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.)