TAMPA, Fla. -- It started as a typical opening reception at the University of Tampa's Scarfone/Hartley Gallery.
On this Friday in October, guests gathered to view "B.A.S.K.: Because Art Should Kill," a solo exhibition of Ales Bask Hostomsky's recent works. They drank wine, nibbled on snacks, made small talk and listened to tunes spun by DJ KnowMatty.
Then came the disruption.
Two 9-year-olds dressed in school uniforms ran through the gallery and started spray-painting over a collection of Hostomsky's artworks hanging on a wall.
The audience was stunned, then quickly amazed by the moment. Hostomsky was standing among the crowd. He beamed, satisfied with the stunt he had planned for the opening.
The idea was to help bring his aesthetic to life. The Pinellas-based artist's creative method often involves spending days working on a piece, only to throw paint over it -- destroying it to create something new. It's common for him to refer to his work as "the mess he's made."
Even the way he hangs his works -- overlapping, sometimes creating massive collages -- is part of the vibe. Displayed in the pristine white-walled gallery in Tampa, some works are hung haphazardly or peek out behind other walls.
Hostomsky, 46, mashes up images with commercial slogans that are taken out of context, often resulting in absurdism. Much of the imagery he works with is pre-existing. He likens the way he mixes it together to the way a DJ weaves abstract samples into songs.
This is the largest display of his work to date. It includes work that was shipped from a gallery in San Francisco, from an exhibition that got canceled by the pandemic. Some of the work was created under a partnership Hostomsky has with Tampa Bay artist Chad Mize. Hostomsky drops new works biweekly on Mize's social media channels.
Hostomsky said the new work is more minimal, which is harder for him to make.
"It's an exercise in restraint," he said, speaking from his studio in Seminole, where artwork fills every inch of the space.
Passion stoked early
Born in a town called Pelhrimov in then-Czechoslovakia in 1977, Hostomsky's family were political refugees from the Communist party and left the country in 1984. They moved to Austria, then made their way to the United States, and St. Petersburg.
Before he learned to speak English, Hostomsky said he was treated like an outsider by kids at school. So, inspired by MAD Magazine, he started creating his own worlds through drawing.
In middle school, he got into drawing comic books. His parents would drive him to comic book conventions, where he hoped to find encouragement. But he only found rejection.
"That's one part of the recipe that I think all artists need, that I think I've had from the beginning, is complete delusion," he said. "Or I would say audacity."
By the time he was attending the then-Dixie M. Hollins High School in St. Petersburg, graffiti had caught his attention. He was drawn to the risks artists take to make art that might only be seen by a few people and will likely disappear.
"There was just something so romantic about it because there's no other art form that has this level of rebellion to it," he said.
But this was the 1990s, so the only references to graffiti culture came from magazines. When a new kid came to Hostomsky's high school from California who was a talented graffiti artist, he taught Hostomsky by painting trains and walls around the area.
Ever supportive, his parents encouraged him by taking photos of graffiti in the places they traveled throughout Europe. At home, they let him and his friends practice on a wall in the garage. Hostomsky said they didn't realize what he was doing was illegal.
Hostomsky found success submitting his graffiti to magazines around the country. But he went through a dark period, and was arrested for misdemeanor charges on several occasions.
After dropping out of high school, Hostomsky worked in his dad's cabinetry shop, which gave him tools that facilitate the way he makes art today.
Graffiti had been on the back burner, but now he wanted to do it professionally in the form of commercial murals. After going door to door at local Pinellas County businesses offering to paint a mural on them, he finally got a "yes" from a shop in Madeira Beach.
When that mural caught the attention of the Vitale Bros., the local artist team composed of brothers Johnny and Paul Vitale, it set into motion a new era in the Tampa Bay art world.
"It had this energy to it that I couldn't explain ... it was so vibrant and full of life," Johnny Vitale said.
The art of rebellion
After his last arrest, Hostomsky did community service at the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg. His six months there were an entry into the art world.
He started showing up to galleries with paintings he made to see if the owner would show them. He was inspired by the pop art style of artists David Williams and James Michaels, who showed at a gallery called Fusion on Central Avenue in downtown St. Petersburg.
In 1998, the gallery started showing Hostomsky's work, too, a certain kind of luck he attributes to the "mini art explosion" of the late '90s and early 2000s. Johnny Vitale remembers meeting him there. The gallery gave Hostomsky his first solo show in 1999. Soon, he became involved with art shows the Vitales hosted at a warehouse in Pinellas Park -- big events that included fashion shows and DJs.
"I just wanted to always push the boundaries on what an art show can be," Vitale said. "Bask and I were probably the core of it. We would push each other very, very hard ... conceiving these ideas for the shows and turn out these really incredible events."
Major institutions began to take notice, and in 2002, the artists were featured in a one-night-only event at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, filling the building to capacity. More shows would come later at the former Gulf Coast Art Museum and the Tampa Museum of Art's former location.
Beyond Tampa Bay, galleries in California were showing his work. Celebrities Dennis Hopper, Courteney Cox and David Arquette collected it. And in 2000, he started showing at the influential (and now-closed) C Pop Gallery in Detroit. For the next four years, he split his time between there and Tampa Bay.
His full-time return to Tampa Bay in 2004 coincided with a prosperous time for our edgy art scene.
In 2006, when the Vitale Bros. were commissioned by the Tampa Bay Rays to design an interactive batting cage area in Tropicana Field's left-field concourse, Hostomsky (and artists Craig Anderson, Heinz Hinrichs and Frank Strunk III) joined in. They created a gritty New York City-inspired graffiti-laden street scene.
The art of rebellion had struck a chord.
Coming full circle
In 2012, Hostomsky was contacted by someone who had worked at the C Pop Gallery and was now in the art department for the upcoming film "Iron Man 3." They needed artwork for scenic decoration, and this former colleague showed Robert Downey Jr. (who plays the main character, Tony Stark) Hostomsky's work.
His piece "When it Rains, It Pours" -- featuring a bomb aimed at the Morton Salt girl -- caught Downey Jr.'s eye, so he asked Hostomsky to re-create it as a 13-foot panel. It barely shows up in the film, Hostomsky said, but he made 10 more canvases for the movie with help from the Vitale Bros. that feature a bit more prominently. He also decorated the set with the Vitale crew on location in Miami.
Downey Jr. ended up buying all of the paintings Hostomsky made for the movie.
Hostomsky also got to meet Bob Layton, creator of the Iron Man comic series, who lives in Tampa. Last year, Hillsborough County celebrated Layton with a series of events including an art show at the Scarfone/Hartley Gallery, where they displayed Layton's work as well as Hostomsky's.
"Now I'm doing a show with one of my heroes," Hostomsky said. "It's weird how everything pays off."
This was Hostomsky's introduction to the gallery, and led to the current solo show in Tampa.
His friends are still involved as collaborators. Vitale's son Jack Gerow-Vitale and his friend June Gahhos were the "vandals" from the opening reception.
Now, even with murals and site-specific installations around the world, commercial work with major clients and a retrospective in 2019 at the Morean Art Center, Hostomsky refuses to be complacent.
"I had to get comfortable with treating my work like a commodity, but there's a limit to that," he said. "I've gotten close several times in my career of going to whatever the next level is. All I would have to do is just repeat that thing that people really like. The day I start doing that is the day I stop. That goes against all the reasons why I like being an artist. I like throwing paint around and experimenting."
While the competition with contemporaries he had as a younger artist has faded away, he still keeps "one foot in the struggle." Now, the goal is to keep challenging himself.
Hostomsky said there's no backup plan for his life. He plans on being an artist until his fingers stop working.