Billy the Artist

It’s another hot and humid Monday in the city. We Heart Art is hosting its weekly visual and performing art salon event at the chic Empire Hotel Rooftop with its spectacular view of Lincoln Center and swanky dark décor. This week there’s a pop of color at the NYC Invitations sponsored event that lightens up the space and seems to fill it with this energy thanks to featured artist, Billy the Artist.

Internationally-renowned painter Billy the Artist has gone from being a street artist showcasing his work in various restaurants, night clubs and bars throughout New York City in the late 1980’s and early ‘90s to painting a 40×30 foot canvas live in Venice, Italy. Now, Billy returns to his roots as he showcases his collection of “Urban Primitive Pop” and discusses with me what he’d like to do next.

Born Billy Miller, the Cleveland-native lives by his mantra “create your own reality.” His signature intricate-pattern design which he dubbed “Urban Primitive Pop” is a kaleidoscope of puzzle-like images that celebrate the diversity and joy of the human spirit that we almost didn’t get to experience.

As a young child, Billy had a serious kidney disorder that forced him to stay home for weeks at a time. He battled periods where he could hardly eat or drink to nourish his body. As a means of escapism, he found his release in drawing thanks to his mother who would buy him top quality sketch pads and a black Sharpie and tons of markers.

“Drawing made me feel good even when I didn’t feel good.” – Billy the Artist

Though he has since fully recovered, his artistic style stems from his earlier days with that black Sharpie. His pieces are in either black and white or punctuated with color but always outlined in black thanks to Sharpie. “That’s why there’s still a child-like element to my work even though it could be very serious and it has an urban edge to it,” he recalls. “That’s why kids get it, teenagers get it, and adults get it and so I basically haven’t changed in all these years.”

In a career that has spanned 25-years, Billy has opened from New York’s Chelsea and SoHo neighborhoods to Austin, Chicago, Cleveland, Orlando at prestigious venues such as The Forbes Galleries in New York, Art Basel Miami  Casa Decor as well as internationally at the Carib Fine Art Gallery on the island of Curacao. He boasts a who’s who clientele list that includes MTV, Microsoft, the New York Mets, Swatch, Ducati Motorcycles, Smart Car, Chock full o’Nuts, Hyundai and Suzuki for the New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago International Auto Shows, Cibeles Madrid Fashion Week, Athens Fashion Week, the Crème Skate Bowl in Brazil, and the Nescafe Champs World Snowboarding Championships in Leysin. His mural projects have been seen at Sony/BMG Music and Film Studios, Epic Records, Imodium, Entertainment Weekly, Starbucks, the De La Guarda theater at the Rio Casino in Las Vegas, Gibson Guitars and the Orlando Music and Art Experience, Woodstock 99, Lady Gaga’s first televised performance at the New Now Next Awards, murals for the Broadway, National and London productions of RENT and a 2008 special limited edition bottle design for Mountain Dew’s Green Label Art Volume 2.

“The best part of it has been that when you wake up, every day is different. My whole thing is about bringing the whole fine and commercial art worlds together. It used to be so taboo. I think it’s cool when you can have your art work on products that you would think art would be on because you’re sharing your art with more and more people. What I do a lot of product design like what I did with the Mountain Dew bottles,” he continued. “Who would normally see my art work in Iowa? There were millions of these bottles around America. They were in Wal-Marts, gas stations, and it was a way of introducing people to my art no matter how I did it.”

Most recently, his latest painting was a custom piece for American Racecar driver, Danica Patrick and her husband Paul Edward Hospenthal. “When I do custom work like I will ask, what are some of the things you love in life? Or obviously what do you do in your career? But more what do you love, what do you like and I incorporate those so the painting tells a kind of story.”

But to date, it’s still his gig with Swatch and his time in Itacaré, Brazil that remain of his greatest experiences.

In June 2009, the pop master celebrated the worldwide launch of his two of watches for Swatch as part of their new Creart Artist collection by painting a 40×30 foot mural live at the Piazza San Marco in Venice, Italy during the Venice Biennale. “When you’re painting live in front of a crowd of 30,000 people to the live music of the Young Gods and it’s televised around the world with 500-foot projections of your artwork on the sides of the building,” he laughs. “That doesn’t suck. It was one of the greatest.”

“Billy the Artist channels the contagious, finger-snapping energy that pulses through American cities. These kaleidoscopic, psychedelic tapestries of image and pattern shine with life, and fairly snap at the heels of fashion. They dip back into the 80’s just enough to borrow the warm glow of nostalgia before pushing on into the future.” – Swatch

In 2010, Billy painted the Skate Bowl right on the ocean and did seminars with the youth in Itacaré, Brazil.”It’s one of the beautiful places that I’ve ever been in my life with its Atlantic Rainforest. It’s some of the most beautiful people are there and some of them have nothing. Nothing. And they are the happiest people that I have ever met in my life.”

So what’s up next? Fashion.

For the East Village-based artist, this would be all new territory. So far, he has body painted a couple of models but it is his interpretation of the late Richard Avedon’s famous 1955 photograph Dovima with Elephants at Art Basel Miami that gives us a hint of what we could expect.

When we spoke about designers he would like to work with, he responds, “I am open to working with anybody. I am open to anyone who is has a really good vibe that is open and wants to celebrate life.”

Currently, Billy is collaborating with a group of European DJs called the Escapists and Leonard De Leonard on a new project but as far as designers, “I am open to working with anybody. I am open to anyone who is has a really good vibe that is open and wants to celebrate life.”

In the end, the legacy he hopes to leave behind is happiness. “I hope my work puts a smile on people’s faces or evokes an emotion of positivity. Life is too short to be unhappy. So if you can move people with your art then that is so important cause your art is a part of who you are.”