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Cali Thornhill-DeWitt is an artist born, raised, and living in Los Angeles. Taking inspiration from the tragedy of American culture; voyeurism, stardom, war (read: pop), his works deal with and question these values (think: motivational posters calling to ‘build more prisons’). Cali’s mission is not a political one, yet the accessibility of his imagery makes it hard to turn a blind eye to the obvious issues he likes to reference – a smiling eye, however.
As a likely substitute for attending school, Cali got involved with the LA music scene at a young age. Feeding that passion, today it manifests in regular collaborations with musicians from the likes of Antwon, Lil Ugly Mane, Hunx and his Punx, and even Faith No More, all for which Cali has either directed and shot videos, or created cover art.
We caught up with Cali in Berlin, one day after a special one-off presentation hosted by 032c. Showcased here was Cali’s Memorial series, a compliation of traditional gang jumpers – instead of members’ names boasting those of Cali’s favourite dead celebrities.
Your work features a lot of typography, which made me wonder whether you had some kind of graffiti background?
Barely. Like, not even worth mentioning. Like, graffiti in like ’89 and ’90, and not really like, going all the way with it. Someone actually, like 8 years ago said to me, I know you from graffiti. And I thought that was so weird, cos I don’t even think about graffiti. So, not really.
What do you think of street art?
Street art is a shitty word, and name. But I like vandalism, and I like gang graffiti, you know? But like street art, I don’t even care.
What’s your background, could you tell me a bit of where you come from – what made you start doing what you are doing now?
I grew up in LA, always had some kind of creative impulse. Grew up going to punk and hardcore shows. That’s probably where I learned the most of what I learned. Like, there are core-beliefs or whatever, or how I deal with the world. And in the last like 10 years I was working a lot with other people, working on my own stuff, but mostly working with other people, trying to help. Slowly, it just turned into working on myself.
Other people, that’s musicians mostly?
Musicians, who are also more like artists. Underground. Like nurturing the LA and world underground community, doing my part, you know. So, that stuff just happens naturally. I said I wasn’t gonna make a video this year, cos I don’t really wanna be a video-maker, and they’re too time-consuming. But then this new band from Baltimore, called Odwalla88, who I love, asked me to make a video. So I made a video with them three days before I came to Copenhagen. Because I can’t help it. To me they’re so good, so it’s an honour to make the video with them.
I believe art is compulsive anyway. A desire you cannot switch off.
You have to do it somehow. And it just changed, maybe, over time for me, that I became more and more focused on what I’m doing now. But I’m happy I’m doing it now – I would have been too much of a mess. You know, I did stuff, but I didn’t commit as much as I do now, for a long time. I would let other things get in the way, which weren’t as important, like, putting out a friend’s record or something.
Did you go through any form of formal education?
No. I stopped going to school when I was sixteen. I don’t even know about art school. I visit my friends at art school now, and I can’t believe it. There’s like a fucking naked guy, everybody’s having fun, they’re drinking. It’s weird. Maybe I would have gone now, I don’t know. I still would have failed and not shown up.
What made you drop out?
Just didn’t like it, didn’t see a reason to keep going.
What came next?
Then I was working for free at this all-ages place called Jabberjaw in LA. That was kind of a creative and art space that appealed to me cos every single person there was a full freak, and I was the youngest one, I was like seventeen. But there was like 55 year olds hanging out there, everything. And it wasn’t as violent as the punk thing was in LA. It was more weird, and intellectual, alt, ethno. I mean I got a lot of education there. I also smoked crack there for the first time, so I got all kinds of education. Some positive, some negative.
I see in your pictures a kind of cynicism, or maybe, a knowing acceptance of the ridiculousness of our world. A caricature?
A lot of it is unintentionally political. Not like, I’m gonna make a political statement. I do like doing that kinda stuff that makes fun of the obvious, and then make a lot of it out of garbage. Like plastic, industrial material, that is archival because you can’t destroy it without fire. It all inter-connects to me as something that I like looking at, but also makes me laugh.
Kanye and Kim.
Yeah, I made a flag about that. Cos it was on the front page of every newspaper. Like, who fucking cares?
Given that, what does American culture mean to you?
The main stream of American culture is just a joke to me. It’s worthy of pointing out, and making fun of, and laughing at. Because it’s just like, celebrity obsessed, empty, stupid. You know.
An obsession with emptiness.
I mean, I don’t know. I don’t get it, why you would be so obsessed with someone you don’t know?
Do you believe in art as a way for you to explore such questions?
Yeah, for sure. A way to deal. And it’s a way to communicate about it, it’s a way to meet you, a way to meet Lukas [Gansterer, our photographer]. For me it’s all communication, and to be able to come to Berlin, or Copenhagen, and all that. It’s a way to extend my family. Cos that’s what still matters to me, to still have a community throughout the world, that you like, and can laugh with, and share cigarettes with.
Curiously the images you create, maybe an odd comparison, but I could imagine finding them on Tumblr. They’re kind of web arty. Then again, you’re not really involved with the internet, but work and appear more physically. Is that a coincidence?
I take photographs everyday, but my favourite photographs are on Google. So, I would rather work with a military photograph of a mustard cloud, for that kinda work that I’m doing, than some picture I took. I started to think about the internet, and other people have said this before, but it’s just a tool. It’s like another pen. And a tool for research. I like the physical object, I wanna go places, and do things physically, not on the computer. I mean I am on the computer as much as the average person, and I try not to be. But I’m tied to it. Like I’m constantly fucking looking to see if I have Wi-Fi in Berlin, to do what? So I can check my emails? It doesn’t really matter. But I’m like anyone else, I get wrapped up in this whole thing.
There is a romanticism in that as well.
Exactly. And the internet is giving everyone a voice, and what is everyone doing with their voice? Nothing. We’re talking about millions of people whose biggest contribution is maybe a comment on TMZ. You know, calling Kim Kardashian fat.
An up-voted comment, however.
Yeah. But, of course, there are people doing great things with that power. And there always will be, like there’s gonna be a positive and negative. Yet, I stopped reading comments threads on news items, cos it was depressing me. Like human light stories in the LA Times.
I appreciate how ridiculous those comments are.
Sometimes it’s funny. Sometimes it’s sad, and embarrassing. I mean, what does Europe think of America?
Like you don’t know.
I know, but I’d like to hear it. I mean it must be funny, a lot of it is pretty funny. There’s parts in American culture that you guys like and that we agree on but …
But you choose to live there?
I love it there. I mean I grew up there, I was a kid there. I’ve almost always lived in LA, I love LA. But LA is not like – at least my part of LA – is not representative of the USA. There are a few big cities and then you just got a lot of confusion and isolation. And pride in something. I don’t know what, some weird fucked up thing.
Would you consider the internet a threat to youth culture?
Maybe. I mean anything throughout history is probably some kinda threat to youth culture. Right?
A threat is so far, that there is nothing left to inspire the creation of a youth culture.
Yeah, but minds being raised on it are gonna find their inspiration in places that we didn’t. You know? Something new will come out of everything I think. I don’t think anything is all negative, any cultural thing like that is all negative. There’s gotta be something good that comes out of it. And I mean really a small percentage of ‘good’.
And if not, it’s destined to destroy itself.
Soon, whatever, I mean we’ll just have some new technology; of which people ten years younger will say “is this gonna destroy youth culture?”.
Do you believe things of the irl are more meaningful – and powerful?
They are for me. I would rather touch something and look at it. But there is a reality to what’s on the computer too. It exists in some form. But I would always rather touch something, that’s why my house is so fucking messy. I own too much stuff.
Are you a collector?
Not really, but anyone else would say I was. I’m an acquirer who’s trying to get rid of stuff. But then I’m sentimental about a lot of it, so it’s hard.
What does it mean to you to live in LA?
It’s warm. It’s cheap. I love hispanic people. I love their food. I love the beach. I used to love their cars, they don’t really have cool cars anymore. You know cos cholos, old cholos, who used to dress really good and have cool cars, they get outta jail, and wanna be like the new fifteen year old cholos. Which is like shaved head, basketball shorts, and like, a Toyota. I don’t know. It’s not as cool; it’s lost a little bit of that style. But I mean LA is just my home, it feels like my home.
America is absurd to me in a lot of ways. Do you enjoy that, or is it frightening?
At times it can be frightening, but I like to look at absurdity. I have always felt like this is absurd, and that is absurd and …
Is it therapeutic to face and embrace these things?
It’s definitely better not to ignore it. I think it’s funny. You know, and I think it’s inspiring. Something about it is inspiring and makes me want to do things that are so obvious to me, that will some of those people feel bad, or unhappy. You know? Cos they should.
Do you want to piss people off?
Sure, some. If you get pissed off by something I make, you deserve to be pissed off. If I don’t like something I just don’t deal with it. People who don’t like things and then are all about dealing with that, what are they doing? Usually nothing.
As we get back to your work – I was wondering why you’ve chosen to use jumpers as a medium in your Memorial series?
Those are gang sweatshirts, just like they were made in the eighties. Same font, same materials, made ’em at the same place, the swap meets in LA. This is a thing I grew up seeing and liking. If this person from this neighbourhood died, other people in the neighbourhood would get the sweatshirt and wear it. Driving one day, I thought I should go and make 20 of those! So I made a list, and it was like John Crawford, Harpo Marx, Marlene Dietrich, you know. I went to every swap meet, they were all gone. They couldn’t make ’em anymore, and if they did, they made ’em in a new way that was ugly. All I wanted was to make those 20, and it became an obsession to make ’em the proper way. After a few months, I found the place, I started doing it myself. I bought a heat press, bought the letters. Just now I’m kinda sick of doing it. But I can imagine doing it if someone who I really love died, someone who I admired died. It’s one of those things that people really liked, and I said well I could sell them or not, and I chose not to. I’d rather only have them with friends, or trade with people who I like, stuff like that. I could make like 200 2Pac ones but then I’d be lame. 200 people wearing 2Pac ones. I’d have lots of money for lunch and coffee for the next few months but …
Are they all unique?
I made one edition, and the rest are unique.
You made a variation for Lil Ugly Mane’s ‘On Doing An Evil Deed Blues’ album cover art – how did that come about?
That’s just cos I like Lil Ugly Mane, and I met him.. We were in Texas together. He played and we were staying at the same house. And I’m friends with the guy who does his label. So that is a different thing, cos it’s someone who is current and, I think, vital. So of course I would want to make him something.
To me it stands out of the concept. Same jumper and font, yet not a Memorial.
It actually doesn’t have to deal with death. There is no rule on it. It started as death but … if I wanna make one I’ll make it no matter what it is. Though I don’t always wanna make ’em these days.
What’s next for you?
I have no series planned. We’ll see. I mean I plan, but not like … I don’t really wanna do those for a while. You know. And I don’t show people what I make anymore. It just seems easy, and I don’t want that to be so easy. And you know, other people have like, taken inspiration from those and made their versions, and it’s like, let them make ’em. I mean, they’re not as good. I only mean there not as good because, I’m not ego-tripping, it’s more like, I don’t connect with them. But they look very similar, so let them be on that commercial level. It’s fine.
Photo credit to Lukas Gansterer