The life and times of the street artist named Air Rat
By Sam Fox
At first glance, Air Rat looks like the kind of guy you’d like to bring home to your parents. He has a neatly-trimmed beard and a “Mad Men” style coiffure. Today, he is wearing a pea coat over a matching blue button-up, and he is offering to buy me a cup of coffee.
We have met at a Starbucks in Old City–his suggestion–so he can show me pictures of his various art projects and then take a tour of his street art in the area. It’s a shame it’s raining, he says, because he would have liked to “put up” some pieces during the tour.
Sitting down at a table by the window, he pulls out a laptop and begins flipping through a selection of images culled from the 4,500-photograph gallery on his phone. As he turns his head towards the computer and types, tattoos wink in and out of view: between his fingers, behind his ears, and poking out from under his shirt collar. They are the first signs that he might not be so square, and once you learn to look for them, they keep showing up.
When asked what mediums he works in, he says “everything.” This is not far from the truth. He paints, stencils, sculpts, makes wood cuts, crafts stickers, and reappropriates trash.
The artist’s alias comes from a solo show he did a number of years ago, which featured cartoonish pigeon sculptures. Some of the birds were clear, others had glow-in-the-dark skulls. “Air rat” is slang for pigeon, so the artist decided to adopt the name for his own pigeons, and, later, for himself.
Air Rat identifies with pigeons because of their “roll with the punches” attitude. Though the artist has faced a number of legal, physical, and financial obstacles, he persists in his work much like the hardy, ever-present bird.
Right now, Air Rat is passionate about two main projects: one involving glass etch and the other involving Legos. Both projects move between the street and the gallery.
One of his first glass etch projects was a kitschy Ouija board, which earned him encouragement from other artists to pursue the medium further. Next, he completed a series of 40 hand-etched glass bottles that serve as aquariums for beta fish. A more recent project involved candle votives, which, when lit, project dancing shadows on their surroundings.
These functional, gallery-suited pieces are complemented by more informal work. If he is in a bar at 2 a.m. and nobody is there, he might run into the womens’ bathroom and do a quick piece on the mirror. He has learned that these pieces often get posted on Instagram later–unless he is interrupted mid-etch by a closing-time employee.
Since glass etching is so destructive, a Buddhist friend has given him advice for fostering good karma: only etch things that have already been etched. Air Rat says this goes against the graffiti artist ethos of doing whatever you want, wherever you want, but the idea stands to help him in the future. He has received plenty of angry phone calls for his etchings. In response, he even got a tattoo of a bottle of etching chemicals, wrapped with a banner that says “So Sorry.”
Air Rat’s Lego project involves casting resin replicas of Lego minifigures and gluing them in “little nooks” around the city. He has teamed up with photographer Matthew Kendig, who documents the installations as they change within the volatile, human “playscape” of Philadelphia. Thanks to passersby and shifts in weather, figures fade, get melted, dismembered, and taken. Fifteen of Kendig’s photographs have been assembled into a “one-page book” for a show at the Church Gallery in OldCity. The two plan on continuing the project with other galleries, but these ideas are still in the works.
After reading a pictorial history of the Lego minifigure, Air Rat discovered that Lego made a series of minifigures in the image of the founder of the Adult Fan of Lego association, as a tribute to the man’s popularization of the toy. Perhaps, Air Rat dreams, one day Lego will make an Air Rat Lego. Either that, he muses, or the toy manufacturer will sue him.
Both the Lego project and the glass etchings represent Air Rat’s two main artististic visions: developing a connecting theme and struggling against transience.
Though he is critical of most other Philadelphia street artists, he looks to stikman as a sort of model for these visions. Even though stikman works with stickers, wood cuts, and other materials, his work is always recognizable because of the character he uses. The artist also introduced Air Rat to the idea that all art is “ephemeral,” a word Air Rat now uses constantly, with urgency and reverence.
Love of the ephemeral
“Everything I feel like I’ve been doing has been an attempt to beat that idea [of ephemerality],” he says.
Street art is frequently removed or painted over soon after it is put up. And even when the art lasts, the structure on which it is plastered eventually gets torn down or altered. In order to combat the ephemeral nature of street art, Air Rat began taking pictures of his work and posting them on Instagram. And yet, as one of his friends pointed out to him, Instagram is just as ephemeral as the street. Pictures of art get lost in the hundreds of other images people receive on a daily basis.
The trick, Air Rat realizes, is to find a medium that makes a lasting impression. In each of his projects, he remains in search of a “fountain of youth.”
The pursuit of these lofty goals has been a long time in development.
Air Rat began high school as an AP student but quickly realized he had no interest in any of his academic courses. Due to this lack of interest, he started failing classes. In junior year, he knew that he was either headed to a vocational school to become a plumber’s assistant–as per his father’s wishes–or an art school. Preferring the latter, the young Air Rat spent his last two years of high school “bouncing from one art room to another.”
After high school, he “decided to rack up a bunch of debt” and attend TempleUniversity’s TylerSchool of Art. After four years, he still had a year and a half to go in order to fulfill his requirements. He began to question the wisdom of dedicating time and money in order to get “a piece of paper from some guy who’s not an artist, saying, ‘You’re now an artist.’”
He decided to drop out, telling himself “If I don’t stop creating, then I’m an artist… piece of paper or not.” Air Rat sticks by this line of reasoning today. Looking around, he sees that many of his peers who graduated did not go on to be artists. They wait tables, or have corporate jobs, or have gone back to school for something else.
Air Rat struggled to pay the bills for a while after leaving school, scheming off friends or stealing groceries so he could support his food and alcohol consumption.
Eventually, though, he found work in Atlantic City doing event promotion. Then he started doing styling jobs for commercials and fell in with the right group of people. Nowadays, he gets phone calls from across the country asking for his services. Oftentimes he does not find out what his work is for until he sees it in action, on ABC News or NASCAR.
Currently he works set design for television shows in Pennsylvania. One of the benefits of this job is getting to rummage through their dumpster for leftover art supplies.
Air Rat’s living situation has been in flux recently, and he has spent a decent amount of time living in his car. He says he can’t complain, though.
“If anything, I’m just saving a lot of money.” Bigger and better art pieces are in the works.
On the tour, Air Rat points out his glass etchings and Lego installations, many of which can be easily passed over if you lack the eye for them. But the real insight into his work comes from his impromptu commentary on his surroundings.
Making his way down the sidewalk, Air Rat spots an “urban geode” on a storefront. It’s a golden, cast crystal that was recently installed by Los Angeles-based artist Paige Smith.
“Shhh,” Air Rat says, reaching up to pry loose the crystals. “I didn’t do this.”
After some fierce wiggling, he pops off a single nugget. Air Rat is surprised. He had thought that they were cast as a whole instead of being installed individually.
“I’m really into figuring out processes,” he says. “I’m going to take it down so I can see how you put it up.”
Though he was never into school, he loves to research and experiment. He frequently makes his own, unique tools–putting gold-leaf sizing into a marker, for instance. Apparently, there is a photograph somewhere of Air Rat in his boxers, mixing caustic chemicals over a metal grate table, just seeing what happens to what.
The artist looks down on young up-and-comers who just want knowledge handed to them–he frequently receives offers online from people who want to buy his tools and materials.
The geode encounter summons other critiques. Air Rat takes issue with Philadelphia blogs, magazines, and art organizations who insist on featuring artists from outside Philadelphia. West was invited to the city by a program through HAHA Magazine and Paradigm Gallery.
“I don’t know how to become acceptable in the city’s mind,” Air Rat laments. He sees his Lego casts as more imaginative and unique than West’s geodes. And yet, he is the one who installs his pieces illegally in his own city.
We reach the end of the block and Air Rat says we should cross the street to avoid a police car on the corner.
“Just so you know,” he says. “I get weird around cops. Obviously.”
Air Rat used to get in fights, which is why he has some fake teeth, is blind in one eye, and has a criminal record for weapons charges.
“You know,” he says, “you don’t pay fines, and you don’t report for probation, and those things will haunt you.”
“I’ve gotten stopped because of the street art and had my name run. And then all of a sudden it’s like, I’m in jail for two months.”
After a number of arrests, Air Rat has made some rules to stay a free man.
“I hate to say that it’s, you know, being smart about crime,” he says. “But it is.”
The two-beer rule
He has learned to move with the crowd when posting his art. Also, there is the two beer rule: if he has anything more than that to drink, then he does not put anything up.
“Every time I’ve gotten arrested, it’s because I’ve been too inebriated to function.”
Air Rat’s family does not understand why he keeps doing street art, considering all the legal woes. He has a difficult time explaining that the jail time is because of the weapons charges, not the art.
After spray painting a building owned by a friend of his father’s, Air Rat was disowned. It was an honest mistake on Air Rat’s part–he had thought the building was abandoned, seeing as there was gang graffiti on the roof.
Though Air Rat has been forgiven since then, his family is still not pleased with his life plan.
“They seem to not see the grand scheme of things,” he says. Air Rat knows each of these pieces brings him a little closer to becoming an established artist. He will not be deterred. Like his avian namesake, you will see him around the city rain or shine.
Air Rat’s clever persistence is perhaps demonstrated best by a story he told me back at the coffee shop.
One time his sculpture teacher gave a lecture on how difficult it would be for her students to get into an established museum like the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Afterwards, Air Rat painted a piece across the river from the museum. When the class made a field trip to the museum, he waited until they reached a well-positioned gallery to make his point.
“So, we’re in the art museum, right?” he asked his teacher.
She said yes, they were.
“See that across the river?” he asked again.
His teacher turned to look, and, through the window, saw his piece.
“That’s mine,” Air Rat said.
He was in the gallery, whether they wanted him or not.