Harif Guzman, Metamorphosis

I remember the first time I went to a Haculla exhibition. The space was vast, filled with huge canvases displaying iconic, sometimes crude yet imaginative social commentary. Whilst trying to get my head around all his work, my attention was constantly borrowed by the vivacious crowd teeming with beauty, talent and money. Needless to say it was a great party.

Harif Guzman has been in New York since he was a young boy. Born in Venezuela in 1975, by 1980 he had landed in the city he refers to as, ‘not only my home but my canvas and inspiration’.

During his wild and somewhat misspent youth, a talented skateboarder and street artist, he began to work under the moniker Haculla and as the years progressed his art transformed; the street artist is now a renowned contemporary painter.

Within Harif’s work, there is a strong bond with New York and his experiences therein. Re-occurring characters such as Haculla himself hijacking a ride in Coco Chanel‘s car whilst battery operated coke-sniffing miniature horses roam the showroom!

His current series ‘Now that I’m sober’, contains large cubist cityscapes (one of which has been donated to the Whitney) that scream of the vast emptiness and dark moral undertones present in New York City.

JAMIE BURKE: Tell me a little about your youth and when you first discovered art.

HARIF GUZMAN: My dad worked in a print shop on Varick. It was my job to do all the dirty work, you know, clean the blankets, burn plates, stock paper, clean the printers. All sorts of repetitive shit. I hated it.

Then my mum was always dragging me round thrift stores and garage sales. I think my first memory of seeing art was some old paintings in a garage sale. We used to decorate the house with that stuff because we had no money.

JB: Do you remember a specific point in your life when you decided to be an artist?

HG: I never wanted to be an artist. Never thought I’d ever be an artist. I wanted to be an airline pilot when I was little.

JB: Didn’t we all.

HG: It happened kind of by default really. I grew up skating and that was all I cared about. My parents were split up and I was bouncing between Florida, Jersey and New York.

When I was in New York, I’d be skating with Tedi Powell, Quim Cardona, Mike Cardona RIP, and Harold Hunter RIP.

JB: I heard you were good friends with Harold Hunter?

HG: Harold’s the reason I’m here, he taught me how to live in New York. My mum had sold her house in Jersey and long story short I found myself homeless, so I would sleep on Harold’s floor or Adrian Lopez‘s of ABC Skateshop. Sometimes I’d live out of the skate shop basement, my only possessions; a few clothes, a skateboard and a DVD copy of Bram Stoker’s Dracula in my back pocket. I used to try and watch it wherever I could, at people’s houses sometimes I’d be like ‘yo can I throw this in.’

So Harold had 2 nick-names for me; Ha which was short for Harif, and Wander cause I used to wander off at parties. One day, he shouted ‘Yo Ha’, ‘Yo Haculla! Mind your skinny business’. He used to say all types of crazy shit like ‘Yo look at this Johnny Depp mother-fucker.’ Anyway the name Haculla stuck which was a good thing as I didn’t much like the name Wander. (laughs)

JB: So Haculla was Born!

HG: Yeah it’s kind of like the dark entity of myself. I’ve always been obsessed with the enigma of true love. When everything was going nicely in my life I had my own place, a car and a girl that I loved… Then suddenly, it all blew up in my face and I found myself in Union Square trying to shower somewhere, you know what I’m saying (laughs). My dark alter ego was born then and there in Manhattan.

I had started painting when I lived in San Francisco but once I was back in New York I couldn’t really paint because I had nowhere to live. So I would improvise… I’d find canvases in the streets and stash them on top of bus stops, then when I wanted to paint I’d go find them. I’d paint outside Don Hills cause I had no money to drink unless I was with Harold, he used to know where the free drinks were at, or if Chad Muska was in town then we’d go eat.

JB: Did you ever stash anything else around the city?

HG: I had a bunch of shit stashed round the city; clothes, lamps and furniture. We’d stash drinks too! You know, Max Fish.

JB: Of course.

HG: Well I used to get a 40, and take it to the bakery spot round the corner, you know where the dude was always trying to sell you rum balls, I’d take the 40 and put it in the toilet actually in the back of the toilet where the waters at.

JB: The tank.

HG: Exactly! So the 40 would sit there and get cold and then when the Fish closed, usually about 5AM, I’d go back round and pick it up and drink it in there. Sperm taught me that. Cause, you know, you can’t be drinking on the street like you London types.

JB: Has that always been a rule in NYC since you lived here?

HG: Well, back in the day, when we’d all smoke weed and be drinking at Astor Place or wherever, the Cops would normally just tell you ‘yo take that shit to the park’ so we would. Now you can’t even fart in an elevator without a fucking ticket (laughs).

JB: New York City is your base. However, is there anywhere else in the world you could see yourself and your work?

HG: Well I did a little time in London, had a studio off Latimer road. I managed to sell quite a lot of work there. Originally, I had traveled to Paris and then I thought this place is not for me what am I doing out here, I’m running out of money.
A good friend of mine, Eddy Churchill hit me up like, ‘Trust me you wanna come over to London’. I arrived to a pretty clean set-up, right on the Thames in a super plush pad with a maid. So I sold some work to his people and managed to make some good money.

JB: Any plans to return to London?

HG: Yeah I think so, I definitely have some unfinished business there.

JB: I remember reading an interview with Jean Michel Basquiat in which he said, ‘Occasionally, when I get mad at a woman, I’ll do some great or awful painting about her’. Do you find that your Personal life and relationships find their way into your paintings?

HG: I think it’s the other way around, I think my personal relationships form out of my artwork. Sometimes, when I paint things on a canvas they manifest themselves in my life.

For instance, before I went to London, I made a painting and for some reason I wrote London all over it again and again; London, London, London. I’d never even been there.

JB: So you believe in painting your own luck?

HG: I think painters are a very different breed of artist. We’re all mentally ill. I make shit just because I got to get it out of my head. I don’t make anything because it’s gonna sell or it happened to me. Everything in an artist’s life becomes an art also, the way you dress, the way you brush your teeth, the way you drink a beer, the way you tie your shoes, your style, it’s all about style. And, yes, I have painted my own luck.

JB: You can’t learn swag or style in school.

HG: No you can’t. But everyone has there own style, especially cats.

JB: Do your lovers find their way into your work?

HG: Yes. If you don’t have a strong family base then your lovers become an important role in your life. No matter how many lovers you have. People always mis-quote me on this… I think what we were really put on this earth to do is hang out with women, and do positive stuff for each other, to serve one another and be a community. However the forces that be… well it’s just not possible to live exactly like that, not here. I think women play such a big role in any street kid’s life you know it’s that mother figure you may or may not have had, it’s the other half of you, the Ying or Yang, the balance. Think about it, it’s the only thing on this planet that’s just like you, but it’s a woman.

JB: When do you like to paint?

HG: My favorite time is like midnight when my girl’s asleep and then I’ll paint through the night until the next day with a few pit stops. It’s quiet at night in Manhattan.

JB: Quiet? Maybe here in Soho. I can see some familiar faces from NYC nightlife in your work tell me about them.

HG: They are part of a series called "Uptown Meets Downtown". It’s about social media and sensationalism, the ridiculousness that’s printed in the papers, people’s infatuation with being skinny or rich or eating the right food. Mainly what people with money are concerned with, like food, shopping, travel. Then on the other side when you don’t have enough money to put food on the table you’re concerned with survival.

When you go out at night what do you see? Dope ass beautiful woman pull up with some actor or basketball player, there’s a junky over there, some guy’s girlfriend is looking at me from across the room, then someone offers me a bump, I’m trying to get a free drink, I dunno where I’m gonna sleep tonight, there’s someone in the back of my mind that I’m gonna call, do I have the right gear on, I feel dirty, a nice SUV drives past, wow look at that, who is that, they’re a really handsome couple. It’s about the melting pot, the mixing of different people, rich UpperEast-siders with downtown dirtbag kids. Bit like Dash (Snow). You know he came from the Upper East Side and he came down and mixed with us, which I respected but I could never understand, me and Harold would go up there and be like ‘Yo they got food in their massive fridges what the hell they doing downtown’.

Only in NYC do the two cultures clash and then mix like that. That’s what this series is about.

JB: New York is a very unique place. There’s no class system, rather a respect for achievements and ambitions. It’s not where you’re from, it’s what you’ve done.
What does the American dream mean to you?

HG: It’s someone like me, I didn’t even speak English when I first arrived, but I envisioned something I wanted. Working hard and achieving anything you want in a free environment. You gotta work hard, especially in NYC, no one’s going to hand you anything for free and if you don’t know what you want you’ll never get it. But If you can hustle here, you can hustle anywhere.

JB: I’ve noticed some of your work around the city is perhaps illegally applied and then other pieces that seem to have been commissioned. What are your thoughts on the commercialization of street art?

HG: The door by Cafe Select was my first illegal spot that just sort of became mine and was my go-to for new pieces. Then Nur Khan commissioned me to paint the inside of Don Hills and recently the entrance of Electric Room. But since the Banksy film I’ve kind of pulled away from street art, you know now everyone and their mother’s got a stencil out there. He kind of jokingly inspired everyone which is great but it’s over subscribed now.

Anyway, I was moving into a new realm of contemporary painting. Twenty years of street art was enough!

JB: Have you ever been arrested while writing/painting on the street?

HG: No, but I’ve been close a couple of times. Sometimes I would act like I was collecting cans and I’d have the wheat-paste in my basket with the posters hidden amongst the cans. The cops would drive by and be like whatever, they didn’t care about a dirty can collector but then I’d be putting up posters up all down the street. The cops would drive past me but they’d never wanna touch a dude collecting cans. Think about it, you’re an italian cop or a black cop do you think you’re gonna wanna touch some dude that’s been picking up everybody’s left over sips. No thanks man I ain’t trying to get SARS (laughs). I used to have to run away from cops a lot when I was a skater.

JB: I guess being a skateboarder prepares you for…

HG: For life.

JB: Certainly for the streets.

HG: You know the most important thing I learned form skateboarding is not to be afraid to look stupid, because if you are, then you’ll never learn. If you’re afraid of what people think of you or pleasing people you’ll never get anywhere. You can’t be the cool guy all the time you gotta learn by falling down.

JB: So what’s next for Harif Guzman?

HG: Making better art with better materials. I got a piece in an auction in the Whitney which is exciting. I want to go to Hong Kong for the first Art Basel over there. Then I have a project involving big mechanical horses that I want to start to create. I have a bunch of ideas in notebooks that need to be refined and worked on this year. I guess the main thing is to be producing the best art I can possibly produce. It’s an honor to be a painter and live in New York City so I really wanna treat my craft with the respect that it deserves.

JB: Thank you for talking to us.

HG: Thank you for listening.

Photos by: Jamie Burke

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