I used to think of street art as a rush job. You get in, you get out, you run if necessary, and you hope it looks as good up there as it did in your mind. I was aware of the backend — that a good piece was about planning, placement and more planning — but never imagined it comparable to the quantities that would go into, say, something that the artist knew might live in collections for years after s/he had stopped breathing.
Today, after speaking with the number of street artists that I have, I know that was a horrible, ignorant assumption. But never had I realized the extent of that ignorance until my recent talk with The Dark, a Vancouver-based artist whose intent, approach, and execution sacrifices nothing for the knowledge that his work, when completed, might not make it past sunrise. Read on as we chat about art for arts sake — or in other words, street art as it should be.
â€œIt has all happened so fast; the value of artwork is so subjective; buyers are so easily influenced by little red dots and auction sales.â€
Format: This is how you explain how you got into graffiti: “I saw the stencil graffiti book by Tristan Manco and was inspired. And this girl dumped me and I got all stalkerish and started putting stencils up in her neighbourhood.” I love that. It’s been a long time since then, and you’re still going at it — but not in her neighbourhood anymore, right?
The Dark: It was an interesting way to get into something that (little did I realize at the time) would be completely life altering. I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to other cities and put up work on the street, which has been inspiring in the sense that I realized I have the capacity to produce work that is considered by some to be â€˜world class,â€™ which means a lot to me because Vancouver is really a pretty small city and has an even smaller group of committed artists who put their work on the street. Sometimes I have a hard time believing that itâ€™s been so long — I still feel like I just started and have so much farther to go.
Format: When you travel to other cities, does the work you put up in them speak to that particular area? In other words, do you create specific work for specific areas, or do you just lick-and-stick?
The Dark: Lik’m’stik! Remember those? Three little pouches of flavored powder and a chalky candy stick that you lick and put in the powder…ugh. I used to love those. Um, ya each piece is done with the city in mind. I usually have a concept for the area it will be put up.
Format: You started with stencil, and now you’re more into wheat-paste, it seems your work just keeps getting more detailed. What are the themes and styles of today like, compared to how they were a few years ago?
The Dark: I haven’t cut a stencil in ages. I got pretty bored of it — I knew I could cut a 15×15, 25 layer stencil if I wanted to, but it didn’t really seem like a good use of my time. I really wanted to work in a medium that would allow the same scale and detail of work but was more versatile than stenciling. I got a bit pissed when the stencil style was adopted by some large corporations and being used as a marketing tool — it just took the fun out of it for me. Oil pastels are amazingly versatile and allow me to produce the kind of work that I was trying to achieve with stencils but never quite got it. Not many people seem to use them to produce work for the street, with a few notable exceptions.
Format: A lot of your pieces are fairly intricate close-ups of faces — that’s fairly portraiture-driven/high arty for a street artist. Are those hand-drawn as well?
The Dark: I have done very few printed works on the street, and it felt disingenuous to put them up — like something was missing. Everything else is hand drawn. I realized awhile ago that there should really be no reason to cut corners for something that may only stay up for a few hours. People seem to relate most to other people, the portraiture allows that relationship to flourish. If a viewer canâ€™t connect to the work they are seeing then it is missing the point.
I like to think I am able to offer an alternative, one that asks nothing and is selling nothing. Of course, that is an ideal I strive to achieve but have fallen short of on many an occasion, most recently my experience of being branded by FIDO without my consent. It left me with a sour taste in my mouth to say the least, and was exactly the opposite of what I agreed to and was intending with the work I had produced.
Format: â€˜Branded by FIDOâ€™ — what happened there?
The Dark: The branding — I donâ€™t really know if that is the right term — but I did some work for them and was fairly clear about not wanting to be splashed with a logo and they did it anyway. Thatâ€™s the short version.
Format: You’ve done a few gallery shows, but it doesn’t sound like you were ever that into them. The street and the gallery are very different places, but artists often find that they need one to financially support the other. Do you think this affects the purpose driving street artists work (in other words, the awareness that to be successful, they sometimes must give thought to being commercial)?
The Dark: In Vancouver it is very difficult to make a living solely as an artist. Everyone that I know has a side job, or some other form of income to support their work. I will say that being gallery represented is by no means a sure guarantee of financial success or stability. My experience with galleries has for the most part been unsatisfying — most of the time if I have a show it is considered a success if I break even.
The most disconcerting aspect of street art these days is that the institution (collectors, auction houses, museums etc.) is taking the value of it very seriously, which makes every kid with a spray can think he/she can be the next Banksy, Blek Le Rat, or Shepard Fairey. It has created a climate in which peopleâ€™s motives for producing the work become affected by a lust for fame and riches. That may have worked in Warholâ€™s rebellion against the AB EX supremacy, but in today’s Postmodernist-ruled art world it amounts to very little. Even the term â€˜street artâ€™ has become a segregatory catchphrase with an unwritten set of conditions that allows for anything that is placed in the context of public space to be revered as part of the this â€˜edgyâ€™ art form. It has all happened so fast; the value of artwork is so subjective; buyers are so easily influenced by little red dots and auction sales that people are willing to sell the wall of their house for hundreds of thousands of pounds….
Format: So, you’ve noticed that with the increasing validity of street art as an art form (and the resulting potential bankability of it) that its purity has soured. Has Vancouver been hit pretty hard by that?
The Dark: Ok — I’ve been reading a lot of critical art theory type stuff. Framed in that context the current street art hoopla (current being the last ten years or so) is, from what I can tell; yet another facet of the postmodern dogma that refuses to die. Like anything in the market system, value is dictated by demand. People want this genre right now, so itâ€™s easy to sell anything with the label of street art or graffiti on it. I guess my real frustration lies in me wanting to make it as an artist and not really being able to without selling out, whatever that is supposed to mean.
Vancouver is funny — very few people actually spend money on art here. I’m really lucky that I can even sell my stuff, and I still don’t make enough to live on.
Format: Working on any new projects that you can talk about?
The Dark: Most of what I am working on right now is conceptual, dealing with identities, self-perception and perception of space and time in relation to sanity (or lack thereof). Itâ€™s been a recurring theme in my work that I really need to explore. As much as this may sound trite, it is work that has never been done before. I have a few shows worked out but just need to get a whack of cash together and a large space. Know any wealthy benefactors of the arts who feel like renting me a private jet for 80 hours? I’m actually serious. The project would be documented with stills and film. Everything is worked out, but itâ€™s hard to get someone to pay for me to document time travel and a simultaneous descent into insanity (still serious). This ain’t no poster campaignâ€¦