Interview: Building Faces Around The Eyes With Danielle Mastrion

I didn’t have to look far for this artist. Her work has been hanging in the New York FRANK offices for a while now so I guess you can say we feel especially close to Danielle Mastrion. Her attitude, style, and passion tell us this Brooklyn native is all New York. If you have walked the streets of Brooklyn or visited the notorious 5 Pointz then you can be sure you’ve seen Danielle’s artwork.

Danielle is an artist in the full sense of the definition: a muralist, painter, and even a graphic designer. A visionary like Danielle Mastrion is someone who continues to push boundaries, craft her talent, and explore the great depth that art has to offer. Her accomplishments as she says ‘speak for themselves’ but I have a feeling you’re going to want to see the story behind such beauty anyways.

What do you think the advantages of being an artist who was born and raised in Brooklyn are?
I think just in the work. I notice a lot of times that in my friends’ and people I know work has a little something to it. It’s not even something I can specifically pin point, maybe it’s that things are grittier, or maybe there’s a lot more texture, there’s a lot more layers to their work. I feel like even if everybody doesn’t work in the same style I can always kind of tell, more or less, people that grew up here. I feel like there is a look, a New York City flare versus a lot of the work that I see from people who aren’t from here.

I think when it comes to getting shows or walls there’s no difference in it but advantage wise, just connections. If you grew up here, you know a lot of people who own galleries, or put on shows. I have people that I’ve worked with ten years ago at Triple Five Soul store when we were young and now everyone’s doing something else. They will hit you up saying, “I know we haven’t talked in five years but I’ve been seeing your work.” I think it’s about the connections you’ve made earlier and people not from here don’t’ know them or not as well, whereas, I can say we go way back; that little connection that gets your foot in the door is the advantage.

I think it’s fair to say you receive the most attention for your murals that involve portraits of Notorious BIG, The Beastie Boys, and Nelson Mandela, matter of fact we have one here in our FRANK office. Can you tell me when that began as something you wanted to do?
I’ve been painting my whole life and I’m a classically trained oil painter since high school. I’ve always done figurative work and I’ve always painted people. Even my drawings from when I was five years old, they’re always faces and portraits. It doesn’t look like a five year old did it, but I’ve been obsessed with painting peoples’ faces; it’s just my preference.

I guess the first offers I got for walls were famous people. The first one I did was The Beastie Boys one on the Centrifuge trailer and that came about because I was scheduled to paint it and then MCA passed like two days before and there is no way I am doing a mural in the Lower East Side and not doing that. Then the next one I did was MCA by himself at 5 Pointz. I think just because those two got so much attention the next ten offers were all to do a famous person. I just did a Biggie one this week but I am trying to stay away from doing famous people because I did them so much for a year-and-a-half that I just want to stay clear of that.

Can you walk me through the process of recreating a portrait for a mural?
People ask me that a lot. I don’t use a projector; I do everything freehand. It’s funny because a lot of times I don’t even have a print out, I do it from a picture off my phone. There are photos of me doing murals, I see them afterwards and they just look so ridiculous because there’s this big huge wall and then me holding my little phone. I think it’s just because I’ve been painting faces my whole life that their second nature to me. I didn’t think that I do this but I’ve noticed from seeing pictures of me working that I always start with the eyes. Sometimes I wish I could just stop at the eyes because sometimes when I’m painting someone famous, people walk by and they’re like, “I already know who that is” and I think that’s so expressive. I think if you don’t have the eyes right when it comes to making portraits then you might as well not continue. So it’s really important for me to get the eyes. I mean this is super technical but you can literally build the rest of the face around the eyes.

You made a decision that a lot of artists feel they do not need to do and you got your B.F.A in Illustration from The Parsons School of Design. What do you think that you learned there that you might not have known otherwise?
I come from a super fine art background and I wanted to master oil painting. I didn’t go to school to become a muralist, street artist, or even a aerosol artist, which was the furthest thing from my mind. For me technically speaking, it was smart to go to school because my teachers were some of the best oil painters that I still know today. I really got to craft my technical skills. Commercial wise, after school, I worked as a graphic designer for a really long time and I never would have learned Photoshop, Illustrator, and that stuff comes in handy when you’re painting too. I love that I went to art school and I know people say you don’t need to, and for some people maybe you don’t, but for me I really wanted to master those skills. I knew that I probably wouldn’t have done it on my own. I realized as an independent artist now, you have to be your own PR agent, you have to market yourself, you have to be very careful with your finances. I learned all that, if not at Parsons, then at the jobs I got right after college because of Parsons. Now looking back I can see that one thing helped another.

You’ve expressed that you are a female in a male dominated field; in what ways do you think this helps and in what ways do you think this hinders your career in the art world?
I don’t think it’s ever really hindered me. I don’t think I’ve ever been excluded like a wall or project because I’m a girl. It’s more so the commentary. I guess I’ve realized you do have to work harder to get some respect. I don’t want to say my male artist friends don’t work harder, because they do, but I know that female artists have to work a lot harder just to get a little bit of respect.

I’m really proud of my work and I know I have a lot of talent and I would like to think that my work speaks for itself. I’m even okay with people not knowing if I’m a man or a woman. It’s more so that every time I have a show, every time I paint a wall, I hear, “I didn’t know a woman did this” or “I’ve never seen a girl do this.” When I’m painting walls I hear, “Who did that? Who helped you with that?” That’s when I’m like, “You just stood here and watched me paint the whole thing and you’re still going to ask me that.” Sometimes I think it’s not even in people’s minds that something big, something grand, something dope would be done by a woman. I normally wouldn’t say that but from doing this so long, in live painting I always get “Wow, you did that? and “You did that?” but instead “A chick did that?” That’s what’s frustrating. If it were a man, gender wouldn’t even come up. You got to keep saying yep, I’m a woman, I did this. I’ve gotten included in all female shows and I don’t mind it because I love working with other female artists. I know a lot of people say that all female shows just pigeonhole you but I’ve always had great experiences with them. All the woman I’ve met are so strong and so talented we keep up friendships. I don’t want to say this happens from people in the art world, but more so people out of the art world. Even on Instagram people comment on how you look painting a wall, rather than a wall, and I don’t see that on a guy’s feeds.

Where is a place you have yet to display and/or create your artwork that you are aspiring towards?
I would really love to have a show at Basel coming up this year, even if it’s a group show—if not this year, then next year. I’ve had solo shows in Brooklyn; I haven’t had solo shows in Manhattan. I’ve been in many group shows but I would love to have a solo show in the city. Finding the space, finding the gallery, and finding the right people to work with and it will happen.

You’ve had many notable highlights in your career thus far, which accomplishments stick out as the most memorable?
I think winning a lot of the ArtBattles and you become like the New York champion. It has sent me around the world and being able to represent New York and America for something like live painting or art is definitely a highlight. I think the last trip I just went on, the Artist for Israel trip, was a really special trip. I was in a pool with such talent that the fact that I was even asked to paint with those women, and do something abroad, was a big highlight. And painting at 5 Pointz. The MCA that I did and the cool work that I did were really shining moments for me. The days that I was painting and the people that came to hang out and the feedback I got from those pieces… ‘till this day I get feedback about those pieces especially because 5 Pointz isn’t here anymore.

I’m glad we’re speaking about 5 Pointz. As a native New Yorker I know what 5 Pointz meant to me, what did the end of 5 Pointz mean to you?
I think the whole white washing and the future demolition of 5 Pointz is just heartbreaking. Not even just for artist but for New York. It’s one of those old school New York landmarks and some people might say it’s not a landmark and it’s just an old factory building but you don’t have those things left anymore in New York. Max Fish closed, and now I heard Pearl Paint is closing, Grace Papaya, this is little things but just all these super local feeling, been here forever, catering to generations and generations of artist who have come out here are all gone. I remember being like if they tear 5 Pointz down I’m leaving New York and I’m done. Waking up in the morning and getting the photo from MERES and Marie who ran 5 Pointz that just said it’s over was like a moment of silence. Within thirty minutes every artist I knew we were texting each other, it was almost like a family member died. I feel like what they did to that building, that was vandalism not the work that was on it.

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