How Othelo Gervacio Turned Graffiti Roots Into A Hot Shot Career

Counter-culture influence and corporate experience paved the way for this NYC artist’s unique style.

February 27, 2015

There is a longstanding tradition of artists who slip between commercial and self-directed creative output. Andy Warhol famously flipped a career in advertising into a legacy of cultural commentary and artistic production. Richard Prince pulled the source material for his first attempts at rephotography from the Time Magazine tear-sheet department where he worked. You could even argue that a fashion house's grandest creative statement—a largely unwearable couture collection—is only possible thanks to licensed perfume and sunglasses sales. The easy narrative here is that one hand washes the other, that artists can sell their skills at a day-rate until their personal brand becomes more financially viable, or that art can somehow be underwritten by marketable but ultimately meaningless trinkets. On the surface this relationship is one-sided, and there is widespread paranoia that commerce-driven creativity is feeding off of and watering down true art. Michael Rock, a partner at the agency 2x4, once self-consciously feared that "marketing departments are becoming aware of the cachet associated with avant-garde." It's fitting that 2x4 now often collaborates with Kanye West, a popular artist celebrated for his eye on the underground.

But what about, as with Warhol and Prince, the ways in which a technical skill or opportunity provided by a day job can feed a personal practice? What about the ways commercial reach can be used not to co-opt but to signal boost the so-called avant-garde? This seems to be the case with Othelo Gervacio, a New York-based artist and former graffiti kid who splits his days (and nights) between creating a prolific body of punk and metal inspired ink-wash and watercolor work and a full-time career as an art director for the creative agency Alldayeveryday. Gervacio spends a good chunk of his time working out art and strategy for big clients like Nike or The Standard Hotel, but he and his colleagues have also made a name for themselves with more for-the-fuck-of-it projects like The Newsstand, a zine and art book pop-up that took over the newspaper kiosk at the Metropolitan/Lorimer Avenue subway station for several months last year.

On the flip side, Gervacio's unique drawing style owes much to his day jobs: his reference-heavy process and stark rendering style was gleaned while working for renowned tattoo artist and illustrator Scott Campbell, and he says his emphasis on typography and computer aided composition comes from the muscle memory of his day-to-day as a graphic designer. And it's just as fun to picture Gervacio—with his long black hair and sleeve of tattoos—in a meeting with American Express executives as it is to picture him using earnest commercial layout techniques to produce aggressively satirical and tenderly hand-drawn images of skulls, biker babes, or war slogans. In a recent project, Gervacio worked with Virgil Abloh (another noted Kanye collaborator) on a series of graphics for Abloh's Off-White brand, a platform that itself confuses the boundaries between art and money. And though Gervacio claims he's just interesting in making "cool shit," his work and interests are deceptively subversive. Like the layers of his paintings, he has an ability to jam his contradicting worlds together, disregard their context and make them his own—after all, no matter the source material, the final rendering is always in his same, steady hand. Here, Gervacio tells us the secret to racking paint at Home Depot, the magic of keeping it raw, and why sometimes you just need to finish things off with a little gold leaf.

"I'm just kind of the anti-everything."—Othelo Gervacio

Let's start at the beginning. What's your background? How did you get into all this? It's kind of a long story. I'm from Virginia Beach but all my extended family is here in New York. All my cousins were artists. Growing up here in the '80s and '90s, a lot of them were graffiti writers and one of my favorite uncles was an artist at Topps Cards. Before there was photoshop, he was retouching everything with an airbrush. I remember him sending my dad 8.5x11 pictures of Brook Shields but he would airbrush fake tits on her. When I was a kid I was like, Oh shit this is the holy grail. Long story short, I kind of got into art and graffiti as a kid.

Did you write? Is that something you can say? Yeah, I did. I had one cousin in Virginia beach—he's still a pretty well-known graffiti writer. We used to paint freight trains when I was like 10. He could drive so we would sneak out of the house as soon as the parents were asleep, get in a car and go to the train yard. I was a typical graffiti kid—I fucking stole everything, racked paint. This was when it was so easy at Home Depot. I wasn't like a fucking asshole kid but that was just what everyone was doing. I did that all through all through middle school and high school. I used to write "MIG5." I think I just liked the letter combination. I still do tags and shit here and there if I'm a little bit inebriated and have a marker in my pocket.

How did a background in graffiti turn into a professional art career? In high school I started doing art programs and was actually doing pretty well in there. I got a few weird awards and all that. I come from a Filipino family, which was your needed to become a doctor or lawyer or architect or whatever. My first year of college I went to Virginia Tech and was gonna study architecture. It is super bumblefuck country out there. Like, I went to a fucking party in a barn type shit. After a year I was just like, this isn't for me so I moved to Richmond, Virginia, where there's an art and music scene. I actually didn't have a formal graphic design education, I did Communications and Art Direction at VCU. It was more about concept and ad campaigns.

What happened next? I actually skipped out on a grad school and told my parents I'd deferred for a year. It was actually a pretty prestigious school, but I said fuck it. I moved to New York and I got a job straight away with Scott Campbell. He was opening up a new studio and was starting to become pretty well-known as an illustrator. He was already well-known as a tattoo artist. But he was diving into illustration-based commercial art. That's where I honed a lot of this typographic, hand-painted skills. Because that's a lot of what we were doing: hand-painted graphics for everybody from Louis Vuitton to Heineken and Victoria's Secret. Then he started getting more into the fine art scene. Which I actually helped him with as well. He was pretty much my mentor.

There's something counter culture about your work. What are you influenced by? I'm just kind of the anti-everything. There's punk influence. I listened to a lot of metal. I like the kind of humorous, satirical stuff that happens in pop culture. When I worked with Scott, our studio was in the back of Saved Tattoo.There's the typical tattoo art which is you know sculls and script lettering. I kind of took all the elements I liked from that world and applied it to my world and hodgepodged everything together.

There's a real mix of flatness and depth to your work. Like you'll have this beautiful photorealistic drawing and then there's a flat logotype over it. What are you interested in visually? That's actually kind of funny. It goes back to my professional career as an art director and designer. Of course, I was already doing graffiti but then I found out about type and layout and now I think I'm a lot more conscious of it. 75-85% of the time before I start painting I lay it out in the computer. I pull my reference, photoshop some stuff together, and then that's the beginning point of the painting. All the calculations come from my training in graphic design. And then all the rendering is the technical hand skills. And, of course, the mediums—I predominately work in ink wash, watercolor, and pencil. But then I also like having something super black, white, and grey then hitting it with the gold leaf. Just for that difference.

I'm also interested in this kind of warped digital/VHS type of graphic treatment, which I've been working on a while and I'm starting to see in other work. I love the Palace skate videos. Though I didn't specifically get it from somewhere, it's just what's happening. I like to show movement and texture, things like waving flags. I'm really inspired right now by marble statues—I'm just kind of obsessed with that attention to detail. I like trying to mimic these gradations, these textures. But mixing that up with flat overlays, flat text, to offset the two things.

What are you working on now? I'm taking over this publication, Circular. I did this whole series of New York Post covers [featuring] sensationalized stories that are actually real headlines from the New York Post. But, of course, I put my own interpretation on it and renamed it—I called it Post Apocalypse. They're just pretty funny: "Pussy-whipped Cossacks attack punk band at Olympics." I can't believe these are actual headlines. To make them, I use Photoshop to collage everything together. And then I redo it all—hand draw and paint everything. Everybody has there own process, and this is mine. I actually learned this technique from the tattoo shop. In the world of tattooing, reference is everything. And I was blessed to have this whole library of books, everything from like Renaissance paintings to Māori tribal tattoos. Books of just hundreds of skulls. Everything you can think of.

What else is coming up? For May I'm working on a show with two other guys—Carlos Valencia and Trent Bryant—I'm producing the work now. Valencia mostly works in graphite and does these large scale photorealistic but kind of warped drawings. He has the same kind of satirical humor to his work. Bryant uses a chainstitch machine. It's really cool, like old style embroidery. I think the common thread between all three of us is it's really slow process kind of work. There's a new gallery in Greenpoint called Three Kings Studios. It's actually owned by Three Kings Tattoo. They're doing really cool stuff. Right now there's this guy Daniel Albrigo in there. Next is Nick Atkins. I think they're doing something with Petra Collins. He has a few pretty cool names for the future. We're gonna be like the third or fourth show. And after that hopefully I get rich!

That seems like a good goal. Nah, it's just really about making cool shit.

All photos courtesy of Othelo Gervacio.

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How Othelo Gervacio Turned Graffiti Roots Into A Hot Shot Career