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Vinnie Hager’s Inventive Codes and Doodles

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Vinnie Hager’s art practice is wrapped into his experience as a child of the internet age. The 24-year-old’s patterned, coded drawings usually take anywhere from two to four hours to create, depending on their complexity. He makes these drawings on paper, but also on repurposed clothing and furniture and housewares, and his releases have echoed the virality of the Supreme NYC releases in the early ‘00s. 

Hager has harnessed the fervor of Tumblr, Twitter, and Instagram to promote his art and build a community around it. About a year ago, at the beginning of the pandemic, Hager would do these special IG promotions where he would leave his work at various locations in Baltimore for anyone to find and claim. It was a scavenger hunt for the digital and COVID age, and it was wildly successful. I remember he left a package in Mount Vernon near a fountain and when I arrived less than five minutes later, it was gone. This anticipation, release, and joy of the hunt have built into a mass of IG followers waiting for the next release.

These spontaneous drops have since transitioned into regular capsule collections. Hager takes vintage and thrifted items and graffitis them in his signature style with paint pens, and his all-over designs can be seen on skate decks, chairs, hats, and purses, among many other objects. He recently put out a few new items and collaborations: woven blankets decorated with his intricate patterns of inscrutable symbols and T-shirts with the chest adorned by his creative hand. 

Hager’s work is meticulous, thoughtful, and somehow at once controlled and spontaneous. His drawings originate from a set of invented codes and doodles, modern-day hieroglyphics that mark the clothing and interiors of Baltimore residences. Hager tells me he considers it a blessing to create art, and his humility is matched only by his talent and the remarkable fact that he is only just getting started in his art career. 

 

With frenetic yet hyper-focused energy and creativity, Hager’s emerging career has already generated quite a buzz, although he’s still in college. Social media posts featuring his work have gone viral, and the virality is backed up by talent and dedication to his craft. Many of his most popular works are the clothing that he draws on, unique works of art that travel with the wearer to bars, concerts, and gatherings. A scroll through his Instagram, which functions as the storefront for his art practice, shows his influences and affinities: Hager loves drawing, his grandma, skateboarding, shoe and streetwear culture, and the unifying thread of all of these is his intuitive usage of symbolism, hieroglyphics, humor, and doodles. 

Hager’s work is full of nostalgia, and his love for skateboarding culture reminds me of the ‘90s. I find his ability to create works of art that are wearable, functional, and conversational—in a way that is neither forced nor outrageously expensive—fascinating. With each new capsule collection, the demand for Hager’s work outweighs the supply, and more people wait in line fervently, setting alarms in the hopes of owning one of his pieces. 

 

 

Teri Henderson: Where are you from originally? 

Vinnie Hager: Millersville, Maryland, which is kind of between Glen Burnie and Severna Park. Me and my dad moved in with my grandma when I was around 10, and she’s in Severna Park, and that’s kind of the main headquarters where I am right now. And then I have an apartment in the city [Baltimore] to work on stuff up there, and I go back and forth from those two.

Your studio space?

Kind of both. They’re kind of like offices and studios and places to sleep. I split my week up between going to those two places. I help my grandma with a lot of stuff here. 

How old are you? 

24.

You’re so young! 

I thought you were gonna say I’m old.

No! This is exciting, when you’re young and you’re already doing such great things. What kind of artist are you? How do you describe yourself and your practice?

I’m currently in my senior year at MICA, writing my senior thesis. I never really wrote or thought about my artwork in that structured way, but I think my art’s roots are in drawing. I think everything that I’ve made comes from hand-drawn patterning and intricate doodling. That’s kind of where my route is. Then it kinda became more in the realm of design as well, designing products with the patterning I’ve created. Drawing and design is where I reside for now. 

 

 

I follow a lot of artists on Instagram, but there’s something very innovative about your approach to displaying your work. For example, when you were doing those drops at the beginning of COVID where you would show the locations on Instagram. I thought it was really smart because everybody was paying attention because everyone was at home. But we will get to that later. Have you been drawing your whole life?

As long as I can remember, I was always scribbling. My mom has a design background. My dad’s more of a handyman. As long as I can remember, I’ve always been drawing. But I think middle school was when I started to get addicted to scribbling on all my papers and filling all my worksheets, drawing up the sides. I’d write my name a different way every day on my papers. That was when I was like, Oh, wow, this is something that I’m really into. And I can’t control it; I have to draw all the time. 

So drawing is your preferred method. Do you use markers? 

Yeah, my main material is a paint marker. I use Deco paint markers or Krink markers, anything that has paint in a marker format. I’ve been using a bunch of different types of markers and pens for other works. But definitely paint markers are my preferred medium right now. I’ve also been using 3D puff paint and those have been really fun, and they’re super versatile.

What are your favorite colors to use?

I mean, black can go on anything. I think my favorite color is green. I’ve been using a lot of silvers. 

What is your favorite song of all time?

Oh, let me think about this one. I think it’s Patrice Rushen, “Forget Me Nots.” 

Stop! I love that song! 

That song reminds me of driving around the city with my mom when I was little.

 

 

Katherine Bernhardt, Direct Flight, 2017 Acrylic and spray paint on canvas, 114 x 318 inches. Image courtesy of Canada New York/the artist

Who are your favorite artists?

I’m really into Katherine Bernhardt. She has these large-scale works, she uses acrylic paint, but the material is really wet and she uses her own iconography: she’ll do parrots a ton, or toilet paper. She has her own catalog of symbols that she uses as well. She does super bright colors and her works are [aesthetically] kind of in the same vein as mine.

What influences your practice the most? What motivates you to make work?

Ooh, I mean, the big thing is the internet. I feel like the internet is a big killer to a lot of people because they see, like, “Oh, somebody has got a hundred thousand followers or they’re doing bigger things than I am.” But every time I go on social media, I’m influenced by everything. Just whatever people post, I’m influenced by, I’ll get another idea, like I want to draw on an umbrella because, you know, it’s raining out there. I can get influenced by social media, but then also thrift stores are inspiring, just walking through aisles and looking at tangible things.

How did you come up with the idea of doing Instagram drop scavenger hunts? 

I’d seen all these pro skateboarders, they’d be at skate parks and they’d be like—they have all these sponsors give them free products or whatever—and they would just leave some for kids at the skate park and they’d be like, “Hey, I’m at this skate park, come get these 10 pairs of shoes!” I was like, that’s a great way to give back if you have extra stuff. 

I just took that into my practice. If I had a bunch of sweatshirts leftover or skateboard accessories, or whatever, then I took it to social media and just plugged in these locations to try to give back and get people out of their houses. Maybe run around town, just to get people out and about and hunting down fun stuff. 

It’s a nice activation and it’s just fun to look through your story and see you’d left something in Mount Vernon—but then I went to the park and it was gone already! It was gone in like three minutes. 

That’s stuff I never really expected. I was just trying to do a fun little scavenger hunt, then people are sending me videos of them, like, running and stuff. I want to say it’s a little odd, but I had a lot of fun. I’ll do something like that again, probably this summer.

Yes! Get us outside. What are you working on right now? Are you working on any shows? 

No shows—I would like to do one when the world opens back up, like a pop-up of some sort with some traditional art stuff and maybe some furniture and clothes. Just kind of a standard weekend pop-up would be fun. 

For right now, I want to start to get into wood-burning. I want to get a wood-burning tool, do furniture and then actually build furniture and then wood-burn it. And then also I’ve been getting into digital art stuff, just pushing my patterning into different realms while still working on a table and some vases. Different projects scattered all around, but kind of all-around my little patternings.

 

Vinnie Hager

I saw a while back on Twitter that you were working on a book that defines all of the symbols that you use. 

Yeah, I’d always wanted to make something like that. ‘Cause everybody’s like, “Is your work like a language doesn’t mean anything?” And it was always, to me, just patterning to fill space with these images and symbols and lines that just came naturally to me over time. It never really meant anything, but then I thought, “Oh, that’d be something I could start. Maybe I could make it into something.” So I wanted to start to define these symbols with my own dictionary. I think later down the line, I’d like to start looking back at older works and combining them into an index, or I want to do a book of just my drawings for fun. 

Have you noticed that there are common symbols that you are drawn to, that you like to use or that keep showing up in your work? 

Yeah, I think there’s an eyeball that I always draw, and the envelope. I use, all the time, question marks and stars. I’m just attracted to the shape of those. They could fit with other shapes that I use all the time. That’s how I build out my work, is just how each symbol fits in with the one next to it, and that’s how it expands. There’s a bunch I use all the time, but then I find myself, I’m like, “Oh, these are kind of getting boring. I want to add something new.” So I’ll try to search for other ones and hopefully we’ll see where it evolves. Who knows what I’ll be doodling.

So you’re graduating from MICA this spring. Congratulations! 

Yeah. Thanks. I’m kind of excited because I was a transfer student. I went to AACC for two years, got my associate’s there, and then transferred to MICA, so I really only did two years at MICA. Because of COVID I really didn’t get to use MICA for all its resources and didn’t really get to build a community, but I don’t know, we’ll get the degree. That’s the backup.

I had a studio for my junior year and I used it sometimes and I was making kind of weirder art. I was like, “I have a studio. Let me just make junky mixed-media art.” And it was fun to make, but it was totally different from the stuff I’m doing now, which I was always doing that the whole time and I kind of switched my practice up because it was a strange time, but everything worked out, I guess.

 

Vinnie Hager collaboration with Keep It Honest/@honestimp

 

I’m familiar with your drawings and your paintings, and I know you draw over images and clothing, etc. Do you ever take photographs?

I film skateboarding a lot. I came out with a skate video last November. I take photos for fun or if I’m documenting somebody wearing a T-shirt… I enjoy those things, but I wouldn’t call myself a photographer or a filmmaker or anything. Just things I enjoy. Painting I’ve always wanted to do, but… it’s very stressful. I’m working on some unstretched canvas pieces now and I’m like, I have no clue [how], but I want to make them. I have so many ideas and things I want to research and make and learn that it starts to overwhelm me sometimes—“Oh, I want to make a painting. No, I want to carve furniture.”—I think that’s a blessing in disguise.

That’s what I was gonna say. Do you skate every day? 

I try to, but not these past months. I’ve only skated once or twice because of the snow and weather and then all of the projects I want to work on. It’s been limited, but hopefully it’s pretty nice today. Skating is my main mode of working out and enjoyment. Get my mind off of anything else.

How do you choose what’s going into your online store or the limited releases you do?

I’m always in thrift stores. I always have ideas for clothing, I try to do a capsule collection once or twice a month with some things that I’m really into. Or if I want to experiment more with the puff paint stuff, I always have a bunch of ideas, but I just try to sit down one or two weeks out of a month and make a small little collection. I want to get into things like manufacturing more, but still have some handmade stuff. The clothing collections are fun. They kind of come sporadically, but there’s always some standout pieces that I’m really psyched about.

They always sell out so fast! 

I’m super blessed. I don’t want that stuff to mess with my head. I just enjoy making things and I have so many ideas. I think it’s at a good pace right now and I’m really excited and I guess blessed to be able to keep making stuff and people enjoy it.

What do you want 2021 to look like for you?

Ooh, usually I try not to think too far ahead. I usually think 12 hours in a day [at a time]. I’m a big proponent of making to-do lists all day long, to keep track of things I want to do.

Do you write physical lists? 

Yeah. And I want to make a book of those eventually, one day. I keep them all. I just run on to-do lists and I try not to think too far ahead. It depends on if the world’s open and stuff. I have a lot of projects I do want to take the time and do. We’ll see where it goes, but I have a lot of ideas that I want to do. We’ll end on a high note for sure. But it’s still early.

I try not to overwork myself. I still have a good sleep schedule. I want to work on a lot of different things like wood-burning stuff, woodcarving things I’d like to do eventually later this year, some more digital work, and maybe a virtual reality gallery show. I’ve been thinking in ways like that. And then there’s all the new, like crypto art, I’ve been getting into those realms and learning about that. There’s always going to be something new. So I’m just kinda trying to learn as much as I can now and take it 12 hours at a time.

 

Header image: Photo by Rico Connolly/@ricosfilm

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