Lead image by George Elder All photos of work are courtesy of the artist
Visual artist Zeph Farmby mines our culture’s infatuation with materialism and bigger, better, faster, brighter. In his work, the Chicago native keeps his eye on the prize. And we mean the true prize—well beyond store-bought distractions and gilded momentary fixes. We recently caught up with Farmby to talk growing up on the South Side, graffiti as true escape and keeping his head in the game for all the right reasons.
Mass Appeal: Tell us a bit about yourself – Where are you from? How did you come up?
Zeph Farmby: I was born and raised on the south side of Chicago—actually, 124th Michigan—where there were strong family ties throughout the neighborhood, Gangster Disciples, four corner hustlers, drugs, and lots of fun times. Growing up, it was the drug dealers that influenced our neighborhood culture. Right in front of us, they lived the lifestyle that was publicized in hip hop music videos and made us want what to do whatever was necessary to have what they had because they were “happy.” Many of my very close friends joined gangs and in the end were constantly robbed, jumped by opposing gangs, and/or in the crossfire of no-named bullets.
But for whatever reason, that life was never attractive to me. I couldn’t reconcile the investment with the worth in my mind–getting beat into a gang, having to pay others a portion of the money you worked for, etc. So, I turned to graffiti and delved head first into the B-boy culture. Admittedly, I thought my calling was to play sports, until I realized how infatuated I was with graffiti. I found that tagging around the city of Chicago was a way for me to express myself and put me in a world that was beyond my neighborhood. It allowed me to meet other graf artists and they became my new friends and the people I would ultimately spend most of my days with. Graffiti was literally my escape—an escape from a world that I didn’t exactly fit in to begin with.
In winemaking, they’ll talk about the terrier of a region, the influence of the environment, and other factors on the outcome and taste of the grapes. It speaks to how the true essence of a place influences what grows there. Can you talk about how growing up on the South Side in the ’80s and ’90s influenced your work? How does your work speak specifically to the soil of Chicago?
Growing up on the south side of Chicago during that time not only influenced my work but it shaped my life. Everyone’s childhood story in my neighborhood was the same: a low-income area filled with large families, gang violence, crime, drugs, and everything else possible to convince us that there was nothing more beyond our doorstep. It wasn’t easy to say the least. So, thinking of becoming an artist sounded like an impossible career path, but having a strong faith and belief in myself, my talent and my hustle spirit gave me the motivation to strive for more. I didn’t let my environment shape my thinking but I did allow it to help me solidify my identity. I knew my path to life was going be different. Different than what I was seeing. I just didn’t understand to what extent and how. You see, these same people who were into things that I couldn’t connect with were friends and family. They inspired a relentless and resourceful mindset in me. And somehow, my surroundings showed me a way to think positively. I’m sure that sounds strange, but I’ve always looked at life as a collection of examples of what to do and not to do.
So, my work is a reflection of growing up with exactly what you need and very little of what you want, but making the best with what you have. I don’t intend for my art to disturb people’s comfort. My work simply is the reality of life as I see it, and if in its truth it makes people uncomfortable, I’m okay with that.
Would you say that graffiti is the start of your artistic genesis? How has writing culture informed your hustle?
Yes and no. Doing graffiti around the city pulled out the risk-taker in me. It also exposed my love for notoriety and peer acknowledgement. However, if I think back further, I would say that it really began with perfecting the skill of my talent over countless hours spent learning the correct way to tell a story through creating an image.
In almost every aspect, artists think differently than non-artists. Moreover, graffiti artists think differently than non-graffiti artists. There is a sense of fulfillment in tagging places that only other graffiti artists would notice and appreciate the risk you took in “getting up” on that particular spot. It’s a high that I will always chase as an artist. The appreciation of my work is important and while it no longer comes with the risk of getting caught and going to jail, paying fines or community service, on another level it still provides all the fulfilling factors needed to motivate my hustle.
When/how did your own (political, spiritual) awakening occur? When did you realize that art could be used to push back, that it could be wielded as a weapon in its own right?
I grew up in a household where I wasn’t allowed to be a follower. I couldn’t do what everyone else was doing just because it was the popular thing to do. I was constantly pushed to think outside of the box and create my own lane. Even from a very young age. When painting murals that told thought-provoking stories, whether controversial or not, I found that people listened and discussed. It challenged their thinking and gave them reason to question their current viewpoints. In my mind, art is not a weapon. It’s a voice; a visual voice for like-minded and unlike-minded individuals to relate and connect in a powerful way.
Pursuing False Idols, your current exhibition, is inspired by the Dave Ramsey quote, “We buy things we don’t need, with money we don’t have, to impress people we don’t like.” Can you elaborate on just how those words shaped the show and the resulting body of work?
Think about it. We all do it or have done it at some point in our lives. And today’s social norms encourage more and more materialism to achieve so called “true happiness.” But it isn’t just in the hip hop culture where this holds true. All the way from the offices of the CEO to the offices of the drug cartel, we all are impressed, even if only for a moment, by the superficial. And, we very rarely ever ask the right questions of others and ourselves. Instead of, “How much money do you make?” “What kind of car do you drive?” and “How much did you pay for that?” we should be asking, “What did you have to sacrifice to achieve what you have and was it worth it?” We chase what we are fooled into thinking is real success to hopefully impress people we don’t like and in the end are lost in our own identity.
I want to open our eyes to materialism, capitalism, and classism. I want to expose truth. With this particular collection, I feel I accomplished just that. The series pulls in inspiration from many sources. One of them being the use of cartoons from the ’80s that, like many others, I grew up watching and loving—cartoons that brainwashed us into loving something that was mocking the black race in order to tell the story.
Do you think that the culture at large has been bamboozled into thinking that money begets happiness? Do you think that capitalism and a belief in plunder and greed is proffered as religion, as god?
It’s hard for those without money to believe that it cannot bring happiness. The struggles of the poor can only be cured by money. Paying bills, providing for your family, indulgences…all cost money. This is a fact, not points of deception. However, we are made to think that those with money are at the pinnacle of happiness. That the more of it you have, the happier you are. It’s nearly impossible for the poor to think that drug abuse, depression, adultery, and crime can exist in the personal lives of the rich. Social media preys on this fact and exploits our desire to want it, causing us to spend what we don’t have to buy things we don’t need. Money becomes the vehicle by which those with it become gods. But without followers and believers, they can’t exist. Money doesn’t make you have style, give you great character or self-confidence. But, the way society leverages itself to fulfill selfish intent seems awfully similar to what we call organized religion today.
Do you think that has metastasized in hip hop culture in general today? I sometimes wonder if dudes like A Tribe Called Quest for instance would have ever “made it” today considering the current corporate climate.
I believe evidence of this shows up in many cultures in different ways, not just hip hop. Hip hop has always had an element of “showcase and showboat.” In the past, it was more about creativity and how different you could be from the next artist. Whereas today, the culture is more focused on the business aspects vs. the creative outlet.
Who knows if A Tribe Called Quest would make today, but I have to believe they would. We have Kendrick Lamar, Lupe Fiasco, Chance The Rapper, and others that I would put in the same class that are doing just fine. There are people out there that still appreciate the hip hop’s true essence and recognize talent for talent.
How do you then keep your eye in the game for all the right reasons? How do you battle not getting swept away by materialism as a marker for success?
Self and social awareness. You have to know who you are and understand your environment. If you view yourself as a seed planted in a large farmland with the opportunity to grow into whatever you want, you can leverage the other fruits and vegetables around you, the soil beneath you, the caretaker’s caring hand, and the value your neighbor offers through their own learning journey to become the best you. I focus on being happy, healthy, and wealthy—every day, in many ways, so things that can be purchased do not define me.
Zeph Farmby’s Pursuing False Idols exhibition runs through July 29, 2015 at The Bishop Gallery in Brooklyn, New York.