HellBent on Creating
Hellbent aka Justin Mikal Davis was born down south in REM country and lifted his name from Richard Hell. Believe it or not at my age I’ve actually seen Richard Hell at CBGB’s, so Justin intrigued me and I wondered why he picked hell for a moniker. Like I’ve stated before…art and music go hand and hand and always interchangeable.
His abstract painting that look like sliced up pieces of fun and funky wallpaper are a sort of Trompe l’oeil, (a french term meaning to deceive ones eye) something I know first hand about with my decorative finish work. His shading and 3 dimensional effects give his artwork a fresh and fun emotional feel, a contemporary collage similar to the kind of colors that Ben Eine chooses to work with. I started the conversation off with some music questions and Hellbent popped up and shined, even though he’s been working his ass off for the past year. Believe me, I’m over-editing our chat to save material to use at a later day because I think I bummed him out when I eventually told him we need to talk about his artwork.
Known for his signature jawbone, he’s almost retired that phase of his life but is happily loving this new style that he’s drawn to.
What made you come to NYC?
When I was 14 I heard Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side.” I thought what is this place, I have to go there. This was all in my head.
Really, that’s fucking cool. 14 huh?
So I move here and not even a couple of months go by and I’m walking in Soho and Lou Reed walks right by me and I’m like “holy Shit…that was fucking Lou Reed.” I was just stunned. Then about a year later I’m down in Tompkins Park and a dude gets off the bus. I look over to my homie and he’s like “that was Richard Hell.” That’s what I thought. So we tried to head him off at the pass and run around the park because he went through it but somehow we lost him.
Now was that before you actually lifted his name?
Yeah that was right before it.
So what made you pick his name?
H) Because I liked that punk kind of Ethos.. You know the whole DIY. The gallery scene was still who you knew. So I started putting my stuff on the street. Then talking to my buddy who says “that’s the best punk name ever.” So taking off from that I felt the best name I could come up with for myself was “HellBent”.
What was your first record you ever bought?
Quiet Riot’s Mental Health.
What music did you listen to growing up?
Well being from Atlanta I was into B52’s, REM, The Connells, and the whole Athens scene. This was back in the day. After that in high school it was a lot of Britt Pop, like Jams, Stone Roses, Ride.
You mean the whole Manchester Scene. Yeah I was a big fan of them also.
Yeah yeah like Blur and the Smiths. Now it’s like the Fulerton and California scene. Bands like the Orwells and Fidlar. I also jump around so I’m listening to Harry Nilson now.
Yeah that’s all cool…If its good its good. It doesn’t matter when it’s from. Being a DJ I still have over 2,000 albums and to me every cover is a piece of art. So what’s the one album cover that you remember as just banging?
The one that peeled my skull back was Van Halens 1984 with the baby angel (cherub) smoking a cigarette. I love that whole mixing of images.
Who or what made you want to become an artist?
You know when I was in third grade I moved from Houston to Portland Oregon and on the drive I saw Christo’s Yellow Umbrellas. It just happened to be on the way. That picture must have been in his mind, with these green hills, deep blue cloudless skies and then these Yellow umbrellas. It was just the coolest thing. I mean it was totally out of context but it was gorgeous.
When did you first realize that you were good at this whole new painting medium.
I guess when I was doing the carvings around town. One day I searched the Internet and there were all these postings about me and the carvings.
Wow that must have been really cool. Did you read up on yourself? Do a little digging?
Yeah yeah yeah (laughing)…oh shit. It was kind of like a validation.
If you could meet one artist living or dead who would it be ?
The Polish artist Kupka. He was a early abstract painter like Kadinsky at the turn of the Century. Because it was a real brave thing to just abandon the entire thought process of conventional art and journey out to the unknown.
What’s the first question you would ask him?
What made you think you could get away with it?
A friend of mine has a apartment right by Union Square. I was actually working on her place when you were doing the Ralph Lauren Polo Store. I remember sending her pictures down in Florida to see the progress telling her how amazing the juxtaposition of the new vibrant art and the old prewar building worked so well together. It was a great tie-in to have merchandise of yours for sale on the inside like your art and custom jackets and t-shirts. was it true all the proceeds went to The School of Visual Atrs? How did this project come about and who approached you on it?
Yeah all the proceeds from the t-shirt sales went to SVA. It was that friend of a friend story were she worked for a production company and she told me that Ralph Lauren liked my work and wanted to know if I would like to do their store front. They were super cool and said I could do anything I liked on the outside of the building. And like you said they let me put some of my art and custom jackets on the inside. They even went so far as to recreate my studio in the front display window. It was totally surreal.
Your recent massive undertaken…. The Domino Walls on Kent Ave.in Brooklyn came out Ab/Fab. The way you wanted the optical illusion of the ribbons to appear as if it were going to a disappearing horizon line and when i stopped by you were just finishing up the sides and working out the center tie in. I was thinking ” how the fuck is he going to complete this,usually you start from the center and work out HellBent!!”I dont think you could have come up with a better resolution for your mid point. How did you come up with the concept and how long did that take from start to finish?
(Laughing) thank you. That wall was 500 ft.long and it took like 15 days.I mean it took a couple of minutes to get there. I had a couple of sketches of what I wanted to do i mean that wall was massive. But yeah at the start I wasn’t quite sure of what I wanted to do with the middle. I started playing around after the sides were done but the sketch was a lot looser. But when you see the space and step back up the street a little,you see the skyline and the sunset. So I took all those factors and put them in a ball and played out.
Whats the one thing that you hate the most about the art market?
The whole money aspect. It makes me feel weird. I mean obviously I want to sell my paintings and feed my family. But you also have to “Dance the Dance” and ” sing for your food”
What artist do you like that are contemporaries of yours that you see their work and say “Fucking Amazing”? And this question isn’t dissing anyone else.
Augustine Kofie is fucking hands down bad ass. And these two Eastern Europeans,Pener and Nawer. Their abstract stuff is just amazing and I keep an eye on what their doing.
Are you an night owl or a early bird as far as creating goes?
Formally I was a night owl but now that I have a daughter I’m definitely an early Bird. I get up 7 – 7:30 and work a full day in the studio. It’s a better regiment and I actually get more done… The structure is good for me.
I love the idea of the new show curated by your buddies and now mine Icy and Sot called ” NYC to Tehran / Tehran to NYC” How psyched were you to be included in that show?
Fucking so psyched,it’s one of the most amazing shows. I was talking to a friend of mine and telling him ” oh yeah by the way I’m in a show in Tehran right now” I mean just to say that is awesome. I’m drawn to a lot of art outside are country because it just seams so fresh to me. So when Icy and Sot approached me I was completely honored and the gallery that were showing at is the oldest running gallery in Iran. When I started painting the piece it was a little bit after what happened to Icy and Sot and the death of their friends in the band. I put on their EP and was playing it…
The Yellow Dogs right?
Yeah yeah the Yellow Dogs, so I was playing “In the City” as I was making the piece and that’s what I named it. It’s kind of a homage to their friends who passed away. So to have this piece go back to Tehran so their friends could see it ….I get a little Jazzed about that. So yeah I was super hyped about that piece and the show.
So lets talk about your new show coming up on June 26 at C24gallery. You still have some song titles as titles of your paintings like this one “Marquee Moon” probably one of my favorite all time songs by the legendary NYC punk band Television. Then another classic title is “This must be the place” by Talking Heads. So everything at this show is the Mix Tape 2?
Yeah and a few Demos. (the demos are produced by using all of the used tape, hence the name mixed tape that Justine will use to mask off the different areas to be sprayed. Afterwards he will hang them to dry and with the overspray on them, use them to create new pieces of art)
And these are large pieces right?
Yeah larger than I’ve usually shown. They were fun to work on but daunting and more difficult. I’m actually going to start working on a new incarnation of the demos by making bigger pieces out of smaller pieces because the response of the Demos has been so positive. I’ll be playing with different angles and dimensions that just kind of happen and looking forward to working on that work for the rest of the year. So as I’m making the painting I’m also making the demo’s so when I get bored with one I can work on the other one.
Oh yeah I do that to… It’s called ADD!!
(Laughing) yeah exactly… I don’t want to do that, I want to do this. And then when I’m bored with this I can do that again. And as you can see I’m a big fan of reusing trash in order to make something new out of it.
Finally Justin whats the one question that never gets asked of you in a interview and you wish it did?
Uhm…just ask about all of the things outside of the work, everything that needs to get done before the art actually gets done. You know everyone looks at the pretty picture…. But they don’t see the “Hell thats bent” to make it.
So that’s the “Past,Present and Future” of Hellbent. With a little music thrown in.
A lot of music…
On that note(i love using that) I would like to thank Justin Aka HellBent for being a great return to my serve. Like I said before I’ll have to print the whole bloody interview down the road for the musical sense alone…fuck the art part. Observe or Create. Peace.
Ken Caruso is the ANTI Society’s in-house street art and photography expert. He is a decorative artist and owner and operator of Alternative Interiors in New Jersey as well as an avid collector and graffiti hunter. He also has his own radio show on Friday nights “Live…Without a net” on chestnutradio.com. Follow him on Instagram @djkcaruso.