We are HUGE fans of New York based artist Michael De Feo. Best known in the street art movement for his iconic flower depiction (which has appeared on streets around the world), he uses flowers extensively in his work (which sometime strays outside the law).
Not limited to the streets as his canvas, De Feo’s work has also appeared in numerous galleries and museums around the world, from Puerto Rico to Manhattan. De Feo lives with his wife Lia and daughter Marianna in New York City.
How old were you when you first became interested in street art?
I’ve loved making art as long as I can remember. It was when I was a first year art student at the School of Visual Arts in New York City that I decided to install my paintings out in the streets. It was about 1992 when I first started gluing my paintings on blueprint paper to wall surfaces in SoHo. I did this primarily as a way to circumnavigate the process in which one gets their work seen by galleries. As a young art student almost no one was interested in looking at my slides (yes, we still used slides in 1992!) so I figured I could glue my paintings to the walls where gallery owners and collectors would be forced to see them. The important lesson for me then was that I quickly didn’t care about the galleries but was much more interested in reaching a larger audience via the streets. Back then there wasn’t a street art scene like there is today. Very few people were using the streets in this way.
Ever since I was a child I’ve wanted to ‘leave my mark’ and become part of the fabric of New York City. Little did I know back then that I would be doing literally exactly that, years later.
When and where did the connection with flowers come from?
The iconic flower image for which I’m perhaps most known for came about by accident while loosening up before a painting session back in 1993. I was using black paint and a fat brush to illustrate a series of childlike images including a group of flowers. The one in the center of the wall pretty much leapt off the paper and demanded my attention. It really struck me as it had certain graphic and symbolic qualities that all the other drawings were missing: a real presence. I quickly used this painted flower to make a silk screen and in no time had a huge amount of flower prints in a variety of colors, an entire rainbow. It was pretty obvious to me at that moment that my next steps were to paste them all over New York. Shortly thereafter I became known as ‘The Flower Guy’, a moniker given to me by new acquaintances and fans of my work.
The ephemeral nature of art on city walls became an important conceptual facet to the flower project. The whimsical and smile-spreading blooms eventually weather away, reminding us of a universal truth that nothing is permanent. The flowers have a life cycle. They sprout someplace, have their existence, wither away and die only to sprout again somewhere else. The project became a magical game finding these colourful blooms in cities full of towering concrete, glass and steel.
Working with flowers has been endlessly nurturing for me. It has been over twenty years since I painted that first flower and the project continues to grow in so many interesting and meaningful ways for me. There are numerous facets to the meanings and symbolisms that flowers embody which allows me to utilize them in the various ways that I do, both inside and out. It’s continually rewarding.
There is something very audacious but also extremely charming about what you do and it’s often illegal. What sort have reactions have you had?
It’s a funny thing to break the law by spreading friendly imagery. Reactions over the years have spanned from absolute delight to downright anger. I’m rather tickled by the somewhat gentle subversive nature of what I do.
What is your relationship with flowers do you have them at home and if so what are your favourite?
When I was a young boy I used to enjoy picking the springtime daffodils and crocuses in our yard to give to my mother. My parents also had beautiful roses they planted around our house along with annuals my father would plant every spring. Both my mom and dad grew up on farms in Southern Italy so I think there are garden skills in our blood! It’s hard to select just one flower as my favourite as I love so many of them and continually discover new ones. Recently I purchased some yellow ranunculus at a local flower shop for my wife; we both love them.
Why do you think flowers are so important and why do they make such a powerful statement?
For me flowers are important mostly because they’re so fragile and temporary, here with us for only a short while. We are so lucky to have and experience them! During their short stay with us they have the ability to spread beauty, joy and sometimes a lovely scent. The fact that flowers are the reproductive parts of plants is a concept that’s not lost on me. It’s very interesting and may explain their seductive nature. I’ve always felt that since plants use flowers to reproduce, essentially without having physical sex, that in turn makes flowers pure or virginal. Perhaps this is what makes them appropriate for occasions of both great joy and sadness like weddings, births or funerals. Clearly, they’re also a terrific way to make myself and others smile.
What inspires you?
Absolutely everything I’m surrounded by inspires me; the world is full of wonders!
You started 20 years ago, how has social media changed your approach to your work?
When I began using the streets most people weren’t on the internet yet. Things are certainly different today. I’d have to say that out of all the social media platforms out there, Instagram is the most influential and my favorite. It’s the only platform that has fostered new creative friendships for me both online and face-to-face. I love using it to share my work as well as discover what other people are creating. I have to admit that I’m pretty addicted to it. I’m a visual person and I love to share so I suppose it’s a natural attraction.
What are your plans for the future?
I’m constantly pushing myself in my painting practice so that’s something that always has my attention. I’m also doing a variety of fashion-related projects. I’ve recently collaborated with a New York fashion company (I’m not allowed to say who just yet) for a line of women’s accessories to be launched this spring. It’s been wonderful creating paintings specifically for translation to fabrics and ultimately the human body. I love the idea of wrapping oneself with a painting via a beach wrap or scarf. I’m doing a few other fashion collaborations but I’m sworn to secrecy for now! I will be sharing details about these projects very soon via my Instagram feed @theflowerguy and my website mdefeo.com so please stay tuned!