Friday, December 26, 2014

An Interview with Chicago's very own Steff Skills | Chicago Reader

Interview by Brianna Wellen/Chicago Reader
Photos by John Sturdy and Kevin Kujawa

From an early age, Skills has had a love of handwriting and hip-hop. She eventually combined the two passions, making flyers for shows and becoming a pioneer for women in Chicago’s graffiti scene beginning in the early 90s. Still an active bomber—she was among those featured in the Cultural Center’s recent survey “Paint Paste Sticker: Chicago Street Art”—the 42-year-old single mom teaches Chicago Park District art classes as she plans for the day she’ll travel the world as a full-time artist.

I felt comfortable in the street art scene because I was around a bunch of guys, and I was more or less one of the guys. As long as I was with them, I didn’t feel alone. It was later on in life when I became a mother and the crew split up that I felt like a weirdo. After I became a mom, I realized that guys don’t have this deep experience of being a mother, and I started to cherish my friendships with women. That’s when I realized that I wasn’t going to major in being someone’s wife.

I have two boys, a 16-year-old and a 21-year-old. I always make jokes that I’m getting so old I’m going to run into my kid at the club. As a young mom, I would take my son with me everywhere. I would take him to walls, I would take him to recording studios, I would take him to college with me. There was a rumor that I was putting him in my backpack and [painting] rooftops. I wasn’t, but that was my parenting style. My second child I had when I was 26, and I was much more chilled out and ready. My first child I had when I was 21, so you feel like you can still do everything. I just wanted to keep things going as much as I could. And it worked for a little while—at least I thought it did.

I’m a “cool parent.” Knowing what I know now I would have gone back and invested more in my little one because now I teach little ones, and I see parents taking their kids to classes. I didn’t know anything about that; we were just about pajamas and cartoons until kindergarten.

A lot of women whose careers I admire don’t have children. But I certainly don’t regret my children. My children add to my experience, my pushing a feminine aesthetic in my work that I didn’t feel was important before. I’m starting to feel my freedom now that my kids are older. Once my little one graduates high school, I’m ready to attempt to make it on artwork solely, my own hustle. Or if I can’t, maybe be an airline stewardess, something where I can travel, my own little midlife career change.

Both of my kids have drawn from an early age. Because I am an artist and also teach art full-time, I didn’t want to push it on them. As for being into graffiti and all that, they kind of see my world as another knitting circle that they’re just not interested in. Maybe if I was their dad and their male role model they’d be more interested. My kids will appreciate me once they get away—“Oh, cool, that’s a poster my mom did.”

My mom is extremely creative, but she’s more of a seamstress, she knits. She can go to the store and look at something she likes and go home and make it. She was trying to pass that on to me. I remember she bought me a Holly Hobbie sewing machine when I was six. I was terrified of the needle. My mom, coming from Costa Rica in the 40s—I feel I kind of broke a tradition of textile crafts, but ironically some of my paintings look like embroidery. That aesthetic is still there, it just comes out in a different way.

I really loved handwriting. I felt it was powerful. I really took pride in handwriting because my dad was in the navy and we moved a lot, and handwriting was an easy way to impress my teacher, fit in. Anytime anyone had to write anything, they’d ask me to go to the board. That was the beginning of a graphic background and made me pay attention to fonts and letters. As a kid, I would visit my godparents in New York, so I did see trains and graffiti around the city. I soaked in the aesthetic, and it just made sense: I always wanted to use letters in my art.

My mom married right out of high school. She was kind of a renegade in that she did divorce her husband back in those times with three kids. That was another seed that was planted: independence. My mom would always say, “It doesn’t matter who you’re with or how long you’ve been with them, they could always walk out the door.” So I was like, Wow, why even bother? My parents are still together. They’ve had rocky times where each one would call me and say, “I don’t think we’ll make it, I think we’re getting divorced.” Even as a child, independence was more of an influence than trying to be part of a team, and that’s been hard. I think I’ve subconsciously picked people that make you independent regardless. Now I have a boyfriend who is a really good guy. But it’s not my first love; my first love is graffiti and street art.

In 1990 I was supposed to go to the Art Institute, but my financial aid didn’t work out. I was pretty bummed, but I went to Truman College and studied astronomy, which really influenced my art. I lived on Honore and North Avenue, when Wicker Park was still a bohemian neighborhood. I had a two bedroom, and my rent was $260 a month. I had a roommate and she had a bigger bedroom, so my rent was $100 a month. I fell in love with the freedom, the bohemian community, the artists. I had never lived in a Latino community, and Wicker Park, Humboldt Park, and Logan Square were thriving Latino communities. I learned Spanish and learned how to cook the food. I knew a few dishes from my mom, but I immersed myself in a culture that I was a stranger to and that was a part of me.

I would love to move to Costa Rica. I have gone and painted out there. There’s definitely a thriving street art scene there. Their style is more influenced by Brazil and South America than New York. I’d be some old-school relic novelty out there. As soon as I get the gumption and time to travel, I can go to probably any country in the world and there would be someone in the graf community that would let me stay with them. Graffiti is a global community. It’s a really good feeling to be a part of a community like that.

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