Crime, Money, and Hustle: The Layers of Sean Sullivan [Part 1]

Written by T.K. Mills

Art by @LayerCakeny // Photo by @t.k.m85

I heard about Sean Sullivan, the artist known to some as LayerCake, long before I met him. I knew nothing other than his Instagram — an impressive resume of projects and a combative Insta-story. The word around town: He’s an asshole, a bully, a hustler.

“Everything you’ve heard about me is true,” Sullivan grinned. “And I’m worse than that.”

I arrived at his studio in Mount Vernon’s Mes Hall on a weekday morning, as I would on several occasions over the course of this article. Sullivan was already up and working.

Boasting a prolific portfolio of canvases, Sullivan’s style is characterized by heavily layered pieces featuring pop icons and comic book characters, polished to perfection. His art puts an original spin on old ideas.

When I entered, he was cutting a stencil for one of his commissions. A big man with a stubbled jaw and tattoo sleeves covering both arms, Sullivan emanates a tough guy aura. Despite his size, he held the knife gracefully.

Sullivan stood to shake my hand, and we both took a seat. I put the recorder on the table, ready for our interview. I had countless questions for New York’s most notorious artist.

The word around town: He’s an asshole, a bully, a hustler. “Everything you’ve heard about me is true,” Sullivan grinned. “And I’m worse than that.”

Art by @LayerCakeny // Photo by @mrcandid0_0

House Arrest

“I didn’t know what to do with myself. I was being investigated. The FBI, the DEA, both were up my ass. So I was staying at home… and I just started painting.”

At thirty years old, Sullivan found himself caught in the crossfire of a federal indictment. His case involved 48 co-defendants as part of a crackdown on an international drug-trafficking racket. Sullivan faced a mandatory minimum of twenty years. The prime of his life would be spent behind bars.

“They didn’t take us lightly. They came after us… We were just a bunch of kids trying to sell some pot. It got a little out of hand.”

Sean Sullivan, aka LayerCake in the studio // Photo by @mrcandid0_0

By Sullivan’s account, the Feds claimed their business was circulating nearly $2.7 million worth of marijuana. Serious business. Sullivan hired a good lawyer — Mike Rosen, one of the best. According to Sullivan, he was a real “Mafioso” type. He knew the system and how to work it. Immediately, Rosen went to bat for Sullivan, introducing him to important figures and building their defense.

“I didn’t know what to do with myself. I was being investigated. The FBI, the DEA, both were up my ass. So I was staying at home… and I just started painting.”

Sullivan’s lawyer fought his case and was able to cut a deal.

“I didn’t rat. I didn’t give anybody up. I submitted my guilty plea and accepted my fate.”

Integrity intact, Sullivan beat prison time and the worst of the charges. He received a relatively light sentence of one-year house arrest and 10 years probation.

Back in the studio, Sullivan put down the exacto knife to show me his right hand, tattooed with his lawyer’s name. Sullivan’s body is a canvas of images, with arms that captured different people and moments in his life. Among them, the names of his children and his grandma.

At the outset, Sullivan took the victory. But as he found himself trapped in his home, the consequences began to add up. A good lawyer isn’t cheap, and Sullivan burned through his savings paying legal fees.

Juggling money troubles, mounting stress, and an uncertain future led Sullivan to jolt awake at night in cold sweats. Unable to sleep, his restless mind racing, Sean turned to the only escape he had — painting.

His first finished piece was a portrait of Batman.

Art by @LayerCakeny // Photo by @mrcandid0_0

New York Hustler

Growing up through New York’s rougher years in the 80s and 90s, Sullivan found himself caught between worlds — the rich and the poor. Born to a blue collar family, his father was a detective in the bomb squad. and his mother the superintendent for a tenant building. They lived on 71st Street, near Lincoln Center Theater.

The Amsterdam projects were down the block, along with poverty and crime. On the weekends, his mother sent him to stay with his grandmother near Gun Hill Road & Fordham in the Bronx.

“We were poor but living in a middle class world. [There were] a lot of blurred lines,” Sullivan explained.

Hoping to shield him from a destructive environment, Sullivan’s parents saved up to send the him to private school in fourth grade. While there, he made friends with the children of the ultra-wealthy. His classmates were celebrity kids, including family members of CNN media magnate and billionaire Ted Turner. Sullivan described it as having “the luxury of being in two different communities.” He was kicked out within two years. By then, Sullivan was drawn to the allure of money. A natural born hustler, he found his own way to make it.

Kathy, a seamstress for opera singers at the Lincoln Center and girlfriend to one of his mother’s tenants, exposed Sullivan to the fashion world’s opulence and splendor.

“I was just the fat kid who carried her purse. But she brought me into a new world… She was the first person to really show me there’s a dope scene in New York City.”

She paid the adolescent Sullivan to go down to the Fashion District and pick up silk, and other fabrics for her costumes. As he described her, Kathy “was an eccentric, she’d walk around naked smoking pot.”

Through Kathy, Sullivan became acquainted with the amenities of high-class living. She took him to shows and performances. These trips would leave a lasting impression. Later, as an artist, one of his early professional paintings would be a ballerina, a nod to Kathy’s influence.

In high school, Sullivan began selling weed. He used his connections to become a middle man between dealers on the streets and rich white kids who formed their clientele. “I knew the importance of networking.” Sullivan explained.

Rich kids threw house parties in their parents’ penthouse apartments, and Sullivan would show up with a couple buddies to make deals. They made a lot of money, very quickly. Among the real gangsters, Sullivan earned a reputation as a reliable contact.

“People looked at me like, ‘Sean’s the man, he can do for us, we can do for him. He’s putting money in our pocket. We stay loyal,’” Sullivan recalled. “I never fucked anybody over… who didn’t deserve it,” he added with a smirk.

The high-level dealers saw value in Sullivan, and he began to climb ranks in the marijuana trade. However, in the broader city environment, this class bridge built on drugs began to show its cracks.

“These rich kids wanted to be poor. They wanted to be gangsters. The poor got energy from the rich kids fantasizing about them.”

The money flowing around them began to have consequences.

The money flowing around them began to have consequences.

In May 1997, when Sullivan was seventeen, a middle-aged uptown man was found “stabbed, eviscerated and left floating in a lake in Central Park.” (New York Times) The story made front page news when readers learned the killers were two teenagers, both fifteen years old. Daphne Abdela, a daughter of the Upper West Side elite, was the mastermind behind the murder. She was also Sullivan’s former classmate.

Nicknamed the ‘Baby-Faced Butchers’ by tabloids, their relationship elicited sensational reactions. Abdela and her co-conspirator Christopher Vasquez, a poor, shy Puerto Rican boy attracted the press and alongside publicity came heavy scrutiny. This exposed the co-mingling of rich and poor to the world, portraying it in an negative light.

Shockwaves from the killing disrupted the drug market, although the power players managed to maneuver forward, finding new opportunities. Sullivan’s experience taught him adaptability. “I was able to move smoothly between these two worlds,” he explained.

Over the years, Sullivan continued to expand his businesses. While attending SUNY Delhi he sold clothing, designing and hawking t-shirts, anything he could sell. Years later, after serving his time on house arrest, Sullivan opened up a food truck.

Sullivan’s Feed Your Hole received acclaim, both for the food he sold and his entrepreneurial spirit. The DNAInfo report reads – “Feed Your Hole Food Truck Debuts with Attitude in Midtown.” The food truck drew a diverse lunch crowd, and while Sullivan prepared and cooked the food, his patrons would marvel at the Batman painting hanging in his truck.

One day a customer asked Sullivan about the Batman piece. After the artist explained its origins, the man asked him to paint Spiderman.  Sullivan accepted the commission. Soon after, there was a request for a Captain America canvas.

The new cash flow encouraged Sullivan to consider becoming a professional artist.

He thought, “I’m never going back to the food truck!”

In the studio, he laughed, remembering, “then I didn’t sell another painting [on my own] for another year.”

One of Sullivan’s piece in the collection of Dan Ovadia

Arriving on the Scene

In the studio, Sullivan’s phone started ringing and he put down the tools of the trade to pick it up. “It never stops,” he grumbled. “Ain’t that right Reso?”

Reso914, a street artist and studio mate at the Mes Hall, had just arrived and started setting up shop. Sullivan finished his phone call. It was Peter Lenkov calling, an executive producer known for Hawaii 5-0. He was a collector of Sullivan’s work and had just ordered a new commission.

It wasn’t until his house arrest that Sullivan dove into the craft, and it wasn’t until years later that he became a professional artist. But his association with the scene goes way back. As a kid he tagged the block, but a harsh lesson from Christopher Wool, an older graffiti writer, led Sullivan to doubt art as a career.

“When I was in 9th grade, we took a trip to see [a graffiti exhibit] at a museum. I brought my black book, because I wanted the artist to sign it. I brought it to [Wool,] and I remember telling him ‘I’m a graffiti artist!’ He turned to me and said, ‘There’s no money in graffiti, kid.’”

‘There’s no money in graffiti, kid.’

This mentality stuck with Sullivan. In the early 2000s, he attended a Banksy show, in the years before Exit Through the Gift Shop made Banksy a global name. Sullivan checked out the pieces, including one which depicts Native Americans chucking spears at a helicopter. At the time Sullivan thought, “no one is gonna pay for this shit.”

In his early twenties, Sullivan was running his own fashion company. Being a resourceful business operator, he used guerrilla street marketing to promote his brand. MTV’s TRL was one of the most popular shows on TV, and the intro segment panned over the crowd outside the studio. Sullivan painted a stencil for his fashion brand, so when the camera filmed the audience, his logo would be broadcast nationally.

It was through the fashion world that Sullivan knew Bradley Theodore, who would go on to make a successful transition from design to street art. Sullivan cultivated his connections to bolster his career.

After his arrest, but before his sentencing, Sullivan was mingling with the art world and forging new contacts. No one wanted to invest in him as they thought he would end up in prison. That was until Dom Pattinson took him on as an apprentice. Pattinson’s pop art style became a hit with celebrity collectors, including Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.

Sullivan practiced street art fundamentals with Pattinson as they painted New York City.

“I was his paint bitch, carrying his cans. And in return, I went out wheat pasting and doing stencils with him. … Eventually he put me on.”

Pattinson returned the favor by featuring Sullivan in a high profile art show. The show took place on the Fourth of July, near the end of his house sentence. However, he needed special written permission from a judge to leave his home. Pattinson wrote a character letter in Sullivan’s support and the court offered leniency. Sullivan arrived at the party with GPS tracker on his ankle. The other artists clowned him for the anklet, but Sullivan laughed it off in good humor.

The show was a success, providing Sullivan more legitimacy. Immediately, he made the move to start showing in galleries. “I skipped the starving artist part. I got in the door through somebody, but I stayed in the building,” he explained.

Art by Sullivan, hanging in POP International Gallery

Swagger & Style

“Artists possess something that other people don’t have… its magic,” Sullivan philosophized, cutting another stencil layer. We were discussing what it meant to be an artist. In his creative transformation, Sullivan discovered the power of art. However, he maintained his hustler mentality.

“Artists possess something that other people don’t have… its magic”

Now in his third year as a professional artist, his resume boasts the launch of several major projects — including the founding of the Drip Project, launching the First City Project art renovation, a residence at the World Trade Center, and a fine art show at HG Contemporary. All were successes.

“I’m 4 for 4,” Sullivan said with a grin.

Sullivan has cultivated his own distinct style over the course of his career. A long time comic-book junkie, he got the idea for his trademark technique when his comic collection got flooded. He repurposed the water-damaged pages onto a canvas to create art. “I like using old stuff and making it new,” he explained.

The artwork that emerged is a heavily layered mix of comic pages, glue, stencils, spray, and paint. Despite the messy mix, Sullivan’s great talent as an artist lies in his polish. His finishing techniques leave every piece looking sleek and glossy, resulting in canvases that shine.

Sullivan recalled how galleries had rosyed up his art name. According to them, ‘LayerCake was a metaphor for his layering of styles.’ “That’s all bullshit,” he said, laughing. The name LayerCake was inspired by the eponymous British crime film, Layer Cake, about a trafficker in the cocaine business who hopes to retire from the drug trade.

“Honest to God, you wanna know the real reason I layer my shit so much? Because that’s what it takes to make my art look good. I do it so I put out quality.”

“Honest to God, you wanna know the real reason I layer my shit so much? Because that’s what it takes to make my art look good. I do it so I put out quality.”

In his quick rise, both his art and his pugnacious Instagram have earned the artist a number of detractors and enemies. According to Sullivan, when he was first experimenting with his style, he didn’t pay attention to what other artists were painting. The street art world wasn’t on his radar.

“It wasn’t until people started comparing me to other guys that I actually looked up their stuff. I was like, ‘oh that’s cool.’ But that’s the problem with street art. Everyone is influenced by the same shit.”

Although his work resembles the aesthetic, Sullivan doesn’t consider himself a street artist. Rather, he calls himself a contemporary artist. In his younger years, Sullivan would write graffiti, but these days he mostly works with canvas. As such, some in the community felt his appropriation of a street art aesthetic made him a culture vulture. Sullivan wasn’t afraid to shoot back.

“I was called out, but I could do burners. So I did a burner piece, it was killer. And the second picture was of a painter white-washing it. So I said, ‘burned you motherfuckers.’”

“Social media, that’s your resume. Literally, that’s your B-roll. It’s your dailies. Your Wikipedia. It’s your everything. The problem is, that is also gives everybody a false sense of security.”

Instagram is Sullivan’s platform of choice, and his boisterous attitude, promotional content, and stylish art have helped cultivate a major following.

Sullivan took out his phone and proved his point. The artist pointed out the ratio of people following him to the amount of likes his photos got. (At the time, he had ~12.5k followers. At the time of this writing, it is ~14.5k.) A brief scroll showed me he had above 1,000 likes on most. Then he flipped it and showed several other artists with similar follower numbers. All of them only had several hundred likes.

“All these artists, they’re buying followers. But they can’t hide the fact that the fake followers aren’t liking their shit. So what happens is it gives them a false sense of security, and then they start acting ‘as if…’” Sullivan shook his head, “I’ll call everybody out. I don’t care. I see through their bullshit and I hate all of it.”

Sullivan himself has been known to call people out, blasting them on Instagram. He gained infamy by reposting art flyers that featured friends and collaborators, with the names of artists he didn’t respect crossed out. In his own shows, Sullivan has shut down artists who tried to climb on board his project without approval.

“I’ll exclude artists from shows… just to prove a fucking point.”

“I’ll exclude artists from shows… just to prove a fucking point.”

Sullivan is aware of his reputation, but defended his decisions. “I’m not just trying to be a bully. I’m not just trying to be a bad guy. Maybe there’s a reason for it.”

Sullivan dissociates himself from members of the community that he sees as no-talent wannabes, who will never a make a buck from their art.

“Street art is filled with a lot of broke-ass artists. Unless they can go mainstream like some of these guys,” he explained.

Given his punchy attitude, I asked Sullivan how he would define an artist.

“Anyone that can create something from their imagination, and be able to use techniques that are available to them, that can spark some kind of emotion from someone who didn’t create it —  that to me is an artist.”

Crime, Money, and Hustle: The Layers of Sean Sullivan Part 2 is an UP Magazine Issue #1 Print Exclusive

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