Michael “Monstrinho” Amorillo is a San Diego based surfer and artist, with distinct New York roots. His style not only blends a unique mix of graffiti and street inspirations, but also takes a cue from his love for the ocean and surfing. A longtime participant in the skateboarding and graffiti scene in New York, Mike now travels and collaborates with some of the best artists in the genre. He has also been branching out into video, working as a producer and partner in SOI | Clave, a web based video and marketing consulting company. Mike will be opening in a show titled “Surf To Street” in the Green / Flash surf art gallery in Cardiff, California on February 12th, 2011. I recently caught up with Mike to learn a bit more about his work and creative inspirations.
Let’s start at the beginning. Where are you from?
I’m from New York. I was born in Queens and my family moved to Long Island when I was really young. I consider myself from Long Island; I pretty much spent my whole childhood there. Then when I was 23 or 24 I decided to move to San Diego. And really, I had wanted to California or somewhere warm earlier in my life, but I was really close with my family so I stayed on the East Coast. When I graduated college I looked into–like most East coasters–Florida [laughs], and then Costa Rica. I was convinced I was going to move there. Never happened, but then I came out here and it’s pretty much been the best decision I’ve ever made.
So why San Diego? Surfing? Warm Weather?
It was just wanting to live in an environment where you can live near the ocean and not feel like you had to be inside all the time. I wanted more of an active outdoor lifestyle, and…I don’t know, when you’re born and raised in New York aside from seeing like, Saved by the Bell, you have this image of what California is, and I was interested. When I came out here–I’ll never forget this it’s a funny story–I came to visit a buddy of mine. He was a total hippie and followed the band Phish. I’ll never forget the night he left to drive cross country. I remember being so jealous because he was doing it and I was afraid to do it. Years later I came to visit him, and I remember renting a car at the Enterprise at the airport and right when I got on the 5 –this is not a lie, it was similar to a beautiful day like today–instantly I knew. I know people say stuff like, “I saw her and instantly I fell in love.” Yeah bullshit. [laughs] But that was the first time where I 100% knew I was coming here. When I went home I told my family that I was moving out [to San Diego] no matter what. And my father had done that when he was younger–he lived in San Marin–so I just came here.
What does Monstrinho mean? Where did that come from?
Monstrinho basically means “little monster.” It came about because one of our roommates was from Brazil, and she was teaching us a lot of Portuguese. We had cupcakes in the house, and when we got back after going out one night she ate a bunch of them. In the morning we’re all like…”What happened to all the cupcakes?” and she said, “The cupcake monster ate them.” But she said it in Portuguese, and in Portuguese it’s “monstro do bolo.” So I thought the word was cool, and she said, “Yeah I’m a little monstrinho,” which was “little monster.” And I liked the sound of it. When I was doing art I didn’t want my name always to be “Michael Amorillo.” I’m really into comics and superheroes, so I wanted it to be something like…I’m transforming into this person of what I want to be, or what I want to feel like. So really, the meaning and the definition obviously is “little monster,” but to me it signifies feeling like a kid. Being able to use bright colors, and share what I want to do, and not care, and kind of approach everything like a kid. Because in my opinion, kids are the best in that they haven’t been forced to do all these things. They kind of look at the world with an open mind, and they like to explore. They say cool things, and they’re real positive. That’s what I want to do with my art. Regardless of whether people like it or not. For me I want it to make me feel like I’m a kid.
How would you describe your artistic style? Is it graffiti art, or street art, or is there even a description?
Definitely I have a pretty good knowledge base of graffiti. I think that there’s a misunderstanding by most people of what is graffiti and what is street art. It’s been a major issue ever since Exit Through The Gift Shop has influenced the mainstream. And it’s good…it introduced street art, like Banksy, Invader, all those people. But street art is much different than graffiti art. Graffiti art starts with the foundation of what we call handstyle or tagging, and then it progressed to what people call bubble letters–we call it throw ups or toss ups–where it’s more of those bubble letters that you may see on the side of the highway, or what people deem as vandalism. And then the third element is piecing, or what we call burners, which are colorful, structured letters where you’re providing life for each letter–each letter has their own personality. Street art is done in the streets obviously, but it’s not necessarily graffiti. I think that Shepard Fairy or Banksy’s stencils…it’s a form of art in the street, but it’s not necessarily graffiti. Graffiti starts with handstyles and tagging, and that type of stuff. So my style…I mean I love graffiti art, I love graffiti, I know the history and the foundation. My artwork is feeding off that, but it’s not graffiti art. When I do graffiti I do graffiti. When I do my art, it’s influenced from graffiti, it’s influenced from street art, it’s influenced from stick figures I see kids do. It’s kind of like a mixed up kung fu you know what I mean. There’s not really one style.
How did you get into graffiti art?
My whole family lived in Queens growing up, so I’d always see it. I’d see it on the highways, like the Grand Central Parkway going into Queens all the time. Then when I was about 13 or 14 I met a kid from Staten Island who wrote Young King or YK, and then at that same time there was a kid who wrote Slash who came in from Queens who was a really big guy in the movement – we call it the movement. And there was another guy who wrote Gaze who was dating another girl in my school. So within that two year period of time there were all these people around, and it was kind of part of the skateboard culture that I was into. And that’s kind of what it is still. When I think of the early 90’s with that hip hop scene and the skateboard scene and the New York City Hardcore scene…that to me was kind of the culture. It was like you did graffiti, but you also did skateboarding which was also a kind of art form. You listened to hip hop like De La Soul or Tribe, that was kind of our thing. But at the same time you could listen to Minor Threat and NYC hardcore bands. We’d take the train at 14 years old and go into Manhattan and skate Washington Square Park, I would get tapes of Dead Kennedys and all that. There was a huge culture coming out of Long Island and New York City for hip hop. I still listen to that all the time today. I still listen to some new stuff, but I’m stuck in that zone. To me skateboarding and all that stuff is such a cool scene. There were no rules. It’s like, the more weird you were, the more creative different things you were doing…it’s awesome. It’s kind of just what you did. I learned from those people, and came up with my moniker, and just went with it.
What’s the story behind Special Sauce? How was that a factor in your life?
Special Sauce was started in Bayshore, Long Island, and it was a skateboard shop that kind of branched out into being a surf shop. It was a good area on the island that fed to the hip hop culture. One of the guys at Sauce was really involved in the hip hop scene in New York City, and he decided that he wanted to allow graffiti art there. So it became an outdoor gallery. The other gallery in New York City that’s outside and legal and well known is the Five Points in Long Island City, Queens, right on the Amtrak line before you get into Manhattan. That’s the world’s largest outdoor graffiti space, and the city of New York OK’s it. And you can piece there. Special Sauce was a spot on Long Island where people from wherever could paint. There was a lot of good art going on there, not only from Long Island but from New York City, Jersey, or if anyone came in from Europe. But to me, it was a spot of creation. It was cool. It was respected, and the whole town of Babylon wasn’t destroyed by graffiti. It just shows that you can have that without it looking like…you know some people think of it as ghetto or that there’s bad elements there, but it was an outdoor gallery, you know. They went out of business and now it’s gone. It’s sad to see it go, because I always loved looking at the art there, it was inspiring.
How did that work? Someone would paint the wall, and then someone else would eventually paint over what was there?
Depending on how much effort was put into the wall…if you did what we call a “production” which is a huge mural, and if you put a lot of effort in, it would last for a long time. If you put less effort in, it wouldn’t last as long. That was kind of the understanding with painting there. But it was a good way to share. Even if it was legal, it was a way to share.
What materials do you work with?
I work with spraypaint, Montana, Ironlac. I work with acrylics, paint markers, pencils, pens. I work with canvas. I prefer to do walls, or if I do canvas I like to do big. Small is fine, but I like to do big and I like to use a lot of bright color. And that’s pretty much it, but I really want to start to learn how to use oils. They seem very vibrant and bright.
Any walls you’re working on right now?
I’m working on a wall with Persue. He’s from San Diego. He’s an international graffiti guy and innovator, and friend. He’s part of seventh letter which is an art collective that I really look up to and admire. And he’s kind of a mentor in a sense, he teaches me a lot of stuff. He’s traveled with graffiti, he’s an awesome person. So him, myself, and another artist by the name of Gloria Muriel are doing a mural across from the New School of Architecture downtown later this month. And then in March, Surge, Persue and I are going to be doing Visual Art Supply in North Park.
How has surfing and the ocean influenced your work?
I think how the ocean is involved in my work is that it keeps me centered. And I believe in energy. I know it sounds weird or hippyish, but I feel like all the images and all the sensations that you get from just living near the ocean–even the smell of the ocean air and just getting in the water–definitely allows you to open your mind a little bit more and incorporate those images and feelings into your painting. I mean, people who are feeling upset or angry sometimes will paint upset or angry paintings. And I definitely feel those emotions. But I feel like for the most part where I live, and being near the water, makes me feel extremely fortunate and happy. I think probably the best way to describe it, even if the waves are firing or not firing, the best times I’ve ever had that have inspired my work are early morning surf sessions. Particularly during the winter when no one’s around, and I’m walking out of the water and back to the stairs. If it’s a cold morning, there’s something that reminds me of New York, but at the same time reminds me of just being happy to experience that sensation. It’s hard to describe. And I think that honestly it’s something that really changed me as a person. I think when I came out here [to San Diego] I was kind of angry and stressed out and aggressive, and I feel like being able to live the way I do live now has enabled me to open my mind and meet other people that have influenced me to progress and to share what I’m doing. If you look at my art right now, and I hope it stays this way, and grows in this capacity, as being positive. There’s a guy who’s a tattoo artist named Manoel Neto, who I met through my friend Luke Wessman. And he calls it “PMA” – Positive Mental Attitude. Even though that’s not necessarily the ocean I think it all kind of combines. It’s a positive mindset that it makes you feel.
I can sense that in your work – there’s definitely a more happy vibe.
I don’t know if you feel it, but what I try to do when I try to paint–especially walls because they’re big–it’s kind of weird, but it feels like flow. There’s some days when you surf when you have flow. You’re in tune with the ocean, you’re in tune with the rhythm, you know where to be. Like one day you surf and you’re getting all the waves. It’s because for some reason you’re in tune. You were paying attention to everything…you’re in flow, you’re in sync. There’s synergy. When I paint, if I’m feeling good, there’s a flow. You don’t have to think about it or look at a sketch. You can go fast and do whatever. But there’s flow. So I’m really trying to focus now to make the colors flow and blend. For the characters to not have form, but to flow. Like an octopus…that’s my favorite creature. It flows…it has eight different ways to touch the environment. Especially with that Angelface character…it flows. They connect with their environment and the ocean is the best way to do that.
And you’ve got this cast of characters…what’s that about?
The cast of characters is honestly like my world. It’s my world I feel like I want to share. It’s like, not in a weird sense, but like kids. The cast of characters will always grow and develop, the style within the characters will grow and develop. Will there be anger in some of the characters? Yeah. Will there be happiness? Yeah. But there’s more of like a world I’m building. Sometimes I’ll do a character I love, and I’ll do a few paintings. And then people will be like, “I love this one!” and it’s the one I don’t like. And then you get self conscious, and you’re like, “Is that the way I need to go? Is that the style I need to do?” And I’ve just come to the conclusion that I’m just going to pursue what I’m going to pursue, and some people will like it and some won’t.
What other projects are you working on?
The other projects I’m working on are focusing on photography and video and incorporating it into my art. But the one thing that I’m doing that I want to mention is that this year I really want to document all the people that I come across that are doing different inspiring things. Especially in the art world. And I want to do it through video and photography, and kind of capture what they’re doing. I want that to be shared with more people.
Kind of like your “Self Made” production
Kind of like Self Made. Self Made is based on a very close friend of mine and tattoo artist Luke Wessman. He’s an amazing, amazing person. And it’s funny when you see a guy who’s huge and all tattooed. People have a stereotype of him, and walking down the street you wouldn’t understand all the interesting things in his life, and how he communicates through his art and tattooing. And I think that’s incredible. And the power of documenting that on video and putting it online via Facebook or something like that is amazing because you can share it with so many people. It’s cool because Luke will get an email from someone who saw it and inspired them. I think at the end of the day it’s the personal story. You don’t have to be famous. Everyone’s kind of interesting in their own way–they bring something cool to the table. I think by documenting that it’s really profound in the fact that other people get to experience that, where in the past you could be an interesting person but you kind of keep that to you. Now you can share it a little bit more easily. That’s kind of my focus for sure. Definitely to pursue art, and definitely work with SOI | CLAVE, which is all video based. Those are the two focuses for sure.
Catch Monstrinho’s work at the Green / Flash surf art spot in “Surf To Street” opening on February 12.
Check out “Self Made”