(Photo: Tara Yarlagadda)

It was a boiling-hot day in Brooklyn when I strolled by a dull gray electrical box and glimpsed vivid shades of red, purple and blue. The square black sticker pasted onto the box contained a blue angelic figure with red wings kneeling in prayer beneath a bizarre hodgepodge of images depicting the decrepit state of America today: pills—possibly a nod to the opioid epidemic—logos for Fox News and Vice, Facebook and Twitter social media icons, an iPhone, an AK-47, an Amazon box, and an array of dollar bills upon dollar bills. Scrawled in tiny white font beneath the image were the words Dom Dirtee.

Dom Rinaldi, aka Dom Dirtee (spelled with two e’s “because in hip-hop, they generally don’t spell everything perfectly”) grew up with a pencil in his hand and hip-hop in his ears. The 39-year-old Brooklyn resident and native of Waterbury, Connecticut has only been immersed in the fine art world for the past year and half. Before that, he made a name for himself through eclectic covers for New York-centric rap and hip-hop artists like Prodigy/Mobb Deep, Statik Selektah and Redman. He tells his story in the Freehold café in Brooklyn, where indie rock flows around us, World Cup fans cheer on a match between England and Croatia, and collages—not Dom’s, to be clear—dot the walls as we dig deep into hip-hop, surreal designs and the true purpose of art.

His father had encouraged Dom to pursue a more practical profession, so he studied graphic design in college, but those twin influences of music and fine art led him to where he is today. While he continues to produce album covers, what inspired him to strike out on his own was a Marvel art project, of all things. In a nod to the cross-collaboration between the hip-hop and comic book worlds, the company had recruited designers to remake classic hip-hop album covers, but inserted comic book characters in place of the normal artwork. The moment he discovered that Marvel had chosen a cover that he designed (it’s “Venom, Vol. 3 #1” on the link here), it was like an awakening for Dom. His face breaks out into a big grin as he recalls this memory.

5 years #ripprodigy

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“I thought, ‘Wow, people like this cover enough on a major level like Marvel to redo it and include it along with these other classic album covers…That moment kind of made me be like…the potential exists for me to take my work farther than I’ve been taking it.”

Most of the manual labor for his own designs happens through countless hours and layers of clippings and brushstrokes in Photoshop, but Dom also pulls pamphlets off the ground, photos from his camera reel, newspaper clippings, and images he comes across on the internet. Whatever catches his eye, really. One of his favorite tactics is to pair two discordant images that normally wouldn’t mesh well together. He describes one collage where he mashed up an image of soldiers in such a way that it looked like they were raining fire on an imposing angelic figure. “It sort of references old images that seem somewhat familiar, but they’re put in this new context that, you know, may make someone look at it and be like, ‘Wow, why the hell is it like that?”

“Untitled Collage” (Image credit: Dom Dirtee)

He enlists friends to help slap stickers of his prints all over the city, which is how I found out about his designs—as did the countless number who’ve tagged him on Instagram posts or in tweets. “I’ve had people DM me, ‘I was walking through the city and I like stopped in my tracks when I saw one of your stickers. I didn’t know what it was, but I was drawn towards it.'”

“Skull Tee” print by Dom Dirtee (Photo: Tara Yarlagadda)

Dom’s prints often exude a sort of illustrative quality, which leads fans to mistake them for real paintings. He tells me by email that, “When Prodigy originally called me to say he was going to use the Albert Einstein cover art, he said that the people he was with felt as if they could reach out and touch it because it was so vivid.” Then, for the dreaded question: I ask Dom to define his art. He sighs—if there’s one thing I’ve learned from numerous interviews, it’s that artists hate to be pigeon-holed into a type–but he finally settles upon “surrealist collages” in the vein of the avant-garde Dada artists of the early 20th century. Although Dom says his artwork has a “consistent visual language”–skulls, angel-like figures that hark back to his Catholic school upbringing, graffiti and street art in vivid colors—he’s careful to note that he’s no “one-trick pony” unlike some artists who “just do the same thing over and over and over.”

He’s also set up an online shop for merchandise, specifically, T-shirts, which he calls “wearable art” that appeals to consumers who might not be able to afford a fine art print. And while many artists bludgeon their viewer over the head with deep meaning and overt political themes, Dom opts for a more nuanced approach, preferring to reveal an onion with layers of meaning rather than any one specific message or political statements that miss the mark. He’s quick to point out that in the collage with the praying angel, he not only calls out Fox News, but more left-leaning outlets like Vice and MSNBC.

“We’re obsessed with things that are basically detrimental to our lives…I didn’t want it to just be like, “Oh, it’s Fox News!” Well, MSNBC and Vice are in there too. Because you have people who lean hardcore on both sides of the political spectrum. Drinking their Kool-Aid from both sides.”

(Image Credit: Dom Dirtee)

In some cases, Dom does make his feelings plainly known. Like in this collage of Donald and Melania Trump, whose visages blur into the horizon, creating a jarring, unpleasant effect. “The Trump one—I was just upset about the way he represents us…I think I read somewhere that he really hates bad pictures of himself or something like that. I was like, ‘What if I found the worst photos of him and made a portrait of him?’…It’s funny and it’s serious at the same time.”

For an album designer who only recently hopped into the fine art scene, Dom is doing pretty well for himself. He’s hosted his work at both 17 Frost Gallery and Bob Bar. When I ask Dom about his big hopes and dreams as an artist, he politely demurs, insisting that while it’s nice to make a dime off of your work, the real purpose of art is in the people’s reaction. “I’m not going to determine whether what I’ve done in my life is a success or a failure based on whether I can buy a yacht off of it.” He continues, “The true reward is to use my abilities to enhance peoples’ lives [and] contribute to the culture of New York.”