New York City is often considered to be the center of the Western art world, but Staten Island artist Scott LoBaido has experimented with types of art that challenge the New York gallery mainstream. Scott’s name has been controversial at times in the art world, as he has never been shy to mix his conservative political beliefs into his works. He has created edgy and, at times, crude works before finding what he believed to be his calling: painting the American flag to help blend patriotism and art for the general population.
His signature style is to speed paint a flag on a canvas with a centerpiece that he pre-painted and covered in white tape. After finishing the flag, he will peel off the tape to reveal the piece of art within the art. During a conversation with Living in Staten Island, it became evident that his political views and worldview are closely intertwined with his artwork, but to say his politics solely define him would paint him with too broad of a brush.
Scott has a charitable side that serves as an impetus for a lot of his work, as evidenced by his estimation that he has raised close to $1 million for various charities in Staten Island and around the country. Veteran’s charities are chief among the recipients he has donated to, and he is not bashful about his admiration for them, who he deems “the real heroes in the country.”
His most famous and ambitious project in the mid-2000s, when he drove across the country to paint a flag on a rooftop in every state, has been well-documented, but few may know that the idea came to him while he was trying to uplift victims in Mississippi who had lost their homes to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
A fourth-generation resident of Staten Island, Scott also harbors great respect and appreciation for the borough and its residents. He has painted and crafted artwork to honor the borough’s victims of 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy, and ranks them high among the countless pieces he has created.
At his art studio in Grasmere, just two days before he was set to paint at an event in honor of President Donald Trump’s inauguration, the 52-year-old recounted the inspirations and beliefs that inform his colorful and patriotic life in art.
LISI: Thanks for taking the time out of your schedule, Scott. Are there any art shows or exhibits you have participated in recently?
SL: I was in Key West with a well-known artist, Don Oriolo, who has the rights to Felix the Cat and Casper the Friendly Ghost. He wanted me to put some of my pieces in a gallery he has down there. It was a good opportunity to show my work there in a high-end place. I’ve been everywhere in this country, but I’ve never been down there. And I just drove back home.
LISI: That’s a long drive, but I’m sure you’re used to that, having driven all around the country to paint the flags in every state.
SL: Yes. I did 50 states in 10 months. But I love to drive. Whiteknuckle driving, trucks everywhere, I love it. It turns me on.
SL: Driving is an art. People don’t see it that way. I’ve driven through 50 states three times but I’ve never had an accident. I look at it like a video game. It’s a challenge, and it’s a gift too. Plus, I like to be able to stop and do whatever what I want. And if it’s an empty drive though the middle of nowhere, I can think. That’s the only time I relax. I am super-hyper. Painting and driving are the only things that keep me relaxed, because I have to concentrate. It’s therapeutic to me.
LISI: Do you have any exhibits or events on tap next?
SL: I killed some business on my way back. I’m doing this major project about Richard Petty, the king of NASCAR, who turns 80 this year. His crew reached out to me. They want to do something special because they know I’m Captain America with the flags and everything. So I’m doing this piece of artwork, one of my speed paintings, the day before the Daytona 500. I go every year there, it’s my favorite thing. I’m a huge fan of NASCAR, it’s my favorite sport. As far as the patriotism, it makes baseball look like a communist game. But I’m excited about that. I’ve done paintings at other speedways before, but not at the Daytona. The audiences there eat it up too, because it’s patriotism coming from a crazy New York artist. It’s tough to get in with them, they’re like the mafia, especially with me being a Yankee, but I’ve been a fan for 30 years.
LISI: And you also put on social media that you’re going to Washington D.C. for President Trump’s Inauguration. Are you doing any events down there?
SL: I was trying to get in to do a performance at the Inauguration, but it didn’t work out. But a fan of mine in New Jersey told me he was going to give me a ticket, which was awesome. Then I heard about an event down there called the DeploraBall, which some conservative speakers will be at. They set me up down there, and I’m going to be doing a speed painting performance to music on stage. I’m going to bring the house down. Do you want to know what I’m painting?
SL: I can’t tell you.
[Ed. Note: after painting a version of the American flag, Scott pulled off the covering over his pre-painted image of President Trump leaning forward and flexing his muscles.]
LISI: When did you get into speed painting? Has that become a signature type of art for you?
SL: There’re many speed painters, and I’ve mastered doing the flag. But to be different and unique, I created this element where I paint something beautiful previous to doing the speed paint, and then I put tape over it, cut out in detail to the painting, put it over the canvas and then I paint it white. When I’m there, music starts, paint is flying and then at the end, with a high pitch in the music, I take the tape down to reveal an eagle, a Statue of Liberty, or something like that. At the end of the music, it’s usually a powerful piece, and it moves me to make something magical happen when I pull the tape off.
LISI: What gave you that idea to make a separate painting first and then cover it up?
SL: Just to be different. I auction a lot of them off for charity. One of them I got $75,000 for a veteran’s charity, which is my favorite to raise money for. But I’ve been paining the flag for 30 years, and I saw speed painting as a way to get the flag out there in a new visual way. I don’t remember how it came to be. I think I did a painting of something and I wanted something in the background, but I wanted to do one of my messy flags, and I wondered how I could do a messy flag without messing up the painting I just did. So then I taped up what I painted previously and wanted to try it in speed painting. It just worked out and became a big hit, because even though the audience knows I’m going to reveal something, they don’t know what it is. For the 10th anniversary of 9/11 right here at the memorial in Staten Island, I had my girlfriend stand in front of a canvas where I painted angel wings and then she moved and I peeled off a painting of the Twin Towers in-between the wings. I was very nervous, because that was very touchy, but afterwards the audience said it was greatest thing I ever did, which means I moved them the right way.
LISI: You have donated to a lot of charities, including the veterans, which you mentioned. Where does that generosity you have come from?
SL: My grandfather was in WWII and we were always going to Nana’s house when I was younger. You walked in her house and there were three portraits on her wall: Pope John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and Frank Sinatra. They were embedded into my life: religion, the respect for God, and for Frank Sinatra. I would always hear, “Frank Sinatra would do his homework. Frank Sinatra would eat his broccoli.” Back in the 90s I went to go find myself as an artist, and one of the things I liked about Reagan was he helped people fall in love with the country again. In the 90s, I felt that the flag was a little taboo in the art world, in that some people said it represented war or was a bad symbol. That’s not where I come from. I said, there it is, there’s my job: to bring the flag back to life, to show what’s good about it and show how beautiful it was. I’ve seen the Mona Lisa face-to-face. I cried. It’s the Mona Lisa. I laid down in the Sistine Chapel and stared up in amazement. I touched Van Gogh’s work. I touched the Statue of David. But to me, the American flag is the greatest work of art in the world. Our country here has a beautiful pool of every organic culture in the world right here. How sexy is that? After 9/11, and unfortunately, it took that for people to want to fly their colors proudly, everyone knew I was this flag guy from the beginning. I bring art to the masses who don’t get art, whether they don’t get it mentally because they don’t have the time to study it, or because the art world doesn’t want to showcase the flag because it doesn’t fit with what their beliefs are.
LISI: You’ve talked a lot about how you encountered several differences with the art community.
SL: Yes. I’ve had more art shows than probably any artists you know, but I rent my own spaces. My views were never accepted in the mainstream art world, especially here in New York City, so I figured it out on my own, and maybe that was more fun. I had to go out and take a machete and cut out my own path where there wasn’t one.
LISI: So you consider yourself a determined person?
SL: That’s how I am. Number one, I’m a middle child so I’ve always had to compete. But the advice from my parents was brilliant. My mom’s advice was very liberal. She taught me how to be loving and open-minded to different people and cultures even though we came from an Italian-American block. She told me, “Do whatever you want to do in my life, son. Do whatever you want to do, as long as you believe in it in your heart.” My father’s advice was “Take s— from no man.” I was always an artist and so I was a little different growing up. I learned magic. I always tried to be creative. But as far as my career now, I still have a ways to go. I’m blowing up right now, and it’s very rewarding because I busted my ass for 20 years against the grain. The sexiness is the fight. If things are handed to you, there’s no incentive. I’ve never done anything that’s been easy or boring.
LISI: Did you ever think about going to a different area where your works might be more accepted?
SL: No. Staten Island is like a little town in Nebraska. We’re separated from the city. This is a working-class borough. Even though it’s part of New York City, it’s like a little blue-collar town in the rest of the country, and it goes against what people think of when they think of the elites in the city that run the country. That’s why I love living here and I would never leave. They need balance here. If I’m the one crazy artist that lets it be known that more and more conservative artists can show their work in the art community, I’m OK with that. Even when I was struggling, I loved every minute of it. I would think, how and why am I so lucky? Veterans had become fans of mine, and I learned that these are the people that allowed me to become this crazy son of a bi—.We’re nothing, all of us artists. I have this gift to test the boundaries of the first amendment. I’ve spent nights in jail protesting, and it’s these veterans who fight for our freedom to do it, and so many of them don’t ask for anything in return.
LISI: What types of boundaries have you tested?
SL: Look, I have no issues against artists, not one. Do I like what some of them do? No. Do I like Christ in urine, or the piece of the Virgin Mary made out of elephant s—- and pictures of women’s genitals? No. If you show it at a private gallery and there are 9 million of them in this city, and someone wanted to take it out of the gallery, I’d be fighting for the artist. But at publicly-funded institutes, you cannot promote a religion or degrade a religion at a public institute. Some people told me I would blow my art career if I protested exhibits at the larger, public museums, but I didn’t care. I was representing the people who were paying for this in tax dollars but didn’t have a say. So I brought my easel to the Brooklyn Museum where the Mary was displayed and said I chose the façade of the building as my canvas, and I started throwing fistfuls of horse manure at the building. I was handcuffed and arrested. My mom wasn’t happy with me, but I went back to her and said, “You always told me to do what I believed in.” But that also brought attention to my work as well, what I painted on firehouses and schools. It steamrolled and I’ve found my niche. I experimented with all different types of art, but then I started to realize what my niche was: to be a patriot and an artist, and let it be known in the mainstream.
LISI: And you really wanted to use your talents to show appreciation to veterans?
SL: Absolutely. It has to be close to $1 million that I’ve raised for charity over the last decade or so with my artwork, which has gone to provide prosthetic legs, wheelchairs, and help build homes. They look up to me, but I say, no, you’re the hero. I didn’t have the balls to go to war. I’m just letting you know that you’re the hero. I’m doing this to thank you. A tough-looking Vietnam vet in a bar will hug me like a bear, and we’ll cry together for five minutes. That’s worth more than any check you can ever receive.
LISI: What artists inspired you?
SL: I have a few. Michelangelo to me is the greatest artist of all time. I constantly look at his work, read about him, and watch movies about him. And then you have Van Gogh, because there is that craziness that I have. Some people say I’m a sweet, conservative guy. Well, catch me when I’m out of my mind. When the book comes out about me, people will say, wow, that’s worse than cutting your ear off. But Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte were also some surrealists that I looked at. Those were the main greats that I studied and kind of admired. When I was younger I travelled to Europe, but I can’t fly anymore because I have a thin canal in my ear and the pressure causes severe, excruciating pain. I won’t be going to Europe to see any of those classical works again soon, but I’ll get back there.
LISI: When did your first big break come?
SL: My first media attraction came when I started to become an activist in the 1990s. There are 1,000 creative activists in New York City, but there weren’t any conservative ones. In 1991 I painted my first billboard on Staten Island that had an image of an American flag with this big muscular arm growing out of it, holding the severed head of Saddam Hussein and in big words it said, “Get the job done, and get home safely.” Some people protested it, saying no blood for oil and graffitied it, and I said, “This is cool. It was my patriotic moment.” I did about 10 of those and the attention that I got blew up from there.
LISI: Do you still do other paintings as well, or is it mostly the flag at this point?
SL: Mostly now it’s just the flags because the demand is there. The more I do it, the more I love it. I’ve done it maybe 5,000 times, whether on buildings, a canvas, rooftops, or a horse’s face. It’s just as meaningful and powerful and passionate as the first flag I ever painted.
LISI: You said before that that painting and driving are the two things that calm you down—
SL: And cigarettes and whiskey.
LISI:—but can you take us inside your mind in those moments? What about painting allows you to focus? Especially during speed painting, when there has to be some stress due to the time deadline you have?
SL: That question I can’t answer, because everything imaginable is going through my mind. It’s not all sweet stuff. Sometimes it is, and sometimes it’s angry stuff. It can be 3 a.m., and I’ll come here, set up the easel and just paint the flag so wild, and it’ll be angry brushstrokes, thinking about how the flag is so beautiful and how can anyone burn it? That’s my drug, that’s my medication. And then when I’m doing a mural for hours in the hot sun, I’m lost. I don’t know. I’m lost in it, thinking of everything, I guess.
LISI: What inspired you to paint a flag in all 50 states?
SL: That’s a great little story. In 2005, obviously, Hurricane Katrina happened. People can say what they want about Staten Island, we have a lot of characters here and there’s a lot of jackasses here, and I’ll put myself in that category. But Staten Island, and I’ve been all over this country, is the most charitable place in the world. Every night there are at least five fundraisers for charity, for the needy and those less fortunate. That’s who we are. People want to know who Staten Island is? That’s who we are. Project Hospitality here on Staten Island loaded up this big box truck full of medical supplies and they needed a driver to drive it down to Mississippi. And I said, “I’ll put everything aside. I’ll be your driver.”
So, we get down there, we drop the supplies off, I’m supposed to go home and I saw a guy sitting on his roof, which was on the ground. I asked myself, “How can I leave? These people need help.” I stayed there for five days in a field with a sleeping bag, doing what I could. There was a guy that I became friends with, Adam, who had lost his house and he was also volunteering. I told him before I left that I wanted to put one of my flags on the side of a building as a sign of unity. I saw the media and military helicopters flying around and I said I had to do it on a roof that was slanted to be able to see it from the ground and the air. A friend of Adam’s lost his house, the shingles were all blown off, so I got some paint and started painting a three-dimensional flag on the tar paper that was left on the roof. As I was finishing up, and I still get emotional thinking about it, I noticed people who had just lost their whole lives coming to watch me paint.
LISI: That impacted you?
SL: Yes. On my 22-hour bus ride home, I thought about it, and I, well, not me but my work, the flag, displayed there in that disastrous area, took those people, even just for five minutes, it took them out of their hell. That’s what art is supposed to be about, and that’s what our flag is supposed to be about. That’s why I donate. When I had nothing, I’d borrow money to do a painting to raise money for a charity because someone else really needed it. On that bus ride, I saw that we were in the middle of a war, and there was a lot of friction around the country and said, “I need to do this in every state.” I didn’t know how I would, I had no money, but I did it. The week before, someone had just given me a beat-up truck they had laying in their yard. It took me to 50 states twice. I just lived off the kindness of strangers. They would let me stay in their yard, give me food, paint and gas money. It was incredible. I was camping in the woods in Montana by myself, just me, a fire, and a bottle of whiskey, hoping that someone in the next state would let me paint a flag. I didn’t have a master plan set up. I would knock on doors and ask if they would let a New York artist paint a flag on their property. I was told to take a hike many times.
But then, I would accumulate media coverage, and I did it again in 2011, and that put me on the big map. I was ABC person of the week, my fan base stared to grow, and then after that, I had to top myself. I wanted to paint the largest three-dimensional American flag ever painted. I spent months trying to figure it out, calling people, searching Google Maps for billion-dollar companies that have a roof that big. One guy in Houston told me he wanted me to do it, and I did. It’s 3.5 acres big. It’s the largest three-dimensional flag painted here, wavy and nine different colors. Someone recently painted a bigger one but it’s all straight lines, there’s no movement to it. Anybody could do that, with all due respect. There’s no art to that.
LISI: I have to ask: what’s the number 20 tattoo on your right palm for?
SL: Every day I write it with a Sharpie on my hand, it’s not a tattoo. It used to be 22, but it’s now down to 20, which is still way out of control. That’s how many veterans commit suicide every day in America. The point is to bring attention to the number as it changes so I specifically didn’t do a tattoo. We need to address this, the mental issues that they face. I’m going to do something with that in a big way with my art. And when I write it, it reminds me of how lucky I am. We suck up this milk and honey in the country like there’s no tomorrow, and believe me, I do, but I appreciate it. It’s all because of our veterans.
LISI: Is there one piece of art that you’ve done that you’re most proud of?
SL: A piece that I did for the third anniversary of Hurricane Sandy. We lost 23 people here in Staten Island from it. I went around and collected driftwood last year for weeks. I dropped everything, didn’t pay my bills, didn’t do anything else. I got the driftwood from the shores and crafted all these chairs, empty chairs, an individual one for each victim. I love that concept of the empty chair to represent who we lost, and I then assembled the chairs like a Stonehenge, circular shape. That was one of my most powerful works to honor the people we lost here on Staten Island.
LISI: Have you reached a point where you feel you’ve achieved the success you worked toward when you started in the art business? If not, what’s next?
SL: No. Not 0.1 percent, no. I’ve got things up my sleeve. I have too many big ideas, some that I can’t mention. There are 1,000 other goals that I want to pursue and when I achieve them, people will say, “How did he top that?”