Sean Murdock on Ramming Speedboats Into Whaling Boats and Torching Art

​In our current issue, we profile local -- but soon to be California-based -- artist Sean Murdock. For many years, Murdock has been a hard-working individual in the realms of art, social activism, fashion photography, and even retail -- he owned a head shop. His most recent artwork is loud, flashy, fashionable, and in-your-face. The artist is not. On the contrary, Murdock is soft-spoken and compassionate and describes himself as introspective.

This recent work features line-art depictions of sexy fashion models he has photographed against bold, neon backgrounds -- a reflection of his engagement with the Miami fashion scene and the ostentatious culture of South Florida in general. His most iconic image features a naked gal wearing an oversized bunny mask slouching next to the bold, stenciled phrase "Fuck Me I'm an Artist." He's used it in several large pieces as well as on murals, stickers, and T-shirts.

At year's end, Murdock will be letting go of all of these pieces, as well as this period of his work and life in general, to start fresh in California in an Airstream RV. Before casting off, he'll host the Art Ransom event at the Bubble this Friday, at which all of his art will be ritualistically sacrificed in a fire unless collectors grab it up in the auction.

Ahead of this event, County Grind had a long chat with the artist about his art, how he came around to creating it, and what he envisions for the future.

County Grind: So, how long have you been making art?

Sean Murdock: Man, forever. I don't know. I think it all started in Montessori school in Ohio. I started expressing myself through drawings that today would probably have anti-terrorism people coming out to visit.

Oh yeah?

I was drawing my version of Greenpeace; it was called Redpeace. It was my decision that one day I would grow up and buy myself speedboats and ram them into whaling boats. I've calmed a little bit with my age.

What sort of art did you make in between the Redpeace doodle period and your most current stuff, which is focused more on sex and fashion?

Man, I have literally gone through every form of media. Jewelry, craft items, recycled belts into bracelets, silversmithing, carving stone, glass work. But I think photography has always been my real passion. I've always loved doing it, but I could just never quite figure out how to employ it as my art form.

What was holding you back?

I could never afford a darkroom, and I wanted to print big. When I did have a darkroom, it was in a little tiny bathroom. I could really only work for an hour or two without ventilation before I would pass out, literally. My girlfriend would have to come in and drag me out.

And now you've figured out a better way?

I finally realized that I had to do it. I found the process that I use now, and that is when my art became what it is today. The photography now is the predominant imagery, and that is what I have always wanted.

What a breakthrough!

It changed my view of what I could make, and it's just in the beginnings.

How much does fashion photography play into this work?

It's not about the clothing but the entire image. There is still a little fashion in there, because I think South Florida, specifically Miami, is a very fashion-driven environment.

Sexuality jumps out of your artwork. Is there an explainable attitude toward sexuality that is conveyed through your work?

I grew up in the rave culture and Grateful Dead culture, where nudity and promiscuity are kind of open. It was everywhere. So I think that my world, my vision of beauty, is much more provocative than most people's.

But people dig it.

A lot of these pieces are beautiful for the wall, sexy girl, bright colors, very chaotic. It's very ADD. And I am very ADD. My brain thinks at a thousand-million ideas per second, and I try to slam that all into one piece of work. I think it becomes very instigating. Your brain is kind of fried by it.

What is "Fuck Me I'm an Artist" all about?

That one came from a much deeper place. It was the end of a show where I made no money after weeks of working to prepare for it, and I just thought, "God, why wasn't I a lawyer?"

So it was not a pickup line?

[laughs] No. The random people who walk by think so. But the artists relate to it as an expression of exhaustion from walking the artist's path.

So there is a difference between the rabbit-head pieces and the other work you've been doing recently?

I may make 20 pieces that are pretty for the wall, and then I make one or two that are for me. I'd say that the entire rabbit series is my "me" stuff. But I don't want my vision to dictate everything. I want to be more universal. I love the influence of the crowd. The work absorbing the people around me.

Where did that rabbit mask come from?

I worked for Playboy right out of school. In that world, the rabbit is everything. After I finished up there, I was stuck in Texas for a bit, in a town called Crumb, where there is nothing to do. So I went to a costume shop. On the shelf, there was this giant rabbit head with cigarette burns, and it stank a little bit. I was like, "I gotta have this."

And how did the iconic "Fuck Me I'm an Artist" image come about?

The mask sat on a shelf for six months; then a girl that I was dating, a little Chinese girl named Lilly, walked into the room with just shoes on and the rabbit head, tilted her head down, sad rabbit, and I was like "That's it!"

You talk about this series as not being deep, but there is a portrait of the Dalai Lama in this series as well as the sexy, naked models. What's that about?

As much as I want to be surface, I am a very introspective person. My brain may be running a million miles per hour, but at the center, I'm pretty calm. I shot that image when I was working for the Miami Herald, and I always wanted to use it for something. I've read all of his books and heard his talks. I don't consider myself to be 100 percent Buddhist, but I follow a very similar path.

Is there competition in the street art world?

In the graffiti world there is, which is much different than the art world. I've never met anyone in the art world that I didn't like. I like being a part of the Wynwood scene, for instance. I don't see competition but rather people building together this huge collective.

Do you mind when people borrow from you, stylistically?

I try to stay a few steps ahead, but I don't mind it. I become friends with those people. Artists grow through mimic, which is how people grow. You can't help but copy the things around you.

So it's all part of the process?

In the nature of the artist is the ability to look at something, tear it apart, and then rebuild it into something that we want it to be. And everything we see influences us. We're really just a funnel that all these things fall into, and out the other end is something that we've created. 

Finally, why torch the art?

Originally, it came out of a need to get rid of this stuff, 'cause I don't want to lug it to California. But it's grown into something much more. It's almost a feeling of releasing my life here.

Sean Murdock Art Ransom, with Dooms De Pop, Zombies Organize, and DJs Xristian and Odium. 6:30 p.m. Friday, December 30, at the Bubble, 810 NE Fourth Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $5 until 9 p.m., $10 after 9. Click here.
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Travis Newbill