The world is small, and the street art world smaller. One of my favorite things about working as an art journalist is seeing the connections that thread together the disparate community and link it together.
I met Nate Dee in Mexico over a beer at the Turtle Bay café, as all the artists in town mingled on the opening night of the first annual Akumal Arts Festival. We chatted as everyone got caught up in the excitement of the event. The festival was a wild experience – crazier than could be summarized in this introduction. At the end of our week in Mexico, I told Nate I’d hit him up if I ever came to Miami.
A few weeks later, that came to pass, as I flew down for Miami Art Basel. Nate and I met up to down and talk about how he became a street artist, the creation of his mask series, and the behemoth Basel has grown to be.
This interview has been edited for concision and clarity
T.K. Mills: How long have you been working as an artist?
Nate Dee: I’ve been doing art my whole life. I didn’t really take it seriously, in terms of a career, until 5-6 years ago. Before that, I was in shows, but it was one of those things: I do a show, I sell a piece, I party it away. Because I was still young, you know?
There was a point where I stopped for a while, but when I started doing work again, I realized I still loved it. I always loved it, but, I guess taking that break made me appreciate it so much more. I ended up landing in a show that was pretty high-profile called Pop-Up Pianos. With that show I decided – either I do this for real or I don’t do it all. So now I do it for real.
Have you always worked with spray paint?
No, I’ve only been using spray for about 4 years. I started out as a studio painter. I’m classically trained – I went to FIU (Florida International University) and got a degree in it. I did traditional art for the longest time.
I had been approached to do a couple of murals here and there, but I never wanted to do one because I was nervous. I had a friend who was curating a big show during Basel, before Basel was as crazy as it is now. The show was called ‘Multi-Versal’ in this space Gallery 36.
My friend was like, “a bunch of guys are doing walls, you wanna do a wall?” And I said “ehh.” She was like “come on, just do a wall.” So I said, okay, I’ll do a wall that’s not facing the street.” The piece I did was maybe like 3 feet by 3 feet. I liked it a lot, I was so proud of it. Looking back at it now, I think it sucks. But at the time, it was the thrill of doing it.
I came up with a sketch, and then I painted it on the wall. I did it all in brush, because I’d never used spray paint (except for here and there in high school, when I rolled with graffiti artists). So, I did that piece, fell in love with it, and got invited to do another at this spot called Tobacco Road. It used to be a speakeasy and a brothel… it’s a bar with a long history. I did a big piece, and when I did, that’s when I fell in love with street art. I was like, this is what I have to do.
“I did a big piece, and when I did, that’s when I fell in love with street art. I was like, this is what I have to do.”
From there, the murals kept getting bigger and bigger, and I realized I needed to get faster. I had friends who painted similar to me and used spray, so one day I asked them how they did it. One of my good friends, Diana “Didi” Contreras said “I use both. I use paint and spray.” She paints somewhat similar to me and we were trained by the same professor. So I watched her paint, and after watching her the first time I got it. From there, it’s been an evolution. I’m way more comfortable now.
How has your style evolved over time?
I think what’s consistent with me, is my palette. It’s very bright. I come from a Caribbean family, I come from Miami. We like color here, we push color. On top of that, my family is Haitian. If you look at a lot of Haitian art, especially the traditional art, it’s super vibrant and bright. Even if it’s art depicting misery.
So my palette is one thing that’s stayed the same. However, my subject matter has evolved. At one point, I was doing a lot of quotes. I used to keep quotes in my sketchbook, whether it was from watching a movie or hearing a song. I’d write it down, and then create paintings based on a quote, even if it’s out of context.
I used to take quotes from books or stories I was reading, and that’s what I did for a while. Now I do a couple things. I have a mask series that everyone knows me for. There’s another series called ‘Hip-Hop Queens,’ which is women in 80’s hip-hop. I’m in love with that. A lot of my art comes from growing up in Miami.
I grew up seeing gold teeth all the time, kids I knew who were hustlers. I’ve always been fascinated with the culture and how its evolved into “the cool” now. You see suburban kids rocking gold teeth because it’s cool. Back in the day, when a kid was rocking gold teeth, he was a hustler or selling drugs.
So I have a series called ‘Dents Dans’, which means “teeth in,” in French. I do different colors, like the first piece I did was ‘Dents en Rouge’, which is teeth in red. They’re usually a close crop of a woman, whose grilling. She has either the bottoms or the tops, or she’s holding her face. I’m a little bit all over the place. Mostly my influence are things I’ve experienced growing up.
“I think what’s consistent with me, is my palette. It’s very bright. I come from a Caribbean family, I come from Miami. We like color here, we push color. On top of that, my family is Haitian. If you look at a lot of Haitian art, especially the traditional art, it’s super vibrant and bright.”
Could you elaborate on your Mask series?
It came out of the quote series, actually. I was doing solely the quote stuff for a long time. And then I found a quote in this short story… It was a guy in Europe talking about his life World War II. He was talking about his memories and that a fact of life was “we might die today” planes hearing the sirens for the air raids and bombings.
So they started training the kids to use gas masks. Kids would go to school and they’d be issued a gas mask. One of the first things he remembered was the kids being afraid of the gas masks because they looked scary. So teachers redesigned the gas masks to look like animals or cartoons characters, thinking the kids would want to wear them. The kids were still scared of the masks.
In fact, some of the kids were more scared because they thought they were putting an animal on their face. I found that really funny and interesting, so I ended up painting a girl and wrote a part of the quote where he said “they gave it to us because they thought we’d like it, but we were afraid.” The piece was a profile of a girl wearing a rabbit mask.
I got a lot of reactions from it. It was in a show, and out of all four pieces I had in the show, everyone kept talking about the mask piece. It forced me to start thinking: well, I want to do more mask pieces, since people like it. But I also wanted to do it for a reason, not just spitting out the same piece.
Around that time, I also decided to stop painting men. Now, I only paint women. Every once and awhile, I’ll paint a male. But 95% of my imagery is usually a woman. It’s because I come from a family with a lot of women. Growing up in school, I noticed that if an art piece isn’t done by a female painter, women are often just depicted as an object that’s there to be ignored, controlled, or desired. So, really, their whole agency is being removed.
I decided to paint women and show the strength that they have, because they’ve been robbed of that strength in the history of art. I took that and tied it to the idea of the mask, and started saying okay, well, animals have meaning too. As people, we imbue certain meaning on animals. Especially predatory animals, like lions and tigers and foxes.
I started taking these meanings and looking at different animals to see how they were framed culturally. For example, with a Native American tribe, they may believe an owl represents this, this, or this. So, I’ll take that and do a painting about it. That’s how I started framing the mask series from a cultural standpoint. Now, it’s evolved to a more of a general embodiment of animal meaning, but it all plays on power.
“They gave it to us because they thought we’d like it… but we were afraid.”
What did you think of the Akumal Art Festival?
That shit was amazing. The only thing I really knew about Mexico was the resort towns. Akumal looked like a resort town when I looked it up, but when you get there, you realize it’s a Mayan town. For many of the residents, their first language is Mayan, which is really cool. It’s weird, because the town is split in half – the playa, and the pueblo.
The people on the playa are a bunch of ex-pats from around the world, a lot of them have money and are doing well and living comfortably. Then, you go to the other side, you have poor townsfolk. They’re living day-to-day.
The people on the playa side wanted to reinvest in the community that they’ve been living in. And they also wanted to generate interest in the area. Because of that, they decided to do the first mural festival. They brought me, and 70 other artists from across the world. We spent a week living our best life, basically.
The placed I was housed at could fit 18 people right on the Bay. It had an infinity pool, was three levels, and a terrace on top. It’s crazy, you see that, and then you go across the bridge and see the exact opposite. But at the same time, being across the bridge among the people was awesome.
The first piece I did was on the bridge, but I had friends who were painting in the pueblo went and checked them out and told them I wanted to be there. So they said they could find me a wall. I did it, and the people are just so friendly and open. Just sitting down, talking, exchanging ideas and dialogue. The fourth day, they brought these Mayan priestess to come in and do a ceremony and bless the event and all of us. They did traditional Mayan dances and rituals and had us take part in it. It was an unforgettable experience.
How do you feel Miami’s art culture has grown and how has it influenced you?
It’s huge, many of my favorite artists are locals. One thing I find interesting is that I go to a lot of places, and there’s talent, but there’s artists that you can tell aren’t as experienced. One thing I noticed with Miami, and maybe I’m saying it because I’m from here, but, there’s just so much talent here. It’s crazy.
We have people here that are on the international front, and they’re crazy skilled and talented. There is competition here, but it’s more of a friendly competition. In other cities, when I’ve talked to artists there, it’s like every man for himself. It’s crabs in a bucket. You pull out one and the other one is grabbing the leg like “Yo wait, either I’m coming too, or you’re not going out.” That’s one thing I’ve seen, in my experience, that makes Miami different. Artists are competitive, but they help each other out.
What’s your experience with seeing Miami Art Basel grow into the phenomenon it is now?
There’s been a lot of walls going up. But I mean, there’s been years where it was ridiculous. Any wall you looked at, there was somebody painting on it. Meeting of Styles is doing a lot of walls – like 70. That’s over west, not here in the hub.
In terms of the marketing side, there’s a lot of people who aren’t here just for the art anymore. It’s about the scene, the party, the instagram moments. Or, the corporations coming from the outside to build a brand.
What I thought was really cool when I first started was, if you didn’t know, you didn’t know. We would show up, you’d ask someone “what’s going on tonight?” and maybe it was one, or two things. And everything was close, so you could do everything. Now it’s just so wide and big, there’s so many fairs. Back in the day, there were maybe three or four fairs. Everything would happen on the beach. Wynwood was warehouses back then, and you’d go find a dope party.
I think the idea of money has changed the scene. There’s still culture, but there’s also that possibility of financial gain attached to it now, which changes things.
“I think the idea of money has changed the scene. There’s still culture, but there’s also that possibility of financial gain attached to it now, which changes things.”
Can you offer some thoughts on the relationship between art and money, and how the dynamics have shifted?
People here are witnessing scenes from a playbook that’s been repeating itself over and over and over. From what I understand, everyone knows South Beach for the clubs, the hotels. At one point, it was an art mecca. Now you see what it’s turned into. Wynwood is the same way. A lot of local artists that I know don’t really paint here anymore unless it’s for activations or events.
Back in the day, there were a lot of galleries, artist studio spaces, and warehouses. There’s not too many studio spaces here anymore, because it’s not affordable. A lot of the galleries left. One of the last galleries that featured local artists that was up the street, 1317, they just left. It’s in Little Haiti/Buena Vista now.
That’s what happening, a lot artists and galleries are getting priced out, and people are moving out of the area. I’d say that, at this point, this is more of an entertainment district, even though it’s not branded as that. It has an artsy veneer, but when you start scratching at it, you see it’s not about the art anymore. That’s just how it happens.
I heard about SoHo and what happened there. And Bushwick. That’s what happened here. There are positive things that come out of gentrification, but the problem is that, in many cases, it’s just developers and people in those industries coming in and steamrolling everything, trying to change the entire character of an area without any thoughts as to what was there before, who was living there, or who the stakeholders were. You have all these people who had a vibrant culture in an area, and now they’re becoming displaced.
Any other projects you’re looking forward to in the future?
Next year, I’ll be going to Haiti to paint at a mural festival. I’m looking forward to that. I’m looking to do some more stuff out of the country, because I’ve been having a great time doing that.
Any closing thoughts?
Not really. I’m happy to talk with you – Basel on.