In May of 2013, Miami Alive had gained decent footing in the 305’s cultural scene, and we starting reaching out to local movers and shakers to share with us their view of what it was that made the Magic City special to them. Amongst my favorite of the interviews I conducted for the publication was this one with graffiti writer turned gallery artist Atomik.
I arrived at the part of Calle Ocho where Atomik keeps his studio a little early. Although having been there millions of times, each visit to Miami’s famously cuban-centric street serves as a fresh reminder of the eclectic mix of culture and people that make up Miami. I stand in the heat to take it all in, and an old man walks out of a gas station and offers me a cafecito, which I kindly decline.
Atomik rides up on a bicycle, and at first glance is nothing like what I had imagined, which is probably my fault. His hair was longer than I expected, his features kinder and more relaxed than the typical paranoid tenseness constantly present on the face of graff artists on the street, vigilantly watching over their shoulder. Still, from the friendly smile he greets me with to the art he paints on our city walls, he is all Miami, crediting the city’s influence not only for his iconic and recognizable Orange, but also his color palette.
A child of South Florida’s growing and dynamic 1980s graffiti scene, Atomik took notice of the artwork that covered the city, and that would later shape his creative career. A true Miami-an, Atomik considers himself lucky to have been able to grow up in the Devonaire area of the city, frequently visiting Hot Wheels as a youngster, interacting with artists who would come down from throughout the tri-county area to showcase their skills, breakdance, hang out and share black books. Drawn to the creative world, Atomik went on magnet schools for art until he went on to study Graphic Design 1999 until 2002 when he received his bachelors degree from the Art Institute of Ft. Lauderdale.
Atomik began painting almost 20 years ago, and throughout that time has established himself as one of the most visible and active artists in Miami. More recently, he’s taken his work from the streets to the studio, moving into the small space on Calle Ocho in which we met for this interview, during which he hand-finished a print of one of famous oranges, one that he silk screened himself as well.
Now, after putting in his time and paying his dues to the street, Atomik is about to open his first ever solo show on Saturday, May 18, at the Terminal Gallery in Wynwood, showcasing two dozen versions of his orange character. I sat down with Atomik to prepare myself for overexposure to all that citrus, and a chance to ask him just what it is about this city that brings him back after trips abroad, and what it is that keeps him on the street.
MG: So, what or where do you draw your inspiration from? what made the Orange become this iconic symbol for you?
ATOMIK: The orange came from the destruction of the Orange Bowl. When they were knocking down the Orange Bowl, I started my own little voice for that. And I painted him instead of having a smile, he had a frown and he was angry about the Orange Bowl being knocked down. So that’s where it really stems from thats why I started doing the Orange.
MG: That makes a lot of sense. What about now, the Orange Bowl is long gone, what still compels to continue to draw on everything? Why do you just keep writing on stuff?
ATOMIK: Well, now its more of a logo for me, and more of a representation of Miami. So when I leave and I travel to other countries, I’m still able to represent where I come from and leave my mark there with the orange.
MG: Speaking of leaving your mark all over the world, I saw that you recently went to Europe and South America. How was that?
ATOMIK: It was fun. It was my second time in Brazil, my first time in Rio and I had such a good time out there. I love Brazil. It was so much fun, I got to go to the tower of Chris and we stayed in Ipanema and there was a place called something like Devil’s beach. Theres a surfer’s paradise there somewhere in between copacabana and Ipanema, and I painted a really spot right there and its like, still running and people that go there get to see it.
MG: Is that the one you did on the side of the sidewalk with Reams?
ATOMIK: No, that’s another one. The one that Im talking about specifically, it had the Atomik in the bubble letter with the orange, and then underneath it it said “que bola Rio de Janeiro”. Its so awesome, I love that piece . I believe its still there because there’s on like a big rock, like a big mountain almost. Well, its not a mountain its a rock.
MG: For us it’s a mountain regardless, Im sure.
ATOMIK: Yeah, haha. It’s right at the end of Ipanema and the surfers surf right there and its a very famous spot.
MG: Having painted internationally like that, what, aside from the obvious geographical difference and the risk of stroke you run being outside in the daytime here in Miami, would you say makes doing street art different in another city or country than it does in Miami.
ATOMIK: I don’t know really, I guess it depends where you’re at sometimes. It could be very easy to do and very stress free. Like in Brazil, no is really tripping about it, you know, if you’re just there painting on the street. But then if you go to LA and just try to paint in the street, or London, and try to do your thing, you get like fined or jailed or whatever it might be. But it’s different though, you know, like I said, I painted on the side of a mountain there. Here in Miami it’s like the flatlands. So you go to all these different places and there’s all these different things that we don’t here in Miami, you know? They have all these hills, mountain and everything. I don’t know. I guess the geography really is the biggest difference, like the land itself is different. The people, the weather, its all different. I saw snow for the first time in Germany and painting in the snow, painting in that cold was an experience.
MG: yeah, I can imagine. So, of all the marks, what is the favorite mark that you’ve left up in the world right now?
ATOMIK: Actually, I’m proudest of a commission I just did last year for the Welcome to Little Havana Mural on 27th avenue and Calle Ocho.
MG: So four years ago, you did an interview with bombing science in which you mentioned that you weren’t very keen with the modern art world’s then recent embrace of the graffiti scene. Since then, your work has made it’s way into a couple galleries and you yourself are now working out of a studio.
Do you still feel the same way? or do you think that the public’s perception of graffiti writers has changed at all since that time, or do you think they are still considered criminals, as you had then mentioned?
ATOMIK: I think, well, I want to to say yes and no. I still feel the same way, in that a lot of art out there thats being considered street art isn’t really graff. I don’t know how to explain it. It’s like not supposed to be there, It’s someone trying to step into that arena now that its hot, you know. it’s like now that people are making making millions off it and people are really successful from it, other people just want to jump in and get a piece of the pie so I still don’t agree with the majority of the stuff that goes up. But, I mean, I’m very critical of a lot of the stuff that I see. I’m kind of a purist, you know, spray cans, certain approaches to putting your work up in the street.
But then, it has changed also. I’m in the studio, I’m doing shows, I’m trying to tap into that market to make a living, you know. Before I was doing graphic design and now, within the last year or two, I’m starting to see income from my paintings. I feel like you just have to put in the work and pay your dues before you actually go into the streets and start trying to be a street artist, be a graffiti artist.
MG: And do you think that Miami, and specifically Art Basel and what goes on in the Wynwood Arts district has played a part in that decriminalization of graffiti and graf writers in people’s minds? At least in the sense that it offers their work a safe harbor from the buff?
ATOMIK: Definitely. I mean, I can go and paint in Wynwood and not get arrested, you know. If anything, the worst case scenario, someone is going to tell me to leave because I don’t have permission to be there. But there is so much out there that they kind of just let it fall by the wayside and dont really trip when they see you painting. They sort of assume that you have permission and assume that it’s legitimate or the probably even like it, you know. They see someone painting something they like and they’re not going to stop them from doing it.
So I feel like, yes, South Florida has played a big part in the decriminalization of it but I can’t say that it applies to the rest of the world. It’s not every city that has a scene like we do and place that we have like Wynwood where you’re able to just go and paint.
MG: Has that decriminalized mentality made the competition amongst street artists here more intense? Like, have people stepped up their game or has it opened the doors and made it easier for anyone to just put whatever they want up on the streets?
ATOMIK: Well I think the competition is definitely more fierce now that everyone from across the world comes over here and leaves their mark, but also it kind of lowers the bar because everyone and their mother is going out in the street and putting something up so along with the incredible celebrity street artists that come and paint here you also have the kid that’s trying to do it for the first time and goes out there and some whack shit. So it’s a little bit of both, I guess. The competition is fierce because you have people like Os Gemeos that are awesome, and so many others. So many people come out here that its very fierce and yes.
MG: Are there any awesome local artists that you have collaborated with?
ATOMIK: I’ve collaborated with Abstrakt, we’re working on a piece right now. Hox, Hest, Quake, Poocho, I mean, I could go on and on. But when it comes to actual pieces for canvas or print, Not many. But as far as the streets go, the list is endless because my crew has like 3 dozen people in it, you know.
MG: and how is working on a collaboration out on the street than it is in the studio? Is it more organic than it is inside?
ATOMIK: Yeah. it definitely is. When you’re in the street it just kinda comes naturally and you do your thing. When you’re in the studio, you really have to think about up close details since people are going to be looking at this in a different setting and not in the street, so they can almost see every details, every little touch that you add to a piece is visible. The collaborations that I’ve done though haven’t really been done right there, live with the artist. Its more like I do something and then they do something either in the studio or on their own time, you know, we never collaborated right there on a piece at the same time.
MG: So, as far as going from being a street artist to being a considered a fine artist. What to you is the biggest challenge to break that stigma, at least for you, personally?
ATOMIK: For me, I have to stay in the street. I have to keep producing work on a street level. If not, then I don’t have my mojo, so to say, I’m not staying true to where I started. So, as long as I’m out there in the street still producing work for the public eye and the graff culture, I’m still able to do what I’m doing. But I feel that the moment that I stop that, then my paintings have to take and they’ll have to take on a new approach because the integrity is gone.
MG: The purpose behind it all becomes muddled.