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  • BNEPHOTOGRAPHY: COURTESY OF BNE WATER ORGANIZATION
  • BNEPHOTOGRAPHY: COURTESY OF BNE WATER ORGANIZATION
  • PHOTOGRAPHY: COURTESY OF BNE WATER ORGANIZATION
  • PHOTOGRAPHY: COURTESY OF BNE WATER ORGANIZATION

BNE: The BNE Water Organization

, 2012/01/03

After fifteen years as a street artist, American-roots BNE took his world-wide approach and recognition in the visual arts in a new direction and started the BNE Water Foundation. The charity project aims for positive social change by providing clean water solutions to poverty-stricken areas around the world. In this interview, BNE tells Papersky about the connections between his work, travels and this new project.

How did the BNE Water Foundation start, where did the idea come from?

It wasn’t one event it was more a combination of things and a feeling that had been growing inside of me. The root of most major problems society faces today, poverty, war, destruction of nature etc. is human greed. A growing disgust of greed and a general disappointment in what we have become as a society is what initially made me want to step up and do something. I knew that I needed to use the fame and recognition that I have built up around the world and my art to make some sort of difference but it took a lot of time and research to decide on exactly what I could do that would make the biggest difference. After a lot of reading and research I learned that providing clean water solutions to people in developing countries was what would have the biggest impact on poverty.

Were there any other activists or artivists‘ work which made you think you would like to do something similar and start a foundation?

I know that there are many people doing great humanitarian work all over the world but no one in particular inspired me to do this. As far as art activists go, I see a lot of people critiquing social issues in their work which is cool but what I do not see is any of them offering solutions. I wanted to offer a solution and real change not just get rich selling people the idea of change. Many people have approached me to use the BNE name to help sell their products or add credibility to their brands. I have looked these people in their eyes and closely watched their actions and saw nothing but greed. The fact that they wanted to use my life’s work and the culture I come from to sell their bullshit products, caring about nothing other than profits infuriated me. Experiencing that, and seeing extreme poverty, suffering and social injustice up close and personal is what really made me want to do this. It wasn’t really something I wanted to do but more so something that I needed to do.

Does this Water Foundation represent a potential of graffiti which you didn’t personally realize in your earlier days? What is different about how you thought about graffiti when you were younger and now, when you say graffiti has a potential to raise awareness?

Of course when I was younger I looked at graffiti completely different. Some people start doing graffiti to make a name for themselves or get some fame. I never really cared about fame or recognition, It was simply something I had to do, I was naturally attracted to it at a young age and it was something I really enjoyed. I never saw it as a political statement, way of communicating or even as an act of rebellion when I was young, it was just something I needed to do, it made me feel alive. As an adult I now have a deep understanding of the psychology behind graffiti. I still love graffiti just as much but I look at it very differently now. At some point I began to realize that I had a voice and what I was doing was basically advertising. Up until that point I had only been advertising my own ego and eventually realized that graffiti could be used for much more than simply saying “I WAS HERE”. Don’t get me wrong though I don’t see anything wrong with simply saying “I WAS HERE”, a tag is the essence of graffiti and something I will always love but after spending thousands of hours out on the streets, traveling and seeing everything going on in the world, its natural for me to want to use graffiti for a deeper more meaningful purpose.

How did you go about starting? What was it that you “needed to know” and how did you learn it?

No I never googled “how to start a foundation” but of course I researched many existing foundations and NGOs to see exactly how they operated and who was at the forefront and what strategies they were using. Our foundation is registered in Indonesia so of course we had to research the local laws and procedures that needed to be followed to legally become an official foundation.

What were some setbacks or hurdles along the way to just establishing the Foundation? Tell us about this “one year of research” or “a lot of thought.”

Things move very slow in Indonesia and I am use to a very fast paced big city lifestyle where things need to get done quickly and efficiently. Paperwork, bureaucracy and everything in general moves pretty slow in Indonesia so just adjusting to that speed has felt like a giant hurdle. The year of research was spent researching poverty in depth and deciding what we could do that would have the biggest impact. Water is what all life needs to survive. It is the root of all life, without it we die. Water related diseases kill more than 6000 people everyday so there is really no point in doing micro finance, education programs or other type of work if a child will be dead next year from diarrhea. Once we decided that water would be our priority I had to become an expert on water and implementing sustainable clean water solutions. That took a lot of time and research.

A key to the foundation is artist donations- tell us about artist participation worldwide- from what cities have you received art works and who are some of the artists you are hyped donated?

I have always thought it would be amazing if all artists around the world united for one cause. It’s very optimistic but this part of the movement is a true platform for that to actually happen. We have just started reaching out to artists very recently but the response has been great. We have received artwork donations from big name artists as well as unknown artists and that’s exactly what I wanted. Some artists may have more influence or fame than others but I am equally excited every time someone submits work regardless of who they are. This is very progressive and has never been done before, it may take a while for the art community to comprehend the magnitude and potential in a project like this. The online gallery will be open to all serious artists who would like to participate and eventually I am hoping to get thousand of artists from all over the world involved in this project. As artists we are suppose to be at the forefront of creativity and progressive thinking. I feel that all artists have a responsibility to use their talent and influence to better society.

Tell us about BNE products and Activism Through Commerce. How does this work?

As another way of raising money to fund our work we will be designing and selling a line of BNE branded products. These products will be very similar to other products on the market which people buy everyday, shoes, bags, clothing etc. By simply choosing a BNE product over another brand a consumer will become a part of a our movement. 100% of profits will fund clean water and and sanitation projects. These products being out on the streets and in stores will also help spread the word about our cause and what we are doing even further. I really want to challenge people to start thinking about what they are buying, who they are giving there money to and where their money is going. Personally I am disgusted that people are foolish enough support brands whose owners do nothing with the profits except buy diamond teeth and Rolls Royce’s. I would never support a brand like that and neither should you. BNE products will offer consumers an opportunity to be a part of something real which has the potential to change the world by simply buying something they would normally buy anyway.

What do you think of young Japanese, in their 20s and 30s and their willingness to donate to charity or to volunteer for charity?

I don’t believe I am in touch with the young Japanese mindset enough to accurately comment on this but I think that we are all humans and the majority of us would want to help if we were face to face with extreme poverty and suffering. Normally in day-to-day life Japanese people are not confronted by the horrible injustices occurring around the world. However the recent earthquake and nuclear disaster have put Japanese people face to face with a very sad,very real, very serious tragedy. In light of all this I think it is a perfect time for young people in Japan to start getting more involved in charity, helping the less fortunate and to start thinking on a deeper level about what we as humans can do to make this a better place for all of us.

So what are some of actual clean water solutions the Water Foundation puts into action? Literature? Water filters?

Every situation is different and varies from village to village but for our next project in an area of Indonesia notorious for drought and famine we will be manufacturing and distributing bios and water filters which can be made completely from locally available materials and can provide a family with clean water for many years with very little maintenance an no ongoing costs. We will also be installing and improving existing rain catchments as the residents are already harvesting rain water, digging wells and conducting sanitation training courses with the local women. I actually thought the same thing that being able to follow your donation from start to finish would be great. We plan to be at the forefront of transparency and through photos, video and GPS tracking, our supporters will be able to see exactly where their money went, what it accomplished and who’s life it affected.

Tell us about some of the amazing people you have met along the way, like in Jakarta, who is Mr. Pak Nur?

Pak Nur is a homeless man in his 50′s who has been living under a bridge in Jakarta for the last 6 years. He paints in the streets, mostly political stuff and what ever else is on his mind, always speaking from the heart. None of you have heard of him and probably never will again but as I said on our blog he is the epitome of a REAL street artist. His intentions are completely pure. He has no intentions of making money from his art or being recognized by galleries or museums. In fact he does not even know what the internet is. I tried to explain it to him but he didn’t really get it. Most of society and the police see him as a nuisances or mentally ill but for me he is one of my favorite artists that I have encountered. I’ve met many great people in my travels. Two of them who are special to me passed away recently. My friend POKE from Queens New york died last year and my friend Fumihiro Hayashi from Tokyo passed away earlier this year. These were two great people I had the pleasure of spending time with. I miss both of you. Thank you for all the good times.

About the “cribs” blog post, was this visit connected to the Water Foundation? Was it research?

No that was not research. A friend and I have been helping to fund a school/community center in central Jakarta and many of our elementary school aged children are very poor and live with their whole family in one tiny room in very sad conditions. I visited some of the kids at home and took those photos. Very recently the government has started to pay for education in Jakarta so we have fewer students now.

We ask everyone, simply, what are your favorite places in the world and which places would you like to travel to which you haven’t been?

Japan was one of the very first places I traveled to when I was younger and that trip was a great experience. We didn’t know anyone in japan and couldn’t speak the language at all, Me and a friend from New York just bought tickets and went. I think it’s very important to mention that unlike most foreign artists going to Japan it was never our intention to make money or sell anything to the Japanese. We only went for the experience and to share true graffiti culture with Japan. There was no live painting, sponsor, art show or any of that. No one paid for our tickets or gave us a hotel. It was all very real and I know for a fact that every older Japanese graffiti writer remembers that part of history. Some parts of Japanese society annoy and frustrate me but at the same time there are many things I admire and respect. I have to say that Japan has been one of my favorite places. I’ve shared a lot of good times with friends there. I also really enjoy Spain, France and Europe in general. The Swiss alps are very beautiful. On the other side of the world in some of the poorest places I have been it was a pleasure to see the strength and kindness of people living such a hard life. In my experience the poorest people I’ve met have been some of the kindest and most generous. I’ve already covered a big piece the globe but plan to visit every country before I die. I really enjoy wandering through the neighborhoods of a city I have been to for the first time. In the beginning it was about wanting to hit every city with my tag but now that I have been around the world and know about all of the horrible things going on, I have found myself wanting to do something about it. Traveling for me now has become more about gaining knowledge and spending time with people than about doing graffiti. I always have to leave my mark though, its in my blood.

With all the travel and nomadism, is there a place you feel quite at ‘home’?

I have lived this nomad lifestyle for so long that I really do not know what a home feels like. Wherever I am though, if I am with good people I feel at home.

Was it important for you to use the BNE name? Was there any kind of process of trying to decide on a different name?

Before the idea for the water foundation even came about it started with wanting to use the BNE name and my art for something deeper, something to make a positive change in society. Brand recognition is something that companies pay millions of dollars to achieve and maintain. BNE being known around the world gives us a head start in that department. Using a different name would have been starting from scratch and would have taken a lot longer to get the word out. Using the BNE name and graffiti in general will get young people thinking about social issues who might normally not think about such things. To a 15 year old kid out in the streets doing graffiti, a Unicef commercial will have no effect on them at all but when the issue is presented in a visual language they understand, respect and look up to, it has the ability to inspire someone who normally would not care at all.

The BNE name is so related to graffiti and let’s say the mainstream “just doesn’t get it,” but something like a charity or good will work towards sanitation seems like something a general audience can understand so how do you balance or separate or express this clearly positive cause of the BNE Water Foundation with the generally bad reputation graffiti gets in the public eye? Is BNE now a double edged sword?

That’s a good question. The mainstream does not “get” a lot of things that are not polished and presented to them in a certain way. I don’t think it’s necessary to separate the two things, one bad and one good. There are good and bad charities as well as good and bad graffiti. Of course the charity aspect of BNE is a good thing that everyone can relate to but the BNE name in the streets is the advertising for this cause and there is nothing bad about that. These days smart forward thinking charities know that they have to become brands, be innovative and use all the marketing and advertising techniques that world famous brands use. BNE is a brand unlike any other because it is 100% for the people, by the people and benefits all of society. I do not feel that a brand who’s sole purpose is to better society should have to pay for advertising. I now look at a BNE tag or sticker as the voice of the poor and that voice is saying “Hey! We exist and we deserve health and happiness just like you do!” Most people do not understand graffiti and its human nature to fear and dislike things you do not understand. However, as time passes any intelligent person who takes the time and looks closely at what the BNE movement is all about will have no choice but to say, ” You know what, this all make perfect sense. This is truly something great.”

I like this quote from your twitter page on July 22: “A million times more advertising $ and creativity are used to sell unhealthy beverages to our children than are 2 promote social issues. #BNE” Can you elaborate past 120 characters on this point?

When you walk around in the streets, ride the train, drive on the highway or watch TV you are confronted thousands of times a day with ads for products and services. Billions of dollars are spent on getting people to buy these things but we never see clever sleek ads making it cool to care for our fellow human or a million dollar ad campaign telling us that war is not cool. If the same amount of money and creativity went into advertising NGOs or things that would advance society, the world would be a much better place. The power of advertising is enormous. Louis Vuitton is worshipped religiously in Japan, imagine if LV donated the majority of their profits to charity and through advertising they made it glamourous to care about the less fortunate , that would be incredible. It would give that logo so much more meaning. That would be something that could inspire real change, something actually worth worshipping religiously.

Did you ever think you could transform your tag into a movement embraced by all? What does it mean for BNE now?

A movement that can be embraced by all is what we are in the process of trying to create. What does this mean for BNE? This means that the BNE name no longer belongs to me or is about me. It now belongs to the people.

Can you reflect, however romantic or not, on “how far graffiti has come?” From being branded as vandalism to not respected as an art form to galleries to films, marketing campaigns, big retrospectives at the LA Museum to even a ‘role’ in political campaigns and now humanitarian efforts. Could you connect this to any thoughts on the future of graffiti or [street] art or protest culture?

Graffiti has come a long way is one way to look at it but others with a deeper understanding of the culture may look at it another way. With the exception of humanitarian efforts everything you mentioned in your question involves an outsider making money off of a culture that they were never a part of. Some may look at all of these things as contributing to the dilution of a culture originally meant to rebel against the system, not dance on a stage for the system. The future of graffiti? I hope that graffiti will always exist. Graffiti is a sign of life in a city. It’s a pulse that says “Hey, we are alive and we are not mindless obedient drones.” The culture is getting watered down but I’m sure that  there will always be people out there in the streets keeping graffiti alive.

So let’s wrap it up- how can people help?

This is a movement that every one can participate in. First, check out our website at bnewater.org and you can read more about what we are doing. You can support the movement in many ways. If you can afford to, you can donate money or buy BNE products but its not always about money. Use your power or influence to spread the word about what we are doing. Tweet or blog about us, do whatever you can to spread the word. Sometimes you do not realize the power you have. You are always looking at celebrities and brands as great and powerful, you should remember that none of them can exist without you, the consumer. You are the ones with the real power, you just do not realize it. It will not be a celebrity, corporation, or famous artist that will make this project a success. It will be you the people who will determine whether we succeed or not. I have created the platform but its up to all of you to make this dream a reality. One person cannot change the world but when enough people change themselves, then the world has already changed.

This interview originally appeared in Papersky No. 37 Norway (November, 2011).

BNE Water Foundation stickers can be seen throughout the Shibuya area of Tokyo.

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