In Conversation with Hiram by Stephanye Watts
I’ve been obsessed with concepts of lineage within the African diaspora ever since I read J. California Cooper’s iconic novel Family as a child. We learn so much about Blacks in the US, Caribbean, and Europe, but Central and South America are often criminally forgotten. Like many of us, scouring the internet for black millennial creatives around the world has become my new favorite pastime. After watching Henry Louis Gates’ “Black in Latin America,” I became especially interested in connecting with artists and creatives from that region and living in New York definitely helps me make those connections with ease. Earlier this year, I had the chance to meet Hiram, a native of Mexico, now living in Harlem. I visited him in his studio to discuss Afro-Latin identity, Mexico’s longstanding relationship with street art, and the process of self-discovery.
Stephanye Watts: When you see a Mickalene Thomas piece, you know it’s Mickalene. When you look at a Swoon, you know it’s a Swoon. I can recognize your work in a crowd now also. How did you develop your style?
Hiram: Like any artist my age, I grew up with graffiti and was obsessed with my signature. I really craved having my own identity. For a long time, I copied other people and slowly started taking things and making them my own and learning how to be myself. It took a long time. I feel like my style is a constantly evolving, never ending process where I’m just trying to figure out me.
SW: As you mature, does your work mature? Or does your work mature you?
H: Both. You can’t have one without the other.
SW: Has your creative process changed since leaving Cali for New York?
H: Probably not my creative process, but I definitely find myself easily inspired here. I used to believe the Chuck Close quote, “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.” But here, I’m definitely inspired. I don’t need to go to the studio and be like “fuuuuuck, I need to work. I’m so annoyed. Let me just do this thing and get to it.” Here, I’m stoked and ready to work. I’m inspired all of the time. I love the buildings. I love the chaos. I love how dirty it is.
SW: There are three recurring motifs, I’ve noticed in your work: bones, cactus, and hearts. What is the significance of these three symbols?
H: The bones and the cactus are slightly related to Mexican symbolism. For example, the cactus, I’ve been putting it everywhere to represent something I’ve been fighting. It’s about being unable to hide what you are, but at the same time, fighting it. It’s something that comes out and you’re painfully hiding it. With the bones , I’m trying to create an identity without really putting my face there. Skulls and skeletons are ingrained in my culture. You can see them in so many different parts of the culture from Dias la Muertos to the saints. I also feel like death is perceived differently than it is in other countries, especially in the West. The hearts, I just like the hearts. There’s nothing behind them. They’re just cute. I don’t feel like I have to explain everything. I like to leave some things open for interpretation and the heart is one of those.
SW: What have discovered about yourself as you’ve been working on this series?
H: I’ve always been so proud of my upbringing but, when I really think about it, I wasn’t as proud as I wanted to be as a Mexican once I moved here as a 16 year old. I was having this constant battle of wanting to learn English because I wanted to be able to communicate with people. I forced myself to let go of things that I used to do. As soon as I moved to the US, I wanted to play “American” sports. I stopped playing soccer. It’s funny that I just called it soccer. I stopped and started playing American football. Then I did wrestling, which is like the whitest, most American sport.
Another really interesting thing that I’m talking about in [this self portrait] is how ambiguous I look. I’m painting myself so much darker than I actually am. There are different, lighter versions but the center portrait is maybe who I want to be, who is inside of me, how I see myself. Even though I’m so light, there is no way someone is going to see me and be like “oh, look at that white guy over there!” It’s definitely created a weird perspective, especially here in the US where no one knows what I am, but knows that I’m some type of black.
SW: How then do you deal with identity? In April, Weeksville Heritage Center organized a photography exhibition called “Home/Belonging” that featured portraits of first or second generation people currently living in New York and was accompanied by textual responses sharing their definitions of home. You’re Mexican. You’re Black. You weren’t born here, so you can also be called an immigrant. What is home to you and where do you feel you belong?
H: I consider Mexico a home that I’ll probably never go back to permanently. I haven’t been back since I’ve moved here and I’m almost scared of going back. I’m scared of it not being what I remember.
SW: Not being home anymore.
H: Exactly! I was born and raised in a bigger city where it was safe, a lot of good things going on. But my mom is from a city that’s like the epicenter of druglord culture. I was exposed to weird shit that a lot of people don’t get to see. I’m scared to go back to what I saw as my home, my city that I saw as safe and beautiful and then, finding something else.
SW: When did you begin to use wheatpasting as a technique ?
H: I started wheatpasting because I love public art. I was raised in a country where public art is everywhere. If you think about the biggest Mexican artists, they’re all muralists. They all did paintings that are almost owned by no one, but owned by everyone. I’ve always craved that. What I love about graffiti is that it has a lifetime. It’s not there forever. It could be there for a second. It could be there for a year if you’re lucky. I really appreciate that. It almost gives more meaning to the paintings because they have a set period that they will be alive. They became more humanlike.
SW: Coming from Mexico where there’s tons of public art to America where up until recently, graffiti as a valuable form of public art was frowned upon. What do you make of this?
H: That’s the funny thing. It’s still illegal, but it’s almost like it’s appreciated depending on the artist, regardless of how good it is. I wouldn’t say that it’s a hipster thing, but the internet has definitely changed how street art works. It opened the style to so many people. A lot of the work I do is something that probably no one is going to see, so I document it and I put it on the internet. I feel like the biggest thing about our generation is that we’re obsessed with sharing. Once we put things like that out there, especially on the internet, they move on their own. That’s what happened with street art. It just became this giant beast that almost grew too fast.
SW: Your Instagram grid reads like a digital gallery of your work. How mindful are you about posting and how important is it for you to be on brand?
H: It’s a thing that has been slowly evolving. I’ve gone through many phases where I really need to take it serious and I’m going crazy about it. I have a folder in my phone with pictures backed up that are going to be posted. I take it like a business. It’s so much work and a lot of times I don’t have the patience for it, but have to because it’s necessary. I do put a lot of thought into it. I’m really picky about what goes up. Sometimes, I’m picky about the pictures I post of myself, but I’d like to think that I’m part of my art. Knowing me tells you a lot about my art and vice versa.
Learn more about Hiram's work here