HOTTEA: Fabric. Live.
He Will Burn You With Yarn
Photo by Ben Rosenzweig
Mass Appeal’s Issue 55 is currently on shelves, and to get folks familiar with what we’re bringing to the table, we’ll be hitting you with pieces from the new issue. Today, we bring you our profile on HOTTEA, a former graffiti artist who has found a new way of getting up on the urban canvas. Taking some time to speak on his origins, HOTTEA provides a glimpse of the story behind his past in traditional graffiti, as well as a look into what led him to take yarn to chain-link fences. Watch a video of HOTTEA at work above and read the full interview below.
Eric “HOTTEA” Rieger belongs, but is somewhat of an outlier, inhabiting the space where the two realms of “street art” and graffiti overlap. Hailing from St. Paul, Minnesota, one half of America’s “Twin Cities,” his existence and work seems to personify that same notion of duality. Over the years, while graffiti rose to prominence on the East and West Coast, a bridge appeared between the two in the form of bombed-out freight cars. These same freight cars served as the spark that ignited Rieger’s “HOTTEA” flame.
After a number of trials and happy accidents, Rieger figured out how to fuse the tenets of graffiti with the accessibility of public space, and doing it in a way that keeps those legal beagles out of his hair.
Mass Appeal: We should start with your beginnings. You hail from Minnesota, yes?
Hot Tea: Yeah, Minnesota at the moment. No one really knows St. Paul, where I actually live, so I always say Minneapolis. Everyone knows Minneapolis, from like Prince and Lake…
Minnetonka! Would you say that Minnesota is where you fell in love with graffiti?
I think so. I grew up in a town that had a lot of trains. There were freights–I grew up across from the railroad tracks. I would hear the trains every time they came through. I really didn’t pay attention to them at first, but I remember, I was in junior high, in gym class–I remember the moment so clearly–-my friend had a cousin who lived in Minneapolis, and that cousin gave him a copy of Volume 1, this graffiti magazine that was based out of Kansas City I believe. He was showing me this issue of the zine and there I saw guys like Gear, and Scribe, and Quest and Mase. I just completely fell in love with it. I’ve always been adventurous, I’ve always liked exploring and going against the norm and I’m also into art, so it felt perfect for me.
I didn’t realize there was graffiti on freight trains until I saw that magazine. Then I saw a train that went by as we were on our way home and there was graffiti on every single boxcar–it was the craziest moment ever. I didn’t have my own camera, I was 15 maybe. I think my mom had one, so I ran and grabbed her camera and got on my bike and tried to chase the train down as soon as we got home. Luckily, I was able to catch the train because it stopped at the station halfway through town.
Anyone familiar with your style now, they’ll primarily know you for using yarn on chain link fences, but you also have a history with “traditional graffiti”.
Totally. I started in 1995; wrote graffiti until around 2005. I stopped doing graffiti and focused on college. I was going to school to become a graphic designer, but I was also taking all of these other classes–installation classes, film classes, oil painting. I was really interested in a lot of different things, because writing graffiti is so…you’re out in a public space and you have other elements to deal with other than a canvas that’s in front of you. Doing graphic design, its mostly based on the computer and then you design something, and then you have your final product whether it be prints, or some sort of advertising, or a book, or web thing–whatever. I wanted to be hands on and make stuff. So I started taking installation classes and I think that’s when I realized that with the installations I could fuse a concept within the installation. I think the class taught me that there was potential to install pieces in other spaces and I think from there I began to fuse everything that I was interested in–graffiti, painting, film. Fused it all into one project. It kind of happened because I couldn’t do graffiti anymore, I had to find another outlet. I needed another outlet for expressing myself without the risk of going back to jail.
How do you choose your locations or the environments where you put your yarn pieces up?
Part of the whole idea of what I do is, I started with this idea of not being the technical graffiti writer/street artist. I wanted to be vulnerable in everything that I do, kind of putting it all out there. As a graffiti writer I was very secretive, I was painting at night; I kept to myself as a graffiti writer. When I started doing work with Hot Tea, I wanted to work during the day, I wanted to interact with people; I wanted people to know who was doing it. I wanted people to know who I am as a person, to gain a better understanding and have a deeper sense of what the installations mean. That being said, the way I choose my spaces is very much how I grew up. Growing up I was a very awkward person, very shy, I didn’t really talk to anyone, I was kinda nervous in school. So when I look at spaces, the idea of the lunchroom comes to mind; I was always by myself, eating lunch with maybe one other person. When I choose my spaces I want to give that kid, in the lunchroom by himself, eating alone–-I want to give that kid or that person a spotlight saying “hey, look at this person that has potential, there may be a lot to this person that you don’t know about because maybe you’re not interested, or maybe you’re too caught up with what you’re doing.”
Most of the work says Hot Tea, is that correct?
I switch it up every once in awhile, but in general it does say Hot Tea. With the other installations, they’ll say specific things. Those are the times when I’m really trying to call out the space itself. Like the fence pieces, those are trying to use what’s in front of me, in a way that maybe people hadn’t thought about before. The fence is essentially a giant grid, and being a graphic designer, I was always working with the grid constantly, and creating typography and creating type compositions. I didn’t recognize the fence as a workable grid immediately with lettering until I started experimenting with the yarn. I didn’t automatically go to the fence and start installing type on fences, I started out putting it on various other objects, trying to figure out how I could create typography and then I was walking by this construction site and there was a fence and I started putting the letters onto the fence, but not really using the grid. I was doing it forcibly onto the fence; I wasn’t really highlighting the fact that the lettering was based on the grid of the fence. It was more like, “Here’s some typography, and it’s on top of this fence.” After I kept experimenting with the lettering I realized, “well, why not use what’s already in front of me,” which is the grid. Then I can get it in the computer, save more time, and then just come more prepared with a design or blueprint.
We shot you while you were working with Grover and the folks from Sesame Street. Where has Hot Tea taken you?
I wanted to create work on the street, un-commissioned, for myself because I needed that satisfaction of seeing a piece on the street…without “damaging” property. After writing graffiti for over 14 years, I couldn’t not do it, I had to do something. After two three years of doing work, I started getting invited to do commissions. My work has taken me to Detroit, Los Angeles, London, Berlin, New York, Vancouver, Montreal, and in the future it’s going to be taking me to Norway, Australia, Italy. The police essentially took my other passion away which was graffiti. I’m not about to let anyone take this away from me. I’m gonna continue to do this until I can’t do anymore.
How did the project with Sesame Street come together?
I was in the Lower East Side installing on a fence at Stanton and Ludlow. Meanwhile, Sesame Street was filming across the street. They really loved what I was doing, and they loved the work, and they wanted to work with me, but we just had to find the right project. I get an email three months later and they said, “Hey, we have this new website coming out, and we’d love for you to do the name ‘Sesame Street’ so we can use it for the website.” People will be able to click on the name itself and it’ll take them to this video of me installing the work and reacting with some of the characters. So they developed a script, we got Grover and Pat Blue. Pat Blue is like Grover’s nemesis. He sort of serves as the customer to Grover, wherever Grover is working. Grover’s like a server, a gym instructor, a taxi driver, and then Pat Blue is always the guest at the restaurant, the gym member that’s being instructed by Grover, or the passenger being driven by Grover’s taxi.
So the storyline for this was that Grover was going to be observing me, watching what I was doing, get inspired by what I was doing–so he would then want to try it. I’d give him some of the yarn, and then he’d start working but then he winds up getting himself tangled up in the yarn and he ends up tying himself to the fence because he gets so tangled up. Pat Blue comes into play and is just upset, he looks at Grover, and then Grover ends up chasing him and Pat Blue starts running…towards the end, I help Grover untangle himself out of the yarn. Then Grover ends up helping me finish the installation. It ends up being a happy ending.