“It’s like a cave in here. It’s quiet and dark, and I get to just go nuts. This is my world.”
Kelly Towles is giving a tour of his O Street lair. The mixed-media artist is completely at home, donning an all black outfit consisting of a POW! WOW! Shirt, black shorts and a backward cap, which makes him look like a retired skateboarder. His studio space is a candyland for artists; there are 3D printers carving away at black blocks of plastic, a brick wall mimicking DC alleyways carrying his takes on Japanese subway graffiti and a warehouse backroom with literally hundreds of spray paint canisters. In its corners you’ll find neatly shelved sculptures, hanging LED neon signs and unopened boxes of, presumably, art materials sitting on tables.
The homegrown DC creator spends six days a week here, bouncing from project to project, painting, sculpting, breaking, fixing, designing, thinking and, if there’s time, eating.
“There’s nobody that tells me what to do, besides my wife,” Towles says. “No one is saying make this or that. I come up with my own direction and my own drive, and it’s awesome, but it’s also very selfish. If I want to paint purple elephants for the rest of my life, that’s what I want to do, but I wouldn’t be able to do it without the support of my community.”
Towles references his relationship with the District multiple times over the course of an hour. This is not lip service. His murals decorate several corners of the city, for private and public entities. He’s the creative director for DC’s iteration of POW! WOW!, a two week mural fest every May. If not for his relationship to the city where he initially dipped his toe in graffiti, he knows he wouldn’t have a studio of his own. He wouldn’t be traveling to Los Angeles for a gallery in November. He wouldn’t hop on a plane to Japan for inspiration. Hell, he might not even be an artist.
“I love DC. I really love the city. I love working here.”
Grafitti, Metal + Anime
Towles’ childhood years were spent in Australia, where he was surrounded by a desert landscape. Sitting on one of his black couches, he recounts influences from those early years: the slapstick silliness of Monty Python and anime characters like Astro Boy, but he was most captivated by metal music’s go-to illustrator Brian Schroeder, aka Pushead, known for his graphic depictions of cartoonish ghouls and iconic skulls.
“I think for me, the real intrigue where I remember art affecting my life was album covers,” Towles says. “His stuff really engaged me into that type of art. I was a weird kid anyways, it’s what I invested my time in. I was never doing sports or anything like that.”
In 1988, his family moved to DC. Fast forward a few years and you could find the teenage Towles spray painting buildings under the cover of darkness. Though he claims his first forays into street art were “terrible,” the concept of beautifying his new home with goofy characters via paint were unshakeable.
“[My career in art] happened organically,” Towles says. “When I was studying for my BFA at [the University of] Maryland, I’d always fall back to characters and spray paint, graffiti. I had a funny moment at my final show when a professor told me, ‘These are cute but they’ll never sell.’
That professor was wrong. After years of supplementing his art via bartending or graphic design gigs, so many people were pitching him projects and buying his work that eventually he had to make his craft his full time job, ie obsession.
“Working with Apple, NPR, the National Zoo, across the board, I’m having a ‘What the f–k? This is amazing’ feeling,” he says. “You have to kill yourself. You have to bust your ass. There’s no advice I can give other than bust your ass. Constantly work, because if you don’t, it shows. I have five shows coming up, and even if I didn’t, I’d make a show just so I’d have something to work toward.”
Experimentation + Implementation
Anyone can say “work hard” or “bust ass,” but these are so often overused catch phrases that don’t mean an iota without quantifiable evidence. However, when Towles throws these edicts around in his studio, it’s palpable. His work is tangible, physical and apparent. You can walk to several buildings in NoMa and literally peer up at giant pieces he’s had two hands in.
Before unboxing canvases, plugging tools or breaking down materials, he busts ass searching for a theme of inspiration. A through line that connects a series of sculptures or murals, an unmistakable fascination.
“It’s always a project on experimentation,” Towles says as he pulls out sculptures from a collection of boxes that were resting in a rolling crate. “Just attack. Come up with a narrative. A lot of young artists ask me how I do it, and I tell them to just pick one theme to build a show around. If you’re really into Golden Girls, go with that.”
A lot of artwork adorning walls on all sides in his studio are linked by his adoration for Japanese culture. Through a Crunchyroll subscription, visits to Singapore and China, and trips to Tokyo over the past four years, you can see the narrative Towles is fixated on. The sculptures he’s prepared for November’s Los Angeles show include Air Jordans made of ramen noodles, a take on Japanese manholes and a curry rice skull.
His spirited artwork has also garnered a reputation for him locally, allowing him to avoid solely relying on individual pieces to bring home the bacon. He’s been approached by bars, restaurants and corporate companies throughout the city, as clients are drawn to his unique thematics.
“I love it when people want my work,” Towles says. “It’s a hard line, there are commissions where people want me to do a luxury pattern, but what I’ll do is create a character to be enveloped by that pattern.”
The characters he’s referencing appear in a majority of murals, paintings and illustrations. Their appearance is what I can only describe as a cross between the Gorillaz cartoons fused with anime’s penchant for unbridled personification, each carrying features unique to Towles’ sensibilities as a creator.
“I try to keep my mind open about everything,” Towles says. “I know I’m not a photorealistic artist. I love playing to my strengths, which are sloppy, fast and positive.”
DC Embraces Street Art
“It was the wild, wild West,” Towles says, describing the city’s graffiti scene in the 90s. “I’m just happy to be a contributor. In the early 2000s, there were eight or nine galleries on 14th Street and you’d jump to like ten different shows. There’s always been an artsy community, but then the recession hit and it kind of dissipated a bit.”
Towles talks about DC’s scene with a gleam in his eye. It’s a point of pride for him to involve the city in any capacity when discussing art and the inspiration behind his works. The city has gone through ebbs and flows of triumph and turmoil, but creatives will always inhabit the District.
“Public art and installations are on the rise, but to do those big giant pieces, you need investments,” Towles says. “It’s becoming more prevalent here because people have proven that it works. Think about the Beach exhibit at the Building Museum, it brought in droves of people.”
Early in his career, Towles collaborated with artist Jasper Wong, the founder of the first ever POW! WOW! in his native state of Hawaii. The 2011 festival built on public murals and installations proved a slam-dunk success, which allowed it to spread across the globe, from Tokyo to Taipei to DC, where Towles has pulled strings as creative director since 2014.
“It’s great because it’s accessible to everyone,” Towles says. “People know it’s there every year, people plan trips based around it. It blows my mind that people are willing to do that for murals.”
Planning for POW! WOW! is a year-round task, as securing spaces in NoMa and funding for each year’s diverse group of artists takes a tremendous amount of work. Like all concepts Towles attaches himself to, he busts his ass, grits his teeth and gets to work, all to contribute toward uplifting DC.
“Murals are visual messages, and nine times out of 10 if you put something shitty up there about death, doom and gloom, it’s not going to do it,” Towles says. “I want to do something that people will come back to. That’s a cool thing to make someone visually understand.”