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Hunting the killer idea: Auckland graffiti artist Askew One on what drives him creatively

In an excerpt from his book, Hunting The Killer Idea, senior designer Nick McFarlane chats with Auckland-born, global-roaming graffiti artist Askew One (Elliot O'Donnell) to find out more about his creative process, what inspires his work and the bigger messages behind his creations. 

Askew One made waves in Auckland's graffiti scene during the early 90’s and became one of the key figures known internationally from the region.

He also played a key part in organising Auckland’s first graffiti festival by setting up multiple gallery spaces and publishing a magazine and book showcasing New Zealand's graffiti scene.

Askew One and long-time friend Benjamin Work helped define the term 'post-graffiti Pacific', which describes urban-contemporary artists out of the Pacific region that deal with themes specific to the Pacific's geography, cultures and history.

Since 2010, he has branched more into the urban-contemporary, post-graffiti realm, focusing on studio works and large outdoor murals. 

In an excerpt published with permission below, McFarlane chats to Askew One to find out where he gets his killer ideas from.

Could you describe your style, where it is from, how it has progressed and where it is now?

Where do I start? I came up painting graffiti, so firstly I was a graffiti writer, not a street artist as people have tried to call me recently, especially as I have moved to doing more figurative work. My art school was really the street by painting graffiti in its more traditional form, and it was very letter based. Probably the last four to maybe six years I have diversified a lot in what I paint and how much my studio process informs my outdoor process, back and forth; it is more like a kind of conversation, but certainly the graffiti stuff has taken a bit of a back seat and I have been focusing a lot on a combination of portraiture (which is all painted in white with a lot of vibrant colour underneath, like patterns and marks that are informed by both the type of marks that we would have made in graffiti mediums or the kind of graffiti context but they are kind of like tribal masks under the faces) and then I have been doing work that is once again based on the same kind of mark making, magnified kind of graffiti strokes, but applied to food inspired murals. I'm trying to bring food into the discussion a lot, particularly like foods from this region, the Pacific region.
 



Can you describe your typical process, the creative process from searching for inspiration to cracking the idea to executing it?

The portraiture stuff really starts with finding somebody to shoot and then paint. That is really like the first stage, so a lot of them initially were just friends; people from my greater social group or people that I met through friends. Lately, I have broadened that a bit and there have been people who have revealed themselves on my travels, or people I see on the street. I have become a little bit better at approaching people and in how I present that pitch to them in a not creepy way.  Predominantly I paint women, so I never wanted to be that guy who walks up to a random girl on the street and say 'Hey I’m an artist, can I paint your portrait?'  That is not the angle I am attacking from, so to have that pitch is quite delicate and I try to put that forward in a really respectful way. 
 



Sometimes I shoot people on the street, but mostly I shoot people in a studio type setting so quite controlled lighting. Then I would take those photos and select my favourite ones. Depending on the project, depending if I am wrestling with something new, it might be a phase of mocking things up on the computer and playing around with different ideas, like rough digital sketches, especially as I have recently brought in some different kind of street elements. If I don’t utilise that stuff, I will probably then just work with just the white and paint out all of the white from the photograph onto a clear piece of Flexi glass in the studio setting. I paint in reverse; I paint in white first, then I paint everything behind it on the back of the glass, then I flip it around so you get the image on the other side. As far as going and doing the same thing outside, it is completely the opposite process. When I create one of those works as a mural then I have to put down the base colour, photograph the wall, mock up my idea on the computer over an actual photo of the wall, use the information on the wall as a kind of makeshift grid to put all the general shape up and the more information I put on the wall the easier it is for me to then put the white layer over the top and spray paint. It becomes a really accurate grid actually; the more information I put on the wall.  It’s a sort of combination of looking at the bricks, looking at all the dots, drips and lines that I put down and then painting over the top and that system so far has worked for me pretty well. I have painted up to eight stories and I haven’t had to use a projector or anything like that. That’s the usual process. 

What happens when you get stuck for an idea which doesn’t look like you do often because you seem to be putting out quite a bit of work.  But if you get stuck, what do you do?

I work a bit differently to some of my friends in that sense. I do know a lot of people who work on one idea at one time and they see it right through to fruition and then they have a research period, so they may be in between two bodies of work where they are seeking out what they want to do next. I don’t work that way. I am constantly making and experimenting and researching all at the same time, so I could be painting a body of work and that is a finalised body that I am working towards for some end result, like a show, but then I usually have about three or four experimental pieces of work just laying around in the studio that I am also mucking around with no real strategy for them, I am just experimenting. I am always listening to podcasts, reading books and constantly keeping mindful of what is going on in the areas that I am interested in to percolate those ideas for the next body.  I am a pretty restless person and I don’t do a lot of sitting still.

Tell me about the relationship; you said you have a strategy for where you are going but also all artists work of intuitively.  Where is the balance between having a plan and some of the paint splatters which accompany a lot of your work?

All of that stuff is where I get to work intuitively, where I am just layering colours on to a painting. That is very rarely planned out to the T. As far as working strategically, that only goes as far as two things, which are: My process which is actually pretty rigid, especially when I am painting on Flexi glass, I know that things have to be put down, like a print-making process rather than a painting process in the sense that I work layer by layer. I put one layer down at a time and I let it dry. I always know that there are about 10 steps to completing each individual painting. Usually, when making a body of work, I have already conceptualised what I want the look and general feeling of the environment of that body of work to be, and who my models are or if it's is it speaking specifically to an issue. Is it a local issue, or is it speaking something from Samoa? Or is it a broader kind of question about the world in general? Is it narrated through some piece of mythology or something that is local or some story that is local that people can also relate to on that level? All that sort of stuff I decide really early on, and once I have set the idea I make the painting until they are done, with the end result being exhibiting them.
 



I really love your work from a purely graphic point-of-view, and I think one of the reasons is that you manage to crack a style which is original. I think in the graffiti world and the art world in general, there is actually a lot of copying and reiterating of other styles, so how does one go about arriving at an original and unique style?

It came as a reaction of being in the graffiti scene where a lot of stylistic kind of stuff just gets recycled, e.g. it is very nostalgic and there is not a lot of innovation any more in that realm, there is a lot of people painting almost a homage to the 70’s and 80’s New York graffiti and that just goes in cycles. I don’t really feel that interested in that any more. When I stepped away from being as active in graffiti as I once was and started working on painting, I had completely forgotten how to paint anything but graffiti and I definitely went through a two-year period of just experimenting with anything and everything until I finally stumbled over what I wanted to do and then set my mind to working at it.  I am a firm believer that there is a lot of temptation to look at things that are out there and say 'how is that done?' then analyse and understand how it is done, and then replicate something similar and that is cool, because that is all learning too. But I believe that really good original stuff is the sum of all lessons learned applied, so if you take all of that wealth of experience that you have had individually on your path and apply it to something, you are going to come up with something that is much more distinctly your own.

You said you are moving into doing paintings and artwork around food now, which seems like the antithesis of what you would expect from street art and graffiti. Is that part of your thinking there? Tell me about why you have moved to what could be considered the content of still life?

A lot of my stuff relates back to that food concept within the Pacific because if you were to look at what is happening locally, particularly within Polynesia and Samoa there is a lot of women-led micro enterprises that are paving the way for forward-thinking ideas around health, wellbeing, the environment, economics, politics and cultural autonomy. All of these issues are really important, and so for me, that is why I made a choice to only paint women mostly, because I see women as leaders in this region and I wanted to pay tribute to that. I wanted to break out of the heads and do some stuff that was much more whimsy and fun and easier to execute on a large scale over the course of a couple of days, but still had a serious message behind it, like looking at a still life painting. I just saw this amazing show at the gallery of modern art in Brisbane - the GOMA called harvest - I had already set my mind to painting still life, but this show was really game changing for me because it was their collection of food-related work and it was really far ranging work from last century still lifes that were depicting exotic fruits as a standard symbol for the very rich, through to deep questions about the environment and the food security and food systems and distribution of food and wealth. I realised that food always gets considered as this benign, irrelevant thing; it is just what we eat, but food is actually the basis of everything. I felt like I wanted food to be a consistent part of my conversation. Food is funny in the way that it is the most simple way we hand culture down from one generation to the next. When you become disconnected from that, it is very easy to become disconnected from your identity. We noticed that when just cooking in the kitchen with my girlfriend’s mum and she would be teaching us something like a more traditional recipe, but then there were all the other stories that came with it which were so valuable and I realised there is something very powerful in that.



It is interesting you were at the TPPA protest yesterday. You just said earlier that you had taken all of your influences from life and these influences come into your work.  Do you connect this into politics, like having an opinion on these things, do these things inform your work as well?

What I am into is what is going to benefit people generally. I used to have an aspiration to be an extremely successful celebrity or artist, but over time through my travels and insights it's something that I really don’t aspire to at all any more. In fact, it repulses me.  What I see art’s job as being is just one of many ways of communicating powerful ideas and speaking about the kind of world that we live in, and I think that one of the biggest issues that we are facing in relation to the environment and climate change is really one of food security and how that is going to destabilise this region. We live in an area that equates to 30 percent of the planet, the Pacific, there is around 40 percent of the world’s economy here because we are made up of so many small island states and isolated nations and we tend to think of ourselves as a little bit away from the rest of the world.  In actual fact that is false, it is a distorted reality and as you see things like the TPPA pan out and you understand the history of how we have ended up at this point and you know the things that have been exacerbated by this in the past; and you can see the way it is going to go, then you know it is worth speaking about. I am definitely a firm believer in building things from the ground up, as opposed to allowing things to be dictated to you. 

I think all the creative disciplines - art in particular - can help to communicate these messages, which is a really powerful thing.

I was talking with a friend yesterday and we realised how in a weird way, there's the attitude that it is wrong for people to speak up and go against the grain or speak up about injustices. There is an attitude that that is not appropriate or we shouldn’t do that; that it is impolite to do that. Since when? All of the greatest artists forever have always observed injustice and spoken about it, and it is only now that we live in this world once again where art is becoming something only for a very small minority of people at the top of the food chain.  A lot of artists are pandering to that and are making work that is so vacuous and devoid of any kind of questioning or personality, and I think that is a real shame because they are so wary of biting the hand that feeds. I have no concern about that.  I really don’t care who I upset, as long as I am not being an asshole.

Over the course of your career, can you think of one piece of advice that was given to you or something which happened which put you on the course that you are on now? 

Plenty! You have to have your eyes open. I think the best bit of advice I try to give to people is about the power in 'doing'. It is really easy right at the beginning of your journey to be deterred when things don’t match your expectation. I can see how people get to various phases in their career and something doesn’t match their expectation of where they thought they would be, then they get really disheartened and discouraged; it becomes a really stifling energy. The way I feel people really succeed creatively in going to that next level is just by constantly doing, doing, doing and seeing things through. I think about the amount of half-finished art works I have done because I was really discouraged by it not looking like the way it was in my head and discarding it. We learn from everything we do. Maintaining momentum is very important.
 

  • For more insights and ideas about the creative process, track down a copy of Hunting the Killer Idea by Nick McFarlane or head to his website.