Walking the Coney Island boardwalk at the WBCQ I ran into Paulie, an artist who runs Off The Wall Graffiti, a non-profit that helps street artist creating in illegal ways find legal opportunities to express themselves. Paulie introduced me to local sports art legend Andre Trenier.
Born in the Bronx, Trenier, attended the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and, in 2004, co-founded a creative collective known for customizing high-end fashion and sneakers. Since 2014, he has regularly been commissioned to paint player murals in and around 161st street between the old and new Yankee Stadiums.
Commissioned to paint business shutters with Roberto Clemente, Satchel Paige, Mickey Mantel, Alex Rodriguez, Jackie Robinson, Joe DiMaggio and Thurman Munson, Trenier says each mural averages a day to complete. Thurman Munson was actually the fastest according to Treiner who said, at the time, he most looked forward to doing the mustache.
In a documentary filmed while he worked he said, “Sometimes when there’s a home game I’ll walk by, or just hang out by the murals and watch people’s responses to them, watch people taking selfies with them, and it feels good.”
We caught up with the artist to talk about baseball and art as he finished up another gate project across town. Fittingly, he was completing Mr. October himself, Reggie Jackson.
Yankees or Mets?
I grew up in the Bronx. I didn’t have a whole lot of choice. Growing up in NY it always felt like the Mets was Queens, which mind as well have been another state.
Any perks of the 161st Street project, first pitch at Yankee Stadium?
Not yet. Gotta work up to that. Of course I don’t want to embarrass myself by not being able to make it over the plate. I did get some great tickets through them to take my 8-year old son to our first game.
Does your son play ball?
I’ve neglected to teach my son a lot of things about sports. I realized it initially his first week of 2nd grade. He was at new school and wanted to play with the kids in the park after school. They started picking teams to play baseball. He got picked and they went out to take the field. He’s just kind of milling around with his hands in his pockets, talking to his friends. I’m like, what are you doing? You have to play a position. You gotta be ready to catch. He’s like, ‘What? I can’t catch!’ It totally terrified him. So this year we’ve gone to a Yankees game, Rangers games and a Brooklyn Nets game all within like three weeks.
Is he enjoying the experience?
He’s very athletic so he likes that side of it. Now I’m trying to make time to do more of that stuff with him. I don’t watch sports at home, so it’s all kind of vague to him. Because I paint I’ve had him out painting walls with me since he was probably like three. He knows how to spray paint and he knows all the art tools and the lingo and everything. He was one of the youngest kids to paint at Five Points when that was around. They actually gave him his own section, but sports knowledge, nothing.
How did the Reggie Jackson piece come about?
A friend of mine has an ice cream shop. Every month he has a new flavor of the month, always based around some kind of pop culture reference or celebrity. I paint the gate out front to reflect whatever the flavor is. This month’s flavor is Mr. October.
What in the Reggie Jackson piece did you like?
I remember Jackson playing. Anybody that I saw play, and was into as an individual, I like painting. I’ve been doing a lot of the players in color so that was a fun thing. I was trying to figure out if I was going to do him with the glasses so I painted him without the glasses and then added them over it. I had to tint it so you could see through the glasses. That part of it was fun. I never completely paint over what was there previously so it’s like a challenge trying to manipulate the colors that are already there, and paint in a kind of minimalistic way, to get the new one from the old.
Do you research the person behind the iconic pieces?
I do try and learn as much as I can about whomever I’m painting because I think that you should. I think that, that enhances the final piece. Plus I just like to be informed. Inevitably someone will come and ask me questions and I hate looking like I don’t know what I’m talking about when I’m painting somebody. More and more I’ve been interviewed while I’m working so I want to have something intelligent to say about the person that I’m painting.
Do you get to pick the specific age/era of the persons?
Each thing is a little different. The ice cream shop I have full creative control. He tells me what the name of the flavor is and/or who the person is and then I get to pick the image. On some occasions I’ll check with him about what he’s thinking, do a little back and forth, but most of the time I have complete control over which image I use and how I approach it.
Sometimes I choose colors based on what the flavor is going to be, and try and incorporate what I think the colors of the ice cream are going to be, into the work. Other times I try and use colors I feel convey a mood that fits with that person’s work or music or something about them.
What’s your favorite sports piece and why?
Whichever is the latest tends to be my favorite, because they each get better, but if I had to pick one or two that had kind of surpassed whichever one is newest, Thurman Munson was the one. I don’t know he just seemed like such a guy’s guy you know. He just seemed like the most admirable, like a guy you’d want to hang out with.
I remember as I was doing that piece a lot of people, even my brother, were like how hard it hit them when Munson passed. I spoke to several people that said they never were as into baseball after Munson died as they were before.
He and Roberto Clemente, in terms of my admiration for them as players. Clemente especially as a humanitarian. Those two were my favorites.
Clemente was selected by the public as a non-Yankee deserving of a spot. "He's got a special place in our hearts, in every Puerto Rican's heart," 68-year old Jose Oropeza, told South Bronx Arts & Entertainment back in 2014.
In a film made while working on the murals Treiner said, “It’s great to do somebody that has already touched people’s lives because there’s a built-in audience for it. You get to give people a way to remember them and a way to re-experience that person.
What is your dream opportunity?
One project that I’ve wanted to do, basically since the day I heard that he passed, is this giant Anthony Mason wall. He, as an individual, was always so accessible. I would run into him in random neighborhoods. Everybody I knew kind of had similar experiences with him. He always just felt like an approachable guy that was a New Yorker first. That always resonated with me so I feel like NY should have some sort of monument to this man and that’s a mural that I am looking forward to being able to do.
Do you have a particular medium in which you prefer to work?
I love painting on walls for the sake of being outdoors, being able to interact with people. I like the idea more of artwork belonging to neighborhoods rather than to individuals, so that always makes me feel better about doing outdoor stuff. I’ve never been an artist that likes to paint in seclusion really. I like talking to people and music blasting and commotion around me.
If someone sees you painting there’s no problem with them talking to you?
No, no, not at all. I enjoy it. A good conversation is worth the time.
Any places you’d like to work that haven’t happened yet?
I can’t wait to get to Germany because Germans tend to have this technical proficiency with spray paint that’s unlike anybody else. It was to the point where I was wondering do they have specific schools in Germany for spray painting because the work I’ve seen, from so many German artists and German crews, it’s intense.
I traveled to Spain and France with Art Battles. I spent a total of 80 days traveling around France. In Paris a friend would take me to all the legal paint walls. On several occasions we passed pieces and I’m like, this had to be done by Germans. And he’s like, ‘Yeah, that’s a German crew.’ They were almost like photo-realistic and full backgrounds and just a different level of attention to detail.
The next group of people behind them would be people in Spain and the only thing that I can think of is that Spain and Germany are the two places where the best spray paint cans are made.
The two brands that are my favorites are Montana and there’s two different Montanas, one made in Germany and one made in Spain. Montana 4s are made near Barcelona and Montana, I believe its gold and black, are made in Germany.
What about them is different?
They have the most different colors, the low-pressure cans lend themselves to detail work and, I don’t know, they just seem to get it. They’re all matte finnished. Gloss takes away from the art to some degree.
Tell me about the shoes?
I was one of the first to customize shoes. At the time I started there were only two other people I knew that were doing it. They were doing color changes and I was doing more or less illustrations on shoes: album covers, movie posters, comic book covers, portraits and it got really popular. I was featured on TV shows and in documentaries.
What got you started in commercial art?
I always thought of myself as an artist. I was the kid who drew in school. My mother was, I think, a frustrated artist who became an English teacher. Growing up I had all the best art projects. It was mostly due to her skill level and I was the apprentice at that age.
My brother was also very influential. He was involved in music. He was the first person that made me realize that I could do something artistic or creative for a living. I didn’t have to have a normal 9-5. I could hustle and be creative and that was viable. My first commercial job was through him.
D’Angelo’s second album, the first one that came out on my brother’s label, was Voodoo. I did a black light poster, which was initially supposed to be the album cover. That was my first commercial job. That illustration caught the eye of Cara Lewis who hired me to do a series of T-shirts for the Smokin’ Grooves concert.
Those two jobs happened while I was still in college. I was already studying illustration, so I guess I was planning a career as a working artist, but those were the first jobs that made me say, okay, alright, this could really happen.
There’s a weird thing that happens when you go from creating from your heart and at your own pace, to having to do it under deadlines as a job. That can take all the excitement and love out of being an artist for a lot of people. I’ve gone through that difficulty on several occasions. I got really frustrated at doing the same type of work all the time which was always these commissions that were photo realistic but not creative. Not in any way expressive, nothing I felt like I was learning from. I was like ’I know I can paint a face. I know I can do it on demand.’ It got very boring. I was starting to feel like a human copy machine. I was thinking I could get a regular job, pay my bills and probably have more money and health benefits and then just paint what I want on my own time. I managed to, at some point during that period, start doing work that started to make me feel alive and enjoying the process again.
What pulls you through those moments?
As artists we have hundreds of ways to procrastinate. I find that I do better with deadlines than without because, when I know I only have an hour or two to paint something, it’s very relieving in a way because it’s like it’s done at the end of those two hours, whether I like it or not. So, I need to bust my ass and put as much of my heart and soul as I can into it in that time period and just let it go.
He used to piss me off when I was little. He made everything look so easy. Always feeling like I had an artistic talent, when I couldn’t do stuff it was just like, ’Wait, how is he doing it so effortlessly?’ As a kid you don’t realize that after 30 years it appears very easy. I couldn’t conceive of how he could do these things. I was just like, ’Oh I just need a fan brush and a palette knife.’ I was always curious to see what he was like in his regular life.
Anything you’ve ever wanted the world to know?
Wow, so much pressure with the last question, damn. I think I generally am kind of open in that regard I don’t feel like I have something that I’m holding back. One of the things I always kind of come back to is just encouraging people to be creative. Create something. Make something. I think so many people are frustrated artists. They have this creative spirit and don’t know how to engage it, how to live by it. I think so many people are told, from a very young age, that they have to do something that’s viable, something that’s useful to society, something that will make them enough money and people end up doing things that they absolutely hate for the sake of security. Then, at 40 or 50 years old, they’re going to do something that they love, they’re going to be an artist. That is great but you can do that your whole life. You don’t ever have to let go of that creative spirit, that feeling that little kids have instinctively. It doesn’t have to be something that somebody else loves or appreciates. Sometimes you just have to make something for yourself.