With a background in tagging, rapping, skateboarding and surfing, Californian-born Louis Carreon is a street artist who is currently sampling art history, and its religious iconography in particular. Sampling, which began as a feature of Hip Hop in the 1980s, reconciles homage and creation by editing, manipulating or looping a beat, vocal, melody or rhythm sampled from another track within a new track. Inspired by Hip Hop, Carreon similarly riffs off imagery appropriated from the likes of El Greco, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Peter Paul Rubens and Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio to disrupt and re-present images of the greats in ways to which young people can relate.
Music and travel characterised his teenage years but led to addiction and incarceration for drug-related crimes. Peace, cleansing and redemption were found in art and religion resulting from the two years he spent in prison. Inspired by Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, recognition came initially through his ‘International Symbols Of Travel’ including, in 2015, a commission to paint a private jet in collaboration with Landmark Aviation during Art Basel.
Nowadays he’s focused on his Ryzantine updating of religious iconography for the modern world and, having found freedom through his religious iconography narratives, is questioning why museums and galleries struggle to engage young people from the backgrounds with which he grew up the inspiration to be found in their collections. His latest major work is an 8 ft high, 4,000 lb. contemporary reworking of Bernini’s David in marble, with David dressed for the streets of LA. This piece, of which we have exclusive images, is both evidence of contemporary religious inspiration and a challenge to museums and galleries to acknowledge that reality.
JE: It’s been said that the narrative of your art embodies the narrative of your life. Could you tell us why redemption is not just tattooed on your body, but also on your art?
LC: Born out of lust and pain, graffiti was all I knew of art at that time. There was only darkness with a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel. Stealing art supplies, watching graffiti turn to tag banging and gang members and friends fighting over art while doing lots of drugs and only caring about how many times we could read our names on the freeway. At that point, it was only lust and pain. After years of trial and tribulations and many downfalls, redemption was my only Salvation. Truly at that time believed I had to be in pain to produce, to write poetry and to paint. I didn’t know myself and I didn’t believe I could create while working on positivity, health and wellness and a positive future. So as redemption is tattooed across my chest, the story of redemption is what gives me the light and encouragement to give it all to God and leave it out of my hands and to ride this light on this narrative. I used to be a loser now I’m choosing to win.
People today fear God and religion. Religion is not a contemporary conversation that is cool. Generations have run from the Spirit, brainwashed into worshipping false deities such as consumerism. I am not a Westernized Catholic or Christian and don’t claim to be spiritually elevated. I am a student always, keeping it humble. I have had God work in my life and am a true believer in prayer. My prayers do come true but in ways that are different from what I expect, meaning that I have to figure out the difference. I am a different person every day, especially with art, being susceptible to energy and change. Art is a current that comes through people’s bodies in movement and the visualization of memories. Some people can only paint their life or what comes through their bodies and memories. For me, crawling out of addiction and crime, redemption was the only story that had authenticity. I create things that take away pain and give peace. Painting is my redemption and keeps me alive.
JE: From graffiti on Californian interstate highways to symbols of travel on South African mansions and painting a private jet for Art Basel, you’ve literally left your mark around the world. How did that come about and where do you plan to leave your mark next?
LC: When I rose out of my federal vacation, I got a job in nightlife. I excelled in relationships being from Los Angeles and I scaled that industry quick, and it took me all around the world.
One of my first large commissions was in South Africa while Shane Thomson was building a 30million dollar home overlooking where Nelson Mandela was jailed. I ended up doing the commission and gained a new best friend. Art has been good to me in so many ways, my international relationships led to painting public works around the planet and creating a language called ISOT, ‘International Symbols Of Travel,’ which is having continuous dialogues with cultures globally.
JE: You’ve said that you are here to create a dialogue about the greats’ in the hope that that ‘serves a purpose in history classes in the future.’ Who are the greats that you are sampling and with whom are you seeking to dialogue when you reincarnate classic art in the light of contemporary themes?
Some of the greats I sample are Greco, Bernini, Paul Rubens and Caravaggio. With less attention and emphasis being paid to history we are forgetting our past. Growing up I did not know who Bernini or Caravaggio was. Those who knew either had money went to college or had parents that went to museums – they weren’t from my neighbourhood. Unless technology catches up and promotes awareness of the greats to young people knowledge of them will be lost. Young people care about YouTube and movie stars but don’t know anything of the greats. Like hip hop sampling the greats and waking up music in a different form, I seek to disrupt and modernize the images of the greats in ways to which young people can relate. Like many who have heard the sampling of James Brown’s Funky Drummer by producing gurus like Dr Dre and Kanye West, they probably did not even know that was a sample of James Brown and similarly, those that will see my work may not even know who the greats are. And if anyone reading this does not know who these artists are then the dialogue is already beginning.
JE: ‘David Reincarnated’, your first sculpture, is an example of your dialogue with the greats; in this case Bernini. Bernini’s David is in his shepherd’s attire and has nothing but his sling and the stones that fell Goliath. Your David has an iPhone, a Glock, a Rolex, a skateboard, a Louis Vuitton duffle bag, a Hoorsenbuhs chain and Nike Air Max sneakers on his feet. Is there a sense in which these branded goods – the uniforms of consumerism – are the modern equivalent of the armour that King Saul offers to David and which David rejects in favour of his sling and stones?
I don’t think it is an equivalent. Hip hop is the main channel to the minds of the young and this is a representation of items that youths from London to LA view as cool, so is about identification with David and his fight against Goliath. I am David and fight Goliaths, such as addiction, every day. Since consumerism is the king of modern-day Babylon, ‘David Reincarnated’ is brandishing pop culture’s iconic fit of the urban youth, although it can feel like modern armour to born hustlers that get powered by flashing expensive objects to prove their masculinity and to fit into contemporary society. I am so guilty of the same. Programmed to believe that the type of watch or car I was driving made me. Now I use plant medicine and took the Rolly off. I first visualised this statue three years ago, but it has relevance to whoever is in power. When I thought about the modern David, I thought about my homies, some drug dealers, some incarcerated and some dead. The pursuit of materialism is what I am trying to carve away.
JE: What aspects of your personal journey can we see in ‘David Reincarnated’?
LC: The mere facts such as its weight and medium speak to my transcending fear and challenging not only myself but modern society. The Glock in his hand, I lost my gun rights, so it is a reminder of consequences. The skateboard, to keep the spirit ignited and young. The Rolex and Hoorsenbuhs are the modern material flex. My David is also asking, ‘Who is your Goliath and where on your personal journey do you see yourself in him?’ I’m also putting out this statue as an undeniable example of contemporary religious iconography.
JE: Speaking about the part you played in the film ‘Paydirt’, you said that ‘the past is what builds everyone’s character’ and unpacked that in terms of the therapeutic nature of that role for you personally. How does your dialogue with the past in your art build character?
LC: It builds character because I get to see my studies, lessons and redemption grow and I can live off my art. Taking all the fear, insecurities and bad decisions and turning those into positive messages on canvas and then watching families take them from the walls of my studio is extremely rewarding and builds me. Everyone is trying to be something that they’re not. We all play characters, as I said when I arrived at acting school. I was lying to parents, police, women, for decades. Everyone’s playing a role to fit in and be loved. You have to own your dark places. Your character is only based on your past and the frequencies you use to become yourself. You take all the bad and burn that fire to propel yourself into a better and more authentic future.
JE: You have a connection with Dr. Ori Z. Soltes, a professor at Georgetown University with expertise in biblical narratives and art history. How was that connection made and in what ways does it inform your art?
My team and I always aim at black belts of their crafts, and I knew in my heart that if I birthed ‘David Reincarnated’ that to be authentic and historical narrative based perspective was essential for introducing it to the world. And one of the only times I ever went to college was for coffee when I flew out to Georgetown University to meet with Dr Ori to solidify the collaboration. Since our first correspondence, Dr Ori has inspired me with his excitement for my remix of history and his in-depth knowledge is a balanced complement to my contemporary language and energy which culminated with his written multi-layers context of my ‘David Reincarnated’ and its relation to the Masters, their iterations before mine and the effects our individual statues have on their respective times, societies and cultures.
JE: You’ve spoken of a sense that culture will ‘gravitate towards authenticity and that the patterns you move in keep you in ‘a humble and raw space’. What indicators do you see of a move towards authenticity, particularly within the art world, and what part has the time you spend annually in Ethiopia played in keeping you in that humble and raw space?
LC: The world is not broken into sections for me. I am staying on the human component and feeling the energy of people around me and the people with authentic skills seem to be creating the most honest work. I really do believe the next decade will reveal the artists whose narratives will transcend into the creative consciousness. Authentic people don’t have a choice as they are not creating for an audience. However, as I look at the world now, if those with talent and humility stick to it the right people will find them. Authentic people will rise out of the pandemic and will shine once again. The powers that be will shift.
Geography is not what keeps God in my heart, but my spiritual journeys have taken me to Ethiopia many times to study the bloodline of King Solomon and the venerated kings and the Queen of Sheba. Spending months deep in the monasteries and feeling the power of prayer in holy places and the humble feeling of someone who has nothing generally being happier than lots of those in western culture keeps it raw.
JE: Contemporary religious iconography hasn’t tended to be a great career move for many artists and you’ve said that initially the religious iconography in your work was a turn-off for collectors, yet there’s now great interest in your work. From conversations with collectors, what is it in your work with which people are now connecting and are there any other contemporary artists that you would see as being in a similar space or as having similar concerns to yourself?
LC: I feel like a lot of my collectors do not buy my art, I feel like they buy my story, they buy my transparency and honesty. They are supporting a piece of me that is familiar in themselves. The relationships I have and the dialogue between my collectors and I starts very, very human on the very raw level. We speak of family a lot, of addiction, of trials and tribulations. My work is not just a painting, it’s a story and when I sell paintings those stories connect with the collector’s story usually, that’s why we both win and forge a genuine bond.
As an artist, I did not find freedom until I began my religious iconography narratives. When I started living and painting my lessons on canvas, there were a lonely few years when the works didn’t sell as religious iconography was not something that people wanted to deal with. Yet I slowly saw the emergence of a building and growing movement, a global family of collectors and messages from other artists, whom were sampling elements of my narratives; halos, flowers, bottles, faces and smudged text, attributing their artistic evolution and things like acceptance of personal responsibility and painting for themselves directly to my influence and finally with the support and recognition of curators and academic professors, an entire movement, Ryzantine was born, and the messages and movement continue. This is a spiritual journey of art going towards authenticity, so nothing else matters and it is a blessing to have a whole new collector base.
JE: You followed the Grateful Dead for several years and have their music playing when you paint. Bob Marley is also a major inspiration. What does music bring to your art?
LC: Music is life’s collaboration, it brings everything. It sparks so much emotion. It can literally drive you down the street. I can smell the dingy carpets in hotel rooms when I hear Jerry Garcia play his guitar. Music lights the fire and emotion that sparks the current that flows through my body daily. Depending on what I am listening to my strokes are faster of slower and my POV is different. Music is everything.
JE: ‘There are these moments when I paint, and all goes silent, and I’m in the dimension where only shapes and colours exist.’ Those sound like marvellous moments – moments of real connection and union. Could you tell us more about that state, how it comes about and what it’s like to be in it?
LC: I feel like in life I am addicted to all kinds of different states. This state feels like I am not focused and I’m painting freestyle with colour and intent. To explain this in-depth, when I’m in this space I sometimes misspell words because words look like shapes. While doing a public works mural for a transit authority in Colombia, I spelled my name wrong. It takes hours and hours of concentration and free flow with music to get in that place where I’m so free and no one can take it from me. It is a very similar experience to that of praying and fasting on my knees in a rock monastery in Ethiopia. There is a ringing in your ears, a different uncomfortable falling, so much love and the Spirit so live in you that you can’t sleep and can barely walk. It is a whole next level of Spirit.
JE: You’ve spoken of painting for young people in the future. What is your wish for those who will encounter your work in years to come?
LC: I have passed where I thought I would get to with this work, so the possibilities for the future are endless. I would hope to have disrupted views on religious iconography so young people can get closer to the greats than I feel I am in relation to them.
Top Photo: Louis Carreon Detail mage copyright the artist