Chris Veal’s colorfully graphic murals, complete with their witty social commentary, are continually popping up all over Atlanta (and other cities). I recently caught up with Chris to ask him some questions about his life and work while he painted a mural on Edgewood Avenue.
Interview by Meredith M Howard
Photographs by Meredith M Howard and Chris Veal, as noted
Meredith: How did you start painting and, then specifically, painting this pop art style?
Chris: Originally, I started painting graffiti. Then in 2014, there was a debate about a private event in the Krog Street tunnel. There was a local lady who was promoting the festival, and she got in my inbox bragging about how many followers she had. I wanted to do something making fun of her. I’m terrible at painting females realistically, so I painted a cartoon version of her and wrote,
"I have 10,000 followers." I painted it at Krog after a group of us whitewashed the tunnel in protest. People loved it. I didn’t do another one for a while, and then I did the "I Miss Buckhead" piece. After I saw the reception of that I thought, "OK, I’m going to stick with this for a little bit." So, I just started doing more of these.
Meredith: It seems like a lot of your art contains either social or political commentary. Is that because of the first one, or were you like that before?
Chris: It was all because of the first one.
Meredith: For the pieces after that, do you sit around and try to think about it, or does it just come to you?
Chris: A little of both. Sometimes I’ll sit around and say, "What do I think is ridiculous?" People freaking out when their iPhone dies. They act like it’s the end of the world. So, that’s why I did the lady crying and saying, "My iPhone’s dead!" I recently did the Casey Cagle piece because when I saw that tweet, I thought, "That’s ridiculous." Generally, when I think something is stupid or ridiculous, I think, “Is that good enough to paint a wall? Will people get a kick out of it?"
Meredith: I thought the Casey Cagle piece was interesting because I had not heard the actual news story. But then I saw your picture and wanted to know what it meant, so I looked it up. In a way, I got my news from your art.
Meredith: Which one is your favorite?
Chris: Whichever one I’m working on is my favorite, so this one [Blondie] is my favorite right now.
Meredith: Is this one going to have words?
Chris: Yeah, it’s going to say, "I’m not the kind of girl that gives up just like that." I had a couple of people message me and ask, "Why are all the girls crying?" "Why is everything so negative?" So I thought I’d do a positive piece, and Matt had been asking me to paint this wall for a long time. I was sitting around thinking about what to do, and I’ve been listening to Blondie a lot lately.
Meredith: How do you feel about staying in the same style versus evolving to a different style?
Chris: I hate it. I’ll do a couple of these because I know people love them, but then I’ll go do something else. I’ll paint letters or do more realistic looking stuff. Just practice different things. I hate doing the same thing over and over.
Meredith: I always wonder about that, because it seems to make artists more successful if they do the same thing over and over, but it has to be boring for them.
Chris: It’s so boring. I like doing this style, but I’ll get tired of it. So, I do different things to keep it fresh and learn new things. I have friends who paint literally the same thing – the same picture. They make a good living, but they absolutely hate it. And they won’t tell you that until you’re one-on-one with them and they’ll say, "I’m so sick of painting this."
Meredith: Do you think you’ll finish this one today?
Chris: Yeah. The dots are what’s time-consuming. I probably spent half the time doing the dots.
Meredith: Do you have a picture of Blondie you’re working from?
Chris: Yeah, I can show you. I draw everything small first on my iPad.
Meredith: Do you sell versions of your walls in smaller versions?
Chris: Sometimes. The "I Miss Buckhead" one, I did because so many people were asking me for it. So, I made a print version. But a lot of times I don’t. I don’t like doing canvases lately. I just like doing big walls. I will do them if someone commissions me. I don’t like repeating the same stuff. The one that said, "Stop Shooting People" – a bunch of people messaged me wanting that one – so I took a picture of it and had digital prints made. Walls keep me so busy, it’s hard to do it all.
Meredith: Since I’ve seen your work in Atlanta, I’ve seen other artists elsewhere doing similar pop art. It seems to be in style right now.
Chris: There’s a lot of people who do the pop art style. DFace – he’s really big. There’s another that lives here that does it named Art Revolts. There’s a guy in New York named Sean. I guess you could say it’s in style. But most people are twisting it and doing it different ways. My piece looks nothing like Revolt’s. And DFace does all of the skeleton faces. Everybody does it a little bit different – their own interpretation. I like doing the commentary. With something bright and bold you can grab people’s eye really quickly, and then you can deliver a message.
Meredith: Your larger murals tend to have a lot of geometric shapes.
Chris: Yeah, I try to blend my love for the 80s design style with the 50s pop art. I try to mix two different things to see what happens. The original design for this one had a lot of 80s influences.
Meredith: Did you grow up here in Atlanta?
Chris: Milledgeville, Georgia.
Meredith: When did you move here?
Meredith: Did you move for any particular reason or just to get out of Milledgeville?
Chris: Yeah, pretty much to get out of Milledgeville. It was kind of an easy move. A bunch of my friends lived in the same complex, and I met a girl that lived there. I was 17, and she was 33. I moved in with her. I didn’t know her. I had $200 and just moved in with this girl.
Meredith: Where did you meet her?
Chris: I was sitting outside on the balcony, and she was the neighbor of my friend. She was talking about how she and her boyfriend just broke up and she said, "I don’t know how I’m going to pay rent." So I said, "I’ll move in." And she was like, "Alright. Cool."
I told her, "I’ve got $200, and I’ll get a job the first week I move up here." I had never even had a job before. I moved in and got a job at Sports Authority.
Chris (continued): Some of my other neighbors were moving downtown, and they were telling me about this awesome building that had graffiti all over it. So I moved down and slept on my friend’s balcony – exposed to the elements. I stayed out there through the winter. I gave him $100 a month to sleep on the balcony. The people that lived below us were a graffiti crew – most of them from Portland. I would see all the stuff they were doing, and that was my first taste of graffiti. I would go to the Civic Yard on Peachtree and watch people paint.
They would ask me, "Why don’t you paint?" And I was like, "I don’t want to." I would draw, but I had never painted before.
My best friend got into it, so I finally said, "Alright, I’ll try it." He got married and moved, and I just kept painting.
Meredith: What does your friend say now about your painting, since you were like, "No, I don’t want to do that."
Chris: He loves it. He’s really supportive. He doesn’t paint anymore. He got a good job and does the family thing. Yeah, he gets a kick out of it.
Meredith: Have you ever gotten stopped by the police?
Chris: Oh, yeah. Multiple times. I’ve run from the police multiple times. I’ve had a couple times where I’ve had to run and a couple of times there was no way I was going to be able to run. So I had to talk my way out of it: "Oh, I thought it was fine to paint here. I’m sorry. Some people told me it was OK." They let me go.
My best friend did get arrested over by Georgia State painting. That kind of put an end to his painting career. His girlfriend and parents were like, "You can’t be doing this."
I’ve done walls like this and had cops roll up on me and think it’s illegal. And I’ll have to call the owner. That was before murals really blew up in Atlanta. Now they know what’s up.
Meredith: On Instagram, I saw a video of you doing tricks on a bike, and you also mentioned sky diving. Why do you think you are drawn to risky activities?
Chris: I don’t really think of them as risky. I just like to have fun and to try new things. BMX is a huge part of who I am, just like painting. As for graffiti, it was never super risky for me as I liked low-key spots where I could take my time – mostly under bridges and in abandoned buildings.
Meredith: How do you feel when a piece is painted over?
Chris: It doesn’t really bother me anymore. If it’s tagged on, I’ll just fix it. I generally enjoy painting, so it’s not that big of a deal. As long as I get my picture, it’s all good.
Meredith M Howard is a photographer who lives in Atlanta, Georgia. She was inspired to start THE STREETS magazine after many conversations with strangers in downtown Atlanta.