LUKE RAMSEY INTERVIEW
What was your favourite book growing up?
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl, and I was always taken by Richard Scarry’s books too.
Richard Scarry’s Busy Busy World is my favourite book of all-time. I really hope they never try to turn them into live-action movies.
You know they will. I read that there’s a Lego movie coming out. I’m a huge Thundercats fan, and I’m worried about the new movie that’s coming out, because the series is truly profound and the animation is solid. The animators from the original series went on to work for Studio Ghibli (Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle).
Your work shows up in galleries and on the street, which do you find more gratifying?
This is a question that sparks a lot in me right now, because I just worked on a commissioned street mural in San Francisco with artists, Zosen from Barcelona, and Doodles who lives in the city. It was quite a learning experience, because as we were creating it we received mixed reviews. For the most part, people were excited about what we were making, because it was colorful and something fresh for the busy neighborhood. The existing graffiti style mural had been there for six years, so there were some people attached to it and hostile to change. San Francisco has a very prominent graffiti culture, that doesn’t always break away from the typical writer style, with the exception of SF legends like Barry McGee and Chris Johanson. People would ask me if I write (like tags) and because I don’t, it gives me less street cred in their perception of me. I really don’t enjoy that macho, territorial and ego based culture of graffiti. Art is art, whether you write or not.
The street is for everyone. I can respect graffiti’s roots and brother/sisterhood, but I see its limits and find some of its culture more pretentious than the gallery world. Public art and gallery art are two different worlds to me. I’m not too inspired about seeing street work in the galleries, but I guess the positive side of it is that it can introduce people to another form of art. I like gallery work, because it’s viewed by people who care more about art. People don’t walk into galleries unless they want to look at art, where as street art – everybody walks by it. Street work is exposed to the majority and lends itself to more response, an aspect that I like more. The street has a more renegade, do what you want vibe. I also feel that it’s selfish to use the street as a canvas to communicate to a specific and small audience.
When I was younger and more punk, I thought graffiti was such a great expression for opposing the “man” and the “system’s” idea of normality and order. Now I don’t see it in that way. I’m aware that there’s billboards in the city that are even more offensive than graffiti. I even got busted for doing graffiti on a Lotto 649 billboard many years ago, and got no record fortunately. Now, I see art as a very powerful tool that has more constructive outlets that can go beyond the street. There’s no doubt that there is some beautiful, intelligent graffiti out there, but I don’t relate to some large burner that has someone’s “name”, that only reads to a small amount of people, who either respect it or write “toy” over it. I don’t want to say that it’s wrong, it’s not. Regardless of how bad or good my opinion thinks it is, it’s still a form of artistic expression that I can respect on some level. I just feel that alot of it creates more public aggression towards art and can make people regard all street work as vandalism.
Vancouver has got to be one of the worst cities for hating on graffiti. Heck, all of North America hates on it, but I can understand why. People want to live in clean neighborhoods that they can take pride in. Tags and bad graffiti leaves a sour taste in people. I’ve even seen tags on living trees on the rural island I live on. Street art is not all about tags. I’m writing allot about tagging, because it’s a very prominent part of street “art”, and it’s not going away, so acceptance is important and helps me move forward. It’s really special when credible graffiti artists make commemorative murals for people who have passed away in the neighborhood and other commissioned work like this. I love seeing street art that has a story- a message. Cities like New York and Toronto are incredible for seeing the stories and language in graffiti and street art. Maybe the bar is raised a little higher in the bigger cities, so you see more solid work.
I just feel that art can unify people more than alienate them. For example, I think there’s a reason you hear more Beatles on the radio than Skinny Puppy. I love Skinny Puppy (Vancouver industrial/synth rock), but I know more people that identify with The Beatles. Does that make sense? Skinny Puppy have their place and it’s a good place, but if we constantly heard their music on the radio, we’d live in a crazier world. I’m not saying that art needs to be more mainstream and be all about love and peace. I’m just trying to say that there’s a responsibility with street art, because it’s exposed to all walks of life. There’s a lot of different people living in the city and of course you can’t please everybody, but there can be an effort to communicate to the core of humanity. Art comes from a personal place and I respect that expression, but when doing something in public I feel that there needs to be more art that embraces common similarities that people can identify with. Even if it has a “wow factor,” it still connects to that visual feeling we have within us all.
In parts of England, communities take votes on street art and if it should be buffed or kept. That’s pretty amazing to see that kind of progression with street art’s acceptance. It doesn’t have to be limited to a rebel, against the grain approach. North America needs to follow suit in Europe’s appreciation of street art, but to do so, there needs to be more good street art that people would want in their neighborhoods. I feel that tags are not going to help in that direction. I also think that the “street art” movement is way over hyped. Yes, it’s fresh and I like art that is in the now, but there’s only one Bansky and a million knock offs. I love Bansky, because he bridged the gap. He made street art exciting again, just like Keith Haring did and countless others in the history of art, but now it’s time for something new. Obviously nobody knows what that is, and by the time it’s discovered, it will be packaged up, sold and become old real fast.
As long as there are humans are on the planet, graffiti will be around. It’s no trend, it’s the market that makes it a trend. I do my best to respect all forms of artistic expression. It’s just harder now, because as amazing as it is that we have the web to see more, we also get to see more junk too. Now anybody can make an online post, publish a book, make a movie, a record. Is that good? Yes and no. There’s also more galleries too. I think gallery work can have more creative freedom, because there’s less responsibility on how it is viewed. It’s even more gratifying when you find your people, and find galleries that truly believe in your art and are not just trying to fill a spot. I find making gallery work gratifying, because I can create it in my comfort zone. I don’t get a thrill from making art and having to watch over my shoulder, because a law says I’m not allowed to do it on the street. I do see why artists enjoy that rush, it’s just not my rush. Am I getting too soft? Maybe. Most of the gallery world is tainted by money and giving art a monetary value, which can devalue its content. Where as the street doesn’t come with that. It’s very admirable when a street artist spends hours on a piece just for the sheer thrill of making it. There’s no one giving that artist a paycheck. The street has a more primal landscape. So, I guess I went off on a few tangents and rants there. So, my overly long answer is – I find both have gratifying aspects, and both have their draw backs too. There’s no greater art than making love, so I’ll try not to give my opinions too much value.
The internet has definitely allowed more people to make more things more easily. Of course this accessibility brings with it a whole wave of bad work and it can be discouraging when the bad work camouflages the good work. I think eventually the sheer amount of bad work just becomes “white noise”, and the good work stands out again.
I couldn’t agree with you more, but I also think that allot of people don’t know what’s good anymore, because they are fed so much fodder. I’m not the authority on good taste by any means. I like some bad movies and cheesy dance hits. I just feel that advertising and big money has had such an influence on people’s taste. I was in Seattle drinking really good, fare trade coffee at Zeitgeist Cafe. Right next door is a Starbucks with a line out the door. I am just so shocked by people’s unawareness of quality. It’s like people have been brainwashed to believe that a Big Mac tastes good, so they have a hard time paying three times as much for a burger that has real food in it and tastes better. Of course, I can’t judge on what one person’s gold is, to another person’s mold. I just think a lot of quality art and music can be overlooked. White noise. I like that. There’s an old expression: cream always rises to the top. So, there’s hope and your right, the good work always stands out. I feel fortunate that I can make a modest living, because people like my little drawings. I know that one could measure up my work and say it lacks quality and compare it to epic master paintings or whatever, or say it’s too much like this and not enough like that, but at the end of the day, I just try to put as much of me and my heart into the work as I can. To have fun with it and experiment with where it goes. That’s what makes me feel the quality in it, and its a delightful bonus when others feel that with me too.
Did you go to art school?
Have you made any drawings about the swine flu?
Not yet. I think swine flu was made by the very people who make the vaccines. It’s all about money and population control. The public is so easily manipulated by fear and misinformation. We should stop and ask why this flu came about in the first place? Ask about the ingredients in the vaccines and who owns the shares in the companies that make them. We need to put more trust into traditional knowledge, like the natives before us once understood. Healing ourselves by natural means and having more responsibility on our health by preventing sickness. Do I trust our health care and government? Hell no! Do I appreciate the fact that if I break my leg, I can’t fix it with herbs? For sure. We need both sides of medicine.
In what ways do you think your work has changed over the years?
I think some of my work has gotten a little darker over the past few years, and I want to bring it back to the light. I also want to try and work bigger and not limit myself to the size of my scanner.
Have you made any really large scale works? I have always loved BLU and Os Gemeos and their large scale works and I would love to see some of yours really big. Especially the figures with the brain-like patterning.
Well, now that you mention it, I went out to Edmonton this past summer to work on concepts for a huge mural for a five story building. I’m collaborating with Josh Holinaty, and the city of Edmonton is paying for the whole project which is set for completion next summer. We actually showed the board members an image of BLU’s huge piece on The Tate Modern in London, to give them an idea of what we are inspired by.
Do you ever avoid awkward situations by pretending to text on your phone?
I’ve never owned a cell phone, but after being in California for four weeks, I’m starting to think I need one. Pretending to text makes things more awkward. It’s crazy. There could be rainbow colored angels flying from the clouds above and nobody would see them, because their heads are buried in their cellphones.
What’s the best part about living on the island?
Living on an island.
For those that don’t know, you also run Islands Fold a free artist residency program there. How’s that going? Do you have an artist over there right now?
It’s been going really well. Sure it has it’s challenges, but what doesn’t? We’re coming up on four years of doing it. We’ve had 30 artists to date, and our last resident was Ron Regé Jr. We’re currently taking a break from offering residencies, so we can catch up on projects, save some money and work on better ways to keep it funded. My girlfriend Angela and I fund it all ourselves, and we are supported by the generosity of artist contributions, shops and people who buy our art and zines online. It’s basically breaking even, so we’re happy about that, but we have more ambitious projects that need more funding, and a long list of artists to have residencies with. It’s not a rushed journey, because we’re in it for creating an experience, not a financial empire. It’s an art farm, so it takes time.
What other artists are you really diggin’ these days?
We recently saw Mel Kadel’s show at Fecal Face Gallery in SF. It had allot of wow factor and depth. I’m diggin’ on many artists. Chris Johanson, Marc Bell and Andy Goldsworthy are a few of my favorites. I also like Will Sweeney, Keegan McHargue, Bo Dick, Jon Boam, Swoon, Andy Rementer, REMED, Jen Stark, BLU, Brian Jungen, Theo Ellsworth, Michael Swaney and Yuichi Yokoyama. I could go and on. My 12 year old neighbor Finlay Poque makes some really exciting drawings. We’ve made a zine together.
Can we wrap up this interview with a quote or some words to live by?
How about another rant? People keep taking about how we’re destroying the world and then they continue to destroy the world. Don’t worry about 2012. It’s not about destruction, it’s about a shift in consciousness and a rebirth of love and understanding. There will be less testosterone and more estrogen. These religious nuts got it all messed up. It’s not about Armageddon, it’s about change, because Mother Nature needs it. Humans think we’re smart. We think too much. We need to start feeling more. There’s too much focus on technology and the future. Yes, technology is amazing, but we need to focus more on the now and embrace natural wonders. Like how cool is it that when we get cut – our skin heals. Or how amazing it is that when we plant a seed and give it water – it grows. Get fascinated by the simple things. Watching NASA send a missile to the moon and then Twittering about it on a cell phone, just doesn’t seem all that evolved. Choose love and light, because it feels good.