How the Atlanta graffiti artist went
legit and became a global art star.
From atop the school, the parking lot was 137 feet down, which made ant-like specks of the art enthusiasts gathered below.
Falling meant more than likely they would all die. So the last thing the painters wanted to see were patches of rust on the rigging cables that would hold their platform as they worked like window washers on a skyscraper.
Artist Alex Brewer and his chief assistant Taylor Means momentarily freaked out.
It's just surface rust, said a crew member in Spanish. You didn’t come to Peru to die, did you? No? OK. Let's paint.
And what a painting it would be. The canvas — a multi-story art school wall (pictured here) — measured 23,290 square feet and peered over Lima’s most important expressway and a canyon of mid-rise buildings.
The project's curator, Jules Bay, had scoured the world in 2013 for an artist capable of creating an image that would engage onlookers, regardless of their language. She felt lucky to have landed Brewer, a rising-star gallery artist and muralist from Atlanta who went by the graffiti name, HENSE.
Armed with a paint sprayer, brushes, ropes, extension poles, rollers of various sizes, random homemade tools, more than 200 gallons of latex paint and a few aerosol cans, Brewer and Means loaded onto the dangling platform with an unenthusiastic team of 10 Peruvian house painters, plus a small camera crew.
It was Brewer's first time in South America, his first international mural and his first painting of such immense scale. He’d come a long way from scrawling his name in spray paint beneath the Freedom Parkway overpass, his eyes perpetually peeled for Atlanta police.
For three weeks in Lima, each day was the same — breakfast, wall, hotel, bed.
Beneath a blue hardhat with a chinstrap, Brewer instructed his befuddled crew to forget everything they'd learned in commercial painting, to create dots and shapes in a linear fashion — and then destroy them all with more paint, more layers, more intensity.
Deviating as usual from his concept sketches, he improvised, working from instinct in bold shades of red, pink and a touch of gray.
The crew soon began to realize this wasn't just another job. They had created a fantastical galaxy of color and shape, a mystery of geometry and depth, one of the largest modern public artworks in all of Peru.
Photo: Alex Brewer stands in front of a mural he created with a grant from Atlanta's Office of Cultural Affairs, at Arizona and DeKalb avenues. Photo was taken May 31, 2012. Hyosub Shin, email@example.com
Don’t look back
Before Brewer, 36, became one of the most in-demand mural painters in the world ...
Before his paintings routinely fetched $15,000 ...
Before he earned commissions to paint Facebook's global headquarters, a splashy new Apple store and four gigantic grain silos in Australia ...
Before his work was acquired by the High Museum of Art ...
Before Lima ...
Before celebrity chef Alton Brown had him paint the walls of his Marietta home studio and test kitchen ...
Before the corporate commissions, solo exhibitions and eye-catching murals in Chicago, Detroit, Washington, D.C., and beyond ...
Before he painted a series of dazzling, commissioned murals across Atlanta and helped usher in the city's public art movement ...
Before his starving-artist years in a little apartment, painting in the kitchen, Brewer was one of the most — if not the most — prolific (some might say notorious) graffiti artists in Atlanta.
From the early 1990s to mid-2000s, Brewer's spray-painted moniker HENSE appeared on underpasses, walls, billboards, train trestles and old buildings in virtually every neighborhood inside the Perimeter. The envy of rival painters and the bane of some property owners, HENSE ruled the underground landscape from the Westside's Bankhead Avenue truss bridge to a towering work that lorded over the Beltline corridor for years, just south of Edgewood Avenue.
Now that he's enjoying international renown and life-changing paydays, however, Brewer seems eager to cut ties with that illicit past.
His graffiti laid the basis for his aesthetic, his technique and every bit of his success, but he sprayed his last illegal piece roughly a decade ago. And over the course of several interviews that spanned this summer, the earnest and affable Brewer squirmed, grimaced and even bristled when asked about it.
Why? Because that's not him, he says, not anymore. If this is the butterfly, that was the cocoon.
"It’s not like a deep, dark past," Brewer says one day at a Midtown frozen yogurt shop, wearing paint-flecked Ray-Bans and skinny jeans. His deep voice can burst into laughter at any moment, but the topic has weighted the room with tension and clipped his answers.
"I mean, look, you know, (graffiti is) a young man's game," he says. "You start getting into your late 20s, and you think, ‘Is this really me?'"
One evening in July, the posh upstairs dining room at Ration & Dram in Edgewood is darkened by thunderstorms rolling in from the west, swallowing the spires of downtown. Also visible: the post-industrial building where Brewer rents a loft with his wife, Candice House Brewer, which they share with two long-haired Chihuahuas, Walnut and Olive. She's a Florida native and Cartoon Network art director who is blonde, soft-spoken and constantly smiling. Tonight she eats a hot chicken sandwich, sips from a Chester Copperpot cocktail and ribs her husband for being messy.
"He always has paint on his fingers," says Candice.
Her husband shrugs.
The physical manifestations of Brewer's trade go beyond his fingers. He has the fit body of the runner he is and the soccer player he used to be and a short mop of dark hair that’s been precisely combed for dinner. His chiseled face recalls "Lost Boys"-era Jason Patric, but it's his weary eyes that speak to where he's just been: on the other side of the world, in Taipei’s bustling Da'an District, painting the corrugated walls of an electrical substation at the behest of a Taiwanese art foundation.
Logistical issues and a rain-dumping typhoon kept him on that job for an extra week, pressed against so much steel in tropical heat with no shade. Combined with jet lag, that project has rendered him literally stooped over his hamburger at the restaurant, yawning under drooped eyes.
Brewer's minimum rate for commissions is around $10,000 these days, but the mural jobs curated by city governments and art nonprofits aren't especially lucrative, all things considered. What he takes away from these globetrotting cultural immersions, however, is priceless: new friendships and a spiritual connection to place.
"It's one of those things you can’t put a dollar sign on, that experience," Brewer says. But he acknowledges that being gone so much takes a toll back home. To unwind, he and Candice like to walk the dogs and watch their shows — "The Wire" and "Game of Thrones" — but that rarely happened this summer. By September, he had been in Atlanta for just a few scattered days.
Outside, the thunderstorm continues east, across MARTA rails and leafy Candler Park, where Brewer grew up in the 1980s, long before $700,000 bungalows and stroller brigades supplanted ubiquitous blight and seedy characters.
His father, real estate developer Bill Brewer, renovated the family’s art-filled 1919 Georgian Craftsman by hand, aided by wife, Kay, an interior designer. As a boy, Brewer watched his father lead adaptive-reuse projects in historic Charleston, S.C., and Savannah, while protesting against — and ultimately helping defeat — the intrusion of expressways in some of Atlanta’s oldest neighborhoods. A fascination with all things urban is in Brewer's DNA.
The oldest of three siblings — his sister is pursuing a doctorate in public medicine, while his brother, the youngest, attends grad school for city planning — Brewer was enthused by even the most mundane art assignments in elementary school: collaging, papier-mâché, fiddling with Elmer's glue. In his pencil and crayon drawings, some modicum of talent began to emerge — energetic and uncorrupted, as most child art is. The feedback from art teachers was always good, though Brewer says he wasn't even trying yet.
Grady High School was a different story. "Art class became something that I was really excited about," and he received straight A's, he says, although he had to juggle studying with soccer practice. A speedster, he made the varsity team at forward and halfback and became acquainted with other players who, like him, were drawn to self-expression through art.
The urban canvas
In the pre-Olympics era of the early 1990s, metro Atlanta was a peculiar dichotomy. Its population was exploding but the inner city had reached its nadir, in terms of population. Great swaths of Atlanta seemed barren and left behind, like a playground for mischief.
Riding MARTA trains to Lenox Square, Brewer and friends noticed that a subculture of scofflaw artists (many of them Atlanta College of Art students) had been spray-painting their aliases — Haze, Boost and so forth — on billboards, buildings and any dingy nook they could get away with defacing. To Brewer it looked like the old-school New York subway graffiti that had fascinated him since he’d seen it featured on a PBS documentary.
He itched to participate but was clueless how: Where do we get the right paint? What are the rules?
Back then, before the city abolished them, a few designated walls around Atlanta allowed graffitists to legally practice in public. In those pre-Internet days, Brewer's only means of learning how to paint graffiti was to hang out at these walls and watch, in awe, as the guys behind the monikers maneuvered cans, making their two-dimensional works pop off concrete.
Soon it was time to stop watching and start spraying.
One day Brewer and company shoplifted cans of Rust-Oleum and Krylon, and bee-lined for the nearest underpass, the Freedom Parkway bridge. Their first attempts at writing graffiti were terrible, just squiggles that taggers quickly painted over — a sign of disrespect from their experienced peers. They took their lumps and moved on, continuing to explore.
Many of Brewer's earliest canvases were in such forgotten pockets of town he had no fear of painting in broad daylight. He and his friends roamed abandoned industrial complexes, marveling at smokestacks and massive warehouse doors consumed by kudzu. By night, they climbed billboard ladders, painted freight trains and wrote atop buildings —the more visible from interstates and MARTA, the better. The early pieces, like most graffiti, were exercises in typography. So Brewer needed about five good letters that would be his calling card.
He'd tried a couple of aliases that didn’t feel right: Stoop, Noise, others. He wanted something that sounded cool but wasn't a silly, arbitrary word. Flipping through a dictionary one day, an entry jumped out: hence. He liked each of the five capitalized letters, but after a couple of test-runs, the aesthetics of the "c" seemed off, so he made a substitution, and set off writing "HENSE" across Atlanta.
Brewer's quest to dominate the local graffiti scene bordered on obsession. He felt pride in his growing criminal portfolio, convinced he was taking part in some kind of Gen-X rebellion. He’d venture into woebegone pockets of town and abandoned buildings at night, alone and terrified.
"That was really nerve-wracking, because it's difficult to try to focus on your work and think about not being seen, and watching out for crackheads and people like that," he said. "But I never had any problems."
The proliferation of HENSE graffiti made an impression on Taylor Means, a 27-year-old painter who grew up in Decatur. "You'd see it along highways, bridges, underpasses, overpasses," said Means. "I was impressed with how much of his work I saw around town, and thought it was kind of a phenomenon."
Graffiti is a game of being "up," a turf-war of temporary victories and vandalistic disregard, but from the get-go Brewer saw a deeper purpose in his illicitness; it would be his training ground and launching pad. Some of the first graffitists to inspire him — Dave Kinsey, a local artist who painted as Lern, and breakout stars like Shepard Fairey — had begun showing in galleries and getting paid commissions. He knew, eventually, he wanted to tackle large works, both indoors and out.
While hanging off bridges and the backs of billboards, or rolling paint over huge walls in abandoned railroad corridors, he was learning to work his whole arm — whole body — into the lines, to handle textural surface changes and the shifting geometry of urban architecture, grappling with rain, wind, cold, suffocating humidity, poison ivy, mosquitoes and the constant threat of arrest. Often, he’d look down to train tracks or streets several stories below and think, "This is not wise."
There were some arrests. Brewer grudgingly talks about them, calling them cases of "wrong place, wrong time" and "ancient history." His first night in jail came at age 18, and his last at 21, resulting in sentences of community service. In recent years, a concentrated crackdown by Atlanta police — and the appointment of an officer solely dedicated to tracking and wrangling graffiti writers — has resulted in more severe penalties for today’s graffitists, including felony charges.
Looking back, Brewer considers his arrests embarrassing episodes he’d rather forget, not badges of street-cred honor. That kid in abandoned buildings at midnight was, he says, "an idiot, frankly."
In the same way he ducked authorities, Brewer had always tried to keep his graffiti secret from his family — and largely he succeeded. He recalls being in the car with his parents, driving by prominent HENSE pieces and crossing his fingers they didn't connect the dots. His open-minded folks would support creativity in any form, he knew, but not breaking the law.
"We had very little knowledge of exactly what he was doing," his father says with a chuckle. "Even as of today, he hasn't shared everything."
After high school, Brewer studied art at Virginia Commonwealth University but dropped out after only one semester. Formalized art studies somehow didn't feel right, and he was too consumed with Atlanta’s graffiti culture to be so far away.
Concerned by Brewer's decision to quit college, Bill Brewer advised his son that work ethic alone wouldn’t cut it in the art world.
You can't rely on your neighborhood, man, the elder Brewer would say, during their frequent long talks. Allow yourself to go as far as you can go and expose yourself to as much as you can, because that's the only way, in art, that you'll be able to do well.
In an industrial section of Avondale Estates, among a junkyard, a closed auto repair garage and fences topped with barbed-wire curlicues, Brewer's studio occupies the back of a large brick building, with 13-foot ceilings, skylights, a relentless little air-conditioning unit and vital ventilation systems. Leaning against the wall like felled dominoes are huge, fluorescent-colored works, including his priciest (and yet unsold) painting thus far: an 8-by-16-foot monster that retails for $30,000.
In this paint-splashed laboratory, Brewer wears a straight-billed painter's cap and green Vans. Here, he puts Beats headphones over his ears — pumping everything from Jay-Z to pop to electronica — and sips from his ubiquitous coffee mug, because music and caffeine are key sources of inspiration and motivation. Once he's feeling it, he produces art like he answers questions: rapid-fire, analytical but intuitive, spontaneous, charging from one layer, one topic, to the next.
On this day in late June, Brewer is producing work for a Detroit show later this fall, with an eye toward his first solo international exhibition in Germany next year, another milestone. For Detroit collectors, he's self-curating works on paper, abstracts with new motifs and his latest fascination: large paintings with collages of playful, wooden shapes affixed with screws. Beside him is a sea of paint buckets and a medium that echoes the past: spray cans of Rust-Oleum, pricey Montana paint and even the el cheapo Quick Color, which for 99 cents sprays a fuzzy roughness on canvas that Brewer loves.
He disavows labels like abstract expressionism, pop art or street art. There are no literal themes, no political messages in his work — just bright palettes (often with lyrical, spray-painted lines) that have become his signature.
Brewer's transition from the street to art galleries began in earnest in 2005 when Robin Sandler, co-owner of Sandler Hudson Gallery on Atlanta's Westside, walked into Octane Coffee and saw an exhibit of Brewer's smaller works on paper. She was struck by the fresh, elegant energy of the pieces. Brewer was working at the time from his Virginia-Highland apartment, painting in his kitchen, making ends meet with commercial painting jobs and by selling works in smaller, fringe galleries such as Youngblood.
Two years later she debuted his work in a 2007 group show titled "Drawings." Collectors were intrigued and his work was an immediate hit. In 2008, Sandler's gallery hosted Brewer's first major solo exhibit, "Soft Light." It featured mixed-media work he'd composed while sharing studio space with Andrew "Zephyr" Witten — a legendary New York graffitist and author — in the King Plow Arts Center.
"That was a very exciting moment," Brewer recalls.
In the gallery world, Brewer was billed as an emerging Southern talent. Each success begat a bigger one, with increasingly more exposure, and the notoriety of HENSE snowballed. He launched a website and started fielding inquiries from collectors around the world.
Brewer projected confidence and usually felt it, but he was often wracked with the self-directed pessimism that's common to ambitious, creative people. Yesterday I was feeling great about this, but today I'm nothing, he would think. I’m doing nothing relevant. But to let that show, he feared, would give competing artists an advantage and damage his cachet in the eyes of collectors. So he cultivated a demeanor of control.
Around this time, Candice started noticing HENSE graffiti on her way to work in Midtown every day. Something in the lettering's "extrusion" — artist parlance for long multi-dimensional effects — wowed her. A mutual acquaintance suggested they meet and facilitated a blind date.
Over dinner in Cabbagetown, the artists hit it off. Brewer was a Cartoon Network fan. Candice thought he was hot. Giddy and nervous, she gave him a high-five at the end of the date and walked away. Brewer felt his life change that night.
In Candice, he found a kindred creative spirit, sounding board and an adviser with big-industry perspective who wasn’t afraid to speak her mind. He'd often ask her, like the artists he's called friends for years, Am I going in the right direction here?
With a more technical background in graphic design, Candice was in awe of Brewer's boldness in mark-making and willingness to paint over his work, but she wouldn't hesitate to say, "Um, no."
The Brewers were married in 2013, and she encourages him to take every major project he can, no matter where it is, or how long it will keep them apart.
"I have to say it's hard," Candice admits. "But I knew going in this was his dream."
The world stage
HENSE the bona fide muralist was unofficially born in 2010 — on a Virginia salt marsh, of all places.
Taylor Means had grown from a HENSE admirer to a good friend and collaborator whom Brewer could count on. That year, Means was vacationing in Virginia and caught wind of an abandoned shipwreck on a barrier island near a town called Oyster. He returned to Atlanta with a grand idea:
There's this boat called the Laura-J, Means told Brewer. We should go paint it!
In those days, Brewer was hungry for large projects of any kind, even unpaid ones for which he’d have to buy all the materials. Exposure and practice were paramount. His response: A shipwreck? Absolutely.
They loaded two vehicles, set course for Oyster and began to paint the ship but were chased off by the Coast Guard. So Means made calls to family connections in the area, and soon they shifted focus to an old oyster factory, borrowed a Genie lift from the property owner and transformed the drab structure into an explosively pastel landmark.
It was a turning point: Brewer had never wrapped an entire building in paint before. He'd never modified his work to fit the context. Something clicked. Large-scale abstractions, he realized, could take his skills to places graffiti could not.
"When you paint a wall, you have a picture," says Means, "but when you paint the whole building, you have a sculpture."
That year Brewer submitted detailed grant proposals for city-funded wall paintings on Arizona Avenue and along the nascent Beltline.
Every proposal was accepted. He helped launch the celebrated Art on the Beltline exhibition in 2010, eventually painting four murals. Along with public art incubators like the Elevate festival and Living Walls, Brewer played a lead role in a paradigm shift that has seen Atlantans embracing public art like never before.
The irony was thick: The same people the city had once paid officers to lock up were now receiving commissions from city coffers. And it wasn’t lost on Camille Love, director of the Mayor's Office of Cultural Affairs, who now considers herself a HENSE fan.
"What we've had to do is try to distinguish art from graffiti from gang-tagging," says Love. "We're trying to address it by providing opportunities for those who are really artists."
Next, Brewer wrapped a Washington, D.C., church, a project that attracted international media attention. At another solo show in 2012, Sandler introduced Brewer’s work to Michael Rooks, the High Museum's curator of modern and contemporary art, who saw in HENSE's rhythmic compositions echoes of Russian abstractionist Wassily Kandinsky. Then he made a boyhood dream of Brewer's come true.
The High Museum — a source of inspiration and wonder for Brewer's whole life — acquired a mixed-media HENSE piece on paper for its permanent collection in 2013, and Rooks put Brewer front and center that year for the exhibition "Drawing Inside the Perimeter," in which he painted a wall.
But not everyone has been smitten with Brewer's work — or his success.
After he painted Alton Brown's test kitchen, the television star hosted a podcast to pick Brewer's brain. Some commenters chided Brewer as a "criminal" and the abstractions as "preschool," a sentiment repeated in comment sections elsewhere.
Mild-mannered Rooks takes umbrage, calling such criticisms "stupid" and "dumb," adding that, "Alex (is) doing something outside of the conventional mural work that you see in cities around the country, (and) by doing it in a way that is so unabashedly unique and his own, I'm sure that's going to rub traditionalists the wrong way."
By the time of the Peru project, Brewer's art was hanging in galleries from Los Angeles to New York. News of the South American project intrigued an Australian nonprofit called FORM earlier this year. The Aussies needed an artist capable of working at extreme heights for 10 hours a day, to paint four towering silos outside Perth, against a backdrop of rolling hills, endless wheat fields and scattered flocks of sheep. In Brewer, whom project manager Rhianna Pezzaniti calls "one of the leading muralists around right now," they found their guy. The results dazzled.
Enter: Facebook and Apple.
This year has been Brewer's most lucrative yet. In March, he joined a select few artists who painted murals at Facebook's Frank Gehry-designed Menlo Park, Calif., headquarters, applying his signature shapes to a long parking garage wall. A few weeks later, Apple flew him to Miami to paint a site-specific mural outside a new store, with the chomped-apple logo in the middle.
If there's anything he fears more than sounding like a vandalizing hoodlum, it's coming off as a chest-beating capitalist. Asked what these projects pay, Brewer laughs loudly and fidgets in his chair. Finally he concedes that the Facebook and Apple jobs — relatively small works, both — earned him roughly the equivalent of a really nice annual salary. Each.
PHOTOS: HENSE mural at Arizona and DeKalb avenues. Hyosub Shin, firstname.lastname@example.org
People who know Brewer describe his art as "brilliant," "incredible," "amazing" and "influential" to the next wave of young painters. But give Brewer even the slightest compliment in person, and his grateful, surprised response is not the sound of an artist who expects praise or thinks he deserves it — but one who needs it as a means of sustenance.
And that speaks to what he hopes is his greatest achievement so far: the ability to stay humble.
"I’ve got a lot of friends who are millionaires, and they act like rock stars, and that's not me," the artist said. "I don't want a Maserati in my studio."
Maintaining modesty could be more of a challenge in the future.
Lately, Brewer's been experimenting in sculpture and, according to his father, has been in talks with a local company about a multi-million dollar piece "whose scale would be staggering."
With his background in urban renewal, Bill Brewer foresees a time when development in cities like Atlanta could be influenced by work like his son's.
Camille Love says keeping local artists as part of the city’s ecosystem is paramount, as they create environments that help creative industries like technology and film production blossom.
Brewer, for one, has no plans of leaving. He's socking away his earnings in hopes of buying his own Atlanta studio and possibly designing a home from scratch. He beams when talking of one day having kids.
A trio of Beltline bicyclists stops beneath Virginia Avenue one humid evening, and the lone guy among them, his Braves cap backward, instructs the others to pose against a HENSE mural and "be free," as he snaps smartphone photos. The girls kick up their legs like Hollywood vixens, snatch the phone and view themselves against the vibrant backdrop, a repeated motif of big drippy dots.
"That's amazing!" one says as the others giggle.
Brewer arrives late, his apologies echoing under the bridge. He's still struggling with Taipei jet lag and has to leave in two days for Germany, where he'll paint a wall mural and complete work for a three-person exhibit this year.
"Instead of making this about graphic forms," he says about the Beltline mural, "I made it more about layers, various opacities and viscosities of paint."
Then he acknowledges that the context for this mural is a bit of a head-trip.
Waves of joggers and stroller-pushing moms have replaced the bridge-dwelling homeless and his tagging pals. Farther south, blocky mixed-use developments have supplanted the underground canvases of yesteryear. Like Brewer, the city that spawned him is in an era of transition, but he's hardly sentimental. Knowing that most of his graffiti has been stripped away or painted over used to sadden him, but now, he says, "I don’t really care."
A few HENSE graffiti pieces are still out there, though, off MARTA lines and on the south side — nothing too prominent, nothing to boast about. Brewer knows exactly where a few of them are, but he doesn't want to be specific, just in case somebody's watching.
HOW WE GOT THE STORY
Ironically, I used to lead Inman Park's graffiti removal team, back when it was en vogue to scrawl obscenities on street signs and private property. But like many Atlantans, I've grown to appreciate the value of street art. Now one of my favorite hobbies is biking around the city, scouting out new murals with my young daughter. Her favorite is HENSE. Curious as to how Alex Brewer made the leap from the streets of Atlanta to the global stage, I interviewed the artist in several settings over four months, and spoke with friends, family and colleagues around the world. It wasn't easy to pin down an ambitious guy who's constantly globetrotting, but getting to peek inside the world of a highly successful international artist made the challenge worthwhile.
ABOUT THE REPORTER
Josh Green is a freelance journalist and fiction author who lives in Atlanta with his wife and daughters. An Indiana native, Green's newspaper journalism has won top awards in the Hoosier state and in Georgia, where he relocated to work for the Gwinnett Daily Post in 2007. Green is a contributing writer at Atlanta magazine and editor of Curbed Atlanta, and by night he’s shopping a novel.
ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER
Bob Andres joined the AJC in 1998. Born in San Francisco, he has held photography and photo editing positions in California, Florida and Georgia. A journalism graduate of San Francisco State University, Andres has also worked as the AJC’s metro photo editor, Sports photo editor and has taught photojournalism at UGA and Cal State Hayward.
Personal Journeys is our weekly look at the lives of extraordinary individuals and the stories that define our region and connect our community. The search for artistic success figures prominently in Art of Survival, the story of Atlanta artist Fahamu Pecou, the subject of a recent solo show at the High Museum of Art, and The Cloud Maker, about the late sculptor Andy Davis, who was killed in a motorcycle accident in July 2015. You'll find a complete list of Personal Journeys here.
Scroll down for more photos of Alex Brewer and his work.