Over The Ego: An Interview with Berst TMD
Known for his explosive and vibrant letter pieces Berst (TMD / GBAK) has been classified as one of this generations most innovative writers. Now with his work making moves into more illustrative and Post-Graffiti realms we caught up to chat progression and how we can make an impact outside of painting on walls.
What first attracted you to graffiti and what keeps you doing it?
My first exposure to graffiti was tagging at high school. My classmates JEKS, BOWZA, and FESK were always tagging in their workbooks and I never really understood what and why they were doing it. They would repeat their tag line after line and do roll calls of all the boys. At that time I didn’t have a tag and I couldn’t understand why they would want to write their name on other peoples property. Auckland city in the early 2000’s was saturated with tagging; anywhere and everywhere. At some point, I can’t quite remember when but I came up with ‘Berst’ and I began tagging. Following this was a bit of bombing and after the forming of GBAK, the natural progression leant towards big crew blockbusters, productions and pieces. Early motivations for my graffiti were definitely driven by fame, notoriety and recognition. Nowadays it’s less about the fame itself and more about the history of my name that I can leave behind for New Zealand graffiti.
“….me and ASKEW connected up and we began the concept of ‘Netch’ which was basically going ‘nek level’. This was more or less about going as wild and colorful as you could with the aim of breaking as many graffiti rules and traditions as possible”
Whilst your recent work has been more character led, you’re known for your expressive and colorful wild style pieces – how would you describe your style and approach?
Most people are probably more familiar with my graffiti work than my illustrations. Since I began painting pieces around 2005, I have always been interested in graffiti from the West Coast and America in general. Huge influences of mine back then and still now are MSK, AWR, NWK, 3A, DTS, and WTCS. Graffiti artists from New Zealand such as Askew, Phat1, and Gasp also had a strong influence on the New Zealand scene and me. When I began painting pieces there was a huge boom of flicks on the internet and at one point me and my boy HASER were doing pieces that were called ‘style smashers’ which was a concept of just mixing up colors and styles, and going beyond the basic 3 color fade color scheme. Much later, me and ASKEW connected up and we began the concept of ‘Netch’ which was basically going ‘nek level’. This was more or less about going as wild and colorful as you could with the aim of breaking as many graffiti rules and traditions as possible. My only real approach is to follow trends but do the complete opposite where possible.
“I think for most writers that shift into the domain of images is the greatest challenge. The toughest part is to re-develop your aesthetic into something new and create a new context for your work because the rules of graffiti do not apply anymore.”
What has graffiti taught you? Are there any distinct pieces you’d like to highlight, what did they teach you?
Graffiti has taught me many different things beyond painting. My graffiti is actually a true reflection of my personality. A lot of people want to paint simple readable graffiti and there’s definitely a time and place for that but I often have millions of thoughts running through my head and that reflects in what I paint. It’s a balance of OCD and spontaneous organized chaos. A lot of what I’ve learnt from graffiti has been translated into more of my recent illustrative works, I think for most writers that shift into the domain of images is the greatest challenge as the toughest part is to re-develop your aesthetic into something new and create a new context for your work because the rules of graffiti do not apply anymore.
Given that you’ve been a part of the influential ‘Post Graffiti Pacific’ show recently, what is Post-Graffiti to you?
Post-Graffiti Pacific is a movement born in New Zealand with fellow friends and crew members that are creating both graffiti based work and beyond. The term Street Art is often thrown around and I think that while some of us still exist within both domains of graffiti and image making, we do not necessarily want to be pigeonholed as Street Artists. I’m not against the term Street Art but the term PGP highlights not only the variety of contexts within each of our works but also situates the locality of its artists and makes us unique.
How would you see yourself as an artist / writer now?
I’m a writer and I’m an artist. Whatever you want to call me is fine but deep down inside I know that I am a creative person and I want to get these ideas out and it doesn’t really matter what shape or form it takes. As a writer, I’m happy to keep writing my name (and others’ names) within the given context of graffiti while as an artist I’m searching for a deeper meaning for my work and I’m on that journey now. I’ve only really just scratched the surface of what I’m doing and I still need a great amount of time to refine how I articulate my concepts and context of my work.
What are your influences of late?
I’m still into all forms of graffiti and there are definitely some writers out there that are doing some amazing work. Some key standout writers for me at the moment are: SOFLES, MEKS, PANT, DEMS, and JOHN KAYE. Outside of graffiti, I’m looking at tattoos, illustration, comics, cartoons and all sorts of visual culture around the world.
“I work a lot with youth and I’d quite like to make connections with the community and I feel like this could be a different approach to putting myself in history in a different way. I’m not completely satisfied with just reaching the graff community and I would like to make a bigger impact on future generations as well as the general public.”
What do you think living in New Zealand has given your work? Would you highlight anything distinctly pacific in it?
Living in New Zealand is both positive and negative. It’s great to be distanced from the rest the world but you also have to make an effort to travel and see what else is out there. If you live in New Zealand and solely reside here the whole time, your work may have the potential to be less diverse. Perhaps living in the age of the Internet, it doesn’t really matter anymore. I know that for sure, my graffiti is a hybrid of many different styles from around the world.
VIDEO LINK – BATTLE FOR A CAUSE
A graffiti battle hosted by Berst to raise awareness of suicide prevention, featuring local artists from Auckland.
What would you like the history of your work to be?
The history that I’d like to leave behind is definitely of my work, my crew, and my contribution to the New Zealand graff scene. I would like to be remembered for my colorful and technical pieces but I know that there are already enough writers out there that are doing that so I have to come from a different angle. For now, I work a lot with youth and I’d quite like to make connections with the community and I feel like this could be a different approach to putting myself in history in a different way. I’m not completely satisfied with just reaching the graff community and I would like to make a bigger impact on future generations as well as the general public.
I agree it takes a lot of time and work to really begin to even understand what you’re properly creating in many respects, what do you think your practice is dealing with at the moment?
As for my graffiti there isn’t really too much to it other than developing its aesthetic and maintaining a presence of the name. For my illustrations, all of back-stories are inspired from Maori mythology while the overall aesthetic derives from a variety of influences, which definitely has Pacific reference. A lot of my illustrations present a mythical world but I do draw a lot from my visual environment for reference, which is often a combination of the people, design, and nature. A lot of the themes in my work address life, death, birth, relationships and the interconnectedness between these worlds, these are represented as characters that I create. After reading a myth it will inspire me to create my version of the story while also embedding a part of my own narrative.
“I was never good when I began graffiti nor was I good at drawing. It never came easily for me but I think the idea of repetition and doing the same thing over and over again until you get good at it, you not only learn to not give up but its also a release (in a meditative sense).”
What has this creative journey been to you?
Creativity has been my life for the past 15 years and I couldn’t imagine doing anything else that is mundane. Working a normal 9 to 5 job and doing a mediocre task would suck the life right out of me. I’m fortunate enough to have a job at the moment which is teaching Art and Design, which doesn’t actually feel like a job to me at all. I get to share my experiences and wisdom with the next generation and that’s a great thing.
“As a million people have said before, you get what you put in, and for me, every day is a new challenge and an opportunity to work as hard as I can for others and myself.”
Given that you do a lot of work with kids, what do you think the importance of graffiti is?
I think that a lot of young up and coming writers that I meet they are mostly driven by the factor of fame, a sense of belonging, and some just want to straight vandalize. Some of the workshops that I run is really just to show them a variety of skillsets and show them what else they can actually do with graffiti that’s beyond just catching tags. Graffiti definitely teaches you many different things and for me it taught me that hard work and dedication pays off. I was never good when I began graffiti nor was I good at drawing. It never came easily for me but I think the idea of repetition and doing the same thing over and over again until you get good at it, you not only learn to not give up but its also a release (in a meditative sense).
What are these other skillsets that you teach them?
There are two different settings of teaching that I’m currently doing; The first is lecturing in Art and Design at a tertiary institution, and the second is more mural / graffiti based through workshops with youth. In both settings I am often teaching them technical skills, conceptualisation and development of ideas and how to contextualize their work. I enjoy bringing the students interests into the learning environment and moving beyond fixed notion of what art and design has to be.
What do you enjoy about the workshops?
As well as teaching the youth / students discipline specific content I often find myself taking on a life coach type role. It motivates me to be able to motivate them, in hopes that they will motivate others. There have been very pivotal figures in my life that have driven my art career and my educational career. Without their help I would not have the motivation, passion, and drive to become the best me and want the students to become the best of them. As a million people have said before, you get what you put in, and for me, every day is a new challenge and an opportunity to work as hard as I can for others and myself.
What would you say to the detractors of graffiti? Those that say its just mindless vandalism etc.
I try not to get into discussions about this because when I’m running graffiti workshops this could be seen as a conflict of interest. I acknowledge that there are both ends of the spectrum and most people know that. I’m not trying to convince anybody or change anybody’s mind about what there perceptions are of graffiti nor am I going to tell young up and coming writers not to vandalize. I’m going to show them some skills to create some awesome artwork and it’s going to be up to them to decide what’s right and what’s wrong. All I can say is that I hope that they put the skills that I give them to good use, whatever format that may take.
What has that sense of belonging meant to you in graffiti?
Graffiti has really given me everything and more than I could ask for. It’s given me great friends, travel, adventure, mischief, high points, low points, life skills, and acceptance. I wouldn’t trade anything that i’ve done in the past for anything. All my experiences and interactions with the people that I’ve met have really shaped who I am now. I am fortunate to be apart of two crews: GBAK & TMD. These two crews give me a solid foundation to stay motivated and focused on my creative endeavors. I know that they are all striving towards similar goals to me and I am grateful that they are in my life.
Could you sum up graffiti in 3 words?
Fame, lifestyle, ego