Artist Mike Giant has been working as a full time artist since 1993 when he began working as the in-house graphic artist for Think Skateboards in San Francisco. Since then the 6’4 Giant has made a living as a renaissance man, thriving equally as both a fine artist and freelance artist. Even at a quick glance, it’s easy to see why over the last 23 years Giant has also made a name for himself in the graffiti and tattoo worlds.
Now 45, Giant currently resides in rural Boulder, Colorado where he continues to refine his various crafts, thriving as a modern day practicing Buddhist who can vacillate comfortably between the museum crowd and gutter punks, and everything in between. For his latest exhibition Impermanent Vacation, Giant joins us in Detroit at Inner State Gallery to showcase a beautiful variety of pieces created on vintage letterheads, as well as his largest piece to date, Yogini which spans 6×6 feet.
Read on as Mike Giant gives us the lowdown on Impermanent Vacation in part one of this serial interview with one of contemporary arts most engaging voices. . .
Impermanent Vacation by Mike Giant
1xRUN: Let’s start by discussing Impermanent Vacation as a whole, anything immediate you would like us to highlight about this group of work?
Mike Giant: The title of the show is an homage to a Buddhist idea about the human existence. It’s important enough that I have it tattooed on my hands. It’s a thing that reminds me that life is supposed to be enjoyed. It’s not going to last. So you better take advantage of it while you can. That idea is a subtle thread that I wanted to keep through all of the new works. We’ll see how it goes.
1x: Is this exhibition part of a recent theme or series that you’ve had? I know we’ve got these letterhead pieces here…
Giant: Well, the way that I work hasn’t changed much in a lot of years. So the work that I’m showing here is in line with the subject matter, and what not, that I’ve been working with for a while. I am showing a batch of letterheads in this show, I have shown them a few times before, but I have just started getting a good collection of letter heads, so I’ve been trying to infuse those into my recent shows as I can. We do have a good batch this time for sure. It’s really fun to work on the paper. The paper that I work on normally is Canson drawing paper, it’s what I always use. So when I work on the letter head, it’s always different paper, and it’s kind of a fun little experiment. Like “oh, let’s see how this paper operates.”
Each different surface works different. A lot of people will kinda give me props because I use a Sharpie. Most people when they bust out a brand new Sharpie on a white piece of paper it bleeds like crazy. It’s kind of hard to control that bleed per se. But it’s been fun for me to come back to that with these letterheads. Each different letterhead is a different kind of paper. I’m having to adapt as I go.
It’s cool. Some of the really old paper is really really nice too. It’s super smooth. It could be 100 years old and it still takes the Sharpie really nice. Some is just awful. You can tell they were just cutting corners as a corporation, and didn’t give too much of a shit about their stationary. You can tell when you’re writing on it if it’s cheap or not.
1x: You’ve got a pretty wide variety of letter heads here.
Giant: Yea, just offhand here’s one that I’ve been working on from Rolling Stone, Oracle, from the Bush/Quayle election in ’92. There’s one from an electronics store in Garfield, New Jersey that’s probably from the 1940s or 50s. That’s the phone number up there I believe. Some of these are so old. Pennsylvania Railroad Company. This one is pretty new from Planned Parenthood. Continental Oil Company, this is probably from the 40s or 50s. Here’s one from Lifeline of Ohio, it’s an organ and tissue donation place. I have no idea how old this one is. they’re really neat. They’re all watermarked and what not. It’s fascinating. All of these sheets have a slightly different tone. It’s fun for me to play around. Paper is my medium of choice really. To have all of these it’s like new toys.
1x: Let’s talk about how you started to get this collection together.
Giant: I ended up getting all of these letterheads through Instagram basically. I put out a message saying if you send me 40 or so sheets of vintage or just nice letterheads, then I’ll send you a drawing on one of the letterheads. It was a hit. So now I’ve got literally thousands of sheets. I’ve probably got 60-70 different ones. I only asked for 40 sheets, but some people will send me reams. Boxes and boxes. Just because they wanted to get rid of it, and they knew I would use it. It’s crazy. I could have a little letterhead business for sure. Open up a little Etsy shop or whatever. People come by the studio and dig through the flat files, and if they find anything that they like I just let them have at it. I’ve got so much of it, enjoy.
I’ve gotten some just amazing things. Beyond letterheads, I’ve got stationary from old ships, the same lines that the Titanic was on. They’re really really neat, they fold up nice and have the cute little envelopes with the name of the ship on it. I’ve got tons of old military stationary from WWI and II. Boxes of stuff from Europe. That’s the great thing about Instagram, it’s worldwide. People have been sending me stuff from all around the planet. It’s really great. It’s a neat, physical way to touch on history.
Sometimes with the stack of letterheads people would stash letters that they had written. It was kind neat to see a lot of that stuff. Pre-typewriters and computers, you had to write everything out. There was no other way. That was it. So everybody had these different interesting scripts. They’re really fine compared to what a person’s penmanship would be nowadays. That’s not even a thing anymore. Penmanship. When you see it on examples from the 1800s it’s on these receipts, personal notes and things. It impresses the shit out of me. I still love writing people letters. It’s kind of a thing where if I have to write you a letter by hand, it’s important. You better fucking read it. Otherwise I’ll have to send you a fucking email.
1x: We’ve got a few larger pieces in this show, including your largest piece to date with Yogini. Tell us a little bit about that piece, 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 of 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 that 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.
Off the back of that, I was creating more work to continue the theme of the show. Not that big, but we’ve got a great range from the letterheads size all the way up to 6×6 foot. I’m really anxious to see this stuff on the wall to be honest. I’m curious to see how they will all work off of each other. How the range will work out and people respond to it for sure.
1x: This is your first time coming to Detroit right? What were some of your perceptions about Detroit before coming here, and in the couple of days you’ve been here what have your thoughts been so far staying here in Eastern Market?
Giant: Yea, I never have been to Detroit before. that was part of the draw for sure. I have had such a good relationship with 1xRUN, so it was kind of a no-brainer to step it up to the next level so to speak.
I had quite a few different graffiti partners from over the years from Detroit. So I had a street level understanding of this place before I got here. Even some of the people that taught me, I’ve seen some of their names up. It’s interesting to me, after hearing stories for so many years about this place, and how it operates to now just to be here and see where it’s at in 2016. It is pretty much what I expected.
I was in Ohio earlier this year, and went to some of the bigger cities in Ohio, and it just has this Midwest feel. I’m an architecture major, so I’m always looking at the buildings. How they are constructed. What they’re made of. So much brick. It was such a defining thing in all of the stories I would hear from my graffiti writer friends. They were doing silver and black on that red raw brick all over Detroit. I have so many film photos of pieces like that in my personal collection that I feel like I could see a flick and I can say, ahh that’s probably Detroit. I’d bet you. It’s nice. It’s familiar. I do like it. It’s just, I don’t know. It’s a trippy place.
It’s like the seeds have been planted, but that it’s going to be a while for things to grow above the surface. It does still seem like there’s a lot of sprawl. There’s a lot of vacancy between things. All of which I think is very interesting. It’s just a perfect environment for murals. That’s exactly what’s happened. There’s so many dope murals all around here. That’s all I’ve been doing every morning after breakfast. I’ve been walking around and looking at all the murals, and there’s so many dope murals. I can remember as a graffiti writer in 1990, just being like “man, I wish there was more color on the streets. I don’t even care if it’s graffiti really. If it’s just some color or energy.” There’s just all these walls everywhere, and it just hurts your soul not to pull some potential out of that and just leave it devastated. It’s really dope. It shows that it can kind of bring a lot of life back to a neighborhood that at face value may be abandoned or not particularly safe. I dig it.
I’d love to come back in the winter when it’s really kicking. I’m here in November and I expected a lot of snow. I was just out in my t-shirt earlier. It’s nice to experience this, but I’m curious to see how nasty it gets. Rappers from Detroit always play up how nasty it is. I feel like I’ve always heard that if you can’t handle the winter’s in Detroit then you don’t deserve the summer. The summer can be glorious, but if you can’t handle the winter, then you’ve got no business. I’m curious about that. At this point in my life I can kind of live and work anywhere. So America is wide open to me. I could see myself moving to a place like this. To be honest I’d probably move more rural at this point. I can appreciate what a city has to offer. Especially living here and being in this fantastic loft, it’s been amazing to have access to all of this kind of stuff here. It’s really nice city living as far as I’m concerned. I’ve lived in some really shitty situations over the years. It’s nice when it’s good. I appreciate it for sure.
Follow Mike Giant @ogmikegiant and stay tuned here at 1xNEWS for part two of our extended interview with Mike Giant discussing Impermanent Vacation, Giant’s roots in skate, graffiti, tattoo and rave culture…
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