Renegade Graffiti Artists Utah & Ether Aren't Afraid of Getting Caught
Not even jail time can stop graffiti's Bonnie & Clyde.
Image courtesy of Utah & Ether, photo by Utah & Ether
By the time I had I caught up with the mixed-media artist duo Utah & Ether, so had the Australian police. “Sorry this took so long,” Utah apologized over email, “not sure if you're aware but Ether is currently serving a six-month sentence in an Australian prison.”
Utah & Ether—or, as law officials know them, Danielle Bremner and Jim Clay Harper—are no strangers to conducting interviews from behind bars. In fact, the fittingly dubbed “Bonnie & Clyde” of graffiti has been clashing with the law ever since they first tagged trains together back in 2005. After striking up an artistic, and romantic relationship amid the light rails of St. Louis, Utah & Ether hunted trains in cities throughout United States, including their respective hometowns of New York and Chicago. After seeking out new material in the tunnels and tracks of Europe, the two were welcomed back stateside in 2009 with handcuffs and a year behind bars.
It was at about this time that the artists decided to leave the US once again in search of new inspiration and new metro systems abroad. They have spent the intervening years across Asia, a journey documented in their multimedia project Probation Vacation: Lost in Asia. The work spans 11 countries and 37 cities through a 12-part video series and an accompanying monograph of stories and photographs. The video series, accessible to all on The Grifter’s Vimeo page, is a vicarious thrill-ride: shot in P.O.V., the clips are a quick succession of hopped fences, hairy escapes, jumbled paint cans, and, as always, the sleek metal canvases of trains.
In May of this year, however, Utah & Ether’s border-crossing hunt for the next blank train was put on hold by Melbourne’s law enforcement. While Utah remains free to tag and travel, collaboration is a tenet of their partnership. “I didn't want to do the interview without him, as I didn't feel right about speaking for him (even though I pretty much knew his answers to the questions),” she explained over email. Instead, after waiting for her partner to gain telephone access, Utah took it upon herself to conduct the interview with Ether and transcribe his responses alongside her own.
In this makeshift manner, The Creators Project interviewed Utah & Ether about chasing trains, working as a couple, and the allure of illegality.
The Creators Project: When, and what, was your first introduction to graffiti?
Utah: Growing up in New York City there was just graffiti everywhere. It was just a part of the landscape. I can't really say I have one specific memory that stands out, but I remember looking out the window of my mom's car when I was a kid and seeing the highways bombed in Queens, and seeing fill-ins and pieces on the rooftops, and track sides from the train when we headed into the city.
Ether: I grew up across the street from the Linden [Chicago Transit Authority] yard. The yard was right next to the playground and back then the fence around the yard was really low, so when I'd go there to play, I could easily see into the yard and see the graff that people had painted the night before.
Why do you choose to write almost exclusively on public transportation systems?
Utah: More often than not, a street or a wall will look pretty similar wherever you are. Of course there are exceptions to this but generally speaking, a wall is a wall. Public transportation however, such as a train or subway, is really specific to an individual city. You can only paint a specific model of train in a specific place.
Ether: [The] metro system is really the heart of any given city. It's what connects the people to the city and to each other; it's how people move and get around and function throughout the day. I think there's something really special about going to a foreign place and being able to interact with the city and the people there in that kind of way, whEther the painted train goes into service and commuters get to see it and connect with it, or if the train gets cleaned an hour after we painted it, and only the police whose job it was to document it and the worker whose job it was to clean it [get to see it]. Either way, we've affected someone.
Also, graffiti just looks really good on trains.
Why does the illegality of your art appeal to you? And, how does your ongoing series Spray explore the nature and the appeal of this illegality?
Utah: The illegality of what we do is more appealing and important than the art itself [...] Art that’s value is based purely in aesthetics is not what interests us or what we're about. The end result isn't as important to us as the experience and action involved. For us, that's where the real art is in graff. It might sound strange but honestly some of my favorite experiences with graffiti, some of our best photos and footage and memories don't even involve actual painting but more so the action surrounding it.
Ether: I like to look at the way we live our lives as art. The series’ that we work on, like the Spray series and others, are simply an extension of that. The Spray series explores the idea of legality versus illegality by focusing on the socially accepted concepts of ownership and permission. By affixing our own metal canvases to a train carriage, spraying the train and then removing the canvases and displaying them in a gallery, it brings up the questions of ownership and permission.
I think graff is at a really weird point right now, in a way it’s the most socially accepted and mainstream it’s ever been, but at the same time, as far as the judicial system is concerned, it's the most stigmatized and persecuted it's ever been. And so you’ll have big corporations using graffiti-type imagery in their logos and advertising, but then you’ll also have writers getting long jail sentences and high fines and probation for graffiti. [There’s] a huge disconnect, and our art delves into that.
How have you both changed as artists since leaving the US?
Utah: We left almost six years ago, so I think our art would’ve changed and progressed regardless of where we’re living, but there’s something about being out of our comfort zone for such an indefinite period of time that’s given us a different perspective on graffiti and art and life in general than probably most people have.
Ether: Because of our experiences back in the US, being dragged through the legal system and all of that, [...] consequences aren’t so much of a deterrent to us as maybe they are to other people. I mean, do I like jail? No. Do I like spending my time going back and forth to court? No. But, in the end, we’ve been through it and come out the other side and haven’t let it affect our art or our motivation. All of the things we’ve been through have only motivated us more.
How has social media affected writers, and your work in particular?
Utah: Social media has allowed us to have some sort of control over how we're represented. The whole reason we even started having a social media presence was because there were so many fake social media pages of us and so many news articles and blog posts that were factually inaccurate. It got to a certain point where we realized that regardless if we wanted it or not, we had an internet presence. And we could either continue to let ourselves and our work be misrepresented, or we could step up and take control of our image, and put out stuff that expressed what we do and what we're about.
In a way, our work has nothing to do with social media, because everything we do is hand made in the physical world. But in another sense, our work is tied into social media, as many people may not ever travel to the places we've been, and the way they connect with what we do is through something like Instagram or Snapchat or whatever.
Ether: The Probation Vacation: Lost In Asia project could be looked at as a social media project in a sense. We consciously chose not to release the video half of the project as a DVD. Instead we upload the episodes on Vimeo because for us, it made more sense that anyone, anywhere could have access to them for free.
Utah: Yeah, in the end graffiti is a visual medium, and so is the internet.
What is the most difficult and the most beautiful thing about living a nomadic life?
Ether: Freedom of movement is the best thing about the lifestyle we live. With the way we work artistically, it’s easy to wake up in the morning and say, “Hey, let’s go to Vienna today” or “I have a great idea for Buenos Aires, let's check for tickets.”
Utah: Art is wherever we are, we aren't confined to a studio, or even a city or a country.
Ether: The most difficult thing is actually finding the time and space to sit and edit all the photos and video footage after the fact. I guess for some people it would be the hectic travel schedule that’s most stressful, but for us it's the part when we have to sit in one place and go through hours and hours of material and shape it into something cohesive.
What is the most difficult and the most beautiful thing about working with a partner?
Utah: Of course it'd still be fun to do what we do alone, but there’s just something about working with a partner, especially when it's a really intense situation. You don't have to explain anything, or question anything. I can just look at him and know what he's thinking or what he's thinking to do. Working togEther so closely, for so long and in such extreme scenarios, it just creates a kind of intimacy that I can't even really describe, but I couldn't imagine working any other way.
Ether: For sure it would still be a cool, crazy life doing what we do without each other, but it would also be pretty alienating from everyone and everything. Like trying to explain some of the stuff I've seen or experienced to someone who hasn't seen or experienced anything even close to it...it'd all just sound really abstract and weird to them.
Utah: That's not to say that we are perfect or never disagree on things. I think so many couples, especially ones that work togEther, feel a need to create this image of the perfect couple who never argue and always work happily side by side. That's just not realistic and in my opinion not even something I would want. Because as close as we are, we're still two different people with our own thoughts and ideas. And while the majority of the time our thoughts and ideas are on the same page with each other, there are times when they aren't.
Ether: The funny thing is when we disagree, usually it's over something so miniscule, like a song for a video clip or which shade of light grey paint to use. We can both be pretty stubborn about details like that, stuff that probably in the end no one else even notices or cares about.
[It] always ends in some sort of compromise that combines our ideas and turns out better than either of our original ideas probably would have [been]. So even the things that could be viewed as the difficult aspects of working with a partner, disagreements and compromises, in the end are a positive thing.
What is exciting you most right now about the future of graffiti writing?
Ether: People pushing the limits of how far they're willing to go, both geographically and physically/mentally/emotionally. This is really the only type of progression that interests us in graff at this point.
And finally, what’s next for Utah & Ether?
Utah: That's a hard thing to say right now given current circumstances, but generally speaking, we have more traveling, painting, and adventures planned.
For more of Utah & Ether’s work, and story, check out their website.