Interview by Matthew J (@IamJamesMatthew)
BSCI: First question, who is Opek?
Opek: What a heavy question! (Laughing) At the heart of it I'm an artist from the western coast of the Great White North. I hail from a small town in the midst of Canada's old growth forests and gigantic mountains. OPEK is the face of my artistic endeavours and in a way someone I turn to for strength when life gets hectic. I like to write on public walls. I don't run with any crews.
BSCI: As far as graffiti/art is concerned what motivates you to go out and create?
Opek: I listen to a lot of music. Beyond that I look to nature's use of colour, to urban decay, darkness, decomposition, and poverty. In graffiti I can’t pinpoint where inspiration comes from, but the concept of perfect lettering, being everywhere, paint fumes, the night’s empty streets, loneliness, nature, and an unhealthy addiction/obsession all play a role in my creativity. In life, I love hearing how children's brains work; their curiosity, passion for simplicity, and their smiles/laughter inspire me to be better at everything.
BSCI: What are your views on the criminalization of graffiti? In particular, what are your thoughts on Toronto's Mayor Rob Ford cracking down on graffiti?
Opek: In short, I think it shows how much work we as a society have ahead of us before we reach a point where art is incorporated into everyday life and considered an important aspect of it. In other areas of government as of late there have been calls to end the war on drugs, the war on terror. That same useless frivolity exists in the war on graffiti – it's never ending.
Consider the minimal effort a 16 year old would need to get his or her hands on an Ultra-fat Sharpie, the minimal amount of time it takes for her to write her name 50 times in the dark of the night, the increasing number of youth who feel left behind/abandoned in our education system & unimportant to our society, and you have an army of minors; vandals that quite frankly don’t give a fuck about you, your respect, or the cities laws.
BSCI: If you had the chance to speak with Ford, what would you say to him regarding this "crackdown"? If you could, what would you say to change his views on the culture?
Opek: The crackdown is a losing battle; a waste of taxpayer dollars, a waste of man-power and ultimately the wrong direction to take as a society. Leveraging open space for passive advertising worked in the Industrial age, but the pendulums swung as far to the right as it can. As marketing becomes more passive-aggressive than passive – in your face, brash, large, blatant, shoved down your throat advertisements – so will the human brain seek to break out of the system. The solution is somewhere between clean cement streets and completely covered public art galleries in every alley, but there is absolutely merit in art, in graffiti, and in the public being able to openly express themselves. If society refuses to acknowledge and honour that art, it does itself a disservice.
BSCI: What are your thoughts on the way mainstream society has begun to “embrace” graffiti -via the marketing and promotion of products- YET still vilifies the art when it’s created by the everyday-independent-artist? How do they differentiate?
Opek: I think graffiti's biggest enemy is mainstream culture's acceptance of stencilling as art but its lack of acceptance of lettering. There's something about traditional "graffiti" that speaks to society negatively and because of that the culture gets misrepresented as a whole. People who have spent minimal time and thought
practising their art form are now more accepted than artists who have put in years – twenty, sometimes thirty years of hard work; illegal work at that! We have to re-assess why lettering is illegal and unaccepted, but stencilling is illegal and accepted.
Continuing on that train of thought, the culture's been watered down because those who are representing us from a mainstream perspective are in actuality people who have little knowledge of the culture, its history, and the ups-and-downs it's endured over the years. From our internal perspective as the culture becomes disconnected from the mainstream's perspective of it (in part due to this watered down acceptance of street art), you have more and more people who are undeserving (at least from an internal standpoint) speaking and representing us. If a car company needs some graffiti in the background of one of their ads, they hire an in-house graphic designer with no street art background to do the digital graffiti. She throw a bunch of arrows on some crooked letters and voila – Graffiti!
BSCI: You've put in work all over the globe, getting up in 4 continents. Of the four you've been in, thus far, what place(s) do you feel is the most overrated as far as creativity and skill? What place(s) is overlooked the most and not given its due respect?
Opek: No particular place is overrated. I don’t think there’s a single exception – worldwide- to the culture being underrated. I can’t think of a single city, state, or Country giving graffiti the respect it deserves.
The [so-called] ‘third world’ will always be underrepresented – by capitalist definition the third world exists the furthest from the first world. Because of this, I'd say Colombia is the most overlooked.
Colombia is a really great place for street art. The police simply have more important things to worry about and street artists get away with a lot more. Society is much more accepting as well. In North America when you are painting a wall, there's still a large portion of the population that see a mash of unreadable letters and thinks ‘gangsters’ or ‘hoodlums’ but in Colombia, they look at you in another light – as artists cleaning up walls. A chrome throw-up is seen as art, you can knock on someone's door and say, "hello, I'm an artist – is it okay if I paint on your fence out front?" and the mentality is, "Why not? Who would say no to free art in their front yard?”
South America has a distinct style that isn't particularly influenced by North America and there are writers doing it big. You see writers going larger, harder, more reckless, more aggressive, in larger cities, with more creativity, in more dangerous neighbourhoods.
BSCI: When talking about South America You mentioned Colombia, but you recently spent some time living in one of the continent’s “graffiti hot spots”, Argentina. What led you to make that move and what are your thoughts on the scene down there? How does it compare to Canada’s?
Opek: South America came about in true travel fashion; a last minute plan to move to Argentina. There are 5 words to define my purpose: women, wine, weather, language, and steak.
I have nothing but good things to say about the South American graffiti scene. I was welcomed by friendly writers, often with no previous acquaintances to connect us. They have a unique style, attitude, and love to paint. In general, the police & public are friendlier towards street art – in Buenos Aires; for example, most public walls are legal to paint. I experienced writer's showing a lot more respect for people doing their thing on a wall be it with a stencil, wheat paste, brushes, masking tape, aerosol, and/or a mix of them. As a younger writer in Canada I got caught up in the "unwritten rules" of graffiti, and it took a bunch of years to grow out of that, to recognise the importance of simply creating art, and to shed that notion of what's acceptable in terms of creativity.
BSCI: In regards to overall growth, since you have had the opportunity to paint around the world, how do you see graffiti evolving? Do you feel the future of the art in good standing, globally?
Opek: I continue to see graffiti evolve in positive ways. In terms of paint, we have the luxury of multiple brands and seemingly endless colours. In terms of styles, we have North American, European, South American, the Asia’s, and of course the Internet has elevated our channels for inspiration & collaboration on so many levels. In terms of graffiti having lost its integrity – biting & overall culture (things like racking, having to find caps, having to learn the tricks
of the trade) – I'd say that anything grass-roots and underground goes through growing pains as it becomes more accessible. So, overall I think the good is outweighing the bad.
BSCI: What's your view on the mainstream society's love/hate relationship with graffiti? On one hand they demonize the culture and writers for "vandalizing" property YET on the other hand will use graffiti imagery/techniques/methods to promote their products and/or corporations look "cool". How can they have it both ways?
Opek: Yeah, I'd expect it no other way. Mainstream marketing relies heavily on sub-cultures for inspiration. We've seen it time and time again so while graffiti exists as a great villain, the grit and honesty, the rawness, passion, and authenticity of the art form will always tickle the law-breaker/revolutionary/renegade fantasy of society.
It's in our best interest to accept that in general cultures born out of oppression will be mimicked by the mainstream. To realize this, then take a proactive approach rather than play victim will empower us in understanding the value in what we do.
BSCI: You have an e-zine coming out. What are your goals with the platform? What can people expect from the publication?
Opek: Canned Goods! Yes! I'm so stoked on this project! It's an online magazine that I've been putting together. I'm chopping up ideas in Photoshop and I mean, it's all new to me but I'm trying to make it cohesive, to deliver an end-product of great quality – something to be proud of, something that people will really enjoy.
It's a free, digital, magazine. The goal is to uncover artists, new styles, inspire other people and really just to give back to the graffiti community. There are pictures of nice looking women, lots of aerosol art, other art that I find inspiring and just great photos in general. I'm asking for donations on the project, and that's the only form of funding for now. Beyond that, my goal is to make great graffiti and street art accessible to everyone without feeling obligated to pay a cent.
BSCI: In some ways, Canada is on the cutting edge of graffiti culture; the Under Pressure events, a strong band of graffiti-related sites, and a lot of talented writer. Despite all these pluses, Canada seems to be an afterthought when people think of "graffiti countries". Why do you feel people sleep on Canada? Is the US shadow too big (does its presence overshadow Canada)? Are Canadian writers too complacent? What do you feel is the issue here??
Opek: Beyond the North American borders you can really see the drop-off in knowledge of Canadian culture; most definitely in part because Canada takes a pretty humble stance in the World overall. We don't have the burning nationalism that exists in the US so in a lot of ways we take a back seat, and the graffiti scene is one place that I see that happening. The issues are numerous and it'd be hard to pin down any one specifically, but we have less people, less media, less money, less concrete to work with, and other things.
A bunch of Canadian writers have raised eyebrows on an international level and while I'm not going to try to name everybody: Virus & Tars, the Stompdown Killaz YouTube project, Bacon, and Sueme stand out off the top of my head. I have the utmost respect for all those guys, and they deserve all the International acclaim they've received.
BSCI: Everybody seems to have their own definition as to what is street art and what embodies graffiti. How do you define street art and graffiti? What makes them similar and what makes them independent of one another?
Opek: The real answer lies in the nuances & subtleties of the culture. I'd love to clarify and explain where the culture begins and ends but I'm confident that the Bombing Science readers understand and for the most part stand-by the cultures rules & regulations.
Officially, graffiti is ‘the act of writing or drawing placed illicitly on a wall or other surface in a public place’. I'll stand by that definition. If you draw a dick on the face of the Statue of Liberty, I call that graffiti. But in day to day discussion, graffiti is a lot more structured than that. Every writer has his or her reason for writing – some love beef, some love bombing, some love the friends, some love the night, some legal walls, everyone loves tags, some hate the system, some love the paint, some are addicted – but we all know the unwritten but understood rules: throwies over tags, pieces over throwies.
Obviously, once you're actually living the culture you realize it's a lot more complicated than that and rarely does a situation seem that cut and dry. But we live by the rules and believe in the integrity of the culture’s structure. You don't tag headstones out of respect, churches because they're heat scores, and on and on we go… I sometimes wish I could sit down people who "hate graffiti" and explain to them that the kid who stole a can of glossy enamel from dad's garage and spray-painted, "Jane Perry has a tuna-fish snatch" on his Elementary School wall isn't from the same scene as us. But like I said, no one on Bombing Science needs to hear this, they already know the deal.
Street Art is all-encompassing, so graffiti is under the umbrella of street art but street art is a much broader term. It's difficult to set rules of where graffiti ends and street art starts but to me if it's not lettering, it's not graffiti. If it's not consistent, it's not graffiti. If you can't name the other writers in your area, your city, the crews, who belongs to which crew, and a general sense of current politics of your area, then you're not graffiti. Stencilling a couple robots you and your art-school friends cut out in the safety of your apartment over a few beers doesn't make you a street artist – a street artist puts in work on the street, not at home.
BSCI: Now, according to your definition, lettering is mentioned as being a key aspect of graffiti. I doubt anybody would disagree but why do you feel the letter structure/typography is so important?
Opek: It’s paramount. I speak for the entire culture when I say that a tag is the bread and butter of graffiti; there is simply nothing better. For me, and I assume a lot of other writers, there's an obsessive-compulsive behaviour behind lettering. For all the tags you see on the streets, you see 10,000 in my apartment. Favourite moments of cities I’ve traveled are passing doors or dumpsters with a full roll-call of the cities artists. I stop, stare; take photos, videos, and whatever I can do to savour the moment. Neglecting the pursuit of strong lettering is doing the culture a disservice.
BSCI: How do you feel about graffiti art/artists going on canvas vs. the streets? Shepard Fairey comes to my mind as somebody who was loved and revered for his early art pieces but has since been ‘hated on’ by people in graffiti due to certain projects (i.e.: the Obama "Change" posters and of course his Obey clothing line). Is it fair to label an artist a "sell out" just because s/he is making money and getting notoriety?
Opek: I don't relate selling out to commercial success. Cope's been rocking his throw-up in any industry that will take it and I like that; I think you'd be hard-pressed to find a graffiti writer that argues his legendary status. We're in the midst of a graffiti gold rush of sorts – street art's really booming in the mainstream so of course people are gonna cash in on the culture. Canvas is a different medium than the streets, so they're really not comparable – I'm excited to see the new ideas that graffiti writers will bring new mediums and think that as a culture we have a lot of creativity to be seen. Both Shepard and Cope have put in a lot of work and I don't knock any artist's hustle.
BSCI: Last question. What does graffiti mean to you?
Opek: Alright, first thing's first: Graffiti is about putting in work on public walls. I don't consider stencil work street art because the lion's share of the process is done indoors – inside your cozy house with no time constraints, sipping on tea and biscuits or whatever goes down in that setting. Graffiti artists are out there.
To me, a nice stencil could never hold a candle to a nice throw-up or hand style because a stencil is sterile and controlled whereas a tag is dynamic. A tag is created on the spot, in a time sensitive environment, relying on one's personal flavour to deliver the message. I think it's irresponsible for mainstream media to blur the line between those who dedicate themselves to an art form – the only illegal art form – and those who have been inspired by the whirlwind of success of Banksy, JR, and Shepard Fairey. But that’s the World we live in, isn’t it?