BY.SESSIONS is a series that takes place in a 16 foot cube, giving free rein for friends and artists to explore their ideas and expand on their processes.
For this session we met with Tony Thunder, an old friend and prolific street artist that has expanded the Oklahoma arts landscape. Over the course of his session, and several weeks of back and forth, we learn more about his life, cartoons, development, and how to get in where you fit in.
BY.E: Let’s start simple and broad. What got you into art and how did you find the style of art you’ve become most known for?
Tony Thunder: I’ve clung to creating since I could hold a crayon. My dad drew a little growing up and my big sister was always into art and creating as well. I just remember the first time I saw her shade with a crayon. I had to be like 3 or 4, and I remember my parents being so impressed with it and I thought “Oh, I can do that and it makes people happy?!” I wanted my picture on the refrigerator after that. So yeah, I’ve been drawing my whole life. My childhood had its traumas and we were poor as all hell, but I could create anything I wanted and could ‘escape’ for free with just a pencil and a piece of paper. I loved it and could never be bored. People would tell me my whole young life that I should do something with my art talent, but I didn’t listen at first - I liked illegal graffiti and skateboarding. I was going to be a pro skateboarder if I had any say so. I drew everyday, but skateboarding and partying was life. Then when I was like 18, I saw my roomate Cody sell a painting for like $200 at a group art show. Which was probably my first art show I ever attended. I was like “wait… we can just do t hat?!” That’s when I became a working artist I guess. My style and tone comes from having open-minded parents that let me have free rein on tv and internet at an early age unfortunately, BUT fortunately. I grew up watching things like Beavis and Butt-head, Simpsons, and MTV music videos since I could walk since I had older siblings. So that, mixed with a healthy diet of Cartoon Network and Adult Swim, really got me going. Then of course, coming up with graffiti writers and being involved in skateboarding. Skateboarding art is a mega inspiration. Artists like Marc McKee and Sean Clever are masters of the trade. The way they just publicly expressed themselves with no filter whatsoever with the most bold and in-your-face art on skateboards and t-shirts in the 80’s and 90’s must’ve had parents' heads spinning! I'm a peacock and I like to stand out and provoke thought, either good or bad, and all that is right up my alley. They showed me that there’s no rules to this shit, so I just stopped trying to create what I initially thought art was and started doing my own thing and it evolved into how I artistically express myself today. - Oh and Comic book illustrations too! Love it.
BY.E: What were some of the cartoons and comic books that had big influences on you?
TT: It started with The Looney Toons, Batman The Animated Series and the Hanna Barbera era of the early 2000’s Cartoon Network. Then I absolutely loved The Power Puff Girls, Dragon Ball Z and Cowboy Bebop for their art styles. I didn’t get too into comic books until I was older. I’ve never been a big reader due to ADHD, but I admit I’m a huge consumer of everything superhero movies, shows,clothes and lunchboxes. When I do read them, it’s usually the Swamp Thing and Batman. I mostly dig the vintage illustration style from the gold and silver age of comic books though. Jack Kirby a.k.a The King is one of my all time favorite artists.
BY.E: Hanna Barbera! Oh shit I haven’t thought of that in so long. When you first got into graffiti did you start out with the characters or were you more focused on adapting a hand style?
TT: Characters. I was terrible at graffiti. Pretty much, I wasn’t even too far into doing graffiti myself. I drew it, knew it and loved it, but it's not quite my cup of tea. My friends growing up were older and were way more serious about it. So I would just go with them sometimes to scribble dumb crap around town. Graffiti has a vibe that just isn’t on my spectrum. Go talk to any old head that’s been doing nothing but graffiti for like 20 - 30 years and you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. Skateboarding kinda had that vibe, but it was chiller. Graffiti is a different beast, do something wrong and you’ll end up in the icu, on a t-shirt or worse... a public beef over instagram. They have passion that’s for sure and the world is much more beautiful for it in my opinion. But hey, My dumb crap did end up in the background of a skateboard magazine one time when I was a youngin. It was so hilariously bad. The piece was called ‘Pandas On Rocks’, but that’s a story for another time. I was so damn proud though.
BY.E: Gatekeeping was mastered by graffiti culture and adopted by skaters. I’ve gone through phases of hating the gatekeepers but in the same vein when you work so hard on something then people want to come in and have a free come up it can be super frustrating. What are some things you think have to be earned versus learned?
TT: Ah, Gatekeeping is for the birds. I feel It only keeps things stagnant. I’m talking about anything like; art, fashion, music, tech, government, life in general! Inclusion of people who think differently and just having a different set of eyes on something never hurt anything. It usually helps it evolve and move to a better and higher place faster. If you truly love something you should want that for it and you should want to be a part of that. If Gatekeeping was the way, I feel we would all just be bumping classical music right now or something. Which isn’t necessarily bad but I like Wu Tang too! I think selfishness, egos and worrying about how someone else got there has stifled a lot of cool things and advancements. As for what specifically needs to be earned as opposed to learned? I have no idea. Let’s be honest, the majority of the world runs on nepotism, generational wealth and all about “who ya know”. With that being said, absolutely nothing can stop a person with passion and drive. I’ve seen the absolute worst visual artists get the biggest followings and opportunities just because they have that infectious enthusiasm towards what they're doing. Usually people will eventually catch on if they truly suck and they’ll naturally fall off, but people love that go-getter energy at first. I know It’s hard not to throw shade on those successful people that we personally deem unworthy, not old enough, or skilled and educated enough, but we’re all fools if we can’t understand and respect how they got there; and adjust accordingly.. I say we gotta stop worrying about right or wrong ways of going about things and just ‘get in where you fit in’. Actually, screw ‘fitting in’ - Just get in!
BY.E: Was there ever a time where it felt like you just had to “get in”?
TT: Pretty much doing any mural right now are instances of me ‘getting in where I fit in’. Murals are still kind of new’ish to me. I don’t really have a place to practice doing murals, so my “Practice” is during “The Big Game” every time. Shout out to Allen Iverson. That gets a little stressful and scary, but every single time it's worked out. I’m always fine. Bidding for those city mural gigs use to be pretty intimidating too. The government is involved and all the paper work, bids, budgets and zoom presentations - it’s a lot of seriousness. I never thought I’d be the kind of artist that could do that type of thing by myself for the longest time. I didn’t go to school for any of this, but I’m surrounded by super good people that let me know “hey, you can do that.” and I’m very thankful for that - everyone needs that. As a creative, you have to start listening and believing people when they tell you got something special. They’re telling you that for a reason. Listen and run with it!
BY.E: I always find the line of art for work and work for art really fascinating because that’s exactly the line ready-to-wear fashion walks. Between the big-budget murals or the fine art canvas or hitting walls in the streets, where do you get the most satisfaction? Sometimes that check is amazing but sometimes there’s no price for freedom. I wonder how an artist that often has so much to say with their work walks that tight rope.
TT: I definitely find satisfaction in all mediums, but It’s like in the movie ‘Nope’, where the nature documentarian they ask for help says “I do one for them, then I do one for myself.” I’d personally go crazy just doing “commercial” art or working for a corporation or big entity. I can’t be clean and proper for too long, I have to get dirty every now and then.. that’s just where my love of art and expression came from. It’s like when I spent most of a year painting a big, wholesome and truly meaningful mural at a high school for the city - right after that I had to go run and paint “Donald Duck smoking a Doob” at the local bar - Shout out to Good Times in OKC for that freedom. So yeah I personally gotta find balance or i’ll stop having fun and lose the passion. I absolutely love those big checks and everything else that comes with it for sure, but I also love my sanity and trying to stay true to that kid that just did art to make his friends laugh. Sidebar, with all that being said - ain’t nothing wrong with getting your money. It’s hard out here, stack your chips.
Words and photography by Elyjah Monks