Gypsy Man | Interview: Nomad

fotoboy62 | Citizen LA

The first time I worked with Nomad, he had mortally wounded a canvas after running into the street in an affluent neighborhood in West Berlin.

The artist had not slept much the night prior and was picking up a piece for the Joint Custody Project, a collaborative experimentation where each artist worked on a piece, back-and-forth, without meeting or verbally communicating. Nomad had just picked up the work and was clearly not pleased with his partner’s first round of work on the canvas. He caused a row and brought the canvas into the street and sliced the canvas down the middle. The piece eventually mutated into a box of canvas pieces before finally taking the form of a photograph.

I wish I had been there that afternoon to witness the outburst.

“I’m basically just a guy reacting to situations,” he would later admit, unrelated to this specific piece of work.

The artist has recently arrived in LA, a place he hasn’t visited since he fled here after abandoning high school in Germany. He is currently reacting to these familiar surroundings by forging brand new work for an exhibition at Found in December, in what will be his first solo U.S. exhibition. In the fourteen years gap between LA visits, the artist has merited his moniker, having exhibited in Austria, Japan, Switzerland, Italy, Iceland, Germany, England, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Spain, and Belgium.

LA, the First Trip

Whereas now the artist has developed a following, mostly in Europe, the young punk street artist that originally landed here in the mid 90s was living a much more marooned version of city life. Nomad was surrounded by people, but largely disconnected from engaging with them because of his status: young, foreign, broke, and partially mad.

The young man was inspired by the skate culture, fresh produce, and climate the Southland offers.

“Skateboarding became my life. I finished school when I was 19. I left the day I finished my last test and never got my diploma and ended up in San Francisco. That’s where I met two Germans that brought me on a trip. They bought a car and were going to drive down to Mexico. I convinced them to stop by the skateboard companies I had wanted to actually meet. Las Osos, San Louis Ibispo, Small Room –I had contacted some of these skate guys when I was a kid, sending them photos and artwork. The Germans dropped me off in LA, and that’s where I stayed for a while.”

Homeless, the self-taught artist found himself ratting around North Hollywood, painting, and getting into trouble. It was here that he developed his ‘Ninja sleep abilities,’ living on the streets, asleep, but also totally aware if anyone tries to “steal your shoes” or worse. Nomad would often have to steal bits of food from Ralph’s, and a basic burrito was the main meal of the day, as he explains, “It was a really hot summer. I lived in a car that had broken down in North Hollywood. It was a Ford van. Everyday, ‘hustling it’. Building water bongs and selling them to rich hippies.” The artist would spend his days painting, intuiting basic painting skills through graffiti, the only medium he could afford.

A fellow hustler recruited Nomad to attend openings, claiming, “I was simply in there for the free food and drinks and fucks because I was homeless and had to pretend I was interested or an artist myself…and nothing has changed. I’m still pretending to be an artist and I’m just there for the free food and fucks and drinks – but the difference is this time it’s my opening.

Despite the fact that the artist has changed considerably as an artist and as a human being, he believes that the intangible soul of the city has not, even though it’s an oversized turn style of people, trends, and ideologies. “The attitude, the vibe, whatever you want to call it is basically the same as I remember it,” he muses. He embraces the concept of private space that can exist in hidden pockets throughout the greater area and the nature of LA to hold secrets, both nefarious and charmingly intimate. One such secret pleasure of his was to visit an uninhabited plot of land in the Hollywood Hills, a property which was huge and secluded with a cloak of trees and wildlife. He wouldn’t disturb the empty house but would simply walk around and relax in this hidden sanctuary. Occasionally, he would bury himself in dirt and marvel at the coyotes, hummingbirds, lizards, and the other cast of creatures. It evoked that Wild West spirit that never seems to want to die.

Time to Leave

After several months in America, his parents notified him that the German government was looking for the young man, because he abandoned his mandatory two years of military service. He had kept no contact with home and had no idea how adamant the Germans were to lasso the youth back to the motherland. He chose to fly back to cut his loses.

“Either I would have to stay away from Germany for eight years or go to jail for two years. At the end, I went to the recruitment office, and I told them I didn’t know what they were talking about. They got me into some juvenile detention center for eight months, and then I had to do additional community service for seven months, which was quite the bummer, having lived your dream on the beach in California, to waking up in a six meter square room and having to do stupid work everyday, building furniture.”

The detention time, however, gave birth to his music obsession. He became so dependent on music, everything from the avante-garde, to crazy eighties Throbbing Gristle, wave, rock, hip-hop, and electro. Music would become part of his visual vocabulary as it would fill him “with visions.”
Nomad would later, albeit inconsistent with his name, drop anchor in Berlin, a city that had everything he needed for the first time in his life: cheap rent, open public space, and burgeoning subcultures. For the majority of twenty/thirty-somethings who were not independently wealthy, Berlin was a realistic place to live without having to get a full time job as in London, Paris, New York, etc. Nevertheless, Berlin “was not as good for skateboarding as California, not as much concrete…and the winter kills you,” mourns Nomad.

The late 90s ushered in a boom of street art in Berlin and Europe at large. Graffiti was such an attractive medium for Nomad and so many others because the materials were so cheap, and, further, because a graffiti artist did not ask for the approval of a curator to create and display work. Walls were taken, not proposed and approved. Berlin, the poor but sexy metropolis, had little resources to halt the graffiti boom.

As such, Nomad made his name in the streets, the public clinging to his graphic, often humorous characters. His growing public awareness generated invitations to group shows and outdoor installations throughout Europe and Japan. Concurrently, Nomad began working in design and producing records for Berlin underground labels like B-Pitch Control, Meteo Sounds, and Discos Capablanca. The cultural soup of art, design, making and playing music cemented Nomad as a fixture in the general sceniness of Berlin, becoming a favorite of many of its nightlife ghouls and goblins.

LA Revisited

Nomad and his work has grown and evolved since his first tour of the city, almost two decades ago. His new work has grown outside of the street label. Though he has recently installed more conceptual sculptures in public spaces, his recent paintings are not made for the street and have eschewed the hyper-graphic, clean lines and strokes.

“What I’m doing now is not that different from 15 years ago, in attitude. When I paint, when I sketch, every single stroke counts, although I’ve multiplied the amount of strokes. Expression lies in the purpose – it’s in every single stroke that someone performs…The work is getting more detailed, but it’s not fragile. It’s still raw and has the same attitude of the early street work.”

Maintaining that seedy rawness, he is creating all of his LA work in LA, referencing the disposability of tabloids, billboards, and literal garbage. Nomad sees the work in between the gutter and the walk of fame, as “the walk of fame actually is the gutter and super-stardom. People living the dream between the gutter and the stars.” Nomad fancies himself a conduit between the haves and have nots, creating a room as “a collection of famous faces, mixed with nobodies, random people, the majority of people really.”

So, while the street aesthetic is not as literally applied as in his earlier years, one can read the concept of the street being a populist common ground for millionaires and mugwumps alike. Nomad is the court marshal and jester.

“I am still street based; that’s where I’m coming from. That basically gave me everything: a job, a mission, all of that.”