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A Sit Down with Seb Gorey

Druthers sits down with long time friend and family member Seb Gorey to discuss growing up in Paris, life in Brooklyn, and his evolution as an artist.

Interview by Ryan Kimberly and Photos by Jason Campbell

@gorey  |  @still__ryan  |  @superneck

Hey Seb, what have you been up to recently?

When my second child was born I decided to become a renaissance man and take care of my offspring and put my intense New York personal drive on a little hiatus. Then COVID happened, which kind of shook up the whole equation again. It reaffirmed that taking care of my kids was even more so the right decision. So for the last three years, I've been doing large scale commercial murals which aren't that interesting to talk about, even though I'mlearning a lot. I started painting murals as a side hustle at first and then it became my main bread making activity, so that's a lot of what I do now… I still do illustrations, but more as passion projects that I'm doing with friends and things that I really care about rather than trying to try to score a paycheck from it.

Would you say you're still evolving as an artist?

I've changed hats a lot. Like every two to four years I get into a new skin and a new suit that goes with it. Murals have been my thing for a while now, but from June ‘22 to January ‘23 there were no jobs coming in. I could have gone to a big painting company to get like a nine to five type job but because I'm still taking care of my kids, that wasn't feasible. It meant I had a little bottom of the wave moment but then an opportunity presented itself. Since February I've been teaching Art in a High School. And again that's a new hat, I don't know how long it's gonna last, but it's another thing that I've added to the mix.

Out of all these different avenues which are you most passionate about?

I'm at my best when I'm applying paint on a wall, whether it's for the childish challenge of reading my name over and over or whether it's a commission from Wework to do a blue whale with a black dot in the middle of it. Teaching has interested me for a while though, I’ve done graffiti workshops before with Kids from challenging backgrounds so I thought this would be similar but it's definitely not what I thought it'd be. Dealing with this new generation of screen-first kids is different, many of them have difficulty creatively because their favourite answer is ‘I don't know’ and they stick to it. It's a learning curve, but it's so interesting. It's not as much of a passion project but as I'm getting older making money from things that I love can sometimes feel trivially difficult. So teaching is a good opportunity, plus I'm in a very weird programme that's not related to the Ministry of Education. I'm with a private organisation that basically takes professionals and puts them in direct contact with the kids so that they have a sort of practical mentoring rather than classes focused on theory.

When were you introduced to illustration?

Oh, man, I like to say that I was born with a pencil. As far back as I can remember I was drawing on everything, it was always a passion of mine. I loved any graphic novel, any comic, any, any manga, anything that I could get my hands on. It was just a natural path for me, playing with Legos and drawing were the two things that I lived for when I was a kid. I was really in my head in an imaginary world and all that, a creative mind to begin with.

So you grew up in Paris right?

Yeah, in America they say born and raised, like you're some kind of poultry.

What was that like?

Life was innocent up until I turned 13 when I started to expand the map and get into the extraordinary adventure of graffiti which also entailed smoking doobies, stealing shit and getting into trouble. My parents were really on the ball reacting to the madness and I got sent away to a boarding school outside of Paris when I was 14. Their hope was that the influence of the city and everything that's fun and forbidden to do would just be pushed out of my life.

And how did that turn out?

It was great. I'm a social person and I like to get along with people so boarding school was fun because there were no parents in the equation. Nobody really knew about graffiti, it hadn’t taken shape in those countryside towns so I was coming back on the weekends, seeing my friends and doing everything that I couldn't do when I was there.

So what happened when you got a bit older? Were you into the same sort of stuff? What did Paris have to offer?

In Paris in the early 90s culture was blooming, everyone was fucking with skateboarding and writing graffiti. I was exploring the city a lot, wandering between places, doing tags and looking at them too. I saw graffiti as this opportunity to make links with people that I didn't know. I used to spot people on the train who were looking out for the pieces on the trackside and go up to them and ask them if they were a writer. That could turn into hanging around with them for an afternoon in which time you could gauge if the person was a dick and never talk to them again, or you could find friends and end up making a crew. My life was a continuum which evolved from that mentality. My passion and my ability for drawing gave me a good foundation for building letters and what we call the flow, you know, where all of a sudden you feel at ease with writing more than just your name. And, yeah at the end of the 90s, I started to get involved with some crews that I looked up to and then the story speeds up. Things became a cycle of establishing myself with a crew and then the friendships might’ve fallen apart, or people wanted to go in different directions which would lead to me starting or joining another crew. I had almost 15 years of doing that in Paris before I moved to New York.

So you spent most of your time on Graffiti missions then?

It was a mix of lots of things. With writing there's the age old dilemma of quality versus quantity. I never aimed for the quantity thing. Even though graffiti was front and centre in my life, and is definitely still an obsession to this day, I never let it consume my entire persona. There were always other things that I was into - going back to that idea of wearing different hats. In the mid 90s I discovered house music and, and going out to illegal parties. If I said the word rave today, people are gonna think that I'm 100 years old, either that or picture some kind of crazy gabber thing. It's funny to see the revival of parties playing house music in New York. I guess it's the same way as clothing goes. I see kids that are dressed the way I was dressed when I was 15, in pants that you could take 10 shits in and still have room. I noticed something similar with two letters from a piece that I did trackside in like ‘98. There's a dude who writes GOOG in New York City who's been smashing the town like for the last five or six years and sometimes he does a type of leaning straight letter which remind me of my own GO from back then, I was happily surprised to see that. Things go in cycles and I think it touches music, it touches fashion and it also touches styles of graffiti.

So when did you move to NYC?

In 2007 although I came to this city for the first time in 2000. A childhood friend of mine had relocated here and I stayed at theirs for two weeks. I ended up meeting a girl kind of randomly and I thought it would just be a fling, like a little vacation romance. Before leaving I decided I liked her a lot so I created her an email address, thinking hey, let's keep in touch and the rest is history, because we've been together 23 years, and we have two kids. We lived in Paris together for 7 years and eventually I decided I wanted to change the pattern that I was in, try to change jobs and establish myself a little more so I applied for a Green card. I always saw the idea of changing ground and changing friends as an opportunity to transform myself. So fast forward to now, 15 years later, I’ve got a group of friends who are pretty tight and I learned that you can't really, completely change yourself. It's funny, because there's lots of reasons to be in New York in relation to graffiti but when I was here in 2000 it was the first time I was taking a break from it. There was like a good portion in the beginning of my time here, at least like five or six years where it was out of focus, it wasn't wasn't really my drive.

What is it that drew you to New York city then?

New York was great because America is the land of opportunity. In France, whatever job you're trying to do, they're going to ask you if you have credentials for that job, if you have experience in the industry, if you have diplomas relating to it. And when you get to the States usually they just ask you, like, Can you do it? And if you say yes, if you have the balls to just bullshit it a little bit in the beginning, they're gonna at least give you a chance. Then if it works, then they're stoked that they trusted you for it. Originally, professionally speaking, I tried to do what it was doing in Paris. Working in agencies being an industrial designer. I did well at school and thought that I would have as much fun working as I had studying, but work turned out to be a chore. The world of agencies, its hierarchy, and like the bootcamp period, I found to be kind of dull. I think I probably had more, more hunger for illustration and, and for pen drawing in general.

What do you make of the city nowadays?

New York is constantly changing. They have a stupid rule here that I think got created by a transplant that says like, if you're in New York for 10 years, you can call yourself a New Yorker. I'll never do that, I'm a Parisian living in New York. But I've been here 15 years full time and 23 years coming back and forth so I've seen evolution in the city. Like everywhere else it's getting more and more expensive and mentalities have changed. A lot of people call the city NYU York now, because it's becoming more and more of a giant University dorm. Now that I'm a parent I don't really go to parties anymore, but I used to go out almost every week. I used to go to stuff in big open spaces and warehouses in districts where there are now hotels with valets in front. The city used to have a lot of dark alleys and in between spaces which nowadays are crammed, and very expensive.

But then do you still enjoy being in the city?

Yeah, I do, I just feel a bit disconnected whenever I'm with younger people that are inclined to just spend more than 100 bucks just to have a regular day. I'm always pushing back against that because that's not how I experienced it. I have my own way of experiencing the city, and liking it for what it is. I try to seek a sort of independence from all that madness.

Are there any spots in particular you would shout out, though?

There's the Tiktok aspect of not revealing dark corners of the map, you know, where all of a sudden you ruin things without wanting to. The spots that I like aren't necessarily the cheapest and in that way I feel like I could draw a parallel with what Adam is doing with Druthers, because the quality of the products make it kind of niche. It's expensive and it's worth it to be that way because there's an amazing durability and quality and choice of materials that's always embedded in the products, that's what makes them special.

Is there much crossover between the different strands of your practice?

The beauty of graffiti, the end result, is not something that I'm trying to commercialise or something that I'm trying to pass through a filter of a brand. I want graffiti to remain sort of an insult. People try to put it in a box and market it but I think that's disgraceful. I really like that my production environment remains in its own space. When I switch caps and decide to do a watercolour either for myself as a piece of art, or for a brand, I'm totally shifting gears in terms of my implication. When I'm building a piece for Druthers there are similarities with the mindset that I would approach painting a wall with. I like to involve a lot of layers, that way things that are things dear to me and things that have impacted me can come into play. Say with the Roses I did, I tried my best to have a vision of what exists in that world and give my own take on it. When I do the watercolours of environments, I try to have a non pessimistic approach of what complete downfall of society could be in a way but when I decipher it and ask myself basic questions like What does that mean? What are those elements combined together? What does it say? Really, there's like a doomsday pending behind most of my pieces. Which I guess addresses the concerns I have towards the environment, the big changes in our industrial world, you know, like when, when oil reserves will come to an end and all that stuff. As much as I would want to, I don't think graffiti is the place for that, I don't think that's our role. It doesn't mean that we can't participate in the conversation but I think the form makes it a little hypocritical to all of a sudden come with a very strong stance on the way things are done. Basically the playfulness and carelessness of the act reduces the power of its suggestion.

Finally, What are some key lessons you've learned through living a creative life?

I think observation is at the centre of the creative mind, and with observing comes the idea of learning and with learning comes the idea of accepting that you know nothing. I think it's the reason why I'm constantly changing what I'm, what I'm what I'm doing, it's not necessarily that I exhaust the thing that I'm doing or that I get bored with it, or it's just that I have this drive of curiosity to start new things. I look at other creatives that have stayed in the same lane and that have been very prolific and I'm kind of envious of that because I feel like I might have hindered myself in the long run but I just do what feels natural to me. One way or another it's related to graphic languages and I’m always drawn to that equation of form and function and how those two things can interact with one another. Designing clothes was probably the moment where I was the closest to the issue, it was really fulfilling in the time that I did it. From an idea that you've sketched out to a prototype and to the full product, the process can take less than a year and that in itself was satisfying. I place a lot of value on the lived experience and I feel that comes from graffiti. When my generation started in the early 90s, there were a few fanzines and like two books that were published coming from the US, and they were quite expensive, and not everybody had them. So you were either self documenting or trying to learn by watching and incorporating as much as you could with that. Learning by watching walls, and by watching tunnels and by watching the things in your environment. So again observing, and I know that now we're in a different era now where there's probably like, crash tutorial courses on on what cap to use and all that, but I really think that learning by learning by making and learning by observing was what gave me an education, to graffiti and then throughout like the worlds of arts in general.

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