What Is Originality?

The topic of originality within graffiti, the mural movement and art more broadly is complex for me. I actually feel a multitude of ways and it may come across paradoxically at times.

On one hand graffiti has always prized the idea of originality and emphasis on not ‘biting’ other people’s styles. This concept is pretty funny because influence is unavoidable. I’ve always agreed with the idea that graffiti is a folk art and a conversation. At the point of conception it’s pretty easy to identify the original creator of an idea  (within the context of graffiti) but it’s harder to distill that years on once that idea has been absorbed into the general aesthetic language - think arrows, halos and crowns. Furthermore graffiti has always sampled from popular culture. Who is to say at any time an idea hasn’t seeped from elsewhere like advertising, sign writing, comic books, album cover art work, graphic design etc? 

On the other hand some people are great at syphoning outside influences and through recombination of those creating a fresh take. Others decide on a motif early and run with it for so long that they secure a form of ownership that goes unsaid but recognised at large.

That was the whole premise of ‘Netching’ where Berst and I started to work on each others pieces, giving total permission to each other to change, adapt or absorb any element of the piece in order to free ourselves from our usual constraints.

During the span of my career I’ve found myself in both positions - As a graffiti writer I’ve taken influence from a multitude of sources and tried my very best to mix them in interesting ways to find something new. What am I without the influence (Either Aesthetically or attitude) of Loomit, Daim, Delta, Merda, Mean, Phat1, Exist, Can2, Atom, Wow123, Smash137, Mode2, Revok, Rime, Zes, Roids, Krush, Tyke, Ewok, Saber, Pose, Berst, Vents, Ikon, Sofles, Vans… The list goes on! What would my fine art be without the influence of Jacques Villiglé, Mimo Rotella, Shane Cotton, Mathew Stone, Judy Millar, Katharina Grosse, Avery Singer, Cain Caser and all the other artists I admire so much? Along the way there have been bumps, moments where I’ve allowed myself to become too influenced. These moments are usually brief because I truly value those artists and value myself - I want to contribute in a genuine way. 

There have been times that I’ve developed an idea only to stumble over another artists work that is strikingly similar and neither of us have been aware of each other prior - it’s just part of the zeitgeist I guess. In some contexts I’ve felt really liberated by surrendering from my fixation with maintaining total individuality and it’s paid off in unexpected ways. That was the whole premise of ‘Netching’ where Berst and I started to work on each others pieces, giving total permission to each other to change, adapt or absorb any element of the piece in order to free ourselves from our usual constraints. The benefit was it ended up speeding up our development exponentially and the more people we brought into the conversation the more it caught on and we saw elements from those pieces being adopted more broadly by the scene.

I’ve also found myself on the other side of things, feeling that particular elements we believed were distinctive to us (at least in origin) were being taken without respect to that conversation. I have felt a certain way about a couple of artists and have also stood my ground with corporate entities that have taken or emulated my work without consent. It’s tricky because in an ideal world I’d be creative purely for the love of it but I also support myself and my family with this and so I need to rely on the existence of established IP law to protect against an infringement when it arises. If you’ve ever found yourself in this position then you know that it’s tricky. There are rigid protections for photographers working in public space for example but generally for those of us painting graffiti or large murals it can be complex. A lot of these battles are fought along moral lines, appealing to these corporate entities on a level beyond cut and dry law. Some recent high profile battles have been mostly swayed by public backlash towards brands who otherwise would’ve stayed intent on doubling down.

Creativity is about risk taking, trying things out that may not be immediately understood or popular. It’s easy to follow a blueprint that has been laid out for you but veering from that is where things get really fun.

I want to circle back to graffiti though. There’s one artist that has drawn a lot of influence from multiple aspects of my art making for the least the last 7 years. So much so that it goes beyond being a coincidence. Early on they used to follow me on IG and actively like and comment on posts but after a few of my friends called them out on their comments they unfollowed me and then tried to write me out of the conversation, never admitting or giving credit for the influence.  I’ve never called them out because I’ve felt it’s pretty obvious and have always believed that anyone with even a shred of knowledge would understand the order of things. This artist actually narrowed in on a particular era of my work and has stayed stuck there even as I’ve kept pushing creatively and moved on. I guess I always got some solace in the fact that I move on fast. I always want to take the higher ground because I don’t enjoy or need conflict in my life.

If I’m going to be completely real there’s at least a little twinge of jealousy on my behalf. This artist has a huge following on social media, primarily because they understood how to really play that game right. They seized really well on the power of video on that platform. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t care about my online presence, I grew up in an isolated country so the internet has always played a huge part in helping me promote my work. My online following really plateaued years back so I have always had to keep telling myself I don’t care. To be honest, deep down I do. It stings when young artists start accusing you of taking influence from the very artist you feel copies you. I don’t blame them though because they genuinely may not know my history. It actually stings more when you decide (against your own better judgement) to go take a look at that artists page and see people you know complimenting them for ‘pushing the boundaries’. Hey, I’m only human!

I’m not going to call this artist out by name, people can join the dots if they want to. I’ve been on the receiving end of that 13 years ago and although it wound up being a hugely positive moment because it propelled me into the next phase of my career it was also sad and stressful. At that stage though I decided to push myself way harder creatively. I grew both individually and also it lead to a great creative partnership with Berst that shifted my whole approach and thinking. My only hope for this artist is they dig deep and find the inspiration to push forward in new and challenging ways. I hope they find it in themselves to get weird and venture into unknown territory for themselves. Creativity is about risk taking, trying things out that may not be immediately understood or popular. It’s easy to follow a blueprint that has been laid out for you but veering from that is where things get really fun. It requires some bravery to take that leap. I remember the moment I decided I wasn’t going to act like a student in graffiti anymore, I decided to take the training wheels off and go for it.

Anyway, I hope this post gets taken as it’s intended, tomorrow’s my 42nd birthday (today in NZ) so I’m going to switch off and have a relaxing weekend. Much love everyone.