In Part III of Mike Giant’s Impermanent Vacation we welcome back the prolific Colorado-based artist as he returns with Yogini. Available in an 18×24 edition and a massive oversized 34×44 edition, these screen prints are based on Mike Giant’s largest piece to date, the original Yogini measuring 6 x 6 feet. Hand-pulled here in Detroit, these bold screen prints are editions of 108 and 12 to coincide with International Yoga Day. Read on as Giant talks about Yogini, his evolving relationship with Buddhism and his various paths through different religions through the years and much more in the latest installment of Mike Giant’s Impermanent Vacation . . .
1x: Tell us a little bit about this Yogini image, where did the idea of going that large come from?
Giant: For a while I’ve wanted to do some larger works on paper. If I’m going to leave behind a legacy of work with collectors and museums after my death I’d like some substantial work, well what I would consider substantial work. Bigger stuff. Stuff that took me not just a couple of days to draw, but a few weeks. To really labor over some things. The thing that kind of holds me back from that, is that I don’t feel I have the collector base to be able to sell work that is that valuable. That’s why I will usually gravitate towards things that are more like the letter head size. Those can be affordable for just about anybody.
But, the original intention to be honest was to show the big Yogini drawing in Europe. But due to changes in tax laws and what could be insured I didn’t feel safe sending a piece that valuable overseas. So when I finished the piece and it came in the schedule Impermanent Vacation was the next one and I thought perfect. Let’s keep this one in America. Let’s show it and let’s go big. It feels good to do that to be honest with you. To show it here. It’s the biggest drawing that I’ve ever done. It’s special to me.
I usually will do the big inked drawing in the middle and then have lots of little pencil notes, or anecdotes about whatever I’m thinking about in the moment. Because of the size of the Yogini drawing, just the notes alone took me almost a week. It’s really imbued with a lot of stuff. there’s a lot going on there. It’s a heavy thing for me.
1x: Let’s talk about your relationship with various religions over the years and how you’ve come into being a practicing Buddhist.
Giant: It was a real chain of events. It wasn’t one thing. Let’s see. I was raised Roman Catholic, and when I was about 15 or 16 (around that time you’re about to be confirmed) my parents at that point were like “This is something that you have to choose.” Most families it’s not really like that, it’s just you’re going to get confirmed. But my parents are reasonable folks. They knew I was smart enough to make the decision for myself. They could see that I was a good kid and the morality that they were trying to get across with that system. The deal was done. Let’s see if he’s really interested. I wasn’t. I thought it was silly. So from then on they said “you can go to church with us if you’d like to. If you do then you get to go out to breakfast with us.” And it was at a place that I loved. So sometimes I would get up and I’d go to church, sit through it respectfully and do my thing, and then enjoy the breakfast after. We weren’t a family that ate out very much, so Sunday morning was usually it. These breakfast burritos man. Smothered in green chile. I really looked forward to that every week. Every time I go back to Albuquerque…anyways, I’m just saying that because I think that set a tone from that age, that said, “ok go explore on your own now.”
When I got into college I took a world religions class my first year. We read the sacred texts of the various religions, and the Buddhist stuff made the most sense to me. Just in terms of common sense. Relying on your experience to build your faith in what you’re doing. Everything you need to know is actually within you, you don’t need to ask other people. That was pretty intriguing to me. It wasn’t as fantastical and metaphysical as Hinduism. Islam I understood, but it still sounded a lot like Christianity to me. It wasn’t vibing with me. The Buddhist thing made sense.
Yogini – 34 x 44 Inch Screen Print – Edition of 12 – Click To Purchase
I left college in 1993 and moved to San Fransciso to go work for Think Skateboards, and once I was there I started seeing a lot more interesting stuff. The first place that I lived was walking distance from Haight Ashbury. I’d explore the book stores there. I remember the first two books that I bought when I got to San Francisco, one was “The Art Of Sexual Ecstasy” by Margo Anand. Which explained a lot of different types of breathing methods, the chakra system, exploring my own body. Getting to explore the perineum. The prostate gland. Stuff like that. Things that men in the west don’t discuss or talk about. I learned about that pretty early on. The other was a book called “When Things Fall Apart” by Pema Chödrön. Those two kind of set a tone for me personally. From then on I continued to read more books in a similar vein. I got into freemasonry and alternative Christian histories. Dead Sea Scrolls. Nag Hammadi. All kinds of stuff. I would go to lectures by Buddhist teachers. I really believe I caught one by the Dalai Llama. But…I took LSD that day…and haha…I can’t be so sure about my memory.
1x: Let’s call it 50/50.
Giant: Yea…I dunno. It’s one of those things. I totally could have been. I look back and…
1x: Was he in town that weekend or something?
Giant: Well it was in this church and there was all these Buddhist looking people outside. I was tripping and I was thinking it’s got to be free if it’s a Buddhist thing, so I just moseyed my way in there. I was cooking man. I was seeing all kinds of crazy shit. I remember laughing too, because of the preposterousness of the questions that people were asking this dude. Once you’ve experienced the ego-less state it is really fucking obvious when you’re talking to someone that has not. You know? It’s just a funny thing to sit in some of the Q&A’s with monks and stuff because you’re just hearing some people that don’t even have the slightest clue. If consciousness is say 10 levels deep, and we’re normally day to day at level number 1, they don’t even know that there’s a level number 1 to be on. The Dalai Lama, maybe he’s been at 10 many many times in his life, so to field questions from somebody at level 1 has just got to be wild sometimes. But it puts things in perspective sometimes.
1x: Yea, you’ve got to start somewhere right?
Giant: That’s just it. That’s the sweetness and the humility of monks, and the understanding to say this is the human realm. Let’s start from here. But those things they did make an impact. I did continue to read a lot of Dharma through the 90s. I believe it was in the late 90s, maybe around the early 2000s that I met Noah Levine through a friend and he started the Dharma Punx. They’re based in Los Angeles now, but I sat with them right from the first few meetings. So that was an interesting contingent too, because they were using a lot of Buddhist practice to deal with substance abuse. To get over it. I thought that was really cool, because for once I was sitting in a room meditating with a bunch of punks, that had some pretty heavy issues. You could feel in the air that they were having some breakthroughs and crying. It gets emotional.
Yogini 18×24 Inch Edition by Mike Giant – Click To Purchase
1x: Was that a big thing in the community at that point, were drugs starting to overtake people at that point?
Giant: The thing with Buddhism is because it’s so wide open and there’s not really a morality system attached to it, it’s really about intention and intelligence, so there’s been a lot of supposed Buddhist organizations that have just fucking really missed the whole point of it and caused all kinds of problems. There were all kinds of communes in the 70s that were based on group sex and what not that really fucked people up. I dated girls over the years that grew up in those types of situations. It didn’t turn out so great. They had trouble dealing with regular society. A lot of them had never gone to school. So they’re 18 and they’re like ok, you can go out and get a job now. They’re not prepared for this at all. Some of them struggled.
1x: What kind of drew the punk scene that you were into in to that?
Giant: It all started with Noah. His father is a famous meditation teacher, and his stepmother was as well. Noah grew up in Santa Cruz and I guess ended up getting involved in drugs and crime, like I guess a lot of us did, some of us heavier than others, but he got out of hand and ended up in jail and realized that this ain’t working. His dad was like “now is the perfect time to meditate, I’ve been trying to show you this.” and it clicked. So just from that example and going out and being in public and offering sitting groups for people within his field of friends it just developed. He was just a magnet. Just in the same way that I met him through my friend Diego, he introduced me to him and said you’ve got to meet this dude he’s really into Buddhism too. At first I said, “This gangster here? With this crazy bald head and tattoos all over him?” I mean I had tattoos too, but you know…whatever, we were in the same tribe. It’s been neat to see his organization grow into a legitimate recovery center. He does recovery stuff all over the world. It’s a much different beast than it was originally. That way of engaging Buddhism in America I thought was really dope. After that was when I met Brooke Balliett. She became my girlfriend and we had lived together for a few years. She was interested in Buddhism and that’s when I started practicing with someone, we started to use Buddhism as a way to help us with our relationship difficulties. That ended up leading us to France to live and work at a Tibetan Buddhist center. That didn’t work out for us.
1x: When was this?
Giant: This was around 2003. Figure I got to San Francisco in 1993, and in the early years I was just kind of touching on things and doing a lot of LSD, going to raves and meditating on my own. Just kinda doing my own thing without any formal instruction. Getting lots of information from lots of different sects of Buddhism. But it was when I was with Brooke that it started to become more of a day to day thing, something that I could rely on and use as a tool. That ended up leading us to France. We were at a place called Dechen Chöling for a few weeks, and we went to Plum Village where a guy named Thích Nhất Hạnh lives and keeps a few different monasteries, or what they called hamlets, these different villages. There he really stressed the practice of mindfulness, which is kind of taking what you learned from silent mediation on the cushion into the real world. That was incredibly helpful. I can see now that even in America mindfulness is starting to be taught to children in schools, which is amazing. I didn’t even hear the world until I had met him. So it’s been cool to see that word in the popular consciousness. I’ve heard mindfulness start to creep in. Even at like Whole Foods things will be called mindful-this or that. The practice of mindfulness is simply one thing at a time. To put it at base. When I’m sitting here drawing if I’m trying to draw mindfully, I’m trying to just draw without thinking about it. If I find that I’m thinking about something I can come back to my breath as a way to anchor and let that thought go away. Or I can try to concentrate more on the pen hitting the paper. It’s just another concentration thing.
1x: More focus?
Giant: Yea, but in doing so it helps you understand that you don’t have to pay any attention to the things that you’re thinking…haha…which is a huge one. You know what I mean? I think most people day to day (if they are thinking) they think it’s real or that they have to act on it, or that it’s them, but it’s really just thinking. It’s just your mind being creative. It’s no different that the dream state. It’s as simple as that. In doing so I think it can help keep you at an even keel emotionally. Because you’re not getting run around by your thinking. I’ll notice when I’m sitting here drawing that my heart will be racing. And I’ll think “what the fuck??” and then I kind of go into my mind, into my mindfulness to see what I’m thinking about. It’s fucked up. It’s not helpful in the moment. It’s some chase I got into with the cops 12 years ago. Whatever it is. Some bullshit. I come back to my breath, come back to my drawing, let that go and enjoy what I’m doing in the moment. Just that simple practice. Think about how that would be articulated say when you eat. We were taught at the retreats to pick up the fork, grab a forkful of food, put the fork down, put your hands in your lap and chew your food until it’s totally gone. Sometimes it’s 30-40 bites. But man, I tell you what, the food tastes so good. You eat less and less and less over the weeks. I enjoy it so much. It’s just one of those things where if you can just settle the mind down and actually pay attention to what’s happening right now usually it’s fucking awesome.
1x: Even if these otherwise “mundane” things…
Giant: Exactly. I remember having a breakthrough when we decided to break up and move back to the states. It was really tough. We were on a bus going to the Paris airport. Just heartbroken. She’s kinda losing her shit and I’m just kinda sitting there calmly. She’s like “how can you be so calm right now? This is fucked up!” and I said, “Listen, I’m just trying to do what we were learning at the retreat. I’m just taking stuff in…”
Basically what we learned was that we had a lot of work to do on our own before we could be good partners to each other. There was no getting around that, so we said we’ve got to go back. We had her daughter with us, and it was important to get back. So, she’s tripping and I said, “…I’m in an air-conditioned first class bus. I’m in a comfortable seat. Even though we’re beefing you two are both still here and we’re going to get out of here. Everything is going to be fine. There’s no reason to freak out right this second.” I think she kind of got it and we got through it. Even now we both understand that deep down and are able to use those tools to bring us back.
I’m really thankful that I have these tools now, because it’s made life so much more easy and enjoyable. I’ve given up on the idea that there’s any kind of inherent order because I really do believe that all is one. Even at the atomic level, that’s the way we think about things now. When you or I die, not a single one of the atoms of our composition dies. It just changes. It goes onto something else. We turn into ash or whatever, but those atoms don’t go anywhere. If we would pop even a single one of our hydrogen atoms it’s an atomic bomb. We’ve got millions of hydrogen atoms in our bodies! We can destroy the whole fucking universe if we popped! That’s what’s crazy. I think those big picture things help really just make things that are so obvious to me that this world that we live in is incredible and it’s all working. We get to experience it. We get to wake up every morning and be like “oh shit! I get to do this again!” It’s fucking amazing to me. That’s the power of getting past the ego is that you get to connect to the everything. You don’t really forget that once it happens. I think it’s really important. I think we get caught up in some really petty bullshit, but in all actuality things are pretty good.
1x: So by the time you got to San Franscisco you had already been writing graffiti for a bit right?
Giant: Yea, I started writing in 1989 and I got to San Francsico in 1993, so I was already pretty good. I had good teachers. That was what was the really cool thing about San Francisco, it made me a freshman again, I wasn’t a senior. I had to prove myself from scratch against the west coast’s best. Actually, to be honest, against America’s best. San Francisco back then was this crazy mix of people from everywhere. Lots of international people would roll through too and drop handstyles all over town. That was always interesting. I was expressing what was probably the best game of ego that you can involve yourself in with graffiti writing and I was having some pretty heavy realizations about egolessness. I think because of that I’ve been able to objectify the Mike Giant personality and watch it happen. As Mike Giant gets opportunities there’s this other part of me that just kicks back and says let’s see how this pans out. It’s a funny existence. There’s the root way of living. Breathing. Feeding. Shitting. Showering. Then there is this other thing. It’s the all. Somehow it’s interesting to sit in the middle of that when it’s all happening. That’s the thing that keeps me fascinated day to day. It’s like feeling…I don’t know. I’m looking out the window and I can see the movement of the trees. I can’t see the wind. But I sure as shit know that wind is there. That wind is just air. That air is this whole planet. The air here is the same air that’s in Thailand or China. It’s air. That air is connected to that air in China. But I’m right here in Detroit sitting looking at this particular tree. That’s the stuff that I love to play with. Not to try to make it go anywhere, just to let it come over me as a feeling of connectedness to the wind or the trees. Not think about it but use the thinker as a way to loosen the gears up to send you in a certain direction. It’s funny like that.
1x: When you were living in San Francisco, was it…to me graffiti has always seemed very ego driven thing…
1x: …so for you to go from one end of the spectrum to the other was that a natural progression?
Giant: It’s just a game though. If you think you’re the writer, if you think you are your persona, pshhhh. That’s some inception shit. Layers upon layers upon layers. That’s not the direction to go as far as I’m concerned. I think that the great thing about graffiti writing — which I don’t really get to play anymore — is that of faceless fame. Faceless fame is so dope. It’s such a great way to understand fame and to understand how people develop stories and myths about…maybe you? But it’s not you. It’s weird
I can remember occasions in college when I was sitting in the commons area and there’d be a group of football guys looking in the newspaper and there’d be something about some graffiti vandalism that I had done on campus that was on the front page of the paper. And I’d hear these guys talking hella shit, “I’ll fuck that fool up if I ever caught that motherfucker! Asshole! Why’s he got to fuck up our school” all this stuff. I’m just sitting there thinking these motherfuckers have no idea! That is so fucking dope. It’s rad. It’s so fresh. It’s like acting. You’re able to be somebody else kind of. It’s really a trip. This whole time, my whole career it’s been that way where I’m just watching what’s up with Giant. What’s that turning into? What are people saying? To me it’s just this abstract thing. Under that it’s Michael LeSage. My family name. Then beyond that is this egoless observer that’s connected to everything. It’s been neat. It’s like my glasses are all these different lenses. All these different personalities and whatnot. As a graffiti writer you’re able to have these two distinct personas. It’s interesting. But it’s kind of sad when you meet a graffiti writer and they’ve got nothing other than the fact that they’re a writer. It’s like, ah well, at least you’ve got this. You’ve got some color and some direction and a group of friends. That’s dope. God bless ya.
1x: Yea, for you it seems that through the years you’ve tried to take it all in over the years in more of a renaissance man type of way.
Giant: I’m just trying to experience what life has to offer at base. Straight up. I’ve got that adventurous spirit. Some of the best days of my life were when I was in Paris. I’d go hang out with my buddies and smoke hash all evening, then hop in their car and go to the catacombs until dawn. Do more graffiti somewhere in some industrial area and then show up at my fancy art opening with paint and catacomb shit all over me. I’d wash up real quick and mingle with all the fancy people. I love that shit. Just as an example of experiencing a range of society and place and access. It’s just been so cool that way. There’s been mornings that I woke up wasted in somebody’s backyard and I’d end up with some curator from a museum at a nice dinner. I love that range. It’s something that I really try to engage with. If I’m in a foreign country and somebody says do you want to go do something that might get us arrested I might say yea. Depending. Just for the adventure of it. Just as much as if someone says I’ve got this crew of musicians and actors and they’re having a fancy party at their pad in Hollywood. Yea, why not? Can I meet you there on my bicycle? Why not. I love that. As long as the access is on the other end. I’ll walk around on the street, and because I’m so heavily tattooed it’s like this thing where regular folks will come up and say something, or compliment me on it or have questions. But it’s people from all walks of life. I love that. I love that just regular folks are all cool with me about that shit. You’d think it’d be the opposite. But it really surprises me how just straight up friendly people can be. Just really interested. I’ll meet dudes that are homeless vets and they’ll think that I got all my tattoos in prison. I’ll explain that I was a tattoo artist and I’m friendly to everybody. I love mixing it up with people from all walks of life in all different kinds of situations. As long as they are appreciative then I am. That’s just how I was raised. Mom and Dad were down for equal rights and women’s rights and they instilled that in me. Don’t trip on bullshit. Talk to people they’re cool usually.
To be continued…
Follow Mike Giant @ogmikegiant and stay tuned here at 1xNEWS for part four of our extended interview with Mike Giant. Next up we’ll continue discussing Giant’s roots in the burgeoning skateboarding world, his deepening yoga practice juxtaposed against the graffiti, tattooing and more as we the Impermanent Vacation continues… Read Part I here and Part II here.
Mike Giant was interviewed by 1xRUN Editor-In-Chief Pietro Truba at the 1xRUN Studio in Detroit, Michigan. He has previously interviewed Niagara, Leni & John Sinclair, Ricky Powell, Doze Green, Fred Armisen, Janette Beckman and Shepard Fairey among others for 1xRUN. Follow him @pietrotruba