During the last decade, New Orleans has slowly accumulated an impressive collection of art from graffiti artist TARD, whose work includes cartoonish images of flying hot dogs, birds, and a mysterious—albeit ubiquitous—snaggle-toothed face. Many times it’s just a simple tag: TARD. One of TARD’s most visible pieces was the mural of birds painted on the side of the Neophobia building on the corner of Sixth and Magazine streets, which has since been painted over.
Like any clandestine activity, the act of making graffiti is elusive, as well as the person making it. Graffiti artists often go to extreme levels to make their work visible, risking arrest, incarceration, and even death. After six years of searching, I finally caught up with TARD to talk Banksy, Five Points, and the meaning behind his art.
How was the idea of TARD born?
TARD: I wrote a lot of other stuff for a while, some goofy shit. I wrote “GAIL THE WEATHER” for a while. Then over time, you find a name, a thing that you identify with that somehow comes to you. That name sticks with you and builds its own life through part of whatever you identify with, and it starts to take on its own life. You become each other.
You mentioned that you spent a lot of time with special needs kids in in-school-suspension.
Yeah. In school, if you were bad or whatever, you had to have lunch during the same period as the handicapped kids, the special needs cats. Then I’d end up doing janitorial work there and I did janitorial work my fourth class, like fourth period janitorial duties. And the fourth period special needs class was helping clean the cafeteria, which was kind of weird to me.
That’s kind of fucked up.
But I hung out with them then because that’s who was around. I just kind of liked them, identified with them in a sort of make-believe way. I could see them in parts of my own life. It’s not easy; it’s not funny or whatever. I just enjoy this idea that this person will forever, no matter what age they are, always like ice cream. They’ll always
be like, “Yeah, fucking right! Ice cream! Now I’m happy as shit!” There is a certain point with a lot of people in their adult lives that lose simple stuff: “Ice cream sandwich? Fuck you! I don’t give a shit about that! All of this sucks! I got real problems.” But this person may forever be, “Ice cream, fuck yeah. Alright, it’s good now until this is gone.” It just makes sense.
What did you do to get in-school- suspension?
Normal stuff, growing up. Fights. Kid stuff. I once got kicked out for putting a “Kick me” sign on my teacher’s back. She told me she needed a break from me and my behavior.
You mentioned a Fat Kids crew; who are they?
There’s five of us. One of those is a man named Cuckoo, who isn’t alive anymore. He was head of security at Shangri-La. Then there is Bordo’s dog, Joe Bert, who is also no longer with us. And then Paws and Bordo. That’s my small network of friends and family. at least in the sens of a graff crew.
How did they die?
Cuckoo had to go check out some other stuff, and Joe Bert was a junkyard prince. His stomach exploded. He was a rescue dog. He was Bordo’s dog. I liked that dog. Joe Bert came from Cuckoo. He had just lived as long as he could. The end of his life was tight, though.
Bordo loved that dog.
What is the idea behind Fat Kids?
In its entirety, it’s fat kids from outer space. It’s part of the whole retard thing, special needs, weirdness, nacho cheese, late night stuff, gas stations, fried chicken. Shit I identified with my whole life. I was a fucking fat kid for a long fucking time. Still am. I ate a whole box of macaroni and cheese last night before I went to bed. It’s just another thing that occurs to you that you identify with for whatever reason. It’s just where my graffiti went. At a point, it became cartoon surrealism and Dada.
Cheese, late night stuff, and fried chicken. That reminds me of Primus lyrics.
It’s in that idea. It’s like Garbage Pail Kids and Primus lyrics; it’s all pretty surrealist stuff, but it’s not your traditional sort of Max Ernst surrealism. It’s more of an updated pop surrealism. It’s based on a whole new set of iconography. Supposedly in The Canterbury Tales there are the boils on knees that symbolize certain things about a character, or only wearing green pants. I don’t know if it’s true or not but I can believe it because I’ve written stuff and painted things where there’s symbolism in it that I can understand and know people can identify with because it’s of now, where in Canterbury Tales nobody talks like that and those references aren’t made anymore. You can’t say some weird shit about an apothecary and how his eyes reflects on his toenails. I mean you could, but it wouldn’t mean much at first sight or ever. But if your references apply to the times you are in, it’s much easier to create a more personal language.
When you say writing, do you mean your art or like writing a book or something ?
Well both. I spend time writing things down, ideas. You come up with scenarios in your brain that you want to write down. It’s just fun to do lots of stuff—not just graffiti—but all types of crazy shit. I write a name, but I also have my stamp, if you will. KATSU’s got that skull; that’s his stamp. That shit’s more well-known than his name. More people see that skull before they see a letter-based KATSU tag. And there’s CLAW and her CLAW thing—that’s her stamp. READER draws a book; you see that and you know that’s READER. People will often see the book before they see a letter-based READER tag. It’s writing; that’s what it’s called.
Do you have anybody who has influenced your art?
Yeah, I’m influenced by people, but I don’t know if it’s where TARD comes from. I feel like painting what Captain Beefheart said.
What did he say?
He said lots of stuff. Like Moonlight on Vermont; a squid-eating doe and a polyethylene bag is fast and bulbous, got me?
What particular locations around the city do you like to tag ?
The point is to be in all locations around a city, but there are places I won’t do it. I’m not going to write on a bunch of historical stuff because it already looks good the way it is. It doesn’t really look good with graffiti on it. And I’m not really going to tag houses or churches or schools or anything like that. Anywhere is really nice: urban environments where things are busy. New Orleans is not New York. The French Quarter is not Manhattan. But you do things appropriate to that. You put stickers up and you don’t write on stuff. But you can’t put a sticker on a wall. and sometimes you want stuff on a wall, so you find one you like.
What are some of the more treacherous places in NOLA that you’ve tagged?
The Rice Mill was pretty dangerous when it was abandoned. I’ve been run off spots by people who don’t like what you’re doing or don’t want you around. Graffiti is sorta dangerous outright. It’s a crime, and the people who do it are criminals. Being a criminal means you are putting yourself in harm’s way. But you can’t play a friendly game of cops and robbers if everybody wants to be a cop.
Do you tag with other New Orleans graffiti artists?
I know a few other cats in the city. There is the Rice Mill wall; a group of us did that. A bunch of us have painted BUKU for the past three years. At various times, a bunch of us painted a gym on Tchoupitoulas together. That’s not really tagging, though.
How many years have you been active in New Orleans?
About 10 years. I don’t like to paint much in New Orleans anymore. I prefer to do stuff where I am allowed to because I spend a lot of time here.
Are there areas of the city that you avoid tagging ?
I don’t avoid any part of the city, that’s just retarded. That doesn’t mean I’m going to paint all over a bunch of shit.
Have you ever been caught?
Once, but it really didn’t mean anything. I just got a drunk in public charge; that’s it. So maybe the answer is no.
What advice would you give to an aspiring graffiti artist?
Don’t do it. That’s what I was told for a long time. Don’t do it or go for it. Understand what you’re doing or don’t do it at all. One way or another, you’re going to have to learn and that part sucks. People will dislike you a lot if you fuck up, and there are a lot of ways to fuck up. You go through a lot of shit sometimes dealing with motherfuckers, mean-mugging, getting mad at you and having no problem coming up with new ways to tell you how they feel. People get fucked up over some of this stuff.
Has the New Orleans blight been conducive to your painting ?
Of course. Blight is how this art form was born.
What is the idea behind the bird?
The bird just happened because it’s an easy throw-up. You can do it really quick.
How long did it take you to do the mural on the corner of Magazine and Sixth Street?
I did that in one night and an afternoon. I didn’t have permission at first; three of those birds were illegal. The owners of the building asked me to finish it through a channel of friends. They liked it and found out that the people they knew, knew me and said they would be interested in having me touch it up because it was a little weird. I did it in the dark and some of the colors got hard to see on each other. That harbor blue on the green is hard to see on top of each other in the dark. Some of the fills were a little off. It had a long life, though. I liked it more than what is on there now. The dude just jocked my shit. And it’s garbage. That dude just went around asking people if he can just paint over murals. Dick. That was my spot, but whatever.
How do you compare yourself among other NOLA graffiti artists?
I don’t know. I’m one of the few people doing what I do. Compare? Some cats are just better than others; those are the facts. But some stuff can’t be compared. What people like TASK and GRAIL do is in a whole different world than people like me or MRSA.
What do you think about Fred Radtke painting over your stuff ?
Oh, I don’t really care. It’s a nuisance, but I don’t really have time to sit around and think about that dude. I do a lot of stuff that guy can’t fuck with anymore. I’ve done a lot of commissioned stuff. That’s why I don’t really paint in New Orleans that much anymore. I get to do other stuff that’s fun.
What are your thoughts on the attempted theft of BANKSY’s Rain Girl?
I don’t really give a shit about that. I think it’s funny that someone would go through that much trouble to take a chunk of wall and sell it. I think it’s funny that there’s plexiglass on it. It’s really fucking retarded that it’s thought of that way. There’s a bunch of other stuff around the city that I’ve seen that has been painted by people way more incredible than that guy’s stuff, and nobody put a piece of plexiglass over it.
The Upper 9th Ward/Booker piece on the Rice Mill. And I been told the guy that owns that place now is an art lover. Take a ride by it, doesn’t appear to have been protected, and what’s left of it is still more impressive than a girl with an umbrella.
Have you tried to make money from your art?
I do sell my work and I have shows. It’s nice when I can sell it. I just have to do more of it. I’ve had shows and businesses have commissioned me to paint something in or on their building. I designed all of Mid-City Pizza.
In your most active period, how frequently would you paint around the city?
For a long period of time it was every day, all day and all night. When you’re in it, you’re in it. You come and go with how active you are. I still draw and paint every day.
What are your thoughts on the demolition of Five Points?
It’s just a matter of respect for those people. Some of those people that painted that building are no longer around to paint new stuff. BANKSY is getting paid and painting new stuff. Where was Five Points’ plexiglass? Plus we need places like that; that’s history. But at some point it’s all going to get buffed one way or another, I guess. It’s built in to the art form.
You talked about graffiti being the most honest form of art; why?
I didn’t think of it that way when I started doing it; it was just something fun to do. In the end, I find it to be the most honest art form in the fact that it’s for free and completely anonymous. You have to want to do this, and you have to work hard under a million different sets of circumstances. Risk your life, your freedom, health, sleep, criminal record, friendships—all for your craft. Not that many artists can say they have that kind of connection with their work, or that they did it upside down, six stories up with a roller on an 8’ pole. There’s not a lot of people who are going to sit around and draw stickers for five, six hours and put them up in the world to be seen. Most artists sit in the light. They work on a picture for days, maybe a month, with no fear that somebody’s gonna arrest them halfway through the damn thing, or that it might not be there when they wake up; and they want to sell it for 300 bucks. Well how do you get 300 bucks for that? Who the fuck are you? How much work do you do? I’ve painted a bunch of pictures and gotten no money, nor did I plan on getting any. But that’s not what it’s about. It was meant to be given away, because it was a language before it was art, because it was created by poor people under the age of 20 who had to steal just to paint a piece.