It’s a perfect fall morning in Queens, New York. Mother Nature had kept an extra stash of flawless, sunny, summer weather in her back pocket and is surprising the city with it like, “ta-da!” I’m off to visit Brandon Sines, a prolific artist, and fellow polite Canadian, at his studio in Astoria. I’d met Brandon seven years earlier at a punk show in a grungy Brooklyn basement and we’d kept in touch ever since. Back then, his work was hard to place, but in recent years it had evolved into a rainbow-hued multimedia universe with a magical character at its center: a hyper-positive, life-loving, imaginary ape named Frank.
Brandon greets me at his studio, a humble backyard garage which could have been mistaken for an exploded Skittles factory—the floors and walls are covered entirely by splatters, streaks, and puffs of paint in nearly every extant color. The image of Frank Ape, a friendly, huggable, sasquatch-like character, appears in an endless array of delightful iterations: modeling in Victoria’s Secret campaign, visiting the optometrist, snuggling with Britney Spears, and also as a suburban stepdad, dumpling chef, and broken-hearted snowman.
Since 2011, Frank’s messages of inclusivity and empowerment have been popping up in New York’s streets, galleries, and, recently, as massive murals at the World Trade Center and Tribeca’s Arlo Hotel. He explores issues like gender equality, racism, and anxiety—for a woolly primate born in the jungle, Frank has a profound grasp of contemporary culture and current events.
Brandon, Frank, and I explore the streets of Astoria all afternoon, taking selfies with kids, high-fiving cops, and giving a hug to an astonished Chinese grandma. After a dinner of pizza, beer, and the first 45 minutes of Scarface, Brandon and I sit down to discuss his commitment to creating art that makes people smile and feel alive.
Chris MacArthur: How did you develop the Frank Ape character?
Brandon Sines: It was around 2011, I was living in Bushwick and was getting back into painting and visual art. I was exploring new things and not really thinking too much about what I was doing but just hanging huge canvases in my apartment and banging them out really fast. Then I wanted to do more simple things that had a character with words on the canvas, but I didn’t know if the words were, coming out of this character’s mouth or they were being spoken to the character. I needed a character to receive messages or somehow be surrounded by them. I was looking for someone who wasn’t quite a person and wasn’t quite an animal, but who had emotions… who was wise, and felt things deeply. That’s how Frank was born. The first painting I did was him with a fire burning in the background and that said, “Relax, this is only a dream.”
Chris: And where did the name “Frank” come from?
Brandon: It was the first name that came to mind. I was looking for a cool everyman kinda name and soon people were like, “yo, it’s Frank!” so I decided not to change it.
Chris: I’m curious, how did you conclude that your “new thing” would be a character, especially a wise and sensitive ape? Why not an abstract self-portrait series or some other kind of introspective project?
Brandon: I really enjoy making stuff that I like and that other people can connect with. It’s a kind of therapy for me. The character I guess was maybe just a manifestation of how I’d grown up and all the negative stuff I’d been through in the past. I think I was trying to find my voice in this new, positive way, but I didn’t have the confidence, so I needed the voice to come from someone else rather than from me directly.
Chris: How did Frank’s world become so colorful and happy and encouraging? What kind of environments or experiences did you have in the past that led you to become this super positive person and artist?
Brandon: I think I’m trying to make up for lost time in a way with being positive in my art and how I conduct myself in the world. When I was around 13 or 14 I was rebelling like a lot of teens, but I went through that phase extra hard. I ended up getting kicked out of my house when I was 14 and living in group homes until I was 16 or 17. I was fucking up and wildin’ out and my mom and her boyfriend just couldn’t control me.
Chris: This was in Toronto?
Brandon: Yeah, Toronto. I was selling drugs and trying to do music and stuff like that, getting into beef and having legal issues.
“I think I was trying to find my voice in this new, positive way, but I didn’t have the confidence, so I needed the voice to come from someone else rather than from me directly.”
Chris: So what happened? What changed?
Brandon: There was a turning point when I was around 19 or 20 years old. I basically just said “fuck it” and decided to turn things around. I knew I had a mom who loved me and I was tired of worrying about getting arrested or getting into some kind of violence every time I went out. I also had a new girlfriend who’d been to college and was introducing me to new things. I started to open up and put my ego aside a little bit. After a while I started dating someone new and we moved to New York, that’s when I really dropped the tough guy attitude. I decided I was just going to be happy and create a different reality for myself. And I just did it. I was like, “I’m just going to smile all the time,” and people would smile back. It was such a cool and powerful realization, that people don’t really fuck with you when you’re smiling.
Chris: What do you think it is about making art or creating in general that’s so therapeutic or significant in transforming people? Like, for example, inmates who embrace art to find peace or meaning in their lives. Why do you think this happens?
Brandon: I think that everybody comes to a point in their life, or maybe several times in their life where they reflect on the kind of person they want to be, like a moment of clarity. For me, making art allows me to slow things down a bit rather than just going through the motions of life. It makes me consider what I want out of life and what I want to leave behind. In my case, it’s important for me to know that I made people feel good.
Chris: If you hadn’t become an artist what do you think you’d be doing? What type of vision did you have for your future when you were growing up?
Brandon: Actually, I think I wanted to be a famous rapper. When I was a teenager that’s what I thought I wanted to do. It’s pretty funny to think about that now!
Chris: Nice! Who were some of your favorite rappers at that age?
Brandon: Well, I was born in ’86 and I remember really being into Wu-Tang. Wu-Tang Forever had come out in ’97 and I was amazed at how dope these guys were, especially their creativity. So I think that really turned me on to hip-hop and rap for a while. I grew up in the Dipset era, so that kind of music and those anthems where really big then.
Chris: What’s it like being an artist in NYC today?
Brandon: New York is such an inspiring place and there’s a heartbeat and energy here that I really dig. But it’s tough though, the city’s a lot like a person—sometimes it approves of what you’re doing and sometimes it’s not really into what you’re doing. I think I just take little signs from that universe and if what I’m doing is aligned with what people are into then that’s great.
Chris: I know as a photographer how brutally stressful and challenging it is to try and make meaningful art while also trying to pay the rent and the bills. What’s it like for you? Do you feel confident with what you’re doing or are you like, “I don’t know how I’m gonna keep this up…?”
Brandon: Well, I’m definitely lucky that making art is my only job and I’m able to pay rent. I’m very visual in the way I see things, especially my life and career. Basically, I see my career as though I’m running down this brick road but it’s not fully built and I’m always about to run off the edge but bricks keep magically flying into place and I manage to keep running. And so, the bricks are like, a sale, or a commission or whatever, it’s just money that comes in from making art. And I’m able to keep going and I’ve been able to do that for a few years now. And it’s really exciting, now it feels like the bricks are getting bigger.
Chris: In a city like New York where there’s so much art, what do you think it is that makes Frank stand out?
Brandon: Well I think it’s definitely his messages. A lot of the early work had a lot of messages and words that people connected with. Frank has a personality so there’s a humanity behind his words compared to a lot of other characters in street art. But also, aesthetically he’s very simple. So the combination of him being simple visually along with his messages is what makes him stand out.
Chris: Your work deals a lot with social issues like racism, sexism, homelessness, etc. What’s your process in creating something that addresses one of these issues? For example, your piece “Being around women makes me a better person,” what inspired that?
Brandon: The phrase “Being around women makes me a better person” didn’t come from a TV show or song lyric as some of the Frank sayings do, but from within myself. It was really a shout out to all the ladies in my life like my mom, my fiancée, my friends, and really the women in everyone’s lives. I was thinking a lot about how this moment in history is so important and how much I admire the women (and men) who are speaking up for women’s rights. It made me imagine a world that was more honest and compassionate and where women are celebrated and looked upon with utmost respect. Then I placed Frank in this world and that’s the phrase I imagined him saying after waking up in this future utopia.
“I think a real artist is someone who’ll live their life in a way where they risk some comforts, like making a steady income or having a family, or they sacrifice some things to really make their art, you know?”
Chris: If you had an unlimited amount of money to do whatever Frank Ape project you wanted, what do you think it would be?
Brandon: I think the first thing that comes to mind is a float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. I’m not sure how it works exactly, but I think it would be a super cool way to be a part of New York history for that year and for future years.
Chris: And what would this float look like exactly? Because that was a very immediate answer, like you’ve already planned it! And what’s so interesting about a float?
Brandon: I think it would be Frank just gliding through the air with his arms out, looking blissful and happy. I really love the parade and seeing all the other floats and huge characters, they’re like 50′ or something? I just think it’s so cool man.
Chris: I remember a long time ago hanging out with a graffiti writer friend, we were talking about art and I remember I described another friend of ours as a “legit artist.” I was like, “dude, that guy’s hella legit!” But he got really offended that I would categorize artists as somehow being more “legitimate” or “real” than others. I’ve since thought a lot about why I said that, but I’m curious what you think—what does it mean to be a “real artist?”
Brandon: There’s definitely a difference between a great artist and a real artist. I think a real artist is someone who’ll live their life in a way where they risk some comforts, like making a steady income or having a family, or they sacrifice some things to really make their art, you know? They’re like, “I believe in this so much, I don’t have a choice. Whether people like it or not, I’m just gonna do it.” It’s basically like there’s a fire burning and they can’t be held back.
Chris: What have been some of the most memorable or significant reactions you’ve had or the relationships you’ve developed since you’ve been doing Frank Ape?
Brandon: Definitely when people send me pictures or tag me on Instagram with their Frank tattoos. That’s pretty cool. I think about seven people have sent me their Frank tattoo pictures, on their arm or chest or leg or wherever. I’ve seen someone in Japan with a Frank tattoo and people who visit New York and get a “New York tattoo” and it’s Frank. But also, it’s exciting to see people’s reactions to the 150′ Frank mural at the World Trade Center. I was there recently and there was this little Indian lady taking a selfie in front of it which really stuck with me for some reason. She was wearing a traditional sari and just the combination of the sari and the technology of the phone and the selfie and my art just made for a very special moment.
Chris: What does the future hold for Frank Ape? Do you think he’ll be around in five or 10 years?
Brandon: Well I hope Frank’s around in 500-1000 years! I definitely see him sticking around and I’d like to start doing more site-specific sculptures, large-scale 3D models, animations, and vinyl figures. I think I’ll just keep progressing with what I’ve already been doing and finding ways to bring Frank to life in newer, bigger, more awesome ways.
Find out more about Frank Ape online or on Instagram. Also, keep up with contributing photographer and writer Chris MacArthur.