WORDS BY KHALID STRICKLAND a.k.a. BLACK PACINO
ARTWORK & PHOTOS BY CHRISTIAN CORTES
With his album covers, videos and world-renowned graffiti murals, Christian Cortes puts the “ill” in “illustrator.” Both figuratively & literally, his unique style has elevated aerosol art to new heights: Cortes has scaled the outer walls of 5Ptz. Gallery in Queens to leave his mark in unreachable places.
Hip-hop fans remember Cortes’ artwork in the video for “Can’t Stop The Prophet” by Jeru The Damaja… one such piece is posted above. VP Records enlisted Cortes for their beloved Strictly the Best reggae compilation covers. His art graces walls and galleries in Berlin, Japan, Spain and Germany, making Cortes one of the world’s most recognized graffiti artists. Graffiti enthusiasts swear by his work and praise him as one of the best to ever pick up a spray can.
C-Dub is not only a creative genius, he’s a businessman with a knack for marketing. His wildly popular YouTube channel (CortesNYC), inventive website (CortesCreates.com) and steady world tours keep the Cortes brand on fire. Christian and I attended the High School of Art & Design together so I’m glad to see him do well.
Check out our exclusive Q&A session below the jump… packed with fascinating artwork, imaginative videos and hot models.
Black Pacino: When did you take an interest in graffiti?
Christian Cortes: It all started for me back in ’86, junior high school, commuting on the 7 train back and forth from Sunnyside and Jackson Heights. Back then the 7 train still had the occasional graff train runnin’. I started doing blackbooks with friends and lettering on denims. I was real wide-eyed and novice but I remember it was the first time my peers really took notice of my talent and I was motivated by their reactions. Once I got into the High School of Art and Design, I was commuting to Manhattan and mingling with graff heads from all the boroughs. That’s when I took on my first tag and started bombin’.
Pacino: What separates Cortes from the rest of the pack?
Cortes: I’m a versatile artist. I’m not afraid to experiment with different styles or mediums. I’ve been an artist for so long that I’m not afraid to stand alone with my own work.
Pacino: You’ve painted pieces all over the world. Do you feel there’s a greater appreciation for graf overseas?
Cortes: Yes, I think people overseas have a greater appreciation for public art. Here in New York, street art still has a stigma of criminalization. Graffiti artists are put in the same category as all the other street peddlers and bootleg street vendors. In New York, graffiti is seen as a low art form and public art as a form of hustle, instead of a brave personal form of art expression. It’s probably because we are bombarded with so much advertisements, billboards and neon signs in NY that we assume everyone painting on a wall is selling us some crap.
Pacino: Obviously you ain’t afraid of heights. How did you do those pieces waaaay up on the walls at 5 Pointz? On average how long did one of those pieces take?
Cortes: I’m very afraid of heights! (Laughs) I had to really put my fears aside to go up on that bucket crane and paint those walls. The crane was always rockin’ back and forth especially when I would swing long strokes of paint. Fortunately, Anthony and Meres, who were steering the crane, took that into account and did their best to position it in a stable way. I’ve had many experiences doing graffiti that have challenged my fears. You definitely grow as an artist from all those memories.
Pacino: Are there any pieces of art that you consider to be your favorite creations?
Cortes: My canvasses that I named “train # 7″ because they were part of the first I ever exhibited. They were faced with controversy and were featured on the front page of NY Newsday, The Source magazine and other graf magazines back in the day.
Savage Sword Blackbook, because it helped me redefine how I would do blackbooks. It is a full page combining graffiti styles with traditional pen and ink techniques. Normally people want to see graffiti in full color but I managed to deliver an interesting aggressive image with just ink.
5ptz Uphigh3 to this day it is the largest solo piece that I’ve done and the largest piece ever done at 5pointz. It stands on that landmark building in Queens and faces the Manhattan skyline. I’m proud of having been able to leave that mark and hopefully inspire other writers at that location to push higher. I definitely thank Meres for having faith in me… to know that I could complete that within the given timeframe.
Pacino: At the Graffiti Hall of Fame at 106 & Park, some hatin’ vandals sprayed black paint over other artists’ pieces. Has some jackass ever defaced your work like that?
Cortes: If you are going to be a graffiti artist you can’t be afraid or upset if someone goes over your work. By nature, graffiti is not meant to be permanent. Public art work is always going to be vulnerable the elements.
I did my first full piece on a handball court in Jackson Heights back in ‘89. I was so proud of it… I took pictures with friends and family in front of it. The wall didn’t even last a day. A crew of more established writers came in that same night and went over the whole production. When I saw it the next day I took it as an initiation. I understood it to be a lesson about the world of graff.
Pacino: You do plenty of commercial artwork as well. Who are some of your clientele and what have you done for them?
Cortes: Jeru the Damaja… I did the music video for “Can’t Stop the Prophet.” Lords of the Underground, I did the “Funky Child” cover art. I’ve done logos and lettering for Supercat, Keith Murray, Jodeci, Madskillz, Mo’ Thugz Record… and I’ve done digital illustrations for Air Jamaica, VP Records “Strictly the Best,” TVT Records “Crunk Hits,” and the reggaeton/salsa compilation “Los Cocorocos.”
Pacino: Like The Predator, you have a thing for skulls. Why do you incorporate skulls in your artwork?
Cortes: I always liked the symbolism of skulls and death in classic European paintings as well as Mexican folk art. I think Latin culture has always played with the darkness of the afterworld. For me, the skulls symbolize the death and afterlife of graffiti. The old subway art movement is dead in New York and all of us still doing graffiti in 2010 New York are in the afterlife.
Pacino: How does it feel to make a living doing what you love to do?
Cortes: It’s cool… I never knew another way of making money besides using my art talent. But sometimes, I feel that I traded in my hobby for money. When you do what you love to do all the time your gift can become a curse. So I struggle at times to keep myself entertained while doing my art. This is why I still do graffiti for fun and experiment with music production. You can’t be a working artist for 20 years without reinventing yourself over and over again.
Pacino: What advice would you give to starvin’ artists out there trying to break into the commercial art realm?
Cortes: First off I would say, lose the idea of being starving artist. That is a myth that an artist has to starve for their art. Secondly, treat your art like a business even when there is no money involved. When you are an independent artist, your time is your only money, so manage your time wisely. Spend as much time doing art as well as promoting your art.
And lastly, always be a professional, no matter what you do. I always remembered Rakim’s line in “Lyrics of Fury”. He calls himself a “lyrical professionist”. That invented word represents me to the fullest. I’m not a highly trained, college grad… but even when I was a teen rockin’ blackbooks and drinkin’ 40’s, I was always a professional and a perfectionist, so I eventually became a specialist. Cortes is a graffiti professionist!
How about we see Cortes in action?
Here are some entertaining video clips from his YouTube channel, CORTEZNYC. Not only do they feature the artist creating dope pieces from start to finish, one clip co-stars the lovely models posted above. Of course the pretty ladies get their shine… this is The Spizzy, after all.
Links of interest:
CORTESNYC YOUTUBE CHANNEL
CHRISTIAN CORTES ON TWITTER
5 POINTZ AEROSOL ART CENTER: INTENSE BURNS