Gearing up for his largest show to date, celebrated artist Marquis Lewis, known as “Retna,” opens the doors to his Downtown studio.
“One of the ways I was able to stay out of trouble over the years was by changing my name so many times,” says Marquis Lewis. He’s been called everything from “Skab of Broadway” to “Moses,” but today, Lewis is known as “Retna”—a moniker he adopted from a Wu-Tang Clan lyric—one of the hottest names to come out of the Los Angeles art world in the past decade.
Standing inside his cavernous 7,000-square-foot studio in the Downtown Arts District, Lewis, 35, is dwarfed by larger-than-life canvases emblazoned with the typographical script for which he has become known, scrawled in murals throughout town, including the façade of the West Hollywood Library, and on the former gallery space of Michael Kohn on Beverly Boulevard. He wears aviators, jeans, and a shirt with rolled-up sleeves, and it’s hard to distinguish between Lewis’ tattoos and the paint that has left seemingly permanent stains on his skin. He first acquired the warehouse space in 2010 at the behest of two friends who wanted to use it as a front for their weed-growing venture, and while that business went up in smoke (so to speak), Lewis’ career continued on its upward trajectory, landing him on the hallowed walls of major institutions such as MOCA, and collaborations with brands such as Louis Vuitton and Nike.
But it’s not just his work that adorns the walls of the studio; more than half of the space is dedicated to showcasing other talents, too. “When another artist bought my work [for the first time], it was an amazing experience,” says Lewis, whose pieces have been collected by everyone from Damien Hirst to Usher and former MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch. “I wanted to do that for other artists I liked.” As a result, his studio walls feature a mash-up of talent, from the late Dennis Hopper (his black-and-white portrait of Andy Warhol watches over the space) to L.A.-based fine-art photographer Gregory Bojorquez, and Cleon Peterson, whose signature barbaric figures are also splashed across the building’s façade.
In addition to a second-floor library, the space boasts a living-room setup, strewn with a selection of curios which Lewis describes as “weirdo things,” ranging from masks and adorned skulls to vintage tools and a number of oversize, wrought-iron keys—symbolic tokens representative of his days as a street artist, when coveted keys would unlock the city’s concrete canvas.
Lewis learned the ins and outs of this world at an early age; a Los Angeles native who grew up between Mid-City and Koreatown, he was already tagging by age eight. “From there, I caught the bug and wanted to continue doing it. I didn’t understand how maliciously it was conceived,” says Lewis. Hanging with a crew of older kids, he soon found himself climbing buildings, bridges and freeways in the middle of the night, addicted to the rush and notoriety that came along with tagging. In 1997, at the age of 18, he was invited to participate in his first show, called “Contemporary Corruption,” at Zero One Gallery, located at the time on Melrose Avenue. “I had to figure out something for the gallery that would not compromise my work on the street, so I turned to fashion ads,” explains Lewis, who employed a technique known as ad disruption by painting over advertisements by brands like Bebe and Guess at bus stops. In time, this led to Lewis shooting and painting over his own photographs.
In 2010, an exhibit of his work at West Hollywood’s New Image Art Gallery gained the attention of Deitch, the newly minted director of MOCA, who penned a piece on the promising talent for Juxtapoz magazine. In 2011, and again in 2013, Deitch tapped Lewis to exhibit at the museum, first as part of the “Art in the Streets” show, and later, with a mural that connected the museum’s Urs Fischer show with its permanent collection.
These days, Lewis has too much at risk to face the potential legal consequences of going back to his roots to create graffiti art on the streets. So in 2012 and 2013, he snapped up billboards around Los Angeles to display his work. “It all goes back to how I started stealing posters and painting around them, to photographing them myself, to finally putting them up myself,” he says of the experience. “People say you’re not real anymore because you’re buying billboards. I can’t climb those things anymore, and it’s not worth the felonies.”
Nevertheless, Lewis’ graffiti background continues to inform his work, most notably in the speed with which he can create it (earlier this year, he painted the façade of a seven-story building in Chicago in eight hours). “Some people don’t like the fact that I can do [my paintings] that fast, but I’ve been doing it for so long that I just understand how to paint [like that]. It’s taken 25 years to figure out how to do them like that, but now I am taking longer,” he says, referencing his new, more labor-intensive pieces which place as much emphasis on his freelance typography (which famously depicts hidden messages) as they do on background color and technique.
Currently, Lewis is prepping for his largest show to date: a three-man exhibit at the Dallas Contemporary in the spring, alongside artists David Salle and Nate Lowman. “I’m looking forward to it,” says Lewis. “It feels like I’m growing up and getting to play ball with the big boys.” kohngallery.com; digitalretina.com.
By Lesley McKenzie.
Photographed by Coral von Zumwalt.