Behind gate 37E on Washington Street lies a warehouse with a Buick Regal parked inside. Photographers are snapping away, laptops are out, and well-dressed critics buzz throughout the space. This was the scene when I visited "Breaking Bread," the first stop on Retna's three-continent-spanning Hallelujah Tour on the day before its opening.
Sponsored by VistaJet and Bombardier, the tour will see the L.A. graffiti legend spend the better part of the next year on the road, painting all original material in NYC, Hong Kong and London—and with a just-announced surprise show in Venice along the way. The series of shows comes on the heels of Retna's successful solo show at L.A.'s New Image Art gallery, where powerhouse Museum of Contemporary Art director Jeffery Deitch compared Retna to Keith Haring, positioning it as "one of the most exciting exhibitions that I have seen this year."
For someone arguably at the peak of his career, Retna speaks casually about the worldwide tour, describing how the origins of the show started with a studio visit from the concept's impresarios Andy Valmorbida and Vlad Restoin Roitfeld. "I thought it was cool, I was down with the cities. Then the sponsors came in and they wanted to put the ad on the plane digitally. I was like, 'Nah, if my work's gonna be out there it's gonna be real, I don't photoshop shit. If you want my work on that plane it's going to be one 100% real.' So now they're locking down some super hanger so I can paint in it."
If this newfound big league is unexpected or overwhelming, Retna doesn't show it. "You know that's why I still listen to the same music as I did back then. I'm still that same kid trying to get up on walls chasing the dream. When I was young I didn't know what it was, but now that I'm here I guess this is the dream, I'm living it now." Just after Retna shares these insights, a scruffy group of men who could be Hell's Angels approach us. "You really out did yourself this time bro, looks great."
The man clamps my hand, "Haze, good to meet you. This is my girl Rosie." As in Perez, and Haze himself is one of graffiti's inventors. Our corner of the room starts to fill up with members of Retna's MSK crew, making it feel like a celebration. And there's a lot to celebrate, not only Retna but the culture he represents—a kid from the gang-infested streets of L.A. who desperately wanted to join a gang at 13 but was told to focus on art instead. "You know they didn't do that for just anybody," he recalls. "They told me you can chill with us, you can smoke with us, you can paint our walls, but you ain't a gangbanger."
Retna introduces me to Revok1, who was recently arrested in Australia in what was called "the vandal vacation." Revok1 explains, "Something like 10,000 kids went out to Melbourne from all over the country when they heard what was going down. They painted like 70% of all of the trains. The mayor came out and declared a state of emergency and called it a disgrace."
Retna asks if we should continue the interview at a bar so he can relax, but before we can decide where, two enthusiastic assistants corner us saying, "This dinner is a huge deal! It's like $100,000 a plate, and they're auctioning off your painting. Bill Clinton is going to be there." Retna, seemingly unaffected, is more interested in rounding up his friends for a quiet night downtown somewhere. After some back and forth with the assistants, it's decided that his presence is required as an ambassador of "street art" culture. This is his world now whether he likes it or not. "I'm not a street artist dude, I mean, they can't do what we do. I'm a graf writer. I always have been. Graf writers were getting gallery shows since the '80s. This isn't new, they just like that tag because it's safe."
With no suit on hand for the black tie event, we begin shopping through Soho, punctuated by "Fear and Loathing" moments, like Retna walking around Hugo Boss shirtless. The manicured men standing at attention find his antics less than amusing, even scoffing at his lack of interest in their style.
With the same courage he showed when he faced jail time and the same unflagging desire to paint, Retna does it all for the culture now so warmly embraced by high society. Before he disappears into the crowds of Soho, he turns with eyes open hugging the sky, "not bad for a lil nigga from the hood!"
Kicking off the Hallelujah Tour, "Breaking Bread" opens 10 February 2011 and runs through 21 February 2011 before moving on to its next port.