Mike Will Didn’t Make It, Gusto Did
No offense to Mike Will, but GustoNYC made it. If you've seen a buzzy new Tumblr flooding your feed, or some flashy MTV digital campaign, or a dope piece of graffiti in Brooklyn, there's a good chance multitasking artist Gusto had something to do with it. The Queens-born graffitist/art director/photographer/meme whisperer has been tagging NYC walls for half his life, since back when he was using his rudimentary Photoshop skills to doctor his classmates' report cards (for a modest fee, of course). Soon he went from forging grades to forging history via Histagrams (which, full circle, is now used by teachers), and he's responsible for the hugely successful Facts and Chicks, which got a book deal. There's also the loads of digital content he did while working at MTV, plus the clothing line with his friend — oh, and remember that whole "celebs without eyebrows" craze? Yeah that was him, too. Gusto made it.
Gusto hasn't so much bridged the gap between organic art and digital art, between graffiti culture and corporate culture, as he has discovered the nexus between all of them, so that he can hop from quadrant to quadrant whenever it suits him, similar to what the Mr. GIF guys have done. To get a little insight into how he went from tagging to tagging, and how he balances so many projects, we recently met up with him in Bushwick, Brooklyn, while he finished up a wall with his 4 Burners crew.
Gusto made it, now read on to see how.
I guess the corniest yet most appropriate way to begin is by asking what’s your favorite color?
For paint I’d say black 'cause I use that for a lot of outlines. It’s literally the most sought-after color in the paint section. But for the actual piece itself, I love blues and greens because they’re very poppy. It makes for a good background contrast. So it'll be a bright blue or bright green piece against a dark background and it'll stand out amongst the rest.
When did you start doing graffiti?
I had a friend in art class in junior high who was always doodling, but very stylistically, doing little halos, little clouds, and I'm like, “That’s fucking cool, what's that about?” He’s like, “That's my name, my brother does graffiti,” and he taught me how to flip letters and everything. Then I made up a tag and it kinda just got started there at 12 or 13.
So you’ve been doing this for more than half your life?
I’ve been doing it since then, but everything I started doing seriously wasn’t until high school. Probably by 15 or 16 my friends and I were doing pieces in Brooklyn and Queens. We started super young compared to people nowadays. At that age I got into piecing, met some dudes from Queens who were really into it, a lot older than me. I was the youngest guy in the crew, and still am, but at the time they were in their mid- to late-20s, so I’m like, "Holy shit I’m keeping up with them!”
That must have been a huge confidence booster.
Yeah, it helped me evolve during that time. Then once I actually got into college, I took a break for a long time. My mom was like, “Stop doing fucking graffiti!” I’d go out at night all the time and do freight trains and all the other shit I shouldn’t be doing.
Have you ever tagged bridges or other crazy high spots?
In New York, no. Because if you get arrested — I don’t wanna shit where I eat. In New York, I think I've been arrested once or twice but I’ve had ways of getting out of it since I haven’t gotten caught in the act, but being caught going into a place or leaving a place. So, I’ve been arrested for trespassing, not graffiti itself.
So how did you start working for MTV and doing the corporate end of art?
I probably got my first computer at the age of 11, during the early AOL period. So, I got into designing software when I was like 12. By 13 or 14 I was designing full programs and software pirating and all that stuff. I started learning Photoshop in high school because of a class but then I actually got more into it because I was doing fake report cards for people. I would have a line by my locker, like five, 10 dollars a pop I would edit people's report cards. So, that was one of my hustles in high school.
College was a huge culture shock for me. My mom was like, “The art is fucking cute but what are you gonna do for a living?" That’s why I put graffiti on hold for a while, I was just hardcore studying, designing, engineering. During that time I met a dude at my school who was a big party promoter, and he knew I had a little bit of Photoshop background so he asked if I could do a couple flyers for his parties. So I started up with Photoshop again, did a couple flyers for him and that turned out well, so he connected me with his friend at a design studio in Queens, who offered me an intern gig. So, I would go to school in the mornings and work for him in the afternoon and he really taught me how to Photoshop correctly. Within a year or two, I was at MTV doing design work. From teaching myself Photoshop to two years later doing work for MTV, it was like a huge leap. Kind of like how I did graffiti too, I picked it up super quick and leaped from doodles to pieces in like a year or two.
And then you came up with Facts and Chicks and Histagrams. I imagine it was like midnight on a Saturday, you’re sitting around with your friends, baked, and you’re like “What if we put this old photo and gave it an Instagram caption?!" How did those ideas come about?
It’s actually the complete opposite! I was on my way to work, half sleeping and flipping through Twitter on the train and someone posted something about the '90s. I wondered, “If Twitter was around in the '90s how different would it have been? Oh that would be a fuckin' cool website." I did a search, and there's two or three sites that did that, but very badly. So I was like, "The idea is around but let me search for Instagram, that would be even more amazing." I find nothing, so right from my phone I bought the domain and secured the Tumblr and everything social-wise. I texted a friend at MTV, "I have a cool idea and when I get to the office just have your afternoon free for me." As soon as I get to the office, he’s not in so I start securing the website and making the logo, sketching out the site trying make it look like Instagram. He came in an hour and a half later, and I have finished the site and done about five images already. I tell him, "Dude, sit down, go to Histagrams.com and tell me what you think" and the first images he sees he’s cracking up.
My big thing is that I'm a funny dude, so that’s why my websites have comedy in them. Facts and Chicks, Histagrams, Celebs With No Eyebrows.
The eyebrows, that was you?!
Ha yeah, I was doing a thing for Jersey Shore, and I accidentally took away an eyebrow, and it looked so funny, so I took the other one out, and I was like, "Yo that looks crazy, this has to be a thing." So once again, I buy the URL, get the Tumblr.
Your ideas are incredibly organic, whether forging grades or defacing celebs.
People don’t realize that by perfecting and making things super clean and neat, what you’re doing is pretty much killing the idea. When something is very fluid and fun, on the internet at least, it really becomes a need. People see something that’s funny, they take it and build on it. Like Histagram, I get so many submissions. I have teachers emailing me saying that their students love my site and if they can have permission to use the pictures for the class. I actually had a lady that created a whole student pack for it, so we actually have Histagram templates that are the size of like half a chalkboard that allow people to draw in it and post it online. Teachers have really embraced the site, because history is boring.
There's a poetic full circle sort of irony there with the report cards. Now to take this conversation full circle, the wall is almost done. How long until someone sprays shit over it? What’s the lifetime of a piece?
In this neighborhood, it probably gets painted over like once a month and we just re-do them because it's close to where we all live, like it’s a super chill neighborhood and there’s no issues. It’ll be up for a month, a couple weeks, 'cause once I get my pictures, I don’t fucking care. Graffiti is digital, in a way. It's here, then it's gone.
How has internet culture changed graffiti culture?
It’s literally 50/50. In the beginnings of it, message boards were one of the worst things to happen to graffiti, just because people would talk shit and get into beef online and take it to the streets, which is fucking stupid. But there’s a lot of style biting. You find a cool style from a random dude in Germany and you’d be like "Fuck 'em" and steal it. But people who know graffiti and have done it for a long time, they can notice style biting. I’ve seen people copy my style and I don’t know why. When it comes to style biting, it’s the worst fucking thing.
But, the internet allowed me to connect with so many people from different countries, that when they come to New York, they’ll email me like “Yo, I’m in town, whats good?” So, dudes from Italy, Germany, Spain, Colombia come here and we’ll paint. I’ll call my guys, they’ll get their boys together and we all get up and paint. So when it comes to actually talking to people who are in the culture for real and do this for a passion and are good at it, it’s fucking amazing. I can go to fucking Germany, have a place to stay, with walls to paint for free, which is fucking amazing! So, it’s a very weird culture that we have, but once you’re in it, you’re in it.
So whats next?
The past year was Histagram, so now I'm on a work fever. I'm working hard just to win my company a shit ton of awards. They do it on their own but with me there, I’m really trying to push it to create some crazy digital content and create crazy shit to win awards. That’s the goal for the next year or two.
And if all these other endeavors fail?
I could do this shit full time. There's money in graffiti now.