Anonymity is the Greatest Luxury
“So it’s a bitter pill we all have to swallow, that history’s not always pretty and people aren’t always their best, but you’ve got to keep an eye on destiny and what your destiny is.”
Interview & Photographs by Theo Constantinou
Introduction by Malcom Harris
I don’t remember the first time someone asked me, “Do you know Nemo?” This question could have been asked to me as early as 1995 or as late as 2012, but what I do know is the name Nemo Librizzi is only spoken whenever there is a group of people huddled together talking about one or two things – art and/or coolness. Having said that, I’m still not quite sure when or where I first met Nemo, however, I do remember being hooked from the first time I saw him and he began to speak. I was hooked on Nemo’s intelligence, his seamless knowledge of literature and art history, his otherworldly style and swagger, and most importantly, his sincere appreciation for creativity and creative beings. To listen to Mr. Librizzi give detailed, gritty and colorful first person accounts of New York City icons, legends and doppelgangers are better than watching any documentary made about the art world in the 80’s or 90s. While he will often credit his father for his vast knowledge, it is my opinion Nemo’s innate academic curiosity and fearless need for adventure is what has made him a true arbiter of cool.
We were talking about the artist’s favorite subject, money. The question of whether to go for money or not have money. Recently, I’ve been forced to make money, unless I was going to be the sort of father that didn’t care if his son had food or the proper school or what not, I decided I was going to start making an income. I’d always lived underground and I’ve always lived off the land, and I’ve always managed to squeeze by with whatever financial needs I had so that I could live for the more abstract things in life.
And I guess it would have been best for me to make money through my creativity. In ways, I shunned this approach because there were so many people that were so much more capable than me growing up. People that I looked up to that were getting passed over by the attention of mainstream America, and I just felt like I would be ashamed doing anything to draw attention to myself when these people, who I felt I could not hold a candle to, were living in total obscurity. But, after a while those very same people came to me and they said, “Nah, part of the reason we’re not dealing is just because we don’t want to.” And certain people with heaps of talent, they separate church and state in their own lives, and however they make their money, they make their money… just so long as they can be free to pursue their artistic or philosophical practice on their own time.
Also, when I was younger I saw some Top 40 show on T.V, and it was remarkable to me just because the music was so bad and lacked so much in character and feeling that I thought, “Wow, that’s not even music.” My dad played a lot of Bob Dylan and Bob Marley, my mom played Chopin and Beethoven, so I hadn’t really heard commercial music. It was pretty late in life when I heard what most people were listening to and it was astounding, how bad it was, and ever since then I’ve sort of burrowed away into an underground stance where I did nothing to try to make money or vie for the public eye. By accident, I might have ended up in a movie or participating in a bigger project, but it was just because the intentions of whatever the project was were really keeping with my own. I wasn’t going to go out of my way to try and become larger than life in any way. And, in fact, I think one of my greatest luxuries has been my anonymity, but also my availability to immerse myself in any kind of crazy project that I want to involve myself in.
But when my son was still in diapers people would ask me to compile music for hotels, and it was something I got into just by luck. In fact, Richard Serra had an opening at Gagosian once and afterwards they had a big party for him at the then newly opened Maritime Hotel, and I went up to him complaining, he said, “How are you doing?” I said, “Well…” I don’t really know Richard Serra like that, but we just got into talking, and I said I was going through some difficulty since I had just had a kid and he’s looking at me to provide and I’ve never done this before. And in front of all the art world big-wigs, Richard Serra grabbed me in a headlock! I could do nothing to get out of it, and he talked in my ear, for I don’t know, must have been at least two minutes of real time, but to me it felt like ten minutes because here I am at this art world banquet for the guy who’s got me in a full headlock, and he said, “Stop being a pussy!” I don’t recall his exact language, but that was the gist of it, that it was in me to provide as every other father before me had been challenged to do, to come up with it.
And it’s funny, because right at that moment it was like a light went on in my head and right at that moment, the owners of the hotel, who I happened to know, drew me aside and asked, “What was that about with Richard Serra?” I told them and they said, “Well, what do you think about the music we’re playing here?” and I said, “Well, it’s interesting, it just doesn’t fit the room.” And they said, “Yes, that’s what we think too. You do a radio show, don’t you?” and I said, “Well yeah…” I’d been doing a radio show at that time for about eight years on WKCR Columbia University. I said, “Yeah, I love music, I’m not an authority, but I’d be happy to try and make a mix for you.” And I did, and it was probably one of the only times in my life that I felt like I was really a success…I made something that, maybe not everybody liked, but Clive Davis came into the hotel and said, “Oh wow, who did the music here?” When I ate there sometimes I would forget what I programmed, and then I’d be eating and then I’d be say to myself, “Wow, Jimi Hendrix!” It enhanced the experience. And the food there was already terrific…I just felt like I really had something to share with people.
And I was getting paid well, you know? I mean, God, I had a carte blanche at all their restaurants and I was getting a taste of the realization that I could do something cool where nobody put any parameters on me. It was just full creative license.
I’d always been afraid that I would kind of, I don’t know, sell out as soon as I made dollar one, but now I said, so far so good. My integrity is completely intact and yet, I’m enjoying life a bit. And I feel like artists deserve that shit, you know? So ever since then I’ve taken on any number of different projects that were similar in that way, where I’m able to take a step ahead financially, but whatever I’m bringing to the world is something that I feel proud of. I’d hate to be proud of myself, or gloat, or be complacent. I really do think I’m constantly challenging myself and I’m constantly aware of how many geniuses there are out there ahead of me, but I’m always striving to be better and to develop my own sensibilities. But, I feel like I have something to offer. I’m an artist myself, but I also appreciate other artists and what they’re doing, especially if I consider them to be under-appreciated.
So yeah, I grew up as a graffiti-artist, it was my first dream. I didn’t want to be a movie star, I didn’t want to be a baseball player, I wanted to be a graffiti-artist. When I was five years old, and I first saw graffiti on the trains and I said, “Dad, I want to do that!” My dad said, “Well, when you get big enough you do that.” He was totally supportive even though it was illegal, it was mischief, but my dad saw past that, he saw that it was a means of self-expression. I realized that I was out classed by all these other kids because it was really a language that was sharpened through the most part in the ghetto, that doesn’t mean you can’t come from outside the ghetto and get good at it, but it’s like a jazz musician coming up in the cutting contest and one saxophone’s battling another saxophone; you’re going to get good fast, or you’re going to quit.
At the time we lived down in Queens, maybe five graffiti artist in the neighborhood, it wasn’t exactly a shark feeding frenzy. So I would have to travel and I would find myself in these elements like Harlem in the 80′s, or the South Bronx, or Brooklyn. I was too stupid to understand the threat, if there was one, of how dangerous the streets were and I wanted the graffiti so bad that I found myself in places that now, in retrospect, I’m think to myself, “Wow, I was so little and I was so naive.” I could have been crushed at any minute. But also, I think that in those neighborhoods there was such a respect for culture, that even when they saw the little white kid walking with ten spray cans on his back, I got a pass. It wasn’t like “I’ll beat you up!” It was more like “Okay, you’re up here writing graffiti, go ahead and go in peace.” I’m not saying I didn’t have some close calls, but for the most part, I moved forward despite the risks, I persevered. I made something of a name for myself, enough that I felt that I’d met my goals. I did a full car, I did several full cars, that was really my dream as a kid. They might have been awful, but I did them, you know? And also, I know that the full cars that I did inspired some of the older guys that I grew up with, that had never done one themselves. So it’s sort of like you’re making an impact, you’re making an impression.
I don’t know if you’ve read Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy, but he felt himself dying off, there was a plague at the time and people were dying around him, but he said, he dreamt of the Goddess of Wisdom and he saw this intricate brocade on the hem of her garment, and he basically said, “Man, if I just sew one jewel on then one piece of thread is mine, I feel I’ve done something.” So I started taking on that attitude. Being involved with street culture, especially one as ephemeral as graffiti where you write something today and it might be erased before anybody sees it, yet you do it and you get the cans by hook or crook, and you go in there with the gangs trying to hit you with a baseball bat and steal your paint, or the police, or the third rail, or the rats, and you tough it out, in the end you’re not quite sure why you did it, it’s like building a sandcastle. Yet, you find yourself going back time and time again. So, my first art had been…well, illegal. But I would have done it whether it was legal or illegal, but then the fact that it is so ephemeral in that you’re not being paid for it, and often not only would I not be praised for my work, but I’d even have people make fun of me saying that my graffiti was no good, I didn’t care. I stayed with it and I learned a lot of life lessons in the process.
Then, I became involved with the Fun Gallery. My dad was a private art dealer, so I was around art as a commodity my whole life. He dealt with Picasso, or abstract expressionists and things like that. Then, I saw graffiti start to take itself seriously in the market place and I was around, at that time all of the kings of that age. Whether it was Futura, Phase 2, or Lee Quiñones and then I got to know Basquiat and Keith Haring as well. Keith and I were friends, Martin Wong and I were friends. I knew Basquiat in passing, but after twenty, thirty, forty meetings, you feel you know the guy pretty well even though I was maybe ten years younger than him, he was a sweet and very forthcoming person. He was something of a friend too. But one thing that I noticed was as soon as they’d hit the mainstream marketplace, within a couple years they were gone, it was almost like watching a moth hit a flame. And that was something that I was just like…wow, I didn’t want to step into that sort of devouring spotlight. So I just told myself that so long as I can pursue my craft, and hone my sensibilities on a daily, I’ll do whatever I do to make an income. And then I’ll pursue my art as my own personal passion.
They once asked Charlie Parker, “What religion are you?” and he said, “I consider myself a very devout musician.” So, I considered that that was just my practice, it’s what kept me sane, and I wouldn’t say I had too difficult of a life, but I did go through certain rights of passage, or baptisms by fire. And one of the things that really got me through was my ability to put a pen to paper and draw a picture or write a story. And to this day, I’ve written three novels, I’ve just finished my fourth one. I’ve had maybe one or two literary agents look at them, tell me they’re unpublishable and I took that to say, okay maybe they’ll never see the light of day, but who knows, maybe they will?
No one’s published them?
I’ve only shown a couple people.
I mean, one of them was an erotic novel set in a summer camp. So the guy said, “Well I can’t sell this to kids, and I can’t sell it to adults, and Barnes & Nobles won’t touch it since it’s pornographic.” And you know, I kind of feel like I’m in this creative cul-de-sac.
I mean, I just finished one about a white stockbroker type, who’s exploiting, well he doesn’t think of himself as exploiting, but he’s buying buildings and flipping them in the ghetto. And then, in-so-doing he meets with a basketball team, a street-ball team, and he starts sponsoring them because he loves basketball and there’s this sort of culture clash, some sort of certain initiation he undergoes. He walks away not learning anything, not knowing anything, but I think there’s a blueprint in the book of these sort of experiences I’ve had as being a so-called “white” in deep parts of the ghetto, at times. It’s a book where I kind of lay the map for my experiences, where I had a lot of awakenings. Where you can never really know another person, or understand what they’ve gone through. I think, especially in the media today, you see so much about these very privileged people, like the white guy living in Florida, and he’s shooting some unarmed black kid. It’s just…it’s ethically unforgivable.
And I think as a so-called “white person” you have to be constantly on your guard and constantly vigilant not only that you don’t go shooting people because you think you can get away with it, but that you don’t even step on people’s toes. I met Public Enemy before they made it really big, at the New Music Seminar, and I had an argument with Flava Flav actually about their being what I felt to be at the time racists, which is ridiculous for me to have felt that way at the time. I just felt uncomfortable by stuff they were saying in their music because it was contrary to the privilege that I’d been forced upon when I was younger. And it wasn’t until later that I actually listened to their music that I woke up to their message, what they were trying to talk about, which was their experience. And when I saw them in Paris it finally hit home to me when Chuck D got up there and spoke to a mainly non-English speaking or understanding audience, but he was not saying you have to think of black people as better than you or different than you, you just got to have a certain degree of respect because they’ve been through a lot of bullshit. And when he put it that way it kind of gave me the chills I thought, that’s all Billie Holiday or Bessie Smith or Duke Elington or Louie Armstrong had always been talking about! It’s just undeniable humanity. And unfortunately people have been treated as less than human and even innocent people among us are taught to think that way and it becomes a sort of unconscious process.
But I’ve learned to make that a living and it’s not always about my own art. I don’t feel the need to force myself into the limelight. I’ve been involved in projects that had legs and went places and I didn’t say, “Oh, can you give me a mention that I was involved? Can I get a producer credit?” I don’t know… I got a fortune cookie that said you can achieve great things if you don’t always worry about who gets the credit for it. And some people wouldn’t produce, they wouldn’t back these projects, if they weren’t getting the full credit. I don’t want to rob them of their impetus and I don’t care if people know that I’m the one who did it or not at the end of the day. I’m neither a wanna-be nor am I a has-been I still got a dog in the race and it always seems like my phone rings for something or another.
I got to a point where I was sort of a cultural consultant for hotels. I’ve built music libraries, I’ve built book libraries for hotels and restaurants. For instance I built a DVD collection, I think this is mentioned in the piece that the New York Times did on my when I was doing it back then, but the hotel had Pay-Per-View or whatever and I said, “Well, look anyone coming here can rent E.T., or Jaws, or Godfather. I’d like to build a DVD collection of obscure gems.” And the hotelier could not understand why I was spending all this money on this DVD collection. Then Wim Wenders came to stay in the hotel and made a public statement saying he’d never seen such a good DVD collection in a hotel before. And from there that spawned all this new business for the hotel because he’s such an agenda-setting personage. So it’s things like that.
Right now, my latest project… I wish I could discuss it more but I’m still finalizing it… a certain venue got behind me and they said they’d love me to do an evening there. And I told them that if I can have full creative control what I’d really like to do is to take a certain rapper, who I’d like to think of as a real poet and an artist and a musician in a time where a lot of rappers are not. It’s almost cliché to say this about rap now, but it’s just become about name-brand mentions of different products.
I don’t know, when I was a kid I used to watch TV and then when the commercials came on, that was my cue to go get a sandwich or something, I’m not going to sit and watch a bunch of commercials. Yet, people will play a record today and all the ‘musician’ is expressing is that they’ve got a ton of money and here’s how they’ve spent it on this watch and this car and it’s ridiculous, it’s literally like listening to a commercial.
Anyway, there’s a rapper who I revere as someone who’s really a poet and I want him treated as such so I’m going to host an evening where I’m going to get, now all of this is to be confirmed, but someone like Dick Cavett or Charlie Rose or somebody to do a panel with him and have a slideshow and talk about what was it like growing up and their early musical influences. Let’s say he mentions Isaac Hayes, or Luther Vandros, I want a DJ there who will drop those cues for everyone so they can hear what he’s talking about. Then, at the end I want to do an acappella set where he goes through his lyrics, so that they’re not encumbered by the music, maybe just have a bassist or drummer there just to give him the tempo. And I want to do it for a real cross-section of people, some intelligentsia and some hip-hop fans that want to see it from a new angle. I’m trying to get it catered by Ghetto Gastro, my friend that I knew actually from the street has elevated way beyond what I thought any of us were capable of, he started a collective of chefs, I think they’re all based out of the Bronx, and they’re high-concept chefs trying to reinvent what “ghetto food” should be, on a budget, and I want him perhaps to create some kind of sandwich or something for the event so it’s like a dinner theatre, a whole evening encompassing the music, art, and culture, I’m also going to do an art component.
That’s a sort of one day gig and it’s not something I’m going to be able to really monetize, I’ll walk away with probably having busted my ass to put it together and maybe nobody will even say thank you, but that’s fine with me, it’s just something I really want to put together and somebody’s been kind enough to get behind me and sponsor the idea.
But in addition to my staying alive creatively myself I’m always keeping myself happy. Last year I did the exhibit with Joseph Nahmad of Roberto Matta, Phase 2, Rammellzee, and Futura. We did that exhibit during Hurricane Sandy so we had a very bad turnout, the opening was full, but somehow the buzz didn’t get out about that show. We had eight million dollars worth of Matta’s work on the wall not to mention all that by Futura, Rammellzee, and Phase 2, and yet it went without any attention from the media. But again, it felt like I’d painted a train, I’d finally been able to put blue chip art on the same wall and in a way that I believe would have appealed to Matta because he was part of the surrealists, he was part of the Mexican muralists, he was part of the abstract expressionists, now I’m talking about it in dialogue not necessarily stylistically. I had seen him as a proponent of the graffiti art movement as well and when you saw the paintings next to each other, often people would have to ask who did this one or who did that one because we didn’t even label them on the wall. But again, I didn’t make a heap of money on that show, but next time a dealer comes to me and says they want me to put something together I’m going to jump on it. I’m even planning some things for next year already.
When I prepare interviews I prefer when this free flowing conversation happens, but I also like to plant ideas and let people flow with them as well. This is something that Paulo Coelho wrote, he said, “There is one great truth on this planet whoever you are or whatever it is that you do. When you really want something it’s because that desire originated in the soul of the universe, that’s your mission on Earth.”
I feel that very strongly. I’d always been nagged by this feeling of destiny, and I mean a personal destiny that presides over everyone’s life, even a bird or a bug. I read a book recently called Cortes and Montezuma and what I love so much about the book is that they didn’t pigeonhole either figure, they spoke of each as fully fleshed-out human beings, capable of stupidity as much as greatness. And what I really walked away with from after reading the book and was very impressed by, was that the whole conquest of Mexico was so wrapped up in destiny that it couldn’t have been any other way. Montezuma was waiting for Cortez’ arrival the day he arrived. And Cortes would have never been able to walk in there an inexperienced conquistador, who had never led an expedition, with three hundred men and he had the balls to burn his boats. Whatever made him believe he was going to conquer? On that day, they just happened to be waiting for the arrival of Quetzalcoatl. It’s astounding to think of it and it’s funny too because it was mostly a gigantic tragedy, all the genocides, the American Indians, the Middle Passage, Mexico. Yet, how could it have been any other way? I mean it wasn’t any other way, it happened exactly the way it happened, it didn’t happen in another way. So it’s sort of a bitter pill we all have to swallow, that history’s not always pretty and people aren’t always their best, but you’ve got to keep an eye on destiny and what your destiny is.
It’s like I told you about when I wanted to write on trains and I really went against all odds. A lot of my friends that came from East New York, pink houses, they were almost born to write graffiti, they came up in an element that was combative. When I walked in there I was like a babe in the woods. If the hand of destiny didn’t guide me through, I could have been done away with at any moment. And it was really because I was following up on some sort of vision in myself, it had of been in my DNA. My father raised me to be an artist. Now, had I taken on the arts at a young age as somebody that, I don’t know, wanted to paint little pretty pictures and sell them for a million dollars, that would have been one trajectory through life, but because my first exposure to the arts was probably a Navajo sand painting, it has guided me through the whole rest of my life, my own personal politics. So that germ that started with wanting to write graffiti on a train ended up encompassing my whole being. I think that had to predate my physical existence and I was just born to follow through those steps. As strange as it may sound, I’d like to think I had some kind of say in this, but so far it seems everything’s been a matter of destiny. Even my wife, I don’t know why, but I’d been drawing her before I met her, all of my friends will tell you that. In fact, even one of my ex-girlfriends will tell you that and an ex is the one least likely to admit something like that because I’m sure she would have liked to fancy herself as my ideal, but when she saw my wife, she said, “I’ve gotta’ say you’ve been drawing her since we were kids.” So if that’s not destiny I don’t know what is.
For more information on Nemo Librizzi click here