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.