Creators, Makers, and Doers: Sector Seventeen
Posted on 7/26/17 by Brooke Burton
Solomon Hawk Sahlein and Collin Pfeifer are founders of Sector Seventeen, a collaboration between artists working in aerosol art and painting. With a studio in Garden City, friends, artists and more come to exchange ideas and create intersecting art. Having wrapped up the murals at Rhodes Park and City Center Plaza, Creators, Makers, and Doers lead writer Brooke Burton sits down with Sahlein and Pfeifer to learn how they are shaping the graffiti culture in Boise.
There are a lot of spray paint cans in here, how many do you think are in this studio right now?
We estimated—I bet we have, maybe twenty-five hundred, yeah.
Wow! Tell me how you two first came together.
Skateboarding. Rhodes Park, of all places. I grew up skateboarding, listening to hip-hop music and frequented Rhodes Park quite a bit in my early and mid-teens, that’s when I ran into Hawk (Sahlein.) We would go and skate spots together with our buddy Jeff.
So, when did skateboarding turn into skateboarding and graffiti?
Right about that time. We were making little skate videos and going around to different spots and also looking a lot at graphics. Jeff was the one who got me into graffiti. He had moved from the San Jose area of California when he was twelve and that’s when I met him; he brought some of that influence because there wasn’t a lot of graffiti around Boise, Idaho.
How would you describe the work you are doing now?
Mural and design work. I don’t call what we do really graffiti in this sense, but Jeff was always a few steps ahead of us. We didn’t know how much better he was than us at the time, but when we look back—And it’s not just trying to be nice, like putting him on a pedestal, he was good; versed in letter structures and making his pieces cohesive and flow. It’s kind of crazy how good he was.
How many years ago did Jeff pass away?
Do you feel like you’re learning more from him as you look back?
I definitely draw inspiration and influence from the stuff he did and we try to keep pushing Sector to make his memory live on.
Is it kind of an ode?
Definitely, yeah. We wouldn’t be where we’re at without him. That’s the bottom line. He was a big influence.
Tell me about Sector Seventeen.
Sector Seventeen is an artist collective that is trying to make a difference to us as artists and also to the surrounding community. We’re really just a group of guys that like to make things. And if we can make a living doing it, then we’re going to do that, [laughs] for as long as it lasts. We have a group of friends that go beyond painting, too. We’re in a hip-hop group called Alumni, and those guys have been around a long time. We have friends that are photographers, friends that produce instrumentals, friends that do a lot of different things but they’re in the circle. In a bigger sense Sector Seventeen is an umbrella [for] a lot of creative people that we associate with.
How did you go from making illegal graffiti art to forming a business front and being hired by the City of Boise to do a mural in the same skate park wall where you first met?
Perseverance, work ethic, and Boise has so much opportunity. I have kids so if I can support myself and support them off of my artwork, I’m going to pick that over bombing any day because that just makes sense to me. I might get clowned by other cats because of that, but I don’t care because I’ve worked hard to get to where I’m at—both of us have. We’ve done terrible projects where we don’t get paid very much; we’ve painted for free numerous times. That was all for the sake of getting our artwork out there for people to see, and if it interests them and they want to commission us to do their kid’s name in their bedroom or something like that— that’s kind of how it started to pick up as far as commissions go.
Basically word of mouth?
All word-of-mouth. We don’t have marketing companies putting our stuff out there. We’re not in the phone book. We market ourselves. It’s cool, because the artwork markets itself. The styles, the portraits, the letters, people see that and [have] some sort of attraction to it and contact us; they give us ideas and ingredients to cook with and we make a project for them.
It’s kind of a collaboration; is that how you work with the city as well?
That’s really what happened with Rhodes. When the first murals got painted—no disrespect, I was bummed because I was skating down there all the time—
What was it?
It was primary colors, it was a community project. And no disrespect, but coming from our perspective—[It] didn’t represent the skate park. It didn’t represent all the homies down there that all kind of shared the same ideologies and respect for skateboarding. It just wasn’t what we personally wanted to see.
And you’re in tune with skate culture.
Yeah. When we did get on the Rhodes project, painting those walls wasn’t actually one of the tasks that they had on the table. We were kind of confused by that because we thought that’s why we got hired. [Laughs] So, we brought it up as a possibility and they were, like, “Oh, I don’t think so. I don’t think that’s what we’re going to do.” They had a budget set aside to restore the mural that was already there.
But you said, “Hey, what would you think of changing that up?”
Yeah, they were like, “Why would we do that?” We kind of had to break it down, “Look, you know, coming from our perspective as the skateboard community, blah-blah-blah, we think it’s time to update this”. They’re putting all that money into the skate park, renovating it, then they want to— have a dated mural.
I love this story so much.
So, we were like, “But can we do something else?” And eventually, Karen [Bubb] did all the groundwork. She went and talked to the City Council and there was some back-and-forth.
So they heard you, but it took some shuffling?
Yeah, exactly. We ended up reaching a compromise; on the Sixteenth Street side we had to blend in pieces of the existing mural and frame it into what we were doing, basically preserving little pieces of it. On the Fifteenth Street side we could have at it and go full on [with] the concept we had in mind. So, it worked out.
Have you gotten any feedback on the mural? It was seen by a lot of people during the X Games qualifier event in June.
We got a lot of positive response. I feel like the Arts & History Department was really positive. I think all the Rhodes art projects that went up: Perri Howard’s art fence, Trademark’s lettering and Stephanie Inman’s totem—came together really well. It was a tough project. I give a lot of credit to Karen, Karl [LeClair] and to Toby [Norton] from Parks and Rec., because it was a lot of moving parts, plus the construction timeline was ever-changing. The true test is how the skaters respond to it. We’ve gotten a lot of good feedback from the skate shop owners—Prestige, Paul and Greg, and a lot of the local guys. So, we’re happy with it.
You mentioned a wall where you have permission to do graffiti art that’s dedicated to your friend Jeff, where can people see it?
Eighteenth and State. It’s right on a busy intersection.
Does anyone censor it?
No, we kind of know our boundaries. Basically, if the cops have to respond to it, [that] is the limiting factor.
You have friends in other disciplines like photography and music, it’s good to surround yourself with creative people.
It’s nice to have different influences, too, different outlets that spark creativity. It’s crazy: I always tell people that when Collin raps, I see the way he raps reflected in his letter structures of his graffiti pieces. Those kind of crossovers are what makes intersecting art entertaining and interesting.
Would you say that graffiti and music are intertwined?
A lot of graffiti came from hip-hop, but a lot of it came from punk music—punk and metal, too—so there’s that punk mentality, “This is what I deem important, and what you are trying to force upon me, as a culture or society, isn’t what I want.” A lot of graffiti writers don’t care about making something pretty or making something that your grandma wants to look at on the Sunday market [laughter]. They want to do something to express themselves and their beliefs.
How would you break down graffiti art for someone who knows nothing?
One of the very first rules of graffiti is the hierarchy. A tag is a tag; that’s the most basic. Then you have a bubble letter or what’s called a throw-up, that takes a little bit more time. [A throw-up] can go over a tag. If you’re doing a semi loud-style piece or a big blockbuster or roller, it goes over the throw-up. If you’re doing a full-blown piece like a burner with all sorts of crazy colors, it goes over all that. If you can do a better, [more] complex piece than that one that’s already there, then you can go over it. If you go over anybody with either a lesser item on the hierarchy or a worse style, that’s considered a no-no.
How do you learn the rules?
Style Wars. Style Wars is like the Eighties version of a graph dictionary. It’s a documentary that came out on PBS. But you can also learn just from being out and doing the stuff. You know: you go back and your piece has gotten dissed and you don’t know why—And a lot of time it will be, like, “Come see me. You’ll figure it out. Come see me. I’ll let you know what’s up.” If you’re lucky, you just get scolded and you know, tell you what time it is. And if you’re not lucky, catch a fade. [Laughter]
Learning the hard way can be very effective.
The ultimate is someone who can do it all, someone who can do a complex piece with ten colors and a crazy background, can also do bubble letters, and also have a solid hand style. That’s number one. To me, though, if you can do a crazy wild-style piece but you don’t have the basics down, that knocks your respect level. Your credibility.
What about style?
A lot of people can recognize [writers] just based on the style— their choices of line thickness and variance and techniques, like Zeser, this graffiti writer from L.A. He’s done a lot of work; there’s more depth to graffiti culture than most people would recognize on the surface.
Would you say it’s about the neighborhood the person’s living in?
It started that way. Now, with the Internet and magazines, you can see everybody’s stuff —I can look at New York, at some Brooklyn neighborhood, and have an inkling of what’s going on, although that can be abused; people trying to make themselves look bigger than they really are.
Some people have a huge Instagram following, but if you look in their neighborhood, you don’t see nothing, you know. The thing that’s actually working out best for us so far is making these contacts with other aerosol artists out of state. When they come through here, we give them hospitality, show them around.
What does that look like? Because I know what my hospitality looks like and it’s kind of Martha Stewart-y [Laughter.] I want to know what your hospitality looks like.
Oh, you know, finding a wall—we have some good legal spots that we can take people to.
Which legal spots?
We have Table Rock—all the outbuildings, the telecom buildings up there, we get to control the walls up there. Eighteenth and State, Jeff’s house, is always good. Or Freak Alley or wherever, you know, and just hang out there and talk, paint, go out, have a couple beers, have some food. But a lot of graffiti writers have crazy egos.I’ve heard that about artists before.
A lot of it is because part of being an artist is selling yourself. I mean, you have to sell yourself and your story for people to care about your art. And, yeah, there’s a lot of egos out there and there’s a lot of people who don’t want to take anybody to their secret little spot.
Do you have a secret spot? You don’t have to tell me what it is.
Well, Boise is kind of the secret spot, because people come here and they’re like, “Oh, wow,” this place is actually kind of a growing city and it’s still fairly cheap compared to other cities and you have a growing scene to put your work into. I still think it’s a secret spot because it’s so young, you have opportunity to have a hand in shaping the scene or what the community looks like.
I want to go back to egos. What helped you overcome your own ego?
For me it was when Jeff passed, because I think I was a bit more strong-headed or self-interested before. Part of me really had to reflect on other people’s issues or other people’s well-being after that happened; it was eye-opening, for sure.
How old were you when he passed away?
SS: Eighteen. I was living in Canada at the time, he was still my best friend, we talked a ton, but I didn’t see it coming. Nobody saw it coming and it made me reflect a bit on what is really important and how small one person is and how your actions can affect other people. It has been a slow process for me. I’m still working on it. Everybody still has an ego, no matter how conscious you are.
CP: Yeah, I think the thing that keeps me in check is I know I’m not the only one doing [aerosol art.] There’s other artists all over the world that can school me any day. I’ve taught myself all this stuff; how to paint realism, graffiti, letter structure—in big cities you usually have a mentor, especially in the graphic world. There’s crews, you learn how to paint from so-and-so and he’s been painting ten years longer than you. There wasn’t really anyone here to teach us that. We have a couple other homies that we paint with, we bounce ideas off of each other, but being humble is the most important thing. If you can, be a really good artist and maintain humility to the best of your capabilities—but don’t let people walk on you either. You’ve got to be able to balance all of that and—It’s tough.
You have the best mindset. Just complimenting you on your perspective and for being real.
CP: Thanks. I think part of that also comes from having kids. Before my oldest was born I was super-reckless. I didn’t give a $#*!. Do you know what I’m saying? After she was born, I was like, “Okay, I really got to pump the brakes.” And at that time, I thought plumbing was the route I had to go—get a career, get a job— I still loved painting, but painting didn’t come first. Work [was first]. The want and need to paint, but still have to maintain employment and go to school for it, really put things into perspective.
How do you keep up the professional side? That’s a big jump for artists, to make a living off of what they’re doing.
Basically, don’t be afraid to work, because a lot of people want to get into [art] and they do a couple pieces and their friends tell them it’s really good and they believe that, but they don’t want to progress from there. You’ve got to be really dedicated to putting in the hours and years and doing all the side events and working side jobs. That’s for anybody doing anything, really, but work never stops and when you think it [stopped] then you are probably not going to go anywhere. [Laughter] You have to be very flexible and maneuver around financially as well, because, like Collin said, living off of art is awesome, I would choose that over anything, but at the same time, there’s no safety net. You have to be really vigilant about making sure you have food on your table. And in those off-times where things do get pushed off, making more work for yourself— creating paintings here in the studio with scraps in those slow times. The wintertime is always the scariest part of the year because it slows down. One thing that’s nice is we’re doing bigger projects, which gives you a better chunk to [laughs], you know, stash away for a rainy day.
For winter. But you’re nailing it!
We’re trying, and I think part of the reason that we’re able to pull it together on these big projects is because we’ve been growing organically. We’re not trying to put anything together too fast before we’re ready for it. It’s been a really slow growth. I’ve been painting for four years full-time; he’s been painting for five years. He would be working delivering beer, waking up at three in the morning, going to work, and working a twelve-hour day, and then we’d go paint a project. There’s challenges thrown at you in every project in all sorts of ways. We have a running joke: it’s not a Sector project if some crazy thing doesn’t choke you up.
What kind of advice do you have for other artists?
CP: Believe in yourself. For me, self-employment has been the most liberating thing. It’s stressful, but being able to survive—the key word is “survive”—off of artwork, that’s rad. So, I guess my message is, like, “Follow your dreams.” As cheesy as it sounds, it’s the truth. I mean, if I can do it, anyone else can.
SS: It’s funny that way, too. I don’t know when this is going to come out, but we just got the Mayor’s Award [for Excellence in Arts & History] for Emerging Organizations.
That is awesome! Congratulations!
Just to go from, you know, when the cops were coming—
Chasing you down?
When we started working with the Arts & History Department, the BPD wouldn’t let them work with us because we had, you know—
We were under investigation, and this, that, and the other thing. Flip ten years later we’re getting what seems to be a pretty prestigious award. It’s just pretty hilarious.
Garden City June 26, 2017 Public Art Collection
Creators, Makers, & Doers highlights the lives and work of Boise artists and creative individuals. Selected profiles focus on individuals whose work has been supported by the Boise City Dept. of Arts & History.