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  • Forbes: Erik Wahl: What You Can Learn From This Graffiti Artist About Creativity

    Erik Wahl, Forbes: Erik Wahl: What You Can Learn From This Graffiti Artist About Creativity

    Forbes: Erik Wahl: What You Can Learn From This Graffiti Artist About Creativity
    By Dan Schawbel

    I spoke to Erik Wahl, author of The Spark and the Grind: Ignite the Power of Disciplined Creativity, about the environment that brings out his creativity, how he got started with graffiti art, his biggest creative inspirations, how he turned his art into a big business and his best career advice.

    Wahl is an American graffiti artist, speed painter, author, motivational speaker and entrepreneur who owns the Wahl Group, consultancy firm and has spoken at conventions by Microsoft, Disney, NBC and Honda. During his presentations, Wahl speaks about personal creativity while painting stylized portraits of iconic figures, leaders and cultural icons such as the Statue of Liberty, Michael Jordan, Bono and Steve Jobs. Erik has been a featured speaker at TED2012 and his previous book is called Unthink: Rediscover Your Creative Genius, which was named CEO Reads book of the year in 2013.

    Dan Schawbel: In what environment are you most creative?

    Erik Wahl: I am the most creative when I am calm. When my mind is fully present and grateful to be in the expansiveness of the current moment, I am free to create without anxiety. It sounds easy, but it takes mental toughness and discipline, and I’ve had to learn how to access it. Now, I know I am calmest when meditating or during a massage or a run. I structure my day by interspersing these calm moments with periods that demand creative output. I will meditate and expand my mind and then contract and focus and write. I will run and release endorphins and then paint. I will schedule a massage and center my mind into the quietness of a creative sanctuary and then ramp up to take the stage for a live performance.

    When am I the least creative? Anytime I feel anxious, or when I’m not paying enough attention to giving myself space to create. For a long time, I didn’t feel creative at all, and I actually didn’t feel that I needed creativity. I had a good career, and worked hard grinding it out. I thought that creativity was just for hipsters sipping espressos, chasing sparks of inspiration. When I had to start a new career, I realized that that stereotype of creativity was false. We all need creativity, and we all need to know how to hold the spark of creativity in balance with the grind of execution.

    Schawbel: How did I get started with Graffiti art? How did I differentiate?

    Wahl: When random people on planes would ask me the age-old question. What do you do? I would answer, I am an artist. And then came the disconnect. They would respond, oh my grandmother is an artist, she paints bunnies. I realized artist was a very broad term. Even though I was then exploring landscapes, abstract and photorealistic figure study paintings, photography, sculpture, writing and music, none of them captured how I felt about art. The art that I personally liked the best was street art. I was inspired deeply by the clever multidimensional applications and the cheeky messaging behind street art—and the raw talent of these artists. Graffiti has a long history. Cave art is graffiti; graffiti has always been how we etched and scratched our legacy into our landscapes to record our culture. That was what excited me about the potential of street art. It was meant for everyone, not for highbrow museums or art critics. It was the people’s art. It was cool.

    It fascinated me and I loved it, so I became what I loved. I’m probably not what comes to mind when you think of a “graffiti artist.” I didn’t have perfect spray can control, and I wasn’t part of the vandalization community that much of pop culture graffiti is known for. But I’ve built a brand around my own kind of graffiti. It elevated our brand by provoking thought about what art is, and I’ve seen that people respond profoundly to the paradox of a corporate speaker and businessman making graffiti. I was a “graffiti artist” who travelled around the world consulting for Fortune 500 organizations on how to innovate. How to differentiate. How to think like an artist but act like an entrepreneur. Graffiti embodied everything that’s interesting and new about my business. It got noticed and launched our brand and our business to a new level.

    Schawbel: Can you name a few artists, or business people, that inspire my art?

    Wahl: Banksy, Kobra, Madsteez, Picasso, Renoir, Michaelangelo, Da Vinci, Rembrandt, Bono, Bob Dylan, Einstein, Edison, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., St. Francis of Asissi, Hans Zimmer, Steven Spielberg, Hemingway, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, just to name a few. Genius and visionary could be used to describe any one of the artists above.

    My art is about connecting with people and the movements that matter to them in the present day. Off the stage I study global events and pop culture to inspire my next potential artwork. Then I share it and ride the wave of momentum of trending events on social media. If the world is watching the Olympics I am preparing to create an Olympic icon.

    Schawbel: How did I turn my art into a business? What were the obstacles and what are your typical speaking points when I present to a crowd.

    Wahl: I’m an artist, but I see my art as only one part of the brand that I built. It also includes my writing and most importantly, my live performances. From the stage, my art is a hook. It is an attention getter. It brings my message to life by fascinating and engaging large crowds. I perform as much as I paint. I create a painting in 3 minutes choreographed to music and video. The message of my presentation is built around inspiring individuals to “think different,” as the iconic Apple ad suggests. But the way I humanize the message and activate the content with art, music, emotional connections, and stories, is where my presentation is different. I intentionally catch audiences off guard from what they thought they were expecting to surprise them with an entirely different point of view. Think different, performed different.

    Schawbel: What are my top three pieces of career advice?


    1. Build a brand. Become aware of and build your personal brand regardless what business or industry you are in. Your leadership, your talents, and your communication medium are all part of your brand.

    2. Explore. Complacency breeds conformity. Growth and comfort cannot co-exist. We must push ourselves to become comfortable with being uncomfortable. Creativity is a muscle that grows in the face of resistance.

    3. Be disciplined. Creativity is more than just leaning on your talent. You have to be disciplined. You must be mentally, physically and spiritually prepared when opportunity knocks or knocks you down.

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