RETNA Art: When Calligraphy and Street Art Collide
He’s one of the most praised calligraphers and wealthiest street artists, but he’s also caused quite a bit of controversy throughout his 15-year career. Love him or hate him, RETNA has made a mark on the art world, and he isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
Who is RETNA?
The RETNA artist was born Marquis Lewis in 1979. He grew up in Los Angeles, California, moving between several schools throughout his childhood. With each new school, he became more involved in graffiti culture.
At the age of 10, Marquis chose his first pseudonym: A1. He chose that name because he really liked the steak sauce. He was only 9 years old when he started using spray paint for his graffiti.
In 1996, he started calling himself RETNA, which he took from a Wu-Tang Clan lyric in the song “Heaterz.” But he also has an alcoholic alter ego, called Brimestone.
RETNA was head of a graffiti crew as well as a major art collective in Los Angeles. Both influenced his decision not to attend art school like so many other artists.
Marquis' work has been featured in three solo exhibitions:
- 2014: Art Basel Miami
- 2017: MANO A MANO
- 2017: MARGRAVES
In 2013, he was invited to create an art installation at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles as part of the project RETNA: Para mi gente.
In 2010, he covered a 15-page feature exclusive to Juxtapoz magazine after he finished a commission at the Cosmopolitan towers with Shephard Fairey and Kenny Scharf.
In 2007, he worked with El Mac and Reyeson to create a large scale mural called “La Reina del Sur,” which was exhibited at Miami’s Art Basel.
“Men of the Cloth,” an early series by RETNA, was released at Mendenhall Sobieski gallery in 2006.
His first group exhibition took place at the Contemporary Corruption Show at 01 Gallery in Los Angeles in 2000.
Commercially, RETNA has partnered with Nike, VistaJet, Louis Vuitton, Opera Aida, John F. Kennedy Center and Justin Bieber to feature his work.
The opera “Aida” was RETNA’s first foray into live-performance design. “Aida” follows the tragic love story between an Egyptian general and enslaved princess. The opera’s rebellious theme and Egyptian setting made RETNA’s work the ideal fit.
He worked on his designs for the show for two years with director Francesca Zambello, costume designer Anita Yavich and set designer Michael Yeargan.
Today, RETNA is aligned with Mad Society Kings Art Groups as well as Art Work Rebels. He's also a member of The Seventh Letter, an internationally exclusive art collective.
Who Influenced RETNA’s Art?
RETNA says he is influenced by a wide range of artforms, from text-based art to illuminated manuscripts and Renaissance imagery. He’s particularly interested in religious architecture and décor.
David Choe and Saber influenced his graffiti writing. He’s also mentioned Basquiat, Degas, Klimt, Haring and the Art Nouveau movement are other influencers. Chaz Bojorquez is reportedly his favorite graffiti writer.
But the most obvious influences in RETNA’s street art and fine art are Egyptian hieroglyphs, Arabic calligraphy, Blackletter, Hebrew and Native American typographies.
His desire to learn more about different cultures around the world led him to research ancient languages, which have had a profound influence on his works.
His original alphabet fuses symbols from ancient languages as well as Asian calligraphy and graffiti writing.
Each block of his text contains a system of calligraphy, hieroglyphs and illuminated manuscripts. His work communicates personal messages and poetry, which the audience is unable to decipher. His writing resembles calligraphy of different cultures, but the writing does not belong to a particular language, according to Artsy.
Much of his writing has to do with death and the waiting of death. He also honors people who have passed away in his works.
RETNA’s most common media formats are based in painting enamel, acrylic, oils and aerosols. Typically, his studio sessions involve the creation of new material and continuing editions of his existing works.
RETNA Art for Sale
Today, RETNA is taking his art from the wall to the canvas. RETNA’s Instagram shows him working diligently in his studio on new work.
Followers can find RETNA art for sale online, and his works have also been sold at several auctions. RETNA’s prints are consumer-friendly, but his original works have fetched tens of thousands of dollars.
His work Untitled, which he created in 2011, fetched a price of $48,000 at an art auction. The piece is his most expensive work to be sold at auction at the time. His work Conversation Piece, created in 2012, has an estimated value of $60,000-$80,000. That 96” x 80” work was created in acrylic, crystalline and enamel on canvas. It's the highest-estimated work by the artist, but it’s also the largest and most important.
In 2013, Soldiers is Another Frame of Mind sold for $36,400 at auction – 60% more than the high estimate. In 2012, three of his works sold at auction: Study of Lexicon, Shadows of Light and Sad to See. These works sold for $32,000, $29,700 and $30,000 respectively.
RETNA’s art has been purchased by Usher and MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch. He's enormously popular among collectors. He’s also collaborated with Supra to create his own Society sneaker. Only 413 pairs were created of this exclusive shoe.
In total, RETNA has participated in more than 30 international exhibitions, making him one of the most prolific contemporary street artists in history.