Today’s interview is with Kristin ‘Anjl’ Doeblin. Kristin and I connected at a workshop with the group Ladies Get Paid where we were both attending a talk on overcoming our perfectionist tendencies. I was so glad to meet another fellow artist in a sea of start-up professionals. I had the pleasure of visiting her Bushwick, Brooklyn studio and learning more about how she is making the transition to being a full time artist and running her own mural business.
Sarah: Can you talk a little bit about your background, where you’re from, and how you first started identifying as an artist?
Kristin ‘Anjl’: I think as early as I can remember, just being a kid and drawing and painting - I was immediately in love with art. I would probably say I really started seeing myself as an artist closer to middle school or high school. I was born in Virginia and grew up in Wichita, Kansas and lived there until 2006. I went to college in Lawrence, which is near Kansas City, at the University of Kansas. It’s a completely different vibe from the rest of (middle America) Kansas. It’s really more of a hippie town and people are really laid back.
I studied overseas a couple times while in college and then I moved to New York in 2006.
SF: Did you study art in college or did you have other interests at that time?
KA: I thought about going to art school, but I didn’t and I actually ended up getting my bachelor’s degree in Spanish. I took a lot of classes in liberal arts- anthropology, languages, but I stuck with Spanish and I also studied abroad in Spain and just fell in love with the culture there.
I didn’t really study much art when I was in college and when I got to New York, I actually started studying sustainability - so not an art degree by any means.
SF: When I started college l never had any intention of getting an art degree, so I’m just always curious about the early paths people follow and the different paths they’ve taken to get to where they are.
I’d love to hear more about what prompted you to move to New York when you finished school.
KA: So I was and am really into hip-hop culture, equally the art, music, and breakdancing. After breakdancing for a few years, I really got interested in graffiti and New York City was the mecca for hip-hop culture. It was where I wanted to be. A friend of mine I had met while studying abroad in Spain moved here and really encouraged me to move with her. So after finishing college, I drove my little Honda across the country and moved to Brooklyn.
SF: It sounds like it was a really exciting time for you - being in a new place and you had a friend here, so you had something to connect you back to home a little bit. I’m wondering what you pictured for yourself in moving here and what you envisioned life would be like in this new place.
KA: At the time I just wanted to immerse myself in hip-hop, so I met some other b-boys and b-girls (break boys and break girls) that I started practicing and dancing with. It was awesome meeting so many people and having so many places to dance - it was so much more than what I had access to back home. Around that same time, I was also introduced to Five Pointz which was a graffiti heaven. For those who don’t know, it was a giant building where graffiti artists could come and do their work all over the building - even the rooftop - the entire structure was covered. And as soon as I found that and plugged into that community it was incredible.
SF: How did you initially teach yourself graffiti?
KA: Back in 2002 when I was still in college I studied abroad in Hong Kong and happened to find a website listing different graffiti crews, and I reached out to a female graffiti crew there and they actually got back to me. I told them that I would be studying there for a semester and I that I was starting to get into graffiti and I really want to see and learn about it more while I was there. So they took me out with them and I started painting. The first pieces I ever really painted were there in Hong Kong. It was amazing and I stayed in touch with them from time to time, but I haven't been back since. When I got back home, I painted with a few other graffiti writers, and then once I moved to New York I found Five Pointz.
I also had the chance to study in Spain while I was in college. Around 2011, I went back to Spain and met up with some friends and other artists that I had met there when I had studied abroad. It’s great to be able to collaborate with other people and find lots of places to work where the art will actually be appreciated. The attitude is a little different here in the U.S. because people are often quick to see graffiti not as an art form but only vandalism. But there it was easier to find places to do work and have it be appreciated. Since I came back from Spain in 2012 I’ve been based in Bushwick and I’ve been painting more murals and collaborating with other artists. I still do graffiti letter pieces, but I’ve also been developing my own skillset to do more mural-type work and full scenes.
SF: What drew you to graffiti in the first place? Was it a natural interest that grew out of the breakdance/hip-hop culture that you loved or is there a specific aspect of it that really appeals to you?
KA: I think as a b-girl in the hip-hop or graffiti world, it’s a very male-dominated world. It’s changed more recently, but for me, as a dancer and then getting into graffiti later, painting graffiti was a way to directly leave my mark on the world. I knew that there wouldn’t be as many female artists around, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me.
SF: When you first moved to New York, was it hard to find a community and build your network as an artist and creative person?
KA: Well thankfully when I moved here, I was living with a friend. I think it would have been much harder to move here on my own. But she had a friend at the time that was a b-boy and through him I was introduced to other people and where they practiced.
When I went back to Spain in 2011, like I mentioned before, I linked up with a crew that I had met previously in college. We would perform on the trains or outside and we would make money sometimes, but I had a job there teaching English, so that’s how I was making a living. I wasn’t making a ton of money, but it was enough where I could pay my rent and have enough to travel on the weekends to other cities. We would travel and have local breakdancing battles in Spain that I would participate in.
The art was a little bit different. Here especially in Bushwick, you don’t have to go far to find other artists. It’s easy to reach out and connect with other people if that’s what you want to do.
SF: I’d like to talk about how you make a living as an artist. That’s one of the goals I have here for this platform is to really make transparent the way we all have to balance many priorities, and so I would like to know a little bit more about how you have managed to make a living and keep doing your art. Can you talk a little about what you have done to support yourself financially?
KA: After moving here, I ended up pursuing a master’s degree in Environmental Policy and Sustainability Management at the New School. I graduated in 2015 and I’ve had a hard time getting the kind of jobs I thought I would get. During that time, I had been working in construction as a Project Manager and so that led me to my most recent full time job with a construction company. And construction is constant here, so I was able to keep working. But eventually I got tired of it, because I wasn’t really doing the thing that I cared about or really helping contribute to the sustainable projects I was interested in. Eventually I got laid off - this was about a year ago - and it was kind of a blessing because I didn’t really have time to do my art. The opportunities I had to make things were few and far between.
During those first few months, I was on unemployment and there’s in a program here in the city that assists people on unemployment that want to start a business. They offer free city courses through SBS (Small Business Services) and help give you the foundation to start your own business instead of going back into the workforce. I decided to take full advantage of it and really use it as an opportunity to start my own mural business. The city approved of the idea and I worked on a business plan.
SF: That’s pretty amazing that there was a structure in place to help you - I didn’t even know this existed. It sounds like it was just the right time and place for you, and that you really took advantage of what they offered.
I think most artists don’t have a very good foundation in business and we all kind of just stumble our way through it and learn as we go. What was the most valuable thing you think you took away from the program?
KA: For one, something I didn’t realize, but that is available to anyone in the city with a business, is that you can have access to a mentor. It was really valuable to have someone look over my plan, ask questions, and really push me to think above and beyond what I thought was possible.
I didn’t go to business school, but I got a crash course through this program. For me, thinking about the financial aspect of my business strategically was huge. As an artist, you have a creative mind, but it doesn’t always make you think about the practical part of really looking at the numbers and figuring what you need to make your life sustainable long-term or avoid going into debt. It was really helpful to be forced to sit down and think realistically about a budget and what I have to do to survive.
SF: Now you have this mural business and it’s been your full time job for about a year, how is it going?
KA: It’s been great. I have to say, the spring, summer, fall are busiest. The winter is really slow for murals here, because it’s so cold. And winter here is long- it lasts about five months, so that’s something I’ve had to really come to terms with. I knew winter was going to be tough - I didn’t know how tough. About 80% of the work I do is exteriors, so I have to think realistically about things I can do during the cold months.
I recently started renting a studio, where I paint and make works on canvas and take commissions for portraits, etc. I’m also thinking that maybe for the winter I need to look at other places I can go that are warmer and where I can continue to do my work. That adds a whole other dimension of travel expenses, so it’s something I have to really think through. I’m open to new ideas and new places. I figure that it will only stretch me and make me a better artist to have to work in new environments and connect with people in new places.
I also look for opportunities through public art open calls, such as the MTA here in New York, but when I apply for those things I have to think more strategically about how I’m making my work “pleasing” to the public because graffiti still has a bit of stigma of not being an art form that is embraced by the public.
SF: It seems like you are really responsive to adapting your vision and your work depending on the type of commission you receive from a business or organization. Is this something that came easily to you?
KA: I did have to learn how to adjust things for clients. For example, a couple of years ago I was asked to do a piece for a brewery and they really liked my style, but then when it came down to designing the project, they were very particular about specific colors, including a logo. The final design really needed to feel seamless with their brand. Not all clients are like that, but yeah it takes some flexibility in being able to give a business what they want and also doing what I like to do. It definitely took some getting used to.
S: It’s an interesting tension that a lot of artists face - you want the business of commissioned work sometimes, but there are tradeoffs depending on who the work is for. And if going after commissioned projects is how you want to make a living, then that compromise is really important.
KA: It’s true. Even though sometimes I have to make things that maybe aren’t really for me, I see it as a way to keep making art and it allows me the time and opportunity to also do the kind of work that I want to do.
SF: At this point in your career and new work venture, how have you defined “success” for yourself?
KA: For me, it means maintaining a sustainable lifestyle and not going into debt as I try to keep my business going, and continuing to learn and develop my own artistic style. If I was working full time in an office, there is no way that I would have been able to do this much work on my art. I’m really happy that I’ve been able to have the time to focus on my own practice.
In addition to doing murals, I also host a lot of graffiti workshops for visitors to NYC or people that live here and just want to learn more about the art form. It really opens me up to meeting new people and learning about new places and hearing about other opportunities in places where people are interested in graffiti. It helps keep me in tune to what inspires people about graffiti and what attracts them to it.
I’m also thinking about what to do during those cold months of the year and being open to exploring new places where I can work. I do sometimes feel like I’m a little bit comfortable here in Brooklyn and I think the challenge of living or working in a new place for a few months out of the year could be really exciting.
SF: I think anytime we open ourselves up to new places or new experiences, it opens doors to opportunities we might not have expected.
On a separate note I also know that Brazilian jiu-jitsu plays a pretty major role in your life. Does your practice in martial arts ever cross over into your art practice in any way?
KA: You know, jiu-jitsu has not only helped me feel more empowered, but it has helped me grow as a person. It’s helped me realize that when I really focus on something and dedicate time to it, the possibilities are endless. I’ve been able to manage balancing my jiu-jitsu training with my art practice. Practicing martial arts requires a lot of trust in your partners that you are training with and it has only helped expand my network and people that I call close friends. I’ve also been able to paint murals for several academies and the jiu-jitsu community has been really supportive of my art.
SF: What advice would you give to a younger artist that is interested in moving to a new place and jumping outside of their comfort zone?
KA: I would want them to ask themselves what their goals are as an artist and what is it that they want to get out of being in the place where they want to go. For me, I never knew that being a full time artist was a real possibility - at all. I would want someone to know that the possibilities are endless, but they need to know what they want and what their goals are.
SF: I really appreciate how you really embrace the things you love whether it’s dancing or graffiti or martial arts and just dive into those things and seek out the people and resources that can make it happen. You seem to have a lot of joy around what you do.
KA: I do and I want other people to have that too - to know that it’s possible to do what you love.
SF: Where can people find your work?
SF: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today!
KA: Thank you!