As much as us Australian’s consider ourselves hard done by in terms of international attention, we rarely give a thought to our cousins across the ditch. For the past few decades there’s been a steadily growing graffiti movement incubating in New Zealand but they’ve only recently begun to get recognition on the world stage. The scene’s vitality and energy is encapsulated perfectly by Askew One. From steel to walls to community murals, Askew is pushing boundaries both conceptually and stylistically. We caught some time with him to talk about the history of the Auckland scene and the challenge of putting New Zealand on the map.
When did you get a start in graffiti?
I got given my first tag by a guy that wrote Bonus KOA in 1991, and I guess that was the initial seed planted. In 1993 during my first year of high school I actually started going out at night with some close friends and doing tags all around my area, but I was still really naive. I think around ’94/’95 I settled on the name Askew and because there was a bit of a shift, like a few more people my age doing actual pieces all of a sudden I felt motivated to get into it properly. This guy Ikon RTR who’s currently based in Melbourne played a huge role in getting me started. He turned up at my house with a crazy amount of paint he’d racked and pretty much enabled me to do the first thing with more than a couple of cans. It was actually the worst graffiti ever painted!
What attracted you to graff in the first place?
I think as far as my city goes, I lived in precisely the right place at the right time. I come from an inner-city neighborhood and a lot of pioneers literally lived right on my street. Graffiti wasn’t something you could avoid seeing when I was growing up and you were pretty likely to get into it at some stage. As far as what resonated with me about it – I guess the attitude and the real bad-ass-ness of it all. Truthfully I was geeky and far from the toughest kid in my area. Graffiti enabled me to create an edge and mystique around myself, although all I was doing was drawing on things. It was perfect really.
Did you have a background in art?
I was always inclined towards art, music and performing ever since I was able to walk and talk. I was a showoff. At school I was an orchestrator of things, I made little projects and roped my friends into getting involved. I always had a big ambitious vision for everything, usually something totally unrealistic or unobtainable considering my means, but yeah I was that guy. I wanted to make movies or was writing raps and teaching all my friends their parts, choreographing the dance moves and shit. I used to be really embarrassed looking back, but now I realize how little I’ve changed really. For starters, I’ve stayed around the music industry pretty much my whole working life, be it organizing events, doing peoples cover art and nowadays I’m directing music videos for my income. Even with graffiti, amongst my friends I was always the one with the concept or idea – it’s be like, yes, we can just go do that spot that way OR we could do it like this and get people talking!
What were your formative years like? Where were you drawing your influences from?
I always had my head buried in a comic book, usually Batman or 2000AD. I liked quite dark stuff, and I really worked out how to draw by copying from those comics. The way I draw in black and white to this day is completely informed by the comics I grew up reading. My childhood was probably complex by a lot of people’s standards but for me it was a really happy time. My mother did an awesome job considering she was really young and made a lot of sacrifices to give us a stable life. I appreciate it every day.
What was the scene like growing up in Auckland?
Reflecting back on the Auckland scene, particularly through the 90’s and into the 2000’s it was pretty amazing. It wasn’t so much a scene inspired by Subway Art and Style Wars – our scene was much more inspired by the aesthetic of pop culture that emanated out of Los Angeles. Kids here were obsessed with everything gangster and subsequently we had a really tough scene and a city absolutely battered with graffiti. It was a tagging scene foremost with a small minority that did pieces, it seemed at one stage every person had a tag pseudonym regardless of whether they even wrote. In those days roll calls were the thing and even the dude that drove the car would have their name represented with the same precedence as the guy with the good style. Graffiti was literally on everything too – I remember having to scratch Posca tags off the screen of the Street Fighter II game to play it. I miss those days, as much as I understand progress is necessary that was the aesthetic I grew up immersed in and I love it.
Do you think there’s a distinctly New Zealand style?
When it comes to tags, yes definitely. Despite the fact that ‘Straights’ and ‘Flares’ have their roots in LA tag styles, the way they are done here has always been one of the first things foreigners notice. Always the right-leaning, tall and menacing style – Auckland tags are uniform but goon-like. As far as piecing letter styles, well it’s much less clear for us when we live here amongst it. I know people refer to certain things as being synonymous with how a bunch of us paint here but we are just like anyone else, just absorbing, processing and experimenting with things we see and like. I think the interesting stuff is starting to happen now though – with a handful of us breaking away from certain graffiti ideologies and starting to develop our own vocabulary as artists.
The Internet has obviously made it a lot easier to push your work to a potentially huge audience, but it also has a lot of drawbacks. You’re an active writer who has embraced a lot of these new online mediums, how did you come to that decision?
Well, I’m not ashamed of what I do for starters. I try my very best to not be a total dickhead about how and where I do my graffiti and I’d like to think I’ve mainly enhanced public space as a result. I’m certain some would beg to differ and there’s always the risk of being so open about what I do. Essentially I live in a place where the resources are such that there’s still no real full time vandal squad. That’s not to say people don’t get raided and dragged through arduous and financially exhaustive court proceedings because that does happen. What I’ve tried to do is maintain some sort of artistic credibility through my career, being able to rationalize and discuss my work in an intelligent way has helped.
I’ve not got a huge amount of balance in my regular life but my graffiti career has been relatively varied and I suspect that it hasn’t agitated the authorities on the same level say someone that specializes in one specific aspect of writing may. Of course who really knows right? These are just my theories. At the end of the day, maintaining presence on the ‘net has been a worthwhile risk as no one in the world will see my stuff otherwise. When you live in LA for example, or any other super populated city – everything you do in the public arena suddenly has more impact and relevance because more people see it, document it, blog it etc. There are so many more people on the periphery of the scene that are almost like a graffiti media. I don’t like to knock it either because ultimately people taking an interest in what my peers and I do is what will allow us to pay bills and put food on our tables. I want to be creative for my lifetime and graffiti has been my road to making that happen. It’s counter productive for me to discount that fact at this stage of my life.
Stylistically you seem to progress through periods that are quite diverse in terms of your work, is that a conscious effort to shake things up on your behalf?
I’m a very restless person and also my mind is generally rushing. I’ve got better with age at internalizing this and hiding how hectic I am to most. I come across pretty mellow, but anyone that’s known me for ten or twenty years will tell you how much I’ve settled into myself. My creative process works like this: I draw from everything I see, read, hear, discuss, make. I usually have very intense outbursts of work in one vein or style. As quick as I do that I move on with either an idea that develops from the last or something completely different. I do this for an amount of time before I hit a wall (creatively not literally) and then I get introspective and look back. I look for the common threads or the strongest elements and then combine those things to make something new. Then the process continues. People think I change my style all the time but actually if you sit and look at the entire volume of work it’s amazing to see the reoccurring ideas and approaches that stem right back to my childhood drawings.
What keeps you motivated? How do you keep progressing?
I keep progressing because it’s all I can do and all I want to do. I also evolve as an artist as I draw on a broader skill set and wider appreciation of art of all kinds. I look outside of graffiti more and more because constantly looking back is self-defeating and will eventually make graffiti eat itself. It’s like sometimes all this nostalgia and trying to emulate bygone eras is self referential to the point of being like a dog chasing it’s own tail. At times I can find people that are obsessed with Hip Hop to the point of practicing the four elements and dressing like people did thirty years ago akin to being Elvis impersonators. If you didn’t live it firsthand, if you weren’t schooled by someone that did then it just seems so whimsical to me. I used to think it was so awesome but then I just encountered so much conservatism and hostility that it made me really reject that whole mentality. I hate conformity a lot so as soon as anything has rigid rules I have to follow to fit in to a pack, I’m not into it. I’m not a follower by nature, I’ve had my moments but ultimately I’m happier making my own path.
Where do you land on the Graffiti Vs Street Art divide?
I like a lot of street art, I’d rather look at something in my environment around me than nothing. I’ve always measured public work by it’s intent. If I feel an insincere intention from a work I don’t like it. That has nothing to do with the polish of the work because sometimes I like a crude ‘dick’n’balls’ drawing more than an elaborate piece. I actually dislike heaps of graffiti writers work because I feel it’s coming from an insincere place or it’s really out of touch with my current perspective on things. That is just a matter of personal taste though and my opinions have changed about people’s work as I’ve learned more about their process or motivation. Alternately, I like some pretty toyish shit every now and again because I just enjoy the raw energy. You get what I’m saying? It’s about where it’s going right now and there is no clear divide – at least the line is pretty blurry these days.
What role do you think graffiti will play in popular culture in the coming years? So much of the culture is easily accessible now via the internet and other channels, do you think that’s a positive thing?
The way people access anything they are into these days is radically different to the pre-Internet era. Things are way less Genre defined that’s for sure. It used to be like ‘Rap Kids’ would fight the ‘Heavy-Metallers’ and people wore specific clothing to signify what they listened to and what they were interested in. I think that’s changed and perhaps it’s for the better, the less to divide people the better I guess. The flip side of it is the whole rate in which people hunger for ‘content’ these days. It’s way harder to make a really significant impact. You can work really hard on a project albeit it a big wall, a video, a book, a show, whatever – and it can feel significant online for a few days and then it’s just gone, lost amongst the abundance of cool stuff floating in cyberspace. I don’t know how this will change things in the future, how it will further evolve. I’m keen to ride with it as long as I can though because I find it interesting and confronting.
What’s coming up for you?
I can honestly say at this particular time I don’t have too many major things on the immediate horizon. It’s been a whole year of big personal projects and some really amazing travel. There’s a big thing I’m working towards in my city but I’m dealing with a lot of red tape and bureaucracy to make it happen and to be honest it’s hard for me to stay patient. It’s been in my heart to relocate to LA for some time now and it’s still one of my main goals, I just have to get a few things on the business and health end of things sorted and then it will be time to make that happen. My partner and I have been together for ten years and over a year ago she left the field she studied for eight years to come and help me take things to the next level. It’s been amazing and the shit we’ve done has been really rewarding in every way but financial! As our eggs are in one basket right now we are trying to get in a more sustainable situation and then assess at that point where to from there. In the mean time I’m just trying to make art in some shape or form every single day. Whether it’s drawings, paintings, a video, a quick piece or a big mural it doesn’t matter. At the end of the day if I’m not being productive and constantly developing then I don’t deserve success.
Any shout outs?
Yes! I just want to give love to my crews, TMDEES, MSK and the STICK UP KIDS. The constant support, inspiration and sense of family is something I feel so humbled to have – It keeps me going in spite of all odds.
Photos courtesy of the artist and Kost
See more of Askew’s work at his site.