Trash Talk: Interview with Keef Paints
Interview by Patrick Thomas
With the release of the Jigalode & Keef Paints collab, we sat down with artist and Islamorada waterman, Keith Ousley a.k.a Keef Paints, to talk about life and art around the Florida Keys.
Having occupied some popular mural walls at local spots like Robbies Islamorada, Florida Keys Brewing Co., and Bakers Cay, Keith is also transforming years’ worth of recycled fishing tackle into art. A Miami kid raised on fishing and graffiti, he’s wandered his way south taking a non-traditional approach to the art scenes up and down the Overseas Highway. Provoking emotion for a cleaner environment through his spontaneous roadside designs outside his studio, Keith is becoming known as a visual voice to locals and travelers around the Keys.
Thanks for taking some time to talk, Keith. I’ve been checking out your work and the designs you did with Jigalode. This collaboration is pretty clever.
Thanks, man. It’s nice to meet you.
So, where are you from originally and how long have you been living and painting down in the Keys?
I’ve been in the Keys for about six years. I moved first to Key Largo, spent two years there, and then the last four have been in Islamorada. I lived in Miami before this, but Islamorada has always been one of my favorite islands out of all the Florida Keys.
Do you cover art in just Islamorada or all of the Keys?
Pretty much Mile Marker 100 to 0.
How did you get started in painting marine murals, and creating recycled coastal art?
So, my background comes from graffiti and I’ve been painting for about 23 years now. I never really try to push it hard. I kind of enjoy the rebellious acts a little more. Back when I lived on the mainland in Miami, when I was younger I was arrested a few times for vandalism. When I moved to the keys, I noticed the underwater, reef, and marine murals, and growing up near the water I figured why not tie in marine life and mural work together.
The main term I like to push down here is marine debris. That’s recognizable in every aspect. We have a lot of people who are into ghost net diving on the reefs down here to keep them clean, we have plastic that washes into the mangroves, and birds that get tangled in fishing line. In the keys, everyone is against the marine debris, and that’s why we wanted to push the fishing lure ones, working with Jigalode.
Is there more excitement in painting an art piece when it’s unexpected? When it’s on a bridge or structure, like a graffiti piece?
Absolutely. I still do work without permission. I wouldn’t call it illegal, I just don’t have permission to install it where I do. I’ve actually had a few run-ins over the last few years with law enforcement who weren’t too impressed with a few of my paintings. I received a few fines and was banned from a few places but in the end they liked my work, just not the idea of me not having the permission.
Is it easy to get away with these uncommissioned pieces in Islamorada? Or is there someone always looking over your shoulder or covering art with gray spaces?
I actually paint over graffiti when I see it here in Islamorada. The Keys are different, it’s cleaner down here and it costs more money to live here. I don’t want to see ugly graffiti on the streets, but then again I come from that background where I understand that it took me being that kid scribbling on stop signs to get where I am now with my studio and my art.
Do you have any art mentors or someone who pushed you toward the artist lifestyle?
I did not. I went to college for art after high school. I took every uncredited art class they had to offer, and I failed every one of them because the teachers weren’t impressed that I didn’t care to learn their medium. I just wanted to do it the way I wanted to. So, I failed every art class I ever took. Self-taught, for the most part.
Would you say your art style is different from the mold taught in college art classes?
I think in art, it should be more self-taught. I understand if you’re learning a certain medium, that, you do have to learn the rules for it to come out professionally. But one of my favorite quotes in art is “The only rules there are, are the ones you make.”
Where do you spend your time painting?
Between my studio and home. My studio is in the art district next to a local brewery and I live with my girlfriend here in Islamorada just down the street from my studio.
What’s the music scene like right now down in the Keys?
You know, it’s still Jimmy Buffet and live cover bands for the most part. My favorite local music in the Keys right now is from the Coppertones.
Your area is known for strong drinks and good cigars, do you have a go-to combination?
There’s always a rum glass in the studio and usually a cigar not far behind it. I actually named my studio the Rum Brush because I’ll accidentally mix up my water and rum cup. All my rum has a little paint in it and all my paintings have a little rum underneath.
[Laughing] What’s your go-to rum, you a Captain Morgan drinker?
Hm. Mount Gay, is what I’m drinking right now. It’s one of the oldest rum distilleries in the Caribbean. If I had to choose, Ron Zacapa and Ashton Aged Maduro are my go-to favorites.
Is there a common spot where shore anglers lose their lures or do you just find them anywhere when you’re out paddling?
I take my paddleboard all over. I got on this lure project probably five years ago. I saw some line in the mangroves one day and pulled out this old hand-painted lure and ever since then, I’ve had this obsession of finding lures. I’ve pulled out over 3000 lures over the years.
3000? That’s a lot!
Yeah. And a handful of them are $15 to $20 Yo-Zuris, Rapalas, and Zaras. I have some regular places that I patrol where shore fishermen get snagged. You do have some tricky spots where lures routinely get lost by people overshooting their cast.
Do you fish much from your paddleboard?
Not much anymore. I used to, but I go out a lot more without my rod these days.
How long do art pieces last on Islamorada? Does any of your work ever get covered up by the county or state?
Nothing lasts forever. Coming from a graffiti background, I'm used to my work being painted over. I have a few murals that are still standing strong, a few that have been painted over, and a few that have been washed away by hurricanes.
What’s the story behind your I Love FL paintings? How did you manage such a large piece on top of the Snake Creek UFO House?
The idea behind it was for the kids on vacation who rather look out the window rather than be glued to their phones. You know? When you go over the bridge you just see this giant “I Love FL” on the roof of the house. I think Florida is one of the best places for scenic driving in the world. Especially down here in the Keys. So, after Irma, I heard that the UFO House was scheduled for demolition. So, I scheduled the painting to be 1 week before demolition so I wouldn’t step on anyone’s toes.
I’ve seen Lionfish and Iguana murals you’ve painted, is there a call for capture in your artwork or should nature run its course?
It’s kind of one of those things where I like them more than I hate them. Iguanas are invasive and they are fun to paint, because they don’t belong. Lionfish as well. Actually, one of my pieces was a 25-foot long iguana on the side of a bridge and it didn’t last five days before FDOT came out to paint over it. I was paddleboarding down the creek right before they painted over it and what took me 25 minutes to paint in the dark, took them 6 hours to cover up in daylight with a crew of guys.
What gave you the idea for the Mangrove Berry Bracelets?
I’ve had this project for four years now. And at first, I was throwing out old fishing leaders with the orange beads until I decided to collect and add them to bracelets. I started making them for girlfriends-- until one girl saw the other wearing the same bracelet. That didn’t go too well for me. [Laughing] I eventually started selling them.
I like the “If you leave trash, you are trash” signs that you put together. What sparked that idea and where are they located?
That was a small project. I was re-doing the fence behind my studio and had kicked out some old boards, figuring they would make for great signs to leave at some of the local ramps I go to. I made the hashtag #IYLTYAT for it too so, hopefully it catches on.
Do you have a favorite piece from your art collection or one you wish to be remembered?
Um. Yeah. It was a mural I installed about two years ago which was a giant compass that faces true south accurately. I painted it on an abandoned tower hidden in the woods off Cardsound Road. It’s about 150 feet off the ground and it takes an old rusty ladder to climb up to the top.
Unfortunately, somebody flew over and noticed it and took pictures of it. So, I got a phone call from a few officers who wanted to meet and talk. They wanted to arrest me at first, and I was prepared to get arrested for it because it would have been the best publicity for my work.
They weren’t too impressed with my willingness for a mugshot, and eventually worked out a deal where they didn’t arrest me. They decided not to because they figured if people found out about the location of the tower, it would bring attention to it and people could end up getting hurt trying to climb up there. In the end they just didn’t want to deal with it.
So I was slapped with some fines and I was banned from the state park for a year. I thought the tower was on public land, but it ended up being inside the state park. It was one of my favorite pieces, but I’m not allowed to post about it or share it online.
How do you think people feel about your artwork?
Most of the pieces that I do have a bit of background on them. I try to incorporate mixed media on most of my pieces now. I just did a manatee piece, where the prop scars on its back align with torn lines of canvas. I did a turtle piece as well with a net that was cut off a tangled sea turtle found offshore.
Do you plan on sticking around the Keys for the long term?
I’m not leaving until they kick me off. If anything I’ll head more south. Key West has always been in my plans. I’m just not done with Islamorada yet.
Is it a tightly knit art community down there? Or do most people just pass through then take off somewhere else.
There's a lot of great artists down here in the Keys that have given me inspiration over the years. Personally, I think most of the work is more on the traditional side and I was excited to add something different to the scene. So. I try to do a balance between, you know, fine art in the studio and the mural work with spray paint. The first day I showed up on the scene rocking cans, splashing paint on the walls, it definitely caught some attention.
[Laughing] Well damn, it was great to meet you, man and keep up the good work. I look forward to seeing more.
Alright, the pleasure’s all mine. I appreciate it.
Follow Keith @keef_paints on Instagram and check out the Jigalode x Keef Paints Collection on sale now.