KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — Walk around this city’s downtown and you’re bound to see graffiti that looks too good to have been quickly scrawled by some delinquent.
There’s the angry eye on the electrical box where Spittelstrasse becomes Fischerstrasse; the ornate candy land on a utility substation on Mainzer Strasse; the arms rising from clouds on the electrical box near St. Martin’s church.
The pieces, if a bit cartoonish, look like art. That’s because they are.
They’re the work of Carl Kenz, a local artist who has managed to earn an honest living and growing recognition from his graffiti, an art form perfected on the walls of subway trains and in the shadows of underpasses.
In the past year, he’s been invited to paint or exhibit works in the United States, Australia, Austria, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Kyrgyzstan and about a dozen German cities and other locales he can’t recall on three hours’ sleep. British dart manufacturer Winmau just released a line of flights featuring his work. He’s sponsored by Red Bull, which — given his sleep and work habits — is a fortunate pairing.
“I’m a nervous, very critical guy and I always want more,” Kenz, 31, said during an interview in his Kaiserslautern studio. “I think that’s the reason why I don’t sleep that much.”
As a teen in the late 1990s, Kenz fell in with some American kids, the children of servicemembers stationed in the Kaiserslautern area. He was into skateboarding and hip-hop, and kids who hailed from the States carried a certain cachet in these diversions.
“They were knowing what they were talking about because they just came from the U.S.,” Kenz said.
There was one gaping hole in their street knowledge, though: they didn’t know graffiti.
As a group, Kenz and his crew fell into graffiti almost by accident. Hanging out in Kaiserslautern, they stumbled upon local street artists by the names of Yale, Arte and Daniel, who tagged walls with complex scripts that impressed and awed the teens.
“We stood over there with our mouths wide open and like, ‘Wow, what the [expletive]? What they doing over here?’” Kenz said.
“From that point, the idea became clear that I wanted to do something like that for sure.”
Kenz and his friends went home and started sketching. Soon, they were out on the street leaving their own mark on the city.
Graffiti quickly became Kenz’s passion. He said he never did anything illegal, but did take part in graffiti jams, where artists get together to paint, collaborate and learn from each other. As he got older, though, and it came time to figure out what he was going to do with his life, the idea of becoming a professional graffiti artist didn’t seem viable.
So he trained in a field he thought would scratch his creative itch — graphic design. He spent three years in a German dual-track education program, apprenticing for a design firm four days a week and going to a vocational school in Neustadt, a wine town about a half hour from Kaiserslautern two days a week. When he was done, he signed on with a firm designing a vast array of products, from advertising materials and logos to CD covers and letterhead for clubs, banks and numerous medium- and large-size companies.
It was a living, but working for a company stressed him out, he said. He left the firm to start his own business designing album covers, posters and other materials for clubs, DJs, rappers and musicians.
Working with artists, he hoped to find the creative freedom he had on the street. What he got was “stupid [expletives] sitting there telling you, ‘Nah, do a blue background,’ “ he said. “It’s always like that. You can’t be really creative” when you’re designing for somebody else.
Dentists, he noted, don’t have the same problem. “You trust him and let him do his job.”
While working as a designer during the day, he spent his free time on graffiti. The streets became the outlet where he could fully express his vision. It was just a hobby, but one for which his reputation was growing among Kaiserslautern’s skater crowd.
In 2008, a local skate shop owner asked Kenz to exhibit some work in his store as part of a 10-year anniversary promotion. Kenz said he’d always thought graffiti belonged on the street, but the idea of putting spray paint to canvas intrigued him.
By this time, he’d been his own boss for three years. But the exhibition’s success gave Kenz confidence to shutter his design firm and try his hand as a professional graffiti artist. He founded his own brand, Ars Vivenda, a Latin phrase that translates to “Art is living.” Soon, the jobs started rolling in.
Living the dream
Before Kenz painted them, Stadtwerke Kaiserslautern’s utility boxes and substations were a constant target for amateur graffiti writers.
“So I went to them and told them, ‘Hey, let me design it like nice, so you don’t got to paint it white like 10 times a year,’” Kenz said.
When a real artist does good work on commission, Kenz said, “the illegal guys won’t go over it.”
In 2008, the utility company commissioned Kenz to paint nearly four dozen of its boxes and substations around Kaiserslautern. Nearly eight years later, many of them still bear his original works. Some have been tagged or deteriorated, and Kenz occasionally goes back to update or fix his work.
In November, he spent four days repainting a substation on Mainzer Strasse to look like a paradise of sweets. It’s on one of the main routes into Kaiserslautern, and hundreds if not thousands of cars pass by every hour. The response from most passersby was overwhelmingly positive, he said. But some folks, apparently startled by the sight of a guy spray-painting a building, called the cops.
The police have to respond when they get a call, but his conversations with them tended to be short, he said.
“Are you Kenz?” They’d ask. “Yeah,” he’d reply. “Okay, bye.”
The work he produced is unmistakably Kenzian, involving a wide color palette and his signature characters, the Devmonz, which he dreamed up a few years ago. They look like little white devils, which he depicts in various costumes and scenes.
“You can show so much emotion and style and tell stories in just a simple character,” he said.
Some of that can be seen on the wall outside of Kaiserslautern’s Kammgarn, which has allowed Kenz to turn the place into his own outdoor art gallery. There, hundreds of feet of brick wall are covered in works by Kenz and his friends.
The art brings him joy, but “it’s also hard work,” Kenz said. The art market is small, and there are a lot of good artists out there, “so it’s not enough to say, ‘Hey, I’m crazy, I’m out of the box.’ You really need to put blood, sweat and tears into this [expletive] to move forward.”
That reality results in Kenz living a life far different from what one might expect of a guy who has devoted his life to an art made famous by American gangs.
He’s not a big partier. He sleeps four to five hours a night. The rest of the time he’s painting, sculpting, sketching, answering emails from galleries, traveling to exhibitions, talking with the press, organizing and running workshops for kids and aspiring painters and working more hours than he ever did as a 9-to-5-er at a graphic design firm.
He’s caught flak from some old friends for not living the hip-hop, skater, street life he embraced when he found graffiti.
Instead, his routine looks more like this: He arrives in some new city at 8 p.m. and meets up with other artists. They sketch until 4 or 5 in the morning, sleep a few hours, then get up at 8 and spend the rest of the day painting.
“This,” Kenz said, “is my kind of party.”
For more works by Carl Kenz, visit ArsVivenda.com