In 1973, Richard “Richie” Mirando, a young punk from the Bronx, was sneaking into train yards with bags of spray-paint. While most graffiti artists did quick signatures or “tags” before running for fear of getting caught, Mirando spent hours creating bold artwork that covered entire train cars under the alias SEEN.
“That’s what I wanted to be, I wanted to be seen,” says Mirando, now 51 with wispy grey hair down to his shoulders and covered head to toe in faded tattoos.
By the 1980s, there were more pieces by SEEN throughout New York City than advertising billboards and graffiti was no longer perceived as vandalism, but art.
Mirando quickly went from an anonymous caped crusader with a can to being at the forefront of an international art movement, exhibiting amongst fellow visionaries who would come to revolutionize the arts including Keith Haring, Andy Warhol and Jean Michel Basquiat.
“In the 80s it started to kick into the general public, the media grabbed a hold of it, and that was cool because graffiti was all about getting your name up as much as you could for people to see it,” says Mirando. “I liked when my name was on the train and no one knew who I was, or I didn’t know who the other writers were. I think it’s definitely lost its mysteriousness. On the other side of the coin though, it brought graffiti to a whole new level.”
His latest exhibition at Opera Gallery Post No Bills showcases his newest series of Superheroes – from Wonder Woman to Batman, Thor, Wolverine and The Pink Panther – against bold collages of his iconic graffiti work.
What makes a super hero?
I’m just going to use a couple of words on this one. Someone who cares.
Did you have a hero growing up?
I grew up in my uncle’s auto shop, a hot rod type place when I first saw the work of Ed “big daddy” Roth, who was one of the pioneers of custom culture. He built cars, he built motorcycles, and he had imagery of old hot rod cars with these crazy monsters coming through the roof of the car with smoke and flames. He was really famous for a character called Rat Fink, which was a little green rat that wore a red shirt with yellow “RF” letters on it. I was 7 years old and I thought it was the coolest thing. Sadly he’s passed away…
Do you think you would have been as enthusiastic about art if it hadn’t been for Ed Roth?
He used to make t-shirts and I would get the catalogue in the mail – this is before computers – which was just a sheet of paper folded up with all his images on it. One day I got a letter and assumed it was just another catalogue. I didn’t open it right away because I figured “ah, I got ‘em all anyway.”
One day I finally decided to open it and it was a letter written to me from him telling me how he’s a fan of mine.
Wow. That must have blown your mind.
It did. I still have the letter. It was crazy because I was a fan of his since I was 7 years old and he was so into my artwork. One day I was at an art show and Ed Roth had a booth, I walked towards him and before I even got to the booth he stood up with his hand out ready to shake mine. It was amazing.
What’s that like, to have one of your biggest inspirations turn around and become one of your biggest fans?
I’m trying to hold back the tears.
Having been there from the start, what are some of the biggest changes in graffiti today?
The one thing that personally bothers me more than anything else about graffiti today though, is that almost anybody can do it. You can be a computer graphic artist and you can produce work like I did 30 or 40 years ago.
Today, you see it on products, you see it on store signs, it’s everywhere. Politicians even promote it in the background while they’re talking even though they claim they despise it, but they have to because it speaks to people and grabs their attention. And that’s the amazing thing about where graffiti is today, is that it’s part of everyday living. I like where it has gone, but how it got there along the way makes me a little depressed.
You’ve been throwing up since before the internet, social media, even digital cameras…
I hand painted everything, from silk-screening when I had to make a design for a t-shirt, I cut prints with a knife, everything was done by hand. Once digital came in it blew my mind that I couldn’t give someone a piece of artwork that was hand cut no more. They wanted my work on a disk and it took me a long time to accept that it’s easier to keep up than to catch up. I had to hire people who knew how to take my artwork and put it through the computer. It was a very stressful period for me and even today, I still can’t understand it but I deal with it.
Do you think it’s done more good than bad for digital to come in and change the scene?
You’re talking to a person who’s stuck in the 1970s. So if you’re going to ask me that, that’s your answer right there.
Being noticed was motivation behind throwing your name up around New York…
Honestly, back in the 80s when the art world was looking for something new, the opportunity was right at my door. I could have excelled much faster if I included more imagery of what was going on in the world and been more political about it but my work wasn’t about that. For me, it was about me.
So you just wanted to be seen – which you are, literally and figuratively – why did that matter to you?
At 11 years old, who knows why you want to do or be anything (laughs). Back in the 70s people were writing their names all over New York City and I thought that was the coolest thing. I got hooked on it like it was like a drug.
Does anyone call you by your real name, Richard?
My closest friends do and when I meet people I introduce myself as Richard, but other than that, people who just know me from what I do, know me as SEEN. I could be walking down the street and when I hear someone call out the name SEEN, I hardly turn around anymore.
Because there’s that famous phrase – be careful what you wish for. Sometimes it comes back to bite you in the ass.
Have you had a bad experience with a fan?
I have a lot of fans out there that are a little wacko. And I mean to the point where I would actually be worried to be alone with them. I know people that have my face tattooed on their bodies and this one particular fella, he’s covered head to toe in my artwork and my lettering. It scares me what might be going through someone’s mind. I could be locked and chained in a basement…
(laughing) they could keep you as a slave, like, "paint my walls!"
Right! It’s crazy! It’s not a million people like that but you gotta remember, and I’m from New York, that there are some pretty eccentric people out there.
These days, I prefer to be left alone. I get up in the morning, I go to the studio, I paint, and I go home, sleep and do it again.
You disappeared to Paris for a while. Being New York born and bred, what was it like moving to somewhere like Paris?
It was exciting because I couldn’t wait to get out of New York. I was done with New York 10 years before I actually left. It was time to move on. My first day in Paris, I looked up to the sky – and I remember it was a blue sky that day – and I thought to myself, you know what, I’m gonna stay for a while. So that’s what I did and it was the best thing I did for myself because I explored outside of graffiti, I did a lot more with my abstract art that I’d been wanting to pursue. I spent almost 5 years doing that and within that time I created over 5200 pieces of abstract art. I still have my studio and two monster storage units in Paris.
Choosing to be a full time artist is a huge commitment, it isn’t the easiest path to take…
It’s a hell of a rollercoaster ride.
So what kept you spirited?
I liked it because I was able to do it on my terms. It wasn’t like I was working a 9 to 5 and I knew how much I was going to get paid every week. Some weeks I made no money, but then some weeks I made good. I like the excitement of that roller coaster ride, of not knowing and not being controlled. I can’t have somebody tell me what to do. If everything fell to the floor for me right now, I’d rather stand on the corner with a cup in my hand asking for change than work a 9 to 5.
I honestly believe that if you really feel it, then go for it, because everything will fall into place in time if you can stick it out.