The Only-In-New York Origins Of Street Artist RAE’s “Trunk Work” Show

An angry landlord, an eclectic artist, a lost trunk, and a sudden opportunity.


Brooklyn street artist RAE doesn’t play well with others. It’s not that he’s unfriendly–quite the contrary. It’s just that when it comes to producing art through collectives or even showing up at his own exhibitions, it’s not for him.


RAE entered the New York street art scene around 2010, and while his found-object sculptures, signature installations, and intricately layered paintings have broadened his appeal worldwide, his work is centered on his life experiences, and those life experiences are grounded in New York.

RAE, CAUGHT: Gold leaf, ink, aerosol and oil on canvas – 40 in.H x 30 in. W

In 2013, RAE grabbed headlines by transforming an East Village bodega into the surreal art exhibit “Word of Mouth,” where nothing was left untouched: loose cigarettes, loaves of bread, EBT cards–everything got the RAE touch. And RAE’s new exhibit “Trunk Work” has an equally New York-centric vibe with a backstory that’s as equally interesting as the art.

RAE recently spoke with Fast Company about his new exhibit and the importance of letting art breathe, and why he shies away from other artists–and his own work.

The story of how “Trunk Work” came about is really remarkable–can you tell us what happened?

There was a time when I had a studio in an apartment building. Maybe I shouldn’t have had a studio in there, but it was a place that I was working out of and I guess there were some things, the paints, the music, and some of the other things that were going on there didn’t gel with some of the other tenants. And there was a bit of an incident. I use a lot of found objects for my sculptures. I found this microwave and thought it was a good opportunity to melt some things to incorporate in my work. Somehow metal got inside there and it exploded and that was sort of the last straw. The landlord booted me out with his muscular nephew and I left a trunk in the basement. But after I got tossed out, the landlord was saying I wasn’t getting my deposit back or anything else, so I couldn’t get the trunk out.


What was in the trunk?

It had a bunch of unfinished work, sketchpads, and personal items. And I couldn’t get it for about four years. I had a friend in the building who called me and told me that the building next door was being worked on and they must have hit something in the foundation of the apartment complex because cracks started showing up all in the façade. So they evacuated the building at a moment’s noticed and because of all this chaos, my friend in the building said this would be my chance to come get the trunk.

When I opened it up, everything was intact. I figured this would be a great opportunity to revisit some of the stuff that was in there I didn’t get a chance to finish and other pieces I never got a chance to show. So over the last six months to a year I decided to bring this show to life.

That seems like such a New York City kind of story–how much has being born and raised in New York shaped you as an artist?

That’s really all I know. I was born and raised in Brooklyn. But all of my work reflects my life growing up and different blue-collar jobs I’ve had over time. The work deals with money, societal issues, gun violence, but my work is not screaming this or that–city life is everything about what I’m doing. I grew up in the East New York section of Brooklyn, with a single mom, moving apartments a lot. I was working at an early age, and all of the experiences of being around the everyday person always reflects in my work–the struggle of people just trying to make it.


How does your artistic process based on whether you’re creating sculptures or paintings?

A lot of the times it’s the materials that dictate what I’m going to make. I’ll find things outside and I’ll do a hell of a lot of work to get something home. I found the inside of an air conditioner–it had these beautiful copper pipes and I had to get it on the subway. So I was in Rite-Aid buying trash bags to try and get this thing on the subway. It really is me seeing something and thinking if it fits for what I need. And then I start putting various parts together and eventually try to join everything together and see where I go from there. As far as the paintings go, I really just layer and beat up any found wood or canvasses; I create a lot texture to them. And then I add a whole bunch of paint not knowing what the hell I’m making. Then it’s spending a lot of time sitting back and looking inside the painting to find things I can bring out. I almost excavate my paintings–I’m in there and I’m dusting away all the excess colors and lines to pull out figures and shapes that work. I must paint over each canvas six or seven times before the piece happens.

There are street artists who do sanctioned work, which takes away the risk of being arrested by police, but you sort of rail against that, don’t you?

I’m not against doing a mural. I do try to stay away from doing stuff through collectives–I try to carve out my own locations for things that aren’t necessarily in, say, the street art mural gallery. Honestly, the idea of “Here’s a wall given to you. Don’t do anything too controversial. We’re going to blast it out on social media while you’re painting,” I don’t like to be in any photos of what I’m doing, even at my exhibitions. I want people to come and let the show breathe. I like people to look at this like they would a museum where the artist is either dead or he’s not there. I just feel like if you’re a fan of street art, that’s great. You go and see these murals in a central location. So it may not be a bad thing for me to have a piece there. But as a whole I look at what’s going on in that direction and I go in the opposite direction. My thing is, there are so many walls in Brooklyn–why do I have be in a group? I’d rather be at the other end of Brooklyn and be the only mural there. I’m not trying to put my work up in group spots–I like to pick my own spots.


How do you reconcile getting your art out there and not putting yourself in front of it all?


It’s an interesting balance. Putting work outside that’s not always sanctioned is one factor. Just knowing the feeling of being in a space where all of work is around you and you’ve put so much time alone into making the work and then all of the sudden the work is on the walls and everyone is looking at it–it’s not my thing. It just doesn’t seem to make sense to me right now. Could that change? Sure. The street art world lends itself to [not having to be in front of the work] and that’s probably why I’m in that realm. I think it’s a comfort level for me and also I don’t like putting people on the spot. I’d rather people come to the show, some are going to be into it, others aren’t going to like it. And if I’m standing there you have to have that interaction.

How have you seen street art evolve?

I think street art in general, people will say the scene is played out. It’s gone commercial, everyone has linked up with some brand, and things like that. But if you look back at the originators of street art and graffiti, over time they’ve aligned themselves with different brands. I’m not against that sort of stuff at all–it just has to be the right project. You have to pinpoint your spots and what you want to do. My work has only evolved in terms of what’s inside of me. I’m not looking to what’s going on outside. I’m not one to put down other work, but some other street art is derivative and is redundant pop culture references. I look back and there was a woman doing landscape/Bob Ross-type paintings on the sides of dumpsters. Shit like that to me is you carving your own path. In the end it’s what comes out of you–what you’re motivated by, what you’re looking to do. I’ve had every job in my life from dishwasher to telemarketer, all kinds of shit. Those experiences are the ones that stick to me and dictate my work.

–“Trunk Work” is open March 27 through April 19 at 94 1/2 Bayard St. in NYC.

About the author

KC covers entertainment and pop culture for Fast Company. Previously, KC was part of the Emmy Award-winning team at "Good Morning America," where he was the social media producer.