BURNS: So when you stopped going to school … were these both West Seattle schools?
GRAHAM: Nova was in the Central District. But yeah I was still in West Seattle.
BURNS: Were your parents already separated at this time?
GRAHAM: Oh yeah. They were separated right around the time I was born.
BURNS: And you were living with your mom. What did she think about your decision to quit school?
GRAHAM: She was very upset with it. I remember to console her I got a GED. And it was hilarious. It was such a bad test. I always joke that the way to pass a GED test is to show up. I was really paranoid about it, and then I showed up and it was the worst answers. There was no way you couldn’t … “Which hand is your left hand?” I mean obviously not that, but it was really bad.
BURNS: Did you start working right away?
GRAHAM: I had a dry cleaning delivery job for a while, but I’ve never really had, I mean I’ve had a ton of jobs, but I never hold anything for very long. I just had this idea I was going to draw comic books always, and “Yeah, I’m going to live off my art.” The first place I moved to after moving out of my mom’s place … an ex-girlfriend of mine’s mom had a room for rent, and I moved there and my rent was 100 dollars a month. I just had to figure out some way to get 100 dollars a month together through art jobs. I remember I would just mainly do art jobs for this hair salon. I remember I lived in the hair salon, years later, when I was 24 or 25, for two weeks and redid their entire store and did a window display: this huge amount of work. The kind of work I wouldn’t do for like less than 15 grand or something like that. I did it for 100 dollars. And I had enough money to buy one burrito every day.
BURNS: (Laughs.) You lived off one burrito?
GRAHAM: Yeah it was these giant things called veggie Nolasco at a place called Mama’s. Have you ever been there?
BURNS: Oh yeah.
GRAHAM: There’s still a tag on one of the seats that I did when I was younger.
BURNS: Did leaving school allow you to progress more rapidly as an artist?
GRAHAM: I think it was really good to have that time to be alone. I did a lot of work I was proud of early on, but I feel like the stuff that I’m really proud of happened when I was much older. It took me a long time. I know a lot of artists now who are 22 and 24 and they’re doing a lot of work which is just completely amazing, but I feel like I had a lot to learn still. But it really did solidify my feelings about art.
BURNS: I read something where you said that Ludroe, when you decided to get into graffiti, was really adamant about earning a spot and learning about the art form. How did you earn your spot and get your education on the history of graffiti?
GRAHAM: It was really cool. We were in this kind of graffiti group thing, which was kind of half-assed. I always identified as a comic artist so it was always, “No, I don’t really do graffiti I do comics.” But there was no comic book scene for me to get involved in, and all of my friends were doing graffiti, so I kind of fell in with that. It was mostly Ludroe saying, “You have to read up on all this stuff.” Aside from knowing the history, I had to read books that he didn’t even have copies of. He just had photo-copies. “You have to learn about the actual history of New York hip hop and you have to know where it’s coming from. You have to understand.” There was this book called Bomb the Suburbs. Are you familiar with that at all?
GRAHAM: It was a book by William Upski Wimsatt, and it had the rules of graffiti in it. It has stuff in it like, “First rule: You’re shit until further notice.” Graffiti is such a cocky dude environment. Like a pissing contest.
BURNS: A lot of machismo.
GRAHAM: Yeah, but at the same time, Ludroe was raised by lesbians and really well adjusted, and really just not out to prove his machismo. So he was just like, “This is a culture you have to respect.” He’s just this vegetarian guy that’s only into doing things he’s proud of. I admire that a lot. I aspire to that.
BURNS: So what is the connection between hip-hop and graffiti in New York? That’s where it started, New York?
GRAHAM: Yeah. Another thing I meant to say about Ludroe is that he was really into the idea that was circulating among his group of friends that if you’re going to call yourself hip-hop, that has to be your life. He break danced. He did graffiti. He believed you had to do a certain amount of these elements of hip-hop to do it, to live it. It’s not just being a tourist. And in that sense … I never claimed that it was my life because I held Ludroe in such high regard for doing all those things. I never got good at break dancing. I can’t rap (laughter). But early on, to answer your question, late ’70s, early ’80s, all this exciting stuff was going on in New York where you had an environment where people where doing all kinds of things. Graffiti was one of the big things. They were all separate, but I think they all happened in the same rooms around the same people, and there was really an idea back then: guys who are famous break dancers and famous graffiti writers, a lot of them could do all the stuff. Like Futura 2000 has a rap album, or KRS-One does graffiti. It’s also one of those things that’s different to think about, when you’re reading about it in books and everything, because it’s like having a bible, you’re just looking back at something totally glorified. There’s no like, “Maybe this guy was an asshole.” It’s more just you have these high standards to live up to. A friend of mine used to always say it’s like dropping a rock in a pond. He would say, “New York, where the stone dropped, right now maybe there’s nothing happening there. But the ripple is out in Argentina.”
BURNS: That’s an interesting way of looking at it.
GRAHAM: I’ve been really interested in the way manga’s moving like that. Someone sent me Mexican manga. It made me think about what’s going to happen in 15 years when there’s a guy who’s the premier Mexican manga guy. It’s really exciting.
BURNS: When you’re on the street making graffiti art, why are you out there? Why are you out there to do that? There’s a ton of reasons why you’re doing comics, you know, maybe you just want to get published, maybe you just really love it, maybe you want to get syndicated, but why graffiti?
GRAHAM: A lot of things are about community. Comic books … there’s certain aspects of it that are call and response, but a lot of it, for me, is personal whereas with graffiti I was really involved in a community. A lot of it was just being a part of that. Doing art where you’re reacting with your environment is really exciting. Drawing a picture and reacting … the same way I react to the stuff I’m drawing in my books … you see a billboard that says something stupid on it, so you can do graffiti on the billboard making fun of it. You can cross it out. You can draw penises. I remember one time me and Ludroe were walking down the street in the U District, and there was a Wizards of the Coast sign. We pulled out the Wizards of the Coast sandwich board, and Ludroe drew a cartoon hand flipping you off. I remember we just sat halfway down the block and cracked up as people would walk by and see this sign flipping them off. It’s owning your environment. I remember one time Ludroe and me were in a park—and so many of my strong ideas about art now came through Ludroe and my brother and other friends—there was sky writing going on above us. This was in New York years later. The sky writing wrote “something something.com,” and Ludroe stood up, shook his fist at the sky and said, “You can write on the sky? I can write on anything!” It’s the little man, the artist … it was really kind of anti-corporate at first too, because having money shouldn’t mean you get to have your voice heard.
BURNS: So a lot of rebellion, and using your environment as a sort of straight man for your jokes.
BURNS: Can you talk about some of the places in Seattle that you hit? You mentioned the Wizards of the Coast sign. Were there any other big spots that you guys liked to go to?
GRAHAM: One of my big things was in newspaper boxes because I was very timid about graffiti when I started. I would take the Seattle Post or whatever newspaper boxes, and they have those paper ads in the bottom that are 11 by 17—exactly comic book size—and I’d take those out, flip them over and just draw pictures on the back of them. Then I’d put them back in. I remember it was the kind of thing where I could spend time. Something I learned from graffiti is being able to do art fast, and if you fucked up you had to deal with it. But I had to kind of wean myself into that where I would start doing it on paper, and if it didn’t look good I didn’t put it back in the box. I kind of saved myself that grief. The only moment when you look like you’re doing something wrong is when you’re slipping it back into the box. You’d just sit there and draw it and no one would notice. I remember I got into kind of a battle with the guy who would put the newspapers in. I didn’t have a graffiti name. I just wrote “Brandon.” There’s this famous graffiti writer in Seattle named Jaber. I remember meeting him. He was everywhere in the ’90s. I remember there was a four-story building and he painted every window in that four-story building. He once did a train, there were train yards near West Seattle, and he painted every car on a train in a different style.
BURNS: Oh my god.
GRAHAM: I remember he had like a cowboy style and one that was all done in riveted metal letters. It was really amazing stuff.
BURNS: Did he do that all in one run?
GRAHAM: No, he lived near there so he would go back every night. Years later I became friends with Jaber and he showed me this place, it was through like this meat packing plant, this place that smelled horrible. We went to the back of it, and he had spray painted really big: “Welcome to my dojo, Baby.” And he would just go back there to practice to paint and nobody saw it. I thought it was the coolest thing: this hidden place. It was on Harbor Avenue in West Seattle.
[A brief pause while drunk Portlandian girl falls on Brandon.]
BURNS: So was there a lot of secrecy about that community?
GRAHAM: Well that’s the funny thing. That’s what I was about to say. Jaber, his name was Brann, and I remember at the time there was all these things where people would be like, “The city will pay for rats. They’ll give you money if you tell someone’s real name.” And I remember asking Jaber about that, about what he did to stay anonymous, and he said, “Nobody cares. They can find us if they want to. We’re just dumb teenagers.” He started writing his own name too. It’s just this attitude: they’ll catch you if you piss them off, but really it’s not a big deal. I remember one time going home from spraying and being totally covered in paint. I was standing at a bus stop and a cop car pulled up to me. And the guy just said, “See any kids around here doing graffiti?” (Laughter.) I was just like, “No!” Then thinking, “Shit shit shit shit shit,” and he just never came back. He was fucking with me.
BURNS: I remember reading you guys fucked up a bus stop?
GRAHAM: Oh yeah. We used to do wheat pasting. Me and Ludroe would make comic books and go wheat paste them around the city. And it was back when it was illegal to do flyering. It was illegal for a while. So we’d take powdered milk and mix it thick, and it would always make this horrible paste that sticks to anything, and we went in the rain and did it so it became this super glue that stuck to everything. We put up this comic book on a bus shelter, and to get it off the guy broke the window scraping so hard.
BURNS: Other than that cop fucking with you, did you guys ever run into trouble with the police?
GRAHAM: There was lots of running, but never getting caught. I remember specifically one time painting in a parking garage, and the security guard chasing us, and me running and dropping my two-liter of root beer I was carrying and it just spinning in the street foaming up. I think that was a part of the reason for doing it too. My brother always said I only got into graffiti because I got so bored. I was done with school and I didn’t have anything else to do and it gave me some real excitement and adventure in Seattle. The scene was really exciting too. My brother was like, “You always here these people’s names!” There names were like Blur and Jaber and Khazm and Slie, and then you meet them and they’re always just dumb kids.
BURNS: Would you guys go to hip-hop shows as well?
BURNS: So part of the scene was seeing hip-hop and learning about it through participating.
GRAHAM: Yeah, and there’s a lot of crossover there too. There’s this guy named Michael Hall, or SPECS, in Seattle who’s kind of like the Seattle graffiti/hip-hop legend. He’s an MC, he does graffiti, makes his own music and everything. He does comic books too. He was a really interesting person to meet, because he was a guy I really idolized as a teenager. He’s as tall as me, super skinny tall black guy with these huge dreadlocks. He used to have them. Like Coke-can sized. I would see him around town and be like, “Holy shit!” It’s like seeing Buddha or something. Then years later I became friends with him and we just talked about Jack Kirby all day.
BURNS: Did you grow to enjoy hip-hop and rap a lot?
GRAHAM: Oh definitely. I think it relates in my work a lot. So much of my ideas about comic books, my ideas about the culture of comic books were spawned from the ideology of ’90s hip-hop and ’90s rap. KRS-One talks about how this is your culture. One idea that I’ve really lived my life by is the idea that you don’t want to base your income off your art, because if someone pulls the rug out, the company says, “We’re not paying you any more.” Then you’re dead as an artist. So you kind of want to be untouchable in that sense.
BURNS: You have some personal experience with that.
GRAHAM: Well yeah, definitely.
BURNS: Would you agree—and maybe hip-hop and rap weren’t direct influences here, maybe they were—but would you agree that your comics tend to take a more lyrical approach to dialogue?
GRAHAM: Oh, I think my dialogue’s incredibly rap influenced. Because … puns!
GRAHAM: I’m obsessed.
BURNS: Relentless punning.
GRAHAM: Yeah. I heard this song recently, it was Joell Ortiz. He said, “Will there ever be a day when they could slay me? I don’t know, fifth month, black and yellow insect, maybe.” And it’s like, holy shit: that is what I want. Shit like that is just so at the core of what I want to do. And especially, something they do in rap that really excites me, is when you hear a song and you think, “Oh, that’s cool, that’s cool.” And then you listen to it again later and you think, “That is a pun.” You didn’t need the pun to understand what they were saying, and that’s really my goal a lot of times: wordplay that is really understated. Obviously I don’t understate it all the time. But sometimes … Something I wrote that I was pretty pleased with in the past was a Multiple Warheads thing where the character Sexica is saying, “When my boyfriend became a werewolf, he changed.”
BURNS: Yeah, that’s a really good one.
GRAHAM: Not to toot my own horn, but that’s what I’m aiming for a lot of times when I’m doing the really obnoxious stuff. (Laughter.)
BURNS: What do you gain and what do you lose by being lyrical with your dialogue, and in some case your images as well?
GRAHAM: I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s really a win/lose type of thing, because I just have my interests I have to go with, you know? Sometimes I have to react to things. I was telling somebody the other day; I pay a lot of attention to rap and I pay a lot of attention to comic books. Since I only do comic books it’s kind of how I relate to things. It’s sort of cheesy when people are like, “This is like, my movie,” or “This is my mixtape,” or whatever. It’s not like that. It’s more just taking the base idea: these are people I’m influenced by, they’re artists, they do a different type of art than me, but I can still be influenced by it.
BURNS: But does it steer your storytelling in a certain way?
GRAHAM: I think so. Derek Kirk Kim once told me—it was a really cool time we got to hang out in a comic book school—I really want to convey this in the right light, but he told me, he was really positive, but he told me that when he read King City he felt like I was always trying to prove myself to the reader. He goes, “You know, sometimes they’ll dislike you. You can just tell a story.” I like the nerve of a creator saying to someone, not in a bad way, “This is what I feel about your work, and I think you’re good enough to not always have to be juggling and be like, ‘Hey guys look at me’ with the humor and the puns and everything.” I’ve tried some stuff to kind of rein it in. I want the serious stuff to read serious sometimes.