Asad 'Ultra' Walker: Quiet Walks in Dangerous Places
When I met with Asad Walker at The Fridge for this interview Edwin Merino and Emma Fisher had already started the process of transforming the small back room into The Mini Fridge, an art gallery, in preparation for the double opening on Saturday October 6th. Asad ULTRA Walker is a big man, he wears only black and works security along the U Street corridor. Over his life he has had a couple run-ins with the law, spent 5 years in Lorton prison, fathered six children and has done all this in complete sobriety. These, among other things, are what makes Asad, his perspective and his art all that more fascinating.
Most people reading this are sitting at their desk -- sometime between the hours of 9 to 5pm. When they get off work today they will most likely join their peers at happy hour – because that is what Washingtonians do. BUT not Asad ULTRA Walker. He is a Washingtonian, he is an East Coaster, he does not have a desk job nor does he partake in happy hours. His muses over those he sees around him – the Washingtonians that don’t fit the ‘Washingtonian’ stereotype.
Ally Behnke: The title of the show is 'Quiet Walks In Dangerous Places' What is the inspiration for the title and what inspiration are you pulling from for this particular exhibition?
Asad ULTRA Walker: The whole idea of the title I have had in my head for a while – it is that as a graffiti artist you are out on the street at 4 in the morning – I’ve been out on a DC street at 4 in the morning and seen a deer walking down the middle of the street – you know graffiti artists see crazy stuff in these crazy places at these crazy times that. We, graffiti artists, go there. We see things that everyday people don’t get to see.
We go into old abandoned buildings and into old train yards and down the street at 4 in the morning, 5 in the morning when most people are in bed -- it’s a different world. It’s a different way of looking at things.
With the show I wanted to show who I see around me and portray them on canvas - just the normal people, the everyday people, the DC people that I see around me in the weird way that I look at things. I wanted to portray them on canvas in the hopes that other people will think that it is beautiful.
AB: Tell me about these normal everyday people that are going to be in the show:
ULTRA: Just normal everyday people – no one really famous – I didn’t think of doing anyone famous till HR contacted me as did Disco Dan. Lots of people on Facebook liked HR –Bad Brains – when his band was performing - that was the era when I was a teen and running around. It was about the same time they moved to NYC that I moved up there for sometime. His people suggested I paint him -- I was like yes! I didn’t have to think twice. I painted HR the Bad Brains guy and its going to be in the show.
Usually I will see an image in my head of somebody doing something or doing a pose. I then will sit down with them and we will get that pose down and that is what I’ll paint. For example with Edwin – I had an idea of him posing with a can of paint and so I sat down with him and we got the pose down. It should be a really dope painting when I’m done with it.
Asad’s 6 kids range in age form 6 years old to 26 years old. Three boys and three girls, his 10-year-old daughter Mia is currently the Jr. Mayor of Gaithersburg. Asad has been doing graffiti for 30 years and teaches art to troubled youth and works to build community here in DC and, more recently, in Gathersburg, MD where he lives and some of his kids attend school.
ULTRA: I’ve never drank a drop of alcohol in my life – I’ve never drank a beer. I was raised by my uncle who was an alcoholic – I spent a lot of my life doing everything the opposite of what he did. I have never smoked, never drank a drop, I don’t eat pork. When they do those Four Loco drinking party – after about 5 minutes I’m like “Peace out guys. Have a good night.”
Its such a hypocrisy… we have this uptight society and we drink to get loose. Many graffiti artists drink to go do graffiti – to have a can of paint and go paint on the street it is very stressful – to go out there and paint on the street sober is such a rush.
When he was younger Asad was really immersed in street life in DC -- running around the streets homeless – getting in trouble - doing whatever it took to get by and still have fun. This lifestyle led him to getting locked up and he spent five years in Lorton prison.
ULTRA: When I came home from prison I rededicated everything that I did more towards my family and being more aware where things end up. I started teaching. I wanted to teach more about art and my experience in life and opportunities opened up to teaching in DC jail and gang kids – lots of kids that are ‘at risk.’
They are a little more open minded towards him because he has street credit. He has a DCDC number (the DC Department of Corrections gives out numbers to people who go through their systems and you keep it your whole life.) The kids in the system have an understood respect him because of it. He has impacted lives of youth by showing them that there are more important things than their shoes and appearing tough.
ULTRA: For me a big message I try to get across is that a lot of these kids have a prejudice that certain things are art, certain things are good and creative -- then they look at their own art and graffiti or whatever and they ‘know’ that isn’t accepted by society and they kind of look down on it. I try to show them that it is creative, it is positive and they are creating something beautiful. Maybe not all of society is open to that yet – but it is becoming a lot more open. I teach that they should keep pushing, keep striving and keep doing what they are doing. I show them from the beginning where graffiti and street art was in society and where it is now and where it will be in the future. I show them the progression and where they can be a part of that progression so they will say, ‘ok, I’ll keep drawing’ rather than look down disapprovingly at what they are doing.
The thing that is so special about the opening this Saturday October 6th is that it is Asad’s first solo show – he has done dozens of group gallery exhibits over the years – like the one in 2011 to raise money for Japanese tsunami survivors at the Lamont Bishop Gallery where he painted Ultra Man. But this show 'Quiet Walks in Dangerous Places' will be his first solo gallery show.
AB: You have been doing art for 30 years, how does it feel to have your first gallery show?
ULTRA: It’s cool. I’m a perfectionist – so it’s a pressure thing – I want it to be perfect. But seriously I am a perfectionist and I’ve always wanted to do a show, BUT I have wanted to do it the way I wanted to do it, and hopefully this is that. I am learning a lot. I’ve always been a street graffiti kind of guy -- it’s a different kind of rulebook. A different kind of playbook that you have to go by – so I am learning a lot.
When I work with the kids I try to push them towards the good of being an artist. What’s the good of creating all this stuff if you can’t make a living at it? I ask myself 'Why am I pushing these kids to be an artist if we artists can’t exhibit and sell a painting?' So here I am pushing to practice what I preach. I’ve been in a lot of group shows - a billion group street art shows - and I’ve sold a lot of stuff that way – but this is the first time it’s me in a gallery and I’m working with the gallery staff and gallery owner to do a show.
I’m hoping before I bring my show to The Fridge that I can bring my work by the youth center where I work. And get the kids to see some of the stuff – I’ve shown them slides and we have painted together – but they have never seen my completed work in person on a canvas.
AB: Tell me about your street art film screenings.
ULTRA: I’ve hosted one other film screening myself and I have worked with other people who have done film screenings. I have sat on panels and talked about the movies.
I love movies. I love art. So I love art movies. I met Alex Goldstein (Owner at The Fridge) at a Word Beats and Life event in 2009 when they were screening BORF the film. Alex was with DECOY who I already knew and now I’m having my first solo show in his gallery. BORF is a good movie. I don’t believe it has been shown since that day here in D.C. We are going to see if we can have the director, Paris Bustillo, come down and talk about the film at the screening.
AB: What are the three films are you going to show?
ULTRA: BORF, and I’m still deciding on the other two.
Style Wars, people have asked me to show. It is an old graffiti documentary that was on PBS in the early 80’s – it seems like a lot of people have seen it – but everyone is like ‘Oh you have got to show Style Wars’
Stations of the Elevated – is a film that is super hard to find – and I have it. It is from before Style Wars, so if I show this movie then I won’t be showing ‘Style Wars.’ Stations of the Elevated is very rare-- if you go on You Tube you can only find 20 minutes of it.
Asad told me about other documentaries that he is involved with:
I’m in the ‘Cool Disco Dan’ documentary coming out in Feb 2013 -- and I’m in the ‘Chocolate City Burning’ for a hot second.
But for the three films that will be screened on October 21st he has not made his final decision.
AB: What do you think of the documentary ‘Bomb It’? It’s one of my favorites.
ULTRA: ‘Bomb It’ is a great movie – I have seen it so many times that, to me, it is an older movie. It raises so many good questions about public space. It is one of the movies that goes deep into the question of what is the significance of graffiti is and why people do it. It is really good for that reason. I have shown this movie last year, and I have attended a bunch of screenings of it. For anyone who hasn’t seen this movie I definitely recommend it – by the end of the movie you will be asking questions.
AB: What is your next step after this show?
ULTRA: Haha. I have started thinking about doing another show – A couple of out of town galleries have contacted me about doing a show out of town.
I have also thought about helping Edwin put together a group show for The Fridge –graffiti artist – get canvases and screen print them like the stickers for “Hello my name is” and everyone will do their own interpretation of that sticker.
Also, something else that I have been looking to do more of is being involved with my community. I actually live in Gathersburg, MD – I have been teaching a lot down here in DC BUT I live in Gathersburg – I have been thinking about volunteering my services to the school principal to try to help around where I live...I feel that everybody should try to help the community they live in. It is something that has been gnawing at me the past few years and so I really want to do something more.
AB: What do you want people to get out of your show?
ULTRA: I painted street people. Nobody that I painted is a model. I have met them all some where on the street. I try to paint the people that are around me. I wanted to convey the idea that the school of art that I come from, graffiti, can create works of art. Basically graffiti as a school of art is a contemporary way of looking at things and saying things.
It is art and hopefully people will find it beautiful and want to buy it or at least want to come and see it and see the beauty that I see in the everyday people that I know.
Short URL: http://bit.ly/QueVNt