Street Artist Morley on How He Got His Start, Why There’s Still a Stigma Around Street Art

Laurel Pinson

Morley Street Art

Street art has come a long way since its humble, spray paint-infused beginnings. Street artist Shepard Fairey created what is arguably the most iconic piece of art around President Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, and now New York City is abuzz with the arrival of the anonymous artist Banksy, who has taken up residence in the city to create a series of works as part of his “Better Out Than In” initiative.

What better time, then, to talk to Los Angeles-based street artist Morley, who specializes in typographic posters featuring slogans that are funny, uplifting, and inspiring. As an added bonus, he also created a limited-edition tote bag for StyleCaster that you can buy in our e-shop!

Here, Morley tells us how he got his start creating street art, and how a stigma still exists around the genre—even as street artists themselves are gaining popularity.

StyleCaster: How did you get started creating street art? What was your very first attempt / first real work?
Morley: I was raised in Iowa City for most of my adolescence and had never heard of ‘street art’ until I moved to New York in 2000 to attend college at The School Of Visual Arts in Manhattan. I started to see work by people like Neckface and Shepard Fairey, and became absorbed by the idea of creating art with the sole purpose of giving it away to anyone who noticed it. I was never interested in graffiti or tagging as much as I was in communicating an actual message. In speaking into the lives of a sea of strangers that might wander past. I began silk-screening my slogans on Contact paper that I would stick in subway cars and throughout the city. At the time, it still hadn’t occurred to me that this was ‘street art’ as the term wouldn’t gain traction until years later. When I moved to Los Angeles, I discovered a new breed of people I wanted to speak to. I returned to my goal of saying something encouraging, funny or relatable but as people travel in cars, I knew that I needed to go bigger. I started making posters. With that came the desire to add something that would give an identity to who the message was coming from. I thought that if I included a picture of myself, it would create a bond between the reader and artist. They would see the messages as coming from a kindred spirit, a friend. Things just started evolving from there.

How do you come up with the sentiments and phrases that go on your posters? What inspires you?
The dreams and goals I observe from my friends, my family and myself. I find that the more confessional one is with their work, the more people can relate to it. When I find art that expresses something I felt but couldn’t express, I feel such a sense of relief. I strive for that in my work first and foremost. Beyond that, I search out inspiration in all the art forms, books, poetry, philosophy, fine art, photography, films, music—all that good stuff. I think artists should always seek out as many creative flavors as possible.

There’s been so much mainstream press around artists like Banksy—do you feel like the stigma around street art is lifting? What’s next for the medium?
I think the stigma is still there, it’s just changing. A few years ago, people may have accused someone of vandalism for spraying something on a wall; these days they chide them more for being an opportunistic hipster or worse: unoriginal. Ever since Banksy made being a street artist “cool,” every other artist is looked at as someone who “thinks they’re Banksy.” This is not to say that I blame him or that I don’t admire his work, but in certain ways, his being accepted by the mainstream has made everyone else look like interlopers.

Who are some of your favorite other street artists working today, and what are some of your favorite works?
As far as LA street artists I think Common Cents is amazing. I also like Septerhed, Desire Obtain Cherish, Ramiro Gomez Jr. and a bunch of other great ones I’m forgetting. Other artists outside of LA that are great include Alarich Hammond, Slinkachu and Dain.

How have you seen the worlds of fashion and street art coming together?
I see street art as being no different than any other sect of modern art. It’s been this way dating all the way back to Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. Modern art will always be tied to fashion because it reflects the aesthetic values of the culture it inhabits and can easily be retrofitted for use in that world. Obey is a probably the most current example of this. As far as my work I could see getting involved in fashion if for no other reason than a T-shirt would just a walking billboard spreading my messages across the city.

Do you pay attention to the world of fashion and style or do you steer clear? If you’re a fan, do you have any favorite designers/labels?
I wish I could claim to be more “in-the-know” when it comes to fashion, but more often than not, form usually takes a back seat to function. Most of my clothes end up with paint splattered on them anyway. That said, I do pay attention to the companies that consistently make stuff I like and can handle my daily wear and tear. BDG, Out Of Print, Junk Food, Threadless, Salt Valley and Onitsuka Tiger are my standards. And you just can’t beat a good pair of Levis.

Tell us about the StyleCaster x Morley totes! How did the concept come together?
It was important to me that the design be something that I could imagine being a poster I’d put on the street and at the same time work within the context of the fashion industry. I enjoy crafting messages that apply to different kinds of audiences—a poster I’d paste up in Beverly Hills would be different from something I’d post in Compton, so the idea of speaking to people with a passion for fashion was an interesting challenge. In a world no doubt beset with artificiality, I wanted to encourage people towards a lifestyle of sincerity and emotional vulnerability. The idea of someone carrying around a daily reminder to be honest and real was what inspired this design. And actually, after designing it for StyleCaster, I did wind up putting a poster of it up on the streets (pictured above)—and got a great reaction.