Amar Steward Notorious BIG and Tupac paintings NYC Untapped Cities

British artist Amar Stewart is the man behind the amazing paintings of NYC’s most important MC’s in the guise of 17th century Dutch royals and noblemen. Hailing from London, Stewart came to NYC to do a month-long residency at Cotton Candy Machine in Williamsburg. We met up with Stewart in Bushwick to chat about his inspiration, the New York vs. London art scene, and his upcoming show in San Francisco.

Can you tell us about your inspiration, first of all? We’ve obviously read that you’re inspired by Frans Hals’ portraits in the Met, but are there other artists or art forms that inspire you?

Yeah, definitely ‘cause I only discovered Frans Hals about two years ago, and it was my fiancée that introduced me to his work. I’d heard of it, I’d probably seen a little bit of it, but I never really paid much attention to it. I think because for so many years I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my art, so I was looking at graffiti artists, illustrators, designers, all sorts of creative people in different genres, which I don’t think was a bad thing. I was looking at them all, and I guess because of that I was inspired by so many people. A lot of the works were different mediums, even, like digital or illustrations to chalk works, to aerosol, murals and whatnot. 

Amar Stewart Tupac portrait NYC Untapped Cities

Here in New York, the paintings have gotten a good critical reception, right? Do you attribute that to the fact, at least partially, that these are New York rappers?

Definitely. New York is one of the main reasons—and I’m not just saying this because I’m in New York and because I’m talking to you—but it’s been such a motivation since I was 21 and I first came to New York. It was a huge eye-opener.

Back in the UK, a lot of the biggest music artists, not just in hip-hop but in any genre, are from New York. It’s a breeding ground for creativity, and when you’re seeing it back in the UK through various music videos or websites or fashion labels or whatever, it makes you realize that it is so inspiring to see. Being from London and being surrounded by creatives, every one of them is like, “New York is the one.”

The show, when I put it on, that was the whole point of it. It was paying tribute to New York’s finest, basically, with a couple of guest appearances like Tupac and Left Eye in there. New York is probably… it goes like music, film, and city life. Those are the three inspirations in my life. New York and London are the key cities that have inspired my work.

Amar Stewart Biggie portrait NYC Untapped Cities

Have you shown these paintings in London?

No, no, no. This was exclusive to here. The Biggie and Tupac were painted in London. They were the last two paintings I did there. I had a closing event at my studio—it was a studio/gallery that I had called Work in Progress—which means I can take it anywhere in my world where I settle. People can come in and watch me paint and I can communicate with them.

So I had a closing event at my studio, which Biggie and Pac were in, but when I was here I produced thirteen paintings in a month for that show.

That’s a lot!

That’s a lot of work, yeah. That’s more than the 8 hours a day that I was doing, but it’s because the residency ran out in that month. He [Sean Leonard] was just like, “do as much as you can,” and I was like, “if I’m gonna do it, I’m gonna do it properly.” It’s the first showing of any of my work in the States.

Amar Stewart A Tribe Called Quest NYC Untapped Cities

What are the differences in the art scene in New York vs. London?

I dunno, it’s funny. Honestly, the London scene is tough. I think any art scene is tough, anywhere in the world you go. I’ve been to Hong Kong and to LA, not to exhibit my work, but just to paint murals. I think it’s a new thing for me because it’s a new sector. It’s a different type of work that I’m doing now.

I hadn’t really gone to this extent back in London, so now that I’ve done it here, New York is really into it, you know? I guess because of the theme of it, but also because I’m from out of town. I’m from London and I think a lot of people are interested to see what I have to say about the hip-hop scene. Like, why are they wearing this 17th century clothing? They wanna see the story.

But for me, it’s the most important body of work I’ve done because it is an important story and it’s about not only what inspires me, but what inspires millions of people around the world. It’s a crossover between the Old Age and the modern world. Since moving to New York and showing it, I feel like London has been more into what I’ve been doing. But I feel like that’s with anything—people want what they can’t have.

I think the New York scene for me at the moment is still tough. It’s great, I’ve had a great response, but I like things to move quickly. But off the back of this, I’ve got another show in San Francisco in August, which is all West Coast hip-hop artists.

Amar Stewart Jigga with a feather hat Jay Z portrait NYC Untapped Cities

Right, tell us about that one.

Basically, it’s pretty cool. Trevor, one of the guys from Upper Playground, invited me to exhibit my work at a gallery/barber store on Geary Street called Public Barber. It came about whilst I was working on this East Coast collection. He’s like, “I finally got you a space.” ‘Cause I was bugging him—I wanted a show in San Francisco ‘cause so many great artists came out of there.

And while I was on the East Coast, he was like, “I’ve got a space. Can you get some work together for August?” And I was like, “definitely.” I’m just gonna do a West Coast version of what I’m doing here—pay tribute to the West Coast artists that have inspired me. I don’t wanna rule anyone out.

Are you going to include some of the New York figures?

For sure, definitely. Without a doubt. It’s only right to do that—try and squash the beef between them. That’s gonna be fun for sure.

Amar Stewart Mary J Blige portrait NYC Untapped Cities

So you plan on continuing this project?

Yeah, it’s gonna expand. So after this West Coast show—that’ll probably be my last show for the year. There are a couple of group shows in New York that I’m doing as well. A couple of print releases with various companies.

But after this it’s gonna get larger scale, so imagine you go to the Met and you see 12 foot paintings of round tables and vassals. So imagine that fused with hip-hop culture, but with a twist. Yeah, people have done things like that. I’ve seen it—on photoshop they superimpose things like this. But this is gonna have a big different twist to it, like gilt frames. It’s gonna be like a 2.0 of this collection, you know?

I’m gonna push myself. I’m gonna do what hip-hop has done over the years—push its boundaries. As I mature as well, my work will mature. As I experience new things and embrace the culture of New York and the US in general. I’m just excited to see where the work goes from here, but yeah, there’s a reoccurring theme.

All images courtesy of the artist. Get in touch with him @AmarStewart and the author @lauraitzkowitz.