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Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Local Artist Turns Graffiti into a Career

Max Thomas and a mural he was commissioned to paint for Red Bull. 

Artists have the unique ability to see the world differently than the average person. To me, a wall is merely a wall. But to street artists in particular, the urban cityscape is a blank canvas. They are able to see the possibilities in the world around us and then recreate the space through their art.

Max Thomas, a former Fort Thomas resident and Highland High School graduate, has been working to solidify his status in the art world. He's been able to make the transition from graffiti artist to owning a company, where he juggles commissioned jobs painting murals for clients.

Like the saying goes: there's no such thing as an overnight success. And Thomas is no exception to the rule. His art career began in the art classrooms of Highlands High School before moving on to embrace the underground art scene in Cincinnati and Louisville.

Campbell County YMCA. This is an advertisement. 

Thomas wastes no time owning up to his past transgressions, some of which actually helped get him where he is today. “Let me forward this by saying that I grew up kind of a punk. I painted graffiti on trains for most of my youth and made quite a name for myself,” said Thomas.

So how does a self-proclaimed punk kid growing up in Fort Thomas turn his passion for painting illegal graffiti art into a career? Well, you start with years of good old fashioned hard work and dedication.

According to Thomas, his career today was initially sparked by his fascination with art from a young age. “I have always been intrigued with public art,” said Thomas. “A lot of people don't have the opportunities of going and experiencing galleries like I did.” His interest in art is what kept him motivated to keep creating his own work and develop his artistic style over the years. The synthesis of his artistic passion and his career goals began to take shape when Thomas started working with local company Higher Level Art, which is best known for creating murals, signs, and art exhibitions.

The time spent with Higher Level Art has proven to be pivotal for Thomas's career. “I totally credit them for showing me the ropes. Murals give people a chance to see how the work is produced and communicate with the artists, which benefits both parties. We get to hear what they would like to see around the city that we're in and they get to be a part of the community beautification by voicing those ideas. That's kind of how we came up with the name of our mural company, Often Seen Rarely Spoken (OSRS),” said Thomas.

Often Seen Rarely Spoken was developed to serve as “an art collective based out of the Midwest specializing in modern and progressive ideas that breathe life into an otherwise blank space.” The company has been commissioned to create various murals, and also recently organized a successful art show in Louisville.  According to Thomas, “OSRS caters to anyone, not just giant organizations but anyone. If you have a wall and an idea, we can make it happen. You can be a part of the change happening around you.”

Thomas has now participated in the creation of approximately 30 to 40 murals. Out of that number, roughly half can be attributed to commissioned jobs. The others were fully funded out of pocket in order showcase his artistic skills, and gain exposure to help secure future jobs. "For example I may have been paid to transform a family's entertainment room into something uniquely theirs, but the only reason I got that job was because they had seen work I had done for free or possibly even covered all the costs to complete," said Thomas.

Mural painted for a private residence in Fort Thomas

At the time I spoke with Thomas, he was in the midst of working with Northside brewery Urban Artifact for the second time. "While doing an out-of-pocket mural down the street, an Urban Artifact employee walked by and expressed how 'it would be so cool to have something like this on our building.' About a month later we made the first job happen. Now, a few months after that, I'm about 10 hrs away from finishing job number 2," said Thomas.

Urban Artifact

He has since finished the mural for Urban Artifact, and moved on to a commissioned piece in Louisville for Red Bull. His client base ranges from major brands like Bacardi to local school classrooms and private residences.

Red Bull mural located in Louisville

The Bacardi job never would have been possible if it hadn't been for the years Thomas spent perfecting his style and making a name for himself in the underground art scene. “When I first got the call I was taken aback like, 'So THE Bacardi wants to hire my company based off of the graffiti I did as a kid?' It was surreal,” said Thomas.

Thomas was then provided with his own space to paint a mural inside Churchill Downs while the Kentucky Derby festivities were happening. “Again, the reason I had gotten this job was because I paid out of pocket to travel to Miami last December and paint a few large scale murals that got his (Bacardi representative's) attention. For most people, going to Florida in the middle of winter is a relaxing getaway from the cold weather. Every time I travel, I look at it as an opportunity to expand my work. It's always an investment, and this time it paid off,” said Thomas.

Thomas stands next to his mural at the Kentucky Derby

Although Thomas certainly doesn't condone partaking in any illegal activities, he does credit graffiti with playing a significant role in his life. Thomas views the current state of graffiti to that of skateboarding in the 1990s. “Most people don't understand that, while there are some people that go out at night strictly to destroy and vandalize out of complete selfishness, there are others that have a deeper drive to create something that's theirs whether you want it or not. Just like the skateboarders who rose above the 'punk' to spearhead the biggest sport to come out of our generation. Graffiti art could be my generation's art movement if we could see it for what it is: art,” said Thomas.

So if we liken graffiti to the roots of modern skateboarding as we know it today, the parallels are astounding. In many ways graffiti art is its own version of draining pools to skate them in the iconic Dogtown days. And if history repeats itself, graffiti art may eventually become fully mainstream. (Does this mean Banksy is street art's elusive version of Rodney Mullen combined with the notoriety of Tony Hawk?)

For Thomas, graffiti provided him with an informal education in art and life. It has taught him important life lessons about being an artist in general, and these are lessons that he's also able to apply to his daily life. "Graffiti is not all bad," said Thomas. "It gets a bad rap. It's taken me to a lot of places and introduced me to a lot of cultures most of us from Fort Thomas would never experience. It's taught me everything I know about color theory and more important than that showed me exactly how passionate I am about chasing this dream...It's shown me that I'm so passionate about producing public art that I was willing to risk my freedom. What I'm saying is that for anyone with a passion there is no other option other than making that dream a reality. Creating a life for myself where I get to do what I love is something that I am willing to risk everything for. Nothing is impossible. Graffiti taught me that.”

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