The Artist’s Way: NKO Rey

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


Art/Not Art

Though much of his graphics are both public and unattributed, there remains a deeply personal relationship between artist and audience for NKO. It is perhaps his engagement in so many different media that adds to is awareness of this relationship, how it varies from medium to medium and context to context.

Another total failure of language installation detail

“Another total failure of language,” installation detail, 2011. Photo: Dan Hawkins

“I have a number of different processes that I’m simultaneously engaged in. Some are fast and immediate, fulfilling the compulsion to produce. Others have a longer reach and greater vision and complexity. The difference is evident when comparing a basic mark making practice—announcing “I am”—as opposed to some of the more intricate projects I’ve produced with Saint Genet, Free Sheep Foundation or New Mystics. Some larger projects have a gestation period of two or three years, or have no definite end, as in the New Mystics project. I try to break off different sections, but there is that constant compulsion to produce, otherwise you get anxious. I get really anxious.”

“But how I make art: I pick up pieces of garbage and move them around, applying oil paint (making the art object), and then adding some gold leaf (consecrating the sacred object) then framing (the object of the gaze) and finally putting them on the street to become other pieces of garbage, giving them as gifts, or bartering.”

“I would call it up-cycling, but there is no ‘up.’ I’d like to establish a clear separation between value and meaning. For me value is manifest through engagement in process and not found in any final product. Meaning is a personal relationship with an object, whether through making or appreciating.”

A Collection of Collapsible Rooms, 2011.

“A Collection of Collapsible Rooms,” 2011. Installed for the Microsoft permanent collection. Photo: Dan Hawkins

clouds of blood paintin by NKO

“Clouds of Blood,” acrylic on canvas, 2006

“A discrete object is a painting, print or a sculpture—basically some decorative object one makes, some being valuable and some less so. The assumption is, as a working artist, that your value as a person is tied to the value of the objects you create, which increases over the duration of your practice. Most objects I make I give away. It’s difficult for me to associate the production of art with value in a monetary sense…yet it’s just as hard to disengage the two in any sense.”

“So, if you’re making paintings on canvas, these objects have implied value whether it’s personal, social or cultural. They are commodities. And if I do gallery shows for some tertiary reason—besides compulsion, or as a favor—say because I need the money for groceries or rent, then it’s assumed that my total intention is selling work, and that’s the message that underlies and defines the work. For me, that narrative is too complicated, and trying to explain it dilutes the pure image the work presents, which is art as meditation and gift. Because I am more influenced by literature than by contemporary painting, it’s really important for me to be critically aligned with the work I am making. I’m not that interested in making pieces right now, except ones that are publicly viewable or publicly funded.”

A Crown for Every King

If you have been in Seattle or lived on Capitol Hill for any length of time, then you have seen NKO’s crowns. Once you see one or two, you see them everywhere. It always makes me feel warm to find one in some random place, on the side of an electrical box in the basement of an apartment building, or on the back of a street sign in an alley in the middle of nowhere. It has become an unofficial hallmark of the city and the times, though NKO first began using it while he was in Europe, pondering those whom he considered iconic American artists.

to Every King his Kingdom installation

“To Every King his Kingdom,” 111 hand painted posters, 2007. Shown for Motel Motel Motel: Motel #1 The Bridge Motel

“I had just seen the Basquiat retrospective at Brooklyn Art Museum and I respect his successful navigation from a street practice to a fine art paradigm. At the time no other street artist had done that. He’s a smart dude, excellent painter, and clearly was victimized by his own success, by the lure of riches and the false promises of fame.”

“So I stole it from him. I stole his crown, figuring he was dead and wasn’t using it. It’s still a relevant symbol, and there is a long history of regicide as a means to ascension. Theft has always been a part of my practice: steal the concepts and hide it in plain sight, obscuring the origins. Concealing the theft is what’s interesting. My first real art project was stealing Marcel Duchamp’s Chocolate Grinder and hiding it within a performance/installation called the Milk Machine. I just cut out a few hundred [crowns] and they were gone in two days. It’s funny because people called me out so hard when I started using the three pointed crown as a symbol.”

“I’ve been obsessed for a long time with the idea that each person is sovereign of their own kingdom. It’s an anarchist precept, which is to say that we are all aristocrats and our kingdoms only extend to the boundaries of our skin. We need to honor that sovereignty within ourselves and others, because every social interaction that we have is only by social contract. You can’t make assumptions about other people; you can establish boundaries and honor the boundaries that others define. That’s an opportunity to open a creative discourse.”

“We all build our own emotional relationships with objects or symbols, and that’s one reason the crown is so nice: It’s such an open symbol. It doesn’t say someone’s name. For me, [their placement] it is a physical manifestation of the passage of time which is another part of my practice I am real interested in. It’s cool to grow a dreadlock for ten years or a beard for six months because it does manifest pretty directly that you exist. It’s that statement “I am” so it’s interesting for me to see tags like that or stickers I put up years later, but it doesn’t often access a zone of emotive memory for that time. It’s more like a very specific memory of that thing, that moment, more pictorial. Like, ‘I was walking with Smurf, and that was after I got kicked out of my house. Interesting…that’s been here four years.’”

Another total failure of language installation detail

“Another total failure of language,” installation detail, 2011. Photo: Dan Hawkins

Body and Mind

In 2010, NKO suffered a traumatic head injury from a bicycle crash, leading to hospitalization, surgeries and a medically-induced coma, all of which have had lasting effects on his memory. Digging deeper into his thoughts on nostalgia, the accident and its effects have catalyzed more work with symbolic repetition.

“I am very linguistically oriented, so the idea that I would wake up and be unable to speak was really earth shattering. It caused me to re-envision myself and re-imagine myself in a way I hadn’t done since middle school. It informed my thoughts, and informed my relationship with memory because I tried so actively to erase memory in my previous practice. It caused me to look at memory in a different way and start to try to find ways to meaningfully encapsulate it in a way that avoided nostalgia.

“It was more like going back to mark making, that “I am here I was here” and using that as a way to explore memory rather than imagining the memory as something more florid or expressive. I’ve been recording this series of 33-second videos pretty continuously since then, and they’re just portraits, they never have any people in them, they’re just portraits of landscapes, sometimes urban spaces, and it’s 33-seconds with nothing happening. I often film them at moments when I am waiting for something so it feels like this interstitial space. It’s important for my practice and it also reaffirmed my convictions of things I embraced before like non-commercial practice and making work for the public in general…Realizing that it’s more important to express a voice for everything and less for specific individuals.

NKO mural at the Free Sheep Foundation in Belltown.

“Never Remember,” spray paint, 2008.


NKO’s work often references memory and oblivion. Alcohol in excess and euphoria refer to the latter, and time as the medium of experience and memory becomes fleeting and illusory. Only nostalgia is recognized and thoroughly shunned in NKO’s work.

“I’m a real enemy of nostalgia. I feel like nostalgia is an unfair re-imagining of the past in which we cast ourselves as heroes in a story that never happened. You can imagine some situation and remember it with nostalgia and wish for that situation to happen again, but the reality is you’re wishing for something that was never possible in the first place. I find it much more interesting to engage with brutal realism, to acknowledge: I am failing at these things but succeeding at these other things. You can only really do that by looking at just what’s happening now. There is no future and no past, and to think of it in any other way is reductive of that moment, that actual moment that you’re engaged in. Nostalgia takes us further and further away from immediatism, and that’s what allows the most interesting ideas to come forth.”

Siempre/Nunca: The shape of the vessel and what it holds by NKO

“Siempre/Nunca: The shape of the vessel and what it holds. Spirits.” San Jose, CR 2012.

“That said, it’s not always easy to engage that way because if you’re truly immediate then that also crosses out all the social mores and moral assumptions you make as a human. To be truly immediate you’d just be acting within the moment, but the reality is the stories of our lives, the memories and the moral compass that directs our decisions, so it’s pointless to try to escape memory, but it’s dangerous to over-indulge in nostalgia. It forces you to paint your past in an unfair light, whether it’s unfair to you or to other people. So I skirt the whole thing by remembering very little. That’s an actual physical problem and not a choice.”

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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.