Willie Cauley-Stein was in fifth grade when he packed up his bag for a trek across Spearville, Kansas, a tiny blip of a town — population: 800 — just up US-50 from Dodge City, which passes for a metropolis in a blur of flatlands and windmills.
Cauley-Stein was headed to a class, in which he was enrolled by his grandmother, at a family friend’s house. The snacks were good, he thought, so it was worth the walk. His bag brimmed with notebooks and pastels. It was his introduction to art.
Since then, Cauley-Stein has graduated from a schoolboy drawing houses and landscapes to a 27-year-old using spray paint — and acrylic paint when he wants to get more intricate — to work on his canvases.
It’s all a vessel for expressing his feelings about relationships, heroes and life as a veteran center with the Dallas Mavericks. Cauley-Stein, who became a father in July, decided not to finish last season in the bubble, then declined his player option with the Mavericks before re-signing with Dallas for two more years. That journey, he says, is represented in his art. But for many, an NBA life is separate from a creative one.
According to Cauley-Stein, that is by design. The league’s decision-makers, he says, often want complete devotion to the game. If you’re known for drawing freehand instead of practicing your free throws, it’s a bad career move.
“They put that tag on you,” says Cauley-Stein, the sixth overall pick in the 2015 draft, now on his third team in six seasons. “‘Well, you don’t love basketball because you do other things.’ You’re like, ‘What?’ I bet there are a lot more [artists in the NBA than we know about] just for that reason — they don’t want people to know.”
Cauley-Stein, for his part, doesn’t mind the label. He purposely surrounds himself with a pack of creatives who do everything from music producing and beat-making to fashion design — including his girlfriend, Kelsey Brooks, who collaborates with him on his artwork. Eventually, they all want to make movies together.
For now, Cauley-Stein basks in the good vibes he says his crew gives him, a welcome oasis from the craziness of NBA life. Those vibes, he says, turn into inspiration, and that inspiration turns into art, which he creates in his downtime. Here’s Cauley-Stein, in his own words.
It was my second time using spray cans, and my girl was like, “You should do a Pac-Man.” And I’m like, “A Pac-Man would be cool just because of the colors.” And it’d be easy with the can. But then I got into it. PPP is one of my crew’s things. It stands for philosophical, power and peace. Pac-Man is the crew. And we’re just eating that message up, you know what I mean? The “Outa Space” part — instead of outer space — is funny because I just ran out of space. The astronaut and the UFO fit so nicely in there.
I just watched [ESPN’s Bruce Lee documentary] “Be Water,” and I just felt like I needed to do the eye of the tiger. It just made sense with Rocky too. Oh, and there’s another thing: My girlfriend had never watched any of the Rocky movies, so we had to binge-watch all of them.
My biggest thing is finding my inner consciousness of not being afraid to fail. And that’s why I chose that Bruce Lee quote, because you conquer that fear in trying. That was such a big thing for me coming to Dallas and taking that leap of faith. And the little dog looking in the mirror … I made that for my friend for Christmas. The dog’s name is Hendrix. It came out so dope. I liked that concept of looking in the mirror and seeing something different.
Oh, and that’s Jimi Hendrix. I just got him tatted on my leg. I just love everything he did for me, man. He is the embodiment of “jiggy” and just the creativity that he brought, flipping the guitar upside down and playing that new sound, is just revolutionary to the game. And I did [the boy on the basketball court with the newspaper] because that’s how my house was set up when I was in the Bay. I lived by [San Francisco’s Fisherman’s] Wharf. I could see this elementary school court. I was sitting there enjoying the view. The message in that one: Don’t read your news clippings.
I’m really, really into the Renaissance era. I’ve been into that for a while. My brother — the one with the silver armor in front of the red background — and another family member, the one with the black armor, passed away recently. That’s the inspiration behind the two kings. I had already done a painting on that canvas, then I got the kings idea … and I just painted over the top of it. That’s why the background is like that, and I ended up liking it.
My crew is infatuated with anime and the Naruto story. I mean, it’s pretty much the bible to us. Those are the three main characters — Naruto, Sakura and Sasuke [left to right] — in the story. The headbands are for Shift, our record label. That’s the identity of our crew — Shift Records. You’ll see me put #ShiftEverything on my Instagram, and that’s our whole movement.
I feel like that’s my relationship with my girl. Oh, man. She’s definitely Batman, and I’m the Joker. She is five steps ahead of me. What’s cool is we collab’ed on it. She loves when I create.
That day, when I was in the garage, I was like, “Here, you throw the cans around.” You’ll see on [the Joker’s] clothes, and in the background, some random stuff. That was actually her, and I just made the little symbols that she made into part of his clothing and part of the background. I just took it and ran with it. She didn’t even know that I was doing it. I told her, “Come check it out.” And she was like, “What? You turned it into that?” It was so fast too. Sometimes I just get locked in and I can spend six hours. I knocked [out] both of those.
This is all part of a concept called Addicted to Sauce. A Gucci logo is actually going to go on that bag that’s on his knee. There’s the Chanel one, where the dude is melting down the Chanel C’s on the spoon, and there’s the Fendi logo on the pill bottle. Then the Saint Laurent one, smoking out of the can.
Obviously, our society has a huge drug problem. So that was my inspiration behind that. I had gone down a hole of buying a lot of name-brand clothing. I’m talking almost $500,000 worth of clothing. I didn’t realize, until I was done buying it all throughout the years, like, damn, I am really addicted. That’s how I came up with all that. You spend 500K on clothes, and you could have put 500K into your own [clothing line] instead of brands that are already making super-money. It made me shift my focus on the world; I’m trying to not be addicted to these other people’s sauce. I’m trying to get addicted to my own.