While all subcultures are expansive, few are as colorful and unique as graffiti. No matter where in the world you may be, we’ve all got at least one thing in common: there’s someone in your city absolutely obsessed with writing their name on things as large and as high up as possible. Now, most locales have something of their own flavor—from the gang markings in Los Angeles and the political notes of dissent scattered across Europe to the 1 UP Crew literally sculpting a coral garden in their standout block print underwater in Australia—but if there’s one city synonymous with the street arts many forms, it’s New York City. From the can-littered railyards to the stories-tall commissioned murals, few places take the decoration of their urban setting as seriously as New York City, and none have pushed the art dialogue quite as far. Of course, that focus and desire breed competition and talent. As they say, if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere.
The boroughs have bred countless art legends. From Andy Warhol to Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring to KAWS, many of the most notable visual artists of the past century were shaped by the city and started on the street before their art propelled them to stardom. While the artists mentioned above have all gone on to find more mainstream acclaim, there’s a sect of artists out there who stayed true to their initial passions—the type who rarely have pictures taken of their face—and as a result, have seen less of the glitz and glam that’s adorned on the more traditional, timely, and topical crews. However, great graffiti is timeless, and while you may not see his work in vogue, there’s one OG who’s not only earned his stripes, but sharpened his steel to perfection. That artist I’m referring to goes by the name CES.
The Man With the Can
Born in New York City in 1970 as Robert Provenzano, it didn’t take long for CES to realize he was special.
“I found out at the age of 5, the first day of kindergarten, that I was different. I was able to draw,” he tells me. “From then on, I used art almost like a tool.”
Older artists took him out to paint graffiti for the first time when he was a teenager.
“The first name I wrote was PRO, like P-R-O, which was close to my family name,” he says. “From there, I chose my name CES. It’s ironic that I’m speaking with High Times Magazine because around the same time, I started indulging in cannabis culture at a very young age. CES was a word that you would call weed at that time [from sensimillia]. I was so intrigued by it, and it was something that I was growing more and more into. So calling myself CES, almost like I was the plant, was the plan.”
The name he chose was the end of an evolution.
“It sounded like a real name to me,” he says. “It had really cool letters. It was aggressive. I first spelled it SES the first year, year-and-a-half I was painting… but it was very difficult for me to do the same S on both ends, and that was like my thing, to have some form of balance.”
Although quick to acknowledge this was a lifelong passion, his reverence for the art is clear by how he explains his time off.
“I started writing graffiti in 1983, but I only wrote from like ’83 to about ’87,” he says. “I stopped from ’88 until ’91. So those were years where I was just a fan.”
Developing a Style
CES has a keen understanding of timing and understands that forcing results doesn’t always create the magic you’re looking for. Although widely recognized as a leader in wildstyle (a technique that incorporates interwoven and overlapping letters), arguably his most identifiable works involve hiding his tag within a larger piece of work (such as the tag he’s hidden on the back cover of this very issue, inside a dub sack). That highly refined skill doesn’t just come from practice, but from understanding when something is meant to happen.
“Morphing my name… I think it was something, honestly speaking, that I always saw, I just never knew how to get across to it, or maybe I didn’t have the confidence to take that chance and go there with it,” he says. “Because for a very long time, I’d say for the next 25 years, I really was focused on becoming a master painter. A master of style, a letter smith, really working on my lettering, and not concerning myself with, you know, the add-ons via characters, cartoons, or any addition that would accompany your name to create a composition. I was more focused on just doing my name, getting my name up in the cool and the hot places. And competing for the best style, competing mostly with myself, and becoming better each year, each season.”
Finding a Groove
His love of and position within the graffiti community kept rising during this growth. But graffiti didn’t always pay the bills. While honing his talent on the street, CES performed a different type of artistry—this time on people’s skin.
“I had been a tattoo artist for 25 years,” he says. “And being a tattoo artist, you’re asked to draw and create things that you wouldn’t normally do. I wasn’t in the habit of drawing butterflies until I started tattooing, but when I would do them, I would almost catalog them in my own mind. As I did enough of them, I was able to really understand all the little nuances [of certain designs].”
During this period, he started to understand art on a deeper level, thanks to an art show visit with a friend.
“[Creating my style] took me a good number of years going to museums and seeing things in different big spaces,” he says. “And I remember going to see if you’re familiar with an artist, Richard Serra. He does like these really big rusted sheets of steel and iron metal. And they’re intimidating. They sat in the middle of the gallery, and I remember going there, and a friend of mine, Jim Coronado, who ran a gallery in Manhattan, brought me, and we stood in front of it. And I looked around, and I whispered to him, I was like, ‘I don’t get it. You could go to any old fucking boatyard and get a big piece of metal and let it rock and drag it in here with a chain. You’re gonna tell me that’s art?’ And he goes, ‘Now just stand in front of it, get close to it, walk around, see how it makes you feel… See?’ And he taught me to look at things in a different way.”
CES explains that some of the most renowned writers in New York City began their careers in 1970 and 1971, but they had all retired by the time he started writing. At first, he worried that graffiti art was already on the decline and was uncertain if there was still a future in it. But soon, he realized that, unlike those other writers, his passion for graffiti art only continued to grow.
“As I grew, graffiti grew with me, the culture, the art form itself, kept growing with me,” he explains. “By that I mean, cats that were older now owned companies, and they utilized graffiti, and graffiti artists, for advertising… During those early years, in the ’90s, when this should have been the time I focused more on, you know, a career, this kept moving forward. And I was like, you know, I’m sticking with this. Because this is what I love, and it seems to be going somewhere basing it on the history and cats that came before me. It was pretty clear that it wasn’t going anywhere.”
CES explains that graffiti art has only continued gaining relevance.
“It just kept getting bigger and bigger,” he says. “And now you can’t watch fucking any movie or open a magazine without some form of graffiti in there, on some level. It’s on your clothing. It’s the logo of the company, the new cars parked in front of a mural. You know, everywhere I look, it’s like, everyone gets it now. And everyone tried to talk me out of it back then, from my father to my counselors in high school, to this, ‘Oh, you’re too talented, you know, stop messing with that.’ This and that. I was like, ‘No, I love this shit.’”
Today, paint companies sponsor artists with materials and travel expenses to paint worldwide. CES uses paint from the brand Montana Colors, which operates out of Barcelona, Spain.
Although it took the world a while to catch up, CES expresses amazement in watching graffiti art consistently grow from its underground roots to that of a respected art form.
“I’m constantly intrigued by [graffiti art], and so is the world,” he says.
As his work develops, CES continues to challenge himself.
“I can just draw, you know, an apple, and be like, ‘Oh, that’s cool, that’s a great looking apple, that’s amazing.’ But to draw an apple [that] actually says my name and still looks like a really fucking great apple is challenging. And I found the challenge. It’s what pushed me and intrigued me. And could I do it again? And could I do it with this object? In all honesty, I didn’t hit a home run every time.”
He pulls inspiration from different areas, including pop culture and trending news, to create his work.
“I did my name as a heartbeat and formed each letter in the heartbeat and let it flatline at the end, and people were like, ‘Wow, to come out with some shit like that, in just one line?’ And it was that simple. But I saw it, you know, and it said something,” he says. “And that’s the other thing like sometimes I went to the talk of the day… Kim Kardashian was in the news. I did her ass as my E when she was on that magazine cover. I would pick random things. If it was Bill Cosby getting convicted, I had him with a jar of pills, all kinds of wild things that might have been in the news and happenings.”
As he continued to push himself, the world took notice. This is especially true for the topical content, which has regularly gone viral across social platforms.
“People are watching, and people are into it, right?” he says. “So when you go out there, you put your ass out there. Like, you know, like you really out there on Broadway with the shit. That’s like your logo. That’s your business. That’s everything. It’s like, a surgeon is only as good as his last operation. That’s his calling card. He fucks that operation up; he’s in some shit. Same with graffiti, right? Like, if I come out there and do some, some fucking low-grade busted shit, you know? It’s just a bad look. That’s my calling card, my name. That’s what I put out there. That’s my work. I only have one speed. And that’s to do it right. That’s how I prefer to do it. Or I’m just not going to do it.”
For most artists, having a career that feeds and houses them is considered a win, but for CES, just being a great painter with paying gigs wasn’t enough.
“See, with me, money’s not my motivation,” he says. “I, above all, just want to be happy. Money doesn’t necessarily make me happy. It just makes things a little easier. But [my motivation is] to be a creative person and to get that out and have that outlet. And the subject in which I am creating is, by my own means. I’m not being told, you know, we want you to paint that wall blue. To me, that’s really not me being creative. That’s me taking orders.
“Being an artist, it’s having faith over facts, you know? I believe I have faith in what I do, it might not be a fact, but that’s what I hold on to. A lot of people can’t live in that world. It’s hard for them. They’d rather be regular. And deal with it as it comes.”
For CES, it’s all about manifesting ideas and seeing a vision.
“I can see a drawing. I can see an illustration. I could see the name morphing into this object, and it becoming this thing,” he says. “It’s like a mini way of giving birth. It’s like something I created just came to life, and I want to stare at it, and I want to look at it in a different light, and I want to share it with people, and I want, you know, all of these feelings come from each one. So imagine doing this, you know, every day of every week of your life, it’s definitely an interesting thing. And if you don’t do it, and you bottle this up, and it stays inside you. You have this nervous energy.”
And for those writers who decided to quit and get a real job, CES has a message:
“Good luck with all that! You know you weren’t built for this shit anyway. Unfortunately for me, I fell in love with it. I didn’t care about doing other things and disguising myself to entertain another class of people who wouldn’t piss on me if I wasn’t entertaining them.”
Life as a Legend
Today, CES has more than found his groove. Having now done official work for New York staples like the New York Knicks and the New York Yankees, as well as major brands like Puma, T-Mobile, and Vans, he’s still the same man on the street, although maybe a bit older.
“You know, the old quote, ‘Youth is wasted on the young?’” he asks. “When I was younger, I didn’t know the difference of what I should be afraid of. I was in my worst neighborhoods doing the illest shit on any given night. Now, you couldn’t fucking pay me to Uber in a fucking bullet-proof fucking SUV through those these places. I’m just not built for that shit.
“You know, it’s a different world. There are still places where my name is still up for 25-30 years. And I’m like, ‘Wow, that was a 25-year-old me that climbed up on the side of that building and did that shit; what the fuck was I thinkin’?’ I can remember that night. I fucking got stoned. We climbed up the side of the building and went out. We took turns looking out. I didn’t know where the fuck I was, or whose fucking business I was on top of or who could see me, or what was running through there, you know? None of that shit mattered. I was in deep and living it. So I get it when I see cats out here today, going hard and doing what they do. It’s their time; they’re supposed to, you know, but at 50-something years old… If my mind ain’t there, damn sure my body ain’t fucking ready to be jumping off no fuckin’ rooftops or running through tunnels, all kinds of shit.”
But his age hasn’t killed his spirit.
“Wherever you go in the world, I always say, you can literally blindfold me, put me in an airplane and just spin around the globe a few times and tell me to jump, and I guarantee wherever I land, barring I don’t land in the ocean, I’m gonna be able to link up with some graffiti writers wherever the fuck I land, get paint and do some shit,” he says. “That’s like a universal language, something we can experience together.”
At this point, CES shows no signs of slowing down.
“I’ve painted everywhere around the world with every nationality, race, color, creed, religion,” he says. “I’ve done it all on such a high level that I have just an appreciation for the fact of the people who partake and appreciate the culture on a broader wavelength. But being from New York, I’m constantly kept in check by the older writers. Like, I’m supposed to be young, nobody should be looking at me, you should be looking at them. That’s what they kind of brainwashed me to believe… But after 30-something years, I’ll be damned if I didn’t influence a few generations on my own.”
This article was originally published in the September 2022 issue of High Times Magazine.