Bangin' on Canvas

Outsider artist Stephen White leaves his mark

"I'm not like those painters that say, 'Oh, I felt like this. I was in an angry mood today so I used these colors and that color,'" says outsider artist and tagger Stephen White. But White admits that when he feels angry, "I'll probably draw something gangster."

White, whose work is currently on display at the Blue Topaz Gallery downtown, frequently uses markers and paints but denies that tagging had any influence on his art. "I used to draw before I tagged .... None of my work is about tagging. [I was tagging before] but I was also drawing."

White, who was born in Los Angeles, first came to Tucson in 1982 with his mother. They had moved to Tucson from the Bronx, which White remembers fondly as the days he first started tagging at the age of 13 under the name Trail. White had picked up the nickname in the mid '80s because as a child he seemed to constantly be on the move. "This one guy I used to play dominos with used to say that I'm always on the trail."

His mother encouraged him to put his art on paper. She "always wanted me to draw. She used to get drawing books for me," White says. Later, on his late mother's birthday, White decided to start employing paints because he "was thinking about her."

When asked what he thinks about being labeled an outsider artist, because of his lack of formal training, White accepted the description and is proud of his self-reliance. "I didn't have to sit there and go through school with somebody saying 'you have to paint and do this, this way.' I do it the way I want to do it ... If they went to school, somebody else taught them. I didn't have to be taught."

White describes his process. "I just started doing colors. I started doing lines and putting the colors in ... Then I just put it all together." There's "a certain look" that White is looking to achieve. "I used to put [paintings] against the wall and I'd get up in the morning and look at them to see how good they looked ... It just comes to me," he says.

Sometimes colors and shapes are based on images he sees as his eyes adjust to the light and sometimes they come solely from shapes that he sees develop on his canvas as he begins his work with stencils.

"These are my ghetto markers," laughs White as he shows off his supplies. " I don't have no money to be going to no art store and paying no $15 for a marker. I just go to K-Mart."

Other times, as with his painting "In the Dark there is Light," White's personal experiences come into play. "That's me when I got hit in the head," he says. "There's blood going down the side. I got my student loan. I had it [for a vocational school program]. And I was partying and I guess they left and came back and hit me in the head with one of them police flashlights. They took about $1,700."

White admits that he still likes to tag. "For a minute I was tagging on the bus. For a while you could see 'Trail' all around ... On Stone and Grant I tagged at the automotive place. That fool across the street called the police. I got caught on that one. I tried to hide under the trashcan. The dogs came and caught me."

But White likes needling tattoos, painting, drawing and tagging equally. He doesn't want to be pigeonholed into doing one thing. Perhaps this is most evident in how he has tagged himself with a tattoo that reads "Trail."

But whatever art form White uses to express himself he wants to make clear that he is making his own unique path for himself--his own unique trail.

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