How long after you started painting did you actually start to express yourself artistically?
Hmm tricky question. I got involved in Writing in 1984 but I have been making art my whole life. I suppose I found my own voice in the early 90s?
At what point do the budgets, security and long time-frames of legal art open up fresh dimensions and at what point do they sacrifice an intangible element?
Each has it’s pros and cons. It’s healthy to be able to adapt to different situations as an artist I think. The movement I grew up in was always about getting the art out anywhere and everywhere. Invading spaces, taking over contexts. Getting up. The pioneers found new ways to place art in fresh contexts and I try to keep that spirit in what I do with my work now. I’ve become quite contemplative about my work of late and it’s slowed me down a bit which annoys me. So I’ve been deliberately making some work in places where it is going to be destroyed soon after.
Does the transience of illegal art imbue it with an intrinsic power?
Illegality seems to lend it an alluring image in general. But I don’t give a shit about image. Ephemerality … we are transient beings so perhaps it is a more realistic way to do art. (fleeting image of tags laid out on pavement in flowers a la Andy Goldsworthy). Ideas can endure anyway, and documenting the work photographically has always been a part of it. Infinitely better to see in it in real life too of course, and that’s a nice prize in this age of mass reproduction.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found myself wanting to make things that last longer. I seek out spaces where the work can endure so a lot of people can see it. I tend to prefer putting more effort into each work rather than doing loads of quick things so I have to try to create spaces that suit that.
I believe in it as an ideal to strive for, yes. I think it comes out of the everyday decisions and struggles, the sacrifices.
Is imagination always one step ahead of the means to express it?
I’m blessed/cursed with very clear visualisation. What I can look at in my head often isn’t what I’m able to paint at a given time for one reason or another. And there is always way too much of it. It’s a fucking torment.
Do all underground movements inevitably self corrupt?
I don’t know, do they? There will always be both sellouts and people with integrity within a scene. I’m more about individuals than movements anyway. I’ve never liked rules.
Is rebellion a starting point or an end in itself?
For me it was a starting point. You can turn it into a tool and put to good use. I think illegal art is a good foundation … I think it’s important to learn how to be strong in the world, how to create a space for your work, to be prepared to stand alone.
Way oversaturated. There is an idea that cream floats to the top. I wish I could believe in it. It seems to favour those who are good at using it for self-promotion. I think I’m crap at that! Mind you, art has always been full of that, maybe on balance it’s no better or worse than it was before. Opinion formers still seem to play a huge role in who gets to be successful. The best work always happens on the edges though.
What do our attitudes to public space say about us as a society?
I think the street-based artforms have done a really good job of creating a dialogue about that. Our country is ridiculously corrupt and the current government isn’t even bothering to be subtle about it. There is an pervasive, ugly “every man for himself” vibe which I detest … I haven’t wanted to tag or self-promote in that way since the 80s really, I don’t want to be another desperate artist scrabbling for attention but I dont want to be obscure either. It’s difficult. One thing I know for sure in these complex times is this – if I paint a lot, everything runs great.
I want to give something to society but at the same time I’m not a yes man, I have to have responsibility for what that thing is and i’m happy that its pretty much always the case now that people trust me with that and give me the space to make the decisions. I look at London and it is absolutely rammed with grimy public spaces that are crying out for art. I’ve worked in many cities of the world that have achieved that, then I come home and find my home city disappointing.
I want to paint it all with great, epic, crazy productions. All of it! And it doesn’t need to be filtered through committees, and it doesn’t need to be smiley populist fodder … I’m always being pleasantly surprised with how down Londoners are with what I do. Cool people. All sorts of people just really seems to connect with it and it’s just a strange thing to me because I really don’t try to make “nice” “pop” paintings. I think a lot of what I do is quite ugly and honest or difficult. But for some reason people are down with it anyway. I’m putting in a lot of work to try to create new spaces but I get frustrated at how much time it takes up. I don’t feel like im getting to paint enough because of this kind of ambassador role cutting in, yet I feel it urgently needs to be done. I have the vision, I need to find someone to collaborate with on it though.
How much does the outsider archetype define you?
Probably very well I think. I’ve always seemed to belong the most where I don’t belong. I get a lot of support from abroad which is great because I love to travel. I’m invited back out to China for a big commission soon, I have a whole month out there. They’re great people, very formal, manners are critical – I like that a lot, I’m quite oldschool in that way. Then Italy, Barcelona, France are coming up, possibly Russia… I went back to NY for the first time since 1993 recently and I’m planning a trip back this year purely to paint.
On the other hand, the London scene isn’t great for me. I feel like an outsider to that. I feel like you have to be in a clique. I’m not a scenester, I’m not good at schmoozing…What I’m doing isn’t really graffiti, it’s not really street art, I have millions of fragments of influences in there from all kinds of crazy angles … I hate having to define it. It keeps changing and evolving for me let alone anyone else. Biogs are a nightmare. I feel like I’m just an artist, straight up. I want to feel free but I feel this pressure to be a brand, to be predictable. It’s a huge conflict for me. I don’t feel like I conveniently fit in anywhere. I dont think you can contrive “outsider” as a role, I think it’s probably hardwired into your upbringing. It definitely is with me.
Can you appreciate your own work in its immediate aftermath?
If I do something that pushes me then I enjoy it for a short time. Sometimes I do a what I call a “jump” piece where I really go balls out and pull off loads of new stuff at the same time, then I can get the feeling of “Who did that?! Where the fuck did that come from?!” That’s the best high.
But I always try to develop with every painting otherwise it seems like a waste of time to me.
No matter how happy I am with it though, soon after I compulsively criticise it and stress about how to make it better. Much later on it becomes personal history then I can like it again in a different way.
How rooted in counter cultural currents is your work today and how much of it evades direct context?
It’s a merry-go-round. Today’s rebellion is tomorrow’s T-shirt. I make a point of doing my best to avoid doing what other people are doing. Fuck playing safe, fuck fashion, fuck bandwagon jumpers. I’m far more interested in studying “old” art, it’s the only way to get good. It’s funky to me to use Rennaissance techniques, it’s cool to do quite dry conceptual things… whatever. Just not a cliche.
Everything is an installation isn’t it? It’s in how you see. One interesting thing about making street based art-forms is that they make you see spaces in completely different ways. I watch people in the street and just they don’t seem to SEE a lot of what is there. But everything has meaning, and if you can see that then you can start to play with it. It’s like the walls at the end of The Matrix, it’s all sparkling with possibilities for me.
How much of a framework do you bring to a piece and how much does living the experience create its own narrative?
Hmm. I’d say at least 80% of what I’ve painted on walls over the years has been freestyled. It’s stressful not to know what you are going to paint but it seems to work out better like that for me. That being said, at the moment i’d like to get back to drawing some finished designs. I have some concepts I’m interested in but they need more planning, they’re too complex to wing. But I hate planning art! Discipline discipline…
Are the moments when you’ve stopped thinking, planning and calculating the most special?
Yeah, I’d say so. At the moment I’m finding it harder to get into a flow than I used to. We live in very distracting and self-conscious times … I live inside the paradox of making public art but not wanting to be in the public eye. I find that aspect difficult … I’d really like to have someone to deal with the people side for me – it’s hard to wear both hats at the same time.
Why do letters have such power within graffiti?
It began with the name. I’ve spent a fair bit of time studying letters in the rest of art, that’s super fascinating to me. Calligraphy and font design are obvious comparisons but I’ve found lots of other more interesting examples in painting too. I might write something about it at some point. Actually I’m generally very interested in making connections between our thing and the rest of art. It doesnt seem to happen much; perhaps because it hasn’t been around that long yet.
The concept of “digging” is really standard in hiphop music, knowing what was sampled, where the breaks come from. I’m passionate about that, and just as much so with the visual side – for some reason that’s far more unusual. There is a lot of art with words in. It’s a little less usual to take a single letter and make it the subject of a painting so that’s something I like to do.
I eventually came to feel that it was a limitation so I killed the name as subject matter in my own work years ago. However I’ve been debating bringing it back recently … not as subject matter in itself but as a framework to hang more interesting stuff on. A bit more structure than I have right now might be good. I just don’t want to go backwards … I want to stay as far away as I can from anything too standard.
Does photorealism sacrifice expression for technique ?
To me, slavishly copying a photograph with no feeling or transformation is a waste of time. On the other hand if you want to show difficult or crazy ideas, it’s useful to have elements of realism. I love light and shadow, they are timeless elements that will always speak to everyone. So powerful. But I don’t do photorealism, it’s verisimilitude really. I try to have good concepts and good technical execution. In fact I see my technical side as conceptual in itself, there is a whole pile of meaning and history built into it.
Real skills earned the hard way separate the men from the boys. I hope that the old skool values – good drawing, technical mastery, great colour etc – will see a big comeback, but combined with a modern sense of concept. There is this whole huge cliche about what being expressive is, that is has to be energetic Abstract Expressionist brishy-brushstrokes. It’s a popular media image of an artist but i’ve never liked it. I love precision, crispness. I love detail