Rapper Action Bronson on His Prolific, Therapeutic Painting Practice
Portrait of Ariyan Arslani, or Action Bronson. Courtesy of Tom Gould.
Ariyan Arslani, cover of White Bronco, 2018. Courtesy of the artist.
When Ariyan Arslani broke his leg in 2011 while working at his father’s restaurant in Queens, he left his job as a gourmet chef and started rapping. Better known by his stage name Action Bronson, he released his first album Dr. Lecter (2011) that same year, at 27 years old. He’s since followed it up with four more albums, two food shows on Viceland, and a book, the New York Times bestseller Fuck That’s Delicious: An Annotated Guide to Eating Well (2017). It was another leg injury that led to Bronson’s latest artistic endeavor: over 100 bright, bold paintings that he started posting on his social media feeds in the summer of 2018.
“There must be something about getting hurt and having an artistic epiphany,” the Flushing, Queens, native recently said over the phone. “Let’s hope I don’t get hurt anymore, because I’m good with where I’m at right now.”
It’s easy to be skeptical when a rapper starts working with acrylics, but Bronson’s expressive color palette and distortions of the natural world can, at times, evoke hints of Neo-Expressionist painting. Perhaps the best-known example is a red-and-white canvas with a cobalt blue horse at its center, encircled by a two-headed snake, which became the album cover for his latest record, White Bronco (2018).
Bronson describes his paintings as “almost sculptures” due to the way he works in layers, with several images buried underneath the finished piece. And although he describes some of them as delicate, the majority of the paintings Bronson posts to Instagram have the same brashness you can hear in his lyrics, mixed with a dose of psychedelics. “Nothing like DMT in the morning to get you going,” reads the caption for a recent painting of red spirals on a pink background with black spray-paint orbs.
If you’ve heard stories about people travelling to the Amazon to change their life with ayahuasca, that’s DMT. The hallucinogen causes a short and powerful trip of 5 to 15 minutes when it’s inhaled (as opposed to three-plus hours from drinking the herbal ayahuasca brew).
“People talk about DMT like it’s a veil being lifted off—but it’s like being shot out of a fucking cannon, and then holding on for the ride,” Bronson said. “It forces your imagination to work. It’s not for everyone, it has to call your name. If you choose to answer the call, it’s up to you—and it definitely called my name.”
The inspiration for Bronson’s new art practice came from a visit to artists Alex and Allyson Grey’s Chapel of Sacred Mirrors, an art sanctuary and trans-denominational interfaith church in Wappingers Falls, New York. It’s the homebase for visionary art, which Alex Grey defines as “the creative expression of glimpses into the sacred unconsciousness” in his 1998 book The Mission of Art. With the chapel’s history of LSD and shaman-hosted full-moon ceremonies, it’s easy to see why a creative person interested in mind-altering substances, like Bronson, would make the trek north along the Hudson River.
Ariyan Arslani, Sly and the Family Stone, 2018. Courtesy of the artist.
Ariyan Arslani, Numbskull, 2019. Courtesy of the artist.
“Alex Grey and Allyson really opened up my mind, and they opened up my heart,” Bronson recalled. “They had an easel with canvas set up and they said, ‘However you’re feeling, just go in.’ And I did.” He found the experience therapeutic, and has since continued to paint regularly. “It’s just raw emotion that comes out, I don’t know what the hell it is,” he explained. “It’s not like I’m sketching fine things with a pencil before I do it—I just get in front of it and I go.”
While at first he downplays his background in art, saying he only doodled in school, Bronson later points to his paintings as an evolution of writing graffiti, which he’s done since the late 1990s. He’s cautious about sharing his paintings with the art world, noting that he’s not about to introduce himself as a “painter.”
“Nah, dog,” he said, “I do all types of things. I’m a performer, I’m a fucking rapper, I’m a fucking chef, I’m a fucking bestselling author—I say this because I’m proud of what I’ve done, and painting is a new outlet for my emotions. We need to break the notion that people should just do one thing.”
Bronson’s studio space in Brooklyn is fittingly multi-purpose. “It’s a music studio, yoga studio, women’s mental health establishment—it’s used for many things, because my lady uses it as well,” he said. “There’s all kinds of good vibes that go through there…all the things I need to get me going.” That includes the healing fragrance of palo santo, good music, “some sort of cheese in the fridge,” natural wines, and weed.
The space is also filled with more paintings than Bronson knows what to do with. “It’s shocked me that so much came out in such a short time,” he offered. Right now, the work is only leaving the studio through sales to private collectors and occasional “trades with the homies,” but Bronson said a gallery show, one day, is not out of the question. To exhibit the work, he said, would be “a mind fuck.”
But Bronson’s turn to painting is not all roses. Even with tens of thousands of likes on each Instagram or Twitter post, there are “a lot of haters.” People have been quick to attribute positive reactions to Bronson’s paintings to the fame he’s earned through his other talents. “Honestly, I think people would love to tell me ‘that shit is garbage’ and ‘stick to rapping,’ but people are genuinely taken by it.”
He pauses before referring back to the shyness he feels about putting this new creative pursuit out into the world. “I just put it out there and I appreciate the love,” Bronson said. “It’s good if it gives other people the drive that they could do shit like this, too.”