Old people can say what they want about us Millennials (We’re self-involved, we are lazy, we are obsessed with our phones) but over-exposure does have some benefits, with the biggest benefit of all being that so many people like just about EVERYTHING. Less and less are their divisions between “punk,” “goth,” “B-boy.” Sub-cultures grow more and more obsolete by the day, and it’s great because they are stupid. People are defining their individualism by what they like, not what crowd the hang in. You grew up watching and playing baseball but you want to be an experimental DJ in Bed-Stuy? Sure. You are a consummate artist painting like your the next Basquiat but that Michael Bay flick looks pretty entertaining? Cool, go see it. I am proud to be of a generation that is so plugged into a plethora of creative mediums and media. Everything is cool.
The teaming up of Hip-Hop’s darkest and biggest superstar Kanye West with New York-based visual artist Wes Lang is one of those excellent by-products of living in an age when something that makes so little sense makes perfect sense. Lang designed the Kanye tour shirts pictured above. Some are outraged, some are mesmerized. But one thing that is more important than what you think of these shirts is that this is a collaboration that is strange and perfect. Arguably the world’s greatest visionary pop star enlists visionary visual artist to make the coolest tour shirt possible. A buzz-worthy tour shirt. A tour shirt that will be worn and pondered for years to come.
Sure, the majority of Kanye fans probably don’t know who Wes is, but Wes’s fans sure know who Kanye is. Their aesthetics don’t match, but they do share things in common; they both have perfected their own unique look. Kanye dons himself in beautiful designer clothes and in doing so changed the face of hip-hop fashion forever, and for the better. Wes, who became interested in art while working at a tattoo shop after school when he was a teenager, sports full sleeve tattoos of everything from shottily done stick and poke skulls to highly detailed and professionally done girl heads. You will never see him without his leather biker vest, black jeans and either a Slayer or Grateful Dead tee shirt. In the stuffy and slightly effete sartorial world of Chelsea gallery men, Wes’s classic outlaw look is as refreshing as it is striking.
These two working together still not making sense? I digress. They are easily two of the most important American artists working in their artistic mediums. Kanye West has redefined what Hip-Hop can be. As much as the haters would love to hate, when I am an old man Kanye West will be remembered as the most important musical artist of my time. “Dark Twisted Fantasy” is still the best album of the last five years with its grandiosity-laden mega-productions stripped down to hip-hop size while embracing baroque, electro and soul musics. It’s already number 353 on Rolling Stone’s 500 best records list, and will probably keep going up when they realize the Beatles only had one great record (The White Album) and a beautiful hit (“Don’t Let me Down) and they are boring and old. “Yeezus” might very well be my favorite of this year, a pop record so packed with industrial grit and urban punch that only Kanye could have sold it to a record label. Like Throbbing Gristle, no actually it’s nothing like Throbbing Gristle, objectively. But the energy of this record reminds me of the early UK industrial bands, just sick and attention-seeking. Hell, “808 and Heartbreaks” isn’t his best record but without it would we have Drake? Would we have Miguel? Frank Ocean? How to Dress Well? Kanye got sick of rapping and started a new genre. His persona is so off the rails that he screams in your face, “Like me or not, it doesn’t mean shit to me.” He has pissed people off, subverted expectations, gone off the rails, made masterpieces and changed pop music. He throws touchy subjects in our face so we learn to swallow it. His music, his interviews and his award show appearances draw on race, hate, pain, lust, anger, debauch and so much more. Kanye has redefined what the American pop star is; part musical genius, part self-aggrandizing jester.
Someone who knows nothing about art might not be overly impressed with the paintings and drawings of Wes Lang. Conversely, someone who knows a lot about art and has been collecting for decades might be left similarly unenthused. His work typically consists of large scale drawings of a smattering of tattoo imagery; skulls, girls, indians, reapers, blood and more. Combined with ominous phrases the images form a collage. I am a tattoo head, and his connection to that scene initially made me a fan of his work, I feel compelled to admit this. But to label him as such, “A tattoo artist that does some painting,” is false. Tattooing is a trade, and I think the best tattoo artists are the ones that consider it as such, i.e. someone has an idea, a wolf head, and the tattoo artist puts the wolf on the person. Those guys’ idea of an image usually only goes so far as how the tattoo will look on skin. It’s creative and it’s awesome but not truly art. Lang’s work is going thousands of miles deeper, using the familiar reference points of tattoo imagery, sex and drugs to say what he wants to say about love, death, hate and about what it means to be an American in 2013. Looks at his drawing “Midnight Wine” from earlier this year. In it, you see a skull wearing an Indian headdress on the cover of what appears to be a book called “The Great American Novel,” a skull/rose, mountains, “We need new dreams,” an angel, “Eternal life,” hot woman with big boobs, rose, “Midnight Wine,” hour glass, reaper, “Wait a minute, watch what you’re doin’ with your time all the endless ruins of the past must stay behind.” Get it? It’s not as sloppy as it sounds, on the contrary his work is morbidly beautiful. Lang has a steady hand, indeed. But by confronting the viewer with a barrage of imagery that the viewer already has preconceived notions about, the viewer must confront why he feels this way and why this imagery brings up such connotations. Wes Lang’s work makes us feel the horrors of American history and the inescapable reality that is the past. His work lets us know that we will in fact die one day. But he also lets us know that with a life there is always time for rebirth. Wes Lang’s first solo book just came out two weeks ago, well over 15 years after first moving to Hoboken, taking up a job at at the Guggenheim and getting tattooed and painting all day. His ascent to art stardom was initially a slow burner, much like pre-rapping producer Kanye. But once he rose, his ascent was meteoric.
So now we see why it makes sense for these two to collaborate. They both are uncompromising iconoclasts that rose to the top of music and visual art respectively by creating their work with no thought other than, “This is what I want to create,” remaining committed to an ideal. The tee shirts for Kanye’s Yeezus tour are already infamous. Lang’s prints demonstrate one of his favorite images, the skull with a headdress, and other eye-grabbing “pissing people off”-type prints like a skeleton wrapped in a confederate flag. Both Kanye and Wes seem to be using this collaboration as a bizarre social experiment. Kanye is basically asking his fan base to don an image of slavery and hatred in the name of their love for Kanye, preexisting notions be damned. That is Rock n’ Roll! I can’t pretend to know why he’s doing this, but by putting his ideas next to a confederate flag he could be attempting to weaken the connotation behind the image. Meanwhile Lang told GQ that he just wanted to create a cool concert tee shirt like the hardcore and metal ones in the 80s. A shirt that people actually wear after the show. He has a point. I buy concert tees a lot and they are always lame forcing me to wear my tried and true Black Flag and Thin Lizzy shirts. But Wes’s selling of these tee-shirts at Pac Sun suggest that he is possibly either trying to cash in on the Kanye companionship, or maybe he is going deeper into the idea of marketing these striking images to even less aware consumers? 14-year olds asking for the flag skull shirt while cruising the mall with their moms. I vision Wes taking a drag off his cigarette smirking ear to ear while Kanye taps his palms and fingers together like Scarface sitting in a throne of a leather chair at the giddy thought of this.
Basically, this is the only tour tee shirt I’ve ever heard of that has sparked controversy, not to mention legitimate buzz. The shirts are anticipated for crying out loud! I saw a guy wearing one in Providence and I got excited! Except for Marilyn Manson in the pussy-fied 90s, I can’t recall witnessing media covering the shirts at the merchandise tables of a big tour. But that’s what Kanye and Wes are about. These are two painfully creative men birthing some of the most important American art in 2013, and now they are working together. And I know I have over-analyzed this whole thing, but these are two completely different artists sharing similar ideas but demonstrating opposite aesthetics. They are both at the top of their game, and the mere mention of these two names in a sentence together shows a glimpse of what is possible with social media and the ever-diversifying tastes of the American public.
Oh and Ted, please don’t forget my shirt at the show. I’d like the headdress one : )