Street artist, Bobo Yo, was born in Arizona. His formative years were spent growing up on the hard scrabble streets of Phoenix. Creativity was de-valued and discouraged in Yo’s family, so Bobo developed an avid fantasy life instead. He pondered gang culture before studying art at a local community college. A self described “Dharma Bum” his story reads like it was lifted from the pages of Jack Kerouac.
Born to derelict parents, Bobo’s early years provided scant introduction to art. Bobo cites his lack of exposure to art and a cycle of poverty as the driving force behind his creative process. The son of bacchanalian parents who preferred nightlife to parenthood, he was immersed in the vernacular culture of his surroundings. He says his familial upbringing inspired his admiration for the sterility of relationships. “My parents, who had fallen through the cracks of society, would drop me off at the Phoenix Art Museum wherever they went out. My mother was fond of opiates but my father stuck to alcohol, mostly.”
At an early age (encouraged by his mother Birdie) Yo experimented with gender-queer “performance art” as a street beggar — focusing on improvisational movement with “Merce Cunningham” choreography. With little formal education, he also pursued supplemental careers in field work, maid services, and sanitary engineering. Currently, “I’m an unemployed street artist.” Bobo explains, “Mine is an addict’s narrative. My process is intuitive. My themes arise from what I find stimulating at the moment, both environmentally and socially.”
“I’ve chosen a constructionism philosophy.” Bobo continues, “It stems from the belief that everything needs a counter to define itself. Things, in general, have a conceptual life because we construct them through language. Even when I construct a painting, a conversation is taking place with language itself. I not only construct the painting, but also observe myself constructing it and in turn observe the painting constructing me.”
The founding member of the Bobo Boys (a self named neighborhood street gang) Yo is enamored with the American mythos. He says he attended art classes at Phoenix College with fellow PC alumni Eric Fischl. He worked in the Arizona citrus groves after high school and then left — to travel America, train hopping from Phoenix to New Orleans and then on to Fairfield, New York and Reno.
During the years Bobo lived in New York he saw the graffiti art of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Kenny Scharf painted in the streets. Following them unashamedly, he started collecting discarded newspapers from sidewalks and dumpsters. “My paintings are a reflection of what I struggle with and think about. Seeing with the gut, which has more nerve endings than the heart or brain.”
Yo picked up his art lessons on the road. “I did everything from riding trains to bumming rides,” Yo says by phone from Reno, “traveling America was my art school. You know, I rarely hop trains anymore, but the things I saw (when) traveling!”
In Bobo V, a recent painting, Bobo echoes lessons picked up from his artist mentors, “all the cats” he’s looked at (the “East Village” artists of Fun Gallery, Chicago’s “Hairy Who”, and Ray Johnson, of “How to Draw a Bunny” fame). Yo’s artwork, like Johnson’s, treat graffiti, collage, and concept as one thing, drawn from the same wellspring.
“Putting those disparate riffs together is just my jam,” Bobo says. “I’m not saying it’s revolutionary. But there’s more to it than just signs and signifiers; it’s a document. One of my main sources is Ray Johnson. He used to liken making art to ‘putting your graffiti on a wall.’ It’s your purp. It’s primal. It’s all bingeing and purging. The aim isn’t perfection,” Yo says. “Essentially the conversation is about color and deformity.”
Bobo’s love of place continued to expand during his travels. After years of living on the streets of New York, Fairfield and Reno, Bobo has returned to his hometown of Phoenix. “I grew up looking up at the freeways and down into the barrios of Phoenix. I’ve always been impressed by decay – old and new. In the 90’s I spent four or five years at the Madison Hotel in downtown Phoenix. I tended bar at the Madison Bar where the regulars with rooms in the next-door hotels (the St. James Hotel and the Hotel Madison) hung out. Most (of the patrons) were unaware of one another concentrating only on their drinks, oblivious. I worked odd jobs and had a studio next door at Faux Café Studios.”
As an artist, Bobo is fascinated by the opposites he sees around him, like the transient vagrants and fashionable scene kids who share the streets. “I like working the polarized sides of society. When you interweave contrary ideas it gives a perspective on how strange life really is.”
“I focus on things that I like to look at, comic books and the internet, and work them into my paintings. Mix and match is the center point … recurrent construction, deconstruction, and re-combination of imagery.”
From cartoons and graffiti to word-play and cos-play, imagery is extracted from his everyday world as “visual souvenirs” and work their way into the art. Yo’s inspiration is related to the complexity and imperfect beauty of the modern mind-scape. “I explore the texture, how it slowly changes and transforms itself, mixing traces of the present and the past.” He says, “And my paintings are made old school, with hand and brush — this isn’t like some laptop drawing, this isn’t somebody’s photoshop — it’s visceral,” Bobo says. “It’s all about the moment and the movement, the action of putting some paint down. I’m going to do it in one take. I’m gonna get it down right here, right now!”
Whatever the final product, in the end what Yo creates is a viewing field, produced on sheets of discarded newspapers; a faded memory of growing up in the 1960’s combined with his dysfunctional displacement of today. His art hovers between graffiti and calligraphy. It references childhood heros and contemporary anti-heros, colliding themes of retro-cartoons with youth, beauty, and anime-pop culture. Particularly in the context of isolation, and salaciousness, his work portrays an emotion that projects a tension between the inner self and the outer world. For Yo this discomfort actually becomes a security blanket, a veiling of the dark inner self. Choice of expression and attitude are all details that emerge in his work. There is a simplicity in its graphic quality, intentionally so, to reveal as much of the subconscious as possible.
Merry Murphy, 2014.