In the heart of Brooklyn, New York live two of the most iconic street artists of all time. Collectively known as FAILE, Patrick McNeil and Patrick Miller are best recognized for their artistic renderings of pop culture collages that cover the city streets of New York. It’s the ultimate DIY project: appropriating images, chopping them up, mashing them together, then taking it upon themselves to show the world. Since their inception back in 1999, FAILE, like many successful artists, have gone from the streets to the gallery in an attempt to tell their story on a broader scale. These myths, as the guys like to put it, can now be seen in a variety of forms, from a spinning prayer wheel in the middle of Times Square, to a neon-drenched arcade in Miami Beach. Though times have certainly changed for FAILE, their vision remains the same.
What is your memory of street art in the late 90s/early 2000s?
It was just so new, having moved to New York and experiencing (street art) for the first time. It was so active for the participants and even the way it wove into the city. It was alive, there and gone, but continually to be found. Soho, the Meatpacking District, the Lower East Side – such a great amount of work going on by a small group of artists that have really grown to help create a new aesthetic and a new movement, really. I guess today when we look around, you just don’t see that risk any more – not just in putting work up, but the small pieces where artists were just willing to put up work they were doing, to experiment, real-time in a public forum. It almost didn’t matter that much what it was; it was the act of seeing artwork and interacting with it on your walk home or going out. You just saw something raw and fresh happening, and if you were aware of it, you saw this great dialogue happening between artist/artist and artist/public. Things were slower and more personal. There was no social media tie to anything. The artwork was only shared and documented through personal photo books and magazines. Walls had time to develop, and because they weren’t static murals, there wasn’t the feeling that you couldn’t add to something. It wasn’t concerned about how many likes it got or the market or the system of art. It was an act that existed in most cases just to be heard and be seen. That was really romantic from a creator’s point of view.
When you first began pasting, what was the best part of that experience as a whole? Did you enjoy the thrill or was it out of your comfort zones?
I think the thrill of putting work up was one thing, but I think it was also about seeing the work live on the street. Seeing it be alive like that in the elements, how it would change, get written on, torn and aged by time and weather. We would often go back and document work along the way – start a wall and then continue to come back and keep that going. The whole act of scouting a spot, making a great piece to put on it, the act of getting up and then enjoying that as you pass by over time was very holistic. Even to this day, remembering great pieces that were up on a certain spot… We still get people [who] fell in love with images on the street, and they convey to us about the relationship they had with a certain piece as they would walk by it every day.
When you walk the streets of New York, what do you notice most? What’s your personal vision of the city?
I think [New York] has changed over the years. First moving to New York, so much of it was about surfaces, signage and graphics, the elements of the street culture. After being here for 18 years and admittedly seeing so much of it change and gentrify, I think the street is not as captivating as it used to be in that original context – not to say it’s bad; it’s just different. Street art in a raw form, with smaller pieces sprinkled around doesn’t exist like it did 15 years ago. Much of the city is cleaner and potentially more homogenous from the way of signs and symbols via the sort of “mom and pop” shops. It’s less weird, a little less character. That said, there are still visual moments every week that surprise and inspire in new ways we don’t always expect. We try to stay open and look for those new breadcrumbs that lead us down a new path.
If you were to think of your street work as a sort of narrative, what would be the message you’re trying to convey to passersby?
Notice what’s around you. Look in the corners, at the door that’s covered in graffiti, at the small bits and pieces that exist around you (that) better tie you into where you are. Each of our images are different in their message and [in] their aim. Many are personal but still speak to broad themes like love, greed, fear, sexuality, etc. In the end, I think we’re trying to help create meaning in our urban environment through our lens of experience and share it.
What’s life like for FAILE today? Is it safe to assume you’re not roaming the streets at night and scaling buildings to paste?
The only time we’re out (roaming the streets and scaling buildings to paste artwork) is when we travel. It’s more rare that we roam NYC looking to put up work. We still enjoy getting pieces up and all the things we loved about it back in the day. Yet, with young families and more responsibility, the idea of getting arrested on a random Tuesday night just doesn’t seem as useful as trying to create a large experience or new body of work that can hopefully move people, even if it happens indoors or outdoors with permission. If we choose to use the tool of the street for that delivery of artwork, we will; otherwise, we will try to take all we learned in the last 17 years and channel that into creating images and artworks that resonate with meaning no matter the stage.