The Man Downtown
By Roxanne Broda-Blake
An afternoon with Genuine Charlie Sam — shooting electric fire, speaking French, and creating art.
Genuine Charlie Sam perches on a ladder in front of a huge mural of his name in old-fashioned circus-style writing. He shakes a can of spray paint. “It’s very important to proclaim one’s name. I’m Charlie Sam, by the way,” he says.
This local artist works with spray paint, stencils, robots, and cartoons to create multi-layered images and figures full of quirky personality, just like him. He has a studio at the Gear Factory in downtown Syracuse, where he works on his own pieces. In addition to creating art, Charlie Sam promotes and organizes exhibitions for local artists through Revolution Studios, based at the Gear Factory. He also models for figure drawing classes at Syracuse University on the side.
“I believe that art is innate, and during childhood, people get discouraged and claim they’re not artists, without any encouragement. This is RIDICULOUS,” Charlie Sam said. He shouted the word “ridiculous,” and asked that I capitalize it.
Charlie Sam used me as an example to illustrate that everyone is an artist. He pushed through my meek responses of “well, I guess,” and “I mean, I bake and stuff,” and eventually offered to organize a photo exhibition of my psychedelic animal cupcakes.
“[Charlie Sam] constantly asks people without knowing anything about them what kind of art they do,” said Jake LaManna, one of the founders of Revolution Studios.
Charlie Sam’s name mural overwhelms the far wall of one of the sprawling warehouse floors of the Gear Factory. Artists rent space here and, as we talked, I saw a few of them around tables in corners of the room, wearing slippers and drinking coffee as they worked. Folding tables fortified Charlie Sam’s workspace, and partly-used spray paint cans and towels littered every surface. “He’s equally, if not more so, passionate about his own art as he is about getting others involved,” LaManna said.
“I love spray paint,” Charlie Sam said, “I love spray paint. I love spray paint.” Charlie Sam grinned, a give-away that he was going to dictate the interview to me. “I love spray paint,’ he said repeatedly. Charlie spoke slowly and deliberately, glancing at me to make sure I wrote down every word correctly.
He sprayed white paint on the “e” in Charlie, but then changed his mind and wiped it off with a shirt. His love of spray paint comes from his origins in graffiti.
Charlie Sam showed off his graffiti roots with spray paint and stencils on large canvases. The pieces are sometimes utilitarian, like a table he worked on for Recess Coffeehouse, and sometimes purely decorative.
Stencils play a key role in Charlie Sam’s work. Most of them feature a variety of round, squat figures. Some wear glasses, some sport buckteeth — each has unique features only noticeable on close inspection. At first glance, they looked like repetitions of the same figure.
“All I can say about them is that they are anthropomorphic figures. People bring their own stuff to it,” he said. He explained he never knows what people will like, or why. “Everything I make is on automatic doodle.”
He pairs these figures with fleur-de-lis and other flourishes of spray paint, and uses the buildup of spray paint on his stencils to add depth to each image.
Charlie Sam guided me past his table for Recess several times. The blue table hosts a variety of his stencil figures in red. On my fourth pass, a new figure popped out as I approached — another anthropomorphic stencil in a faint gold only visible when the light hits it right.
This table fits in a body of work called “Look Closer,” Charlie’s experiment in perception through the refraction of light. This theme pervades all of Charlie’s work, including his large-scale canvases, but he distinguishes this “exploration of surface appearance” as its own collection.
“These are flat planes of color with a black or colored outline, similar to old comic books, screen printing, and tattoos,” he said, “It’s an image that reveals different aspects up close, hidden images only seen from a certain perspective or in a trance.” He went on to cite “hidden pictures” in the comics section of the newspaper that only appear when the viewer’s eyes drift out of focus.
Charlie Sam stows a collection of wooden robots in his office space downstairs. He doesn’t classify these as a specific body of work, but more of an outlet for stress relief. The robots are made out of post-use “food wood,” which could be anything from popsicle sticks to wine crates to French cheese boxes.
Charlie Sam bestows his wood robots with personality through exacting detail. Not only does the type of food wood used define the robots on first glance, but inner structure plays an important role. A female robot included the side of a tampon box inside her abdomen, only visible if you looked between her legs.
“These are sketches for two-to-three-story robots,” Charlie Sam said. He imagines the full-sized robots plant organic crops and gardens. They also come complete with the ability to shoot “electric fire” in the event of a “swarm of locusts or military attack.”
“I get inspiration for them from the house in Swiss Family Robinson, and the Alien movies,” Charlie Sam said of the robots.
Charlie Sam considers these movie and TV inspirations, along with tattoos and comic books, as “mostly just cool stuff.” Pop culture from his childhood inspires him, including toys and cartoons. Charlie lamented “there isn’t any cool stuff for kids these days,” and said he would love to design “capsule toys” for grocery store vending machines.
Already on his way to designing cooler stuff for kids, Charlie Sam has also developed a commercial line of artwork, often repeating that he “creates cute, cool, and creepy images for kids and odd people.”
This commercial line features clothing with images of these aptly named characters. One of the most popular is the “Bugtapus,” a creature with the head and abdomen of an insect and a vast, lumpy body supported by plentiful tentacle-like legs. Charlie has sold many pairs of boy-short underwear emblazoned with the Bugtapus, and said that he gets a lot of business from “women and punk rockers.”
Back upstairs in front of the Charlie Sam mural, he chose a baby blue spray paint can and climbed back up the ladder. A Bugtapus stared down at me from his hoodie as he pulled out his cell phone, only to realize he missed a text message. He donned a pair of wobbly eyeglasses to read the tiny screen, and told me that he broke them running into a door before I arrived.
Charlie Sam and I parlez-français after he told me that he moved to the United States from Europe when he was five. French is his first language, Italian his second, English his third, and American, he said, is his fourth.
“I’ve always had a somewhat ‘outsider’ perspective on cultures in general,” Charlie Sam said. He has worked in Los Angeles, New York City and all over Europe, but he loves Syracuse more than any other city. He said that no other Syracuse-sized city can boast so much richness in culture and art.
Maybe that’s not such a bad way to see Syracuse. Trapped in a collegiate bubble on the SU hill, students easily feel otherwise. But Charlie Sam wants us all to love local art as much as he does. Quite the task, indeed.