New York street artist Elbow Toe sees all. To him, the streets are alive with creative possibilities. From commuters nodding off on the train to vine-hemmed, dilapidated ‘theatre spaces’ crying out for a new 'interactive' piece. For Elbow Toe, it’s all about the setting and the way his art works with its surroundings. He lives and breathes the city, reflecting his fellow commuters in lines of poetry and sketches, running its streets barefoot and decorating its walls long before the rest of us have sunk into our daily grinds.
In studio – as unmasked alter-ego Brian Douglas – he spends more than three months on one piece, working on giant paper collages and woodcuts with a kind of blind determination and work ethic that’s inspiring (and humbling). In February, Brian was in London for his first solo show Due Date, at Black Rat Projects. And while he was here, Elbow Toe crept out to see what the city had to offer him (and vice versa).
I caught up with Elbow Toe after a “nightmare” two months, just as he was settling into his new studio space in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Predictably, he seemed as creative and focused as ever.
Where does the name come from, are you a contortionist?
Ha ha, no. Elbow Toe pays homage to another street artist named Neck Face. I believe he’s from California originally. I’d seen some of his tags around New York City. And one day at work, joking with some friends, I said I’d call myself Elbow Toe if I was ever a street artist.
You’ve done quite a bit of work in the UK, what do you think of the street art over here?
I like it. I’m a huge fan of Bansky. The area I tended to get up in a few years back has been really gentrified…
Yeah… But I liked it quite a bit. It feels like the public really appreciates street art a bit more than here in the US.
Shoreditch and Brick Lane are pretty thriving urban street galleries at the moment, what’s the New York equivalent?
I guess it would be Bushwick. In New York, I tend to avoid those areas. I like more remote spots. I’m more interested in off the beaten path places.
So the end goal isn’t being seen the most?
The work I do is figurative. So for me, it’s about making something that takes the environment it’s in up a notch with the work. As well as to take the work up a notch with the environment and surroundings. I see it as very collaborative.
What factors do you consider when choosing an “appropriate setting” for your work?
I look at the spaces as sort of theatres spaces. I generally like stuff that’s pretty dilapidated, has a lot of vines growing on it. Things that tie into the piece, so it feels more like it’s on stage than on some random wall.
And do you have to work at night, under cover of darkness and all that?
I tend to go out early in the morning. Like, six. Usually the police are switching to the next beat. So if you get caught by a cop, they really don’t wanna stick around and do the paper work, they just wanna get home. So they’re more likely to let you off.
Have you had to deal with a lot of cops?
I’ve had one sort of serious run in, but I managed to act my way out of it.
Where else in the world have you decorated the streets?
I’ve got up in Australia quite a bit. And a little bit in Central America.
You live in New York but grew up in Texas. What’s the street art/art in general scene like down South?
Lots of cowboy stuff… I don’t know. I grew up in Dallas and there wasn’t even really much of a graffiti scene. But I didn’t really go into the urban areas much and I don’t get back very often. So I don’t really know what’s happening.
How was your first solo show, ‘Due Date’?
It was great. I’ve been working on it for about a year. It felt nice to see all the work together in one space.
After Goya - Due Date
Did you do a lot of street work while you were here?
I did some. I got two or three pieces up. One on Regent’s Canal. I think it’s called Broadway Market? I put a piece up on this abandoned children’s hospital over that way that security guards ripped off, but it looked really nice when I put it up. I also do these drawings on doors. I did a lot of those after too much drink one night…
So you keep your street/studio ratio pretty balanced?
As much as I can. I really enjoy the street work but I have a mortgage to pay and all that.
Okay… You said you’ve just moved into a new studio, how was the relocation?
Yeah, I just got a new space in Red Hook. My next door neighbours are about to start a gut renovation on their house. Having gone through one of those myself, I realised there was no way I was gonna be able to get any work done with all the sawing and hammering.
And you say the last two months have been a nightmare, what’s all the physio for?
I started doing barefoot running. Yeah, not so good. I read a book called Born to Run, about this culture of barefoot running down in Mexico. It really inspired me. I’ve been trying to do it for about six months now.
Just running around Brooklyn with no shoes on?
Yeah, and in the park. I ended up getting these shoes – they kind of look like webbed toe shoes – so you can run over people’s urine and it’s not so bad. But I sprained my ankle pretty badly. That was the end of my barefoot running.
Bummer. What are you working on at the moment?
I’ve got a solo show in New York in March next year, with a gallery called Andrew Edlin. All cut paper.
You also do quite a lot of odd little poetry write-ups. Are those spur of the moment or planned out in detail?
In the mornings, to warm up, I’ll end up getting on the subway and go draw for about an hour and a half. I come up with these little poems while I’m sitting there, comments on people sitting on the train with me.
Do you have a favourite piece, poem or series, or is that like choosing a favourite kid?
I’m really happy with the ‘Due Date’ show. There are three pieces that really struck a chord with me. There’s one with this couple lifting a bear. A piece called ‘After Goya’. And a piece I did called ‘The Memory of You Is Never Lost Upon Me’. It was just the most ambitious piece I’ve done to date. It’s five by seven feet and it’s all paper. I worked on it for three months non-stop.
The Memory of You Is Never Lost Upon Me - Due Date
What’s your longest standing piece, the one that’s still up years later?
The ones that stick around the longest are the drawings I do with oilbar. The ones with the poetry. There’s one that’s been up for about five years. The owners of the building buffed the entire building but they left that door. Which is kind of a huge compliment.
What does it say?
Something like, "You and I are both lonely this Monday morning." It was on the way to work one day. There was this person falling asleep. There’s another one called "Her Beutiful Hands," which is just of a pair of hands of this woman I was sitting across from on the train.