A Conversation with Painter Terry Urban
Photos and Interview by Tommy Moore
Published in DAYBREAK V.4
Terry Urban is no stranger to a little bit of adversity. From painting trains and life as a DJ, to run ins with the cops and trying to make it in the world of skateboarding, Terry has been around the block a few times. The Ohio native has lived from coast to coast, and now has growing roots in LA. Before moving to the West Coast, Terry was living in New York City. When life felt like it was falling sideways, he made the choice to throw everything into art, a choice that then brought him to LA where he's now creating some of our favorite work.
His work feels like a stream of conscious conversation. Layer after layer goes into each of his pieces as he works to cover, then uncover, and then potentially cover again. The weight of the years leading up to this point is seen in the portrayals of the often familiar and friendly characters that look like they took a rough and rowdy detour somewhere along the way.
With his recent launch of 'Hood Beach', Terry is breaking into the fashion world and extending his canvas to clothes. The first drop sold out quick, but the next drop is around the corner, with a painting give-a-way to sweeten the pot. You can find more info about Hood Beach and available paintings and prints here.
Terry Urban: I grew up skating pretty much since the age of being able to push around, and then was raised in an environment that was art related. My dad was an artist—my dad’s still an artist—but I felt alienated because Cleveland is such a small town, and I felt like I could do so much more with my life than what Cleveland had to offer. So as soon as I turned 18, I moved to San Diego to pursue a career in skateboarding. This is the 90s we're talking about here, this is like 96/97 that I was out there skating and spending my college years not going to college—just skating. That was an epic time in my life, just learning how to become a better skater. Then I eventually got busted by the cops a couple times and had to come home back to Cleveland. But the thing was, when I was in San Diego, I was at my homies house, Tyrone Olson, and I will never forget it to this day, he had turntables on his coffee table that I’d fool around with.
At that time period, there was a lot of turntable-ism in hip hop. DJing was a huge thing. So it was like, Alright, maybe I'll get a set of turntables one day and I'll be able to start DJing. My father bought me a DJ in a box, basically the cheapest turntables you could get, because we were pretty much broke at the time. I started DJing and had no idea what I was doing. My homie Adam actually taught me how to DJ and then I started doing house parties at Kent State University, then random-ass house parties, and then clubs after that. Then it turned into radio, and then it turned into a full time job. I quit all the dead end jobs I was doing and I went professionally into DJing at this time period. I had put artwork on the back burner, because I was still painting trains—graffiti and shit like that—but not too heavily as a professional artist.
"Art saved my life. Surfing made my life better."
I was DJing for about 15 years. Moved to New York, traveled the world—Tokyo, France, everywhere. I was DJing and partying and having fun making albums and producing remixes for major labels. Then eventually I got burned out from DJing. I was partying too much. The scene in New York is heavy on drugs and drinking, so it put a difficult toll on my body. I was kind of over it and needed some kind of other creative outlet, and that's when I started painting. Painting was the save-my-life thing, you know? I always refer to in the Wizard of Oz when the movie goes from black and white to color. It was kind of like that. My mind opened up to new things. I could see differently. I was able to talk to people more. I felt a little bit more secure about myself, and opened up a whole can of worms of creativity. It was great for me and it was a new thing that I could latch onto and explore. However, I didn't know all the insecurities that would come with it. My artwork is trash. What the fuck am I doing? I can't even afford rent right now. Why am I painting on my floor and stepping over my canvases just to get food? It was tough, dude. It was tough for years. Eventually, I got sick of New York. I had been there for 12 years, and I needed something new in my life, and I moved to Los Angeles. I was doing some stuff here and there with a company called For Those Who Sin—they helped me get out here. I started working on canvases more, and that's when I really got heavily into surfing.
Surfing, that changed my life. Art saved my life. Surfing made my life better. I surf every day now. For me, it's everything. I even moved closer to the water just because I wanted to surf every day. So that's where I'm at now, surfing and painting every day.
Tommy Moore: It sounds like a lot more intentional things. When you made that transition to paint, was it that you’d always been painting to an extent, but now it was painting with a greater purpose behind it?
TU: Oh man, with painting, first it was figuring it out. Then second, I had sold maybe a piece or two to some homies, and I was like, Oh, shit, wait a second. And, again, I was broke, dude. I was digging quarters out of my couch to find food for that night. It was terrible, and I had to do something. It was either DJing, which I didn't want to do anymore, or artwork. Hopefully I can make a living doing artwork, or find a dead end job—and that was not going to happen. I was definitely not gonna take a dead end job. I worked too many of them in my life, and I know for a fact that I cannot be told what to do. So I have to work for myself, and I have to find a way to put food on the table. So yeah, at first it was figuring it out, and then after a while, it was like, Okay, I can make money off professionally doing it at a level where I can support me and my family.
"I was broke, dude. I was digging quarters out of my couch to find food for that night."
TM: When you're working now, what's the thought process behind starting a new piece? What's the creative process and the steps that you're going through in your mind—whether you’re meaning to or not?
TU: Sometimes, creating pieces, it'll be a soundbite, it'll be something that I saw in a documentary, it could be a song played on the radio, it could be a lyric, it could be something that happened in the political world. A lot of my pieces are geared towards the underdog. I have an Irish background, hard-working construction family, digging ditches and all that shit. So I feel like my work is kind of like a revolt against the man. It kind of has a punk vibe to it. But also fighting for the people, creating stuff for the human race to realize that there are people out there that feel the same way that they do, and have the same inspirations. I'm just able to paint it and throw it up on a wall and hopefully it catches on to the people.
"My artwork is trash. What the fuck am I doing? I can't even afford rent right now. Why am I painting on my floor and stepping over my canvases just to get food?"
TM: It seems like there's a Midwestern, blue collar mindset behind it.
TU: Fuck yeah, totally. More than I even know so, dude. I tell this to people all the time, the whole Midwestern blue collar vibe, we grow up and we're scraping snow off our windshields at six o'clock in the morning just so we can get to work—just like a little hole, big enough to see to drive through just to get to work. That shit, maybe not the best thing to grow up with, but it makes you work that much harder. Moving to the West Coast, it gave me that extra step that some people might not have that hard-ass work ethic. I'm cranking out paintings nonstop. I'm working on an NFT project. I’m working on a bunch of stuff at the same time and like it. I'm glad that I grew up in that situation in that Midwest blue collar town, and had that hard work ethic. Granted, there's a lot of East Coasters that are like that, and west coasters as well, but I don't know. It's just like we're a blue collar steel train, dude. It's like we're born differently.
"That shit, maybe not the best thing to grow up with, but it makes you work that much harder."
TM: It's one of those things, too, where I didn't know you're from Cleveland. I had no idea you were from Midwest, and it seems like a very disproportionate amount of people I end up chatting with and doing pieces on are from Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, Chicago, or something like that. It's intriguing to me seeing how much that sticks through, whether it's the art world or design world, the creative world is just hard to live in.
TU: Yeah, it's definitely a mindset, and it's kind of injected into your veins. I think with Midwestern people, as well, is they're very down to earth. No matter what kind of level they get to, they always are humble.
BLUE COLLAR ART
A Conversation with Painter Terry Urban
Photos and Interview by Tommy Moore