Ruslan Karablin, artist and founder of SSUR: "I’d rather be infamous. There’s just more mystique to it"
You'd expect Ruslan Karablin to be outspoken. Loud. Maybe even a little bit of a mouther. Anything but the taciturn individual he really is.
He's the man whose canvases are a disruptive take on cultural nuances, religion and politics, and through his clothing label SSUR, world reknowned branding. "I don't want it to sing you to sleep. I want it to smack you on top of the head, wake you up a little bit," Karablin divulges, in reference to his art exhibition Eternally Bonded located at Habitual. He's assured, yet self-effacing.
For those who are acquainted with his artworks of Che Guevera, that thief and robber salute to Da Vinci's The Last Supper, and clothing designs that jab at Rolex and Commes des Garçons (tribute or parody? "A little of both"), then, you'll know that Karablin was one of the orignal satirics. Before Vetememes, and before Brian Lichtenberg's BLTEE. Printing his art on jackets and hats was how it all started. "Really, to promote the brand of my artwork, more than the clothing," was how SSUR came to be in 1994.
Two decades on, as the artist and founder still delivers the same sharp-witted edge he debuted with, we find out what makes this maverick tick, and how he went from a guy on Wall Street to streetwear's supremacy.
How did you go from Wall Street to getting into art and fashion, and which came first for you?
Art came first for me. Since I was a kid, I'd always appreciated and loved art. When I was six, I started getting into drawing. You know the concept that parents have of art is that it's more of a hobby, and not something you can actually make a living off. For a long time, I kind of believed it so I went to work on Wall Street to learn how to be a suit and tie guy. I'd been into fashion since I was a teenager and I always liked clothes and dressed differently from the crowd — being creative with my hair and what I wore when I was younger. After a couple of years on Wall Street, I realised that my love has always been art and I bought a bunch of canvases and paint and went to work for about a year.
I put together my first show at a famous night club in New York City. After my art show there, I decided to make some jackets and hats shortly after. Really to promote the brand of my artwork, more than the clothing. People liked it, and it made sense to evolve and sort of put my art onto T-shirts.
The progression sounds incredibly natural for you.
Yes, I feel like it has been. I really appreciate that.
As art and fashion are both forms of self-expression, what are the influences that drive you to design and create?
The world. Sort of — I wouldn't say educate, but — trying to point things out to people that are already there, but for them to take a deeper look into what it is. To try to inspire people to do good.
With the art piece Eternally Bonded, why focus on Biggie Smalls and Tupac?
It's almost like a hip hop cliché, Tupac and Biggie. They have been one of the biggest lessons for the world and people that are into hip hop. They're very important in the genre and I love both their lyrics and what they stood for. It just seemed natural for them to be eternally bonded.
And your clothing. Would you say it's more than just graphics and words on T-shirts and sweats?
Well, it is that — images and words. But it becomes more than that when people embrace and understand it. When the masses can relate to it, it transcends that and becomes more than just graphics and words on a T-shirt. It has deeper rooted meanings to people.
Would you say it creates a sense of community?
I believe it does. We as humans are more connected and alike than we think, and I've been very fortunate to be able to travel and display my work for people to see throughout the world. In many places I've been to, I've realised that we're definitely more similar than not.
With SSUR, there've been so many different collections and lines over the years. Do you keep a piece from each range and are you sentimental that way?
I try to be, but I'm not that organised. Sometimes it disappears, sometimes it stays. Certain things I want to sweep under the rug and forget about it (laughs).
The brand is also widely known for its luxury branding collections like Guersace. Are these parodies or tributes?
A little of both. They take on their own meaning and that's my goal, but to also recognise the roots of those designs and where they come from. I put my soul into the things I make so when I'm making it, I think I like it. Maybe in a few years I might feel differently about it, but for now, I like it.
What's the one SSUR design that you'd like to bring back?
Honestly, I feel like I rotate the older stuff from time to time, so I can't really call it. Except for the stuff that gives me legal issues. I've had problems with the brands that didn't think my parodies were as cool as I did (laughs). So some of those I'd love to bring back but I won't mention those names.
Would you rather be famous or infamous?
I'd rather be infamous. There's just more mystique to it.
It's like everyone is famous nowadays.
15 minutes of fame, like Andy Warhol said. They're getting their 15 minutes. For me, it's probably a little more notable [to be infamous].
Biggie Smalls or Tupac?
It's tough, but I'd say Biggie because I spent most of my life in New York and I can relate to that style more.
While L.A. is passive aggressive, New York is just aggressive.
So then, would it be New York or Los Angeles?
Depends on what month it is. In February I prefer L.A., in June I prefer New York because spring and summer there is great. It's alive, you can walk outside and you're sort of in it. In L.A., it's a little different and it's more spread apart — you're sort of in a bubble and it's more closed off. While L.A. is passive aggressive, New York is just aggressive.
Sweatpants or denim?
Sweatpants on Sunday. Denim the rest of the days.
The type that I can't talk about in Singapore (grins).
Visit Ruslan Karablin's Eternally Bonded exhibition at Habitual, 38 Hamilton Road, from 8 September till 8 October.