Those who frequent Wicker Park and its surrounding neighborhoods have likely noticed a cartoon raccoon residing on the walls or in sticker ridden doorways. Sometimes pasted, other times painted, the character known as Richie is the brain child of the Chicago artist Ali 6. Often paying homage to his personal tastes in music and fashion, one of his most recent pieces inspired Kanye West & Chance The Rapper caught major attention on social networks and made its way into several news outlets. With a music focused piece freshly added to his portfolio and a new gallery show in progress, we felt it was the perfect time to catch up with Ali 6 for a chat.
When I meet up with Ali at Adventureland gallery he forewarns me, "I'm only going on one hour of sleep." The 22-year-old has spent the morning teaching a class of fifth grade art students, after spending all night putting up an anti-Trump (right) piece on hours before the now infamous rally was set to take place at UIC. Though he finished his work in the safety of night fall, he had to return at the crack of dawn to get a proper picture of the piece in daylight. These works tend to get taken down quickly, in what must be quite an annoying occupational hazard. After browsing the pieces that make up his 'Hands' show (see below), we sit and discuss how his love for cartoons as a kid, passion for music and streetwear and background for graffiti have all merged to make him the artist that we know today.
These Days: Can you talk with us a little about how you got started?
Ali 6: I had always been passionate about art, since I was 5. I’d see my mother draw and I was really inspired by that because I was really into cartoons. When I was sixteen years old, I was already pretty good at making cartoons, so the next level was learning about the graffiti culture. Knowing I couldn't make letters like all the rest of these people, that was the next challenge of art for me. I wanted that street cred, I wanted to be known for being an artist in that world. It was just a way for me to get my name out there in a different sense as well. It’s kinda mysterious. I mean for me, looking at Bart Simpson being El Barto was just like…that was my childhood hero basically from the cartoon aspect. So the whole graffiti thing was a major deal for me just to make sure I improved and made a name for myself. Made sure I was one of the kings of Chicago, at least for a certain time, you know?
TD: What eventually sparked the move from graffiti into street art?
A: Transitioning from graffiti to street art was a move that came with the understanding, "hey, I like graffiti, but my childhood passion of making cartoons is still there." And just knowing there was more of a positive vibe in the street art community compared the graffiti community. The graffiti community is more segregated. You have crews that want to be better than each other as well as people that want to be better than each other. Once I realized I know how to do graffiti and got the to the top levels, I accomplished what I wanted. So I got to that point and felt like that was the next step for me as far as continuing my passion of cartoons and bringing that level of light and positivity to the community.
TD: I know a lot of people who had move away from graffiti after getting in trouble with the law so times, anything like that factor into your transition?
A: Yeah, I got arrested six times. It’s a partial reason for me moving into street art as well. When I first got arrested, I was doing spray painted characters. After that, I told people on the internet to delete all my pictures off of social media. It wasn’t even that big of a deal, I just thought it was at eighteen, you know? But even after I switched over, I went out with this other street artist and I seen him putting it up, cops rolled up, and then he just made it seem like he was a runner. I was like "If dude’s going to get arrested for this, I’m going to go back to graffiti and continue my name for that rep." But yeah, getting arrested six times at the end of it, going through about six years, I did mad work. And I accomplished what I wanted to accomplish, which was being really good at typography. So, I mean, it played into a factor of going to street art, definitely.
TD: Can you talk to us about the character Richie and just how it’s evolved since you started doing it to now?
A: Yeah, Richie the Raccoon is an interesting subject for me because it’s a representation of myself as far as my interests in different cultures and different lives. The start of it was a basic raccoon. The whole thought process of it was it's a nocturnal creature, just like I go out at night and do graffiti. But also having the attributes of a mask, a striped tail, being able to stand… just things that I felt like I could put the mask on and they would still know it’s Ali 6. I could put the striped tail on something else and they would still know it’s Ali 6 because it’s part of Richie.
TD: Yeah, I think that’s one of the things that draws me to your pieces the most- just the references from both your youth and culture around that you incorporate into the piece. Like the Cam’Ron version of Richie, the flu game, the Kanye one… the list goes on, do you have favorite reference you’ve put out there?
A: I really don’t have a favorite reference. All of them are just who I am and my personal taste in culture.
TD: So will you just be listening to Kanye a bunch one weekend and then be like, “I gotta do a Kanye one?”
A: Yeah, I mean, just like when I heard “Ultralight Beam,” instantly the idea came to my head. I have to do the aardvark with the Social Experiment jacket and the Yeezy bear. I had to do that. But yeah, I get inspired by everything I’m interested in. Just like when I first started with Richie, all that guerilla movement was all just a whole bunch of Jordans.
TD: So with Richie representing you now and in the last few years, do you foresee yourself, as you change, having a different character stepping into it?
A: I mean with me changing, it still shows in the reflection of Richie. Different characters are pulled into my world just because there are times where my muse, Richie…I feel I’m bored maybe or I’m not feeling the inspiration that I need to and I want to get something that’s more creative from just a raccoon. A lot of times I honestly struggle with that thought process of, ‘he’s just an animal.’ I want him to be more than that. I want him to be a creature. Like a crazy creature that comes from an imagination rather than something that’s on this world. But the whole raccoon thing still brings it more of an organic thing that’s from this Earth.
TD: I think a lot of these pieces in the Hands show do a great job doing what you were just talking about. It’s still the raccoon, but it’s a lot more than that. There’s a lot going on with each one of these characters.
TD: You kind of touched on it a little bit earlier when you mentioned the street art community's positivity, but artists working together seems to be a commonplace within street art in Chicago. There are a lot of great murals across the city that have artists like you alongside JC Rivera next to a few other notable artists. Can you talk to us about the community and the willingness to collaborate?
A: The community’s pretty positive for the most part. Everybody gets along, everybody tries to throw ideas at each other. There’s people that don’t like each other, but that’s natural, that’s life. Everybody has their pet peeves about certain things. There’s also kind of the segregation with certain people and certain galleries because of certain people in certain ones. But at the end of the day it’s all love and nobody takes it to the more extreme level where graffiti, they would go fight each other or they would cross each other out and go crazy. But the community is arms wide open for the most part.
TD: Yeah, I think artist cliques and gallery-based cliques is something that’s decades and decades old. I was watching a documentary about artists in the 60’s, the Chicago Imagists, and even back then that seemed to be an issue. I think you’ll always have that. But now, similar to the music scene, it seems like there’s a really good crop of artists in Chicago that are coming up here right now and everyone is cool with each other for the most part. Everyone’s trying to outdo each other in a positive way, making each other better in the process and it’s pushing everything forward.
A: Yeah, I agree. I mean people, I would say, are always trying to outdo each other…I’m a competitive person so I’m always trying to outdo anybody that’s in my community, but I respect anybody who puts in work. They have a dope idea, I’m just like, ‘hell yeah. Good for you, man. Raw.’
TD: I just realized I keep referring to your work as street art - how do you receive that term? Because I know some people are like, “I'm not a street artist.”
A: I’ll say anybody who uses their art on the street. I mean, graffiti is the same shit to me. I came from graffiti, but I have that open mind more than other people for sure. In my opinion, it’s just art that’s on the street and typography is included in that.
TD: You now have work in galleries as well. What’s it like seeing your work here as opposed to out in the world on the street?
A: It’s a crazy vibe because this gallery at Adventureland made me really open my eyes to, like, people really appreciate what I do. On the streets, it’s a lot more organic. The first year when I started Richie, I didn’t want to put my art in galleries, I didn’t want to start doing paintings for money. I wanted to spread positive vibes in the community, so it was obviously marketing and advertising for myself. But, getting the response back from people, when they would DM me like, “hey, you brightened my day (this and that),” that was the whole point of it. That is the whole point of it. So that’s a cool aspect because there’s more people that are going to see my work on the streets, and I know that, that aren’t even going to know who I am. So that’s classic. From the gallery standpoint, it’s just knowing who’s appreciating your work. Also gallery standpoint is, like, me putting in hella months of time just to put an idea into place and actually see my thoughts come to life.
TD: You mentioned you were teaching some fifth graders today, has the fact that you had to teach yourself art pushed you to want to go ahead and teach younger kids?
A: It’s not that I necessarily want to be a teacher… I really, kind of, don’t. It’s fun to have a day where you see all these young prodigies all based on art. It’s really cool to spread my message and tell them where I came from and see where they’re going to take it or how they’re influenced by it. I never know, one day maybe they reach out to me like, ‘I was so and so,’ and you never know if they’re the next big thing. So that’s a cool thing about that.
TD: When did you start experimenting with different mediums? I'm noticing more and more of your pieces on wood and then I think I’ve seen pieces on windows and so on.
A: Different mediums is just a lot of inspiration from different artists I see when I go to museums. When I went to Europe recently, looking at the Picasso museum and going to different museums, I try taking as much as I can. Because I feel like limiting yourself to one material in your work is really limiting yourself as well because you’re not teaching yourself as much as you can do. That’s something I was teaching the fifth graders today. I was like, ‘hey, this is what this marker can do, but also I’m taking the effect of just a paint brush growing on top of it.’ Mixing as much as you can to a very certain style or an aesthetic or whatever type of aesthetic you want, you know. If it’s messy, it’s cool too. Art is a broad language. Nothing in creativity is a bad thing.
TD: As we wrap up, is there any medium or style you're really excited about that we could expect to see in your next batch of work?
A: I’m not really excited about any style right now, actually, I’m not going to lie. I’m having the most fun with cracking open Victoria’s Secret magazines and putting my life experiences with women with Richie, that’s really fun for me right now. Going through a couple of shows right now… I’m just trying to find my new thing. It’s nice that, for this show at Adventureland, I was able to express myself with material with fabric and I still want to use that and I still want to use laser cuts and I still want to paint and I still want to add objects on top of my work as well. But, right now, there’s nothing that I feel like is challenging me and it’s kind of pulling me back from my next gallery because I want something new. Each time I want something new. I don’t know if it’s a good thing or bad thing, but I have to find it. That’s the hard part.
Photos From Ali 6 'Hands' Show
at Adventureland Gallery