The full interview for "Beyond The Street", Die Gestalten Verlag 2010
One of the reasons I wanted to have my 12oz Prophet account reactivated, was so I could show you how in this day and age, so-called reputable publishers such as Die Gestalten Verlag are actively participating in a re-writing of our shared history. What I am about to trawl through is something that happened two years ago, but is an indication of what has been happening with the publishing of many books that set down the history of our culture in stone, so that, years from now, when you claim that in reality things were actually different than what was written; people will stare at you as if you’re crazy. I didn’t believe that this thing would still be going on, thinking that it’s more to do with older publications covering certain but not all aspects of New York City history and so on; but it seems as if the re-writing of what really was is something that goes on all the time, depending on the vested interests of the authors and publishers.
This is going to be a long-ass article, so please get your cup of tea, your biscuits, or your bottle of wine, before reading on…
Die Gestalten Verlag are not alone in perpetrating this form of revisionism, but when a book comes out with the pretension of being a reference document on “The 100 Leading Figures in Urban Art”, costing €49.90 / $78.00 / £45.00, along with 400 Pages, full color, hardcover, quarter-bound with hot foil embossing and so on (got all that info from their website), buyers, auction houses, and other decision-makers really do take it as the gospel itself. The document becomes a de facto benchmark by which we are gauged to be hot or not, in the eyes and in the wallets of those who have developed an unhealthy interest in “street art” over these past years.
Beyond The Street didn’t come out yesterday, as you all know, but it was seen as a more reliable source of information by many from outside of the culture; whereas a book such as “All City Writers” (by Andrea Caputo, coming out at around the same time), which is a much truer and in-depth view of part of our history, would be perceived by that same public to be a bit too “niche”; the preferred choice of writers, but not of those who are the Johnny-come-lately fans of “street art”.
My main beef is this; my interview (done by co-author Stuart Mckenzie, who was blameless for what followed) was edited down from 15,449 symbols (Wordcount charcters without spaces) by Patrick Nguyen down to 9,669 symbols. This gave a different tone to my interview, and omitted some of the details which make up the whole of who and what I am. I asked several times for the inclusion of a small disclaimer, where it is written that my interview had indeed appearing not as I had answered the questions, in order to make way for more images.
I feel that it is always important to know when written material has been modified in any way, so that the reader can make a more objective appreciation of what he or she is reading. Any rephrasing of someone’s words must be clearly marked, but, from newspaper articles to coffee-table books, this is seldom the case…
One other important point about a book listing “The 100 Leading Figures in Urban Art” is that it would have to get its research right, getting advice from the right people, in order to have a top 100 that gets somewhere vaguely close to the pretentious subtitle on the cover. This is also sadly not the case. It defies logic that somebody like Adrian Nabi from Berlin, the organiser behind “Backjumps; The Live Issue #1 (2003), #2 (2005), & #3 (2007)” does not figure anywhere in this book; when he is pretty much instrumental in aspects of the development of the culture in Europe, and maybe beyond. The roll-call of names that have participated on those events, along with the sheer ambition of each project cannot be ignored in any way. Worse still, Adrian actually knows the boss of Die Gestalten Verlag, Robert Klanten, and has even sat down for coffee with him! Could somebody please give me a logical reason for his omission from the book? It gets even funnier (not) still when the same Robert Klanten speaks of the artists and their “eccentricities” in the foreword of the book. What “eccentricities” is he going on about? Patrick Nguyen made sure that, at least for my part, those were ironed out to suit the format in which he (they) wanted “street art” to be portrayed to the wider audience. Let me again repeat that Stuart MacKenzie took no part in this re-edit, and was really unhappy about how the whole thing turned out, as there was a certain element of mutual trust and respect that he and I had which was affected by the whole thing.
I am not claiming to be more important than the next man, or woman; but what I don’t like is when what I say or do is taken out of context, or re-edited to suit a particular format… and what I hate even most is this ongoing re-edit that our culture is being subjected to by some of the larger fish out there. Of course we have many reputable books written and/or published by people either from the culture or openly devoted to documenting it as truthfully as their knowledge, time, resources and efforts would allow them to; but after this sorry incident, I must say that I fully understand why heads like Phase 2 take such a radical stance against the general atmosphere of misinformation which has accompanied the release and publication of many historical references to our culture. I somehow thought that it “happened to them” and “won’t happen to me”; but it can very much happen to you too…
On that note, and without further ado, he, finally, is the original edit of the interview I did for “Beyond The Street”. You don’t even have to read it, unless of course you wish to compare what follows with what ended up being published;
1. What was it that initially got you into art and street art in particular? (sorry this isn’t a unique question, but I need to include it for readers who may not know your background)
I have been drawing since I was a child, as long as I can remember actually. As the youngest of four children we all used to draw, as it was one of the few inexpensive hobbies or general distraction and fun that you could have back then.
When I came to London and was going to primary school, I was looking at comics a bit, but when Star Wars came out in 1977, I went quite intensely into a lot of sci-fi stuff; moving on to buying 2000 AD & Warlord every week, sometimes copying and sometimes doing my own interpretations.
Street art came much later, through the music, and through such videos as “Buffalo Gals” or “Hey You, The Rocksteady Crew”. I do remember being attracted to lettering before then, though; anything from the “Tom & Jerry” logo to that nasty American woman’s perfume called “Charlie”.
I was a bit too self-conscious for the dancing, didn’t have a massive record collection, and I had too heavy a stammer back then to grab he mic, so painting with spray-cans and markers was the most natural outlet for me, when the Hip Hop thing really took off in ’84.
2. Conor Harrington has mentioned the importance of male ego with the growth of both graffiti and hip hop. In your experience and opinion how important do you think hip hop has been to the development of street art as we now know it?
I don’t know so much about the male ego thing being a driving force, with regards to Hip Hop in general. I think that’s something that we find prevalent in society as a whole; not to the culture in particular.
Back in ’83 to ’84, there were of course less girls around on the scene, but what was driving the most of us forwards was just this irresistible urge to express ourselves, whether with dance moves, our voices, the turntables, or the spray-paint. We had such a massive dose of stimuli coming from New York, Washington, or the West Coast, which we just couldn’t hold it in.
Of course we competed against each other to see who was considered by our peers to be best at this or that, but we were also on a voyage of self-discovery within ourselves, discovering and pushing back new boundaries all the time.
Still, in our midst, were the likes of Monie Love, or other ladies who also did Hip Hop in their own way, though less of them were attracted by he illegal side of painting at night. Obviously there are things that are easier for boys than girls, to some respect, such as not arousing suspicions by walking around late at night, or not attracting any stress from some idiots because of it. There were also b-girls who took a long time to develop their own take on “break-dancing”, trying to compete with the boys on what their terms as opposed to exploiting the differences that the female physique has over the male.
This didn’t stop them popping and locking, or dj-ing, such as Wonder Dee playing at the Albany Empire in Deptford, back in late summer ’84.
3. Sex has been portrayed in art for centuries, although your portrayal of oral sex is an interesting development. What is the primary motivation when you’re creating these scenes (which I happen to be fascinated by incidentally)
One of the basic things about oral sex, particularly when the male partner is giving pleasure to the female, it is an act where his penis doesn’t really come into play. There is something that seems less “threatening”, less of the classic male wielding his penis around like some symbol of the physical domination he has subjected womankind to, more some kind subservient position in the order of things.
When I first did the “Matter Of Taste” show, at the Dragon bar in November ’04, most of the images then were also focused on the act of oral sex, with the male in the position of giving as opposed to taking. An older lady came up to me at some point during the opening, and said to me that she thought a girl had produced these images. I knew then that I had managed to cross that barrier where man and woman can discuss sex openly, without the usual male bravado and latent dominance behind.
An antithesis of this would probably be the type of images that Fafi used to paint. When it’s a girl doing it, everybody was like, “Wow! She really rocks!”
Had it been a guy producing the exact same images, people would have a totally different view of the artist; probably a negative one at that.
This is the barrier that I wish to cross, on a subject which is so present in our everyday lives, but which is not talked about openly and serenely enough. Girls talk amongst girls, and boys talk amongst boys; the girls being a bit more prepared to discuss their problems too, while the boys dare not show any insecurity in the company of peers…
4. Your projects in Omagh and Cape Town gave you a great deal of satisfaction. What is it about putting work on the street that appeals and does your street work tend to give you more satisfaction than gallery work?
I would rather be making more work that touches a wider public audience, than being limited to the gallery environment. I used to enjoy painting in the street a lot, but my love of what the spray-can can do has been somewhat snuffed out by the health problems that it can sometimes provoke in me. Also, the fact that my face and name had become well-known so early on in my life took away some of the drive to impose myself, while at the same time attracting the kind of painting partners who would go on to talk about illegal missions to people I don’t know or don’t even get on with.
When going out alone, back then, it was more with a marker than with a spray-can, as I had only got into the illegal side of things when I was already 16. Moreover the drive behind our crew back then had more to do with pushing the visual aspect of the art itself forwards, as opposed to competing with other crews for who had the strongest presence on the street or on the trains.
Nevertheless, this free public forum on which you could express whatever you wanted to was really attractive to me; and I went on into the 90s with the idea of developing visual narratives which the public would be exposed to, while they went about their everyday lives. I particularly liked the fact that people who usually would not even consider talking to each other would maybe stop in front of something I did, feel some kind of link with a part of what I did, and give their express this to the person standing next to them; instead of just talking about the weather or something…
This was something which I really felt at one with, and I went on doing that for many years, but eventually I started to slow down, one, because of the health issues regarding the paint, and two, because, as society went on with the arrival of globalisation, of mobile phones, digital cameras, the internet, and so on, I found that it became more and more difficult to approach any particular theme the way I used to…
So many factors come into play on any one given theme these days, as, though they may be particular to a given situation and location, this in turn is affected by many factors from much further afield than used to be the case; making the explanations, or the depictions of explanations a lot more complex, and consequently less suited to what I used to do.
The commemorative painting to the lives of those affected by the Omagh bombing of 1998, is one of those few themes that allowed me to focus on a specific and very sensitive topic, in an environment where the use of certain colours or graphic symbols would instantly marginalise one section of your audience.
Having first visited the town at the end of 2001, I then went back in early spring 2002, and stayed there for three weeks, immersing myself into the local life, opening up to many different personal stories, and trying to channel all that I was hearing into the point that I wished to make. I think you can only really ask those who’ve lived with this painting ever since how they feel about it; but for me the whole experience was really enriching on many levels.
Painting at the District Six Homecoming Centre in Cape Town, something that was not initially planned in the schedule of the British Council event that I was involved with, I was again feeling this feeling of being useful somewhere, as opposed to just being decorative…
The artists whose public work I empathise with the most on this kind of level would be Banksy and Blu, though I’d also add that Blu would be the one that I really have my eye on at the moment; but that’s just an issue of personal taste…
5. Putting your work into an exhibition must involve a variety of emotions from the stress of a deadline to the potential negative reactions from the public (or curator). Can you describe your feelings in the build up to one of your shows?
I have never had a studio to paint in, whether it’s just for the pleasure of it, or to prepare a show. This also means that I don’t have a place where I can experiment with technique, leaving something partly finished and moving on to something else, always with the possibility of coming back at some point.
I have therefore never really been in that habit of having a show to prepare, in the way that most other artists do, and this has often led me to a mad rush, just weeks before a show, where a part of the flat must be given transformed into a temporary studio; something which of course cannot go on for too long a period.
This has also led to situations whereby I’d have to step into the gallery space a few weeks ahead of a show, never more than three, and produce the work from scratch there; without much room for back-tracking or correcting or adjusting.
I realise that these situations have always put me under considerable pressure, and I have begun to suspect that there is an aspect of my earlier street-painting life which has still not gone away; namely the parameters of time dictating what you can actually do within them, and a consequent habit of stalling things until you find yourself with only just enough time to scrape through.
The time and lack of studio-space factors become then the main pressure-building points in the lead-up to any show; not so much the subject matter itself. I don’t paint for any given public, but for myself, as I have always done; touching on subjects, which are of importance and relevance to me, while hoping that this will touch the audience out there somehow, and maybe even a buyer or two.
I do intend to build myself a work-space though, from where I can handle anything from drawing to preparing screen-prints, or painting in a non-aerosol way; but this itself is something I’ve been building towards over two years already, and having to work on the side to provide for my little family doesn’t allow me the time I need to sort through it all that quick.
I have archives of sketches and photos and bits of text here and there, all stacked up over seventeen years, and I need to go through a kind of cathartic process of choosing what stays and what goes. This in itself is a rather arduous task, but I guess that, once through all of this, and out of the other side, I’ll just find another way of putting pressure on myself for future shows. I don’t know anybody who doesn’t feel pressure of one type or another…
6. Futura and OsGemeos both named you as an artist that they respected. Who has recently caught your eye as an interesting talent and what is it that caught your eye?
Strangely enough, Futura is somebody who doesn’t cease to surprise me, even if it looks as if he’s painting in more or less the same style all the time. I think he’s one of those who’s a real reflection of his style of painting, or is it the other way around?
Os Gemeos are in a totally different universe altogether, and, though I don’t know for sure how much an influence their city has had on them, or them on it, they have definitely helped to change how other people painted around the world, through their travelling and the shows and walls that they did.
As I mentioned earlier, I really like Blu, and the messages that come through his imagery, the narratives and the animations that he does. In the show they had at Lazarides Greek Street, some years ago, he had a wall full of A5-sized sketches, with each and every one having something to say about things that lurk in our socio-cultural or existential minds, all from a very original and concise perspective.
Adam Neate’s last show at Elms and Lesters was also something I won’t forget so quickly, with his many experiments ranging from painting to sculpture, which have shown the almost scientific level of research in the way he has been trying to catch movement, and somehow freeze it at various stages in time. I was told it took two years to get together; it shows…
There are other names which hang somewhere at the periphery of my answer, but that would be too long a process to go into for now…
7. The guys from the USA have had some real problems when getting caught laying down their external work. Any close shaves with the authorities when putting your work down on the street? (gives an opportunity for amusing or eyebrow raising scary stories)
I haven’t been in any kind of trouble for years, except for getting caught tagging on Old Street a couple of years ago, when the Dragon Bar was still on Leonard Street. I didn’t see from where the police-car came, but suddenly the guy was just on me. I simply told him my age, that I was drunk, and this was just a rare one-off thing, upon which he just let me go. Maybe they really did have more important things to do that night; luckily for me.
I think the worst thing next to actually getting caught, which happened to me, was in Switzerland, back in the mid-nineties.
I had gone out to paint trains with my friends who I lived with, in another town somewhere; which we had to get to with a fairly long car-ride. We got raided as we were doing panel-pieces, and all ran down this steep slope towards a wooded area, but as we ran in through the trees, it was hard to hear what was going on. I think they had actually stopped and were calling, but I ran on through and fell into a river up to my waist.
Climbing out wet and running along the bank, I realised I had lost them, and then found myself trying to make it back to where I thought the car was parked, a black guy in a Swiss small town, dodging from shadow to shadow every time a car came along, until daylight finally arrived, and I had to act as if I was strolling casually on what was a Sunday morning.
I had no idea where I was until I had reached the town limits, and found that it was called Zug. If the police stopped me I really had no idea what to drop as a plausible story; like maybe getting smashed at a party over the border in France, and having travelled back with some revellers who kicked me out of their car or something. I had nothing, and my only Swiss contacts were my partners in crime.
Incredibly enough, some three hours after the raid, I was walking up a road, and recognized their car coming towards me. I had actually made it back to the car park, but they had already been home, had showers, put on their Sunday best, and were stinking of perfume like a bunch of good mummy’s boys.
There are lots of other stories of course, but the ones where you’re running and hiding and can’t think of a story to tell the cops are the type that make you realise just how un-professional you can be sometimes…
8. You’ve bounced around quite a few places since you took up art. Does it get tiring going from show to show and are you ever tempted to take a more static lifestyle?
I do enjoy a more static life-style, but unfortunately the work is never that frequent wherever you choose to settle for a while, so you end up having to travel a fair bit, when what needs to be done is actual on-site work.
Even then though, I remember how much of my life was based around socialising and partying and being inspired to make work around that aspect of life as well; but mixing that with work and family-life is something I’m still learning.
The Sod’s Law of it all is the fact that, whichever town or city I’m just leaving, I hear that something really good is happening just after I’ve left, and when I arrive in my new destination, people are telling me how I just missed the most incredible party or club-night or concert or whatever…
I’m not that keen on flying all the time either, and would rather take the train instead, if I could, but that’s not so practical over the longer distances, or if you have a body of water to cross; but I can’t say that I don’t enjoy the travelling either.
9. Which has been your most ambitious piece of art and what were the circumstances that made it stand out?
It’s incredibly difficult to compare whether one piece has somehow been more ambitious than another, especially when there are so many things that I’ve done in radically different circumstances, making comparisons impossible.
The Omagh and cape Town stuff that you mentioned before do rank up there amongst them though, as would the mural I did when the Outsiders show was launched in New York back in October 2008; not because it was that incredible, but it was just huge in comparison to what was originally planned during the short space of time I had, and in under the weather conditions there. Sometimes, for no pay, and no particular reason, you’ll just go out there and bite on something, which will not be all that easy to swallow.
10. When you reflect on your time as an artist, what aspect has given you the most amount of enjoyment?
I think that when you get really positive feedback where you least expected it, or when somebody comes up and says how such and such piece they saw of yours affected their lives in a positive way, that’s where the most real enjoyment comes from. The rest seems somehow to be a bit more fleeting…
You put so much into something sometimes, that, when you’re done and people ask whether or not you’re happy with it, you tell them that you’re actually just happy to be done, and that’s it. The real pleasure went into the act itself, and stepping back to contemplate it gives you a very short buzz.
I’d just like to add that, another aspect of all of this that I really did and still do enjoy, is hearing someone else’s interpretation of something I’ve done; often more enriching for me than my own idea
Thank you Mode 2.
It’s gone on for a bit, Stuart, which is why it’s something I need to sit down and really focus on, and that’s why it also took this long to get to doing it. I hope my answers were not too long, but if so; I’d really like to see your final draft of the different things that I’ve said, just to be sure that you’ve found followed the right thread between all the different things I’ve touched on, but which are ultimately all bound together somehow…