Hip Hop Glassmaker

Hip Hop Glassmaker

Leo Tecosky does more than make graffiti in glass—he captures the spirit of a cultural movement.
Published on Thursday, June 16, 2022. This article appears in the Summer 2022 issue of American Craft Magazine.
glass artists working an orange arrow-shaped glass sculpture with flame

Leo Tecosky began experimenting with bringing graffiti to blown glass in 2005. It wasn’t until 2016 that he figured out how to convincingly sculpt the arrow form, a building block of the visual language of graffiti. Photo courtesy of The Corning Museum of Glass.

Leo Tecosky is a Brooklyn-based artist whose exquisite blown glass and neon objects and installations grow out of, and contribute to, hip hop culture. He is the first artist to systematically bring the ethos and approaches of hip hop to glass and is the only artist to have persistently and consistently applied its values to glassmaking.

What Leo Tecosky has done in his nearly 20 years of work is to show that there are so many other possibilities, so many other languages for glass. And the work is not just fresh—it’s beautiful, energizing, and powerful. In its attention to history and broad sampling, his work reflects a truly American experience of the 21st century.

Tecosky grew up during the golden age of hip hop, the late 1980s through 1990s. During this time, socially conscious hip hop artists such as Eric B. & Rakim, A Tribe Called Quest, KRS-One, and others used hip hop as a way to elevate the Black self and advocate for Black liberation and social change, often with a playful approach and a positive message. The reach of hip hop went far beyond music, creating a rich culture that persists to this day in visual art and fashion, as well as a framework that emphasizes education, equity, and social justice.

Hip hop has four main elements—DJing, MCing (aka rapping), break dancing, and graffiti—each of which requires the body to move in specific ways, to control the breath, to engage in movements that require split-second timing. Similarly, Tecosky sees the glass shop as a place of hip hop activity, given the ethos in which he creates and the physicality of making. “A lot of the way that I work,” he says, “is reminiscent of hip hop methodology, which is hot and fast or rough and ready. You get on the street and get that paint down and then go home; you can’t be on that wall forever. Glassmaking is very body-oriented in all of its processes. The glass shop is heat. It’s time. It’s the elements of gravity and temperature. And I like to think that I embody that kind of movement.”

blue and orange neon sign showing the stylized word ANSER

Handle, 2004, is a glowing neon version of Tecosky’s graffiti moniker, ANSER. Photo by Leo Tecosky.

“A lot of the way that I work is reminiscent of hip hop methodology, which is hot and fast or rough and ready.”
—Leo Tecosky

With every gather and frozen arc of material, Tecosky’s work in glass furthers this practice. Hip hop in crystallized form, his works are the record of breath, movement, and conceptual approach.

The initial inspiration for Tecosky’s work is graffiti, which he identifies as “the very word of the hip hop movement . . . the element that is most visible and accessible . . . a form of street art that connects with people in an urban setting.” Coming of age in its current form in New York in the late 1960s and 1970s—just before the birth of hip hop—graffiti developed as a way of marking and claiming space for the city’s most vulnerable and unseen.

In its earliest days, graffiti was about tagging—asserting the writer’s voice and territory by throwing their name up on the walls, streets, and underpasses of their neighborhood. Over time, the art of graffiti progressed, developing into what Tecosky calls “an American craft tradition,” with highly codified approaches, definitive stylistic strains, and leading practitioners.

glass artist working on star-shaped piece in studio

The artist in his studio. Photo courtesy of The Corning Museum of Glass.

From Neon to New Perspectives

Tecosky’s glass graffiti follows a similar arc. His earliest attempts to bridge the two art forms were experiments in neon, a technique he first experienced as an undergraduate at Alfred University in upstate New York. Works such as Handle (2004) are tags that, like much graffiti, center on Tecosky’s moniker, ANSER. Spelling that name in bold looping script in cool blue and hot red-orange tubes, the work captures the immediacy of throwing up a tag, no small feat in such a demanding medium, and with the advantage that the neon tag lasts, in the form of retinal burn, even after you look away.

Other experiments followed, each one developing Tecosky’s ability to translate different styles of graffiti writing into neon script. Manifest Density (2005) and Yo! (2006), for instance, translate the fat bubble letters of graffiti into neon lines. By 2016, his skills were advanced enough to re-create the ornate abstractions of late-style graffiti in arcing lines of luminous light, as seen in Tughra.

Beyond the technical challenges of graffiti, Tecosky has long been drawn to the medium for the way it can convey messages. “As an art form,” he says, “graffiti is about beautifying letters through stylization, and it uses writing as a means of reclaiming and liberating the power of text, as well as reclaiming and occupying the places we reside. The craft is about the use of alphabets, where the letter is more than just a letter. It is a gesture. The form is filled with emotions, counterweighted with stars and arrows for emphasis.”

chandelier of clear glass arrows of different shapes and sizes

So Many Styles, 2016, a chandelier incorporating graffiti-based arrow forms. Photo by Nathan J. Shaulis.

The multicultural aspect of modern graffiti since its New York nascence is also appealing to this artist, who has always found himself most at home in places and art forms that bring in multiple perspectives. “Miami, New York, Istanbul, Jerusalem. These are places where there are no singularities,” he says. “There’s lots and lots of different types of people and ways of thinking. That must be a reflection of who I am. I’m half Black, half white, with Jewish roots, Black American roots. I’ve always been a mix of lots of things physically and otherwise, and maybe that‘s why I am drawn to these places.”

His travels in the Middle East also introduced him to the magnificent use of the word-as-art in Islamic architecture and certain Jewish art forms. This interest led him back into hip hop. He knew that hip hop had ties to Islam, but researching further, he realized that the Five Percent Nation was an important influence on the conscious hip hop that informs his approach. A cultural movement inspired by Islam in its Black American context, the Five Percent Nation advocates for self-knowledge and self-determination among Black people. Central to its teachings is a divination strategy called the Supreme Alphabet, which, along with the accompanying Supreme Mathematics, appears in the lyrics of many hip hop songs. This alphabet, and the meanings it ascribes to particular letters, would become central to Tecosky’s blown-glass works.

installation in a hallway with glass arrows and other miscellaneous shapes illuminated neon shapes and various written and stenciled markings on the walls

The installation Neon Medina, 2018, was a choreographic blending of sculpted blown glass, neon, and wall drawings. Photo by Jose Menendez.

Shape-Shifting

But first, he had to figure how to do it. Sculpting dimensional forms in blown glass, especially forms that, like graffiti, include points, lines, and complex shapes, is particularly challenging. Though he had been experimenting in bringing graffiti to blown forms as early as 2005, he only cracked the code in 2016, when he figured out how to convincingly sculpt arrow forms in the hot shop. One of his earliest pieces featuring these new skills is So Many Styles (2016). Like his first forays into neon, this chandelier documents a range of approaches to the arrow and, in the process, pays homage to the artists who developed this most fundamental of graffiti shapes.

Tecosky’s technical advance was a watershed moment, one that flipped the script on glassblowing. Blown glass is about the bubble; it wants to make things round. To force glass to be angular, asymmetrical, and flat is a defiant, creative act.

The blown-glass forms had another effect, allowing Tecosky’s work to occupy space in new, conceptually engaging ways. Hung from the center of the ceiling, So Many Styles untethered graffiti from the wall, allowing it to occupy the gallery’s prime real estate, literally centering it and the hip hop culture it is derived from. Installations combining sculpted blown glass, neon, and even stenciled walls followed. With each one, his work was bolder in its claim upon space, and in its advocacy of a more inclusive approach to glass and craft practice.

three clear glass sculptures of the letter a with marker writing on them

Tecosky’s work embraces multiple traditions. The tagged letters of AAA, 2020, stand for aleph, alpha, and alif—the Hebrew, Greek, and Arabic ways to say “a.” Photo by Jose Menendez.

Neon Medina (2018), for instance, was a powerful installation at the Agnes Varis Art Center of UrbanGlass in Brooklyn. Mounted near the windows, its neon crowns, sculpted glass arrows, and tags activated both the interior and exterior space with light. The installation finally allowed Tecosky’s works in neon to operate as what they always have been: clarion calls for inclusion. As artworks in glass galleries, they have long advocated against homogeneity and for more expansive styles within the tradition of neon and glass. As artworks placed in windows, they are an open invitation—sending out the message in brilliant lines of light that this is a space for hip hop, its adherents, and for people of diverse backgrounds more broadly.

Over the past few years, Tecosky has also produced a number of smaller-scale objects that allow him to flex his technical skills and embed even more references into his works. AAA (2020), his first successful attempt at sculpting letters, brings Islamic patterning into the glass through blingy nine-pointed stars in cut glass and nods to the Supreme Alphabet through its use of the letter form. Layered on top are looping tags, written in white. From outside the culture of hip hop, these tags can seem to upend, and perhaps deface, the precious norms of traditional cutting, and to be jarringly out of harmony with the finesse of Tecosky’s glassblowing. But seen from Tecosky’s vantage point, these fired-on tags are a way to question and expand what value in glass can be. They are, again, a way to center graffiti within the gallery space, even on the surface of the most finely crafted objects.

exhibition wall with orange red and blue letters arrows and other shapes displayed alongside a metal frame and various stenciled and spray painted shapes

The letter B—signifying existence—is at the center of a blown-glass world of stars, serifs, and arrows in The 36th Chamber, 2021, which Tecosky created for the Rakow Commission. Photo courtesy of The Corning Museum of Glass.

The Beauty of B

All of these elements and more are on display in his new work for The Corning Museum of Glass, a wall installation titled The 36th Chamber (2021). Named after a groundbreaking Wu-Tang Clan album, the kung fu movie it was based on, and the fact that the work is the 36th of the museum’s prestigious Rakow Commissions, The 36th Chamber incorporates nine blown-glass forms in a welded steel frame evoking graffiti. Stars and serifs, arrows, and a crown, all ornamented with cuts and tagged with enamel marker, radiate out from a bubble-letter B. “I’ve been working on the letter B for the better part of a year now,” Tecosky says. “The Supreme Alphabet says that the letter B is literally be or to exist. It also represents to be born. To be brought into existence.”

In the gallery, the glass and steel are rooted in a tapestry of spray-painted graffiti. Words like born and breathe appear alongside painted crowns and dots on a bed of shapes sampled from Islamic geometry. Tecosky’s work has never been more expansive in its references. Visible from many vantage points, the work operates like Neon Medina before it, calling out to people through the galleries, working to bring a more inclusive, expansive glass world into existence.

“What we make,” says Tecosky, “are the physical manifestation of our ideas and our connection to the world around us. This is the alchemy of changing sand into a transparent material that then I can perform my own alchemy on and create another thing. It’s pretty mind-blowing, this transformation. I realize that I have long been trying to grab onto that word, transformation. Transforming silica into things, transforming my interests into new things, transforming myself via all this knowledge that I’m acquiring, transforming people’s minds by turning this information into something else, an object. It’s what the Bible and the other great books talk about: transforming from birth to heaven or from birth to your next life.”

leotecosky.com | @anserglass

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