Beyond Graffiti with KEO

KEO feature

I’ve had the privilege of talking with quite a few individuals that work with, in and around the culture of Hip Hop. We’ve had everything from MC’s and DJ’s to authors and A&R’s share in some food, music and lifestyle talk. Today we’re gonna do a top to bottom with an artist whose life piecebook is tagged up with enough personal experience that makes ‘graffiti writer’ look like one of the most minimal skills in his resumė.

Even the most casual Hip Hop head has seen something that Blake Lethem has created. Excuse me, not Blake, you probably know him as KEO or KEO X-MEN, or Lord Scotch or Scotch 79. No? Well, maybe you’ve seen his work on the cover of Adam Mansbach‘s novel, Rage is Back. Or was it the lettering and cover art for MF DOOM’s first release, Operation: Doomsday? Because he’s a visual artist and graphic designer as well.

KEO handstyle

Did you see the movie, Bomb the System? Yeah, he did the lettering there too. Dude’s been doing his thing for a minute. And he’s still gettin’ it in. His most recent work can be seen making it’s way through the streets of New York City – you’ll see what I mean in a minute. Oh, he also recently blessed Meyhem Lauren with some artwork for his latest release with Buckwild. But who is KEO really and what’s he all about?

KEO from Hans Hansen on Vimeo.

We caught up with the man behind MF DOOM’s mask and talked a bit about food and a lot about life experience. Peep the short doc about the making of DOOM’s mask and then scroll below for some insightful dialogue and a recipe that’s live like a third rail.

TKM: Word on the street is you get loose in the kitchen.

KEO: A little something. I’m self taught. No real training but I do what I do.

TKM: What’s your specialty?

KEO: My thing is seafood and veggies. I’ve been trying to eat real plain. A lot of quinoa and cutting down on all the starches. Probably my specialty is my salmon.

TKM: What would you say is the relationship between food and creating?

KEO: I hate to use the word “holistic” because it’s overused but it’s all connected. If I eat crap the night before, I’m not gonna perform 100% when I get to the wall or train or truck or whatever. Garbage in, garbage out. If I know I’m going to a wall and I’m going to be out there 6-8 hours I wanna have blueberries, a banana maybe some seeds – pumpkin seeds with me. I always have a lot of water with me. Lately, in NYC – I came up hitting trains. But now that the trains no longer run, we’ve begun doing a lot of trucks. And a lot of these white box trucks are vegetable and produce delivery. We’ve developed relationships with a lot of Mexicans and Asians who are in that business that have these trucks. You have to approach them like, “Hey, a lot of times these trucks are getting tagged or vandalized. Let me do something nice on here.” Invariably, they’ll be like, “can you put some fruit or vegetables in your painting?” So, I’ve done these whole series of trucks recently that’ll be like K-E-pineapple, K-E-tomato. I’ll make a character out of some type of vegetable for my O. This way they’re happy – it’s not a sign painting job where I’m like, “Louis’ Produce.” I’m promoting myself but at the same time, looks good for them. Everybody’s happy.

KEO food trucks

TKM: That’s fresh!

KEO: Not only are these guys in the business of trucking fresh produce to the little farmer’s markets, it’s almost an alternative economy. An underground economy. They sell by the side of the road, these little stands. They circumvent the whole industry of big food and supermarkets. They’re small business dudes and I’m all about that. So, I sneak in my little messages “Non-GMO” and “Fuck Monsanto” type of stuff. So, it’s almost like protest graffiti which I feel like is coming back around. Because when I first became aware of the trains, it was coming out of the Vietnam protests, a lot of Civil Rights stuff, the Black Panthers, the Young Lords – “Stop the Bomb,” “Impeach Nixon,” “Feed the Worker,” all these messages about the People. Somewhere in the 80’s it became very self-centered, egotistical. Look at me, I’m fresh. It wasn’t any socio-political message anymore. KEO is bad. And I see it coming back around. And it’s how to do that without being corny. Still keep it authentic so people aren’t turned off. You wanna keep the kids interested – it’s such a fine line before they say, “Ah, he’s not street anymore, he sold out.” They’re really quick to dismiss.


TKM: You’ve been within the general sphere of Hip Hop so long you’ve seen it evolve and you kind of see the direction it’s going. What are your thoughts on where it’s been and where it’s headed?

KEO: It’s just like a farm. If you get a subsidy from the government or you get funds from a large corporation, they’re gonna have some say or some influence in what you produce. If you remain independent, you answer only to yourself and your customers. As soon as you become co-opted, now you no longer have the freedom to say what you want. The same thing has happened to the music to a large extent. With the art, to a great extent as well. We grow older, we have bills to pay – you wanna work but when you sign with a large corporation they can easily influence your output, your production. They’ll guide you. I think this should be the single. We think this is the look you’ll have in your video. This is what your album cover art should look like. Before you know it, you’re selling Moët, Louis Vuitton, and your original message may be lost. You really gotta be strong and fight for your integrity. I don’t blame the kids for signing contracts and taking the paychecks. I don’t blame the artists at all. But the corporations have an interest in downplaying certain messages and promoting others. It’s done to celebrate ignorance. As long as you’re ignorant, you don’t see that you’re selling alcohol, drugs, firearms, death and destruction. Unfortunately, this art form was created by 15 year old kids that were not always the most aware. We’re easily exploited.

TKM: It’s hard to contend with money.

KEO: It’s very difficult when the chains and corporations are taking over the mom and pop – it’s very difficult to maintain your autonomy. In New York they’ve made it illegal to keep bees. Illegal. That’s just one example. My wife, she suffers from allergies, so we really researched it and the solution is to get local honey from your neighborhood. To immunize you take a little bit of that everyday. Well, we can’t even find it. You have to buy it like you’re buying drugs, like a prohibition economy. They’re cracking down on farmers and suing farmers for not using their patented genetically altered product. Same thing with graffiti writers, all we were doing was creating artwork, on some level. But because we were independent kids from the hood it was illegal. So now, on many levels, many, many more things are becoming criminalized. People that used to hate graffiti artists – they’re vandals, why don’t they get a job? I see more and more that they’re starting to empathize with us because what they always did legitimately is now becoming criminalized.

KEO from Hans Hansen on Vimeo.

TKM: What was it that triggered your awareness to all this?

KEO: Life experience. And I’m still learning and discovering things all the time. I spent a lot of years living on the street, homeless and struggling and I was incarcerated for a while and you really see the system from all sides. I’ve been with the upperclass, on private jets to time shares, dinner at Michael Bloomberg’s house. I’ve also eaten in the men’s shelter and eaten the free food that the Hare Krishna’s used to hand out in the park. I’ve seen all sides of it and traveled the world. I’ve been through rain forests, Guyana, I’ve eaten with the Amerindians, been through the Caribbean, and you begin to see things. There’s things here that we take for granted. Living in Brooklyn, we always thought, Jamaicans are violent drug dealers. But when you go there you realize there’s not a gun factory on that island. Cocaine doesn’t grown on that island. So where did it come from? You begin to see how post-colonialism – we no longer own these islands in name but we economically try to own them and create disruption and destabilizations. When you look at the history you understand why they have an interest in destabilizing those governments and flooding them with drugs and guns and keeping them poor. The reason why we drink all this corn syrup is because we didn’t want to buy sugar and support the economy. You begin to see connections and the big picture. I’m not an educated man. I finally got my GED at Riker’s Island as an adult when I was doing a bid. But I’ve read an awful lot and I talk in depth to people and try to really be aware and stay teachable and open-minded.

TKM: Right. You talked earlier about autonomy. I know you have a Graffiti Master’s Class that you run. Can you talk about that?

KEO: I teach kids. I always taught, I didn’t always charge. I had a real dilemma with that because it was given to me for free. Guys took me under their wing and taught me but I paid dues. It was like an old world craft where there was an apprentice to a master. And then I took on apprentices and some of my students went on to be Kings and far surpass what I ever did in the game. But now the game is a little different. What I began to see was that everybody thinks everything’s accessible to them. You can Google something, watch a YouTube video on how to do it and think you understand something in a matter of minutes. Kids pick things up, they think they master it and then they’re on to the next one. But they never really, really scratch below the surface. When I saw that beginning to happen with graffiti – a week ago they had Prince William spray painting, like anyone can just pick up a can and do this. When it took me years and years – I’m still trying to master this form. So, it’s insulting to me to see someone casually picking it up and throwing it away. You used to have to fight to write. You used to have to have heart, not just artistic talent. Dudes would challenge you to see what you were made of, if you really wanted this. It was common place for older cats to rob you, take your art supplies, and see if you still came back the next day, see if you still had the heart. We don’t do that today. It’s more of a friendly, open accessible game. So, I figure if kids are going to learn it, let me at least offer to teach them the foundation, the fundamentals, the history, to feel it, the motivation. And then if you choose to do your own thing, go ahead but at least you can say you were exposed to the traditional – I’m a conservative when it comes to graffiti. I’m a traditionalist.

TKM: I know you were rapping early on but weren’t interested in the recording aspect – even though you had opportunities. And you were also doing quite a few album covers. What was it that took you away from all of that.

KEO: Well, again, I was fortunate to learn graphics the old fashioned way. I was probably the last generation before everything went digital. I was fortunate to be part of that generation. With music, it seems to me that it’s just become very accessible. If you have a laptop, a certain program, and a mic you can record it, package it, and sell it from your fucking bathroom. When I was a kid, to even get into a studio, that was like being whisked away to Hollywood in a limousine. It was a one in a million shot that you would even get to press a record. Now it’s so common place, I see people giving away CD’s like it’s a fucking business card. For free, begging you to take it. Here’s my double album. It’s got 27 tracks no one’s heard of. That’s why things become devalued. When they’re just so easy, so accessible. If it’s easy come, it’s easy go. Design, it’s the same. I used to get $1500 to do an album cover in the 90’s. That was industry standard. Now they can have an intern do it for free on the computer. Now they want to give me $300, if that. And then they act like they’re really doing me a favor. Yo, it’s cuz it’s you KEO. I can’t really afford it. It’s not in the budget. I’d rather give it to you for free and let’s just do music for the love of it. Don’t tell me about making money if you don’t got a budget. Why are you doing it? Either it’s an avocation and a passion or it’s your vocation and you need to make a profit. I was always real clear about that. I still do commercial arts. I’m going to be painting a mural this week for Post Cereal. Honey Bunches of Oats. That’s a commercial job. But Sunday, I’ll go paint a piece in Bushwick and that’s my fine art. I don’t expect to be paid for it. In fact, it’ll cost me to go paint that piece but I’m not doing it for a profit.

KEO quote

TKM: You used the word, devalued. That’s one of the biggest hurdles in this country, things becoming devalued –

KEO: It’s because everybody thinks they can do it. There’s a million MC’s out and that was a rare thing when I was a kid. Everyone’s a DJ. Everyone. If anyone can be a graffiti writer, it’s meaningless.

TKM: So, how is the Master Class coming along? Do you have a lot of students?

KEO: No, I’m keeping it small intentionally. I like it that way. It’s not for everyone. You ever see that old curmudgeonly piano teacher in old movies that teaches in his living room and the mother begs him to take her kid as a student? And he says, “I can’t work with this kid. He doesn’t got what it takes. He’s got six left thumbs.” That’s the kind of teacher I want to be. There’s a whole philosophy now where every kid is a winner. No. Everything is not for you. You may have a talent, but this isn’t it. I think we’re doing kids a disservice. If I tell you that you can be a football star knowing you don’t have the natural talent, nor the passion, nor the drive…I’m lying to you. And that could set you down a road that’s gonna set you up for real heartbreak later on.

TKM: Well, I think you’re right about life experience being a good teacher. You seem to be doing alright with being self-taught in many things including cooking.

KEO: But that was out of necessity. My mother fell ill with cancer when I was 8 years old and us kids had to fend for ourselves. Everybody had a cook night and everybody had a dish night. And later on I was homeless and learned how to make something out of nothing. I was incarcerated and I seen some of the greatest – yo, I would love to see one of those Iron Chef reality television competitions send one of their guys to the penitentiary to compete with a cook there using only what they have. I’ve seen guys make something out of nothing. I’m talking about MacGyver. Boiling milk with two wires from the wall. Making shit out of ramen noodles and peanut butter from the commissary and it tastes like cold sesame noodles.

TKM: Do you have a recipe that you could share with us?

KEO: For sure.

2 teaspoons coconut oil
1/2 cup chopped shallots (or half a red onion)
3 cups cubed sweet potato
1 1/2 cups sliced carrots
2 tablespoons grated ginger
2 teaspoons cumin powder
3 cups vegetable soup stock
2 teaspoons tumeric powder
2 large cloves of garlic minced
2 teaspoons onion powder
a healthy sprinkle of cayenne pepper

Heat up the coconut oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Saute the shallots for about 3 minutes. Add the sweet potato, carrots, ginger, and spices, cook 2 minutes. Add the vegetable stock and bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer about 25 minutes until tender. Then pour the whole shebang in the blender, hit puree and get it nice and creamy. I always add a little of Aunty’s Guyanese Pepper Sauce. Serve with a dollop of yoghurt in the middle and a sprig of fresh basil or mint to make it look fly. Take digital photo with cell phone and immediately upload to Instagram.

This is equally as banging served chilled in the summertime.


TKM: Word! Looking forward to putting that together. I feel like, in our conversation, we’ve covered a lot of the ills in the world these days. What is it that the kids have in their favor, what is the silver lining in all of this madness?

KEO: Oh man, they’re so blessed. The world is so sweet. If I knew a guy from the Bronx when I was growing up, that was a big fuckin’ deal. Yo, how do you know that cat? Now, every time I log onto my computer or open my phone, I’m getting likes and messages and sharing art and ideas with people in Johannesburg and Buenos Aires and Singapore within a matter of minutes. I put something out there and I get feedback in a matter of minutes. That’s really what graffiti was all about – communication and language. We thought it was a big fuckin’ deal if I wrote a message and it made its way to the Bronx. Now, I write a message, BOOM, that shit is all over the world, instantaneous. Kids have access to so much information. But like I said, it’s a blessing and a curse. You have to be able to decipher and filter that information and it can become overwhelming where, like we said, it devalues. But if you’re careful to what you allow into your cypher…



Yo, Instagram people, follow my man to stay up on all of the work he’s lending his talent to. Find him @ KEO_XMEN and check the styles. It’s always a pleasure to talk to knowledgeable people but to have someone with the experience that this dude has, that’s just a blessing. Keep it locked and we’ll keep you updated with any projects he’s got on the way that you should know about. In the meantime, check out that project with Adam Mansbach – he did the characters at the beginning of each chapter. Also be on the lookout for the documentary, Writing on the Wall that he’s featured in. Until next time, stay teachable.

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