If you’ve seen street artist Flood’s Bill Cosby series—colorful images of iconic Fat Albert cartoon characters that, in an ironic twist, comment on the comedian’s rape scandal—you might be tempted to think they were flippant, sarcastic pieces by a smartass looking to stir up controversy. You’d be wrong: using the characters as mouthpieces for such an ugly topic was one of the hardest things the artist has ever done, and he continues his work despite being arrested earlier this year.
When the newest iteration of his Fat Albert image popped up last Sunday in the First Street Green Art Park, this time holding the recent New York magazine cover of Cosby’s accusers, we wanted to find out more about the artist and his motivations, so we tracked him down for a phone interview. Though he prefers to remain anonymous, we were able to get in touch with him through the VolaVida collective and gallery, a new East Fourth Street art space where Flood’s work currently hangs with other street artists.
You have to do a bit a searching in order to find the newest Fat Albert, since it’s tucked away in the corner of the garden. Hearing this, Flood, a holdover from the neighborhood’s ‘80s punk scene, laughed with what sounded like genuine delight. “That’s exactly what I was going for!” he said.
Flood has put up Fat Albert images around the Lower East Side in the months since the Cosby scandal broke (see his Instagram for more pics). He felt like he had made his point, but then he was struck by New York magazine’s image of 35 women lined up in chairs—it seemed to offer the perfect opportunity to put in the final word, at least for now. “This campaign, I mean it with all my heart. There was no bullshit behind it, but I feel like it’s over,” he said.
The seeds for the series were actually planted a long time ago. “As a kid growing up, Queens was a scary place in the ’80s, especially for a sensitive little art kid,” Flood said. He took the cartoon’s moral teachings to heart. “The cartoon and his comedy were on point as well, but here were inner city kids being kind. I knew that wasn’t real life—I saw all the drugs and the horrors around me, but the show was a way to get away from that kind of environment. And it turns out he’s the biggest serial rapist in all of America. With the way life has treated me, it’s like, ‘Him too?’ It’s maddening.”
So it makes sense that it was difficult for him to manipulate the beloved cartoons and use them in a campaign against their creator. “It was totally painful—heartbreaking—to use these characters in such a way, especially Fat Albert. He’s the kindest guy ever created,” he said. “The expression on his face, there was no reference for doing him that way because he’s never mad. The whole idea of him being so large, it’s because he was large and in charge, but he was always standing up for people.”
Flood’s passion for his work doesn’t come without its risks; a few months ago he was arrested while putting up a Fat Albert in broad daylight without a lookout (his preferred method) and had to spend a few hours in jail. He has paid his fines and just finished up his community service, and the legal fiasco actually spawned a creative new approach; not wanting to be caught again while he was still dealing with the aftermath of the arrest, he realized there was one thing he could paint on without fear of repercussion. No one would care if he vandalized garbage. “To use a baseball analogy, when you really make that connection with the ball it feels so good,” he said. “Him being trash, which he is, and putting it on trash felt so great. It was a little victory in my street artist world.”
So why would Flood have put the art up during the day, without anyone watching his back, in the first place? Being intimately acquainted with local street artists of every kind, Lulu Reich and Maurice Whitaker, co-owners of VolaVida, were able to shed some light. “A lot of street artists work during the day because in New York City in broad daylight you would never suspect,” Whitaker said. “You look like you’re just doing your job,” Reich explained.
The intimate gallery, which just opened in June, specializes in helping street artists network, find walls and gates to paint on, and sell their work to people interested in owning a piece of art from a genre that’s quickly gaining in popularity. Like many street artists, Flood was a little skeptical at first, but Reich (who sought him out through Instagram) won him over. “The gallery thing for me is totally new to me,” he said. “I don’t hang around my house making paintings—that’s not something I do—but it would be okay to have money to help me pay the fines from when I got caught. And it’s something that’s fun to do. It’s a fun brain thing to do. It’s a new experience.”
Part of the fun of visiting VolaVida is getting to know the stories of the people behind the art we walk by on the street, which Whitaker and Reich enthusiastically share. On the way home from the gallery, I noticed two “Protect Yo Heart” stencils, which I had just learned were by UncuttArt.
VolaVida has had a whopping seven exhibits since it opened at 240 East 4th Street two months ago. “Momentum,” which Reich said was named for the momentum that’s pushing forward both the gallery and street art in general, runs until Aug. 20.