Monday, December 14, 2009

Exclusive Interview with London-Based Street Artist olive47

Drifter Media (DM) was able to wrangle an interview with busy American street artist, olive47 (o47), at her studio in London on Sunday, gaining significant insight to her work, what Miss Cupcake is up to, and the cuteness factor ...

[Pictures credit:  olive47© -- The Miss Cupcake© Cuteness Army is coming to a store near you.]

DM:  Why do you use the name olive47?  What's the significance of the tag?

o47:  'olive47' (all one word and lowercase) was my first internet name back in 1993 or '94.  It was made up randomly as part of a prank my housemate and I were playing on his then girlfriend.  She liked to go into AOL chat rooms and stir up trouble, so he sent me in to mess with her.  I kept using it because I don't feel comfortable claiming my art in my given name.  I wanted to separate the person from the imagery.  Also, 47 is the most commonly used random number, so I saw that it could encompass all the random projects I do under one moniker.  I've had quite a few people think that I am more than one person.  That's fine with me.

DM:  You're based in London now, right, having moved from L.A.?  How do you find the street-artist scene here?  What about in Europe at large?

o47:  The European scene seems to be much more prolific, yet subtle, if that makes sense.  Socially, there seems to be less of a separation between the graff artists and the street artists than what I encountered in the States.  The people I have met here have been really kind and accepting of me and my work.  I don't see as much posturing as I did at events in the States, but maybe that's just my experience.  Work-wise, you don't see the absolute repeat of image advert bill-style here like you would in L.A. or NYC.  I think that's refreshing.  I like coming across the work of others without having it shoved in my face all the time.

In a lot of cities here, street art almost seems accepted in certain areas ... there isn't the criminal aspect that there is in the States.  For instance, in El Borne and the Gothic areas in Barcelona, you see it everywhere, intermingled with the architecture.  Respect is still paid to the structure.  It's not that 'fu**ing-sh**-up' mentality, but more about decorating the urban landscape with new lifeforms.

[An olive47 pig character in the lower left-hand corner on a wall in Barcelona's gothic quarter, September 2008.]

DM:  What materials encompass your art work?

o47:  I started off as a painter, became a graphic designer, so then came the stickers.  I like using stickers as they are quick and painless.  They appeal to all age groups and it's an easy way to subtly get my message across to the masses.  Then I went on to wheat paste.  I do a lot of hand painting in my paste ups now.  I don't really like to use aerosol, as I used to watch the gang kids get busted with it all the time in LA.  I am much too delicate for jail.

DM:  Tell us about Miss Cupcake, please.

o47:  Miss Cupcake is a character I came up with in '05.  It was just at the beginning of the 'cupcake trend' in L.A. and all my office mates were having spaz attacks for red-velvet cupcakes.  So I doodled her up one day almost as a reaction to the idea of the globally-collective trend machine.

So, I stick those around for a while (I actually traveled a lot that year), so they were everywhere.  And one day, I get an email from a producer asking if I would want to make some toys with her and some of the other characters.  So, three years later, there you go ... She's doing really well and we're working on 'Series 2' and have confirmed most of the artists for an artist series as well.  (That's top secret for now, though.)

[Miss Cupcake© and pals acting up in Berlin, March 2008.]

DM:  What are the London/Europe-at-large trends right now, globally, for street art?  Is London ground zero for street artists today?  What about New York or Los Angeles?

o47:  Oh, beats the fu** out of me.  I wouldn't say London is "ground zero."  Any major city is going to have a lot of play.  The problem with that is that you're always going to have a lot of posers just trying to hang with a scene.  Putting up work not because they have to make art, but because they think if they get up enough, it's going to make them somebody.  That's all well and good, but the work still doesn't mean anything ...

What's cool is driving through the countryside in various countries over here, seeing what kids in the sticks are putting up.  That's the grounds of some of the real unfazed creativity.  Of any place that's really kicking it right now, I would have to say Brazil is doing it.  So many great people coming out of there.  Highraff and Milo Tchais, Os Gemeos, Nunca, Titifreak ...

[One of olive47's slug characters adorns a little piece of Barcelona's gothic quarter, September 2008.]

DM:  Who are your influences, or what styles have influenced you the most?

o47:  Most of my artistic influence comes from life outside of art.  Whatever is going on in my life or popular culture is what drives me ... it's like the great escape of trying to assimilate the chaos into a palatable vision.  I'd say things that drove me were the book, 'Busy Busy World,' by Richard Scarry.  It was my favourite book as a small kid.  It contains stories about all the countries in the world and they all star animals.  It had a big map of the world in the front and I would study it fastidiously.  I credit it for the wanderlust that obsesses me today.

So, to answer your question in a roundabout way, I've always drawn these cute goofy animals.  I get a lot of comparisons to Japanese-style work.  But my work has always kind of looked like this.  I am really interested in the principles of Kawaii and the whole psychology of cute.

In Japan, cuteness is revered, and often used to soften up the society for the purpose of cushioning power relations and presenting authority without being threatening.  Cute animals and creatures are used to advertise businesses from banks to water suppliers to auto manufacturers.  As artists, we are thrown into the role of the creator; perhaps we all have god complexes.  Each piece of work produced creates a whole new experience in our existence for those who view it.  The power to manipulate another's feelings through something, one creates a divine power that can be wielded in many ways.

Using those techniques and "cute signals" in my work allows me, in some wa,y to manipulate people into a lighter, more relaxed state of mind, even if it is just for those 10 seconds when they first come across a piece. You change them.

I also really dig the work of Howard Finster, Tressa Prisbrey and other folk artists who built their own landscapes.  It wasn't for fame or gallery recognition, but because of sheer obsession, whether visual or of divine commandment.  I find that kind of dedication to one's vision is admirable.

DM:  Do you have any commercial or privately-commissioned projects right now?

o47:  As I mentioned earlier, I'm gearing up to do more series of the cupcake and after that we are releasing another character next yr, so pretty busy with that ... I am doing a couple of small private commissions at the moment, trying to make my way through animating a music video and working as a prop person for theatre.

[Some of olive47's tilework in Barcelona's El Raval neighborhood, September 2008.]

DM:  Would you say that your professional/personal creative goals are heading in the right direction?  Are they compatible to one another, or in sync with each other?

o47:  That's always a tough question.  It seems like my goals change on a weekly/hourly basis -- plus whenever I think I have everything figured out, things have a way of changing themselves up and taking a new direction.  All I can say is that I hope I'm on the right path.

[Miss Cupcake© seen here competing for attention amid other artwork in Berlin in 2008, though the sticker was placed in '06.]

DM:  Finally, you do a lot of photography, too, don't you?  Do you ever incorporate that into your street art stuff?

o47:  Yeah, I do tons of photography.  I actually own 8 cameras ... everything from a proper 35mm to a Japanese mini Polaroid.  I've thought about using it in my street work, but I haven't really figured the right thing with that.  I use it in illustrations sometimes, but mainly, I use my photos as reference material or for documentary purposes.  I have a terrible memory, and it's a great tool in aiding with that, particularly with the advent of the cheap digital camera.  I used to go through so much film.


olive47's work can be seen and purchased here.

(Disclaimer:  Drifter Media took the liberty of adding hyperlinks in this published interview.)

Monday, December 7, 2009

Exclusive Dispatch from Libya's Capital, Tripoli -- By François S. Truffaut

[Picture credit:  François S. Truffaut© -- An iconic flag adorned with the face of 'Brother Guide' Col. Muammar Gaddafi hangs over a street in Tripoli, Libya's Mediterranean-coast capital.]

TRIPOLI, Libya (DM) -- Spending two weeks in Tripoli feels like being stranded in a deserted Sudanese airport for several days.  I know, I’ve tried it. 

At first sight, Libya’s capital and largest city looks like any other urban mess in a lost desert. Scatterings of gray, box-like unfinished buildings of bare concrete surrounded by dusty roads and dirty-green, under-watered garden plots.  No trees.  It would seem entirely barren if it weren’t on the Mediterranean seashore.

[Pictures credit:  Courtesy Libyan government via Wikipedia of Tripoli.]

Libya, otherwise known to Libyans and others as the Great Socialist Peoples Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, is one of these places where you’re very quickly made to grasp the absolute power of the authorities.  Anyone in uniform behaves as if he (it’s always men) owned the country. The police forces’ favourite pastime seems to be spoiling one’s day.  At the airport, I was made to wait in line for 20 minutes for an immigration stamp (the fifth one).  The young officer made quite a show of snapping his fingers at me (that’s local cop sign language for “come to the booth”) and then waving me back to the line, three consecutive times.  He then came out of the booth, lit a cigarette, and wandered around ostentatiously waiting for signs of exasperation…

I was expecting something like this after the attendants aboard our flight told us our landing would be delayed by 30 minutes because “a VIP is landing.”  Don’t laugh, Tony Blair, the former English prime minister, is said to be a regular visitor.  Silvio Berlusconi and Sarkozy’s former wives drop in from time to time, too.  It seems these days everyone is rushing to visit the 'Guide,' or 'Brother Guide,' as they call leader Muammar al-Gaddafi.  He has been in absolute, autocratic power since the coup d'etat in 1969.

I admit I’ve been puzzled by his seemingly overnight popularity with Western leaders for a while.  (DM ed. note:  He is quite popular throughout Africa, too, doling out money for development and peddling his influence at the same time.)  That was until somebody explained that Libya has traditionally had the largest proven oil reserves in Africa -- way ahead of Nigeria or Angola.  Libya is a major player in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), though that could be changing.

Tripoli’s airport verifies Tropical-Trip Rule Number 1:  The weaker a country’s institutions, the more stamps your passport will get.  After a single-entry trip to Libya, I counted eight of them -- in green, purple, red and black.  The airport looks a lot like the bombed-out center of Brazzaville (capital of the Republic of the Congo) a few years ago.  But cranes everywhere attest to the investment rush storming the country.  Half of the country’s six-million people live in or close to the capital.  Actually. I was told it’s now more like seven million, as the Guide has supposedly granted Libyan nationality recently to roughly one million desert-roaming Tuareg peoples, probably to annoy his southern neighbours in Chad and Niger, who are constantly fighting Tuareg rebellions.

Downtown Tripoli, next to the old town medina surrounded by a massive fortress wall, is obviously an attempt to copy Dubai.  Flashy new towers are being built, new gardens are being planted and a few luxury hotels are opening for business.  It’s soulless, empty and somewhat out of place.  The weird thing is that existing buildings, many not too old, are being pulled down just to be replaced, regardless of the several empty wastelands along the coast, where development could migrate but isn't.  But I was told this is a local "habit."  An expatriate was telling me about the street he lives on.  Apparently, perfectly good sidewalks are destroyed and rebuilt, identically, every two years. Somebody must be making the best of that public contract …

[Picture credit:  Courtesy Libyan government copy of visa from image obtained online at]

What the center of Tripoli doesn’t reveal is the extreme isolationism Libya has been under -- until recently.  There was no such thing as a 'Libyan state' before 1951, when Western powers found it convenient to prop up a king.  National institutions are half a century old.  The 1969 “Revolution” -- really a bloodless coup supposedly postponed by a day so as to not ruin a concert planned by Egyptian superstar Umm Kulthum (also see Om Kalthoum spelling) at the time -- did not exactly open up Libya to the world (or roll out the 'welcome mat' to foreigners).  All outside influences were rejected as “non-socialist.”  Years of embargoes and sanctions by the U.S. and the UN, enacted out of protest against Libya’s support to various terrorist groups, finished the job on branding the country a pariah state.  The sanctions were lifted in recent years, but the damage still lingers.

The education system in the country is a joke.  I was loosely and anecdotally informed of Libyan engineers with locally-accredited graduate degrees who couldn't master basic math and couldn’t give you the weight of a cubed meter of water, if asked on the spot.  But more and more Libyans are going abroad for training and university studies.  Surprisingly, most come back to Libya.  The borders are not closed to them.

And yet, I have never heard so many comparisons with the old East Germany back in the communist days. Mostly by people who have never set foot in the 'DDR.'  But it seems the Libyan secret police has eyes and ears everywhere.  Even Skype conversations are said to be tapped.  Everyone is supposedly assigned somebody to watch, and report on.  All companies have quiet yet official “security representatives,” who speak openly of their affiliation with the authorities.  Apparently, the worst offense is -- criticizing the Brother Leader. 

That gets you a one-way ticket home if you’re a foreigner.  But I'm sure it's probably much worse if you’re a local.  I was told of two expats who raised a fuss after being told by a local coastal lifeguard they couldn’t go for a swim on that particular day.  They moaned and pleaded with the guard, which accomplished nothing.  Then getting really worked up, they started ranting in German against the autorities in general.  They were sent back home in less than 24 hours!

Unsurprisingly, many Italians seem to have a different, easier-going approach. The Italians and Libyans weren’t always on such friendly terms, since facist Italy brutally colonized the place in the early 20th Century ... then the Italians reportedly allowed some of Reagan’s bombers to refuel in Italy before dropping their load on Gaddafi’s palace in 1986.  (It’s also said that Bettino Craxi, a legendary crook even by Italian political-corruption standards, was the one who gave the Guide a quick heads up minutes before U.S. Air Force F-111s flattened a few buildings and killed Gaddaffi’s adopted daughter.

[Picture credit:  Drifter Media© archives -- 'Brother Guide' Col. Muammar Gaddafi and an unusually small entourage walk the red carpet in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in early 2007 after disembarking his personal plane.]

But if everyone here remembers the past, including the public hangings of dissidents in the 1980s, no one knows what the future holds, for sure.  The Guide officially has stated that his son Saif al-Islam (which apparently translates into “Sword of Islam”) was going to succeed him.  He is perceived as a moderate, compared to old hardliners of the regime.  Still, don’t hold your breath.  Sitting on mountains of oil usually doesn’t do wonders for your reformist momentum … nor do hour-and-a-half-long tirades at the UN General Assembly in New York.

[Pictures credit:  François S. Truffaut© -- the ruins of Leptis Magna, a good hour's drive east of Tripoli, on the coast ... November 2009.]

Mr. Truffaut submitted this piece to Drifter Media without hyperlinks ... DM took the liberty to add them.