Mint & Serf’s Fine Lines

Graffiti artist duo Mint & Serf’s spray-painted canvases are a torn up mess, which is exactly how they want them. For the perfect degree of sordidness, they spent countless whiskey-fueled nights at their Tribeca studio with a rotating crew of graffitists, including their longtime friends Pablo Power and Jacuzzi Chris, all making their own impetuous contributions. “The moments that these canvases capture are really sporadic and very raw and aggressive,” says Mint, also known as Mikhail Sokovikov, whose partner in crime–often literally–is Jason Aaron Wall, nicknamed Serf.

“A lot of craziness happened here when we were painting them,” he adds.

The two met as teenagers in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, where Serf was born and Mint moved with his family from Moscow in 1990. Though years of graffitiing have landed them in jail more times then they can count, their work suddenly became legitimate when they landed a corporate commission in 2003. That led to collaborations with suave brands including the Ace Hotel, Marc Jacobs, Soho House, and even the New York Yankees. But they quickly became frustrated with the sleek designs these collaborations demanded, not to mention how unaware the business side could be of their foundation.

In December 2011, the duo decided to bring the streets back to their studio. Twenty-three large, unused canvases left over from a project gave them the blank slate they needed. Over the next eight months, they would get friends together in their studio, become very, very drunk, and in the pandemonium add layer upon layer of colorful graffiti motifs. Blank canvases became something they compare to the famously unpalatable and bygone Mars Bar bathroom.

One canvas, Mental Failure, will be shown for the first time at “None of Us are Greater Than All of Us,” the exhibition they’re curating at Rox Gallery opening Thursday. Also included are works from the Peter Pan Posse, or the PPP, who they describe as a group of adults so involved with their creative endeavors that they’ve never bothered, or felt the need, to grow up. A grungy, dimly lit mock after-hours space they’ve installed will complete the street-to-gallery effect. “We want to make it creepy,” says Serf. “It’s our way of really pushing the envelope.”

A book documenting the series titled Support, Therapy and Instability will be released in September, and will feature contributing essays by Cat Marnell of Vice, Carlo McCormick of Paper, and the Peter Pan Posse.

When we went to meet Mint & Serf at their studio, canvases were stacked on one another, paintings littered the floor, and a grimy plastic sheet hung down over the entrance. A vandalized Birkin bag–the second one they’ve been commissioned to customize–sits on a chair. All we could think was that we wished we had been there for the party.

RACHEL SMALL: What’s the first piece of graffiti you guys worked on together?

MINT: I have an old-school apartment in Brooklyn, and I decided to repaint my bedroom wall. Jason came by with a couple of our neighborhood friends, and we started painting. It was seven or eight o’clock at night and we just got so fucking high with fumes that we eventually had to leave. We were like, “All right, we still have paint, so let’s go catch tags in the neighborhood.” We ended up walking around at like 8:30 pm on a Thursday. It was in a Jewish neighborhood. We ended up getting chased by the JDL, a Jewish Community Watch Group. But they ended up calling the real police, and that was like the first time I got caught.

SERF: That was probably the first time we did graffiti.

MINT: It was also the first run-in with the law—which would happen again and again…

SMALL: How did you guys come up with the names Mint and Serf?

SERF: I started writing “Surf” because I used to surf growing up in California. But then I started using  “e” for aesthetic reasons.

MINT: My first tag was Tag. I was an immigrant kid, and kids in my neighborhood were like, “Oh, now you need to have a tag.” I didn’t know what a tag was. So, they were like “Well, your tag is Tag.” After going through different words I was like, “Well, Mint is like a really cool word.” Mint condition. And I just liked the adjective. It’s also the flow of the letters.

SMALL: I like the 3-D sculptures of your combined tag, “Mirf.” What’s the story behind those?

MINT: In 2002 we started making these three-dimensional molds and casts of our graffiti, and experimenting with different sizes and material. Then we affixed some of them to buildings around downtown.

SMALL: How do you do that?

SERF: Magic.

SMALL: I thought so.

MINT: We have a friend who’s a—

SERF: He’s a master mason. He gave us the 411, brought us the materials, the tools and shit.

MINT: Most of them are still rocking on the streets.

SMALL: Do you have to put them up at night?

MINT: No, just the opposite.

SMALL: So you are hiding out in the open?

SERF: We have permission.

SMALL: Oh great. So it’s not too illicit.

MINT: No, we have “permission.”

SMALL: Oh, you have “permission.” I would be completely fooled. If you have a hard hat, that just screams official.

MINT: Exactly.

SMALL: What’s the riskiest thing you have done and gotten away with?

SERF: There are a few. It’s on a need-to-know basis, ’cause I feel like it doesn’t really involve graffiti. It’s more like other stuff.

SMALL: How bad is it?

MINT: Well, just with graffiti, there’s nothing really that dangerous. Graffiti is a lot of overcoming fear. In New York there’s definitely certain spots that, to go to, you need to drink a beer, grow some balls.

SMALL: If I wanted to become a graffiti writer and not get arrested, what is the—

MINT: That’s not possible.

SERF: That’s impossible.

MINT: I don’t know a single good graffiti writer that I respect who hasn’t been arrested and doesn’t have a gazillion fuckin’ marks on his head from getting into fights.

SMALL: Shit.

MINT: Yeah.

SMALL: What’s been your craziest night in New York? Or one in recent memory?

SERF: The blackout—

MINT: Oh, the blackout.

SERF: The blackout [in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy] was without a doubt the most memorable. It was just like a whole new New York. I have never even experienced New York like that ever, and can’t imagine I ever will. I walked the bridge with a couple friends right at the peak of the storm hitting. I ate a bunch of mushrooms, got a bunch of spray paint, markers, and walked around the city doing graffiti, for the entire week of the blackout. Every day and night.

SMALL: How did you create the paintings in your studio now?

MINT: A lot of whiskey. We basically moved into this spot, it’s like a clubhouse, where our friends just come and chill. We lined up the wall with canvases, and people just came here, got wasted, and drew on paper, on canvases, spray-painted it. We’ve tried to retain that raw expression of aggression you go through when you are on the street doing graffiti. There’s no premeditation. It’s an interesting act. Then you look at things, and assess it–like paste something, rip something, and you get it to a point where you think that you can’t really add anything more to make it better.

SERF: Like, has just the right amount of trash.

MINT: Actually a lot of times, people just ended up not even going anywhere from here. Like instead of going to a bar, they just stayed here.

SERF: There’s no need to go anywhere. We wind up at a club or a bar and it’s like, “Why the fuck do we come here?” We have one or two drinks and then we are bored out of our fucking minds. We wind up right back here anyway. There’s no need to ever leave.

SMALL: What do you want people to feel when they see these?

MINT: I’m interested in that sketchy feeling you get walking through mazes of construction or scaffolding, not knowing what’s around the corner–that really uncomfortable feeling. I think it’s an interesting idea to explore, that kind of anxiety.

SMALL: I like how the layers are peeling off.

MINT: If you go to certain stations in the outer boroughs of New York, sometimes you’ll come across a station that’s been painted for decades. You’ll see the paint cracking. When it’s really hot, the cracks start spreading. All of the sudden you have this crack peeling back, and you’ll start see all the layers of paint. It’s kind of like history: you’ll have like 30 years of just paint, painted and painted and painted. Sometimes you’ll see some spray paint from the ’80s. We kind of wanted to do that with these canvases, because the amount of layers and days and months of painting and repainting. We want to shine through, to show a little bit of a narrative.

SMALL: Have you ever been disappointed that something you’ve done has been painted over later?

MINT: There were a couple of exact moments where we were like, “Oh, it looks fucking sick! It doesn’t need anything else.” Then you wake up the next day, and you were like, “Fuck!”

SERF: It’s aaaall gone!

MINT: There’s not even a photograph. Just a fake memory, that’s it. Everything’s so chaotic; I can’t even reproduce it in my mind.

SERF: We just need to soundproof and odor-proof.

SMALL: Have you had complaints?

SERF: The guy who lives downstairs is like 70-something years old.

MINT: In the beginning we were trying to be cordial about it, but it got to a point where he hates us. Not that long ago, we invited a couple younger friends, like ages 17, 20, to the studio to paint. We were painting for five, 10 minutes at the most. It wasn’t that bad at all. But somehow, the paint fumes seeped through the floor. The guy downstairs would usually call or text, but I had my ringer off. So he climbed up the fire escape and started freaking out. Like, “What are you doing? You’re poisoning me!” Then he started talking to the kids, like “You guys watch out! These guys are trouble!” Even though those guys are doing graffiti as well. But he was very concerned for their safety. He was going on for half an hour at least. He just likes to complain a lot.

SMALL: How would you describe the style overall?

MINT: I really want people to look at these, not even just as graffiti works, but really like a new take on painting. Because we’ve spent a lot of time making sure that the normal and conventional idea of composition and form are completely reduced to nothing. Our idea of graffiti is just gristle and raw aggression that you’re faced with on the street or in a bar bathroom. It’s not supposed to be pretty.

SERF: It’s not a beauty pageant.

MINT: No, it’s not. It’s about jumping at you. It’s about letting you know that you’re here, no matter how old or how young you are. No matter if you’re some biker who’s 57 and still does it or a 12-year-old kid on a train who’s still scratching your name into the fucking glass. When you’re going down the street and you’re doing it, you’re not thinking about aesthetic and how to polish it. You’re doing it as fast as you can, and hopefully you’ve worked out your style. But it’ll never come out the same, and it’ll never be perfect.