Q&A: Chicago Artist Michael Tewz on His Work of Art Elimination, His Buddy Sucklord


One of the more intriguing aspects of Work of Art, the BRAVO reality show we’ve been following, is that the show’s producers chose a handful of cast members who’d already had a presence in the world, whose self-propelled careers could exist apart from the reality-television lens. Along with Sucklord, who’s semi-miraculously managed to survive four rounds, there’s also Tewz 1, an accomplished street artist, painter, musician, urban explorer, printmaker (and a lot more) from Chicago whose work tends to get lumped into the lowbrow-art genre. Last week’s episode saw Tewz’s dismissal from the contest, along with Sucklord emotionally defending his pal’s piece before the judge firing squad. (In true Sucklish: “I think this thing has balls!”) We spoke with Tewz about making a friend cry, his pal Sucklord, and how Work of Art was a little like jail.

Were you bracing yourself for this episode?

I don’t want to disappoint my friends. A lot of people were vying for me to make it all the way to the end. People thought I was going to take the whole thing. I felt a little bad for disappointing them. At the end of the day, I didn’t disappoint myself. I was happy with my piece. But I felt bad because I have a friend who’s really into reality shows and we all watched it together and she cried.

She cried?

She knew. I sort of spoiled it for her. I said, “I can’t stay up late, I have to do some interviews tomorrow.” And she’s like, “Interviews? I know what interviews are.”

So she cried?

She cried. She shed some tears.

In the two seasons, you’re the first cast member on the show who had any presence as a street artist. Are you surprised that they picked you?

It’s funny to watch the show. They have these archetypes. I was a bit surprised that they had a guy like me: I’m a real person, I really do make street art, I really have a presence in Chicago and in other cities too. So I’m not just this made-up person for television. I’m a guy who grew up in Chicago. I’m a lowbrow, blue-collar kid. I grew up pretty poor. But I managed to get myself a scholarship to the School of the Art [Institute of Chicago], so as far as my art education goes, I’m a critical thinker as well. We could sit around and talk about Neo Rauch if you want. But I’ll put him in the same category as Ed Flood.

Your pieces didn’t seem to lean hard on graffiti or street art. Was that a conscious decision?

No, I’m sort of responding to whatever gets thrown at me. If I had gone and done graffiti for every challenge, I would’ve been disappointed in myself. I’m not just a graffiti writer. I make prints. I make paintings. I’m coming from a tradition of Chicago printmakers and Chicago painters and drawers who sort of reference the everyday mundane things we see on the street–like taco sign paintings and these weird handpainted signs–and reinterpret them with a critical mind. In every [Work of Art] piece, I did use spraypaint, whether you could see it or not. The last piece, it said GROW–those are graf letters, that’s a fill-in that I would do.

Filming the show is an intense experience. What else in your life would you compare it to?

I hate to compare it to jail, but–[pauses]

Here’s the other thing too. I didn’t want to talk about legal troubles or jail on the show at all. They knew that I had that stuff, so they asked me about it. In every episode, it seems like it’s all I talk about, but it’s really not. But [filming the show] was very similar to–I went to military school as a child. I was told when to eat, when we can use the bathroom, when we can make phonecalls, all that stuff was controlled. Where to be. Jail’s very similar to that. Being in a closed-off situation, sequestered environment, like the show, is very similar to that. You have to ask permission to use the phone. You have to use permission to use the bathroom. You’re not told what’s happening. It was really nice, there was really good food everywhere, that was really different.

What are you currently working on?

I have a show at Multikulti here in Chicago on the 23rd, which is going to be a musical performance. I’m in a group called Slapbox, which is me and a scratch DJ. Right now, I’ve been doing a lot of recording. I have a studio right here in my apartment, in my storefront, and I record to quarter-inch analogue tape. I have this music project that I put out called Exsoteric. It’s available on iTunes, I started a Kickstarter for it.

What did you think of the Sucklord when you first met him?

Morgan’s an old-school kind of cat. He’s from an era in New York when Times Square was still fucked up. It was still dirty and dingy and there were X-rated videos and people slinging their bootleg Rolexes. He’s from that era in New York and that’s very much ingrained in him. He’s got this kind of hard shell on the outside. But deep down, he’s a caring guy.

Sucklord is a famewhore. He’s capitalizing–in a way, his whole character makes fun of the way people buy into that stuff. If you look on his site, he says, “If You Buy This Stuff, You’re an Asshole.” And people are buying it! I think that in itself is kind of a performance piece.. He’s kinda like, “You’re an idiot for buying that stuff, but I’m gonna keep making it because you keep buying.” I love him for that.

We come from similar backgrounds. He knows [graffiti legend] COST from around the way. He knows a lot of other graffiti artists from around the way. I know a lot of graffiti artists from New York and from Chicago and those sort of circles that we walk in, they overlap.

What was the transformation of becoming friends with a guy like that?

It’s a competition, so when we go in, we didn’t know what to expect. The show could’ve been completely different. It could’ve been that everyone was cutthroat and trying to fuck everyone over–excuse my language. But I met him, and he’s got this hard exterior, but then we realize that Bayete–he’s a fine artist, but he’s awesome, just a guy from New York. Sucklord’s just another cat from New York. I’m just this guy from Chicago. Dusty, he’s an artist, but he’s just a Southern guy. So you have this kind of common denominator: yeah, we’re artists, but we very much have our feet on the ground. We’re not high up in the clouds–this is real life.

There was an initial, I don’t know if I’m gonna get along with this guy. But then, I don’t have many similarities between a girl like Michelle or even my roommate Young–we’re both from Chicago, we actually do have some similarities, but we have a different social group. These guys were the kind of guys I’d hang out with on another level. We got to really bond and be close to each other. It was like, Us against the judges. “We’re the artists and you guys are trying to eliminate us.” That’s why you see him defending my piece. If I’d stayed longer, I would’ve been able to defend his stuff too.

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