Dereck Seltzer, aka The Castle Steps and formerly Haunted Euth, is a Detroit-based artist known for a visual lexicon drawing on forgotten pop culture, skateboard graphics, graffiti, narcotics, and a touch of stained nostalgia left over from a childhood spent wandering the streets of Hollywood, CA. Seltzer is co-creator of TMRWLND, a collaborative project and zine currently metamorphosing into a gallery space and storefront. His work has appeared in various L.A. galleries, on many walls, and in Issues 4 and 6 of Madcap Review.
When I was eighteen, a friend of mine led me around Washington D.C., showing me how to tag, trying to recruit me. He was cycling between three tag names and wanted me to pick my own, which I did eventually, drawing on pop culture references. A tag name, an assumed name, has to be memorable, but it also has to have significance to the artist. You started out as Haunted Euth and have more recently transitioned to The Castle Steps. Why did you choose these names and why have you moved on?
I grew up in Los Angeles in a single-parent household, with my father having custody on the weekends. My father lived in Hollywood and I essentially had free rein while I was there. I could do what I wanted, when I wanted, with very little structure or parental guidance.
I started skating at a young age and would go out every weekend—all day and night—with friends to Hollywood High, Fairfax High, Melrose, DTLA, and in the process became exposed to graffiti on a regular basis. Los Angeles in the mid 90’s and early 2000’s was a goldmine for graffiti, with MSK, AWR, LTS, KOG, TKO, MTA, CBS, WAI and so many more crews up everywhere in the city. Shepard Fairey was nowhere near a household name then, but I was seeing Obey Giant everywhere. I distinctly remember knowing his posters were not ads but not quite being sure what he and Dave Kinsey were doing at the time.
I picked up the name Euthanasia after having mentioned the word to my mother, and her reaction just informed me on the spot that it would get an audience to stop and take pause. I later used the name Haunted Euth mostly as a nod to the process and repetition that was used in my work at the time. It was the persona of an individual who would appear suddenly, create work, and then vanish, leaving an ephemeral mark witnessed by those who had the opportunity to see it. I hand silk-screened all my stickers and posters for installations, and those numbers tally easily into the thousands. Through branding and marketing studies we know that repetition is one of the key components to gaining familiarity with an audience, and in a city like Los Angeles, where the visual field is so dense, a familiar image appearing over and over again in places the public frequents becomes very much akin to a haunting.
When Tina St. Claire, my fiancée and creative partner, passed away in 2016 from brain cancer, I knew that I couldn’t return to the work or title I had created previously. For better or worse, I simply am not the same man I was before her loss. I struggled for over a year to find my voice and to return to my work and I simply could not. I couldn’t draw, I didn’t want to paint, and I felt utterly depleted creatively. I knew that I still wanted to create art and to deliver on the promise I had made to Tina that I would continue forward with the goals we had shared. When the timing felt right I began working on a new project titled The Castle Steps, the namesake of which is taken from the nickname Tina gave me while we were dating.
You and Tina met at the Beyond Eden exhibit at L.A. Municipal Gallery in 2011. How did those early interactions go, and when did you decide to start collaborating on individual works and on TMRWLND, your creative project and zine?
Honestly, the early interactions between Tina and me were pretty rough. I’m not great socially and I came on pretty strong when we first met, which she thought was hilarious and wanted no part of. I was 26 when I met Tina, and I was dumbstruck and immediately attracted to her. After I finally got her to sit down and talk with me in a one-on-one setting, we really hit it off and I fell head over heels for her. Believe it or not, we actually sat down and wrote a pros and cons list before we started dating—the major pros being that neither of us wanted kids and we both cared about making art in a way that put the work before anyone or anything else.
In 2012 or 2013 I took her painting in Compton and we knocked out this huge wall together in about 6 hours, no planning, just an organic process that seemed to grow tighter as we worked. After a bit of conversation some time later about how few zines we had come across that were composed of only drawings, we decided to start TMRWLND, which was a nod to the atomic age and our mutual fascination with the space program, both its triumphs and failures.
Tina passed away on March 9, 2016, of glioblastoma multiforme, an aggressive form of brain cancer. The effects of the disease were fast moving and no doubt devastating, but you’ve been working to preserve her legacy. What are your plans for her work going forward, and what would you say to anyone experiencing this kind of loss?
Right now my plans for Tina’s art are multi-tiered. The main focus is to ensure that her legacy and character remain preserved and that her art is still made available to the public. I’m working with the director Rich Ragsdale to produce a documentary on Tina’s art and life, and I’m also currently designing her second book of art, which unlike TMRWLND will focus only on Tina’s art and will provide a bit more of an intimate narrative about who she was beyond a creative.
Having moved 2,000 miles from Los Angeles to Detroit, MI, I am working with the city to put a brick and mortar TMRWLND location together that will function as a storefront and gallery, with a percentage of the sales going toward funding glioblastoma research in Tina’s name. Tina and I were not necessarily embraced with open arms by the L.A. gallery system and so we frequently leaned toward doing our own pop-up shows, which I would like to help others do as well. I feel there is a large pool of talent in Los Angeles who would thrive in Detroit and I want to provide a space for creative growth where other artists that Tina and I felt a kinship with, or who embody the spirit of the TMRWLND zines, may show and sell work.
It’s still difficult to answer questions regarding Tina and I unfortunately can’t give much in the way of advice or comforting words for others in the same situation regarding a personal loss. If anything, I can tell you that what people assume you will experience and what you will actually go through are so varied and removed that it’s best to remember to take things one day at a time.
I think a lot of people would say that over the years—especially in the case of street art, both stylistically and literally—the arts hub of the United States and even the world has shifted from New York to L.A. Why do you think you struggled to be embraced by the gallery system, and what is it about Detroit—cultural re-emergence, a sense of freedom, enduring spirit—that drew you in?
I don’t by any means want to say that the support wasn’t there, because I was given opportunities to work with quite a few locations that were incredibly supportive—Thinkspace Gallery, C.A.V.E. Gallery, Spoke Art, Track 16, Cannibal Flower, and La Luz De Jesus were all very gracious and provided me with opportunities to work with them. Those experiences were amazing and I can’t thank the curators and owners who saw potential in my work and pushed me to keep going enough.
I think to expand upon what I said earlier, as someone who lived in Los Angeles for 30 years, I felt the last decade was spotted with red flags that the city I had grown up in and loved dearly was changing and not necessarily for the better. I come from a working class background, I’ve had day jobs my entire adult life, and I noticed a very real shift in the art scene toward 2010 where suddenly a glass ceiling began to become more evident.
L.A. artists seemed to be less prevalent in L.A. galleries. I can take a guess as to why that was, and I would place quite a bit of it on the city becoming more and more expensive to live and work in. If an artist wasn’t known to be bankable, the odds they would be shown seemed to be diminished. I get that the gallery owners have overhead to cover and the art business is called a business for a reason, but with that being said, we’re really heading into an interesting time now regarding self-representation and the gallery system, similar in a way to what’s happened to the music industry.
Detroit in many ways has elements of the L.A. and Bay Area that I loved, as well as a myriad of potential for creating programs that can help artists and the community here. I moved here to set up a residency program and gallery under the TMRWLND name and I am working with the city currently to get that set up.
In 2009, a set designer for Green Day took your work, altered it slightly, and used it as the stage backdrop during their tour. Ultimately, an Appeals court ruled that the work had been transformed sufficiently, and that the band had not profited directly off the work. In a sort of Beginner’s Guide to Pettiness, Green Day sued you for court costs, but lost. All artists use reference images, transforming the source material in some way. Depending on how it’s handled, this appropriation can range from a high level conversation to simple theft. I can guess where you stand on the appropriation of your own work, but how do you feel about it generally, and how did this experience shape you or push you as an artist?
I am generally and most often times in favor of appropriation, certainly in reference to personal influences or as a nod to art history. I think for me, the transformation of the material should be evident in the aesthetic, message, and context. You can see in The Castle Steps imagery that very directly nods toward Powell Peralta’s skull and sword graphic, and in TMRWLND or the Haunted Euth body of work there are inside jokes and references to material I adored and grew up with. It’s not always on the nose, but it’s a way of paying homage or tribute to those who put in work before me. It’s a very common theme in art and a powerful tool when used correctly.
Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X by Francis Bacon, one of my all time favorite painters, is a prime example of how an artist can use appropriation and absolutely alter the context and meaning of an image by aesthetic alone. What’s even more fascinating to me is to then consider how that painting further goes on to influence other artists and media—it was the aesthetic reference for Heath Ledger’s Joker makeup in The Dark Knight—in ways the original would have never been thought of.
The situation with Green Day is a bit different, and I’ll make a very short point of it to discuss the differences. Roger Staub, the Graphic Designer who submitted my art to Green Day, openly admitted he had no intent of altering the meaning or message of the work; he simply photographed the existing art, gave it to the band because he thought it looked cool, and went home with a paycheck. His interest was not in creating new work or a dialogue, but instead to provide a set-piece that the band could use as a backdrop on a tour that generated over 300 million dollars. I was putting myself through college for art at the time, the use of the work was unsolicited, and I was not given credit or any form of acknowledgement. When I asked the band to simply stop using it, the response was that I could go fuck myself because Green Day and Warner Brothers didn’t need permission to use anyone’s work—in fact, they used a number of artists’ work on that tour without compensation or permission. That is the reality of the case, those are the facts. Green Day and Warner Brothers attempted to bankrupt me as a result of the inconvenience of being asked not to use the material they had taken, and it is petty indeed. That sort of money-hungry greed and lack of compassion for others who are just getting a start is why I felt going to court was necessary in spite of risking any financial stability in years to come.
What kind of impact are you looking to make with your work? Do you want to shock, captivate, inform, entertain, or all of the above?
These days, especially moving forward in the wake of losing Tina, I think the work is really more a way for me to get through some of the very deep-seated issues I now have to consider on a daily basis. I can’t say I have felt anything close to the notion of relief or catharsis regarding her death, and I have to remind myself to stay in balance and away from thoughts that can be really harmful. Isolation, grief, sorrow, and misery are part of the experience, but in a relative way so is an understanding that the tremendous feeling of loss comes from having had so much joy and love in my time spent with her.
I hope that others enjoy the work and maybe it does for someone out there what the art I saw when I was younger did for me—which is to provide an outlet and example that no matter the end result, it’s worth it to pursue what it is that you enjoy. I’m not really burdened now with the what if of monetary success or gallery support, because while both would be nice, I’ve reached a space where the end goal is simply to make the art and anything else is just a byproduct of that process.
If art for you, at this point, is about process, is there room for larger conversations or critiques regarding identity, ideology, and the like, or is it closer than that, more personal?
I would certainly hope so. I think that’s the goal, if anything, that the art is the byproduct of looking for my own identity and ideology, and to show others that journey that might speak to them as well. That’s really the beauty of all of this. It’s not altruistic, it’s done from a very personal space for my own reasons, but then so was every piece of music I grew up with that I loved and that got me through those hard spaces, both in adolescence and even now as an adult.
If people embrace the work in my lifetime, that’s great, but if not, if it reaches one person who sees it and it resonates with him or her then it’s all been worth it. I’m traversing this space now after the death of my partner that is a total unknown. I don’t have a safety net, there’s no way of knowing that I am ever coming out of this healthy or unscathed.
Here’s the thing, though: you will reach these crossroads as well at some point. So if I continue forward, if I push myself in spite of the hardships, maybe when you reach that road it might provide an example that hey, it’s okay, you can keep going. H.R. Giger lost his partner at a relatively young age as well, and he kept going, he pushed through it and grew. I found that to be inspiring and relative in a way that maybe I can be for someone else. Or not, either way.
Can you walk us through the process of making a typical piece of art? What materials do you use, what methods? Do you rely on an archive of imagery or are you always creating new work?
With TMRWLND and Haunted Euth I had an existing lexicon that I often referred to, which stemmed from working on the street and using repeating imagery much in the same way you would use a tag with graffiti. The mindset was to really refine a look that was instantly recognizable to the public, but unfortunately that came to be really stifling creatively. Some of that imagery was created in my late teens and early 20’s, and a decade later I can certainly appreciate where I was coming from at that younger age, but it was no longer a voice I felt I could use to reach a larger audience.
As far as creating new work for Castle Steps, in all honesty it depends on the theme and message I am looking to convey. I am a firm believer in using the correct medium for the message, so everything from acrylic polymer-based paints to Ronan sign paint, concrete, mold-making materials, and salvaged items should be considered for the finished piece.
The typical process these days is a bit of research, followed by a rough pencil drawing and inking the art. I’m more interested in creating a cohesive body with the new material, so it’s a slower process of refining the imagery and narrative before I sit down to paint. From there it’s just a matter of deciding what needs to happen regarding the materials to make the art look how I pictured it when it came to me.
Attitudes are changing, but many people still buy into this notion that street art, graffiti, public art is an assault on some utopian ideal of “the way things were.” Most of the animus toward this type of artwork stems from, I believe, the flawed logic of the Broken Windows Theory—the idea that something as simple as a broken window can spark a chain reaction leading to widespread violence within a community. What message do you think public artwork sends, and do you hold it equal with gallery work, museum pieces, and published art?
Honestly, I hate the term street art—it’s so corny—it just brings to mind those awful stencils with really bad Urban Outfitter refrigerator-magnet-type puns that seem to litter the streets of major cities. There’s a bevy of astounding painters working on the streets currently, both legally and illegally, who are given the street art title, which is awesome, but I just think it tends to be a very broad spectrum of art placed under a umbrella term, which isn’t really fair to what we have going on globally now.
This question is a difficult one for me to answer and it’s really a loaded topic. I don’t think that something being placed in a museum or gallery necessarily validates the work, just as something being painted outside shouldn’t necessarily mean it’s street art or graffiti, if that makes sense.
I’ll always love graffiti, tags, throws, rollers… just the use of a moniker and the compulsion to get a name recognized is always going to be something I respect, and I think it’s something that is a fundamental part of the human condition. It’s primal—marking surfaces and territory is a practice that’s old as mankind. The Broken Windows theory isn’t a bad theory, but it’s not necessarily true in its connection to graffiti. Let’s be honest: if the property is derelict long enough to start sustaining heavy activity with people painting it, then where is the conversation about the owner of the property maintaining it? Why aren’t the sources of the problem—excessive property tax, poverty, a broken economy, or slumlords—treated with the same disdain?
You’ve mentioned Francis Bacon, Shepard Fairey, Dave Kinsey, the Powell Peralta skateboard company, and various graffiti crews. If you could get a group of influential creatives—artists, musicians, writers, etc—together for a conversation or a project, who would they be?
You know, I have so many people whose work I admire it’s hard to really put a complete list together. I’d have to say Albert Reyes, Charles Burns, Virgil Finlay, Andrew Hem, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Mark Rothko, Revs, Bast, Frank Frazetta, Robert Crumb, William Burroughs, David Cronenberg, and Paul McCarthy would be of interest.
Photo: Angela Marklew
Interviewer: Craig Ledoux