Tysen Knight was surrounded by street art while growing up—and it inspired him to become a street artist himself.
Now living in Palm Springs, Knight has helped bring street art into the mainstream. He’s also an actor and a filmmaker, and his first street-art documentary, The Art of Hustle: Street Art Documentary, made the festival circuit—winning some awards along the way. A follow-up, The Art of Hustle: Homeless Street Artists Documentary, is in post-production and could hit screens as early as January. Meanwhile, Colliding Worlds Fine Art Gallery in Cathedral City is currently showing an exhibit of Knight’s art
During a recent interview, Knight discussed how street art inspired him.
“I discovered I was good at art around the ages of 10 to 13. I showed my parents, and they seconded it, and it took off from there,” Knight said. “I grew up in New Jersey near Philadelphia, and I had family in Northern New Jersey across from New York. We would go to New York and get on the subways, and I was exposed to graffiti and street art in the subway trains. For a kid who was creative, that fascinated me.
“I took those images back and had a couple of friends in my neighborhood who were also artists. We would airbrush on jeans and try to look cool. We would get spray-paint cans, and I would show them what I would see in New York City, and we would try to replicate those images. It was really big in New York in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s.”
Knight said he saw many of the iconic images painted by New York City’s most-famous street artists.
“When I was a kid, I would see a lot of those images—but I couldn’t pinpoint who did it,” he said.
Today, artists such as Banksy, Shepard Fairey, Anthony Lister and Ben Eine have taken street art into a whole new level of mainstream respect.
“Those guys were able to push it up to the forefront and actually made galleries take a look at this stuff. Banksy and guys of that nature made gallery owners think, ‘Whoa, this stuff actually has value,’” Knight said. “Over time, no one cared about it. You’d put up a beautiful piece of artwork, whether it was legally or illegally, and they would spray-paint over it, or the city would come and cover it up. But now that these guys are able to push the culture into the mainstream, I think it’s actually a beautiful thing. Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring were setting the groundwork, too, but now guys like Banksy and Shepard Fairey have taken it to a whole different level, and you can go to auctions and see a Banksy piece go for the same price as a Picasso piece.”
Knight explained the premise behind his second documentary, The Art of Hustle: Homeless Street Artists Documentary.
“I had a little stint of homelessness for a couple of months. I ran into a street artist in downtown Palm Springs who goes by the name of Skratch,” Knight said. “He was selling this weird abstract art, and I was drawn to him. I started talking to him, and he said, ‘I sell my art. I need to make $15 a day so I can get something to eat and take care of myself.’ … I gave him my business card, and he called me. I had him involved in the first documentary. When I showed the film, everyone was really intrigued by Skratch.
“I want to shed a light on people whom most people overlook. I got back into contact with Skratch and said, ‘I want to do a documentary on you.’ I filmed him for about nine months, and I was fortunate enough to meet two other homeless street artists. It’s fascinating how talented these people are; to be in that situation and be able to create, it’s pretty amazing. This film is taking people on a journey to show that although these people are homeless, and you overlook them every day, they’re actually talented and creating beautiful things.”
Knight said he was humbled by Skratch.
“A piece that Skratch would spend hours on, he would sell it for $5. There’s art on Sotheby’s going for $100 million; a Banksy piece that was shredded went for some ridiculous amount of money. At the end of the day, they’re all creations. To see someone create something and only charge $5 for it, I was like, ‘Wow!’ That was a really humbling experience for me to see that. People were actually purchasing it.”
I asked Knight how big the street-art scene is in the Coachella Valley.
“It’s very small, and it’s very contained,” he said. “I was fortunate enough to meet a local tattoo artist, and he was able to navigate me through the street-art scene here. It’s very small and nothing compared to major cities. In fact, you could probably count all of the people on one hand.”
Knight is now helping a new generation learn about art.
“I was fortunate enough to meet the art coordinator for the Palm Springs Unified School District. I sat down with her and told her what I had going on, and she said I would be the perfect candidate to mentor young boys through this art program,” he said. “We visit five different middle schools, and there are five of us all together. We do art, drum, dance, spoken word and photography. … We’d go to all the different schools with the canvases and teach kids how to paint, and talk to them, mentor them, see what their likes and dislikes are, and go from there.
“I feel I’m at the point in my career where I’m able to create art and give back, and inspire young people to explore their talents—especially in a time like now, when everything is divided.”
For more information, visit www.tysenknight.com.