How To Strike A Balance Between Your Passion And Your Profession With Cory Stowers
Let’s face it. Not everyone can make millions out of their passion. But the professional artists who have gone that road have so much to teach us about balancing that passion with the need to have a profession that pays the bills. Whether you’re a creative entrepreneur or the other kind, there is so much to take away from the stories of artists who decided to break away from old habits and build real deal careers without having to sacrifice their passion. In this episode, Dr. Kate Hixson brings in visual artist, musician, and entrepreneur Cory Stowers to share how he went from his formative years as a budding graffiti artist trying to fit into the street art culture to becoming the multifaceted creative entrepreneur he is today. You will learn about the critical role of mentorship and community in the development of your craft and how important it is to build a toolbox of skills and an arsenal of little tricks that you can use to make your mark in the world (and some serious money in your pocket while you’re at it).
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How To Strike A Balance Between Your Passion And Your Profession With Cory Stowers
For many of us in creative or heck even non-creative fields, we often wonder how we can balance our passion with our professional pursuits. How can we stay in touch with our North Star while still building a real deal career? In this episode, we're hearing from Cory Stowers, a prolific and legendary artist in Washington, DC on how he's managed to build an empire for himself rooted in the down and dirty street art scene. Cory is an award-winning multi-disciplined creative from Hyattsville, Maryland. His resume includes projects in the fields of visual art, recorded music, film, scholarly writings and education all relating to public art. He cofounded the Double Down Kings, a graffiti and hip-hop crew, which has hosted free instructional classes on graffiti art for many years.
They've contributed to more than 50 public mural commissions. He's been awarded grant after grant, fellowship after fellowship and numerous high-profile accolades for his work but he doesn't stop there. He's also a successful entrepreneur and a major building block within his local community and the visual arts community as a whole. There's a whole lot of great knowledge in this episode.
First, a word about my sponsor, WeLearn Learning Services. WeLearn is a network committed to helping individuals and organizations to grow, develop talents and achieve more. This company has worked with some of the biggest names in the corporate learning and training space but also they're humble. They're fun, zany. That's what I love so much about WeLearn. If you're looking to level up your organization with impactful learning and training, check them out at WeLearnLS.com. Now onto this episode where we're sharing insights from the world's preeminent movers and shakers.
I’m excited to be sitting down with Cory Stowers on this episode. Cory is an incredible artist but he's so much more than that. He also is an entrepreneur. He's heavily involved with the community. This man has many facets. We'll be digging deep with Cory. Cory, welcome to the show.
Thank you, Kate for having me.
It’s my pleasure. Let's start at the beginning here because you've been in this field for a long time and we'll even get to what those fields are because there are quite a few. Take me back to a young Cory Stowers. What were you like at age 14, 16? What were you interested in? What were you doing?
I grew up in Hyattsville, Maryland, which is outside of DC, roughly about twenty minutes outside but 14, 15, 16-year-old Cory was trying to figure out what things I liked. I was starting to discover music that I was selecting for myself. I was starting to make friends that I chose that were outside of my family or outside of my neighborhood. That was the discovery years. Along the way, I discovered graffiti. When I was fourteen, I noticed it for the first time and I didn't immediately start doing it. Over the course of the next two years, it became something of a topic of interest for me, where I would see new graffiti pop up and I'd wonder who did it. That all came to a head with me deciding one day that I was going to start writing graffiti. I did that. I haven't stopped since.
Tell me more about that one day you said you decided to start writing graffiti. What did that look like? Was it a physical thing? Did you go somewhere? Did you grab a can of spray paint? What was that moment like for you?
I went to Northwestern High School and that's right there in Huntsville and between Hyattsville and University Park. I and my best friend had spent the last two years hanging out doing any number of things. That summer, we had spent riding around PG County. He had gotten his license and we were riding around PG County. We were noticing all of this graffiti. It was something that I was conscious of. We would take note of it, “Someone wrote their name over here. I wonder who that is.” He and I were pondering these questions together.
I went to school a regular day. As I was walking around, I started seeing this name written everywhere in the hallway in the school with the big black marker that said, “Avalon 2.” It hit me that I had not known who this person was like when I walked into school, by the time I got to the first period, Avalon was a thing in my head. I went through the first period, went to the second period, saw more. I went to the third period, saw more. I went to lunch and we all used to hang out in this place called Senior Court. We had a table where my friends hung out. I made a beeline for the table where my best friend was sitting. I walked straight up to him and almost immediately he said to me as I said to him, “Joe, we have to start writing graffiti.”
He had the same inclination that I had that day walking in and seeing Avalon 2 written everywhere in the school that subconsciously we were looking for something that was going to give us some separation from everyone else that was going to highlight us. He and I landed on that same thing at the same time. That began like a few-year period of me being invested in not only participating in but learning as much as I could about and trying to get better at doing graffiti.
It had an impact on you. It had a mark on you. You're seeing this name everywhere. You're looking for a way to stand out. You want to do something different. You want to make your mark. You found that via this Avalon 2. How cool that now how many years later and you still remember that moment, you remember that name specifically, that idea of your catalyst, your spark to then go off on this endeavor is powerful. Tell me about a time, paint a picture for me of a specific event as you were writing graffiti at that young age.
A lot of graffiti writers would have what they call their toy years and graffiti, a toy is someone who is inexperienced. They don't follow the rules of graffiti. They don't know what's going on. My first three years were toy years where it was me and my homies from PG County. We didn't know many other graffiti writers outside of our small group but a very pivotal meeting for me was in the summer of 1995. I went to a skateboard demo at a place called Intensity Skates. They had a brick-and-mortar space that was in an industrial area, a lot of warehouses and stuff. We went out there that day and there were hundreds of kids there. I remember distinctly we had started writing and we'd been maybe doing it for about a year and a half.
We see along the sidewalk, there are dozens of kids with black books open. Black books are sketchbooks. Graffiti writers will draw their pieces in them. They'll have other graffiti writers sign them. Our black book was a big thing. There were dozens of kids out, sprawled on the sidewalk, drawing in books, trading books, talking. We were like, “We found our community.” We were there. We were getting people to hit their books. Our graffiti was horrible. Nobody wanted us to hit their books but there were a group of people standing there. They were standing up while everybody was sitting down. Everybody kept going up to them to ask them to hit the book.
I was like, “I don't know who these people are but I want them to hit my book too.” I walked up and I handed my book to one of the guys in the group and he like opens it up. Flips through it, find a clean page, takes out a marker and bust out this tag that says Cert. In DC in 1995, Cert was one of the best graffiti artists in the city. He was already kinging the red line as a major area up above ground area in Washington, DC, where the metro trains travel. He was undoubtedly the king of the red line at that point.
In my head I'm like, “I'm meeting Cert,” and he's tagging my book. He takes the text and a couple of pages but he's not spending a lot of time. He's not talking to me or anything but he's signing my book. He passes it off to the person standing next to him. That person starts flipping through my book and lands on a page where a couple of days earlier, I had taken down some stickers in Georgetown like graffiti writers write their names on stickers. They stick them on signs. It had been so hot that summer that these stickers didn't stay stuck. The glue was like melting off the back of them. They were falling off.
I'd walked down M Street and taking these stickers all by the same artist by the name of SMK and stuck them in my book, there were like six of them. He hands this book off to the next person. He's flipping through the book, catches a tag, flip to another page, sees this page with six stickers. He goes, “I put these up.” He slams the book shut and shoves it in my chest. I had met SMK. Little did I know a year and a half into the future, Cert would become my mentor. By de facto SMK would become my mentor because he was Cert’s mentor. That was a pivotal moment in my life because one, I got to see the community that I wanted to be a part of communing. Two, I met these artists who will become so influential in my life.
Tell me a little bit more about the role of mentorship. It's one thing that I've heard repeatedly from several guests on the show. It’s how important that’s been in shaping their career. How did it affect your career?
If I had not met back up with Cert like a year and a half later, I might've quit graffiti because even though I loved graffiti and even though I was into it, I wasn't any good at it. People weren't showing me any love. I wasn't getting encouragement from people outside of maybe my immediate friends who were much better than me. We weren't involved. We weren't connected. We were a little satellite outside of the orbit of the people who were thought of as the main guy. At that time, people weren't getting down with the old school crews from DC.
There were a lot of new writers coming up but they were all catching beef with the older writers. This being the mid-1990s, the subculture of graffiti was still in its secretive state. You didn't want a lot of people knowing what you wrote. You weren't able to be open about who you are in terms of your graffiti identity, which is different about me than a lot of other people. I would go on to shed that and share with folks who I am and why they should listen to whatever it is that I was trying to do.
Had I not met him, there's a good chance that I would have quit graffiti and found something else to do because the life cycle of most graffiti writers, as far as careers are, maybe 2 to 4 years, most people move on from that. He showed me what SMK has shown him, how to put the letters together. Why a style looks like this? Why you need to make sure that you have proportionate geometry in your sketches? I had never fathom any of those things. It was coming from a process that Cert had already proven. SMK showed him how to do it, prove that's the system.
He was then passing down to me those lessons. That had a big impact on me because if he hadn't done that again, I'm out in the wilderness, I'm trial and error. I'm trying to figure it out but nobody's shown me anything. Here's the best graffiti writer in the city arguably. He is kicking me outlines and he's not kicking anybody else outlines. From that extension, at a certain point in time, SMK stepped into that role and started to show me even more and put me on more history. Those are only stories and those are only lessons that get passed down face to face in this culture.
It's not something that you can readily access, even though you could go on Google and you can go on YouTube and you could find graffiti lessons or people doing like live paint and you can follow along with them. In the context of the time period, the only way you were getting that information. You have to participate in the culture to know about it. You can't learn about it from a video necessarily. You can learn things about it but not the whole thing. In that context, that mentorship was everything to me. I didn't think about going to college at that point in time. I was already in school.
Describe a specific place where this is happening. I would love to get my head around being able to visualize, see where you're doing this. Where are you spending time?
A lot of my work was on the green line, which is in and around my neighborhood. In DC, there was a place called the Hall of Fame. It has several names, Hall of Fame, L’Enfant Plaza, which is the closest Metro station. The Art Under Pressure temples or the AUP temples. It was named that by a graffiti artist named Mistx, who's a pioneer in graffiti writing here in Washington, DC. When he discovered the space, I think is the right term in the late 1980s. That was a space where a lot of the original DC graffiti writers would go and spend time. There were a lot of great masterpieces there, work that’s still there now many years later because nobody's touched it.
It's that revered but that space was Mecca for me. Whenever I could cut out of PG County and either take the train down or one of the homies had a car and we were going into the city for the night, we would always stop at L’Enfant Plaza to see who had painted, what was going on. There were always new pieces going up on certain sections of the wall because it was competitive, space was very competitive in certain parts of the tunnels. To describe this place to you, it’s not a place where I'm telling you, I'm so excited to go. Like everybody has to go there but it's two long train tunnels that are the only train tracks that run into the center of Washington, DC.
One of the tracks is a live freight track where freight trains come into the city. The other track is in non-use by the trains because there is an entire colony of homeless folks that live there and have lived there. That's not happening anymore. This is back in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, that there was a homeless colony there. People had set up makeshift structures and there were campfires. It was not a place where as a father now I'm thinking about my 16-year-old, 17-year-old son, where I would want him to go because of much danger there. There were syringes, human feces and any type of ills that you could think that you don't necessarily want to run into.
Did you feel in danger when you went down there? You were sixteen.
I never rolled that deep back then with my friends. If I was ever there, I was with 1 or 2 other people. The place is enormous that it feels like that would not be adequate to stop any real threat. I know that other writers spend time down there. I'm like, “I have to go, my name has to be there for people to see it.” Part of it was, yes, it's dangerous. When you got out of there and nothing had happened, you felt like you had cheated death to a certain extent but I don't want to over-hype it. There were dangerous things that happened down there. There have been shootouts down there. There've been fights down there.
People have been stabbed down there. Any ills that you can think of that could happen to you on the street have happened in those tunnels. There was also all this amazing art. That's why everybody went down there because of the pieces, the artists spent hours and hours on them. It wasn't like the graffiti on the street where they have to be quick and be in and out in a matter of minutes or sometimes the artists will work for days on these pieces. That's why it was important to go there because you got to see what the best of the best painting.
Imagine being sixteen years old and you are compelled by graffiti writing and the underground art scene that you literally go underground. You approach an active train station. You go through tunnels. You hook left. You go right. It gets darker and darker with every step that you take. The only light that you can see is from the bonfires from the homeless camp that is set up there. There is violence. There is rampant drug use. It smells horrible. Yet you take one step deeper. You take another step deeper. You are drawn into this tunnel. You see vibrant blues, yellows and reds. You see names, you see giant paintings and murals. You feel alive like a moth to the flame. You have to explore. You have to discover why because you are unwavering.
You have a clear dedication, a laser focus and an inherent interest in the pit of your belly to find out more about this thing. For Cory Stowers, it's about graffiti. It's about street art. This could be any one of you, maybe you’re trying to excel at a sport or in business or you're launching a new career for yourself. You're trying out a new relationship. You have to go where your belly pulls you. You have to follow that path, that tugs at your heart and tugs at your soul. Maybe it puts you in dangerous dark situations but you drive on. You have that passion. Follow that passion. That is the definition of being dauntless. That is the definition of crushing it. That is the definition of art under pressure.
My father passed away was the last time that I painted down in the tunnels. That day I had gone down there. It's probably been about a week since he passed away. I didn't know what I was going to paint. I know that I wanted to paint some a tribute and that's where I was going to go and do it. I put all the paint that I had into a bag and I headed down there. When I went, I found the wall that had already been dragged out. Nobody would be upset about me painting over it. I started to get to work again, not with a serious plan but with this idea that I wanted to paint something for my dad. I started to do this dad piece and somewhere around hour 4 or 5, I realized that I'm not going to have the paint that I need to finish this because I've made the outline too big. I wasn't following the rules that I was supposed to because I was painting. There were other writers down there that day. A couple of them had stopped by. This is my first time meeting these writers. One of them, his name is Band, I would go on to become good friends and do a lot of work together.
That day was the first day I met him and he sat with me while I was painting and went off to paint his own thing. When I realized I wasn't going to have enough paint, I was thinking, “I have to come back and do this” or whatever have you, as he was like leaving out. He commented that he liked how the piece was looking. I was like, “Thanks, man. I've run out of pain. I don't have enough to finish it.” He was like, “You can have these cans.” He gave me the cans that were in his bag and other writers that were there that day also gave me a can. Those two writers gave me paint, which that doesn't happen in graffiti either. You're more likely to have other graffiti writers take your paint than give you paint. For two strangers, which has blessed me with some cans. I finished the piece off. It's not my greatest piece but it was the piece that I needed to paint that day. It seemed fitting. That was going to be the last piece that I painted down there. After that, I started painting more on the streets.
That sense of community is special and important. Any trade as you learn and interact and build relationships, having people give you a helping hand sometimes it doesn't always happen. Especially as you were saying, in this world of graffiti, they're more likely to steal your paint than give it to you. To have it be the piece that you're working on for your passed-away father, that gives me goosebumps. How old were you when this was happening?
I was twenty.
What did the graffiti world as a whole look like now that you're in your twenties? You were saying initially when you were younger, sixteen or so you're discovering the craft, starting to become involved with the community, learning and building your skill. You have the mentors and it's still presumably was underground, illegal, presumably it wasn't embraced as an art form. What about now that you're in your twenties, which would have been what?
In ‘96, ‘97, I would have been twenty and coming into my fourth year of writing graffiti with a different approach because I've met my mentors. I'm learning more. My pieces are coming out better. I'm meeting more writers and I'm spending more time in DC. After that piece at L’Enfant Plaza, I focused on painting pieces out on the street. That was the thing that I wanted to do primarily because there were a few large-scale graffiti production walls that have been painted in the city. That year, there was an event called Hieroglyphics in the Alley that happened in Washington, DC where the graffiti writers were invited to come and paint on the corner of 14th and U Street.
Both of my mentors, SMK and Cert, painted as well as a number of other old school graffiti writers came and painted pieces in the alley that day. We extended that space up and down the alleyways over the course of the next few years, where if you were looking for me, all you had to do was come to U Street because I was in one of the alleyways painting on any given day. Some of those things were legal. Some of those things were in a gray area where you had like a landlord that wasn't present. The space was available. There were a lot of businesses that liked what we were doing and were asking us, “Come to my alley and do something there.”
They saw the effects that it was having when we as a group would come to that space. Going into that post-1996 time period, there was a lot of comradery for me because I had found my community in a sense and gotten introduced and involved in it. We were seeing a lot of cool things happening, not us painting a lot of different walls but we were throwing hip hop shows, open mics and people jams and eventually writers’ benches, which are instructional classes for young people into writing graffiti.
This was a transition period because most of the older graffiti writers didn't necessarily, even if they were to mentor someone like they didn't look at it as this is something for everyone. This is something for a small group of people. Even some of those older graffiti writers didn't respect the fact that younger people would become interested in the culture and want to be a part of it. When they did, their work was destroyed or they were beaten up. They were somehow in ways demoralized from participating in the culture.
That was something that I had a little bit of history with in terms of it had happened to me, my interactions with all graffiti writers were not positive. I would never look down on somebody for being a younger writer though or being a toy. You being a toy doesn't disqualify you from participating in the culture. It means you got to do better. That was a philosophy that I started to bring around where if I saw someone who had been writing their name up, if I saw their name up more than fifteen times, I knew that they were out writing. I was going to make it not a personal mission but I was going to be about the business of finding out who they are and bringing them into the circle so that people aren't thinking, “Who's this person? I'm going to cross them out.”
This person did this to me or went over me. You have to figure out some of those reasons why and not have it be not having that interaction and with the destruction of work or violence and things of that nature. I've seen much of that coming up that we wanted to make a point of creating a space. You could say a safe space for the graffiti writers to come, commute and be together. Around that time is when we launched the Writers Bench. We'd launched our very first one at the space called CAFA House, which is a historic venue on U Street known for cultivating the local hip hop scene. Part of that was me being named the marketing manager of that space. It’s a glorified title for passing out flyers. I got the opportunity to book events and create events.
I was creating Open Floor Night for night dancers, Open Turntable Night for DJs, Open Mic Nights for MCs and the Writers Bench. These things became pseudo institutions and the city changing venue but reappearing over many years in different places with nonprofit organizations and different businesses supporting it sometimes even going into the public school system through the charter schools. We have seen all of that growth from that time. At the time, a lot of the older writers didn't understand it. They were like, “You can't teach graffiti. You can't give people access to the culture in this way.” There was pushback. For me, I always go back to my mentors, to people who put me on, Cert and SMK, as far as legacies and graffiti culture here in Washington, DC, they're the top level.
I asked SMK before we started doing the classes, I said, “Is this okay?” SMK responded to me and said, “Each one, teach one,” which is a known adage but in hip-hop, it's this idea that you pass down the skills. That's how we got hip-hop culture. Everybody who started writing graffiti don't still write graffiti. They passed it down. That's how we learned about it. I took that to heart and I said, “Each one, teach one.” I could teach 100. Now it's more like 700, 800 students that I've been through my classes over the past many years. Not all of them are practicing graffiti writers. Some of them are kids that had an interest in it and wanted to be a part of something and wanted to do the art on. Some of them are the most serious graffiti writers in the world.
Would you call that your formative years figuring out, branching out a little bit, you're doing the marketing? You're organizing events. You continue your reach throughout the DC community. What was it like to be shaping and cultivating your skills during this time?
It was not a cognitive thought for me. I was not conscious of it. I was participating. I was doing what I felt needed to be done and somewhat empowered by artists like KRS-One and A Tribe Called Quest and members of Zulu Nation. These larger hip hop organizations who had these philosophies of community work, that the hip-hop community, the skills that we cultivate are supposed to be utilized for the benefit of the community. If we were graffiti writers, that means that we're the decorators of the community. We are going to go someplace and going to paint something. It extended further than that because each one teaches one philosophy that is present in that hip-hop as well. Capacity is the thing. I had the capacity to open up to groups of younger writers first started with 4 or 5 and then it grew to 10.
At one point in time, my graffiti class had 75 students in it weekly. They were all young people who were already writing graffiti before they came to my class. We weren't building new ones. We were finding the ones that were interested in it and trying to raise the level of the skills. Those were formative in the sense that I was doing the work without being conscious of it. When I was able to look at it even a few years later, from a long view, I could see where we had laid the foundation. I saw where we could continue to build. I started to put some of those things in practice but it wasn't until after I went to school that I understood how those 4 or 5 years were impactful to what I wanted to do professionally.
Now you have such breadth and depth in your career. You are an entrepreneur. You are a rapper. You’re involved with the community. You're a teacher. You continue to be an artist. That's an incredible life that you've built based on this passion. You have this pull. You have this tug towards graffiti writing and you pursued it relentlessly, you encountered violence. You encountered people putting you down. You also encountered mentors and people pulling you up. To be able to build an entire life on an art form is a rare thing. Not that many people are able to do it. What's your secret? How did you make this work?
Anybody who runs a business understands the daily struggles of operating and maintaining that business. It's a market that's new though. This idea of professional visual artists has a whole new twist to it and the new millennium because people are in love with public murals. People are in love with street art and the power has been taken away from the gallery. There is an opportunity for professional artists to be successful. For me, it's always been about balancing my passions versus my profession. Whereas I studied when I did go to school, I studied and became a graphic designer. That was something that was an easy transition for me to make as a graffiti writer. Understanding marketing and advertising was an extremely easy step for me as a graffiti writer. I understood branding and marketing strategy.
That laid a foundation for me to say, “If you are going to be a visual artist, if you are going to be a musician, you have these bases covered already.” I don't need anybody on my team for that. I got that part. Some of the other things, the skills that I've put together whether it's my experience curating, it comes down to I don't need someone else to curate a show for me. I can curate the show myself. That's another thing that I can take off the box. As far as being a musician, primarily I have more strength than the songwriting department, writing the lyrics, writing the songs. I work with collaborators to create music. Although my album that I'm releasing is executive produced by me, everything by how I want it.
You go to being able to do it yourself and that comes from a little bit from the hip-hop aspect of my background but then also from my connection and the lessons that I learned from the punk rock community here in DC, which is if you feel passionate about something, if you feel as though your creative output has value then you can find a way to put that out. That’s what I've been doing for many years. Being passionate about something, finding the resources or the means to be able to put it into play and then trying to accomplish that goal. That is what has led me every time I do something, we talk about adding to the resume or adding to your vitae. I have a resume of projects that's pages and pages long because I actively seek things out projects to do.
I'm also planning my own projects and producing and putting them out with the idea that at a certain point in time, I'm going to have a library of IP content that has value. That's been primarily the goal, not everybody is successful at putting music out, selling music and creating and all of that. Anybody can create music and if you are resourceful enough, you can find ways that you can put that music into play to make you money. That's what it boils down to. All of those things that I've done, I look at it as, how can these skills be transferred into revenue streams? When it comes down to it, every little bit helps. Whatever I did or didn't musically, it still hits the books, the same thing for painting murals or the retail business or whatever other revenue streams that I can find and create such as the walking tours that we do for the murals. That's various revenue streams that add to the bottom line.
Let me ask you then, what advice would you give an up-and-coming visual artist?
For any up-and-coming visual artist, the advice I would give is to create as much as you feel you can give. In general, your value is going to be based on your output. When it comes down to it, your content library is the most valuable asset that you have. For visual artists who have been stuck in a system of paint a painting, sell a painting, you should be thinking about how do you monetize your work with derivative products that are outside of the original. That's where the market is. Most people can't pay thousands of dollars for an original painting but they can pay $50 for a print or they will pay $60 for a throw pillow or a cool-looking shower curtain, which are all products that any artists can make if they're a little bit resourceful.
The other part about it is that you have to invest in yourself. I can't tell you how many times where I took a short paycheck from a project because we need to buy a piece of equipment. That piece of equipment is going to go and help us do something else. In 2020, in the midst of the pandemic, I decided that it was a great time for me to release my album on Vinyl Record. I invested the money that I needed to make that pressing out of my own pocket, out of the money that I hear I'm doing my other work. With that investment comes an opportunity for me to open up a new door and do something that we've never done before in this regard, music on vinyl records, which I've come to the realization as a musician, that your music doesn't count unless it's all gone.
What is your album? Where can readers find you and find it?
The album is Songs In A Sallow Man’s Key and Rock Creek Lee is my artist name. You can go to RockCreekLee.com and you can purchase the vinyl album. It comes with a digital download that's available now. You can also find me on Spotify and iTunes under Rock Creek Lee. You can stream the album straight from there.
I have listened to Cory's album at least a dozen times now. I can say it is gritty. It is raw. It is powerful. It also is catchy. Another thing is that it gives you a perspective into what he's describing about Washington, DC, the street art culture, the graffiti writing culture, the street culture itself. Especially if you can watch the videos, you will see this world where Cory comes from and it's staggering. I want to take a moment to point out is all the incredible things that Cory was saying to us about how to turn your passion into a profession. He has incredible nuggets that we all can learn from. Whether we're looking at a creative art field or not. If we're trying to excel, if we're trying to start a business, maintain a business, there's a lot of good information for us.
For example, I love what Cory was saying about you have to have a library of IP content that has value. Look upon your life, think about all the different things that you touch, all the different things that you do consider that your library and build that value. Keep just busting out, make more podcast episodes, more music, more paintings, more prints, whatever it is that you're pursuing. Keep doing that, build it out but then think about what are the various revenue streams that you can associate with those things you've built out.
It is rare that any of us will one day be handed a $10 million check and be told, “Now go do it. Here you go.” It doesn't happen like that. Instead, we have to cobble it together. We have to be creative about all the different things that can make us money. I remember when I was younger, one year when I filed taxes, I had eight different W2s because I was an independent contractor, a freelancer for many different jobs on top of my full-time job. Make it work, be resourceful, pursue every available option for you as you think about building your wealth and creating whatever your vision of life is, you have to be scrappy.
I also love how he talked about how you have to invest in yourself. Sometimes he'll take a smaller paycheck because he's taken a portion out of that to buy a new tool or a piece of equipment something that will further his business, his traits and his skills. You have to view yourself as your own building block. You are your most valuable investment. Maybe it's a class that you can take that will enhance your skills. Maybe it is a piece of equipment. Maybe it's a new tool. Maybe it's a software program that will enable you to be faster or accomplish different things more efficiently. Think through how you can build out your toolbox. Let's get back to Cory.
You've been describing this culture of graffiti. Tell me a little bit more about that. What does it mean to you? What are the benefits of it? What have you learned from it?
For me, graffiti is a tool that people use to create and maintain a public self-identity of their own choosing. They use that tool, that graffiti to go and promote that. That's a very empowering thing. There are no real graffiti writers that were the captain of the football team or prom queen. They're the people that are on the outside because graffiti is outsider art and attracts outsiders. In that capacity, once you’re started along that path, your self-confidence and your self-worth start to build. That's an important thing because you need that growing forward and you get good at something that's difficult to do or you get pride out of seeing your name written on thousands of objects around the city, either/or.
For the people who participate in the culture, they'd take it a step further to try to get good at graffiti. Your mind starts to unlock the potential for conceptual thought because it challenges you to be original. It challenged you to utilize color theory, to use layout, all of these mathematic-based skills that you're starting to put into process anytime that you're painting or you're crafting out on. That unlocking is super important because we already touched on how most graffiti writers might write for 3 to 5 years. Even after they leave the culture, if they have participated on a certain level, that capacity for conceptual thought is already developing.
They might utilize it to go forward into some other creative field or some other skill-based fields. For the graffiti writers who stick with it, that capacity for conceptual thought is increased yearly as they participate. As a sign of that, many of the art departments in Corporate America now have artists that were formerly graffiti writers, either in their marketing or their art department. Even from Washington, DC artists have gone on to be creative directors for BT and MTV and a number of other more youth-based brands but seeing that rise.
This idea that graffiti can be good for you. The potential of conceptual thought is the biggest thing that I've gained out of graffiti. If I can figure out how to get up on that fourth story rooftop and paint my name 35 minutes and get down safely and get on the train to get home, I could figure out almost anything. That's the thing you put yourself in these situations, you put yourself in impossible places and challenge yourself to come out on the other side.
What are you most proud of? If you think back on your career, what is the one project that still excites you to this day to think of?
We'd done many projects and a lot of them are cool. I have fond memories of them based on who was participating. For me, much of my work is team-based. I get to work with my friends 95% of the time, which is great. The thing that I'm most proud of is the Writers Bench. The reason why is because and those 700 plus people who have been through my class, one, a number of them are still my close friends and that become members of the Double Down Kings. Because I know how important that space was for many of my kids and because they come back and they tell me yearly, I get emails or phone calls or text messages. Someone will say, “That time that I spent at the Bench was important to me or was formative for me or helped me in this way.”
I got to see that firsthand and working with kids that I was helping to make the transition from high school to college. Those that have gone on to graduate college and start careers of their own and be creative powerhouses. It goes back to that opportunity that Cert gave me learned to get on and then that extended mentorship from SMK and him giving me the co-sign and saying, “It's okay for you to do this. It's not against the culture, run with it.” For him to embrace it, SMK is still a heavy influence in my life. He's the DJ for my music. You would hear some of his scratchings. SMK stands for Scratch Master K. He's old school like that.
Cert is one of my best friends to this day. I had this conversation with him via text that I thanked him for bringing me on because I knew and I know now. Twenty years I can go back and tell you that there are no other writers from my generation or after got down with the old school crews. I'm the last of them. Now I have to do this because I'm responsible. I say that to say this, that is the greatest thing that I can look back on over the last 20 to 25 years and say that opportunity to be the bridge to the next generation of graffiti writers here in DC, to pass down the history to house the archives and the legacy of those artists that has been my greatest honor.
What is next for Cory Stowers?
I'm going to be taking some of those archives and those histories and I'll be presenting them at a gallery event, an exhibition titled Aerosol Murals for Our Time. I will explore the connection between the mid-1990s graffiti culture in Washington, DC and the contemporary mural movement that we see here in the city and drawing connections between some of the artists that were present in both generations.
How could we find that or check that out? I'm in Denver.
The Associate Director of a nonprofit organization called DC Murals and that's DCMurals.org. We will be doing our rollout announcements come January 2021 for the show. People can tune in with us there or on our Instagram page, which has also DC Murals. If you want to follow the music, you can follow me on Instagram @RockCreekLee but you can probably find me on everything as Rock Creek Lee. Stay tuned because we're always making moves.
Thank you, Cory, for an incredibly interesting conversation. I enjoyed hearing more about the graffiti writing culture, the history, your growth, what it has meant to you and how you continue to give back to the community. Thank you for being on the show.
Kate, thank you for having me.
Thank you for reading. I'm going to give you some homework. Remember school is always in session on the Dauntless Show. If you completed the homework for Episode 6 with Jason Teeters then you bet out a skills inventory and look for your North Star, meaning the combination of all of your experiences and chapters in your life. For this episode, we're going to take that a step further. We're going to level up your skills inventory and now build out your toolbox. You heard Cory Stowers talk about how important it is to have a lot of skills in your arsenal and a variety of tricks up your sleeve. For this homework, we're going to dig in on what tools you already have and what ones you might be missing. Go to the website, DauntlessPodcast.com and download your free worksheet. Thank you for reading. Until next time, get out there and crush it.
Cory Stowers - Instagram
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iTunes- Rock Creek Lee
DC Murals - Instagram
Jason Teeters- Past Episode