Tearing a finer shade of gobsmacking into some seriously stunning walls, Australian born, Glasgow based artist Smug is a man on absolute fire. Harnessing phenomenal can control into outrageously well defined characters bursting with life, love, laughter, rippling pathos and an electro magnetic radiance, his jaw dropping photo realism has hit a new gear of total awesomeness. Real rockets through hints of surreal, rips up some bad boy biznizz on the fly, ram raids science fiction into a concrete star system, skids into a grinning wink and lovingly slides down liquid sensuality on the shadowy curve back into the human form. From the richly animated to the nano weighted his precision characters and devilishly honed visual spaces take on a gloriously unpredictable whirl of subjects, all impeccably finished to hypnotic standards of funky excellence.
There’s always something about his photo realism – that intangible element that whisks the piece out of the realms of reproduction and slams it into a new window of imagination. Whether it’s a sinuous embrace of the female form, an irreverent take on pop culture, a violent rebirth of a comic character or profound emotion softly spoken into a face laden with silent backstory, every piece is an absolute stormer where technique and personal perception rifle a subject into a newly spun life. Epic stuff. We caught up with Smug for a chat.
How did you initially start out in Australia
I originally started out by skating and hanging out on the streets at night with a group of mates just being kids and writing our names on walls and listening to Hip Hop. Graffiti was very much a part of that culture, so it all came together. I was living in a very small town at the time with only really 3 other graffiti artists so we pretty much had to build our own little scene ourselves with influences coming more from magazines and then the internet than other artists. The longer we painted we started travelling to the nearest city, Wollongong, which actually had a quite a strong scene with people doing work that even to this day I would stop at and think – wow – what an amazing wall. Crisp and clean, amazing letters, and full on productions with backgrounds and characters, so that was a heavy inspiration to me. But the scene there now doesn’t seem to be as strong – it’s much more about bombing today, but at the time, there was so much mind blowing stuff going on that it gave me a big, big push.
Was it always Smug – obviously it’s got connotations – how did that name stick
Mate – I have no clue. Everyone’s got these funny stories about how they got their name, and I simply don’t remember –probably found it in a dictionary or something. I had a number of tags in the first few years of painting. Unfortunately it was SMUG that stuck…
How did you start developing into characters and more figurative stuff
Well for the first couple of years it was just bombing – no dubs or throw ups or anything like that – just dedicated tagging without even having picked up a spray can. But as soon as I got the can in my hand, I started to really become part of the local scene and my development started to accelerate as I began doing my letters almost straight away. It was a natural progression from tags into throw ups and on into Wild Style pieces, but I’d always had this feeling for characters. Even as a kid back in school, I’d be the one spending 3 days drawing up the title page for a my history book or something and so while I won’t say it came naturally to me years later – it was always there on some level. I was doing all the usual B Boy stuff and a lot of Manga when I first started out, but as I got better with my use of the can and continued evolving past that cartoony feel, it just took on its own momentum. At first it was just flat colour with a bold outline, and then I’d start cutting back that outline and making it perfect – then blending my colours and moving up and up and up, continually challenging myself. Even to this day, I think that photo realism is the hardest thing for me technically – letters are tough too because I’m never completely happy with the outlines, but every single time I do photo realism, it’s seriously challenging but then, I do love that drive to keep pushing myself.
When you’re doing the photo realism – are you always working straight off a photo or are elements of it coming from the imagination
I generally stick to the picture that I’m working from, and if you see me out and about painting a photo realistic piece, I’ve always got a photo in my hand. Not everything I do is straight from that photo – there’s a whole bunch of things that I’ll make up and change, and there’s always elements like shadows and light sources that I need to play with to tie it into the wall. A lot of things don‘t translate well from photo to wall. Things might look perfect in a photo, but would look completely off as a painting so alterations are always necessary. Size, texture – all of these things play a part in how a final piece will look, so there’s always things you need to alter from the source photo to make it work as a mural. But that aside, I do always try and bring something of my own to the piece – I don’t like just copying a photo to perfection – because that reproduced perfection can look a bit stale sometimes, so it’s important to put a bit of flavor in there. I find that the more I paint the less I depend on the reference material.
Did you have technical breakthroughs along the way that suddenly took the photo realism next level
There’s always steps that I take and little breakthroughs that kick in every couple of weeks or so, even if that’s something as simple as learning to control a can better. My first couple of photo realism pieces were actually pretty alright, and I think that it came to me more naturally if not easier than letters or anything else. When I started, I was using brands of paint that aren’t really suited to photo realism, paints that don’t blend that well, and then my next few pieces were done using even shittier cans that were runny and very far from high quality, but they did actually blend much more smoothly so I was able to get much more subtle fades and work the details finer. Then, when the transparents came out, I bought a load straight away, even though I didn’t know what the hell to do with them, and it wasn’t until a year later when I saw this young guy doing a sort of brown / orange piece that I realised that he’d been using transparent white and transparent black to create the 3 D transparent colour and the penny firmly dropped. That was a little breakthrough, but now I’m trying to get away from the transparents because they do take a lot of the pop and a lot of the colour out of a piece, leaving it with this silvery quality. I had a breakthrough just today when I found a nozzle that works really well with the Montana Black cans, so the whole second half of my day was much easier, so they do keep coming. It’s a constant evolution and an ongoing learning cycle.
How much do you work in angles of view to a wall – how something will look straight on as opposed to say a 45 degree angle
To be honest – not really at all, unless there’s obstacles I have to paint around. If there’s a box or a sign or something that plays with the dimensionality, I’ll put an X on the ground where you can stand and everything will line up. But then if you move off that X it all starts to distort a bit – though that’s just life dealing with obstacles and the urban landscape. I don’t ever really think what a wall will look like from angles other than straight on, because when people do come across a mural – they tend to pick a central spot to look at it from, so I put all my energy into making it work as well as it can from front on.
Do you thrive on obstacles and uneven walls with huge recesses and ledges or are they more of a pain
Are you kidding?! Painting around electricity boxes and recesses and window ledges is an absolute nightmare! It takes twice as long because you need to stand back all the time and gives me a headache with all the squinting to see if lines up! Give me a perfectly smooth wall any day… But then I do love the challenge that they give. I like it when artists can paint these obstacles so that you can’t even notice that they’re there.
Where’s the balance in your view between legible letters and styled letters
I don’t think you can even say that there is a balance any more. There’s so many guys out there now doing every conceivable style that I don’t think that there’s a definite line stating what’s legible and styled (or over styled). You can stand and stare at a piece – and you know what it says and you know their style (you might have known this writer your whole life) and you can honestly say that you can’t make out the letters at all. My pieces aren’t that abstract and I would like to put more funk into em and make them crazy and out there, rammed with all these different techniques because it looks so much fun to paint, but I like the clean boldness and my letters which have a heavy New York influence with some German flavours are pretty legible I think.
How important is a sense of history and a knowledge of styles through the years and how much have you found your own way.
I’m still finding my own way of painting with every piece that I do. I’ll find a new technique or a new colour scheme or 2 colours that I’d never used together before coming together to create a fresh effect. But I do have a fairly traditional background, and I do still firmly believe that letters come before characters, despite being more of a character artist than a letters guy. I think that these days you don’t necessarily need to know your history because in many ways, things have evolved past that, which is a real shame. But you still need to start somewhere rather than just jumping straight in with no foundations because you need to know the basics of letter structure and outlines as well as having a good handle on the proportions of faces if that’s what you’re painting, otherwise it ends up looking like this child style, Euro style, new anti style thing that’s going on now where the letters don’t make any sense at all. You can read them – they’re perfectly legible, but the structures don’t add up at all – you get fat bits going into really skinny bits with no flow or rhythm at all and that kind of thing drives me crazy. I’d rather look at a plain wall or a Banksy stencil because the guys painting this child style stuff have no background at all and it shows. They’ve thought – well if that guy can do it, then so can I –it’s a cheap way to do graffiti. You need to know the basis of letters and where the outlines hang from otherwise literally anyone can do it. A 60 year old woman or a 6 year old girl can scribble her name on a wall and it’ll look terrible – but if a 24 year old male does the same thing in the same style– suddenly it’s cool – and that is just ridiculous.
You’ve got all kinds of things going on in your work – from old Chinese men to overturning cars – where are the ideas coming from – does the wall itself or its location play a part in deciding what to paint?
It can be relevant to the wall that I’m working on – I’d say that’s the case about half the time. If I find a messed up derelict building for example, then I’ll find the wall within it and think about what fits; whether it ties in with the derelict location, or acts as a contrast to it. But to be honest I paint whatever I like the look of at that particular point in time. There are subtle threads running through my work, like semi naked ladies or animals or hip hop orientated stuff or comic book based stuff – but generally it really does come down to painting whatever I think is cool – without that sounding dicky.
Well dicky would be painting what other people think is cool. Speaking of cool – or rather bloody freezing – why did you make the move to Glasgow and how is the scene up in Scotland.
I originally came to Scotland while I was travelling around Europe and the UK with a backpack, as everyone does when they leave school. I ended up in Scotland for work and met my girlfriend which pretty much cemented me here. The Scottish scene to be honest is kind of shit, which is such a shame because there’s walls here, there’s paint shops here and there’s history here. But the majority of the graffiti artists just aren’t very dedicated. Last weekend I was painting at the Hall of Fame and that and pretty much every other Sunday I’ve painted at one of the 2 Halls here, I’ve been virtually all on my own all day, and no-one will turn up. That’s just crazy. Saturday and Sunday are painting days where if you have a Hall of Fame in most cities, it’s full and every wall is getting painted week in and week out. As far as painting in Glasgow goes, it’s sort of cool in a way that I can put up a piece and it may last for months on end, but you know – it’s lonely.
Tell us a little about your collaborations and how the dynamics work
I like to collaborate as much as I can. I think that’s what graffiti is all about. I work a lot with my good friends and fellow crew mates from Infamous Last Words (Dead, Bonzai, Epok and the might Kak) and when we work together everything just kind of falls into place. Everyone is completely comfortable with each other personally and artistically so no-one’s afraid to work with someone else’s piece and/or criticise. I just like painting with my friends. They push me to become a better artist. Painting, to me, is all about having a good time with good friends and producing good work. So if you’re an asshole you can stay out of my way. But then I know my sarcasm and childish dry wit can get a little overbearing, so maybe I’M the asshole!
How important is a sense of humour in your pieces
Well I try and put a bit of humour into pretty much everything that I do –art related or not. I like to have a laugh while I’m painting, and if I’m painting with friends, we’ll be joking around and laughing the whole time, and if I’m painting solo, I’ll probably just be laughing at myself. I like my stuff either to be deadly serious or funny, and people do tend to like the funny stuff and in many ways – I like my funny pieces the most.
You go from comedy pieces to some very hard hitting, serious pieces. How do you see the role of social comment and a political edge in your work
To be honest social comment and politics would probably be the last thing I think of when planning a piece. If people see that sort of thing in my work, then great, everyone interprets things differently. But generally there’s no deep hidden meaning in what I do. I like my work to be understood immediately, at face value.
What is it about the female form that keeps drawing you back in
Mate, I don’t know. There’s just something about the beauty of the curves and the soft skin… I also think that painting a sexy woman is one of the hardest things to do. Proportions need to be perfect and the fades need to be smooth and her expression needs to be readable. So the challenge keeps drawing me in. Saying that, I did an obese woman once -I mean I PAINTED an obese woman once- and it was so fun to paint. The dimensions were off, there were extra rolls in her flesh but it all looked accurate. My girlfriend keeps telling me that these naked women I do is now old news, and that it’s becoming inappropriate, but there’s just something about the female form…
What are your plans for the next year
I’d like to plan my next 12-24 months and say that I’ll be off travelling throughout, but I don’t think that funds will really allow it. Saying that, I do have plans to head back to Australia for a couple of months next year and get over to Europe for a couple of exhibitions. I also think that I’ll be spending a lot more time down south in London and Bristol, but I’d just love to get the chance to travel as much as possible and paint bigger and better walls.