Originally published in Issue XIII
Ronin is a nomadic muralist and tattoo artist who has recently made Moab more permanently his home. His most recent public work is a mural on the bathrooms at Rotary Park. When I asked him to be The Dust’s featured artist this month, he was hesitant, as his mural has already created a stir within the community. However, he agreed, and the topic our resulting conversation attempted to make sense of the controversy and understand why it happened.
He began with a few disclaimers:
Ronin: “My job here was not to create change, but to create perspective. And what I did was create a change. I was trying to be one step back from change. Just enough to open the door, but I didn’t realize how far back this community really is.”
He said of his project:
R: “I try not to say nothing, but now I’m at a point where I got way overexposure. And I knew better.
My art communities are like ‘What are you doing in Moab?’ But I have personal reasons for why I’m here. I stayed in town for the winter for the first time and I got roped into things. Because I care about this town.
You cannot force something. Technically, my mural is invasive. They have no choice but to deal with this.”
Interviewer: You can tell Ronin has a lot to say about this. He’s had a lot of time to think about it. He went on to describe where he’s at before I had time to ask the first question:
R: “Everyone started protecting themselves, so I got ostracized. That’s I why I feel like there’s not an art community here yet. I’m barely healing in a sense of exposure in this community. I don’t want to redirect that energy into the Moab Arts & Recreation Center (MARC). They’ve done a lot for me. They’ve invested money in me.”
I: I attempt to put him at ease, restating my desire to get to a place of communal understanding. I note that while this may not smooth things over or resolve things completely, we can understand each other a bit more. We can help people understand that no one is trying to attack anyone or point fingers. I remind him that I want to get his perspective out there and show people his motives:
R: “I don’t know how to filter things.
At the age of nine, I told my family I was going to be an artist. So since the age of nine this is what I’ve been doing.
I brought my ego to the table, and I ripped my armor off, and I let people stab me to death. Everything’s fighting me and I’m just trying to survive. That's my reality as an artist. Especially in a world, in a place, that doesn’t want multicultural change.”
I: Ronin is an artist, so he makes bold statements. He speaks in sweeping generalizations that hone in on and stress important truths in his life. And the thing is he’s not exaggerating. He’s just painfully aware of a reality that some others may not want to face and forcing them to face it.
R: “This community gets fueled up about things. My expectations are not high. My expectations are to create a pathway. I will not fuel hatred. I’m a very nomadic person in a sense of protecting my health. Moving into this community got me involved. I’m a nomadic artist. No one has ownership over me. I am my own person and I won’t take on the identity of a town. You can never control the outcome.”
I: I ask him how he originally approached the mural piece that eventually got him so much attention.
R: “Because of this positive and gung ho energy, I went out there and I went all in, and I did what I said I was going to do. I don’t want to be in exposure. I don’t want to be in the center of attention for art. I’ve done it too much.
I promised the MARC that I would do a moon goddess because they are tired of the redundancy of scenery. I spent three years developing a wide range of organic energy. So the whole mural was organic energy. It's the life and existence of this place on a metaphysical level.
The first lady on the right side, she is not of color, but of energy, so that it comes of energy, not of race. And then Sanji (another local artist who assisted Ronin in this project) did the letters because he does come from a graffiti background. And he found an escape and a healthy life in Moab, but that’s what brought him to be creative. And I wanted him to know that you can do this in a mural. Now he realizes he’s capable of doing a mural. He fought his graffiti ego, it died, and he evolved into an artist, in the way society calls it. I just see it as personal development, as identity.
So ultimately now when you look at this that was the first accomplishment.”
I: Not everyone saw it this way, though.
R: “Now that triggered controversy on an equal plane. Because it was in the newspaper and people had positive and negative reactions.”
I: I asked how the controversy was brought to his attention:
“Just people staring at me like they wanted to kill me.”
I: I’d heard he had to do this mural twice because the MARC requested a re-do.
R: “It wasn’t the MARC. It was the article that came out afterward where someone had voiced their opinion in the newspaper saying that it was an extremely negative, dirty, and invasive piece of art in Moab. Pretty much it said that graffitti belongs in the back of a city alley, not in a public, beautiful community.
Which is kind of the complete opposite of what I painted, I tried to not have judgment. The mural was to allow freedom of speech in the form of personal expression. For people to be able to express themselves. And what she expressed was targeting this artwork. It was negativity.
I do not care if people do not like my art. That is part of the art world.
But I became the target for hatred, for negativity.”
I: I wondered if the whole controversy was because it looked like graffiti, not art.
R: “It was because they saw me using spray cans. They thought it was graffiti. I feel like this was not the most appropriate project as a whole. I take responsibility knowing that I would not take on a project like this in this town again. I don’t feel like I’m the right person for it. It’s too much change. It’s too progressive.
I have tattoos all over me, I’m Asian. I dress completely outside the box. This is making people feel some type of way.”
I: Ronin is downplaying this. What he fails to mention is not only was it negative energy people were conveying- they also called the cops on him, a paid artist painting a mural, because he was using spray cans. But he doesn’t tell me this quite yet.
R: “So it has nothing to do with the art. It has nothing to do with the mural. It has nothing to do with Rotary Park. What it has to do with is changing people’s perspective. It became too much.”
I: I ask if the MARC asked him to re-do it because of public backlash.
R: “No, afterward Liz (MARC director) asked me what I wanted to do about this. I decided to re-paint it real quick and maybe another artist in town can go there and paint it. So it takes the exposure away from me.
The MARC funds the artists and I do not want the MARC to fall because our project did not work out.”
I: I wondered what he did in the repainting process to try and make it less “edgy.”
R: “I just did some super stale, sterile art that this community is very comfortable with.”
I: I took this to mean the landscape stuff he had bemoaned earlier.
R: “I just painted it for the kids. There's a bunch of kids that go to Rotary Park and play around there. In my mind, I was like: ‘Fuck it, fine. You want me to make some sterile art? I’m going to make some art that reaches out to little children.’ They might look at it and think ‘I can make that.’
Because this started when I was nine years old. And this is who I’ve become. I’ve become not only an artist, but I’ve become a human being. I’ve learned to raise myself above a title, above an ego to offer individuality.
And the kids saw it. The kids were way smarter. Parents brought their kids over because they felt some type of way and wanted to tell me something. And every kid had something to tell me about self-identity.”
I: I was amazed that kids actually came over and talked to him about the art.
R: “Parents brought their kids up because they wanted to go see the mural.”
I: I wanted to know what the kids had to say.
R: “They loved it. They wanted to be around it. So yeah, there ended up being plenty of positive outlook from it.”
I: I clarified which version the kids were responding to.
R: “From all of it. I think a lot of people expect me to communicate with them, but they don’t want me to communicate what really happened. They want me to communicate in a way where they can fix it.
This was unfixable.”
I: I asked why that was.
R: “Because we started something already without even announcing it to the community.
The cops showed up the first day.
The cops did not care. The cops cared that their phone lines were blowing up. So they needed to show a presence to make them stop calling.”
I: I couldn’t believe people had actually called the cops enough to make them show up.
R: “In the middle of the day time.”
I: I half laugh, half gasp, still taken aback.
R: “Which is whatever, I don’t care. My mom’s a sergeant. My uncle is a sergeant.”
I: Of course, I say, but still. I had no idea that people were calling the cops when you were painting.
R: “Well, it's just older people are concerned that people are being destructive of their community. But the funny thing to me is if you had an issue, why didn’t any of them come up and say nothing (sic) to me.
They would come up, walk over, give me dirty looks, and I would say hey, how are you doing, I hope you have a beautiful day, and their reaction was to go home and call the police.”
I: Wow, I say, really drawing out the word. Wow.
Not one of them talked to me about it. And I talked to them about it. Say it was a mural from the MARC and I’m trying to create change with inside of a community. They’re trying to work with the youth and I’m trying to provide that. And not one of them wanted to hear me. They wanted to judge me.
They wanted to judge me for having tattoos and doing spray paint and they wanted to project that on me and I realized I was like fine, I'll be a catalyst to this community.
Now, how open are they to listen to that? They’re not. This community has now resonated hatred that they'd been suppressing. And this hatred is ignorance. It is an emotion and feeling they do not understand because they've been brainwashed to believe this is evil. This is bad. This does not make these people bad people.
We can't leave. This community wants diversity. And the small portion that does not want diversity cannot over factor what’s happening here. There are blacks and Asians living in this community. There are Mexicans living in this community.”
I: I wondered if he thought that going through this experience, this friction, would make the community better prepared to handle obvious diversity in the future.
R: “I think it's broken through a layer of hatred. And I absorbed it. And I sacrificed myself. Because of that, now the MARC knows everything not to do.”
I: I lament. I’m afraid they’ll really shy away from these more controversial projects in the future.
R: “I told them to. Because instead of creating change why don’t we just create solutions? It doesn’t always have to be change. It doesn’t have to be the constant in our lives as artists. We are the tools. We are creating the physical realm of reality for others. If there weren’t artists we'd be living on the ground with the dirt and not doing anything besides living.
If the next artists say, ‘I want to cultivate energy for change.’ I’m not going to discourage them. I was a proactive artist for 10 years. I retired. If you want to create change, you have to be willing to go outside your comfort zone. You have to go outside your comfort zone.”
I: Which is what you did, to be honest.
R: “I don’t know…”
I: You didn’t mean to, but you put yourself in a public place creating a mural that shook feathers. Even unintentionally, you’ve become this symbol. Because you were there doing it.
R: “And I didn’t want that. I wanted to be a nobody in this town. I wanted to be a little piece of the dust (fitting pun noted. Thanks, Ronin) that people wipe off their feet, and now I’ve become the arch that has graffiti all over it.
They will look at me as some person that has done graffiti on the arch. That I’m going to encourage graffiti in this town.”
I: I can see where they’re coming from. Ronin does, too. It’s unsettling.
R: “I get it, you know what I mean? I get it.”
I: But I’m at a loss about how to educate on the difference between vandalism and diverse artistic expression. I don’t know how we create this mutual understanding where the community can see what is a work of art rather than graffiti on an arch. I ask Ronin if there’s a way around it.
R: “There isn’t. I told you they’ve been standing their ground for 40 years. There isn’t. I’m dying this way.”
I chuckle at the melodrama. And I prod Ronin, trying to get him to define this slight, but vital, distinction for me.
I: I wonder if that, for him, this was a kind of thought experiment to create distinction between public art and public vandalism. An opportunity for education.
R: “This community is old money. It is pretentious. You want my honest opinion?”
“They need a white person with a college education to go spray paint.”
I: I contemplate the idea, and begrudgingly accept its validity. It’s sad, but it’s true.
R: “I’ve done this too many times in too many cities. I know how this works. It’s such an old issue. I’m not gonna focus on these people that say fuck you. I’m gonna go focus on these people that are giving me a handshake and giving me a hug and offering me a cup of coffee and some food to eat.
There is a community that fuels these things
Whatever you need me to be, I can be. Whatever we need for the community is more important. The last thing we need to do is discourage anyone inside of this community, because things are so weak right now that we have to create some type of a foundation.
And instead of being the type of person I used to be as an artist, with my armor and my weapons and my tools, I went there as a monk and let them slash me to death.
Every day I was still like,
‘I’m going to paint with love. I will not paint with your hatred.’
That’s what they wanted. They wanted to find hatred in that art. And I’m not defeated, I’m retreating. And all that energy and momentum, I want the art community to embrace it, and use it.”