For some, a walk through downtown West Chester may make for an entertaining or refreshing evening: a nice meal, or perhaps an ice cream cone. The well-lit shops line the borough, among them are road markers, business signs, statues and the casual, unassuming brick wall.
For Cassius King, however, these streets have a whole different meaning. They are a composite canvas. Living, breathing. Brimming with the raw material by which new, interesting narratives can find light. For years now, King has called these streets home and has used them to make sense of, and deconstruct, his own community. King’s work is a well respected sight in and around West Chester, where his ideas can be seen expressed through the tinkerings of existing signage — such as his once-internet-viral splicing of a Walgreen’s sign to read Al Green’s — or the appliance of what he calls stickeraffiti (“vinyl adhesives, reflective materials, foam board and projections.”)
In the following interview, I discuss the importance of working and, if need-be, reconstructing your surroundings to make meaning. As a visual artist, King provides his unique take on his upbringing, motifs and the ins and outs of working with an illegal medium.
For some context, most of your work is displayed at various spots in West Chester? Were you born and raised here?
I am not from West Chester, but it is the one place I’ve lived the longest in my life, so I call it home. I spend a lot of time in the borough, so it’s become a default canvas for me in some ways.
What is your background as it relates to your artistic output? As a child, were you fascinated with signage, graphic art and branding? What led you to want to toy with these concepts?
I’ve always been interested in art and creative things. My mom used to take me to the Philadelphia Art Museum as a kid, and that had a profound effect on me. I drew and painted a lot as a kid. I really loved Etch ASketch and LEGO. It wasn’t until I got older and started playing music in a band that gigged pretty regularly, and so I got into the idea of marketing and branding to promote shows, the band, etc. That’s when I got into graphic design, which led to the street art. And sticker work.
I imagine much of your work requires the township to play along, such as in projecting “The Wizard of Oz” onto the Chestnut Street Parking garage, or your Burger King-inspired logo onto another building. What goes into putting together an end result like this?
Not everyone plays along. I have definitely run into my share of push-back from some higher ups in the community, but for the most part, those in local government who could actually make life harder for me are supportive of my work. I’m encouraged by that. As far as the projection work that I do with my partner-in-crime, Mr. Clever Hanz of N.E. Thing Productions, we just go out to our favorite spots to project and do our thing. The content is never salacious or crosses a line, so cops, security guards, property managers and the ilk tend to be more interested in what we’re doing rather than shoo us away.
Today more than ever, people are tasked with combating feelings of existential dread or alienation from one’s own situations. Do you believe your art has a political function in displaying a sort of irreverence or whimsical take on culture in order to exhibit power over your condition?
I suppose it is political in a way because, well, technically, it’s illegal. So it’s transgressive; it’s deviant. But deviant in a “whoopie-cushion-under-the-teacher’s-chair” kind of way, where everyone’s in on the joke — except, of course, for the teacher.
We live in a culture that puts a premium on documentation. At all times, we carry tiny devices capable of capturing — and delivering to the world — information about our day, our latest meal, our thoughts on the most recent netflix series, etc. Much of your art, however, deals in the temporary. Passersby can stumble upon your work unassumingly. You do, however, have a social media presence on which you can promote and display your art. What do you consider the truest way or witnessing your work?
I think the best way to observe a piece of street art is in its natural habitat. That’s where the effect wants to happen because it’s in “the wild.” As we all know, however, social media does have that funny little way of reaching everyone on the planet who owns a smartphone, so it is a gratifying feeling to share a creative expression with someone who otherwise wouldn’t have walked by and noticed it on the street, especially after it’s been removed. In this way, most of the pieces are temporarily in the street, but the documentation and pictures of them are able to achieve a sense of immortality of their own through social media. I don’t think that’s a bad thing?
Additionally, what is the process of displaying and removing your work? How long, on average, does each piece get before being taken down?
Well, I do the installing/displaying, and the MAN does the removing. How long a piece remains up varies greatly, which typically depends on where it is installed and who is responsible (plus how vigilant they are) for maintaining the space where the piece is located. There are some pieces around the borough and surrounding areas, however, that have not been removed — yet — and have remained up for years now. I love walking or driving by and seeing them. Go check ‘em out!
King’s work can be seen archived on his Instagram, Cassius.k1ng.
Justin Bifolco is a sixth-year English Major with a minor in Journalism. JB933932@wcupa.edu