Toobz Muir by
To be inside the mind of Toobz Muir would be captivating, dark, and a little exhausting. With this man, who has been a skateboarder, a hip-hop MC, and a street artist, one conversation with him is all you need to see that there are a ton of things brewing in his mind. You can’t help but wonder: what will Toobz do next? When I first called him up to start our interview, he hung up on me, saying I had the wrong number. Slightly rattled, I had no option but to call him back. But as I took a motivating breath to prepare for doing so, my phone started ringing. “I am so sorry!” he said. “You didn’t have the wrong number! Your accent threw me off.” We both laughed, and my nerves were eased as Toobz and I joked about my Australian pronunciation of his moniker. Luckily, this provided a seamless segue into my first question: where in this world did he get the name Toobz? “We all go through that--trying to find out our personal identity [other] than what our parents give us,“ he said. “I’ve been through many names, and I just decided Toobz was something that really pertained to what I was actually going through at the moment. You know how you go through these tunnels of life? I chose Toobz because it is like a passel of lives that speak through a chaotic murmur, and I translate that through my subconscious. I remain plural. It’s forever changing and becoming clearer, but there is no end.” When I told him it is also a really fun word to say, he laughed and said, “A lot of people also pronounce it ‘too busy.’ I’m like, ‘well, I am very busy...’ That’s hilarious.” In light of the quality of Toobz’s art, it is surprising to learn that he only begun doing art in earnest a decade ago. “I skateboarded for 20 years--way before I did any of this art,“ he said. “I decided to do art seriously about 10 years ago.” Toobz was a sponsored amateur skateboarder, and he shared some clips with me of his skateboarding days. One video showed Toobz in 1993, at age 20. Amid the sea baggy pants (complete with visible boxer shorts, of course), the videos provide a flash of graffitied walls, foreshadowing Toobz’s future. “As you can see, I was doing graffiti that was terrible back then,” he said with a laugh. “However, I never broke a bone [in] the 20 years that I skated. I was built for it.” One thing evident in conversations with Toobz is his loyalty to Roanoke, Virginia, his hometown. Skateboarding took him to the west coast, home of skate culture, but he could not shake off his east coast roots. “I went out to California and I stayed for a while. I learned the culture,” he explained. “It was just.. I grew up on the east coast. It was not as metropolitan, more earthy. I feel like I am more planted here. I feel more natural here.” When he left California, skateboarding’s hold on Toobz also seemed to lessen. “I just felt like it wasn’t for me. The whole lifestyle that I grew up with was something that I just needed to keep holding on to.” Back in Roanoke with skating no longer inspiring him, he found himself needing a completely different state of mind. “I went back home, rethought about everything, and decided I would not force myself anymore, “ said Toobz. “I decided to just be in complete let-go state, CHECK RVAMAG.COM DAILY
to enjoy what life brings me instead of trying to force it and make it happen all the time.” With this new mindset, his career as an artist began to take shape. Toobz’s style could be described as dark and absurdist, or in his own words, “confusion.” He finds beauty in darkness, in moments of pain, and his paintings often depict people with elongated or distorted features. His inspiration comes from his father, a man disfigured from birth by a disease doctors could never properly diagnose. “His story is vague,” said Toobz. “But he has a deformed nose and his left side of his face doesn’t match the right. He is missing part of his iris as well.” Toobz has found inspiration in his father’s story, including details from the seven years of multiple surgeries his father undertook. He was struck by the way society views people who may look different, and of the beauty in disfigurement. “My father went through many surgeries for at least seven years, and when he’s telling me this, I’m going ‘Wow, the pain’,” said Toobz. “But he is still a beautiful person, because he learned that somebody could love him and he could love somebody else.” While others may experience fear or discomfort when confronted with people who have distorted or disfigured appearances, the opposite is true for Toobz. His father provided him with a sense of comfort and love. Therefore, what the world sees as ugliness is somewhat comforting to Toobz. “I realized maybe within the last three to four years that this is why I do the distortions that I do, why I like that,” Toobz explained. “Because its that security. That’s my style--through my father.” Pain, and the truth found within this state, is also a common theme in Toobz’s art. Again, this is another by-product of his dad’s influence. “I love pain,” he said. “I love the fact people go through that darkness of their life, because most of the time we try to hide that. We suppress that. There is a lot of pain that all humans go through. Animals even. You can see it in their face sometimes. When you’re in tune with everybody else, and you have that connection – then it’s all right there in front of you. And when I capture that, it’s an emotional state you know. And that’s what I’m working towards.” When asked how he would define the genre of his art, Toobz reflected on what led him to his style. “It’s weird, as I started out as confusion, then I got categorized as ‘graffiti writer.’ But then I tried to morph the two,” he said. “One of my really good friends that I grew up with was from Newark, and we went to New York often. I grew up in the mid 80s, so this is early 70s, the birthplace of where this [graffiti] culture started. Then suddenly, it gets passed quickly down the east coast. I was into breakdancing, and I felt that everybody had to be the king of style. You had to be the king of all elements – DJing, breakdancing, graffiti, MCing – which ran into what I still do now, I’ve been MCing for... god, 20 years?” Toobz said the abstract nature of his art often leads to false assumptions about himself. Namely, that he is on a whole load of drugs. “I’m super sober,” said Toobz. “I haven’t done drugs for like 8 years. It’s just who I am. What’s weird is, I drew
when I was little – and it is very similar to what I do now. Not the quality, but the ideas.” Drugs got the boot when Toobz experienced somewhat of a “quarter life crisis” at 32, leading him to reassess his life. “I quit everything, completely,” said Toobz. “I quit listening to hip hop, I quit listening to everything that I felt I was super righteous on. I felt like that was it. Let’s minimize the brain and start all over again.” “I went back and started thinking about a lot of childhood memories,” he explained. “I read a lot. I started listening to different music. I just went though a huge transitional period, to where I felt I needed to live in a different perspective. Not only was it healthy, it was liberating and it pushed me to better my work and to be more accepting of what was ahead no matter the outcome. Since then, it has been the best years of my life. I’ve conditioned my world to be tolerable. I am very driven to make it all happen.” Toobz’s drive is evident through his prolific body of work. He recently had a solo exhibition, Sewn Well, at Richmond’s Love RVA Gallery. Toobz is working on a mural in his hometown of Roanoke-“my largest mural so far.” He’s also perfecting his portfolio. “I’m working on a portfolio of the best of the best, so I can start to share my work with larger events, and try to get out there as much as possible,” he said. “I’d love to travel. I would love to put my work out to different places.“ A discussion of Toobz’s art would not be complete without mentioning a distinguishing fact: Toobz is colorblind. “It’s a major thing,” he said. “I fought with that for a long time.” Toobz taught himself to not let his colorblindness affect his work, but rather to enhance it. “I use a greyscale reference and the tones within the reference, and use the colors that match those tones. So I layer colors to get shades and lighting, to make the subject appear the way I choose to see it. So it ends up looking the way it does due to my eyes.” When I commented on how impressive his art is, especially in light of his visual impairment, Toobz was quick to deflect the praise. “I’m very humble with what I do.” he said. “I always put myself in the place of where I think I’m never good enough, which is a good place. I’m always striving to be better.” It is this semper sursum tendere which draws Toobz’s focus towards building respect for graffiti art, rather than simply accolades for himself. “I don’t care to be involved with fame,” said Toobz. “I don’t care to have a million lovers, or a million ‘like’-ers and followers. But I do care about being the pioneer, honing a style, and understanding that it needs to be respected.” As our conversation drew to a close, I couldn’t help but tell Toobz how interesting it would be to spend some time inside his mind, see how it works. “It is here, there and everywhere,” he responded. “It is scatterbrained, but it is very organized at the same time.” Luckily for us, we get to reap the benefits. www.facebook.com/toobz.noel 37
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