By Bree McKenna
I live in the West Loop of Chicago, where street art and murals are popping up faster than doughnut shops and taco stands. In cities all over, what used to be an underground phenomena has become commercialized, with landlords commissioning artists to graffiti walls of high-end restaurants, cocktail lounges and shops.
But unless your name is Banksy or Shepard Fairey, these artists still have to hustle. They have to complete these massive works of art under some pretty tough conditions. There are tight deadlines and low budgets. Then there is the sheer physicality of the work: It's dangerous to climb up on a water tower in the middle of the witches of November—just ask Brain Killer, who is one of the more prolific Chicago street artists right now.
Brain Killer is the alter ego of Brian Keller. I first heard about Brain Killer last fall at Creative Mornings Chicago, a monthly breakfast lecture series for the creative community. There, he talked about how his work became a gritty deluge of skate punk culture and other things he grew up loving as a Chicago kid, such as 1950s horror films and Japanese animation. One of his earliest influences was actually a Chicago video game company that employed his mother; while he'd wait for her to get off work after school, he'd play video games there. He ultimately went to Columbia College and, from there, started working as a TV producer/director at G4TV (a network that produces content related to technology, video games and pop culture).
After the Creative Mornings lecture, I reached out to Keller with some very specific questions in mind. I was curious about the physical and mental struggle behind these personal, but very public, pieces of giant art. And I was curious about how the whole process happens.
So I asked. It's amazing what people will tell you if you just ask what you've been wondering all along.
1. What are you obsessed with right now? What's driving your new work?
Keller: Right now, I'm obsessed with getting better, pushing my boundaries and stepping out of my comfort zone. I'm moving toward more crisp, clean illustration and less abstract work or at least having the two work more closely together. I want my work to tell stories, I don't want to just keep doing random characters or creatures. Just a little background: There was a time a few years ago when there was a lot of illness and bad mojo, so I started making these creatures and blobs to represent all of those things. The goal was to release them into the world as a way to purge them out of my life. I'm obsessed with manifesting them more accurately, making them stronger and more powerful, and in the process doing the same for myself and those close to me.
2. What pisses you off?
Overall, I'm really positive, happy and outgoing but as far as art goes, my internal struggle is what pisses me off. I put a lot of myself into my work, drawing from experiences and emotion. I think that's why there is darkness and violence in my work—but also cute, whimsical and silly aspects to it as well. I like to make people laugh, but I also like to repel at the same time. I try not to take myself too seriously, but there is some pretty serious stuff in there. I like that juxtaposition in themes.
I want each piece to be better than the last, and I'm really trying to find that balance where I can get what I want across faster so I don't spend so much time worrying about the quality. I want the technical side to just flow so I can focus on the voice and the concept of each piece and allow my audience to feel the intent and the emotion of what I create.
3. What is the most challenging project you've tackled? Why?
Each piece comes with its own unique challenges, but right now I'd say the water tower (in the West Town neighborhood, near Morgan and Kinzie streets) was my white whale to date. It was the perfect storm of everything that could go wrong.
I was dealing with some pretty heavy, pretty serious family matters so my head was far from clear. I needed so bad to have a clear head since, physically, the project was extremely taxing. There was a rush from the client, it was around the holidays and I was trying to plan my trip to Art Basel. The budget was limited so I had very little help, doing most of the labor myself. I was pulling ladders and materials up there with a rope, strapped into a harness. It was hard not being able to paint high enough because of the limited platform space, only being able to go as high as a seven-foot A-frame ladder would allow me to. It was freezing, and I was up there during what's called the Witches of November. (The "Witches" are caused by intense low atmospheric pressure over the Great Lakes pulling cold Canadian/Arctic air from the north or northwest and warm Gulf air from the south. When these cold and warm air masses collide, they can result in hurricane force winds).
I drew parallels to extreme sports, like surfers battling massive waves that could kill them. It was like the surface of the moon up there, very isolating. I was listening to a weird combination of music from Jane's Addiction and Death Grips to Jaime XX and Polica. It was intense.
I'm not too happy with the outcome. It was an opportunity to really make a huge splash and, personally, I feel like it fell short. People love it so I don't worry about it too much.
4. What are your most essential tools?
I have so many, it's hard to say. I work in so many different mediums: video, photography, murals, wheatpaste, canvas. If I had to pick, I absolutely need a camera, my brushes and lots and lots of black high-flow paint. I use new brushes on each piece, so my lines are as perfect as I can get them. When people comment on my work, it's usually about the brush work and that is something I want to get better at.
5. Where's your favorite place to recharge within a day's drive?
I'm not really one with nature. I grew up in Chicago in busy neighborhoods. I've lived in LA and have travelled a lot for work, usually to other big cities like Japan, New York, Vegas etc. I've had little opportunity to experience the great outdoors so, when I'm in that environment, it makes me anxious and a little scared. Even if I'm in a cabin or camping situation or a relaxing resort in Mexico, I'm dying to get out and find the town. So for me, it's driving in the city, being around lights and people. I pop into crowded bars or clubs by myself, not to drink or even meet people but to hear the music and the buzz of the crowd and feel that energy. That's my meditation. If I really need silence, I'll hibernate at home and be a recluse for a few days binge watching TV and movies. I try to make my home a combination of swanky hotels—to remind me of being on the road—and Pee Wee's playhouse.
Want to see more? Follow @brainkiller on Instagram or check out iambrainkiller.com to see his video work.