When it comes to graffiti artists or “street” artists in general, one of the things I appreciate is the anonymity. I had been following an artist on social media who I only knew through his character, Bleh the Punk Buddha. His work intrigued me with its unique use of mediums and themes. From stickers to cigarette boxes, mock CTA vinyl cutouts, and clothing, Bleh doesn’t limit himself to only sticker art. He pushes himself to expand his work in as many different ways as possible.
I had never talked to this person in my life. I had no idea what he looked like, how old he was, or where he was from. I reached out to him on Instagram to see if he would be willing to talk with me about his art. Individuals who practice illegal street art are often closed off to hide their identity, so I knew there was a big chance I wouldn’t get the response I wanted. But to my surprise, he was more than willing to meet up with me at an artsy coffee shop in the West Town area of Chicago called Sip Coffeehouse.
At the time, I was at school in Beloit, WI. Getting on the on the CTA blue line after a long bus trip from Wisconsin to O’Hare International Airport filled me with everything that I had been missing since the last time I was in Chicago. Being able to see the art on, in and from the trains again filled me with so much joy. Knowing that I would be meeting one of the people that decorates the city with art filled me with so much anticipation. I really didn’t know what to expect. Luckily, it wasn’t too hard to find out.
Getting closer I watched as the person in front of me slapped a sticker onto the newspaper box in front of me. It was Bleh.
As I crossed the street, I noticed a person walking towards me in the distance. I had been preparing myself to look for Bleh inside of the shop. Getting closer I watched as the person in front of me slapped a sticker onto the newspaper box in front of me. It was Bleh.
We sat at a small table in the balcony area of the shop. I had been going to this coffee shop for the last seven years. I appreciated it because it was a place that allowed local artists to put their art on the walls for free. It had a beautiful space with a huge back area, balcony, and outside patio. Hundreds of busy, talented individuals would fill the tables every day, but the atmosphere still remained calm and comfortable. Unfortunately, after 20 years of business, Sip closed on May 29, 2019.
I couldn’t have thought of a more perfect place to sit down and have a conversation with this artist. I wasted no time and dove right in.
I want to start from the beginning. How was Bleh the Punk Buddha created?
I was into graffiti when I was 12 or 13, but I didn’t do the whole “bombing” thing because I knew my mom would beat my ass. So I discovered stickers and I started making them. I would just draw random things on the small Avery labels and stick those up.
I started college and I wanted to start making stickers again, but I was trying to think of a name to go by. I really liked the name Bleh because it’s onomatopoeia, like they use in comic books. It was just my favorite word.
At the time, all of my drawings sucked. I mean, they didn’t suck, but the ideas just weren’t there. It wasn’t clicking for me.
Later that day, I went home and looked through my high school sketchbook. I saw this Buddha character that I drew, and I was like wow I haven’t drawn this guy in forever. I drew him on a couple of label 228s and posted them up around my school. Then Bleh became this huge thing after like two years which is pretty cool.
I was influenced by punk music as to make him look the way he does. I ended up giving him a full sleeve of tattoos. I’m really into tattoo designs (even though I personally don’t have any) so I just drew a bunch of stupid tattoos. Some of them having meaning, but most of them don’t. That’s when he became known as the Punk Buddha.
The story that I had for him was that he was a Buddha. He didn’t want to be what everyone wanted him to be so he used punk music as an escape, and he kind of changed his whole demeanor. He had gauges, piercings, tattoos and his nails were painted black. He just didn’t give a fuck anymore.
When I first came across your work, the thing that got me interested was the CTA rule signs that you would make, because I had never seen anything like that. How did those come about?
I don’t remember which CTA sign I made first but I’m pretty sure it was the “No blinking” one. I was sitting on the train one day and I saw the sign that said ‘no eating, no soliciting, no drinking, no loud music’ and I was just like why is it telling me what to do? I didn’t like being told what to do at the time and I wasn’t in the best mood so I was like fuck that sign.
For someone who has only been taking the CTA for a year now, I wondered, what if someone were to take this sign and alter it to make something different? Would anyone notice? Probably not, unless they did a double take, because if they’ve been taking the train for like five years they’re so used to the format and what it’s supposed to say.
I took a picture of the sign and put it in Photoshop. I just needed to make my own rules. I wanted my rules to be ridiculous, something impossible to follow. So I made the ‘No blinking, No breathing’ sign. If the CTA is telling me not breathe or blink, am I going to get fined? People would say what the fuck, is this even real?
I wanted Bleh to be involved in it in some shape or form. All the stickers I have been making diss Bleh, saying things like ‘I’m not wanted’ and ‘Ban Bleh’. So I decided to give him one this time. I wanted to say he was ok.
One of the signs that gained a lot of popularity were the Priority Seating signs. I remember you posting something on Instagram about these stickers showing up on Reddit and other sites.
I didn’t really know what I was doing at first, so I started observing people on the trains and looking at my surroundings. I was on the train I was putting up a sticker, but no one was looking at me because they were all glued to their phones. In a way, them not paying attention is helping me because someone could have easily told a CTA worker. But if there’s someone getting robbed, they’re probably not going to do anything.
So I made the ‘Priority Seating for Customers with Materialism Issues’. In the bottom corner I subtly put ‘BL-EH 72’. I was really inspired by old school graffiti back in the day they had a number that they would write next to their name which represented the street they live on. That’s where the number 72 came from.
The signs really blew up again and I wasn’t expecting them to. Then someone sent me a link to Reddit. I was at work eating my Subway sandwich when I get a message saying ‘hey you’re on Reddit.’ I was like ‘bullshit.’ I flipped through the comments and one of my favorite titles was “Passive aggressive graphic designer”.
A lot of people in the comments didn’t like me which I thought was funny because it starts conversation. Some people really appreciated it and I was like ‘damn, I’m going to keep doing this.’ I did get bored after a while, so I decided to make my last one.
I didn’t want to just slap the Buddha face on there. I like to think of Bleh as a living person just like us. Artists who just slap their face on everything aren’t interesting. As an artist who doesn’t draw the same character, I wanted each sign to be their own. I wanted them to know that Bleh was doing this. So I made the last one: Priority Seating for Customers who Respect the Punk Buddha.
Another thing you use in your work is the idea of repetition. Who were your influences for this and why so much focus on that?
The artist Dface is one of the greatest. He definitely inspired me to incorporate punk and “street art”. His character Ddog is sort of the embodiment of graffiti and if you ever get in contact with him, in a way you’re corrupted. That character is now a part of your life.
One of my favorite pieces by him is the one with Superman and Spiderman and they have the Ddog wings on their heads. They were saying something about how it feels so wrong but at the same time feels so right. They were introduced to graffiti and they knew the consequences it would bring but it felt so right to know.
With that in mind—that there’s a symbol you see everywhere—a person would go fucking insane because it’s at every corner and it’s impossible to escape. It’s just something you have to accept.
I had some cardstock from my job and I printed out Buddha’s icon face. Shephard Fairey calls his stencil version of his Obey the Giant his icon face because it’s a simpler version of the original. It’s a straightforward, not altered version of Bleh’s face. I printed out a bunch and they were just repeating.
It’s not only the idea of this unknown symbol that is familiar to people, it’s also the idea of repetition—if it repeats enough, at some point it’s going to click. Andy Warhol did the same with his chicken soup cans. They were all repeating and it was his way of commenting on consumerism, where there is can after can saying ‘buy me’.
I think when people first see Bleh they’re like oh that’s cute. But if it’s some high end rich dude he’ll see this punk Buddha and he’ll think, what the fuck is that? Who is this smiling Buddha that’s saying bleh and sticking his tongue out at me? People feel threatened by this unknown symbol. They become corrupted, and for some people it just feels so right.
The ads that you would put up on the train were meant to stay up for people to see. How did you feel when you saw people taking them down and stealing them from the trains?
After I kept putting them up, it was funny as hell to see people stealing the ads. I would sit on the train sometimes to see people’s reactions to them because I was curious. Then there was this one time I saw a dude take it and stuff it in his bag. I was like holy shit, this is really nice.
I saw several Bonnie & Clyde type deals: A guy was shielding his girlfriend while she took it down, shoved it in her bag and walked out. I don’t get mad because they’re meant to stay up. If those people are happy then I’m happy
One of my favorite moments was with these two old ladies. They saw me putting up an ad that had my skully character holding a Bleh the Buddha flag. They asked me what I was doing and what it was. And to be honest, I didn’t really know what I was doing. I just said they were toy soldiers marching around holding up flags. Then they asked if they could have it because they were going back to Venezuela. I said sure, signed it for them and they got off the train.
Even though they stopped me from what I was doing, I felt rewarded because I felt like they appreciated what I did. I think they were totally punk they just didn’t know it, so they respect the Punk Buddha.
“Just because someone is using a medium outside of the traditional graffiti methods does not make it ‘graffiti.'”
You refer to yourself as a “public enhancer” rather than street artist or graffiti artist. How did you come up with this term and what are the distinctions between the three?
My boss was the one who first spoke the words “Public Enhancing” and as soon as she said that I knew that would be a thing because it sounded so good. I asked if I could borrow those words and she was fine with it. I made it public and further developed it.
I started using the term “Public Enhancements” and “Public Enhancer” as a label for someone who enhances the public space with their artwork no matter the medium, execution, and technique. There are some people out there who associate graffiti to be a specific way and it is only called graffiti based on the mediums you used which are cans, rollers, markers, and stickers.
“Street art” is associated with the modern day hippie and things like wheatpasting, stencils, and other mediums outside of the tradition. Just because someone is using a medium outside of the traditional graffiti methods does not make it ‘graffiti.’ The basic culture of graffiti was about how much you get up in the streets.
“Graffiti “ and “street art” follow these same principals of “getting up” so why do we have to label ourselves like this? Then again I understand where artists are coming from when they call themselves graffiti writers rather than graffiti artists. Or when someone says not all graffiti can be street art and not all street art can be graffiti.
I used the term public enhancer as this one single label because no matter your technique and medium you use to create your craft, you will always be a public enhancer.
I know you recently got into some legal troubles because of your art and now you have to pay a huge fine while at the same time paying for school. What happened exactly and how have you been able to deal with it?
March 1st was the day I got my second arrest. I was sitting in my thursday night class and not even five minutes in my teacher tells me someone was there to see me. I walk to the door and see two security guards that work at my school.
A few days before, one of my friends told me to keep my head low around school because he was in the same situation for tagging outside of a school building. I knew I was in some kind of trouble but not sure what.
We take the elevator to the top floor and the first thing I see are three or four CPD officers. I knew I was fucked. An Officer approaches me saying, “ Do you know why you are under arrest?” And I said, “No.” Because at this point I’m confused as hell. He told me I was under arrest for “destruction of government property.” When he mentioned the CTA it was all clear: the fake CTA signs. Then shit went down.
They looked through my bag and saw some CTA stickers I was planning to put up after school and one of the guys with a smile on his face says, “Yep, this is our guy.”
I forgot how uncomfortable handcuffs were, but I was calm the whole time. When it comes to some of the work I do, I know there are consequences. I was fully aware of them. Shit happens.
At the station they handcuffed me to a table and laid out all of the CTA signs and stickers I had in my bag. They were taking photos and even laughing at the signs because of how ridiculous they were. They were all basically saying “this is really good work, but you should put this work into something else”.
I was escorted to an all white room with a gray mat, a toilet, a water fountain, and a single window. The only thing I could see was the cell across from me. I was there from 6:30pm to 5am.
I was charged with a felony for “damaging government property” and was transferred to Cook County Jail. The ground was full of dirt and dust like it hadn’t been swept for months. As soon as you go from the basement (where the cells are) to the top floor (where the judges are), everything is clean and spotless. Kings and Queens dine on that floor while the rats and savages roam in the basement. I was there from 5am to 8:30pm.
My dad picked me up took me home and we talked about what happened. Same with my mom. They just told me to don’t do it again. They weren’t hard on me at all because they know how much I blame myself for things. So thank you mom and dad.
Even then, I was still depressed. To top it all off, when I came home to see if all of my stuff was in my bag, I noticed that they even took one of my sketchbooks. I dumped out my bag just to make sure I was blind or stupid, but that was not the case. The guys who arrested me took my sketchbook and the day I lose my sketchbook is the day I don’t go on living anymore.
My agreement for my case was to say I am guilty and appear in front of a judge at court. They told me that I have to finish all 4 of my court dates if want to get my sketchbook back. These court meetups span within a year and the next one is in June to get my sketchbook. I also have to meet a parole officer every month which is not fun.
I found out that I did $2,039 worth of damage to the CTA. Now, I have to pay for such damages out of pocket despite being a college student. So that really sucks.
It was getting dark out and we were on the Orange Line train. His stop approached and our conversation came to a rapid end. We said our goodbyes and he got off the train. The doors closed behind him as he walked away, and he blended in with the rest of the people from the city. The train kept going. All I could think about was the depth that art around the city has. For a lot of people in the city, art like Bleh’s is seen as just a piece of paper or vandalism. When you sit down with these artists and listen to them explain their concept, motive, and practice, you realize that these individuals have so much potential. They aren’t dumb criminals. They’re people with profound visions.
After two hours of talking in the coffee shop and another hour talking on the trains, I was able to gain an appreciation for this artist and his alter ego Bleh the Punk Buddha. Xavier, a junior in college from Chicago, has so much passion for the work that he does. It seeps out through his pores and in the way he talks about his projects. Despite the recent consequences of his passion, he continues to share Bleh with the city.
There is currently has a GoFundMe page to help him in paying the fine. In return, you can get really cool stickers and other goodies when you donate to his page at https://www.gofundme.com/free-the-punk-buddha. When you walk around the city, keep an eye out for Bleh and give into the corruption. Also, you can keep up with his work on his Instagram #blehthebuddha.
Most importantly, though, remember to Respect the Punk Buddha.