Mel Leipzig is an American painter regarded as one of the most renowned realism artists from the U.S. His bending of perspective around the subjects he paints within cluttered environments brings his work to life on canvas. Mel’s paintings’ have been collected by the Whitney and even the White House. A key note in what contributes to Mel’s notoriety is that he only paints with primary colors. In addition to painting, he also was an art professor at Mercer County Community College for over 40 years; starting in 1968 and retiring in 2013. One of his students was a graffiti artist by the name of RAS. A quote that Mel is most famous for is “everything is paintable.” Every one of his students have heard this saying–including RAS.
RAS has taken his education alongside his skill and talent to realism portraits done with spray paint. As a portrait artist; RAS is one of the most talented painters out today. RAS’ understanding of realism under the direction of Mel stands out from wall and canvas. In addition to the influence of realism, you can also see a commitment to easily read color schemes that emphasize RAS’ use of structure and skill over confusing contrast of color.
After studying under Mel, RAS would go on to secure work as a graphic designer with the New Jersey based company Terracycle. Winning over the favor of his company; he was given access to paint both the outside and inside of the company building with graffiti lettering and Characters. In typical RAS fashion, he shared his fortune with others–inviting them to get down as well. While RAS dedicated a few years to producing content that inspired him; he was pulled back to the artist who taught him along the way–Mel Leipzig.
RAS and Mel kept in touch over the years after RAS graduated. The two would reconnect when RAS and his girlfriend, who is also an extremely talented writer by the name of SID, worked side by side on some portraits of Andy Warhol. When Mel caught wind of the newest pieces; he arrived at Terracycle to paint the couple in front of the pair of Warhol portraits.
Mel would return several more times to Terracycle in an effort to paint RAS in front of his portrait work of Marilyn Monroe and RAS’ dog, Margaret.
After being the subject of his teacher several times; RAS felt inspired to pay homage to Mel for the skills he passed down. So over the course of a few weeks, RAS devoted himself to a portrait of Mel alongside a burner. RAS tapped into his perspective as a student for the piece; depicting Mel instructing a class on the use of a brush.
The significance of the color scheme is that it is made up only of colors Mel would be able to achieve with his challenging color pallet–while the fill on the piece is full of brush strokes on RAS’ name. This is a piece full of symbolism and sentiment. So often; graffiti is just viewed as narcissistic without the observer considering the significance of the artist’ self-expression. This wall by RAS, in my opinion, really portrays how much history goes into the pieces that are so often taken for granted when we look at graffiti. It has been said that a picture is worth a thousand words; there is certainly a case to be made for this picture showing how valuable and uplifting graffiti can be for someone’s artistic and professional career.
Quotes from the artists involved on the significance of the piece:
"The Mel mural kind of just brings it all together for me. It’s a way to reflect back on how my career has gone and what influenced my trajectory. In the same way that people retire and consider the work that has so deeply influenced their lives; me painting Mel helped me see things in retrospect and consider the influence he had on my career.
When I approach a wall like this; as soon as I am done painting; the art takes on a life of it’s own. The work becomes a separate reality from myself. When it comes to portrait work with this much sentiment behind it–it really does become its own entity.
My art has nothing to do with feeding my ego. Thankfully, it has been like that for years now. I just create–and keep creating. I personally don’t expect anything in return from my art like fame or fortune . My expectation from my art is toto see it take on its own–surpassing the boundaries of “GRAFFITI",
In painting Mel, it is meant to be a tribute to him and his great work. Since he has painted me three times and painted some other artists from the Trenton graff scene, I thought it was about time someone painted Mel! In addition, the wall was a tribute to reality and what is true. What I mean by that is there is no-one more real or relevant than Mel. For me, that is what I was trying to convey when I painted Mel. The Mel wall is about Mel. Being about Mel means by it’s nature it is also about energy, truth, focus, care, will, reality, and awareness of the here and now. That is what Mel is about. The wall is supposed to transcend any sort of bullshit like government and just remind us what’s important. And that’s shaping our own reality."
"I have painted RAS in front of his work three times now. The thing that stands out to me is that his work is different than what one might expect from a graffiti style portrait. It is amazing how RAS uses photographs and really pulls the picture onto the wall. He has such an understanding of how to mold the image using grays. "
Seeing such sentiment and intention go into a piece is a beautiful thing for the graffiti community. Such attention to detail is something the community has been missing for a long time. While there are certainly other artists who paint with intention and meaning – we can not think of any artist who is able or willing or able to articulate the way RAS has throughout the progression of the Mel mural.
Furthermore, perhaps there are artists looking for the opportunity to share what their work means to them. For that reason, sites like the Molotow blog are all the more valuable these days because it provides a space for artists to get exposure with the opportunity to express themselves.
You can view more of RAS’ work on instagram @basedrasta. We have been told that in the coming months Mel will paint RAS in front of this newest portrait. Definitely worth keeping an eye on his social media channels to see what the final product is! There will also be more content concerning Mel’s reaction to the wall in depth on a follow up article soon to come. Stay tuned!