Phree Hester is a self-described LA-based faith believer and artrepreneur. His work ranges from painting and fashion to flash mobs, activism art, and more. Always pushing the boundaries, Phree has been involved in what is now known as “web3” since 2015 when he was working on AR fashion with Jump into the Light in New York. Regarding the mixed-media physical NFT, “Basquiat Phorever,” Phree speaks of an artistic lineage and conversation between Picasso and Basquiat, Basquiat and himself. He also tells us about the adoration he had for Basquiat, the first artistic hero he found as an art student,
“I was just so blown away because I had never seen a black artist like himself be able to show a representation of a person similar to me, and some of the experiences that we live sometimes being black in America. He was able to kind of paint a picture of what that looked like.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What does your name, Phree, mean to you?
Phree represents breaking all limitations. Not being restricted by anything and allowing your mind to really be set apart from the status quo and conditional life. What my freedom looks like is what I wear and what I create.
I’ve always been in tune with myself and not fearful of being able to express myself. And I think that’s really what freedom is. Having the fearlessness to do anything and everything without having the fear of someone rejecting you or looking at you weird or making fun of you. As a kid growing up, you know, I was bullied and I was made fun of, and I think a part of that kind of shaped me to who I am today. And becoming fearless of all of those things that I was fearful of as a kid.
Could you tell me about Basquiat Phorever?
It’s a homage piece that I created in 2012, 2013. And this was a piece that during the time, at first, I didn’t really like.
I thought it was ugly. I thought it didn’t match the image that I was looking to go for. And at the time I was working with a friend in his house. He had like a bunch of drawings that he used to just throw away and I’d say, “Hey bro, you mind if I use this piece to cover the face?”
And then I added this piece, which is the woman’s face on top of Basquiat’s face. I felt like that just really completed the piece and then I found this Mickey mouse alien that I’ve put where he’s wearing this star. And he’s looking up at this, almost wizardly creation of art.
And I said, it’s basically Basquiat living on. With that piece I felt like there was a dialogue between me and him. I know that in one of his interviews, he talked about when he was looking at Picasso’s work, he felt that he was having dialogue with Picasso and how he was creating his pieces inspired by Picasso. Ever since I heard that, I just try to continue adding that into my pieces. Making sure that there is this dialogue, this past present future, where I, myself, the person that’s viewing it in the future, will be able to understand this dialogue.
What excites you about Web3 and physical NFTs? Why is that the next horizon for you?
I’ve actually been in the space for a long time, actually began in 2015. When I moved to New York I was working with a studio called “Jump Into the Light” and in New York City. It was in lower east side. At the time we were creating augmented reality fashion pieces and fashion shows. I was actually one of the first artists to create an augmented reality fashion show where it was seen through different monitors.
With NFTs we’re now able to embed different information and utilities. A part of that is allowing people to not just collect, but really be a part of the community that they can really understand and support.
For so long artists have gotten the shitty end of the stick, have been taken advantage of, their ideas stolen. And now there’s a way we can protect and legitimize that this person came up with that idea or this person was the birth or the spark of this concept.
So you’ve been fascinated by this for a long time now.
I think I’ve been fascinated before then. As a kid growing up, I think back to the movies that I used to watch like the Matrix or Back to the Future. Now we’re living in the future that I guess we predicted would be the future.
Who is Basquiat?
Jean-Michel Basquiat was a famous artist from New York city. He passed away at an early age due to a heroin overdose. He was a really good friend of Andy Warhol. During the time when he was creating with Andy Warhol they had created some amazing, phenomenal works which is also I think, a little tied into the way that my workflow is. Where I like to collaborate and bring others in to create these masterpieces.
When I found out about him I kind of became infatuated with everything that he did and created. I was just so blown away because I had never seen a black artist like himself be able to show a representation of a person similar to me, and some of the experiences that we live sometimes being black in America. He was able to kind of paint a picture of what that looked like.
I really loved that.
Hearing you talk about this piece as a dialogue helps me to appreciate it and see it in a new light. That really comes through.
A lot of times people have compared my work to being like Jean-Michel Basquiat, which is a huge compliment, but at the same time I’m making my own story. As much as I love the things that he created, I’m using a little bit of his blueprint that he used during the time that he was alive and putting that and applying that into my life now and putting it into modern day terms.
One of his pieces that he created was in honor of a person that was attacked by the police. His name was Michael Stewart and he was killed by the police. Basquiat felt that that could have been him. And, you know, for me, I looked at the George situation as that could have been me.
That’s super powerful. I just want to honor that.
It’s making me even more conscious and aware of the direction I’m going with my art. The impact is going to last, even beyond me. I feel like art is immortalizing our ideas and our creations. Even after we’re gone, the art still lives and it still speaks and it still can help change issues. You know, be a solution to an issue.
Is collaborative flow a big part of how you create?
I would say so. I really am big on community. I understand the type of work that I can create by myself but when I think of the work that I can create with my brother you know, a community of other artists that are like-minded, I feel like we can achieve something far greater than what I can do alone.
Sometimes it just takes a spark for a certain idea or certain creation to transform. Recently I created the Hoop Bus, which is a bus that has two basketball hoops on both sides of it. We crossed the country during the pandemic, you know, to spread love through basketball and amplify the voices of the unheard. If you look at the Hoop Bus now, it’s on the face of the NBA, the WNBA. Just off of standing for our rights.
How do art and basketball speak to these heavy topics, like disease and injustice and systemic racism? How do you tackle that with art and with basketball?
At the time there were a lot of things going on in LA that were racially motivated with the police and a lot of just crazy things were happening. Buildings were being set on fire and there were fights and the police were shooting rubber bullets at people. I figured I gotta do something and the only tool and my greatest asset right now is really my art. Being able to use my art as a way to speak during the times that we were going through, I think it really helps tell the story of today.
I was literally at the forefront of everything during the pandemic and the racial turbulent times that we’re in. I was faced with police. I was face to face with George Floyd’s family and Breonna Taylor’s family. Face to face with the Trump ralliers and you know, I mean, literally military, we were seeing everything at this time. I feel like as an artist it is our duty to set the tone for what is happening and the time periods that we’re in, as almost a time capsule for people to go back and look back at it.
For me being a part of that was like being a part of the freedom riders in 1960. And with my name being Phree, I made sure I plugged that as this is the freedom ride. We are the freedom riders of 2020. That was like one of the key staples on the tour. Just bringing these people together, just all walks of life coming together as the human race that we are.
Basquiat Phorever drops on June 20:
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