“I think it is really important for any artist to get to a point where you value your work enough not to give it away for free.”
I am an artist, currently specializing in murals and street art.
I had a gravitation towards art from an early age. I did have an aptitude for it in school, though I never felt like I was the best at it – I tended to compare myself to people who were better than me. After high school, I did a diploma of fine art at Whitecliffe College of Art in Auckland.
After finishing my Diploma in Fine Art, I decided I wanted a pragmatic experience in something that I could easily make money doing. The Faculty of my art college eluded that the reality of making it in the art world was rather bleak.
Signage seemed like a good option.
I worked for a sole trader, helping him out for around 2 years. It was a good early exposure to running a small business, seeing how things like quoting, invoices, taxes are done. It was a good learning experience, even though I understood quite early that I didn’t want to be a sign writer forever – signage wasn’t something that resonated with me, as it was too repetitive and not creative enough.
I started taking an interest in painting again, working in oil paints in my spare time.
My mindset was somewhat conservative back then, I didn’t think art as a career would be sustainable in terms of paying bills and survival.
Another interest I always had was in health and nutrition. I did studies in nutrition, and worked in a few health and organic stores, building up my knowledge. This interest eventually led me to Northern New South Wales on a holiday, to work on a farm.
I loved the sun and the beach, and decided to move there for good.
Here I learned skills on how to grow food and maintain a property.
My first job in Byron was for a sign writer, however, the guy I started working for ran into some financial trouble and told me that he couldn’t afford to keep me on. To help me out, he offered me the use of his machinery if I could arrange my own jobs.
As I started to pursue my own clients, I realized that this was my initiation into working for myself. I managed to pick up a few signage jobs, and that actually led to my first mural. The owner of a grocery store I was doing a sign for asked me if I could paint a mural on his roller door depicting a farm scene.
I thought I’d give it a go, and it ended up working out pretty well – I think that mural is still there today.
Another thing that sparked my interest in street art was visiting the Back Alley Gallery in Lismore, where I was living at the time. It’s a laneway gallery that has work from all the best graffiti and street artists in Australia. I got a tour from some of my local friends, and it made a big impression on me: I realized it was something I wanted to learn myself.
Shortly after that, I moved to Melbourne, where I saw places like Hosier lane. Back then, Hosier lane had some very reputed artists painting there, which is less common today.
When I first arrived, it was common to see some really well-known artists, all painting together on a Sunday.
Things would stay up a bit longer, a few weeks. Nowdays, you can get your work over-painted the next day, or even the same day. I’ve heard of artists having to pay the local homeless people to watch their unfinished artwork while they go and buy more paint, so no one paints over their spot. This is called ‘capping’.
One of the reasons for this is that there is a lot of a conflict between some graffiti guys and street artists. Part of the motive of graffiti is to create disruption and rebellion, so there is a feeling in the graffiti circles that street art is too accepted by the general public, too commercial; a sell-out.
Graffiti artists tend to feel that the acceptance of Street art is, to use a graffiti term, ‘toy’.
Which means somewhat uncool, with lack of understanding of what graffiti is really about. Graffiti is essentially a contemporary adaptation of calligraphy. Style, Form and Rythm are all counterparts to what makes a good piece. Another way one would determine a great work is it’s ability to ‘pop’ or, in less colloquial terms, it’s ability to stand out.
The use of high contrasting colours, black and white outlines and bright colour fills allows for this.
Graffiti artists have a mindset very much akin to the capitalist mentality. If your work is all over a city, or ‘all city’, you’re known. Graffiti artists love to ‘get up’ – have their tag or piece displayed in highly visible places as much as possible. Much the same as McDonalds would love to have their golden archers high in the sky for all to see. The difference being the lack of legality and vandalism that occurs in doing so.
Street art is revolutionary in itself. My biggest motive for doing it, is the amount of people you can reach.
Only a very small percentage of general population actively seek out art, go and view exhibitions. So when you’re creating a work on the street, and it’s available to everyone, I think that’s a incredibly revolutionary concept, and is in itself a disruption of the old order of things.
That’s why, according to Ron English, who is one of the most famous street artists, street art movement is the biggest art movement of all time; the way it caught on so fast everywhere in the world and continues to grow.
When I arrived to Melbourne, I only had that one mural in Lismore under my belt.
Through a friend I heard about Powerhouse in Geelong, an industrial street art space. I went up there and got involved – they gave me wall space to practice my painting on.
For about a year, I’d travel to Geelong on weekends to practice my painting, learn how to use spray paint and develop my techniques.
There are a lot of muralists out there who don’t use spay paint, preferring brushes and rollers. But I was fascinated by the medium; it resonated with me and I really liked what some of the better graffiti artists where doing in terms of techniques and style. With the developments in technology from the different brands of paint it was now easier than ever to harness this magnificent medium.
I see it as having a strong relationship with oil paint.
One’s ability to blend colours seamlessly is a great advantage over the traditional fast drying house paint.
I started out doing characters and animals, though I was always drawn to realism. Eventually, I felt confident enough to do a portrait. My first spray paint portrait was on a large panel that was part of a competition show that the Powerhouse was running. It worked out pretty well, and somebody ended up buying it, which was encouraging.
During that time, I was working as a raw food chef to support myself.
A friend of mine set up a health food business, and because I had a pretty good knowledge from my time working in various organic stores, I joined him, making raw cakes and treats.
As the quality of my murals improved, I started getting a few commissions. People who saw my work in Geelong would ask me to paint a wall at their venue, or people who I knew through the scene would recommend me.
Because I had already spent a year practising and honing my art at the Powerhouse, I felt that my work quality was of a high enough standard to be paid for.
Like most artists, I did a few unpaid jobs, to try and get my art out there, but I think it is really important for any artist to get to a point where you value your work enough not to give it away for free.
With commissions, I always try to work with the clients to marry their ideas into what I do, and my own style and ideas. Again, as time went on, I found more and more that people were happy to leave the subject matter up to me.
They see my work and they trust me to do something that they will like. It depends on the job, sometimes there is a more commercial aspect, but generally the more freedom I have, the better the result for the client.
Around that time, I met my girlfriend and we went travelling overseas for a while. When I came back to Australia, I decided to commit to painting murals full time.
Art is a business like any other.
To be successful as an artist, you still need to have a strong business mind.
The biggest challenge for me was to shift from viewing art as a leisure activity to something that I do for work. To make the transition from hobby to professionalism. It meant spending more time painting, more time planning – having the discipline to put in full time hours, really committing to what I decided to do.
I read and listen to a lot of entrepreneurial material for inspiration.
I find admirable people who are successful in business, in whatever area they work in. I wanted to treat myself as an entrepreneur, and to have that mindset also. Just like any business, the key to success is to be obsessed with adding as much value to people’s lives as possible.
In a way, I think art also echoes the capitalist model in the idea of getting yourself out there, doing more work to be seen more – to get that exposure and grow.
There was a period of adjustment, but now I’m very happy to be in a space where I view art as my work, and I’m grateful for the fact that it is my vocation, something that I enjoy. I don’t feel any less enjoyment from art than before, but there are more stresses associated with it – like deadlines, and dealing with clients and so on.
It’s exciting to get a big project. To see a wall you want to paint and approach its owner, and make that happen.
It doesn’t happen that way often, to be honest, which makes it all the more exciting when it does. Most of my work still comes from people approaching me, not the other way round.
The important thing is to be out there, talking to people, working: that often leads somewhere, even if it’s not in the direction you were expecting.
For example, recently I was working with a café owner on a design for one of his walls, which didn’t end up working out at the time – the mural we discussed didn’t go ahead. But when we were at the café going over the design ideas, somebody else happened to see us and got into a conversation with me, which led to me doing a mural for their business. So even though the café job didn’t go ahead at the time, it lead to something else!
It was tricky at the start, but I was really determined to succeed. I had no job or safety net to fall back on. The only way forward was to keep going and to keep putting out the good energy and pursue what I wanted. There were definitely a few moments when it was really hard, financially, when I thought I should just get a day job… but I got through it, and learnt from those times.
Going forward, I want to continue doing what I’m doing for a while. I met some incredible artists recently, and I’d like to do some collaborations with them. I’d like to do some more travelling and working internationally. I have plans for an exhibition sometime in 2018.