Over the last ten years, Bruce Washington (AKA Dapper Bruce Lafitte) has experienced the kind of success that most artists can only dream about. As a fellow artist, it would be easy to be jealous of his success were he not such a likable person. Bruce’s personal story is simply engrossing. He comes from humble beginnings, and throughout all of his newfound fame and success, has never lost touch with his roots here in New Orleans.
Bruce grew up in the Lafitte Housing Development in the 6th Ward of New Orleans. This community has inspired his art so much that he has taken the name Dapper Bruce Lafitte to acknowledge its impact on his life. This inspiration is also apparent when you view Bruce’s vibrantly detailed drawings chronicling his life in New Orleans. While Bruce is not shy about tackling the gritty subjects of poverty and racism, his art also documents the joyful parts of his life here in the city.
When we interviewed Bruce in early September at his New Orleans studio, he was hard at work on his newest collection.
EM: You once signed your art with the name Bruce Davenport, then started going by Dapper Bruce Lafitte. You also use the name Bruce Washington. How should your fans know you: Bruce Washington, Bruce Davenport, or Dapper Bruce Lafitte?
Dapper Bruce: Dapper Bruce Lafitte! Washington was my given name, then my dad came in when I was 13 or 14 and changed my name to Davenport. So Davenport was going to be my sacrifice. He was going to be led to slaughter. Something was telling me, “Either you give up your talent or give up that name.” So I gave up Davenport and picked up Dapper Bruce Lafitte. That’s the name I put out there to let people know I had evolved. I’m into my 9th and 10th series of Dapper Bruce Lafitte.
As Dapper Bruce Lafitte, I’m national now. I did the dirty work to promote Dapper Bruce Lafitte, but also the Davenport work is going to be more expensive and collectible because there’s no more Davenport!
As Dapper Bruce, my work is more focused on history. I’m drawing about the slave trade, WWII, the gangs. A grittier side of art. International affairs as well as in the 50 states. I’m going to tell the children: “You can be somebody! I made two people famous, Davenport and now Dapper Bruce Lafitte. You can do it too!”
As Davenport, I was learning the game. Green as a blade of grass. Learning the business side of it too. I learned who I needed to talk with and deal with to to get the work in certain collectors hands. Then Davenport became drained, suffering. Now as Dapper Bruce Lafitte, it’s all different and I’m happier.
EM: How long have you been working as a professional artist?
Dapper Bruce: I’ve been a professional artist since 2007 or 2008. In 2007, I started donating to the high schools. In 2008 I went to the Universities. In 2008 I met Dan Cameron (founder of Prospect New Orleans art extravaganzas) through CAC Gallery. Then my agent told me, “You need to tell you bossman that you have to take off work. You got to be an artist!”
EM: What job(s) were you doing before you took off to be an artist?
Dapper Bruce: I moved furniture for Kirschman’s Furniture, Comeaux’s Furniture, Universal Furniture. I moved trash for a trash company. I worked at Campo Food Services, in the freezer. I valet parked cars in the French Quarter. I also worked delivering condoms for an HIV prevention organization.
Those jobs gave me a range to go out to different territories. To show people, “Hey! This is my art! Maybe you can display it?” And it worked out for me like that. I took something from each job and put it in my life. When I went to work for the trash company and saw all of that trash all over the sidewalk, sometimes I would see artwork in the trash. I would be loading trash into dumpsters and people would be yelling to move on. When I delivered furniture, I remember going into rich people’s homes, seeing artwork on the walls, and thinking, “I’m way better than those guys!” This made me say, “Bruce! Wake up from your nightmare and become an artist!”
EM: When did you first realize that your destiny was to be an artist
I remember growing up as a kid, going into museums and seeing artwork. The urge to be an artist was always there. But when folks like Dan Cameron and Stella Jones, Diego Cortez, As If Gallery, Freeman Gallery, Louis B. James Gallery became impressed, I finally realized that I was a serious artist.
EM: Tell us about your community and your family growing up and how these influenced your work.
Dapper Bruce: I remember the neighborhood I grew up in the 70’s was good. In the 80’s, crack cocaine came in. People started doing crack and even selling their bodies to get it. My grandmother would say that they’d allowed the devil to come into their village and separate them from their homes. I told my grandmother, “I’m not going to let that happen to me.” Sometimes I would get on her nerves and she would say, “Why don’t you go sit down and draw.” I would sit there and draw for hours. Sometimes she would sit down and draw with me. After my grandmother died, my artwork became a way to keep a connection with her.
I remember going to stay with my Daddy for a couple of years when I was 15, the first time I really ever met him. There were some bad situations trying to adapt to each other. I remember for the first three moths he was running in and out of the house, and I thought, “My grandfather doesn’t do this.” I tried playing football to get my Dad’s attention, but that didn’t work. He never came to my football games. I started getting girlfriends because I saw that he had lots of girlfriends. I wanted him to see that I was a man like him.
EM: What did he think about your artwork?
Dapper Bruce: He didn’t like it. He thought it was a waste of time. He thought a man should get a real job. That’s why I think as Davenport I was disconnected. People were expecting Davenport to do marching bands, and I kept telling them that I do more than marching bands. It was like people growing up in the projects, trying to get ahead but getting pulled back down into the crab barrel. There was an artist named Bruce Brice who would do murals in the projects that I remember seeing as a kid. Some people came and took them down. “Made the neighborhood look ugly.” Say nothing about the lack of fathers and uncles, the lack of education, and more poverty. Without my art, I’d probably be in the penitentiary or the grave. I’d probably have twenty children. I would’ve given up.
EM: Where would you turn when things took a bad turn?
When it first got hard for me in the art game, it was like my grandparents were there for me, daring me to stop. Their spirits would pop up in my head and say, “C’mon, get up!” I feel like my grandmother’s spirit is still looking out for me. I’ll never go back into the crab barrel to ask for advice.
EM: What’s your work routine? What keeps you going?
I dedicate myself to my art work 325 days a year. The other days I’m on vacation. My work satisfies a passion and gives me something to leave to my two daughters. And then their children. Just like Picasso and Basquiat’s families still get money, my children and grandchildren will get it.
EM: Tell us about the binders you have with you today.
Dapper Bruce: These are my write-ups, appreciation letters, etc. The binders are separated by year. I want to do six shows and three auctions each year. These help to keep me out of places where they don’t want me. I only want to go places where they like me and need me.
EM: Beside drawing with your grandmother, was anyone else in your family an artist?
Dapper Bruce: My aunt taught me how to draw with a pencil, but mostly I’m it. Just me.
EM: Whose work inspires you the most as an artist?
Dapper Bruce: I like Artie Burns, Clementine Hunter, Bob Ross (Bob Ross teaching me on TV!), Willie Birch, Bruce Brice, and Picasso. I also like Basquiat because his agent, Diego Cortez, was my first agent too.
EM: How did that come to be?
I met Diego Cortez through Dawn DeDeaux in New York. Diego and Dawn are best friends. Dawn wanted to introduce me to him so he could help my career. She mentioned that Diego knew Basquiat. She started pepping me up like I was going to a football game. Then we went down to MOMA and we were looking at art on the wall and she was saying, “You could be in this place! You need to get rid of that negative spirit in your head.” And I told her, “I’m not going to call you Dawn. I’m going to call you Pimp Mother!”
And so she introduced me to Diego Cortez in the cafeteria at MOMA. I felt a connection. I drew something on paper, signed it and gave it to him. He looked at it and asked me who I was with and I said, “Nobody.”
Dawn told him that I had no one to help me, that I had a bunch of wolves at my ankles. Diego said that he would help me and I just about fell out of my chair. He came out to the 9th Ward to Chartres Street and took about half of the work I had.
After about two months, he called me and said he was coming back to New Orleans. He gave me some money and said he’d sold some of my work to Benetton. “I think you need to think about selling internationally because your work is powerful enough to go International. Just like Basquiat!”
He asked me to make more for him because he had more people who wanted to buy my work, 40″ x 60″ pieces, the same size as hanging in Arthur Roger’s Gallery. He’d order a dozen at a time and sell all of them. So my prices went up from $100 to $10,000 on the big sheets. I was showing in Japan, France, New York, and Chicago. I started seeing the bigger picture.
EM: Were you terrified? Sometimes success is scary.
Dapper Bruce: Oh, yes! I was hearing how Basquiat became self-destructive and with my background and my people, I’m prone to destruction. And I was worried about my oldest daughter at the time.
But Diego taught me to manage the business aspect of it. The highs and lows. He taught me to invite gallery owners and curators to my studio. He also taught me about artists I didn’t even know about.
EM: I see that you are a regular contributor to Art Forum. What did you think about being in Art Forum?
Dapper Bruce: It was a surprise the first time I was in it. Dan Cameron helped me get into Forum after I was in Prospect. I talked to the Forum author about the article afterwards, and he said, “Bruce, you did good!” I only responded with “OK.”, because I didn’t realize the magnitude of what he was telling me. And he said, “Damn Bruce! Did you not hear what I just told you? Art Forum is going to follow you!”
I also remember the second time I got in Art Forum, I was in the Louis B. James Gallery in New York where I did Muhammed Ali. Forum wrote about that show too. Anything I send to Forum or Harper’s, they’ll put it in there.
EM: How do you handle negative criticism?
Dapper Bruce: Like a duck handles water! Where I came from there was negative all around you. You turn negatives into positives.
EM: If you had to pick one favorite of all of your work that you have done, what would it be?
Dapper Bruce: The work from Prospect 2 that was in NOMA because Diego Cortez and Dan Cameron had a hand in it. That was the only time I had both of them working for me at the same time. The art was special and Prospect 2 was special. That work is now in Italy. It was bought by Benetton.
EM: What is the coolest art tip you have ever received?
Dapper Bruce: In 2010, Joan Mitchell Center handed me a $10,000 check for some art. That was a good ‘tip’! I felt like I was a real artist! I was able to get some studio space on Rampart because of them for a few weeks, which also led me to Arthur Roger. Diego Cortez also said to me, “Whatever you do, just keep drawing. The subjects will come to you.”
EM: Have you ever had any medium other than drawing?
Dapper Bruce: No, just markers and pen. I remember when I was a kid in school, they gave me a paint kit to take home. And my grandmother pitched a fit. She said, ” Don’t come in here with that foolishness! Take that paint back and tell them you want a pen and a piece of paper to draw.” She believed paint belonged outside and didn’t want me to get it on her walls.
You can see Bruce’s work at Arthur Roger Gallery in New Orleans or online at www.dapperbruce.com