Three years in the making, Stick ‘Em Up was finally screened to a full house at Landmark River Oaks Theatre (with two additional screenings) on April the seventh. Houston filmmaker Alex Luster’s street art documentary is the most-talked about local production in recent memory, and deservingly so. Written and co-produced by Tony Reyes, Luster’s self-financed feature manages to present an engaging narrative surrounding Houston’s burgeoning wheat-pasting street art scene through the perspectives of artists, law enforcement, city officials and fans. Among the many interviewed by Luster, art collector Alejandro Arboleda has caught the most attention from the audiences with his candid enthusiasm and zinging humor. A week after the screenings, I sat down with Alex and Alejandro (who happens to be an avid film fan) to talk about this local hit.
Film Monitor: What made you want to do a film about the local street art scene?
Alex Luster: I always have had an appreciation for the street art and I have known Gonzo [of Aerosol Warfare] for a long time. I’ve always seen his graffiti but it [my interest] never really went beyond the surface. I appreciate the effort the artists put into it but I could never stand hanging around it because it [spray paint] stinks. But with Give Up (street artist), what I realized is he is putting time into putting his posters together. It takes time to cut and put several pictures together at the copy machine to make this whole thing. I didn’t realize this until we did the interview. It really opened up my eyes and started to connect with me as a television producer. I would spend months on producing some 30-minute television special [Luster’s local TV work includes Volumen and SuperNaco]. But the perception of how television is viewed is that once it’s aired, it’s dead. That frustrated the crap out of me. Then I realized if you do a movie, people will watch a movie many times but they will never watch a TV show as many times. I can relate to the feeling that the canvas in the gallery is like a movie and the poster in the street is like a TV show.
FM: You can relate to how no-one may see your work despite the efforts you’ve invested.
AL: That’s exactly what it is. People may not be paying attention to your TV show or realize your poster is there. I can show someone of a video I did and they may be texting and not even paying attention to the work I put into it. I felt like one of those ignorant people until I interviewed Give Up. I was like “Wow. Really? You go through all that?”
When I was doing Volumen and SuperNaco, I always had family members who would ask me, “Why are you wasting your time on that? Are you making money on that? You could be drinking beer and watching kickboxing with us.” I’d rather be creating something. I felt like an outsider. I asked myself, “Am I the only one who creates a television show just because I like it?” I sacrificed my time with my family to do this and I started questioning what I was doing. But when I met Give Up, I found out I’m not alone in having a passion about doing something that you just don’t give a shit about whatever other people think.
FM: Do you think your work as a TV producer has influenced the way you made this documentary?
AL: The fast-pace editing in my personal projects has been influenced by the ten years in promotion that I worked. I’ve been in the field of TV for eighteen years. The first eight years, I was in news. I was basically a journalist and I had to go look at things on both sides. I think that played a part into the journalistic value of bringing in the sheriff and other interviewees. And through my work in promotion, I learned the creative side, such as how to shoot and edit.
FM: How did you get access to the artists?
AL: I asked Give Up if I could follow him around but he turned me down. It took me a while to get to him. It wasn’t even about any movie back then. I just wanted to see how the hell he puts his posters together. Six months later, I did an interview with Dual, another street artist, and I started the idea of a documentary. Then I went back to Give Up and told him I was going to do a documentary about them. He said, “Okay. What do you want me to do?” I said, “Dual is going to let me into his house.” I lied. And Give Up said, “Okay, I’ll let you into my house, too.”
FM: Why is it important for you to show the law enforcement’s side of the story?
AL: It’s not a good documentary if it doesn’t show both sides. Ninety-nine percent of street art documentaries are one-sided. They are all about the artists and why they do it. There is no negativity to what they do. So we decided to step out and show several sides of the issue. I wanted it to be real, fair and balanced. I want stories of real life people who will add to the story. For example, Alejandro is not intended in the movie for comedic value. I know plenty of people who collect street art but they are not as knowledge as he is.
FM: How do you draw the line between having Alejandro guiding the narrative and overexposing him?
AL: At first, I thought we were going to sprinkle parts of his interview in the movie but it ended up with him basically taking over act two. While we were shooting him, I had one of those oh-shit moments that I realized this is too good to be true. I didn’t even tell him Give Up, Eyesore and Dual were my three featured artists but he just happened to talk about those three guys during the shoot. He doesn’t know any of them personally but, just by looking at their work, he can tell how they put their artwork together. And then he went beyond that—pointing out Give Up’s similarities to French Surrealism and Eyesore’s Picasso-like one-line drawings. At first we didn’t want to overdo it, so we chopped his interview up and cut out a lot of moments. But when we looked at the result, it looked very fast. So we went back and just let the material breathe. We went to our gut and the movie ended up better.
FM: Alejandro, how did you get into collecting street art?
Alejandro Arboleda: I have always been a collector since I was a little kid. My mother is an artist. Since I was a little kid, I’ve been around art and museums. From my mother’s passion, it evolved into mine. Then my personal taste and parameters developed. I like how street is there for a minute and then it’s gone. It is like what artist Andy Goldsworthy does with nature. Or The Merzbau—the house [created by Kurt Schwitters] in Germany that was bombed in WWII. Things that are not permanent. That’s street art.
FM: Do you think the movie have portrayed you authentically?
AA: Yeah, I think so. The content of what I spoke was not rehearsed. We didn’t sit down to plan what we were going to talk about.
FM: Were you surprised how big of a role you played in the film?
AA: Very much so. To be honest, I wasn’t even interested in being in the movie. I have made a connection with Alex and my goal for the day of the interview was to drink some beer and talk some art.
FM: How do you feel about the audience’s reaction to your part in the movie?
AA:I don’t know because I wasn’t there at the screenings. I heard people found it humorous and I take it as a compliment. I’m out there now and it’s not up to me what people think.
AL: I hate to use the word character, but he comes off as a very funny character and I think people want to know more about him. There are people who collect friends now.
AA: We are talking about art collectors. How about “people collectors”?