The first time I approached MARS DS for an interview was in January 2017, but he had a lot going on, so we pushed it off for a while. One year later, he said he was ready and we finally got to chat.
How did you get into graffiti and how long have you been writing?
I got into it when I was around 15 years old, from skateboarding and other friends doing it. I basically had no idea what I was doing, I just thought it felt good to get wasted and vandalize shit. I have been writing for 14 years now and a lot has changed.
You write MARS and MR. MORIS. Can you tell us how you came up with your names?
One of the first things I painted was 90’s aliens, the ones that were popular with the big head and big eyes. The most obvious thing to write next to it was MARS because that’s where aliens come from when you’re a kid. It stuck with me and I have hated it ever since because we had almost no contact with other established scenes and I never knew that MARS was a super common name all around the world. By the time I realized it, it was too late.
The MARS stuff is what I grew up with and the graffiti I first saw was from COPE2, CES, YES2, SEEN and basically the “Broken Windows” book. The formula is always the same, map out, fill in, outline, second outline and the letter structure is most important. Also, the traditional mentality of “letters are everything,” and influences such as SOTEN, BATES, GESER and anyone doing it this way. It’s good to see that this part of graffiti will always be alive in some way. Over the years as graffiti evolved, I evolved to creating MR. MORIS. I created this name to break away from the traditional New York kind of style writing and to do more experimental styles. Here I try different formulas and layering in different stages with lots of detail. The letter structure often takes a back seat as I try to communicate a visual language, rather than a good letter style. I think the MORIS stuff overall is more original than the MARS stuff, even if sometimes I do make some weird shit. It’s two different ways of looking at style writing, one based on traditional style the other on more loose and expressive style. My influence for the MORIS stuff is mostly current style writers that are breaking the tradition. A few examples would be AROE, SOFLES, SMASH, RIME, POST MSK, DOES, ROID and many more, all for different reasons.
What crews are you in?
DS is my local crew and ABM is my Canadian crew friends.
I know you’re in Johannesburg, South Africa now, but did you grow up there? How do you feel the scene has changed?
I was born in Sofia, Bulgaria, but I have been living here for over 20 years. I have watched the scene go from almost nothing to a relatively decent size in the past 10 years. South Africa is a very isolated place in terms of graffiti. There are no countries near us that have anything even closely related to a “scene” and only a few scattered writers throughout Africa. To get to the nearest established scene is a 12-hour flight to Europe. Having said that, we have basically had to import everything from the internet or books. When I started, Artcrimes.com was the Holy Grail and one might have a copy of the “graffiti world book” or “Subway Art” but that was it. Of course, we all know how it is now, countless websites, social media and hundreds of books. I think it’s great, especially if you live in a country that is literally too far away to make any sort of direct contact with an established graffiti community.
Do you go back to Bulgaria for visits or to paint? Do you think you’d be doing graff if you never moved to S.A.?
All my family is scattered around Europe, mostly Bulgaria. I’m the only one who remained in South Africa. I do go back to visit them and make some sprays while I’m there – it’s a lovely place. If I didn’t move to S.A., I’m not sure if I would have ever done graffiti. I mean, I was always into comics and drawing and my father had a wrought iron furniture business, so he made original beds, tables, chairs, gates, balustrades – you name it. I have memories of him sketching up the designs and us going to his workshop. I think I still would be in a creative field somehow.
Is graffiti legal there and do you have a problem with the buff there?
Graffiti is not legal and strictly speaking, never has been. In Cape Town, they did “the big buff’ about 6 years ago and half ended the scene there. Now they buff everything and give fines to property owners with graffiti on their walls, not to mention getting legal permit is almost an impossible gauntlet of bureaucratic paperwork. In Johannesburg they have let it run rampant still, because the governing party was different than that of Cape Town. Last year, the same governing party that controls Cape Town, won the Gauteng Provincial elections (Johannesburg), so the scene is very nervous about them executing the same laws as Cape Town and wiping out everything. Up until now, it’s been easy. You ask for permission and if the owner says yes, then all is well. The buff is slow and only selected highways are cleaned by government.
How about trains?
Trains are another story. They almost never get buffed as the main train transit company in South Africa is privately owned. However, they are really dangerous to paint, as security is very tight, and they have been known to shoot at writers and exercise major physical abuse if caught. If you are seen or caught there in the night, most of the time the guards assume you are dangerous and there to steal copper and metal. That is how they justify shooting at you or giving you a serious beat down if caught, on top of pressing charges against you. The risks are high so not a lot of people do it, I used to when I was younger but after a few incidents over the years, it became not worth it for me.
In the US, people say the younger generation doesn’t respect the culture or follow rules, etc. Is it the same there? If you could teach something or tell the newer generation of graffiti writers anything, what would it be?
I don’t know too much about other scenes, but people here still respect the rules for the most part. Throw up over tag, burner over that and production over all. Sometimes there’s negligence and someone may step on toes, but mostly it’s out of ignorance. People don’t go out of their way to disrespect each other and dudes stick to themselves. I think the best advice I can give to someone who wants to take graffiti seriously is to educate yourself about what you are doing! Find out where it comes from, who laid down the foundation before you, in your scene and in the global scene, and then try to build from there.
One of my favorite questions is finding out what writers do in their personal life. How does graffiti play into your personal life and “day job”?
I was a graphic designer up until four years ago, I got a degree in multimedia design and pursued that after graduating. Now I make a living as a commercial artist, so I do a lot of corporate and private work. It often has nothing to do with graffiti as a culture. For example, no one pays me to write MARS on their wall, but they pay me to make designs, write other words, do decorative work, paint at events, canvasses, offices and all kinds of things that relate to their brand or private life. I use spray paint, acrylic or whatever I need to get the job done. The life is not necessarily an easy one and the work is hard and laborious, but at this point there’s nothing else I would rather be doing and I’m very fortunate to be able to make it work.
How do you feel the internet and technology has affected the scene? Good? Bad?
Both, for isolated scenes like here in S.A. it’s almost vital to us. It helps with connecting and building with others. For example, this interview would have never happened any other way. One of the negatives I think is it’s more of a social issue in itself. I feel like too many people get obsessed with their self-image and how the world looks at them. We live in the age of the narcissist, to the point where they base success on a social platform where everyone is trying to look their best and doing whatever it takes to do so. In other words, people are all comparing themselves to each other (which in itself, is usually a bad idea) in a fake world, where everybody is cheating and looking their best at all times, and behind the scenes their lives can be getting neglected and in shambles. This is especially attractive to writers and artists. Graffiti at best, is bordering an act of ego and honestly, it even happens to me. I’m not scared to admit it because I’m human and we all want a little validation from our peers. One just must remember that it’s not really you, just a fraction of your life that someone will see for a microsecond whilst scrolling down the page. Don’t take it personally and seriously.
I think it’s fascinating that you mentioned how you didn’t know MARS was a popular name because of how removed Africa was from the scene and how social media can help sculpt that. So, before the internet, was there any graffiti at all in South Africa? Did people come there on spraycations and fuck shit up like they do now?
There was political graffiti in the apartheid era, but not graffiti as we know it. Later there were dudes doing graffiti and hip hop as we know it. They were based in Cape Town and it spread up to Johannesburg but there were very few people from then that knew what hip hop was about (b-boying, rapping, graffiti, clothing, etc.). Maybe about 10 of them were trying to imitate graff and knew about it. That was our first generation of writers. I really have no idea how they found out about it. You must remember, apartheid only ended in 1991. My family wasn’t even here yet and up until then, people were segregated and the spread of any cross-cultural movement like hip hop was impossible. No one came here!!! The first writers that came from overseas, only came around the 2000s and that was only a handful, nothing like now. We only got shops that sell imported brands around 2005, so it’s a very new culture here. Thanks to the internet, we have caught up a lot of groundwork in a relatively short time.
I know you recently traveled to Mexico – was that your first time over this way? Tell us how that was for you?
I wasn’t there long and only in one city, but it was awesome. Mexico had some close resemblances to where I live. I really liked the culture there and would definitely try to go back to see more of the country. I have been around Europe a bit and Africa too. I’m going to be in Thailand in April, so I’m looking forward to that. The S.A. Rand exchange rate is not the best, so travelling takes a bit of income.
Where do you see graffiti culture heading within the next ten years?
No idea, there are so many ways it’s evolved now – into loads of new hybrid forms of public art. I do think that we all could do a little more to pass the graffiti writing culture on to younger generations because otherwise the group will get smaller and smaller. I mean, already a lot of the new kids coming up want to do the murals and become famous urban artists, they are not even interested in the graffiti culture side of things.
Is there any music that inspires you or that you prefer to listen to while painting?
I grew up on hip hop, so that will always be my favorite go to music, mostly independent or underground stuff. I have also opened up to a lot of music as I have gotten older; old rock, jazz and different kinds of electronic music. I usually like high energy music playing in my earphones because some of my pieces are a lot of work and it keeps me going and in the zone, I suppose. I don’t listen to anything on radio or tv, never have and probably never will.
Any good chase stories or funny bombing stories you’d like to share?
I got shot at once while painting a train here with a few other guys. We made a run for it and the guard let off some rounds in our direction. Luckily, none of us got hit. There’s been cases of writers not so lucky in the past. That’s definitely a horror story.
Do you have any upcoming projects or anything else you are working on that we should know about?
Last year I concentrated a lot on my pieces, both MARS and MR. MORIS. This year is going to be a little different. I’m planning on exploring a more artistic side of things. Other than that, I will always try to squeeze in a graffiti style wherever I can, so let’s see what happens!
I’d like to thank you for taking the time to do this interview with me for Bombing Science! Any shoutouts you want to give?
Thanks, Bombing Science and Melissa. Also shouts to all my Canadian homies, ABM crew.
By: Melissa Brand