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You might not have heard of him but chances are you’ve seen his work; Masai is a street artist with a talent for painting animals. His vivid portraits combine patterns found in man-made fabrics produced in the countries the animals originate from. His paintings often feature animals engaged in human activities, fusing a playful style with conscious messages about animals and the environment.

My name Masai is due to my long lasting admiration for African tribes, since I was about ten I guess. Initially it was reflected through wearing beads… a lot of beads… I always loved the Masai tribe because of the red they wear in their hair and the way the warriors jump so high. I never really meant to become Masai. It just happened one day. Now people call me Masai; it seems fitting.

I have been painting and drawing forever; it was the only thing I was any good at at school. When I was not at school I would be painting with my dad in his studio. I started painting walls the way I’m painting today about two years ago. I’m still new to this whole thing really.

For me there are a few, very important factors in my life: Rastafari, animals, art, cooking and love, all of which have strong influences in my decision-making. I grew up in a family-run restaurant that was very successful; I painted with my dad till silly o’clock and ended up in art school. I discovered nature and Rastafari on a gap year when I was 18 running away from a broken heart. Here I am now living in London, broken hearted again but fulfilling my creative energy, living as a humble rastaman painting animals and cooking home-cooked food. My life finds circles and right now I’m experiencing a full cycle of the best one yet. Life is really good when four out of five of your passions are fulfilled.

All my work is about animals. It’s only recently that I have started working on whole compositions around the animals. That transition has come about for a couple of reasons, one being the walls are getting bigger and secondly because I want to continually evolve. I enjoy painting portraits because the general public assume a portrait is a human thing, and that interrelates back into my concepts, adorning animals with human attributes.

I work for a couple of agencies where we educate the youth in creative ways to further themselves as young people. We live in an age where the youth are fighting against a system but they aren’t really sure why or what for. They have grown up in a negative world that has little interest in addressing why a whole nation of, if not world, of young people feel emotionally distraught. It’s in my understanding that the work we do gives these youth a chance to see ways around the nonsense; the way I see it is that if we don’t help the future world there is no point living the life we are living now.

Right now my work is purely about interrelating patterns found in man-made fabrics with animals. The fabric and animals originate in the same countries. Currently my work is about African fabrics and African animals, which is to be showcased at Nancy Victor in a few weeks, the show is called AfroFabRicatiOn.

Regarding my influences, I’m not sure that I am actually influenced by what other artists are doing, I pick up random thoughts upon looking at books and shows but I can’t pinpoint who directly influences me. My influence is so broad, it’s within, fashion, photography, nature, tribal culture, the real substance of life. But as for artists I love Josh Keyes, Roa, Sigma Polke, Word to Mother, Conor Harrington, Herakut, Craola, Sam Flores, Os Gemeos, all the beautiful loser artists, Jaybo Monk, Leger, etcetera.

You know what, it’s impossible to escape being typecast but I think I’m doing my best to sit on a fence and avoid the labelling game, I don’t like labels anyway so I don’t really feel located in any scene. I just paint and listen to music, that’s my scene.

I studied Fine Art in Falmouth, Cornwall, a lovely ten years I spent down there walking my best friend Lola – my dog – on the beaches. My art has evolved so much you wouldn’t think it’s the same artist, Uni just confined me to the way I thought fine artists should think, I’m so glad to be free from that thought process.

For me the gallery is as important as the street and I’d even go so far as to say that the street is a gallery to be honest. I sell my work sometimes as a result of painting on the streets.

I paint mostly in Bristol and London, but I have painted in Amsterdam, Jamaica, Blackpool, Cornwall and Devon. Hopefully more international trips are on the horizon. London and Bristol are pretty good for the street art scenes but they have their moments of being a bit controversial. I don’t understand how one artist is okay to do what he likes and another gets in big shit; that just doesn’t seem fair to me. I’m pretty fortunate, in that most people like what I do and even when confronted with the law I have managed to worm my way out of trouble.

Painting in Jamaica was incredible. I launched a project out there called Nice Up the Walls at the start of the year and that project will eventually build a school for the poverty stricken youth out there.

I want to collaborate a lot next year and travel the world, show work in galleries internationally. The art world is very exciting at the moment. Come check out my solo show, AfroFabRicatiOn on the 15th November at Nancy Victor gallery near Tottenham Court Road.

One love.

Further reading
Masai’s website
Nice Up the Walls Facebook page
Nancy Victor Gallery

This interview was written by James Buxton for Global Street Art. Global Street Art have just released a crowd-funded book with Unbound, which you can check out here.