UP2 - The Greenpoint Skull: Suitswon & the Legacy of a Landmark

Written by Lonnie Richards
Photos by Lonnie Richards & Zurbaran

Whether you’re into street art or not, you’ll recognize the Greenpoint Skull. You’ve probably seen it on social media, or, if you’re lucky, in person. I was introduced to the piece via Instagram and was instantly intrigued. I scanned through every post featuring the skull, and tried to find out more. It sits on the edge of the East River, off the in­tersection of Oak and West Street in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. To get there, you have to trek down a hard gravel path, passing a construction site to your right and a canopied gate to your left. Once you reach the end, you can approach the skull.

The first time I visited, it rained the night be­fore, so I had to hike through mud and small rocks. I destroyed my shoes, but once I was in front of the skull, I didn’t care about my kicks. I wanted some good shots and to be one of the lucky few to see it up close. I took over 30 photos in an effort to get the piece from every angle. It was larger than I expected. It had been tagged, but the skull was so big, it didn’t matter. The bright green foliage that protruded from its eyes gave it an interesting color contrast. Everything about the piece was symmetri­cal. The teeth, nose and chin were perfect, as if the two large holes in the building were made for the skull.

Photo by Zurbaran

Satisfied, I decided to simply marvel at the skull and the majestic sunset in the distance. I gazed at the skyscrapers and listened to the sounds of the river. Just then, I noticed a security guard approaching me. He accidently stepped in the mud, and from his reaction, it was clear that he wasn’t as care-free about it as I was. He yelled, “this is private property.” I was done anyway, and I walked back out through the mud, happy to have found it.

Before I went to see the Greenpoint Skull, T.K. and I had the opportunity to interview Greg Suits, aka Suitswon, the artist who created the piece. We called Suitswon, who was in Atlanta at the time, and began with a little small talk. I was eager to learn more about the infamous Greenpoint Skull and his views as an artist. So we set in and started our questioning.

Suitswon is originally from Miami, Florida and has been painting since 2000. “The very first piece of graffiti I ever did was on New Year’s Eve 1999 [in Miami.] I could hear the people counting down as I was painting.” He continued, “we woke up the next morning, New Year’s Day, to look at the wall and immediately got arrested. My buddy and I were like thirteen years old. We got slapped around by the cops, put in handcuffs, and told we were stupid.”

“The very first piece of graffiti I ever did was on New Year’s Eve 1999 [in Miami.] I could hear the people counting down as I was painting.” He continued, “we woke up the next morning, New Year’s Day, to look at the wall and immediately got arrested. My buddy and I were like thirteen years old. We got slapped around by the cops, put in handcuffs, and told we were stupid.”

The conversation led to the origin of his name. “When I was in the 8th grade, I started writing SEX. I thought at the time it was a fast three letters, good for bombing, and also, it was provocative.” He wrote SEX for twelve years, before falling off to focus on his career in film.

One morning on his way to work he looked out the car window to find “Justin Bieber November 13th” on a wall. According to Suitswon, Bieber had paid a graffiti artist to do his album release date on a wall in LA. It bothered him. The whole day at work he thought about it, and while on his lunch break he bought spray paint. “I got six white cans and three black cans and was like, ‘I’m going to go fix that.’” After work, he went up the 101 Freeway to the Cahuenga Pass in Hollywood, where he wrote GREG SUITS TODAY above and below the corporate graff. “That was four or five years ago. I ended up seeing [Bieber] later on and I told him I did it, and he didn’t know what the fuck I was talking about because he’s in a different world. That’s how I ended up writing SUITS, because it’s my last name. I added WON because I liked those letters and it’s fun to write.”

Suitswon painted the infamous Greenpoint Skull during the Fall of 2017. He was exploring the area while walking his dog, looking for spots to paint. “I was like, ‘that thing just needs a jaw and nose and it will look like a skull.’” So he took his dog home and went back out at one o’clock in the morning. Using planks of wood from the trash in the yard, he shimmied up and painted the nose and under the eyes.  “I had an entire backpack of white paint and a shopping bag full of black spray cans for the outline.”

There was a stack of heavy debris he couldn’t move, so the highest he could reach was the top row of the teeth. “It’s bigger than it looks, people don’t realize. I wish I could have gone higher and thicker for the outline in the original painting. It was just way over my head at the time, but I made it work with what I had.” He ended up painting for four hours, but was shocked when he realized that the building was sucking up all the paint. “I killed like seven cans of paint and I wasn’t even able to fill it solid.”

Suitswon painted the infamous Greenpoint Skull during the Fall of 2017. He was exploring the area while walking his dog, looking for spots to paint. “I was like, ‘that thing just needs a jaw and nose and it will look like a skull.’”

I was curious as to what message or meaning Suitswon was hoping to convey with the piece. “That’s an interesting question. I was just trying to do something that captures the attention of people that are not graffiti artists.” Suitswon wasn’t trying to bomb or to put his name on anything, it was more about painting for fun. “I’m not pushing some crew. It was more about ‘this wall happens to need this,’ and I did it and I hope people liked it… and I guess people did.” He confessed that he was also trying to impress his girlfriend.

When asked about the reception his piece received on the internet, Suitswon said, “I was very surprised that it caught so much wind. And that’s great, but it put a lot of pressure on me honestly.” He explained that now the bar has been raised. “Each piece that I paint should be better than the last. And once you do something like that, and people really like it, you start doing other things and you’re like, ‘oh my god, it’s not as good as that skull.’”

For Suitswon, it changed his outlook on graffiti. “I used to bomb, I used to be like ‘more, more, more, do more bombing.’ That was how I used to think graffiti was.” He thought graffiti was putting his name in as many places as he could. Now it’s more about impact over volume. “If I can grab the attention of people who notice… One thing that sucks about the graffiti world is that graffiti artists are so competitive.” He explained that as a graffiti artist, you’re always up against someone else, or someone is always trying to go over you. After the skull he realized he could do more by grabbing the attention of people who are not graffiti artists.

When asked about the reception his piece received on the internet, Suitswon said, “I was very surprised that it caught so much wind. And that’s great, but it put a lot of pressure on me honestly.”

Speaking of competition, Suitswon said that some people have tried to go over the skull, and he’s had to go back and fix it. “There was this one dude who was very disappointed about it and he trolled me on the internet. While I was in Las Vegas, someone posted a photo that the same dude went and toyed it up. Which is fine. The skull ate it up like a champ, you can barely see it.”

There is a tension between street artists and graffiti artists, but if you visit Suitswon’s Instagram page, you will see a little bit of both. T.K. and I were curious about how Suitswon classified himself. “I consider myself a post-graffiti street artist, if that makes sense. I use to be a ‘graffiti artist’, but I have learned over 20 years that you can paint for 20 years and people will still hate you so much in the graffiti world.”

Suitswon gave us his take on the beef between the two worlds. “Graffiti writers don’t like street artists, because street artists take that medium, the street, and pull that attention away from regular bombers. Graffiti artists hate that shit.” He understands and supports graffiti, but considers himself a street artist because he no longer bombs as hard as he used to. And when he does paint, he tries to be much more specific.

“Graffiti writers don’t like street artists, because street artists take that medium, the street, and pull that attention away from regular bombers. Graffiti artists hate that shit.”

“I used to write SEX and that would get buffed so quick. It would be disappointing, and I would think, ‘I gotta go paint now, more, more, more.’ Now, I’m looking at walls like, ‘what can I do that will stay under the radar, that won’t get painted over so quickly.’” Suitswon is motivated to make art that lasts a long time. Considering street art is still illegal, he tries to create pieces that will be worth risking his freedom and won’t get painted over right away.

Our conversation shifted to the artist’s personal life. “Miami is my favorite place to paint. That’s where I grew up doing graffiti. After, I went out to LA for like eight years.” He painted out there, but admitted he was always by himself because he wasn’t in with the LA graffiti scene. “I kind of painted by myself, and didn’t do anything very substantial, except for that GREG SUITS TODAY thing over Justin Bieber.” After LA, he moved to New York City and spent a lot of time in Brooklyn. He stayed there for two and a half years. Currently, he is based in Atlanta, where he practices in his studio.

I lived in south Atlanta for eighteen years, before moving to NYC in 2012, and I never really saw much street art. I was personally interested in hearing what the scene there was like. “Man, the graffiti artists are super pleasant. It’s that southern politeness,” Suitswon explained. “Although I’ve only been here a couple months, I already have friends that are asking me to come paint… I like Georgia, I like Atlanta, and I’m here now. The graffiti scene is a little slower. There are three or four people that bomb really hard, which is great, and there’s a bunch of street artists that hang out. It’s cool, I like it.”

When I stood in front of the Greenpoint Skull, I noticed the aesthetics surrounding the piece: the wall it’s on, the stone rubble beneath it, the river passing by, and the city skyline in the background. With this in mind, I asked Suitswon if he felt that environment shapes the audience’s interpretation of art.

“100%. The environment affects everything and can change perception. The weather, the clouds, the light, the background, and the water.” Suitswon feels that the environment was what made the Greenpoint Skull so popular and iconic.

“100%. The environment affects everything and can change perception. The weather, the clouds, the light, the background, and the water.” Suitswon feels that the environment was what made the Greenpoint Skull so popular and iconic.

I asked Suitswon if he was working on anything now. “The projects I have in the works are all on the fly, to be honest with you. It all depends. I am very much an environment painter, so the environment helps the feel of everything that I paint.” Right now, he is laying low, painting in his Atlanta studio with acrylic, trying not to put too much pressure on himself. “I don’t want to be a one hit wonder, but at the same time I don’t want to stress the fuck out.”

Before the interview, Suitswon had confessed he was nervous to talk with us. Towards the end, we asked him why. “I just think that people, when they hear an artist speak, it changes their perspective on the art. When someone who doesn’t know who I am, sees the skull, they can create their own perception of the story behind it.” He was worried that when people read this article, they might say, “‘oh, he didn’t even have enough paint. He’s a fucking hack.’” But after the interview, he expressed that he was no longer worried about it. “I prefer that the skull, or any of my paintings, have their own story and not the story of the artist. I guess I was nervous because I didn’t want anyone to think I suck,” he said laughing.

As we closed the interview, I asked Suitswon if there was anything else he wanted to share with our audience. He thought about it for a few seconds before stating, “No, I guess not. There’s really not much else to say, except that I’m really appreciative that the skull has gone as far as it has gone. I hope I can make something as good or close to what that was in the future. I’ll be working on it –I won’t stop.”

Mr. Candid // Lonnie Richards grew up in Morrow, Georgia. He started his career in investigative work in the military from 2002-09. While the other Intel collectors asked on-the-nose questions, Lonnie won an award for his more practical approach of using candid and non-leading modes of questioning. Today, Lonnie uses his prior reporting, photography, and video approach from the military to cover subjects in the Direct Cinema style of cinematography. Lonnie has a bachelor’s degree in American History and a double minor in Western Philosophy and Ethnic Studies. He has a general love for culture and art but a particular passion for covering graffiti culture and other counterculture movements.

Insta: @theanthropol