Tucker Russell, Brand Manager for MONTANA-CANS, is known and respected for his honest rapport with customers, his hands on experience with the brand he represents and a genuine passion for the arts. In addition to collaborating with MONTANA-CANS on marketing materials and promotions, Tucker works closely with customers to ensure success on both ends. He started at MacPherson’s nearly five years ago in Inside Sales & Marketing, and over the years took on more responsibility and leadership.
For this Who’s Who we are doing a deep dive into what makes Tucker especially good at his job, taking the opportunity to open our minds and tap into his insider perspective on a “hot” topic in our industry: graffiti and street art. The controversy lies in that some graffiti may involve illegal defacement of property. As suppliers of materials that may be used for graffiti, you may feel uncomfortable with this possibility. If you already have your mind made up on this subject, consider putting your conclusions on hold. Tucker’s experiences have shaped him, and as a marketing expert and insider in this niche community, he has made a considerable impact on our industry.
How did you get connected with the art supply industry?
“I got connected with MacPherson’s through a graffiti artist named Revok, a sponsored artist with MONTANA. I met him when I was traveling across the country from New York City by bus, painting graffiti from city to city. I was in Detroit visiting my sister; he lived in the same apartment building as her. Years later, he heard I needed a job and connected me with MONTANA. MONTANA connected with MacPherson’s and I went in for an interview.”
What does it mean to you to represent MONTANA as a Brand Manager? How does it motivate you? Why is it important?
“MONTANA plays a huge role in the art world and graffiti world, innovating products and supporting artists. People like me built the marketplace. I am the customer, and I get to have a say in it. If you touch a can of MONTANA today, I had something to do with it, and we get to support really cool projects. It’s important that there is not a disconnect between the person managing this brand and the subculture of graffiti. You have know who’s who, who to work with, who not to work with. As an active participant, I help keep the brand authentic.”
What made you want to do graffiti in the first place?
“When I was growing up, I spent summers and vacation time with my mom. For years she traveled around the country, whether it was Detroit, St. Louis, California, Arizona, Hawaii. I grew up in Olympia Washington, a small suburban, almost country town. I didn’t have any real exposure to art. But when I traveled with my mom, I had that exposure to cities, and art, and graffiti. I got very into hip-hop music. That’s what spoke to me. I started reading this magazine called The Source, and there is this guy Chino who I am friends with today and work with… he curated the last few pages called Graf Flix. When I saw those pages, photographs of graffiti, I was hooked. Elaborate backgrounds, hip-hop characters, scenery… That’s how I got into it.
How did it feel when you did it for the first time?
A lot of discovery. This plays into who I am as a worker; when I first started doing graffiti, everything was a problem that I needed to solve. Where do you get caps? Take the bus to Fred Meyers, find a weird oven cleaner that has the right tips. How do you keep them clean, so they don’t get clogged? Before all these products existed, you made them, or discovered something else. Where do you paint? The first projects I painted were abandoned houses in the countryside where I grew up, a supportive friend’s side of their garage… I needed to figure it out. Outside of figuring out your medium and finding the right supplies, there are additional layers to the experience… figuring out scale, staying safe and alert, time management, etc.”
How have you grown as an artist / writer in the past five to ten years and what are the major contributing factors to your growth?
“Overall confidence. Within the subculture, once social media and all this stuff came around I was able to actually see how many people respected me and looked up to me. I am very critical of myself. To have so much positive feedback all of a sudden was very interesting. On the technical side, I’ve started being more conceptual: I’ve actually simplified things. Polishing, making my work more legible, with themes and characters.”
People who do graffiti often call themselves writers, not artists. Why? Is this just a technicality, like how some sign-painters identify as mechanics, not artists?
“You gotta keep in mind, until the industry could commercialize graffiti, it wasn’t considered art because no one cared. There were small groups of people who saw it as art but when I was a kid doing graffiti, I didn’t tell people I was doing art. No one respected it. But it has always been an art form.”
Why do people “tag”? Isn’t the point of graffiti to vandalize things?
“This is my opinion: there are many different types of graffiti artists. Tagging isn’t necessarily about damaging people’s property. It’s not necessarily about taking back the wall… it’s not necessarily that complex. I still tag, and I don’t have some moral agenda. It’s a one track mind kind of thing: get your name out there…similar to marketing.”
Do you think if people who tag had access to specialized Urban Art department where they had an opportunity to learn how to embellish their tags, that they might have more interest in the elaborate mural-style graffiti known as “pieces”?
“Yeah, of course… but here’s my thing: all the risks associated with graffiti build character. Other artists haven’t had to overcome the weird hurdles that come with graffiti. Also, most graffiti artists, especially from my generation, suffered from a lack of direction and needed to find themselves at a young age. That’s how they got into it. It might have been a way to act out, but it was also a way to find your identity. It’s kind of like that “second life” avatar stuff people are doing online now. You have a graffiti word, it’s your personality, you can shape it. For young people, it’s like being a superhero. The part about vandalizing never crosses your mind. The sensation of seeing your work on the street is what drives you.
This ties into why I enjoy marketing. For 15 years before I got this job, I was marketing myself as a graffiti writer. I was getting my name out there. I’ve connected with people all over the world through this common art. They know me, not by Tucker, but by my writer name.”
What’s the relationship between retailers, spray paint and graffiti right now?
“Graffiti supplies made it in art stores originally because it was trendy. Within the art material world and selling goods, there is a lot of safe terminology: graffiti artist, street artist, urban artist. But it doesn’t matter what you call it, it is what it is. That’s the great thing about graffiti, and the reason it has retained its authenticity. You’re not completely able to curate it or commercialize it. There is still a kid getting excited about a crappy tag on the bus. He starts doing graffiti, and he may become an oil painter.”
What would you say to a retailer thinking, “I don’t want to encourage first timers to go out there and paint walls illegally. I don’t want to be responsible for that.”
“You’re not responsible for it. You have to be an adult to buy spray paint. And when I used to buy spray paint from Home Depot, they would always ask me, “What are you spray painting with all these colors?” I tell them… lawn furniture. (laughs). If you don’t like graffiti, don’t carry paint in your store. Spray paint is a tool just like any other art supply”
Is there profit in spray paint for retailers?
“Retailers and brands need to lead the charge in keeping art healthy in North America. These aren’t commodity goods. These are goods that make people who come into your store want to try something new. Graffiti is going to be cool no matter what. The stores I’ve seen that are really thriving have a super curated assortment with things that real-deal artists need and want. They have a dedicated section for “urban art” – they have a staff member who understands it. Those people drive business.”
Some retailers have expressed concerns around theft when it comes to spray paint and other urban art supplies. What are your thoughts?
I guarantee that those ten silver markers that kid stole over the course of five years… there is a pretty good chance that kid will turn into an artist who will put more money back into a store then they ever took out of it. Plus a lot of fine art people who don’t do graffiti… steal art supplies (laughs). It’s not always the guy in baggy pants with a backwards hat.”
Okay, so on a scale of one to ten, having a dedicated section and a knowledgeable staff member is a ten in terms of time and resources. Do you have any advice for someone who is closer to a two on that scale?
“If you aren’t going to fully embrace this art form, the easy way to do this is to adjust your pricing. Spray paint is not acrylic paint. Spray paint isn’t a material that is dependable for a high margin. People coming into your store, they need to buy a lot of it and they need to buy it frequently. I guarantee for some people who are not moving spray paint is because they try to sell each can for too high of a price.”
Have you had successful conversations with our customers about this?
“Yes, when it comes up. Some people listen, and some people tell me I’m out of my mind… but, there are retailers who have lowered their prices and sell way more paint.”
Okay – long story short, why should retailers care about graffiti?
“It’s a corny way to say it, but essentially graffiti is the gateway drug to art. I didn’t go to a museum until I was 23. I didn’t care about art. I didn’t care about drawing, colored pencils, pens… I didn’t even necessarily care about spray paint that much, I just liked doing graffiti. But now I’ll do sign painting and oil painting. Honing my skills and developing my confidence in the actual act of doing graffiti, technically an art, led me to discover that I have other skills that I might enjoy.”
It is not news to us that this is a controversial topic; our goal is to open dialogue and acknowledge a powerful artistic movement that is not going away while brainstorming ways our community can be innovative about engaging with it. How do you utilize spray paint in your store? What is the community of street artists and DIYers like where you are based? Comment below or connect with us at ArtDogBlog@MacPhersonart.com, and stay tuned for an upcoming story about the MONTANA-CANS brand!