A few years ago, RETNA was a street artist painting murals on a warehouse in Skid Row. Now he’s invading New York with a major show debuting during Fashion Week, is a favorite of art world heavyweight Jeffrey Deitch, and will soon take his talents up in the air by designing the tail of an airplane. But those are the sort of improbable things that can happen when you’re a talented guy in the right place at the right time.
RETNA grew up in Los Angeles and waded into the art world by managing a major street art collective while still in high school. The 34-year-old has worked there his entire career, more recently connecting with New Image Art Gallery, where Deitch, who moved from New York to helm MOCA last year, saw his paintings at an exhibition. “I thought the work was extraordinary, some of the freshest work I had seen all year,” Deitch wrote last fall in the street art magazine Juxtapoz. And now, RETNA will be included in Art in the Streets, a large group show of street artists opening at MOCA in April. But first, RETNA is opening his first New York solo show, The Hallelujah World Tour, at 560 Mercer Street, a cavernous warehouse that has been converted into a gallery.
On a recent morning at RETNA’s light-filled studio in downtown Los Angeles, Vladimir Restoin Roitfeld and Andy Valmorbida, curators of the new show, are keeping an eye on their artist. Watching RETNA, it’s easy to see the pressure mounting on an untested artist on the cusp of staging his first major solo show. There’s the small matter of appeasing the dealers, anxiety over actually finishing the works set to debut—and then, looming over it all, the larger question of capitalism versus art. How can he make money from this new endeavor and still maintain his credibility as a local street artist?
Though RETNA is based out of Los Angeles, a sense of inclusiveness exists in his work. His paintings consist of a gestural script simultaneously simple yet impossible to decipher. The symbols look like a mix between Arabic and Egyptian hieroglyphics, although RETNA maintains he writes in English and Spanish, drawing inspiration from anything from Old English script to gang graffiti writing.
His nonconformist work is a perfect fit for Valmorbida and Roitfeld, who are rather untraditional art dealers themselves. They’re especially young, and jet set around the world creating pop-up art galleries. (Attention to aesthetic is in Roitfeld’s blood: He’s the son of former French Vogue editor Carine Roitfeld.) The curators’ typical artists hold a certain international cachet—and RETNA is no exception. He owns enough street-cool to make him appeal to young collectors and his iconography is so transcendent it can be understood anywhere from Detroit to Dubai.
“I want my text to feel universal,” says RETNA. “I want people from different cultures to all find some similarity in it—whether they can read it or not. My art allows me to see people all as one.”
For his New York show, RETNA is converting a massive New York warehouse into his own kind of temple. Next, the show heads to London, to a custom-built 10,000-square foot industrial space. “We’re like a traveling circus,” says Valmorbida. “When Cirque du Soleil comes to town, everybody comes to see it. This is what we’re doing with the arts.”
There’s even more on the horizon: Roitfeld and Valmorbida have connected RETNA with VistaJet, a major private plane company, and in April he’ll design the tail for a $60 million Global Express “XRS” aircraft. “One of the goals as a graffiti artist is hitting the hardest spots and doing the most complicated thing because you were trying to one-up the competition,” says RETNA.
It will be hard to top flying his ambitions around at 30,000 feet, but RETNA remains grounded—and constantly reminded of his roots. “I do work that finances my other work for people on the street,” RETNA says. “Here’s something that grew from the street that was looked at as a malicious, vindictive thing—and now it’s been glorified.”
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Isabel Wilkinson is an assistant editor at The Daily Beast based in Los Angeles.