The Artist’s Way: NKO Rey

Lindsey Rae Gjording
Posted on March 27, 2014, 8:00 am
38 mins

NKO is the artist wayfarer, and not just because he walked the Appalachian Trail or because he and his artistic signature appear throughout the city. He is a wayfarer in the deeper sense, forging a path for himself and others through his multifaceted practice. Art is rooted within him in a unique way, crystallized and slowly revealed with each work, chip by chip. This is part of what makes him so elusive and enigmatic.

Diamond Ice mural on the Monique Lofts.

“Diamond Ice,” spraypaint, 2008, on the Monique Lofts.

In person, NKO (pronounced NEE-koh) is bright, soft-spoken and charismatic. It only takes a minute of talking to him to realize that he is really fucking smart, bursting with analysis and observation and creativity. It’s kind of dreamy to engage him in conversation and watch the wheels turn in his mind as he discusses something he is passionate about, so fully engaged. He speaks fervently, articulately. But then he throws in some colloquialisms, a slight but well-deserved burn, and you realize that not only does he “Get It,” but he’s also totally here to be here, whether its talking over a tall boy at a demolition party, or at a packed performance he helped create, or hiking for months on end. He’s not pretentious, or inaccessible, or judgmental, which is refreshing for someone so astute.

For instance, when I told him I wanted an artist interview, he replied: “I consider myself an artist or, more probably, a scumbag.” And there you go.

The breadth of his work is impressive. A failed poet, he now paints, art directs for theater pieces, creates art installations, performs, prints and designs. He makes posters, books, zines, shirts and stickers with images that inhabit the city corners like little whispers; crowns, crooked bottles and scribbly words that trail across cement and brick like seismic waves on a printout. Among his favorite phrases are “Never Remember,” “Always Forget” and “Empty Again.” His drawings are like architecture sketches, most focusing on repetition of shape. A mural that he did on the Monique Lofts on Capitol Hill, on 11th between Pike and Pine, has pyramidal crystals growing in fractal arrangements, in purples, blues and greens. An installation of his in Cal Anderson park reads more like a roaming futuristic city, peering out through clouds and sun.

The Architecture of Endlessness by NKO and SignSavant.

Detail of “The Architecture of Endlessness” mural at Cal Anderson Park by NKO and SignSavant.

The Architecture of Endlessness

Detail of “The Architecture of Endlessness” mural, commissioned by Sound Transit, funded in part by 4Culture

As a founding member of an artist collective called The New Mystics, it is not surprising that NKO takes an interest in numerology and occult and religious symbols in some of his work. Posters are printed in editions of 33 or 66. (The highest of the master numbers and degree of many secret societies, 33 is important biblically as the age of the Christ figure when crucified. 66 is twice that, the number of books in the King James Bible, and also rather close to the number of the beast, leaving room for playful suspicion. A reverence toward ritual and rite characterizes the New Mystics and performance groups like Saint Genet and Implied Violence, with whom NKO has designed and performed. These groups seem to relish pushing performance to heightened states of histrionics and awareness, the darkest darks and lightest lights.

Glasses poster design by NKO

“Glasses,” poster design, 2010.

Much of his work displays a romantically cubist tendency, beauty-marked with a Ralph Steadman splotchiness, and is made strictly of objects—repetitions of crowns, glasses, bottles, clouds and buildings. Sometimes the bottles are bottles and sometimes they are smoke stacks. Faces, if present, have eyes shut or downcast. Paint drippings trail to the ground in rich colors, but the scenes remain situated firmly within the structure, do not ooze or stand out too starkly, as if taken on or offered as a conversation piece by the structure itself. NKO’s style of abstraction offers many points of entry for the viewer; one is told enough to keep the story going and invite participation without having everything dictated.

NKO and I discussed his artistic process and how it has been shaped and reshaped by the specifics of life: his self-taught practice, his analysis and inspection of time and memory, and events including a traumatic bike injury and his recovery from it. Rumors have circulated that NKO was no longer making art after his return from the Appalachian Trail. These rumors are not true, but the last year has dramatically changed his approach and intention in making art.

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Lindsey Rae Gjording
Pessimistic about small scale issues, optimistic about large scale issues. Of the bleached hair variety. Does not tan. Does not do math well. Enjoys macroeconomics. Cuddler of puppies and kittens worldwide. Wields a Hasselblad medium format camera like it ain’t no thang. May one day finish writing a novel. Fiction over non fiction. Globe trotter of the third world. Has visited a suspicious number of communist countries. Buddhist aspirant, yoga dabbler. Long distance runner, voter of the underdog. Likes a good steak salad, is not currently in love, and would prefer medium rare on both counts.

3 Responses to: The Artist’s Way: NKO Rey

  1. Kay matthews

    June 8th, 2015

    Interesting guy. I don’t know how I feel about his appropriation of Basquiat’s crown, especially since he seems to say he is critical of Basquiat. Can you really take from a dead artist and critique him and not be exploitative in some way, even if you call it an homage? Artists are always “stealing” and “borrowing” from each other and I know a lot of people don’t even know who Basquiat is, so it’s a safe choice, I guess. It feels a little morbid and lazy, though.

  2. Hildy

    June 9th, 2015

    I’m surprised at how little street art you actually see in Seattle. Lots of graffiti, but very little art like you see in a lot of other cities, like Berlin. I wonder if it’s a policing issue, or just a lack of talent. Whatever it is, I wish we saw more. This city is losing its character so quickly, this would at least give us something interesting to look at between apodments.

  3. Maria

    June 10th, 2015

    That mural on 11th is one of my favorite pieces of art in Cap Hill. It’s nice to have that splash of color with so much grey around us.