“Max” Irwin is shaking up the usual oil on canvas sightings of roosters, cats, and palm trees with his Key West Art Walk. The walk takes you through historical art centers while exposing you to emerging visual artists. Find out just how far Max’s roots to the island go, his thoughts on graffiti’s place in the local art world, and his time in the Parisian music scene.
Are you against tagging and forms of guerrilla art?
Max: Not at all. It’s about placement. There’s a time and place for everything. Graffiti is about making an ugly cityscape bearable. I certainly don’t think of Key West as ugly.
Should the City of Key West relax the regulations surrounding exterior colors and murals?
Max: Thanks to the city’s art council, Key West has great art in public spaces. The natural beauty of our island and the historic architecture are so wonderful. I understand why the city has been reluctant to embrace more murals and street art. The Historic Architectural Review Commission (HARC) does a fantastic job maintaining the nostalgia that made Key West famous. Projects such as the Stock Island Walls is a great initiative for local muralists to show off their work. Adding some color and culture to the island’s grey zones would benefit us all.
Were you born and raised in Key West? I vaguely recall that your family is famous for jumpstarting something here.
Max: Yes, I am a conch. It was really special growing up here. This island attracts so many creative people because our community celebrates individuality and tolerance. I love the energy and the amazing people that perpetuate that feeling. I was lucky to be surrounded by so many local artists as a kid such as Carrie Disrud, Tom Joris, Helen and Ben Harrison, David Wegman, Rick Worth, Jimmy Wray, and Shel Silverstein. These inspirational people have guided me along the way. My parents came down here in the 70s from Pennsylvania. They started clothing boutiques on Duval Street originally selling vintage clothing from the Victorian era. They eventually adapted to surf brands and early street fashion. The sign from the store called Spare Change hangs above the dart bar currently at the Green Parrot. It’s hard to miss the red-bearded skull and cross bone.
How did you become surrounded by all these artists?
Max: Some were friends of my parents and others were the parents of friends. I grew up with Rennie Joris — Calypso Studios — and Cole Harrison — CCC. I spent a lot of time around their parents’ creative space, which was often in their home. Rick Worth and Jimmy Wray taught my first art courses. My father is a good friend of David Wegman. I think Shel just had a crush on my mom. [Laughs]
Was Fantasy Fest the largest annual medium for local artists back then?
Max: Yes, it was a great outlet for local artists and freaks at large. Now it is more commercial but still very creative and a lot of fun. I have been in the parade many times and it’s an unforgettable experience. Sunset Celebration at Mallory Square was also of huge importance to local artists and continues to this day.
When would you say you made your debut in the Key West art scene?
Max: Last month I organized a small art show featuring young local creatives at OKW (Our Key West). We displayed some of my collage art and screened an experimental short film I made. The art show was organized as a launch party for my new business, Key West Art Walk. The goal is to be the bridge between local artists and the average visitor to Key West. Focusing on the Seaport District, the walking tour highlights local galleries and contemporary hubs of culture such as The Waterfront Playhouse and The Studios of Key West. I’ve received great feedback and a lot of support from the community including a recent grant from The Awesome Foundation. The last few weeks, I’ve had a dozen tours and now word is getting out.
What were your major artistic pursuits prior to the launch of the Art Walk?
Max: Music has been the most important to me. When I lived in Paris, my best friend Kamory Kouyate was a griot from Conakry, Guinea. Griots are traditional musicians from West Africa who have had music in their family ancestry for over a thousand years. He invited me to play small shows with him around the north of Paris. I also began to write my own music and DJ around bars and small clubs in Paris, often playing after Kamory’s band Manding Groove. I started doing a weekly DJ event at the cafe Clair du Lune in Montmartre where Serge Gainsbourg frequented. It was great bringing together friends and people from the area. When I moved to Berlin, I began to embrace more of my visual art and focus on songwriting. Everyone is a DJ in Berlin. I was losing interest in that style of performance. I was more interested in learning to sing. I would rather be on the dance floor at Berghain than in the DJ booth.
Does Key West launch the careers or visibility of artists anymore?
Max: Definitely, it’s just about dedication. Younger performers such as Sam Carlson and Belle Jampol, artist Mystery Blob, and writer Arlo Haskell, to name a few, have all used Key West as a place to gain momentum for their careers. Key West is about escapism. The artists who are attracted to here aren’t chasing commercial success but looking to be a part of an alternative experience that inspires their work.
There’s an expression that the starving artists have already starved. How would you advise recently transplanted artists on earning a livable income in Key West?
Max: Collaborate with local businesses and embrace online platforms to sell work. Social media is a great way to get your stuff to a wider audience. Local businesses want original art in their space because it adds to the experience for customers. Restaurants attract more people than art galleries and the work will be seen by a variety of people.
Why not guerrilla market everything? Do you remember any great instances of that here in Key West?
Max: I would like to get that kind of campaign going but most people booking tours here find out about them through online platforms such as Viator or travel blogs. The concierge desks also play a huge role, connecting guests to authentic experiences. One Human Family stickers are probably the most successful guerrilla marketing Key West has seen. I love that slogan!
You want fame?
Max: No, celebrity culture sucks.
Even Lizzo and Banksy’s culture?
Max: It’s not the celebrities I dislike but the obsession with them.
What would you like to see the Art Walk grow to five years from now in the midst of more serious king tides?
Max: We can always use kayaks. Even if the tides rise, people will find a way to cope. Look at Venice. They have it much worse and people are still living there and making it work. The Art Walk will be a standard for Key West cultural tours. There is no one else that offers guests the opportunity to connect with active artists and the creative venues that support them. People who visit Key West are looking for authentic sustainable experiences that are interactive. That’s what I’m offering.
In art we trust?
Max: Yes, creativity is the backbone of innovation. In order to have a progressive society it’s necessary for us to invest in creative people.
Interview has been condensed and edited. Check out KeyWestArtWalk.com