make this new world a reality. You can say that I’m a dreamer but i’m not the only one…