Story by Matt Litwack, Photos by Askew
Hailing from the one of the farthest corners of the earth, New Zealand based artist Askew TMD has taken a long, somewhat unconventional path in the world of street art and mural painting. With strong roots in traditional graffiti aesthetics, he has made a rapid transition into full-scale abstract and portrait works, displaying his versatility and forward thinking not only as an artist but someone in touch with the general human condition.
With well over two decades of experience writing, Askew has traveled and painted extensively all throughout the globe, collaborating on walls with some of today’s most prominent graffiti artists throughout Europe, North America, and Oceania. His vibrant use of color, and distinct painting techniques help separate his work from many of his peers in the graffiti community.
While not exclusively geared in this direction, much of Askew’s recent works draw influence from the unique cultural elements that play a vital role in the social dynamics that have shaped contemporary life in the Pacific Islands. We sat down with Askew to discuss the evolution of his artistic motivations, and how he hopes to share a greater message with people through his murals.
Matt Litwack: How do feel living in such an isolated part of the planet affected your creative development over the years? Would you say being from New Zealand has made it more difficult to emerge as an artist?
Askew: This has affected me in so many ways, in fact it’s possibly one of the biggest driving factors in how I approached everything from first getting my name out there to what I’m dealing with conceptually in my studio paintings today. I’ve called it the gift and the curse before, so many plus sides to being from and based out here but there are definitely some hurdles too. A plus side is the unique mix of cultures here in my city and that has shaped so much of who I am and what is important to me. The main barriers of being based in an isolated place are purely economic and perhaps opportunity based but even those are due to economic factors in all truth.
ML: You have now made a seemingly smooth transition from traditional graffiti to fine art and larger scale public works. Was this progression natural, or one you had to really reassess before embarking on?
A: In retrospect it has been a fairly quick transition but it never felt entirely smooth. I’ve had to really approach both the large mural and studio works from a very different place compared to what was typically driving my graffiti. I’m not feeling the same sense of competition or urgency with this stuff, it has to mature the right way, ideas have to be researched, sink in and develop. I’m not feeling that FOMO I used to get in graffiti where I felt left out whenever anyone else did something I envied or wished I had done first. This is much more personal in the sense that I’m learning so much as I read more, travel more and connect with people. It’s a reflection of that experience. Graffiti has become more of a release, something I do for fun, for social reasons and also to honor my friends that have passed away.
ML: The use of ”astro” caps really adds a ton of depth to your work and displays a strong graffiti aesthetic that is not overbearing. What was the trial and error process like that led you to popularizing this technique over the years?
A: I actually use astro’s for everything, even my skinny line work. It’s a versatile cap and to me I gravitated to using it so much because it’s like the spray equivalent of a brush – you can give so much expression to a line in one go without faking it. I was always longing for that in my pieces, I don’t know if I’ve always pulled it off but that was often the motivation. Something I always liked about that cap was the ability to create lines that felt like they were in 3D space, that could wrap around a form or move toward or away from the viewer.
ML: How do you choose your subjects for the portraits you paint? Are they politically or socially motivated? What has made you want to explore non-traditional color pallets with these photo realistic works?
A: My subjects are almost always people from the Pacific region, mostly the South Pacific but not exclusively. They are all people who are connected by this regions incredible history. I chose this subject matter because it’s so familiar to me but I still have so much I want and have to learn and so the people and places have become the vehicle to guide me through these stories and the issues that are important. The low laying pacific island nations are truly at the very frontline of a lot of global issues and people don’t realise. If you spend time in places like for example Samoa you will see the impact of climate change and globalisation. It’s very complex and even though there are trade compromises the governments of these nations make to create better infrastructure and health care for example, the damage to reef systems by way of water acidification from rising water temperatures, and increasingly pollution from foreign entities working within their waters, the growing inequality as the young and able gravitate from villages to urban centres or abroad for work all threaten their cultural autonomy and way of life. I have a lot more to say on these issues and next year it will be much stronger in my work.
ML: Do you see your work as something able to impact local communities? What do you hope individuals can take away from your murals?
A: I think on the immediate level, locally, yes it has a positive effect in the community. What I hope is I can garner more attention, awareness and understanding internationally to the various pacific cultures and the issues pertaining to them. What has been happening organically is people all over the world have found some sort of resonance in this work – in reaction to my show in LA, a lot of people referred to my paintings as ‘afrocentric’ when they posted them to instagram or on blogs etc, which was interesting because that wasn’t my intention. What was cool about that was they drew me to see the similarity in colour palette’s, symbolism and iconography that spans across so many cultures. This reminded me that ultimately that the concerns transcend just being ‘exclusively pacific’ – they are ‘human’ concerns.
ML: Above and beyond everything, what would you say graffiti has taught you most about life?
A: Graffiti taught me a lot about the worst and best in myself and others. It has been an amazing vehicle in finding and defining myself, particularly in my teens and twenty’s. Graffiti most certainly taught me how ridiculous the human fixation with material things is. It’s been a great vehicle for me to travel, bond and experience a side of the world a lot of people haven’t which is awesome. I also think graffiti can be a hindrance to your development as an artist (if that becomes a goal for you) as you get older and you have to begin to let go of it on some level. Not like give it up but just be mature about it, not be overly nostalgic or bitter. I’ve encountered a really strong sense of entitlement within some people who don’t have anything else in their life to pursue. It’s a bit of that washed up star quarterback type mentality and it can be kind of sad.