Most artists fit neatly into a certain category. Street art. Avant-garde. Typographic. Digital. Anarchist. Brand-friendly. Et cetera.
Morley is not one of those artists. A fitting recipient for all the above descriptors, Morley has engaged in everything from formal gallery openings to illegal street art installations to radio play-style podcasts.
Words are wildly important to him, but his caricature of himself on posters, gallery walls, bus shelters and billboards has perhaps become even more iconic. Morley’s witticisms – often both heartbreaking and heartening at the same time – are another element of his signature style.
While much political street art is aggressive, pessimistic and laden with symbolism, Morley’s approach is distinctly subtler. He is a humanist at heart, and perhaps a bit of a romantic – encouraging passersby to not only contemplate the gorgeous melancholy of a real person living with a dream (like with “You’re Not Just a Waitress”) but also to engage with his artwork physically (like in the case of his “If I Knew Then What I Knew Now” project.)
We had the opportunity to sit down with the artist in Los Angeles and discuss his career, inspirations and latest pieces of work.
When did you know you wanted to be an artist?
I wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. I’ve always admired anyone who can transport you somewhere or move you emotionally with words. Words have always held a power to me.
The idea of symbols that, when strung together, offer something that can shape our hearts and minds and offer solace or hope or put a fire in your blood – it’s magical really.
What was the first piece of art you ever made?
The first piece of art that I took seriously? That would be the epic horror film Crazy Psycho Lady. My best friend and I wound up making something like 12 sequels over that summer.
I guess when you’re 10, no one bothers much with explaining that the lady probably doesn’t need to be both crazy AND psycho!
How did you become a street artist?
Growing up in Iowa, I was always looking for an escape. As a kid I was dreaming of adventure and as a teenager I was always itching to reach the cities where anything could happen and the world would open up and offer a life where I’d be celebrated for my ideas.
As soon as I graduated high school, I bolted for New York City and majored in screenwriting at The School of Visual Arts. What I found in New York wasn’t so much this magical city where everything made sense. Rather, I found the same old me, but now I was in New York.
Part of coming to terms with the disappointment that I didn’t magically find comfort in my own skin and a three-picture deal with Miramax was creating stickers that I would put up around the subway. It was a chance to express myself even when no one seemed to want to listen. I started there and over time it grew to what it is today.
The primary purpose of my art is to create a relationship with the people who happen to discover it. I want people to see my words as the words of a friend they haven’t met yet. That was why it had to be me in my work. Not a logo or symbol, but a person.
How do you define street art and how has the genre evolved since you started?
I define street art as anything that was created (generally without permission) to live out its existence in public and have no other agenda beyond edifying the people who stumble over it. This can be done in any number of ways. It can be a poster pasted on a wall, a stencil sprayed, some beautiful graffiti, or even just a pair of googly eyes on a waterspout.
To me, the medium has always been so open and boundless that it can’t be boxed in with a definition that isn’t vague enough to accommodate everyone’s ideas. It’s been interesting to watch the sort of rise and fall of it being the flavor of the month for fine art collectors – but that’s less about the medium and more about the fickle nature of a trend that always had a short life span.
What was it like working on your book?
The book was important because, as I’ve started to have more of my work featured in galleries, I really wanted to be able to present the work within the context it was created for. I wanted people to remember that all my work originated in the street and was to be experienced in a public environment.
Also, it created more of a relationship between myself and someone who might like what I do. A lot of street artists want to create a sort of cool persona for themselves but, for me, I aspire to be as vulnerable and real with my work as possible. I want people to relate to what I do on a personal and emotional level and being honest with who I am is the only way to earn that privilege.
What art projects have you been most proud of?
I’m proudest of the pieces that have some kind of profound effect on people. I’ve had a number of people tell me that something I’ve made kept them from taking their life, because it was the right words at the right moment.
This creates a tremendous feeling of gratitude for me – knowing that I’ve helped in that way, but it’s important for me to remember that it’s not really ME that did it. It was God or the universe or serendipity or whatever you’d like to call it.
I can’t take much credit for that person, going through that emotion and at just the right moment stumbling over a message that they needed to read. I just paste these things up and hope for the best. I let a force much larger than myself do the rest.
Who do you admire in the field and why?
I’m a big fan of JR, Slinkachu, moncho1929, BumblebeeLovesYou, Space Invader, Miguel Marquez, Pejac and of course Banksy. Anyone in street art who says they don’t like Banksy is like a musician saying they think the Beatles suck. It takes a silly amount effort to not find the genius in what he’s created over the years.
What do you think of the current direction of the art world and market?
What I’ve noticed is that people are buying things that they feel a genuine connection to more so than what they think is a good investment. This is a refreshing change of pace because it’s a lot of pressure when someone is counting on your “stock” as an artist continuing to rise – but if someone buys your art because it makes him or her feel something, that’s a value that lasts.
What is your stance on the participatory and immersive art trends that seem to be gaining mass popularity?
I enjoy anything that allows people to play a part. Growing up, I never liked the velvet rope or the museum security guard. I wanted to go up and touch the work, feel the brush strokes, have a multifaceted interaction of the senses with the art.
To me, creating art that a person has to interact with or participate with in order for it to realize it’s potential – that’s a special experience.
How do you choose your subjects?
I don’t so much choose my subjects as open my mind and let every idea get some attention. Most people let 90 percent of their thoughts drift away like sand through your fingers – but, if you took each grain and focused on how it found its way into your mind, you can occasionally stumble on something both relatable and not yet exhaustively expressed.
Can you talk about typography and the importance of words in your art?
The text itself is vital on a visual level as well as what it communicates. I wanted my font to be original and eventually hold an iconic connection to my work. I wanted people to see my text and immediately know it was a Morley piece.
The size of the words often translate to the volume with which the message is being broadcast. Small words are a bit more of a hushed, inside voice, while big bold words are a yell.
Can you talk a little bit about your latest project?
Smirnoff reached out to me to create some artwork that was interactive and related to immigration. I wanted to try and humanize the conversation a bit. Remind people that immigrants in this country aren’t a burden, they’re people with hopes and dreams just like anyone born here.
So, I decided to create messages that were inspired by real immigrants and then allow people to go to a link and listen to them tell their story. This way they could be looking at the art and hearing the story that brought it to life.
Finding and then getting to know the people that shared their stories with me was amazing and I like to think it might give people a more humane perspective on the subject.
For more art content, check out the imagery that’s shaping the UK underground house scene.
- Words: Douglas Brundage
- Lead images: Morley