Born and raised in urban Los Angeles, graffiti artist Brandon Balasbas idolized the surrounding pin-striping and tattoo artists that made up the colorful streets of Gardena, California in the early 90s. At 20, and in need of paying off his car, Balasbas set his street-art aspirations aside to accept a full-time job working in the mailroom at Northrop Grumman. Now a proven corporate street artist and professional aerospace photographer, Mr. Balasbas sat with me to discuss his career and reflect on his personal and professional experiences.
Adam: Can you paint a broad picture of yourself for our readers?
Brandon: Tattooed. Married. Three kids. I ride motorcycles… low ride… typical inner-city stuff. I do a lot of screen-printing, painting, drawing… I also do sound engineering — I mix vocals mostly but sometimes I do live shows.
Adam: Where do you draw your inspiration from for all of this creative work?
Brandon: Just growing up. On the street I lived on, there was a ton of guys who were into music and art. Every other house had low riders, pin-striped cars or guys who did tattoos. As a kid, when I used to draw or do lettering it was kind of mimicking what I used to see. I’d try to give letters those certain characteristics like the guys I used to see doing tattoos — making the letters look ‘aggressive’ I guess you could say.
Adam: What brought you to Northrop Grumman?
Brandon: I have a lot of family that works here. My uncle said, “Just get your foot in the door and it might open some other doors for you.” So I hired into the mailroom. To be honest, I thought I would only stay for like six months. But when the mailroom slowed down, I started helping out in the print shop… you know, stuffing binders and things. That’s when I met everybody else and found out that there are really creative areas within this company. I was like, “Man, this is actually really cool to be a part of this.” I thought it was just engineers and rocket scientists.
Adam: Did your screen printing experience reflect at all on your work in the print shop?
Brandon: The print shop gave me the outlet to teach myself the whole Photoshop thing. I was able to learn it on my own taking these online classes and stuff. I also taught myself Illustrator. Now I use those programs all the time outside of work.
Adam: So what are your current responsibilities?
Brandon: Now, I’m a photographer. I shoot a lot of surf photography outside of work, so here I shoot product tests and build documentation… a lot of stuff like that.
Adam: Is the work fulfilling?
Brandon: It is. When I was in the print shop, I used to print a lot of this stuff. Now I’m creating it. I get to go off-site and see it firsthand. I feel like I’m really doing something for the company. I’ve seen my photos help engineers solve problems and reveal whether something was on the spacecraft or wasn’t. To know that my photos work and that they’re actually using them is kind of cool.
Adam: What went through your head when the first street-art request came across your desk?
Brandon: I thought they were just kind of blowing smoke. I thought, “There’s no way they would let me paint anything.” It wasn’t until they brought me to go buy the paint that I knew it was real.
Adam: And what sort of reaction did you get when it was completed?
Brandon: I was almost embarrassed at first. I wasn’t sure how people would react to graffiti at work but everybody was super stoked about it. Our VP of Engineering asked to have his picture taken in front of it. It was all really positive.
Adam: What constraints were given to you before starting on it?
Brandon: They gave me some program names to include as words but otherwise I was given full freedom to just do whatever I wanted. I’ve done plenty of projects where the customer specifically tells me they want it like this, or like that, and I’m trying to create someone else’s idea. For them to say, “Go ahead and do whatever you want,” that was a great creative freedom to be given.
Adam: Can you describe your process?
Brandon: I listen to tons of reggae music while I work. I’ll see the finished piece in my head while I sketch everything out in a light color and from there, that’s when it comes to life. I’ll have an idea of what colors I plan to use, but once it’s on the wall, I’ll change colors, I’ll change everything. But I’ll zone out for hours painting. There might be a cloud of aerosol in the air but I have tunnel vision on what I’m painting and time can pass by like crazy. I’ll stay in there until it’s done. I don’t feel rushed, I don’t feel pressure. It’s just my time and my thing. Working in my own studio, doing it on my own — that’s the best feeling ever.
Adam: How many hours does it take to produce a 12 foot by 8 foot mural?
Brandon: Priming the boards and stuff — about ten hours. But the actual painting, maybe six to seven hours. I’ll start in the morning and zone out and by the end of the day, I step outside and it’s dark out.
Adam: What challenges were faced during this project?
Brandon: The physical space. I work in my garage and the boards were bigger than the wall. So I’d paint a section, then pull the boards out and put them on another wall to finish the sections I couldn’t do. I painted it in parts and then pieced it back together like a puzzle. Also, the gator board we used is thin and delicate so I had to be really careful moving it to not bang the corners or edges.
Adam: Are you pleased with how it turned out?
Brandon: Yes. There are a few imperfections that I can point out but most people won’t see.
Adam: Do you see a growing desire for street art in the corporate work place?
Brandon: I’ve enjoyed seeing some real street artists come up and end up doing some really big ads for Coke or Pepsi. That’s the coolest thing to see. And for myself, being able to do this for Northrop Grumman… If I weren’t working here and was seeing that from the outside, I’d think, “Man, that’s a progressive company, letting their employees paint on walls. There’s a connection there between the employer and the employees.” It feels hip to not frown upon that.
Adam: Who are your favorite artists? Are there any you emulate?
Brandon: The whole 1913 Crew, DIS, Rawtoons, Risk and Saber are guys I looked up to when I was young. Seeing their stuff was always unreal. I never understood how they got onto those bridges and canals. Their paintings now are almost 3D-like, and they’re using the same paints I’m using. Seeing that is just mind blowing. Other guys like Banksy I like, but I never use stencils or anything like that. But the element of secrecy is super cool. As a graffiti artist, you want people to know who you are, but you don’t want people to know who you are. Banksy has been able to hold that for so long. Other artists, Estevan Oriol, is a photographer who’s really cool. The content that he shoots is like my backyard, what I grew up seeing. The way he captures a lot of these guys — low riders, motorcycles, and the average inner-city guy — it’s cool to see them all highlighted like that. I would go to all his shows and buy all his books even before I got into photography. I loved that someone was capturing inner city life as if he were someone I grew up with or lived across the street from. Tattoos are something a lot of photographers shoot, but he really captures the prison style or garage style tattoo which is something I’ve seen my whole life.
Adam: Is his work what drove you into photography?
Brandon: I surf outside of work. When it gets really cold, I don’t really want to get in the water but being at the beach is cool, so I started taking pictures of family members surfing. Then I started challenging myself to capture certain shots that I’ve seen other people do. But yes, when I first got my camera, it was low riders, surfing, sneakers and tattoos… that’s what I was shooting.
Adam: If you could go back and talk to that little kid sketching his neighbors’ tattoos, would you ever have expected him to grow up being a corporate professional photographer.
Brandon: No. Never… never. My dream job was to do tattoos. But my hands are way too shaky for it and there’s too much pressure behind it.
Adam: Were your parents always supportive of your art?
Brandon: You know what’s funny… my dad’s a painter. He works for Cal Trans and he paints the Vincent Thomas Bridge. So he always hated graffiti because he’s painting over it all the time. For the Northrop Grumman mural, he helped me hang up the boards in my garage and was like, “Are you sure work is letting you do this?” I told them, “Yeah, dad, they bought the paint and everything.” He was blown away. He brings it up at barbeques now. It’s still trippy to me to think about.
Adam: How do you fit it all in? You’re married, you have a family and you work full time.
Brandon: My wife’s super supportive and she understands. We just bought a house and it has a room just for all my crap. Everything is in there – it was a huge selling point for the house. I could get all my crap out of the garage and put it in this room where I can just do whatever I want. Besides being supportive, she gets it. She knows this room is a safe bubble I guess you could say. When I’m in there, she knows I’m doing something that I really like. And now that my son’s a little bit older, he’s turning three, he sees my drawing and now he picks it up too and my daughter too – she wants to make shirts for herself now.
Adam: On that note, what advice would you give to younger street artists out there who may be considering taking a stab at corporate life?
Brandon: There’s room for creative space in any company. Seeing how Northrop Grumman is actually coming around and becoming cool with street art and stuff, I would advise not to shy away from it. A lot of my buddies didn’t want to get into any corporate environment because they thought there was no room for artists like them. But if more and more companies are going this route, then more and more people like my buddies will be down with coming on board.
Adam: Well, you’re helping the company too, Brandon. You’re an inspiration to your colleagues as well.
Brandon: That was the one thing that I was scared about. I thought people would be afraid it would make the company look bad. But seeing the reactions from everybody and people being proud of it and everybody being so stoked about it… it’s super cool.
They already want me to paint another one.