Article and photos by Yulia Rock
David Paul Kay, a native of the nation of Georgia, has lived and worked in the Inwood neighborhood of northern Manhattan for almost a decade. Yet memories of his years in Georgia still haunt him.
“It was a small and messed-up town where pretty much everyone, besides me, my mother and grandmother were convicted criminals,” said Kay, 36.
Kay’s father passed away when he was 2½ and, even though a very protective mother raised him, he said he never felt safe. At 16, he came to Oklahoma as an exchange student and became determined to return to the United States.
In 2010 he fled to New York City, leaving his mother and his past behind. “It was either to stay there and get hurt or to leave,” Kay recalled. “But I would not be where I am now, so yeah, I am thankful for them to be total assholes.”
Growing up in predominantly straight, white, orthodox Christian, conservative society, Kay said he learned early on that a majority of Georgians were homophobic, sexist and racist. “The famous joke there is: a woman belongs in the kitchen. So you can imagine the rest about my culture,” said Kay smiled, his eyes drifted away.
A self-taught artist and muralist, Kay tried different mediums and styles before he found his signature style: black and white. His art consists of lines, infused with graffiti culture, flairs of darkness and an abundance of textures.
“It all started here five, six years ago in New York,” Kay recalled, while drawing in his sunny and spacious art studio/living room. Methodically, he covered a 30”x40” canvas with lines of different shapes and sizes. His dark brown eyes were focused; his hand swiftly moved from one corner of the canvas to another. Standing, sitting, bending; he is like a panther, constantly moving. His clothing is all black; his face covered in a charcoal beard, with dark hair sneaking out from under his hat. He firmly holds a sharpie; it’s one of his favorite tools.
He draws anything that touches him. In his series “Icons,” he depicted prominent figures such as Frida Kahlo, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol and even Hitchcock – Kay’s collectors own the latter two. “Every artist to me has a label: Frida to me is freedom, Basquiat is like the balls, Picasso is everything, he is like a melody; Andy Warhol is a statement,” Kay noted, gazing at his Kahlo and Basquiat portraits – both painted as iconic silhouettes that anyone could recognize – that were patiently waiting for their collectors in Kay’s living room. Meanwhile, the limited edition copies of those two paintings are currently available at TWYLA–for $750 to $1,200–an online platform that sells limited edition prints.
Kay recalled that around age 3 he began to learn how to speak and write. When his family was renovating the house, he found a marker and covered all the walls in numbers and alphabet letters. “I got my ass kicked for that,” he said. Now, Kay gets paid for covering walls in his memorable black and white abstract murals. He was commissioned to do murals for projects including Equinox’s Lower East Side location; TWO12, a luxury residential complex in Williamsburg, Brooklyn; G Lounge & Gallery 5000 in Chelsea, Ideal Glass Gallery in East Village and others. But the commissions and collaborations don’t just fall from the sky. Kay works hard for it. He constantly participates in the New York art community. For instance, he collaborated with 100 Gates Project, a nonprofit organization that connects artists, Lower East Side businesses and sponsors. Kay created several murals for this project, gaining access to work with sponsors such as Cadillac and Equinox. Later he live-painted a 2016 Cadillac at Pulse Miami Beach ArtFair during ArtBasel.
Kay said that working with clients is another level: “They have their visual aesthetics. That’s why they came to me. But my work is very abstract. I don’t even know what it will look like.” So he tries at first to understand his client’s vision by showing his numerous sketches. After they chose the styles they like, Kay begins to develop the artwork. “You have to communicate with them properly because they have to live with that. It’s like putting a tattoo on their forehead,” he said. “They have to be comfortable with that.”
However, Kay emphasizes that it’s important for an artist to set the standards, “if someone will ask me to paint a happy Easter rabbit…I don’t paint rabbits unless it’s a creepy, crazy, abstract rabbit that I came up with it.”
As he leafed through his sketchbooks, which he stores in a cardboard box next to his paint-covered couch, Kay mused: “This how it’s all started…you always have at least 20 minutes in a subway, so I sketched. These are treasures.”
Just recently he began to catalogue his sketches, some of them available for purchase at Galerie-Kontakthof in Paris and at Artsper, the European platform that sells contemporary art. Through his box of “treasures” one can observe Kay’s evolution: some sketches date to 2012, some are more recent, each characterized by a peculiar style. His large painting series “Matter” was developed in the subway.
In his apartment, Kay has a few of his art pieces out. Many are piled up in the corner – works in progress. A large piece from his series called “Encounters” has been standing on the easel now for a few months, “I go and paint for a few hours and then do something else and then go back to it.” This series represent short stories or events that happened to Kay, “instead of shooting a video or pictures, I translate my experiences into an art form. The more interesting [the] encounter is, the more interesting the piece comes out.”