Who are you and what do you have to say?
These are life’s pressing questions that send us in pursuit to identify ourselves sensationally, discover our voice, and find what it is that we have to say. For Kaves, a Brooklyn artist, these answers have been revealed to him through various artistic mediums and all began with an attempt to make something of himself.
“This was all me really wanting to become something,” he says. A multipotentialite, Kaves is a graffiti artist, tattooist, musician, filmmaker, and much more. His exploration began at a young age when he found that he had a talent for graffiti art and decided to start honing the skill. Entirely self taught, he had to instill discipline in himself and figure things out on his own. “It was a lot—you have to find what markers, what paper—from what can, to cap, to wall, to train. These are the steps I had to take.”
He was a quick learner, however, and got right into concepting—investing hours into mastering his craft. At just 15, he began painting whole handball courts and branding himself by plastering his name everywhere. “With graffiti, most people can pass by and not even give a shit about it while other people are looking at the style, the letters—the technical stuff, y’know? The many layers of it. So, learning that over the years, you start to find your own style—your own voice.”
“With graffiti, most people can pass by and not even give a shit about it while other people are looking at the style, the letters—the technical stuff, y’know? The many layers of it. So, learning that over the years, you start to find your own style—your own voice.”
A great influence in this journey to find this voice was the book Spray Can Art by Henry Chalfant—known as a graffiti bible of sorts—where he found much of his inspiration in his youth. “Chalfant took this cultural phenomenon globally—exploring this art form all over the world,” Kaves says, “and it was real cool, because here I am—I’m this Brooklyn kid, reaching to Paris and Japan. I would go to the top of my apartment building and look at the bridge, and it was a symbol—like my graffiti art could take me anywhere.”
Lest we forget that graffiti is (sadly) illegal, so it was only a matter of time before Kaves got into trouble. Nothing is more disheartening than having your expression suppressed and your voice taken away from you. He painfully remembers, “That was devastating for me because I thought that was my shot.” However, he would not succumb to this setback and let his story fall on deaf ears. “I took the knowledge of the graffiti, and the craftsmanship and branding of it. And I realized that my story could be told in ways other than just visually—like musically,” he beams. “In the school yards in the 50’s, street kids didn’t need nothin’ but a finger snap, a piece of cardboard, and a little harmony to catapult them out of their poverty.”
Kaves marvelously recounts his experiences—in such a fascinating manner that you feel like you were actually there in the thick of this lively Brooklyn environment with incredible rhythm pulsing through you. The sounds and energy are translated through his words as he sets the scene, ”Eventually hip hop came, and now you don’t really have to sing that well, or you could just take words and put them in a way where it becomes music. And you’re like, fuck, I want to do that.” He continues, ”Hip hop was this thing—more than anything I’d ever seen before—where you felt like you belonged…And now you’re feeling what real electric is—as much electric as the third rail.” People didn’t have much then, not in the way we do now. Music was meaningful—a life force—a chance to do and be something.
“And it’s funny,” Kaves explains, “because everybody has their own interpretation of it, but I was there in New York City. I knew what it was to be involved in something and how it gave us all life—because otherwise it was bleak.”
”Eventually hip hop came, and now you don’t really have to sing that well, or you could just take words and put them in a way where it becomes music. And you’re like, fuck, I want to do that.” He continues, ”Hip hop was this thing—more than anything I’d ever seen before—where you felt like you belonged…And now you’re feeling what real electric is—as much electric as the third rail.”
This was during the earlier years of the crack and AIDS epidemics, where New York City was riddled with fear, addiction, and destitution. ”You see many levels of it, in all parts of the neighborhood—in the white neighborhoods, the black, the puerto rican neighborhoods,” he says. “And people always try to separate people from above. But deep down in the cracks and crevices of it, there’s culture to it. There’s music, there’s celebration of life.” More than celebration, this was survival. “We knew this was the only way we were going to survive, that it was our way out. And that’s how that all came to be.”
And thus, they took that music and those influences, and he and his brother created their hip hop/rock crossover band, The Lordz of Brooklyn. The band has collaborated with many influential artists over the years, such as RUN DMC, Busta Rhymes, and KoRn—to name a few.
Kaves’ outlook on art began to change and expand as he started to look at everything as art—in all its varying forms. “I always did. Everything to me was like an art installation, or a movement—and that I don’t have to just use one medium.” Art was all encompassing to him now and he began to realize.. “I could tell these stories in different ways; like picking up a movie camera, or break dancing.”With Lordz of Brooklyn, Kaves was now able to express himself through music, and as he toured the world he picked little things up to put into his artistic arsenal, and onto his palette.
”Then you have Kaves from Brooklyn, Lordz of Brooklyn—that in itself has so much texture to it, that even as an adult, I’m still unearthing all of the textures to my life and my surroundings, and still expressing them through my paintings, sculptures, films—even acting.”
One thing that kept coming back to Kaves as a true inspiration was Brooklyn. “I felt like that’s who we really were. It was like, if you had nothing, your environment will show you what you do have. And Brooklyn was like a religion—or a nationality—to us. Something more than anything else.” Kaves continues, ”Then you have Kaves from Brooklyn, Lordz of Brooklyn—that in itself has so much texture to it, that even as an adult, I’m still unearthing all of the textures to my life and my surroundings, and still expressing them through my paintings, sculptures, films—even acting.” His art, in all its forms, truly embodies the brilliance of the borough.
Tattooing was another facet of artistic storytelling that Kaves adopted—one in which he spent 20 years doing. “The tattooists were always high up in the food chain. Very noble profession,” he expresses. “In a working class neighborhood, art can be looked at as… Ehh. It’s not being a gangster, or a cop, or a sports hero…But the tattooist was tough. They’re doing art but it’s got more of an edginess to it…Like an outlaw thing.” Kaves was always drawn to that outlaw, rebelistic side of the tracks. He is a nostalgic fool when it comes to the likes of James Dean and old greaser and gang culture. “Tattooing is sort of mysterious, like a graffiti writer. But in graffiti, we put our name up and it gets erased or it gets buffed. But a tattoo, when someone puts that on their body, they are proud to wear your art.”
More than that, Kaves was drawn to tattooing for the idea that “you could lend your art where somebody passes away in a way that it becomes therapy, and becomes only something that people wear as a badge of honor. I thought that was the coolest shit for an artist to have.”
This artistic endeavor was also an attempt to avoid being a starving artist in more than one way. Not only was it a means to make money in between touring with The Lordz, but it served mostly as a method to fulfill his desire to constantly create and color the world. He could’ve chosen many side hustles, but he figured if he had to make a living then why not do so providing a service you were born to do. “There are other things you can do,” he says, “but to do what you love and be able to take this tattoo machine with me wherever I go and make some money, that felt really cool. That felt really noble.”
“Being a tattoo artist for 20 years takes a lot of energy out of you, you’re always working with the public—even being out as a graffiti writer. There’s a lot of noise and static. But when you’re here, alone, painting by yourself it’s more personal.”
Now semi-retired, he prefers the intimacy of his fine art and personal paintings. “It gets very physical,” he says. “Being a tattoo artist for 20 years takes a lot of energy out of you, you’re always working with the public—even being out as a graffiti writer. There’s a lot of noise and static. But when you’re here, alone, painting by yourself it’s more personal.”
His motif is still Brooklyn, as it always has been, but the specific inspirations of it are ever changing—much like the borough itself. “I’ve always done these Brooklyn landscapes—they used to be real literal illustrated versions, but now they have more textures and feelings. It’s like the environment around you will dictate your color, tone, and mood.” The discoveries he makes through that unearthing of his life and surroundings—of Brooklyn—are transcribed into his depthful work.
This is further exemplified as he unravels his recent artistic revelations and influences, “Lately, especially because of the pandemic, there was a rush to write your name everywhere—but people will buff it. A lot of my recent work is influenced by the buff, where people will go and take their house paint or whatever they find—and buff the graffiti.”
He continues, ”Let’s say there’s a beige building, and there’s some graffiti on it, right? Well they say, ‘I wanna show them’ and they take this orange color, or this gray, brown—whatever—and they paint over the graffiti. The mark they leave when painting over is graffiti in itself. But now, it’s making art without them even knowing.” Kaves, being very keen to these splotches on the wall, has been taking photos of them and using them as his backgrounds for paintings—layering them underneath. “Some of the photos are paintings to me as is, and I don’t even touch them. Because you see it, it’s there. And tomorrow it won’t be.”
He is a firm believer that there is art all around if you’re hip to it and your antenna is up. He exclaims, “Cliche as it might sound, there’s fucking art everywhere—you just have to interpret that, as an artist.” Life and art alike are in the eye of the beholder, and what is uniquely seen as art to you is art—nobody can take that away from you. There is endless inspiration to be found when you shift your perspective in this way.
“Cliche as it might sound, there’s fucking art everywhere—you just have to interpret that, as an artist.”
Kaves’ various mediums serve as conduits for his story—or stories, rather. He makes you realize just how synonymous the words artist and author are with every work of art, as he etches the words of his chronicles into the world. This is Kaves: a Brooklyn boy who started out with nothing, picked up a spray can, and followed it’s trajectory to greatness. And as for what he has to say? This is it: “You’re being told you’re nothing because you don’t got shit. But you can create something out of nothing.”