Steven Paul Judd is blazing a new trail for Native American artists. After working as a TV writer in Los Angeles, he set out on a path to make art that he couldn’t find anywhere else. His art school was YouTube tutorials and endless hours spent tinkering in Photoshop. This autodidactic approach quickly launched Judd’s name into the street art pantheon, while simultaneously highlighting the untold stories of Indian Country.
Born of Kiowa and Choctaw roots in Oklahoma, Judd’s work often riffs on iconic imagery — allowing Native Americans a chance to reclaim ownership of their cultural icons for the first time in hundreds of years. Alley murals of war paint cans, Plains Indian chiefs rocking out with boom boxes, and teepees that are “not for rent” remind us that there’s a whole side of America that’s most often ignored or grotesquely represented in caricatures. As collectors clamor for his pieces, Judd is also drawing native culture into the mainstream, and reminding the gatekeepers of the importance of Native American voices.
We were lucky enough to sit down with Judd to chat about tagging, murals, life in Indian Country, and the power of social media to shed light on worthy street artists.
Where does your path as an artist begin?
When I was in second grade I was in an art contest. You had to draw your favorite book cover. I ended up winning that contest, but I think it’s because maybe my mom knew the teacher or something. I don’t know, because how well do you draw in the second grade, right? But that teacher told me that I was a good artist, and I won first place. So I believed her and I started drawing all the time. I think I just got better because of that.
Conversely, when I was in high school, I really wasn’t catching on at geometry. I remember getting stood up and embarrassed in class by the teacher for not knowing something. That blocked my head. I couldn’t do math after that. Then I had to take three tours of duty in intermediate algebra in college. That started me thinking that if you tell someone they’re good at something, they’re going to believe it.
When did you start to seriously consider a career in art?
For a while I had a job as a writer on a TV show for Disney XD. When that ended, I came back home to Oklahoma and I was looking for some art and there really wasn’t anything that I was drawn to. I was more into pop art, but I also wanted something with a native vibe to it. Since I didn’t see anything like that, I started making my own.
So you were a TV writer who turned to pop art. That’s pretty rad. Can you walk us through your process?
I just make things that I want to see, man. I look at a lot of art and film and television and I make things that I like.
So, you just kinda say, ‘fuck it,’ and go for it?
Totally. For instance, I saw this thing on TV one time, it was called the Nun Bun. It was a cinnamon bun that looked like Mother Theresa. Then I saw the Jesus chip and I thought, ‘everyone’s seeing people in food, how come no one’s seen a native?’ So I decided to make 100 slices of toast and create an image of a native on it. So I went for it.
How’d that work out?
First of all I had one toaster, so I was doing two toasts at a time. Then they would shrink up at night so I had to start all over. Then I realized I didn’t know how to attach it to canvas.! I Googled it and there nothing there. So I was making it up as I went along.
That’s what I love about your work, you seem to be self-taught at every turn.
When Kyle Bell was following me for the documentary, Dig it if You Can, I would make something like a stencil and he would say, “Is this how it’s supposed to be done?” And I would say, “I don’t know how it’s supposed to be done.” I just kinda try to see if I can do it.
I didn’t have anyone to show me how to do it. I just saw it and I thought, ‘Okay, I think I can do that.’ It was very trial and error. Right now I’m working on some Rubik’s Cube art, and I have it all on my floor because I’m not exactly sure how to mount it on the wall yet. So, again: more trial and error.
That’s awesome, man, that’s sort of pure creation. So let’s go back a little bit and talk about your street art. You put up a pretty famous mural in L.A. called the War Paint mural. Can you tell us a little bit how you got into that and what inspired you?
That was the first time I ever sprayed anything on a wall, actually. I was very fortunate to get to do that War Paint mural down in Indian Alley, which is a curated alley now. I had this idea floating around in my head about the phrase ‘war paint.’ I wanted to rebrand that. My idea was anybody that uses art to further their social cause — not just paint artists but writers or photographers or whatever medium — that’s your war paint. So it was really cool that I got to do those in Indian Alley.
I love that idea of rebranding and giving the words new power. What did you do next?
I put a piece on the wall here in Oklahoma City, which I think is against the law. I put it up kind of where the Thunders play. And it’s still up. The graffiti police didn’t take it down.
You also added a personal touch.
I left some stickers in some envelopes that I just taped to the walls, like, ‘this is my gift to you.’ So I figured someone would stumble on it and get some free stickers. What’s crazy is that we did it at 2AM. Kyle Bell was with me at the time and we went to IHOP after and I remember saying, “I’m gonna get online when I get home and say, ‘hey, if you can find this there’s some stickers there!'”
Then when I got home and opened up Facebook, the stickers had already been found. Someone found it that fast and posted it up! And that’s awesome.
Speed of the internet, man, it’s that fast.
You got that right. It’s so crazy.
You’ve even got new paint cans, Fry Bread Spray. Tell us about that.
Every native person knows about fry bread. So the Kiowa used to be a nomadic tribe and followed the buffalo but then we were forced on reservations where we were given commodities by the government — which was lard and flour basically. So fry bread was one of the things that they made. I just wanted to make an Instant Fry Bread Spray. Now, I’ve made chapstick into Fry Bread chapstick, and a bunch of stuff like that just ’cause it’s kinda funny because we all know that food.
It feels like you blew up after your street art took off in LA and Oklahoma, what happened next?
I wanted to make a movie poster for a little feature film I was trying to get made called Six Pack and Gas Money. Back then I was using Photoshop. But I didn’t know how to use it. I just had it. So I did a YouTube search for cool movie poster tutorials, and one came up that was for a vintage boxing poster. While I was making it I thought, ‘well, I don’t have to use images they’re telling me to use.’ So I made one for Sitting Bull and Custer, and I put it online.
Then people started messaging me, “that is so awesome, I would like to have one.” I thought, ‘really?’ So I started making prints and selling them. Then I was contacted by A Tribe Called Red to do their CD cover art. Then film festivals starting asking me to design posters. And it’s kinda crazy, I didn’t go to design school or graphic design school or anything like that, I don’t work at an advertising firm, but I was being asked by film festivals to design posters for them.
I wasn’t getting paid at first, I was just making stuff and putting it online and people were kind of diggin’ it and asked me to do more. Then I teamed up with NTVS Clothing and we started making t-shirts. They’ve really done super well. We’ve been really blessed. We moved on into other things like carpets, water bottles, stickers, and patches.
What drives your design work?
Basically, I’m a consumer. Anything I make is something that I tried to look for myself and just couldn’t find.
That’s sort of what drew me to you. Coming from a native background up in Washington there’s so little pop culture or connective tissue out there to rep. In our world it was basically like Powwow Highway, Smoke Signals, and maybe Gary Farmer in Dead Man. Finding your stuff was revelatory. Like, ‘Oh yeah, we do exist in pop culture.’
Even the movies you named it’s hard to find stuff. I made a Gary Farmer action figure from Powwow Highway because they just didn’t have one. And I made one for Smoke Signals too. It’s a little custom lego figure.
I guess under representation is the nicest way to put it. But looking at especially the youth in Indian Country, it’s very much at-risk. So it’s empowering to see positive reinforcement out there.
Yeah, for sure.
Have you run into any copyright problems with people getting pissed off you’re using a Marvel character or a film character in your art?
I’m hoping that I’m covered with a satire. There’s a pilot that got made — I guess I shouldn’t say the name of the show ’cause it hasn’t been picked up yet — but they were using some of my images. They submitted some of my superhero pieces to Marvel and D.C. for approval.
I thought, ‘there’s the end of it.’ I’m about to get my cease and desist. But Marvel and D.C. both approved the images for the TV show.
That sounds like a sort of a tacit approval to me.
Yeah, I got the green light.
I really dig the reimaging of superheroes as natives. A lot of us got completely detached from our own myths, supernatural history, our heroes, and our legends, so it’s nice to see some heroes come back.
In general, your art feels like you bring a lot of heroics for people to rally around and feel like they’re part of something bigger in your work. Correct me if I’m misinterpreting…
No, no. I made things I wanted to see, right. I’m like a little kid who couldn’t see these things on TV, so I thought ‘Well, I’ll make ’em myself.’ You know, in certain parts of the country the racism is still pretty strong against natives. I get messages from people and they’ll say, “My son was getting bullied for having long hair and he saw your image of the Hulk with braids, and he was like, ‘mommy, look, the Hulk has long hair like me.'” It gives them a little bit of pride because we like to be superheroes too. And now you see Hulk with braids and so when you go to school, if you get made fun of now you’re like, ‘wait a minute, Hulk has braids, too!’ It feels really good especially that kids are getting something out of it. Kids get this. They like to pretend to be Superman. You’re building your self-esteem by pretending to be that. That’s all I wanted to do. When native kids see those images and pretended to be heroes, they’re practicing giving themselves pride.
You’re throwing some much needed positive vibes into the world. It seems like you got a lot of irons in the fire, you’re making short films, you’re writing scripts, you’re doing street art, you’re doing poster design… What else is happening?
I have a book that just got released called The Last Powwow. I have a short film that’s in post-production right now. I wanted to make a movie that vibed a little bit like Gremlins or E.T. or Neverending Story, something like that with a native slant. It’s about the Choctaw little people, who are kinda like mythical fairies. That’s in post. Then I’m going to be doing a short film based off one of the short stories in my book. I got a couple art shows coming up. I won the USA Artist Fellowship this year. And that’s allowing me to do larger installation pieces now.
You are on fire at the moment. Any more plans for War Paint?
Thanks, man. We’re releasing some War Paint water bottles that they look like the spray can. We’re going to donate the profits to a homeless shelter in North Dakota. There’s a lot of native homeless people up there and a lot of them are artists. When I was up there I visited a shelter and a lot of the people were drawing on typing paper and I thought about how I could help. Making art is expensive. You know, buying sketchbooks and paints isn’t cheap. I remember when I got my first real sketchbook, it made me feel professional — even though I wasn’t — to have good equipment to use. So I’ve decided to give all the profits from the War Paint water bottle to buy art supplies for the homeless population at the shelter in North Dakota.
You travel around Indian Country quite extensively. What do you see out there in relation to being Native in America in 2017? Is it getting better yet?
I think it depends on where you live. It’s so interesting, in certain parts of the United States the racism is really, really thick. I was blind to most of that growing up in Oklahoma or oblivious to it. But social media is helping to shine light on injustices, not just to the native community, but all over the world. Whenever light is shined on injustices, people do something about it. It’s a voice of the under-represented.
Let’s go back five years. No one would have seen my art because I didn’t have a publicist and, so, I couldn’t have gotten into magazines or newspapers or web sites. But because there’s Instagram and Facebook people can see what I make. I’m able to get an audience that I couldn’t have had five years ago. So I think it’s always gonna get better.