RetnaAt first glance, the work of the artist Retna looks like an undiscovered ancient script: a series of hypnotic symbols—complex, beautiful and captivating. But Retna has created an original alphabet, fusing together influences from ancient Incan and Egyptian hieroglyphics, Arabic, Hebrew, Asian calligraphy, and graffiti. Each piece carries meaning, conveying an event or dialogue that the artist experienced.

As a youth of African-American, El Salvadorian and Cherokee descent growing up in Los Angeles, Retna (real name Marquis Lewis) was mesmerized by the gang graffiti that surrounded him. He began practicing the art form, and adopted the name Retna from a Wu-Tang Clan song. In the mid-nineties he began making murals on walls, trains and freeway overpasses throughout the city.

Retna has transformed from a street artist to a break-out star in the contemporary art world. He has garnered attention from Usher, an R&B artist, who commissioned the artist to create a portrait of Marvin Gaye, and MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch, who wrote in the September 2010 issue of Juxtapoz “one of the most exciting exhibitions...this year, anywhere, was Retna’s exhibition at New Image Art.” This spring, MOCA will feature Retna's work in the “Art in the Streets” exhibit.

On February 10th, Retna opened his first solo show in New York, “The Hallelujah World Tour”, presented by Andy Valmorbida and Vladimir Restoin-Roitfeld, in conjunction with New York City's Fashion Week. The tour will continue with exhibitions in London and Venice. Retna spoke with More Intelligent Life about his script, growing up in L.A. and graffiti.

How did growing up in Los Angeles affect your work?

The people that I met, the neighborhood guys, the fascination with graffiti and things that weren’t always seen as a good thing. It was illegal for the most part, what it was that we were doing. It’s influenced in my work. Everything represents a very strong L.A. influence. 

Were you ever in a gang?

I think I had asked to join the neighborhood guys, and they were like 'Marquis there’s nothing here for you, you can come hang out with us, we’ll let you paint on our walls but you don’t have to be a part of us'. And I owe them a lot for that for letting me pursue my own dream.

Do you still write on the streets?

I haven’t been as active as I want to be. I’ve done murals, but I haven’t been active in that area. It’s been a while, maybe like two years, but I’ve been really busy.

How and when did you decide to take traditional gang graffiti and turn it into your own script?

I was influenced by Old English since I was eight or nine-years-old. It was very popular amongst street gangs and they were writing Old English, which was really taken more from the LA Times and the New York Times and I just really enjoyed the way the letters were formed. They just had such an elegance to them. Then I went into a phase where I was just writing in the traditional graffiti style and I believe somewhere in 1997 or 1998 I started combining the two, where the Old English style, the graffiti style and I was very highly influenced by Asian calligraphy. I was really fascinated with ancient cultures and writing, and then became interested in Hebrew and Arabic writing after September 11th because they became more prevalent in the news and started to find their way within my work. I’m not copying any of those letters, but I think the influences are from that.

How did your art go from the streets to the more highbrow establishments that they’re in now?

These artists Chaz and Mear were curating a show in L.A. and they invited me to be a part of it. That was the first show I had every done. That was in 1997 I want to say.

And after that I think I kind of got the bug and I thought that it would be fun to do this. It was a way of being a legitimate artist but I also felt like I could make my mom proud, I could do it the right way. You gotta love where you came from too because if I hadn’t come from the street or been a graffiti writer, I wouldn’t be where I am now. And there might be guys who don’t like people like us, [because we are]  inside the galleries, they go, "oh, it’s not real". I don’t really care. I know who I am and what I’ve done and there’s people from that movement that just love seeing it inside places, and they’re happy because they do it too.

I wouldn’t be where I’m at if it wasn’t for all the graffiti artists and writers that came before me. And this is my way of saying thank you. 

Where did you come across the various writings (Arabic, Hebrew, Hieroglyphics, etc.) that inspire your script?

Just books, looking at stuff, researching. Obviously I can’t read any of that stuff—I just liked it. I’d look at it or want to study about it or learn more about it. I gravitated towards that because that’s what I’ve been doing—I’ve been writing and I wanted to make this text that was influenced by the world and I wanted everyone to be able to relate to it. I was mixed [race], so I never really felt like I fit in, or I was either one or this or that, so I just started to say I was down with everybody and I wanted my work to reflect that. That was the idea I was after.

Is there a verbal element to it, or is it just visual?

RetnaThere’s a verbal element. It could be a poem, it could be just stuff that I’m thinking about, for me it’s just a very meditative process; I’m just having a conversation with myself. Sometimes I allow the music to influence what I’m writing. A lot of them are names my mom would call me when I was growing up, and some are things I’m talking about, friends who have passed away—they’re interactions with what’s going on with people that I just meet, or a conversation I just had. I hear a word or a phrase or a dialogue, and then that becomes my response. They all say something.

Would you ever make a translation?

I’ve been asked. I want people to try and figure it out. I think I give them what it says, but I like the interaction part. That reminds me of when I’m looking at like Hebrew or calligraphy, or anything like that—I don’t know what it says. But if I try to do my homework, or look into it, I’ll find a meaning and try to find why it’s like that, or maybe I won’t, but at least you give it that attempt of trying to see it.

That’s really interesting to me. It makes more sense now, because as someone observing your art, how do I know it’s not just a bunch of nonsensical symbols?

Right, no definitely. I think once people are more familiar with my work, they can understand it. The more you familiarize yourself with, you start to see, 'okay there’s the 'S', there’s an 'E', there’s a 'V'. I’ve ran into a couple of people that are really able to read the stuff, and it always surprises me.

What artists inspire you?

I love art nouveau, Alphonse Mucha, Gustav Klimt, Monet, Basquiat, Haring. There’s a whole list of graffiti artists—Lee Quinones, Chaz Bojorquez. I love Degas’s ballerinas. I have a pretty wide range of art that I like. There’s this artist here in New York I believe he just had a show—Folkert de Jong. Oh my God, his work is beautiful. And I love sculpture, I love architecture, I love ancient buildings, Masonic buildings, cathedrals, churches, synagogues, mosques—I just love the way they look they just have a really elegant kind of thing to them. I love Asian temples. I like a lot of cultures and things.

Retna  sculpture

Do you think there’s a difference between street art and graffiti?

To me it’s interesting because a lot of street artist people, they call themselves graffiti writers. They’re two different things. A graffiti writer is someone that writes their name on the wall, but they’ve blurred the lines. But, I think it’s a great movement. I’m glad to be associated with it. There are a lot of great artists in that in that, and there are a lot of people that aren’t so good—that’s like anything. There are guys who are really talented at graffiti and there are guys whose stuff you just don’t like, but that’s the nature of it. I can’t say anything bad about them. Without the people who have become popular with street art, I probably wouldn’t be here now. I’d like to think I would have got to my goal anyway, but I’m sure I owe them some kind of gratitude and I’m alright with that.

The Hallelujah World Tour” is at 560 Washington Street in New York through Feb. 21st.