You’ve seen his art. The skulls, the decapitated cops, the homoerotic hardcore flyers. If you’ve ever thought of flirting with New York City’s heavier underground–both with shows and with punk–you know the image.
His name is Alex Heir. He’s the mastermind behind the clothing line Death/Traitors. When he’s not designing shirts and exceptionally goth votive candles, he’s playing in Survival, silk-screening band flyers, experimenting with unusual visual mediums. The man does not sleep.
We sat down with Heir at his Brooklyn apartment.
How did you come into your current aesthetic?
That was the hardest thing to come into. My early stuff hints at what I do now, but it’s a lot less refined. I didn’t just want to be the skull guy. I’ve moved on to figures, anatomy. I think it’s just looking at your influences, figuring out what you like about it, and making it your own. I feel like my style is somewhat conscious of what I’m trying to achieve, but you also can’t escape your own hand. No matter what style you’re trying to do, my lines are always the same. It’s really about honing it down to the best I can be. I’m really excited to start working with different mediums. A lot of my style has been influenced by the fact that a) it’s usually a flyer, so a lot of times it has to be black or white or b) it’s going to be screen-printed, so there’s only a couple kinds of shading I can do. It’s got to be very stark. I’ve done a fair amount of painting but I’d like to spend like six months on one painting, developing my style.
You have a new book out on Sacred Bones, Death Is Not The End. It’s the label’s first non-music release. What does the book cover?
About two years. All the hand drawn stuff before that was stuff I wasn’t so proud of. I was still learning. Some of the Death/Traitors shirt designs go back to 2011.
Death/Traitors started in 2007. I always really liked doing shirts and the idea that I could make a piece of work that someone could hang on their wall. That’s really cool but unless someone enters that space, how are they going to see it? If someone wears a shirt, it’s out there. It’s propaganda. I was super into Seditionaries–Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s punk label. I wanted to create a modern version of that. I wanted to make shirts that my friends wanted to wear that wasn’t just a band shirt.
It’s weird that no one thought to do that at the time.
When I started street wear was a big deal. It died out as the economy crashed. Every brand was different but for the most part there was no cohesive artist or person tied to the album. There’s something bigger, like Supreme, but for the most part there was not one artist. I got into t-shirts through punk so I didn’t know what street wear was until I started bringing my shirts to skate shirts. That was such a product of excess.
Your stuff is so tied to hardcore and street wear has a primarily hip-hop identity… but your shirts are popular with Three Six Mafia and Odd future.
It’s through weird crossover friends. Punk and hip -hop have always had a shared history. That’s really what I would like to access now. If you start selling to stupid hipsters and indie losers you’re going to alienate the punks but if you access hip hop… if Gucci Mane starts wearing a Death/Traitors shirt the punks are going to be really stoked. Hip hop hasn’t been totally co-opted by capitalism. There are still interesting and unique people in hip hop, it’s not like Arcade Fire. Who cares.
What would happen if a popular indie rock band asked for a shirt?
If someone wants to buy one of my shirts and they’re stoked I’m not going to say no. It’s been hard for me navigate how to grow the brand without alienating my fans. How do you make a brand based in anti-capitalism or anarchy? At the end of the day the punkest spaces need capital to exist. You can’t squat in America. If I can make some money to make the punk scene and my group of friends, that’s not a bad thing. Think about someone like Siouxsie and the Banshees. She was on a major label and played whatever MTV was at the time but no one cares because it’s great! That’s what I’m trying to make my philosophy. If the work is good and the message is true than no one is going to sweat.
People want honesty. It’s a punk brand not because it’s a marketing scheme, it’s a punk brand because I’m a punk and I go to punk shows and I’m friends with punks. It’s easy to stay regional and only make stuff that punks like, but if you’re making something new and exciting than people are going to want to hear that. How do you deal with that? If punk has a guilt of success about it, how do you go about that?
When you get the book out there it’ll be interesting to see who flocks to it.
Yeah! We live in an interesting time now, because of the internet, where I was able to get this book out there and even before that, sell other artwork without any advertising. That’s pretty punk! I wouldn’t want to be around any other time. I was having an interesting conversation with this gallery owner the other day where I asked him, “What do you do when you have all this history at your finger tips?” and he said, “Oh you just ignore it.”
That’s pretty profound.
I think that’s a big problem with our generation, at least for creative people. You get so wrapped up with your influences. You’re always going to find someone who does something similar to you or something better than you and eventually you have to disconnect.
You don’t want to be the sum of your influences.
You can only shut them off. I see people ripping my stuff off all the time but then again, I didn’t invent the skull or the chain or whatever. A friend sent me a thing on eBay that was an Ed Hardy version of one of my pieces. It was so insane, from Thailand or something, where there are weird copyright laws. I really want one! It’s flattering but it’s also whack that people are making a name for themselves by stealing your contemporaries stuff. Steal some Renaissance guy’s crap.
Tell me more about the book.
The first part is called “Anatomy of Authority.” It’s a response to state control, the total police state that New York is in. I want this hanging in a kid’s bedroom when he’s getting really into punk or politics. My work isn’t going to change anyone’s ideals, but if some kid can use it as a gateway into punk and thinking about the world in general, I think that’s a good thing. Putting these images out there in the world… there’s so much fucking propaganda out there telling you to buy or do whatever garbage. I’m trying to do the opposite.
The point of a uniform, among other things, is to instill intimidation. If people dress the same, they’re intimidating. Underneath that, they’re just a fleshy, meaty person. I always wonder if police officers are conflicted about what they do. Do they just pick people who are on such a low vibration of thinking that they don’t even question their actions? I firmly believe in “all cops are bastards.” There’s a lot of exploitation of the working class.
Do you consider yourself a political artist?
I’m mindful that everything you make is going to say something, make sure you’re aware of what it’s saying. There’s another series in the book called “The Tattooed Man” and it’s just cool tattoos. I’m not trying to be perceived as preachy or holier than thou. You set yourself up to disappoint people. If you make art that’s important to people, you have to remember that you, like everyone else, is a person with faults. At the same time, all the art is pro-humanity. Anti-war, that means nothing. You don’t have to write “fuck cops” on a painting to have it express your ideas. I think that separates a real artist from an illustrator.
What’s fucked about the art world is like, what’s the point in making a painting if it’s just going to end up in some Chelsea gallery that some banker is going to use as a bookshelf. Half of Damien Hirst’s stuff just gets put in storage, shoved away until it’s ready to sell. People ask if I want Death/Traitors to go into high fashion. Theoretically yes, I’d love to design like clothing, but the only way I could do it would be to make super expensive limited edition stuff, but that’s not who I want to sell it to. That’s the nice thing about t-shirts and pins and patches, the people I want to wear it, can. Who wouldn’t want to a slick suit? Who has $5,000?