NBCLX teamed up with artists from across the country to design new “I Voted” stickers for the 2020 election. Eric Orr, a graffiti pioneer and the creator of the first hip hop comic book, “Rappin' Max Robot,” is the latest artist to take us up on the challenge.
Orr talks to NBCLX’s Jeremy Berg about why he hopes his robot character will help inspire young voters to get to the polls this year. He also describes his early collaborations with Keith Haring, the pop and graffiti artist whose work became synonymous with New York City’s 1980s street art.
You can find Orr’s art on Instagram at @orrdesigns. To find and share his digital sticker, and our entire collection of artist-created "I Voted" stickers, search “LXtion2020” on Giphy.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Orr: Welcome. I'm Eric Orr, creator of the very first hip hop comic book, “Rappin' Max Robot.” Early graffiti pioneer... I started [in the] mid 70s, early 80s as a traditional graffiti artist where you have your nom de plume, writing your name, stuff like that. And then in the early ‘80s, I transitioned to the icon, the robot head. That's how the whole robot came about. I'm the only person that worked with Keith Haring in the subway… I've worked in the hip hop industry. I've created logos for many [of] what we call golden era hip hop artists. Jazzy Jay, some work with Afrika Bambaataa, Diggin' in the Crates, Lord Finesse, Diamond D, Showbiz and A.G., Jazzy Joyce. Most recently, there's a young group coming up by the name of Phony Ppl. I've done their logo work for them...I've done a lot of stuff, man... I've been doing it for a long time.
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Berg: How does the message of getting out to vote tie in with your artwork?
Orr: You know, Keith was very political with a lot of his work. And I would say if the folks that came before me didn't vote and pass some sort of legislation that allowed me to work with folks like Keith, you know, from segregation and all those kinds of things, I wouldn't be able to do what I do. I wouldn't have the freedom to do what I do in this country. Because I know there's some countries that you don't have that freedom. You know, you don't have the freedom to go out there and scribble on the walls... I have the freedom to do what I do. And it was because of people that came before me.
Berg: Why is it more important than ever to get out there and do your civic duty?
Orr: Well, because the things that... these young folks have now… you wouldn't have them if the folks that came before you were[n't] able to get out there, voice their opinion, voice their message and fight for the right to vote and make change. Because injustice sucks, man. Simple as that.
Berg: Walk me through what the robot is, how you created him, what he means and why he's part of your work.
Orr: OK, so the robot started as just the head itself. And I used to just go around the subways and just draw this robot head like an icon. That was my icon. When you saw the robot, you know that Eric was there. One year, it was in '84. I went to Roxy Roller Rink and I met up with Keith Haring... That was the day that I actually created my very first T-shirt with the robot head on it. And I wore [that] to that function at Roxy Roller Rink. It was a Swatch watch breakdance contest. So I wore it there. I'm in the crowd… And Keith was one of the judges... He saw me with the T-shirt on and he recognized the robot head from me going out in the subway and tagging in those same sort of spaces that he was in with his characters… And at the end, you know, he found me. He was like, listen, you know, I would love to do some collaboration with you. I'm like, OK. So back then there were no cell phones and stuff like this, so we exchanged phone numbers… So Monday morning, that was September 24th, 1984, get on the 6 train, front car, get off at Bleecker Street. There he was. We started drawing. We drew on the black panels [of empty advertising billboards] from Bleecker Street down to Brooklyn Bridge, back up to 125th Street, back down to Bleecker… I believe [it] was on 23rd Street, I drew a robot head. And he started to draw one of his iconic characters. And he said, Eric put a body on that thing. And I was like, OK. So I drew a body. So the character body was drawn in the subway. And Keith was the one that told me to put the body on it. And that's how it became this character Rappin' Max Robot.
Berg: So when you created this for this specific “I Voted” campaign, walk me through it.
Orr: I think it's the lighter side of things. I mean, ‘cause right now everything is so intense with the protests and all the – you know, there's just so much injustice. I just wanted to go [to] the lighter side. I thought my character could bring some levity to the young folks because I'm finding out that a lot of young folks don't want to vote because they see that, you know, the process does work but kind of doesn't because there's the Electoral [College]. You know, that whole thing. It's not about one man, one vote, or one person, one vote, you know, because if you get the majority of the vote doesn't mean that you still win. So I'm trying to just bring some levity to it. Maybe that'll spark them to do some investigation, learn some things, just trying to open it up a different path.
Berg: What's your overall thought process on how art can influence politics?
Orr: Art has influenced politics from a long time ago. I mean, my thought process is it all depends on the audience that you're trying to reach. And my audience with my character is the younger audience who I hope to maybe change their thinking so that they can possibly do the right thing – and hopefully they'll understand what they do makes change.