Reka One hardly needs an introduction—for the past ten years he’s been a pillar of the Melbourne street art community, working tirelessly alongside fellow members of the Everfresh crew. Reka has built a following for his fantasy-infused abstract character works that have covered walls all over the world, both legally and illegally. Recently he has been preparing ‘Primary Suspects’, a new body of work that examines his personal journey as an artist. The latest exhibition sees Reka paying his respects to his past as a vandal, and exploring how that early identity has shaped his work as an artist. We caught up with him to talk about the future, while making sure we didn’t forget his past.
How long have you been working on Primary Suspects?
This year, I came back from Tokyo in December with a lot of inspiration and I literally started in the last week of December. On average I usually take about two months for an exhibition, depending on the style of work and the space I’m in. But the style I’ve used for this show is a little bit faster, and I produced a large body of work in a short space of time which all worked together quite nicely.
So this series is really about returning to your roots as a vandal – what prompted you into looking at that?
When I started exhibiting in galleries while I was still putting my work on the streets, I wanted to separate my work as much as possible and kind of pursue two paths. I’m still doing that to this day, but I wanted to bring it back to where I started out, which was just doing street art and not really exhibiting work in galleries. I guess every show is self-reflective, but this one in particular is an exploration into my journey as a street artist.
Where I am now compared to where I started is a lot different, my style is different, my attitude to everything is different. In a sense, this body of work is paying dues to my roots, which is graffiti art, tagging, vandalism, exploring the night being a childish delinquent.
Stylistically this show is a lot looser, there’s a lot more of a street element to my work, a lot more raw brushstrokes, even some tagging elements, which I’ve always tried to steer clear of in the past. I wanted to keep my tagging separate from my artwork but I’m really trying to blend the two now, trying to find the happy medium through my artwork and staying true to myself and where I came from.
I know you say that this show is self-reflective, but it also seems to fit in thematically with a lot of the stuff that’s going on in the wider street scene in Melbourne. Do you see that culture coming full circle on itself? How much further can it go?
I think it’s already making a full circle back to what it was doing ten years ago, people are definitely getting rawer and having more of a raw attitude and process with their work. I guess we all started off doing simple stuff and not really knowing how to use our tools properly, and it’s funny I’m actually trying to un-teach myself what I’ve learnt over the years.
It’s not necessarily learning to paint with my left hand instead of my right, but not being as anal with my line-work and as clean and precise and perfect.
I’ve even been looking at a lot of my old stuff, it’s that old saying ‘One step forward, two steps back’. Revisiting your old stuff isn’t a bad thing, some artists get depressed because they think they’re re-doing their old stuff, but I reckon that’s good. You’ve gotta know where you’ve come from and know what worked.
Now that you’re showing more and more in galleries and you’re becoming established, can you still maintain that identity and anonymity that you had starting out?
No. Of course not. Especially when you start putting a face to a name. There’s only a couple that really still don’t, the most obvious one is Banksy, who’s still doing amazingly well and hasn’t had the need to show his face. But most of the others have, and I’m included in that as well.
It wasn’t a conscious decision, but it got to the point that I was no longer in fear of the cops knocking on my door. I mean, it could happen any day but I think I just ended up saying ‘Fuck it’, if people really want to find out who I am it’s easy enough to do, and it would have happened already.
Keeping that mystery is very important, and you can still do that, but it’s not like it was at the beginning. You make that decision when you start selling work in the galleries, there needs to be a personal element to your work instead of the street stuff where you just put your work up and people enjoy it or hate it or whatever.
Could you ever see yourself moving away from Reka as identity as an artist?
What I’ve found now is through doing my work over the years is that my identity as Reka now is more for my artwork than it was at the beginning as an alias or pseudonym to get up and not get in trouble with the cops. So I have a name that I go under for my illegal work and I have a name that I go under for my artwork. And especially in a city where I have already been caught and arrested by the police, you can’t really keep on doing that. Within Melbourne I have two names and overseas and interstate I can just get away with Reka.
Last time we spoke your style was transitioning into something that was a lot freer and looser, have you kept pushing that for this show?
Yeah I have, especially with this show because it’s more of a street art show… I’m kind of branding it as the first street art show I’ve ever had. So in pursuing the need to loosen my style and get rawer with my technique and the final result, there’s definitely another step in that direction.
I’ve got a lot of ideas through always experimenting, and if you’re rushing toward a deadline it does make it difficult to experiment and try new things because you can’t afford to make mistakes. So with this one I purposefully came into it with not a lot of development sketches, not a lot of drawing and ideas beforehand, but having that attitude to make it as dynamic and raw as possible. That whole kind of rushed attitude to my work I really enjoyed, just trying to do it faster and not go back and fix things too much and leaving more room for errors, just going with the flow. I think that’s what I’ve succeeded [in doing] for this show, each piece has some consistent elements to them but each piece is also different because I’ve allowed errors.
This series has moved even further away from your character-based works and more into portraiture, how was that process for you?
I guess I started off doing characters of monsters and being heavily influenced by animals and nature and all those sort of things. But they were always my version of the human form, they just happened to be beast-like characters. I kind of felt like I had done that, and not so much that it started to bore me, but I started wanting to paint people I know.
In this show each of the portraits actually relate to people I know, it’s a whole series of portraits of street artists I know within Australia. Each piece is the name of the artist, so even though I didn’t have a photo of them next to it while I was painting I kept in mind some personality traits and how I could show that person through the work. In a sense I’d prefer to view myself as a portrait artist in the future, even though my style is becoming a lot more abstract and expressionist, I kind of like the traditional element of painting people.
So speaking about those personality traits, what is it that’s pushing you to keep producing work?
The fun of it, the passion. I’d still be painting and doing my thing, regardless of whether I’m making money out of it or not. I still need to find the balance between my artwork and my street work. I think my outlook is going to change when I just slot into being a studio artist and lose that street presence. I’m still very young in my career as an artist, so I’m not looking at that stuff for ages. But I guess coming from a graffiti background, competition was always such a big part of the game, and I still feel that element of competition. I guess if everyone is always pushing to one-up each other, then you can never get tired or bored of it.
My passion is painting, and I think I’ll always end up doing that in one form or another. But for the moment I can’t forget where I came from, and that’s what this show is about. The passion and the energy are still there.