The Fearless Ones: Blue The Great
The artist talks about taking risks and how he manifested his Air Jordan I collaboration.
Interview: Elle Clay
Photos: Anthony Blasko
The “Fearless Ones” celebrates a new generation of defiant, talented individuals. Click here for more stories about the cast.
On paper, Bryan Blue a.k.a. Blue The Great does a little bit of everything. First and foremost, he’s an artist, though he does many other things, too. He’s a muralist, sculptor, photographer, graphic designer, DJ and more. He’s a fearless creative — a former college athlete from Texas who dropped out to pursue art full-time in Los Angeles, despite early doubts and naysayers.
In his paintings, Blue’s trademark is the mummy. Bandages obscure the immediately-recognizable faces of contemporary royalty: celebrities, actors and rappers. When he was just starting out, Blue would mummify just about anything, from his first painting of Mickey Mouse to the film posters at his local bus stops. That repetitive work, a way of further refining his style, eventually paid off. Nowadays, Blue has expanded what he paints to include a broader definition of “icon,” whether he’s depicting a hip-hop superstar, a video game character or the Air Jordan I.
Since moving to L.A., Blue has found himself in the middle of the hip-hop universe, where he’s painted everything from cars and storefronts on Fairfax to album covers. His work finds a balance between ubiquity and subtlety; his name is as likely to appear on the wall you drove past as it is in a magazine’s photography credits.
In addition to painting and DJing, photography is part of what Blue calls his “triple-threat offerings.” His first street photography zine, unFun, sold out almost immediately. Astrologically speaking, he vocally identifies with being a Gemini and picks up new skills and careers on a whim (including jiu-jitsu).
Blue’s palette, much like the Air Jordan I he’s collaborated on, is full of bright, primary colors that immediately catch the eye. The shoe itself was inspired by the vibrant ball pits found on playgrounds. Below, Blue The Great talks about his upbringing, taking risks and what’s next.
You come from a very gifted family. As I mentioned, I know your brother. How were the arts nurtured in your household?
I have two brothers and one sister. My sister is younger, a cheerleader in college right now. I grew up with my two brothers. We jumped around households with my mom and dad. We grew up playing sports; that was our main focus. Our dad played football, went to college and played in the NFL. We were always pushed to go after anything were doing 100%, whether it was sports or the arts.
My brothers and I really pushed each other to learn and experiment, whether that be with a video camera or recording raps. All of us DJ professionally, and it’s something we figured out when we were kids. We’re truly kids of the Internet. Our mom was at work all day, so we were just learning how to use tools like Photoshop online.
What kinds of things did you teach each other or share?
My younger brother Anthony and I we were both super into using little video cameras and Windows Movie Maker in attempts to make movies. My older brother learned how to make beats very early, so we recorded our friends rapping. We were very much into technology. No one taught us how to do these things. We just kept going and pushing, really.
Seeing a response from it has been very rewarding. I’ve painted all of my life, and I remember the first sculpture I ever did. It was in the second grade, and it won an award. My mom was super excited. That kind of encouragement helped me go forward.
Blue has a breezy, humble demeanor. I was delighted to find out that he was my first The Ones interview of the day. I’m friends with his brother, the DJ and artist, Ant Blue Jr. In a way, I felt like I knew him already.
So, you’re from Texas, and you played football in college. Then, you quit to become an artist full-time. How does that defiant spirit continue to manifest itself in your work?
That’s just who I am. I grew up not wanting to listen to people who tried to tell me what I could or couldn’t do. At first, I didn’t want to be an artist or a painter, because I didn’t think it was possible for anyone to do that. The last time I had a “job” was so long ago. I had too many ideas to stay put there. On the other hand, I am definitely overwhelmed. It’s always been like, “Everyone is doing things one way, but I feel this other way, so I’m going to go that way.” Because when it’s all said and done, I’m the only one who has to really live with the decisions I made.
For sure. So, you previously worked with Jordan Brand on custom pairs for a store opening. What was the process like to do this collaboration — getting asked to do it, getting the swatches and everything else?
Every day that goes by, it gets more real. When they told me that it might happen, I didn’t believe it was real. Then it was happening. Then I had freedom with what I wanted to make, which made it even more surreal. The day I got my sample, I almost lost my mind. It’s a crazy feeling. I’ve never made a shoe like this before. I had made custom shoes, which is one thing. It’s different when they make the shoe for you. I still can’t believe this is actually a real thing.
Did it present any new, unexpected challenges for you as an artist? How so?
Yes. As an artist, sometimes you want to make things that people like. I like to make things that I myself like. It’s about me first. When you make a shoe, it’s a little different. I still care about how it makes me feel, but it’s like if I’m making an album cover for someone else. I want them to like it, too.
I know how crazy fashion is and how people treat Jordans. I know people are die-hard fans, so I just wanted to do this project justice. I wanted to make something that I was proud of. At the end of the day, I think that people are going to like this shoe, because I like it. I’ve always bet on myself.
I like it, too. Do you remember your first pair of Air Jordan Is?
I wish I could remember my first pair of AJIs. My dad was such a Jordan head; we’ve had Air Jordans since we were born. I have a picture of my brothers and I all wearing White Cement IIIs and IVs and Hawaiian shirts. I was probably three or four years old then. I can go back through the years and remember the Air Jordans I’ve had — new stuff and OG stuff.
So this collaboration definitely eclipses your past moments with Jordan Brand?
Oh, for sure. And I have a cool collection, too. I got Jordans! I got Travis Scotts. I have the Off-Whites. There’s nothing like having your own pair. I grew up making custom shoes. To have a shoe that I didn’t have to spend countless hours making by hand? That was always the goal.
You left Texas in search of a more artistically-enriching environment. Even though people tried to tell you that you were crazy for leaving, how does it feel to have been embraced in L.A.?
I wish it could be an “I told you so” moment, but it’s not even that. I just never actually knew what was possible. I just bet on it. People had things to say when I dropped out of college. I came out to L.A., and I didn’t have any money. I just knew that I had talent. It worked. It was definitely a struggle.
Minutes into the shoot, the lackluster playlist wasn’t cutting it. Between takes, as hair and makeup artists meddle over Blue, there’s a music change. Immediately, I see some OG hip-hop sounds loosen Blue’s shoulders and turn on his “game face.”
“To have a shoe that I didn't have to spend countless hours making by hand? That was always the goal.”
Do you have some ideas locked and loaded after your shoe drops — for when the playing field changes?
I have a lot of stuff in the works. I’m really looking forward to my next art show. It’s taken me some time. It’s been three years since I’ve had a show, because I never considered myself someone who wanted to be a painter. I like being immersed in projects. I have a big project coming out next year that I’m excited about. I’ve been doing Jiu-Jitsu; I just got my blue belt.
I’m just continuing to grow and get opportunities in my fields of interest. I don’t have to be the world’s best painter. I’m a creative, I create things. I’m doing animation and so many other different things. I’m excited about all of the potential opportunities to come.
So, talking about the blue belt… How did you get into martial arts?
I played football in college. I played football my whole life. I ran track and played sports. I pledged in college. I’m a Nupe Kappa Alpha Psi.
What’s your sign?
I’m a Gemini, the best sign. It’s also the one that everyone hates.
I started doing Jiu-Jitsu, because I needed more challenge in my life. I needed struggles to overcome. Not that I don’t have struggles and problems to overcome, but I wanted one that was also mentally and physically challenging. It’s also a hobby, because painting became what I do full-time.
Being photographed can be a little awkward. One isn’t quite sure if they’re doing it right. “I feel like I’m not doing anything,” says Blue, through smiles and smizes. Later in the shoot, the crew places a fan in front of him. Like any good performer, he leans in to let his hair flow in the breeze. Blue knows exactly what to do in the spotlight.
Does Jiu-Jitsu serve you spiritually?
Yes, definitely. It doesn’t matter what’s going on in the world. If I go to class, it doesn’t matter. It’s just a way to clear the slate, because you have to focus on it. My coach always tells me that Jiu-Jitsu is a lot like life, because you have to focus on the immediate problem, one problem at a time. Iit allows me to meditate. That’s how I feel with painting, as well. Once I start painting, I’m not really thinking about the outside world. I’m just thinking about the moment that I’m in.
You paint, you animate and more. Are there any new territories you want to enter into artistically?
Man… I have all of these interests, and right now, I’m at the point where I have to reign them in. Right now, I’m focused on painting, DJing and photography. Producing and making beats are interesting, too. A lot of these artistic things run in parallel. Making music has always been interesting to me. If I wasn’t painting, I’d probably be rapping or making beats. I love music.
What does (or what would) Blue’s music sound like?
It’s a very open format. It’s so tight. I was born in ’87, which makes me 32 years old. I grew up in the age of MTV. My brothers and I have the craziest musical library, because we’re rap/rock kids who were born in L.A. and grew up in Texas. They live in New York. We’ve been everywhere. I just want my music to be open. I don’t want to be in a genre, but if I could be in a genre of music, it would be rap. But I wouldn’t want to be in just one.
You’d have a new genre.
The Air Jordan 1 SE x Blue The Great is available starting November 16 on Jordan.com and at select retailers.