Street Art Debuts on Reality TV — For Better and Worse. A Q&A With Contestant Annie Preece

The reality TV genre is decades old, and it has already incorporated art into a regular series (see Bravo’s Work of Art: The Next Great Artist), so it was inevitable that street art would get its turn as a televised spectacle.

Street Art Throwdown
begins airing February 3 on the Oxygen network, and the competition for $100,000 features a trio of Bay Area artists, most vividly Annie Preece, a former heroin addict whose “creepy faces” art is praised to no end by the show’s hard-nosed judges. The head judge, Justin Bua — who’s a street-art “legend” is some art circles — tears down contestants with such snarky comments as, “You clearly had trouble with can control,“ and “Inside you is an artist who wants to be great but you don’t know that.” Wow.

Preece spoke with SF Weekly about her experience with Bua, her previous reality TV spot (on TLC’s Addicted), and why some street artists feared that Oxygen’s reality TV programs would badly distort their art form for the sake of ratings. Preece, 33, is a native of Burlingame who lived there, San Mateo, San Francisco, and Santa Cruz before moving to Los Angeles five years ago. 

[jump] SF Weekly: Can you tell me if you won the contest?

Preece: I cannot tell you that (laughs).

SF Weekly: How were you chosen to enter?

Preece: I got asked to be on the show. There was a flyer that went around the street-art community. The gallery that I show at, the curator, and a couple of other people who know me in the street-art world recommended me to Oxygen. So Oxygen actually contacted me.

SF Weekly: Usually, street artists don’t do their work in front of cameras and judges. What makes a successful TV street-art contestant, rather than a successful street artist?

Preece: If you’re doing anything on TV, you have to have a personality. I know some amazingly gifted street artists and graffiti artists and muralists, and being on TV is different. This is the first-ever televised street-art competition show.

SF Weekly: What made you successful on the show?

Preece: The show hasn’t aired yet, and I could be terrible. But with me, I think it’s going to make good TV because I’m loud and honest. I don’t give a fuck. I don’t hold back. When I don’t like stuff, I don’t like it. When I get frustrated, I get frustrated. You don’t get a lot of time to do these challenges (on the show). You have to be clever quickly. And it’s intense. So it makes for good TV.

SF Weekly: You’ve obviously seen all the episodes.

Preece: No. I haven’t seen any of them. I’ve seen clips, so I’m not actually going to see it all until it airs on TV, which is terrifying.

SF Weekly: Did you get advice from other artists you know about what to do on Street Art Throwdown, and did you take their advice?

Preece: I was hesitant to go on the show because I’m in the middle of the street art/graffiti art scene in Los Angeles, and I knew (the show) would be controversial on the scene. A lot of people think street art should stay in the street. And that it shouldn’t go mainstream. And people have opinions about reality TV. But everyone I talked to on the scene said, “Go for it.” And I talked to a lot of people because I didn’t know how it would look. But I thought it was an opportunity for me and the other nine contestants to show their talent on a national scale, and that’s why I did it. As far as the show’s challenges, I had no idea what we were going to do, so I didn’t prepare or ask for help at all. Sometimes in the show, you can clearly see that (laughs).

SF Weekly: The show takes place in Los Angeles. Did that give you a “home-turf” advantage?

Preece: It might of, actually. But it also made it harder, because during the filming we weren’t allowed to talk or meet with our family and friends. And knowing they were right down the street made it difficult. But I got to walk around and see familiar artworks. That was cool. We were all living in a hotel in downtown L.A. We couldn’t leave the hotel. We weren’t allowed to have phones or use the Internet. It was difficult. Any art we did on the show — we had no reference photos. We couldn’t run it by someone. It was hard and awesome. 
SF Weekly: The judges on the show, especially Justin Bua, are very harsh. I know some artists would have told them to “go to hell.” How did you deal with the judges’ mean comments?

Preece: I talked behind their backs as soon as I was off-camera (laughs). Here’s the thing: There were so many times when I just wanted to go off on the judges. And you’re right: They do come across as snarky — sometimes even like assholes. Their job is to judge, but I would sit there and get so fucking mad at them. But you can’t say anything because they have $100,000. If I go off on Justin Bua, I’m definitely getting voted off and not getting $100,000. So I always remembered to bite my tongue — which is so difficult. So any opportunity I got, I talked shit about them when the camera wasn’t on. (A spokesperson for the show says that Preece may not have been aware when the cameras were on.)

SF Weekly: Cameron “Camer1” Moberg from San Francisco is also on the show, as is Vanessa “Agana” Espinoza of Oakland and seven other artists. Was the competition so cut-throat that everyone treated each other as enemies?

Preece: What was funny is that we all became friends. Everyone was great. There’s not one person who I didn’t care for. But I really bonded with Jenna Morello, who’s from Brooklyn, and with Cameron. And since we filmed the show I’ve gone up to San Francisco and done a little collaboration with Cameron. And I’m going to be in a show that he’s curating at the 1AM Gallery in March.

SF Weekly: Do you have street art currently visible in San Francisco?

Preece: No, but here’s the thing: Nowadays, I’m more of a canvas painter who occasionally does a mural. I used to do murals and tag on the street, but I’ve just gotten to a point in my career where I’ve slowed down. I do a lot of commission murals. But my main focus is canvas work.

SF Weekly: A few years ago, you were on a reality TV show about addictions. And on Street Art Throwdown, you tell the cameras that you used to be an addict. How difficult was admitting that to the cameras?

Preece: I own that part of my life — that this is who I am. And I realized that after I filmed that show about addictions, which I went on just to go to treatment. I didn’t realize until after it aired how I really looked and how fucking nuts I am when I’m loaded. I got so many emails from that saying that I’ve helped people and inspired them. It was insane and awesome. And all I did was get sober. I realize that me sharing my story and being honest about it can help people. And that’s why I continue to be open and honest — I was a pile of shit and now I’m not. And some people I think can relate to that.

SF Weekly: Do you want a reputation of “reality TV star” in addition to “artist”?

Preece: When I got on the first TV show, I was homeless and living in Santa Cruz. And I was super strung out. I went to an AA meeting there, and this scouter for the show happen to be there. And I was so fucked up. And all I heard was, “We’ll send you to treatment.” And that’s all I wanted to do. That’s why I went on it. And this one, I was hesitant at first because I don’t want to be a reality TV star. But if someone wants to put me in TV to showcase my work? I’m not that cool to say no. I don’t want to be the next Snooki. But maybe I will be the next Snooki (laughs).

SF Weekly: What was your start in street art? And do I see a bit of Barry McGee in your work?

Preece: I got introduced to street art and graffiti back in the late 1990s in San Francisco. I was 16. I painted with this graffiti writer for, like, 12 minutes. I’d go out and tag along with him. I tried painting myself. I was terrible at it, but I gained a new respect and a love for the scene. Then I took a decade off to shoot heroin, because that seemed like a good idea (laughs). In Los Angeles, I picked up the spray can again. I don’t do graffiti but I do characters. I love Barry McGee, but those creepy faces that I do? I was doing them prior. I have drawings when I was 7 and 8 of these weird creepy faces, and I don’t know where that comes from. 

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