It’s amazing how many people are inspired in one way or another by graffiti. Whether it is modern graffiti and familiar tags or even ancient paintings that were the equivalent of graffiti in their day, there is something about this sort of raw expressionism that touches the human heart. Retna, also known as Marquis Lewis, is a modern street and studio artist who takes his graffiti inspiration to the next level and says that it was his experiences of street art that led him into his creative life.
The Artist Begins
Born in 1978 in Los Angeles, he first entered the art scene as a muralist with an emphasis on “text-based” style. Today, he is still known for his reliance on unique letterforms and typography in his work. One look at his bold strokes and highly symbolic imagery reveals rows of figure-like work full of lots of negative space and strong emotion.
One expert says that he combines “visual linguistics, urban poetics and appropriated fashion imagery,” along with a range of media (painting on canvas, photography, street art, and more) to express his themes and concepts.
Retna himself says that he looked at “Egyptian and Native American traditional symbols” for some of his earlier inspiration, and it is why his style is reminiscent of many different cultures. Because he also writes in both Spanish and English, there is a broad cultural influence seen in most of his work.
The artist described his textual work, saying “I want my text to feel universal. I want people from different cultures to all find some similarity in it—whether they can read it or not.”
He says his work is part of a “constructed script” that features blocks of text and illustration. Nothing of what he does is easily decipherable, but most take some sort of personal message from each piece.
"Send Me A Letter" by Retna
Today, Retna leads one of the largest graffiti art collectives in Los Angeles and has done so since his high school years. He admits to appropriating concepts directly from fashion advertisements, reinventing the images with potent colors, layering, and fine lines.
Beginning his work as a graffiti artist just after his 20th birthday, he is today a member of several organizations dedicated to street art. He is part of Art Work Rebels, Mad Society Kings, and The Seventh Letter artist collective.
He is on record as noting the importance of the work he’s involved in, saying that “It is important to have art in the streets as a cultural fabric that is woven into the city for the upliftment of civic pride.”
Yet, he is also noted for the immense amount of commercial work. He has been commissioned by names like Nike, Louis Vuitton, and the John F. Kenney Center. Musician Justin Bieber used his work as inspiration for an album cover, and VistaJet even sports tailfins on certain airliners with Retna’s work.
Retna took his artistic name from lyrics in a Wu-Tang song: “Kinetic globes light will then shine, burns your retina.” Explaining why this resonated with him, he said: “In graffiti culture, you look to stand out. You have to look for a name that is original that can make an impact,” and while he is speaking about the graphical elements of his name, it is also true that his name stands apart from the rest of the street art scene.
Saying that civic pride is part of the theme of his work and his dedication to graffiti collectives, you can see his designs on iconic buildings like the famous RH West Palm building in Miami, the Rivington Street Wall in New York, and on many fashion-forward garments. He is inspiring to existing and emerging artists for his dedication to his personal style and for the ways he’s changed the industry for so many young, black artists who can see the validity and value in their expression through their art.
Retna x Louis Vuitton Scarf