You've probably seen Ivan Orama's work on the street or on the Internet, but perhaps you don't know the artist behind them. The Lower East Side, New York-based artist has most notably made his mark on downtown with images of Kanye West and Kim Kardashian as McDonald's workers. Beyond that, his "NYC Will Eat You If You Let It!!!" poster has spread virally on Instagram, and he's continued to create the furniture and clothing he was making before he got into street art.
What many don't know about Ivan is that his work got more attention through Banksy's "Better Out Than In" project in New York last October. We spoke to him about how he became an artist, why he decided to make Kanye, Kim, Michael Jackson, and Andy Warhol into McDonald's workers, and the rest of his work on and off the street.
I have seen it all—drugs, people getting shot, people getting stabbed, and people getting jumped for almost no reason at all.
What's your story?
My story consists of many battles. I was raised in Brentwood, Long Island, home of the legendary hip-hop group EPMD and the Los Angeles Lakers' GM Mitch Kupchak. For those that know Brentwood, L.I., they know it is a rough place. This place will make you a prisoner for life if you let it. Growing up, my mom and I battled through a lot. We moved over 12 times. Seeing my mom get physically and mentally abused made us become a team that no one could come in between.
She had trust in me, but I was young, and doing dumb stuff in the streets was part of my life. I have seen it all—drugs, people getting shot, people getting stabbed, and people getting jumped for almost no reason at all. It just became normal to me, and it taught me to never be scared of anything that comes my way.
In school it was tough, as well. I was told that I had dyslexia when I was in the third grade but really didn't know what it was, nor did I want to share it with anyone, because I was ashamed that I couldn't read as well as the rest of my peers. The school tried to help by letting me be exempt from certain electives and letting me avoid anything that had to do with reading, but did that help really? No! I literally had to figure out, by myself, how to chop each word into layers and look at it 20 times to understand that it said, "Problem." Now, I am able to read, but I still make mistakes. It's all about getting better and better. Using the "read back" feature on the iPhone and on my computer have helped me a lot.
How did you get into art?
I got into art when I was about six years old. An uncle of mine who passed away a couple of years back was an artist. He took me to a museum in NYC and tried to explain each painting we came across in detail. As a six-year-old kid, I didn't want to hear about how an abstract painting was created. I just wanted to eat gummy bears and watch "DuckTales" on TV! [Laughs]. Him telling me that I would be an artist one day is what really got me to see that art was something I enjoyed.
It all changed when I turned 16. I asked my mom if I could have a paintball party with some of my friends. My mom said yes, and from that point on, I fell in love with the sport of paintball, which led me into doing art full time. I played every Friday, and my mom loved it, because I was staying away from the streets. In that time, I had an idea to create a headband with padding in it, so that if a paintball hit you in the forehead, it would bounce off or wouldn't hurt as much. I drew up my idea, got a couple different pieces of fabric, and went over to my aunt's house who had a sewing machine.
After getting the finished headbands back, I would sell them at the local field I worked at. Soon I made T-shirts and a couple of hats. After making those new T-shirts and hats, I started making shirts that I would wear to school. My friends in school liked them, so then I started selling them in school. I was asked to play on a pro paintball team which was going to a tournament in Las Vegas, so I took T-shirts and hats with me, and they sold out the first day! From that point on, I knew what I wanted to do. It was graphic design! Not art yet.
I continued to play paintball, and right after high school, I got a job at a media firm doing graphic design. After working at the media firm doing graphic design for a little under a year, I started working for a national paintball magazine doing layouts for stories and fashion coordinating.
I realized that I needed to put pieces around the places Banksy had a piece. I continued to do so throughout the month, my following got bigger, and I sold a bunch of prints.
I thought about what I really loved to do, and I realized that I wanted to create art that reflects how I see the world. I moved from Brentwood to a friend's house super out east in Coram, L.I. Before I moved in, my friend Nick said, "Don't worry about paying me any rent. You do what you have to do art-wise. I believe in you." That was the turning point in my life. I was able to just create and let my mind go free. So I started creating pieces and designing one-off T-shirts by creating stencil designs.
Soon after that, I planned my first solo art show at a place by the name of Blue in L.I. Then I did four other art shows throughout the next two years. In those two years, I also created the Michael Jackson McDonald, Kanye West McDonald, and a bunch of other pieces. I basically turned the entire house in Coram, L.I. into my studio. I designed every door and filled every piece of wall with art.
In that time, I realized that if I wanted this to happen I needed to be in NYC! I saved every dollar I made from working nights for a friend's business and didn't do anything for a little over a year. It was a struggle, but I had to struggle as hard as I could for what I believed in. I did not want to go work for someone else's dream!
I found a place in the Lower East Side and said to myself, "I am all in! Either it's going to happen or not! Let's go!" What did I have to lose? It took me a bit to settle in because of all the distractions in NYC (girls and booze are distractions), but once I did settle in, I hit the streets hard. I took the pieces of Michael and Kanye McDonald plus several others and started putting them all over the city. I always believed it would work out if I kept taking risks.
A couple of months later, I said to myself that I needed to have my first solo art show in NYC. I got together with a good team and put together an awesome one-day show that had over 550 people in attendance. I released some new canvas pieces, T-shirts, hand-made tables, wood quote hangers, and new street art pieces. After that show, I got the opportunity to do the walls in a VIP section and the DJ booth at club WIP in downtown NYC, which had the Kanye, Michael, and Andy McDonald series.
From that point, I kept hitting the streets with pieces, and in October 2013, I decided I needed to put a huge 6-foot x 9-foot Kanye McDonald piece on a wall in the Lower East Side. When I put that up, Banksy had just started his one-month residency in NYC. This helped my work get noticed more, through people thinking that my work was actually Banksy's work. I realized that I needed to put pieces around the places Banksy had a piece. I continued to do so throughout the month, my following got bigger, and I sold a bunch of prints. I would have been stupid not to do what I did. It was the perfect time, and street art in NYC was at its all time high.
As a fan, I felt it was my duty to show Kanye that this is what people think he is.
Why did you decide to turn Kanye West and Kim Kardashian into McDonald's workers?
To start, I have always been a fan of Kanye and Kim. For Kanye, it's been since he released The College Dropout. I remember listening to "Through the Wire" for the first time and thinking it was genius. He captured a time in his life and took it to another level by laying down the track with a broken jaw. That made the track into a classic.
From that point on, I've continued to love how Kanye changes the game. People started dressing differently because of Kanye. The baggy jeans are out! I remember my friends and I changing our style up to wear more fitted clothing. Because of Kanye, hood dudes started dressing differently!
But then Kanye got to a point where he lost what the word HUMBLE means—punching reporters, flipping out in interviews, and overall not caring that me as a fan (and so many others) look up to him as a role model. As a fan, I felt it was my duty to show Kanye that this is what people think he is. I know it takes these moments of reflecting on mistakes you've made to help you grow as an artist and as a person. If Kanye just got back to being humble, every door that was closed before would open eventually, due to him being such a great, overall creative genius.
As for Kim, I've seen the sex tape. Who hasn't seen it? She is an overall very attractive women. Do I applaud her? Yes! If I could do the same thing she did through a sex tape with a famous girl, and know I would get all that Kim has gotten from it, I would do it in a second! Let's be honest; everyone has sex, but we all don't get what Kim got from it, and that is super amounts of fame. With that being said, she has also lost touch with what the word HUMBLE happens to mean.
How does the "Value Meal" line play into the image and idea of being humble?
A value meal is group of menu items generally separated by numbers, so when you order, you don't have to say cheeseburger with fries. You can just say, "Give me a number 1," which is short for a cheeseburger with fries. Now that Kanye and Kim are married, I had to group them together as the number 14 "McWest Value Meal." The 14 comes from the year they got married.
Do people try to steal these images off the street?
People have stolen a couple of the pieces after I had just put them up. Fair warning to anyone that does it in the future, if I catch you, I will literally soccer kick you in the ass!
From people seeing the pieces on the streets, I've done a couple of murals for different companies like Def Jam and New Era.
Have you sold a lot of these images off of your website?
I have sold a fair amount of prints, but I need to figure out how to bring them into the mainstream market a little more, so I can make some more cash. Selling prints and creating murals, canvas pieces, tables, and wooen quote hangers is how I survive and get money to eat.
Besides Michael Jackson and Andy Warhol, who else have you turned into Ronald McDonald?
I was going to turn Justin Bieber into him, but he seems to be shaping up. That dude has a lot of talent, and I am sure he knows that mistakes are made but lessons are never forgotten. But if he slips up, I will have to make him one of the new Ronald McDonald's ASAP!
What is the message in doing this with celebrities and pop culture icons, in particular?
Overall it's simple. Celebrities and pop culture icons all make mistakes at one time or another, but I feel that they need to be a little more cautious. They have millions of people who follow what they do. By bringing these celebrities to light and making them into McDonald's characters, I really feel that it makes people focus and learn from the mistakes they have made.
Have you ever been caught by police when putting these up?
Yes I have, but it's part of the risk. The streets are a level playing field, and it's the cheapest way for me to show people what I do.
The only way I would stop is if Kanye just stayed HUMBLE. That's the whole meaning of the piece.
Do people passing by ask you what's going on while you're putting them up?
People do ask from time to time what the piece means, and I don't mind explaining it to them as long as I am walking away from the piece I just put up.
Have you gotten any valuable commissions from the McYeezy project?
Yes, I have! From people seeing the pieces on the streets, I've done a couple of murals for different companies like Def Jam and New Era. I've also sold some tables and canvas pieces.
Did you expect the McYeezy project to go as viral online as it did?
I thought it was a good, strong piece that a lot of people could relate to, but no, I didn't think it was going to get as much attention as it has.
Do you do most of your street pieces with awareness of how the Internet will respond?
As an artist, you have to think about how people will respond to your work. If you can strike an emotion within a second of someone looking at your stuff, you will get people re-posting and sharing it. It's all about being able to relate to people.
Has anyone from Kanye's team reached out about stopping this project? Would you if they did?
No, they haven't. I don't think they will ever reach out to me, because they probably know that I would gain more from them asking me to stop the project. The only way I would stop is if Kanye just stayed HUMBLE. That's the whole meaning of the piece. It's for him to reflect on himself and learn from his mistakes but get back to making awesome work!
What about the "NYC Will Eat You If You Let It" and "Mr T Will Fuck Your Girl" pieces?
The "NYC Will Eat You If You Let It" piece has my little sister yelling to the people of NYC that if you let Tinder, booze, and the night life get you, your bank account will be on zero, if you aren't careful. I also have another piece called "Welcome To NYC" that has my little sister throwing up magical middle fingers. This piece is straight up what New York is! F-U if you get in someone's way or act up in any way.
The "Mr T Will Fuck Your Girl" piece was made so that you know, if he is around, he will take your girl! He doesn't care! He was a part of the A-Team! Plus, what girl wouldn't want to be with a guy who has that much gold! Dude has money if he melts all that gold down! He is a Victoria's Secret pantie dropper! My idol! [Laughing]
What about the other murals you do? Are most of them NYC-inspired, like the Taxi piece?
I can generally come up with an idea that will work for any client. For example, when I did the mural for Def Jam and New Era, they had some things that had to be in the piece. From that, I added history about each company, which made the mural interactive, and put a little of my style into it. The Taxi/Subway/NYC mural was created for a new office in midtown NYC. They needed the murals to not be risky but be something that a client could relate to. With each of those murals I have a little history on the taxi, the subway, and the city.
Do you really want to collaborate with Mr. Brainwash (I saw your piece that says, "Mr. Brainwash, I want to collaborate with you!!")?
Yeah, why not?! He is an artist I look up to. I would have nothing to lose and everything to gain by doing a collaboration with someone like him.
You just have to being willing to take the risk and not care about what people think.
Who are other street artists you admire or inspired you to get into the game?
The artists who inspire me to do what I do today are Shepard Fairey, Space Invader, Banksy, Mr.Brainwash, JR, Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. All those guys combined really made me see that a dude from the bottom could make it to the top! You just have to being willing to take the risk and not care about what people think. You have to do it for you.
Show your vision to the world. Let people understand that they have a voice that can be heard, as well! But also always understand that you can never think you are the best. You need to be relentless! Learn more! Do more! Create more!
What's next for you?
What's next for me is getting funding for my second solo art show called "Cutouts." I have done a proposal for this "Cutout" show that has, in detail, everything I will be creating for the show, how I will promote the show, and the location I would like to have the show in NYC. I might do a Kickstarter or see if I can get an investor for the show. Other than that, it's focusing on the pieces I can put on the streets, making new canvas pieces and wood tables, and getting my stuff into galleries.
I would love to get a manager who is in the field and can generate some work for me, as well. At this point, I do everything myself from photography to videos, negotiations for projects, and orders. If I can find a manager who is willing to battle as much as me, I think things will take off a lot faster. I am one person, and I can only do so much, but either way, I will keep battling! I can't stop now! I feel like this is only the beginning for me! RISK = REWARD!!!