South African artist Mantis has combined skills honed in fine art, a subversive spirit and a pure street attitude to create some of the most thought provoking work of the last few years. Heavyweight issues and moments of social penetration speak out in the language of flawed beauty and provoke the viewer into the contemplation of jarring realities and an engagement with the unspoken debates of our times. He spoke to us.
Can you give us a bit of background
Well I’m from Port Elizabeth on the south coast of South Africa, and I’ve been heavily into art since I was a kid. I went to college for a couple of years after my schooling, and while the course was officially Fine Art, I focused more on the printing and graphics side of things with a sideline in screen printing and photography. There’s actually quite a growing street art scene emerging around Cape Town and Johannesburg, but back in the day, while we did get some graffiti filtering through from the New York scene, via the surfing and skateboarding world, media didn’t really catch onto it, and with no internet, we were pretty cut off unless you were really in the know, especially in a small coastal town like Port Elizabeth, and it certainly wasn’t part of your day to day scene. I was a surfer and a skateboarder, so we were seeing some of it come through, but by the time I’d finished my art course, I really thought it was time to explore the world a little and broaden my horizons, take the art a bit further and some of the Masters. I came to London and used it as a base to travel about a bit, and at that stage I was doing a lot of photography, really buzzing off seeing the city at night, especially when it was quiet and there was no-one really about, and I started to notice a lot of the work on the streets. I started pointing my camera more and more at the art and the throw ups and it all pretty much went from there.
Tell us a little about how some of your pieces came about
Well I don’t like to discuss meaning in my pieces. Obviously I have my own intent and my own concept behind each one, but I hold back from explicitly defining it, so people themselves take that leap of imagination to their own conclusions. I find that if you spell it out, it actually diminishes the viewer’s experience as it becomes far more visual and less about their own understanding of it, and anyway, I love hearing what people read into the work. There’s been moments when people have come up with their own interpretations, and I’ve been sat there thinking – wow, that’s loads better than mine!!!
But just to go through the stories behind a few of the pieces
I’d say that in 90% of my street work, the location is an essential part of the piece – they are site specific, which is why I don’t cut the piece into a stencil and then spray it up in two or three different places. In All Fall down for example, that tank is sat in a vacant lot at the end of a road called Mandela Way, and bizarrely, it was a present that the owner of the lot gave to his son on his birthday. I think he called the tank Winnie and it’s apparently pointing towards parliament!! So it just invited the art really. The Mugabe as Scarface piece was done about a week before Zimbabwe’s first ‘free and fair elections’, just after this ship came into port from China absolutely stacked full of weapons Mugabe had ordered. The ship first docked in Durban which is when people were first alerted, and this whole protest movement formed and all the other ports began refusing the ship entry. The ship ended up stranded with no fuel and finally a port gave it permission to dock and refuel, but not unload its cargo and packed it off home, and that was what inspired me to do the piece. A couple of weeks after I did it, and the election was held, I was reading a newspaper and saw this phrase ‘Kleptocratic Gangsterism’ and it just fit perfectly.
How about the recent piece in Hackney with the boy and his truck.
Well about 3 years ago, I took a photo of my nephew with the remote control truck I gave him for his birthday, and when I saw the photo developed , I thought to myself that it would make a great stencil, but nothing really fitted it. Then a few months back, I was talking to a couple of mates about how the city has been crushing the youth and how there’s nothing really left for them to do anymore – no healthy fun. I’d walked past the spot a few times and seen the headline of the Hackney Gazette which is always doom and gloom – you know, Teen Killed in Knife Attack, Murder in Youth Club, Boy 14, Admits Killing, and the image suddenly came back into my head with the wheel clamp representing the clampdown on the fun and the freedom of youth. The piece fits in so well between those two towering phoneboxes, which apart from dwarfing the image, are real symbols of Britain and are a dying breed within themselves – I just thought, perfect spot.
Would you say your work was political
I would call it more social, although I suppose it does come to the same thing somewhere down the line. Even pieces like Free Speech, which I did in the parking lot of the Eastern Province Herald (our local paper in Port Elizabeth) was done more on a human level, in sympathy with the guys who worked on the paper. They write things up as they actually happened and consequently take a lot of flack off the government who challenge statistics and facts and do their utmost to stifle a lot of what the papers are trying to say.
What inspires you
Well I wouldn’t call myself wildly prolific – I mean I’m not sat behind a desk daily, chewing the end of a pen and trying to think of the next idea. I like things far more organic, like for example, I was in Old Street, caught sight of the congestion charge signs and that ended up as the Road Less Taxed piece. It comes when two things in your head suddenly fit together and I try not to think to hard about it. Often it’s when something’s really pissed me off and I just kick off artistically about it.
How do you feel about your work being taken for Banksy’s
Well the newspapers call anything done with a half decent stencil Banksy. I mean, I can see why people might mistake the work. The Hackney Gazette piece did go mad in the newspapers and on the blogs, but I think that it’s a shame that everyone gets hung up on the ‘is it or isn’t a Banksy’ and forgets to look at the image and reflect on its meaning. That’s why I put pieces up there and if I wanted to be identified or credited, then I’d put my name up next to it. Saying that, the Pulp Fiction piece that I put up in Old Street was a take on, a homage to Banksy. It was such a powerful image that I thought, why not give it a little nod and bring my own style to it – and anyway – I’ve been wanting to do that wall for ages.
Do you do many shows
I’ve kind of pulled away form the scene a little. When the whole gallery thing blew up and every gallery wanted to start hanging street art, I did get sucked into it ans it was a lot of fun, but as time went on, I started to feel uncomfortable about putting my pieces up. It didn’t really feel right, so I went to Australia for a couple of years to get away from it all, while still contributing the odd piece to live on, but certainly not pushing it. I just wanted to regroup and do better and separate gallery work from street art – rather than the idea of going out into the street and putting yourself out there and the next thing you know it’s hanging in a gallery. I don’t feel right about producing street work for the gallery.I mean you can’t be doing billboard mash ups and critiques of advertising as a form of advertising for yourself – it just felt so dirty.
How do you view the current state of street art
It’s certainly come to the forefront, especially since a lot of the galleries have got involved and that’s proved both positive and negative. You’re starting to see a lot more people coming up who are doing it for the wrong reasons, and while street art is something everyone can have a go at, and everyone SHOULD have a go at, now that money has become involved, it has definitely influenced people who may not have got into street art in the first place. But that’s how every art movement works
What does next year hold for you
I’m doing a lot of work indoors at the moment trying to develop my art and I’d like to do a show. I’ve been doing this a while now and I really would love to do my own show putting forward what I’ve been trying to say rather than being just another painting on the wall of a group show. I’m just evolving really, which is loads of fun!
LSD MAGAZINE ISSUE THREE
WEAPONS OF MASS CREATION 23rd December 2009