Askew One Talks Pacific Culture and Post-Graffiti
Graffiti is a monster, undoubtedly, a worm that eats at the heart of man and gnaws at the core of it at all begging for greater spatial awareness. Whilst the needs can be called selfish the wider connectedness it births is worldly, you get to know the underbelly of a place – you get to see the bowels of the machine. It is no surprise then a deep love for indigenous communities and culture can come from this, the eye that see’s the industry is drawn to the people behind it.
Askew One TMD/MSK has been at the forefront of our art form for a few years now, creating pieces that are not only technically incredible but bursting with vibrancy and creative freedom. Outside of his letter based explorations though, Askew has found a wider, more mainstream fame with his other work – which comprises anything from fluid phrases, huge abstract murals celebrating Pacific cuisine and portraits depicting historically important figures specific to the region he is in.
He epitomises one side of the modern graffiti modern writer; knowledgeable – adaptable – and whose profound love of public space has expanded to its inhabitants history.
I caught up with him to chat on the importance of history, the growing ‘Post-Graffiti’ movement and examine the recent, defining ‘Post-Graffiti Pacific’ group exhibition he partakes in, alongside other Pacific luminaries.
As an artist whose work has progressed quite dynamically over the years, what is it that continually draws you to creating things which exist in the public space, and under the realm of such illegality?
I think in all sincerity the question of legal vs illegal has become an invalid consideration for me lately. The only question for me is what do I want to achieve and what situation is most conducive with getting the result I want. I will always admire when people manage the impossible against all odds and get over but I’m personally past the point of caring about that as the ‘only’ issue of relevance nowadays and I’ll get a bit deeper into that shortly. As far as art in the public space, it is something I believe has more value than it’s given credit for. When you see public space that is reflective of it’s actual community, I think that is generally an indication of good things, a sign that space is living and not oppressed.
“For a time I hung out with Smash quite a bit and I was really affected by his philosophy or approach to graffiti – finding that balance between the classic and the new and I really tried to go down that path”
How have your thoughts on graffiti matured over the years?
Graffiti is a very complex beast in that it’s very paradoxical by nature. To generalise it is hard and so I can only speak about my own revelations and personal ideologies. My journey with graffiti began as a means of defining myself and expressing a very basic desire, to be seen and respected. Ultimately, I think I just wanted to be cool and fit in with my peers. On one level I see graffiti as being beautiful in how it regards public space and property and is borderless and free. On the other hand I also see it as the ultimate expression of self-indulgence and individuality without a care for community. There is a real duality. I’m in a stage in my life where I want to contribute in some way to improving the world even if just a little bit.
Over the years Askews work has morphed from a clean, bold wildstyle into a fluid mixture of stark, graphic contrasts between colours and forms. Moving away from letters, his recent work has been characterised by an interest in the humanity behind regions and led to a colourful palette of character based work focusing on distinctly indigenous personalities.
From 2008-10 your letters began to take on a really distinct, expressive and colourful dynamic and still retain that to this day, what do you aspire towards with your letter based work?
It all stemmed from the New Zealand cultural cringe if I’m honest. We’ve always been good impersonators, it comes from a time before the internet. We would always have a local version of The Beatles, or Elvis or countless people that could sing like Bob Marley but original voices were more rare. It was the same across all the arts really and graffiti was no different. Also a lot of the older guys in our scene hated our generation because we were like the plague, before us you could do 10 pieces a year and maintain your king status but after some of the guys around my age and a bit older came through the Auckland scene just exploded.
I always looked outwards for my mentors and used to bring a lot of my favourite writers out to paint here through an event I started putting on when I was about 20. We would study everyone that came here and take on every technique and bit of knowledge they shared with us and as a result I think a lot of really technically proficient writers came out of that. I started to travel when I was 23 and through those connections I had made I got to hang out with a lot of my heroes abroad. I would always act pretty cool about it but on the inside it was really exciting and I felt privileged. Cantwo, Atom and Wow123 were always schooling me and on my case at every wall, initially I learned a lot from them, particularly Atom to be honest.
In 2006 I met Smash137, Revok, Rime, easily three of the most favourite writers at that time and I was just soaking up everything from them. For a time I hung out with Smash quite a bit and I was really affected by his philosophy or approach to graffiti – finding that balance between the classic and the new and I really tried to go down that path, Ultimately, and it was pretty public so I can talk about it, he felt I really infringed on his creative territory and he called me out. It was a really hard time for me because I really looked up to him and valued him as a friend and a mentor but it felt like he wanted to absolutely destroy me in front of everyone. My intention was never to flat out copy him but to channel that same energy or vibe I guess. Either way, it was the best thing that ever happened to me in hindsight. It inspired me to be a leader and not a follower and it coincided with a good strong creative partnership with Berst. We just pushed each other so much to change the way we approached graffiti, we started to think about every aspect of how you apply line and colour and tried to reorder things from the standard as much as possible. We built a strong vernacular during that time and a lot of it trickled out into the work of younger writers in our country. We also did a lot of pieces I can’t even look at now!
Was there any significant point in time with your letterbased work where it all suddenly clicked and you said ‘this is it’? What kind of advice would you give to writers for advancing their styles?
I think as an artist you have a lot of ‘click’ moments. I can’t list just one, it’s a continual process and if you keep momentum and constantly work, you will find your rhythm and ideas will start to flow quicker than you can execute them,
Would you like to talk about this ‘specific experience’ you had with getting in to graffiti? would you say there’s any part of it that was distinctly pacific?
I grew up in Central Auckland in a very multicultural neighbourhood but mostly around kids whose parents had immigrated from the Pacific Islands. I’m the oldest of my siblings but pretty much all of my friends had older brothers and sisters who were the cool kids in the area we looked up to. They were the kids at the local shops playing arcade games, smoking, tagging, dancing, had the cool fashion etc and by default my friends would get all that knowledge and style from them. The early 90’s were cool in the respect that everyone did stuff outside still, dancing, listening to music or just hanging out the neighbourhood was always alive, a little dangerous and exciting. But yeah, essentially what I’m saying is everything worthwhile that I got into culturally really emanated out of the Pacific community in my area and of course it had it’s own nuances as a result. The types of tags people chose or the fabrics they used to customise their clothing, little things you take for granted but when you look back you can’t deny the flavour.
How would you define the general pacific flavour to an outsider?
That’s hard but there’s an aspect of making do with what you have that I think holds true. If you spend time in a place like Samoa for example, there are aesthetic things that come from necessity not choice that have remained even when people have migrated to a bigger country. The colours people paint their houses, the way they decorate the interiors or their cars. I think because these things become nostalgic and create a sense of comfort or a sense of home.
(Elaborating on the interview with VNA you gave) Post-Graffiti Pacific seems to be a landmark moment in focusing the attention to artists in that region and helping you concrete your ideas as a community. You mention that it came about through much conversation between friends, could you perhaps highlight the process you went through regarding this definition of yourself?
Well, I look around me and look at my country right now and I see a huge division. On one side I see the New Zealand I grew up in which is distinctly Pacific in flavour. It’s not New Zealand, it’s Aotearoa (Māori name), the biggest South Pacific Island nation. It’s a place where a strong sense of community seemed to exist and people cared a lot about issues both locally and globally. When I was young things like the anti-apartheid movement, our anti-nuclear stance and the huge renaissance of Māori language and culture were core to what I viewed as defining our nation. I’m not saying it was a utopia, that would be really naive but there was a feeling that we lived in a society that was progressive in a lot of ways. The other side of New Zealand is this kind of horrific Twilight Zone of super entitled, neo-liberalistic people who live in this strange hateful ignorance that denies any understand of our country’s history as a Pacific nation firstly. It’s super vapid and devoid of empathy in that world and much too vain and materialistic for me to stomach. Under our current government I’ve seen this side of our population really thrive and start to dominate our national psyche and it worries me a lot. So that’s one observation that has really fed into my thinking and affected how I look at this situation and identify within it. It’s easy to get down and become another negative voice so I just had to attack this from another viewpoint.
When I started to really research our history as the largest South Pacific island it greatly altered how I viewed this entire region and all the cultural phenomena that has occurred within it. I’m really skipping a lot of stuff but even pop-cultural phenomena like how we got into graffiti in the first place ties into this narrative and informed our scene. My friends and I are pretty reflective of many people our age that grew up in Auckland during the earlier era I’m speaking of and we had a very specific experience doing graffiti. Even though we have evolved to do work that has broken out of the traditional letter based framework, it s very much inspired and informed by the time and place we come from.
Could you talk us through how you see Post-Graffiti?
I see Post-Graffiti as the work being made both inside and outside by artists that came from a traditional graffiti background into making art outside of that paradigm.
“…I’ve honestly learned a lot and I’m still learning – I always will be. Art making is as much a process of education for me as it is one of expression of ideas. Art is just the vehicle for me to gain a much deeper understanding and appreciation of the world I live in. I’ve drawn a line as far as where I see my experience and where I belong in relation to the two sides of New Zealand society. I am in awe of the rich cultural history shared throughout this region and love learning everything I can about human migration and the evolution of language, arts and cuisine. I don’t want to be one of these arrogant white people that discount all of this as irrelevant and antiquity. I feel that even those with colonial ancestry should take the time to learn, appreciate and promote everything that makes this part of the world so incredible.”
How would you define the essence of your work at the current moment?
My work does progress very quickly both aesthetically and thematically but it mostly centres around the aforementioned issues or subject matter. It’s usually a direct response to whatever I’m reading, conversations I’ve had, people I’ve met and places I’ve been. I try to incorporate all of this stuff into my portraiture, the heads are a vehicle of sorts, a way to bring continuity to the really varied topics I try to cover.
What do you hope that people will take away from your work?
I hope people take the time to dig a bit deeper into the history of the greater Pacific region. It gets down played a lot because it’s made of so many small Island states but it’s one of the most incredibly diverse parts of the planet with a fascinating history. I hope people also realise that a lot of what I am trying to communicate is the urgency facing this region and many of the low-lying nations due to climate change. Many of these countries are at the very frontline of the greatest current world issues, none of which they have caused but sadly bare the most immediate brunt of.
A tribute to Ralph Hotere, who is widely regarded as one of New Zealands most important artists.
Over the years, i’ve more and more believed that graffiti writers possess a certain something that is hard to pin down – but is so easy to spot when it’s absent, the old addage ‘real recognizes real’ (however trite) seems to be the closest way of describing it. Given the nature of the growing Post-Graffiti movement, do you think there’s any distinct behaviour (in both creative aesthetic or personality) that you could define graffiti artists as having?
It’s definitely an exclusive club sometimes, I do recognise that. In the late 90’s when I first started meeting people who defined themselves more as ‘Street Artists’ I just always felt like there was something really lame about it all. I couldn’t define it precisely but there was just this feeling like they were always half-stepping some how and avoiding doing graffiti properly. What added salt to the wounds was that the public generally received that work more favourably. The funniest thing is in Auckland we had much more of a ‘tag-banging’ type scene due to this more LA focused influence and those of us that did pieces were also ridiculed a bit for not being ‘real’. Actually, LA is a Pacific city also and so the influence from there wasn’t just emulation but partly due to Polynesian migration within the region. It’s funny today though, to fast forward a lot, when I’m at these big Mural festivals a lot of the big wall artists of the moment have a background in painting letter based graffiti like Fintan Magee, Guido Van Helten and Sofles for example. Actually quite a number of them come from the same part of Australia which is another interesting coincidence.
I’d really like to discuss Pacific culture a bit more, as there’s a lot of really interesting and insightful stuff coming through – especially in regards to creativity and community within it. How do you think the culture has influenced you directly?
Well the thing about the greater Pacific region is it accounts for about a third of the planet, it’s a really vast area and is the most cultural diverse place on the planet. When we say ‘Pacific Culture’ there are actually many unique cultures but the narrative of their histories are very intertwined. Firstly, some history. There was an initial migration between 50,000 – 60,000 years ago and those people were Austronesian, the ancestors of indigenous Australians. It’s also believed they were the first to venture into New Guinea, Fiji and the Solomons, which were later inhabited by Melanesian people with some Polynesian influence around the second Millennium BC.
The Ancestors of Micronesian and Polynesian people are referred to as the Lapita, they are thought to have originated in either Southern China or Taiwan. Their gradual migration began some 5,000 – 6,000 years ago as they populated South-East Asia, into Micronesia, Melanesia and Polynesia. They were the greatest ocean navigators in human history and achieved this with the invention of the outrigger canoe and incredible navigational techniques that utilised knowledge of currents and astrology. Once they populated Tonga and Samoa around 3,000 years ago, Lapita culture disappeared and the early Polynesian cultures emerged. Polynesians continued to populate the region, everywhere from Hawai’i to Rapanui (Easter Islands), Tahiti, Cook Islands and the very last place settled was Aotearoa (New Zealand).
It is also theorised that Polynesian explorers journeyed to South America and this is indicated by the sweet potato varieties we have here that originate from there. I live in Auckland which is considered the Polynesian capital of the world. This is such huge topic so I feel like I’m missing so much out – I live in a country that was Polynesian firstly, then was colonised and through many factors, mostly relating to economics has become a very multi-cultural place but essentially all the greater pacific cultures have converged here, people from that entire history. This has all happened really fast and I think what’s happening now is the struggle to define ourselves in relation to all that. My friends and I all feel like products of that history in one form or another.
(Above three pieces are from current group show ‘Post-Graffiti Pacific’ – showing at aMBUSH Gallery, Level 3, Central Park Sydney until 19th August)
Are there any Pacific artists that you want to highlight as important in your current progression? or outside of that, as your work progresses so dynamically what would you say your direct influences are at this moment in time?
I think there are many incredible artists from here that have or are currently making work that draws from all this rich Pacific history. Some of artists I really admire are John Pule, Shane Cotton, Andy Leleisi’uao, George Nuku, Dagmar Dyck, Greg Semu, Janet Lilo, Glen Wolfgramm, Michael Tuffery, Sheyne Tuffery, man the list is actually really long. By total coincidence my partner Olivia’s cousin Lily Aitui Laita was my art teacher in high school and she is a really respected artist. She was influential on me at school in that she actually was encouraging of me doing some of my own graffiti inspired stuff in class rather than the curriculum work. I think what I’d also encourage people to do is to look into all of the traditional Pacific art forms that are still being practised, they are not dead or antiquity, they are living, evolving art forms. Things like Cook Island Tivavevae (quilt making), the huge variety of weaving and textile making practises, carving like Māori Whakairo… There’s so much to appreciate, ranging from the very traditional to contemporary permutations.
Lastly, on a slightly lighter note, as some of your current work has taken influence from food, care to talk about that and recommend any your favourite dishes?
I guess I was looking for a symbol to represent all the issues I’ve been thinking about, health, cultural identity, economics and the environment and I had an epiphany that it was food. The most obvious thing but something we overlook and take for granted. So despite the fact the food paintings are fun and whimsical looking they are loaded with lots of message. Growing up I ate a lot of Polynesian food, particularly Samoan and Cook Island dishes. There’s some really unhealthy stuff that’s evolved over time to include really cheap fatty meats and lots of mayonnaise and things like that, but my favourite stuff is the really simple, clean and often completely vegan stuff. There’s a Samoan delicacy called Palusami and all it is mad of is young taro leaves, fresh coconut cream, onion, salt and pepper and wrapped in the older Taro leaves then cooked in the Umu (earth Oven). Similarly, the Niuean dish Takihi is beautiful and simple. It’s just Taro root and paw paw thinly sliced and layered with coconut cream and cooked slowly. Beautiful.
Care to recommend anything else Pacific we should be checking out?
Well maybe take to time to explore the region. It would be much better than me harping on about it haha!