An exhibit featuring work by Boston graffiti artist KDONZ and painter Adam O’Day is opening at Aeronaut Brewing Company on Friday.
Bulging eyes, yellow teeth and colorful tentacles characterize most paintings by KDONZ, a graffiti artist who, until recently, lived and worked in Boston. KDONZ’s work — which has more in common with Are You Afraid of the Dark? cartoon characters than with Boston’s Paul Revere statues and duckling sculptures — never fit into the city’s art scene. It was hard to imagine his monster-inspired paintings in the MFA, in the ICA or even in some of Boston’s smaller, independent galleries. It seemed as if the city didn’t have a place for him — until now.
This Friday, KDONZ and Adam O’Day, the painter who won Boston’s “Portrait of a City” contest in 2014, are unveiling a collaborative art show at Aeronaut Brewing Company in Somerville. The show is titled “O’Pocadonz 2” and runs through March. It includes 40 “trash art” pieces that KDONZ and O’Day have worked on together during the past five years.
KDONZ’s paintings, in the Aeronaut exhibit and in general, are rooted in contrast — in the idea that the ugly could be made beautiful. He said he sees his work as a “giant mosquito,” probing people to step out of their comfort zones. While he recognizes that his style might not be the most lucrative, he said that he doesn’t do it for the money. “If I were, I wouldn’t paint what I paint. I would make something palatable, commercial and digestible,” he said.
When KDONZ lived in Boston, he’d paint in a studio during the day and spray street side at night. He led two conflicting artistic lives: one professional, one “extracurricular,” neither easy, he said. He didn’t fit into the gallery show circuit because his anonymity made it impossible for him to market himself, and he didn’t exactly fit into the graffiti scene because, in a way, he wanted to market himself. In either case, his style pushed him to the margins of both worlds and left him to make it on his own.
KDONZ first began to draw when he was 10 years old. He’d sketch portraits of famous or historic people like Harriet Tubman, creating images of what he thought art was supposed to be. When he got to high school, he said he realized that drawing didn’t impress girls, so he started lifting weights and picking fights instead.
“I was kind of a knucklehead, and I had all of this teenage whatever you call it,” KDONZ said. “I was just so angry.”
In 2005, KDONZ’s cousin Dan — who he remembers as the kind of swimmer who could do five miles without stopping — drowned in a boating accident. The incident devastated him. It shook him and made him see his life from a new perspective, he said.
“I started to think about what I used to do when I liked who I was. That was art,” he said.
Painting became a cathartic experience for KDONZ. It became meditative, addictive — his own kind of heroine, he said. He threw himself into his work, simultaneously developing his style on canvas and discovering his artistic identity on the street.
Figuring it all out was a process of trial and error, he said. An outsider from the git-go, KDONZ was forced to break into the “cliqued out” Boston graffiti circle by himself, with no one helping him along. He made mistakes and learned the hard way — the way that he said he’d always been used to. “History wise, there’s a specific way to do graffiti right, and there’s a ton of ways to do it wrong,” he said. “I was doing it wrong for a long, long time.”
KDONZ’s “extracurricular” pursuits weren’t without consequences. He had strange run-ins with homeless men, and he had to deal with the police. He was put on wanted lists, and he lost good friends — one of which, he said, still had paint on his fingers when he was laid in the casket. Despite all this, KDONZ said that the rush was always worth the risk, a risk that he said he plans to keep taking for the rest of his life.
“I’ll probably never stop doing it,” he said. “I’ll be an old guy with a cane doing it — it’ll be the perfect disguise.”
As much as he’d like to erase the negative stigma surrounding graffiti art, KDONZ said that its illicit nature is exactly what makes it worth the while for him. Legal walls and designated spaces in Boston are a couple of possible solutions, but, when it comes down to it, KDONZ said that he feels like he’s complaining about something that he doesn’t actually want to change.
Graffiti art is less about “criminal” and more about “culture” to KDONZ. It’s not about gangs, stealing or scaring people, he said. It’s about responding naturally to the world we live in. It’s about recognizing people as being something more than animal, as being connected in a large, universal story, he said. “People have been doing it for 20 thousand years — even cavemen did it,” he said.
KDONZ said he sees his art as a “labor of love,” as a sacrifice. “Anyone can go out, get paint, lurk around, and write on sh—t,” he said. “The people who mean it, though, they’re the ones who rise to the top.”