Born and raised up in Catania, he studied in Milan and longly lived across Europe. Today he’s based in Stockholm, where he continues to operate as always did, with tools that he defines as “low cost” and with a minimal and conceptual approach. Vlady uses an ironic and sarcastic language, conceiving works with strong messages that have earned him a spot on the scene of international Street art.
Hi Vlady, would you like to tell us how did you start with art?
I started as a kid, like the most of us. My father painted and sculpted. I grew up with his art books at home. I chose to study art, first in high school and then at the academy, but when I finished Brera (art academy, Milan) I was confused and disillusioned; I dropped out to pursue art as a career almost immediately. I should have stuck to the teachers and pushed beyond my will, but I was not that kind. The studies had trained me but not prepared me for the labour market. The world of art seemed to me hostile, complicated, fictitious, conditioned by friendships and in any case unreachable. So I decided to take a step back, in my own way, deconstructing and rebuilding everything, without expectations. Evidently from this world one cannot easily go out; I’m still here, I’m inside, even if I did not enter the front door.
When did you start with street art?
I do not have an exact starting date; I extended my artistic playground very gradually. I went through drawing, painting and creating artefacts, until I reached the right dose of nihilism and carelessness that led me off the road.
How do you get the ideas for your work?
From two different inputs, apparently in conflict with each other: the social-economical decay and the wonder of nature, of the elements. I have often pursued this blend, halfway between decorative aesthetics and activism.
In Catania (my hometown) it seemed necessary to have these two sources merged. I had a great need to communicate my dissent but I did not want to give up the artistic flavour. It was impossible to close my eyes and only do art for art. My first “social” projects are rooted in the protest, in “artivism”. In 2010 my first exhibition in this direction, “Greetings from Satania“: a roundup of irreverent postcards depicting the B side of the city. Paper postcards, real, to send, but that no one had ever dared to conceive. They were introduced both illegally and lawfully in the market and immediately attracted the attention of the media.
This idea of mixing irony, art and protest was born in Dublin around 2006 (where I lived). The project lasted a few years and required hundreds of photographs, in the worst neighbourhoods. Even those postcards ended up in souvenirs shops, illicitly.
Where do you get the inspiration?
Today I draw very little from books or the web. My research starts from an idea, an intuition. Then check that the idea I have in mind has not already been represented. And ideas come from society, from the media, from social media, from the urban and natural environment. The creative process needs comparisons, foundations and footholds, those are often found in the work of others, across all the arts. This is important, especially in the initial phase of your journey. The bad thing is to deny it, not to recognize it. For example, it was very, very important to link myself to the colleagues I most thought close. It gave me a sense of belonging and made me feel less isolated. Life is made of encounters. Many others and me have perfected and defined around a site that made history, I say: Rebelart.net, by Alain Bieber. Today, unfortunately, the site is down and Alain lead an important cultural centre in Dusseldorf (NRW FORUM). His portal was tremendously rich of contents, name of artists, projects and genres never seen before. Alain has reviewed my work by surprise, several times. This has helped me and all the artists reviewed before me. What Alain Bieber put on, voluntarily or inevitably, was almost an artistic movement, which still holds its head up. He contributed to the launch of Brad Downey‘s Berlin work or the spread of OX activism. He investigated a scene that many, too many, did not even know, acting as a curator, rather than as a blogger.If we take into account that for years I consulted (actually we all did) this site nearly every day, this explains why so many of us are consciously or unconsciously closely linked to each other.
Without this and other sites, without network, many of us would have wandered in the dark, because the chances of having a fellow genius or to hit the right street art in our cities were then close to zero. That is why today we talk about post-graffiti and art in the Internet age –perhaps that’s how we could remember this historical period in the future.
In the end, everything can influence our art: cinema, TV series, music, a chat with a friend, an interview.
Is there a difference between making art in your city, in Italy or in the rest of the world?
Yes, there are substantial differences between operating in the north or the south of the world, sort of speaking. The street art acts change according to the environment. Subjects change, goals too. The rich cities have a lot of vigilance, the judgment of the people is more severe and the abandoned areas are limited. It is complicated to take spaces and have some freedom. But these cities offer more opportunities for those who come out in the open; there is more money. Berlin is an exception, I reckon.
More or less all artists in Europe have grown up in a regulated wealth, based on their parents work and dictated by education. As children they had cartoons, videogames, clean clothes and pre-defined borders. When a Westerner wants to transgress and provoke, he often does this by treading the same codes. Many kids of the middle class are playing as street gangs. When they go down the street to express themselves, they do it in a way that shows their background. In the rest of the world it is very different. Young people are on the street, they don’t pretend. In some places you live like in the trenches, fighting problems. Here art is more spontaneous, less intellectual; the boys go down the street to colour the neighbourhood. Something similar happens in southern Italy, coincidentally. Street art blooms in the absence of welfare state, in deprivation, with unemployment. A smudge-free society (or city) will hardly have a significant underground scene. Art will be only in the designated places. Moreover, where there are educated people who have the opportunity to spend, street art is also significantly different. Go see what Norwegian street artists do and put them in comparison with the Mexican ones.
I have worked for a long time in Sicily, until becoming iconic. I expressed a distinct glad melancholy, they say. I haven’t applied foreigner aesthetic criteria. I played with the real, the raw reality. I did not pretend to live in a ghetto; we in the south do not have to fake it. As a child I used to play in abandoned buildings and between the lava fields in the suburbs of Catania, in a poor council houses neighbourhood. That’s why I don’t like to emphasize these environments. I was close to violence, abuses and drugs. My education and my interests saved me, like rock music, which dominated at that time in Catania.
Your works are often conceptual, how come you have not undertaken a figurative way?
Probably because having studied decoration, I knew exactly what should not be done or redone. I would be too scared to repeat the gestures and the research of other painters of the twentieth century. At school for educational purposes several copies of art are made and levels of counterfeiters are often reached. You learn quickly that the technique is not everything. Once you master a musical instrument, you must learn how to put on a band… and finally say something of your own.
Today I could paint and decorate for work or play, I could illustrate, but I would not do it with “high” artistic intentions. I would not do my research.
I think I have much more room for experimentation by doing what I do, that is, interventions and urban activism. I believe in art as communication. In this sector there are many risky steps; failing on a communicative level is the biggest. The second risk is not being able to be completely original, because we embrace ideas and concepts that are both popular and current. However, failure is a strong incentive for improvements.
Where does the street art starts and where it ends, for you?
The term “Street art” is a great breeding ground for misunderstandings, even more sonorous than misunderstandings around another definition: “contemporary art”. There are two ways of seeing street art: inside art (and part of art) or different, aside. We don’t all agreed on this.
How do you see it?
I am for the first vision, because art is still one thing. Street art, Street wear or Street food … are however respectively art, fashion and cuisine. I would not make any discounts and I would not use different reading keys for Street Art… no more. The tricky thing is that if we use the same meter, very little Street art comes out with full marks, spotless.
Ok, I’ll explain. A big colourful graffiti on the walls of a suburb that portrays Bob Marley, is perhaps “Street art” but artistically will have little or no relevance. It is popular art, with a local, social value. This applies to much of Street art that we see around. When we then move on to the geometric and the abstract, everything takes on the flavour of a deceptive decorativism, because unlike the artistic avant-gardes of 80 years ago, today there is no such strong philosophy above it; there is no politics, no statements and no manifesto. The artists of the past dreamed of a different, revolutionized world. They were true intellectuals in the round, dedicated to a thousand things. Today it lacks a lot of this spirit. This pictorical street art we see today in buildings, however, can have its own identity, especially when clearly shows its legacy with graffiti. In this case it is new painting, a new genre; the definition of “Post-graffitism” can apply.
Another huge misunderstanding is that today the term “Street art” is almost exclusively referred to painting alone, to Neomuralism. So, not to everything that happens on the street, without rules, but only on the big walls, with the rules. In Italy we are still pretty much closed to the (classical) concept of two-dimensional aesthetics, linked to the myth of beauty; this consideration pushes me (and others like me) not to really feel part of this family of artists. I find myself on the edge of a phenomenon that although it is not a movement, but is represented by a well-identified bunch of fellas. The thing does not worry me anymore; actually today I consider it a value.
How do you create your interventions?
It’s fine with me to have little, as I do not need much. I’m against the unnecessary stuffs and if I can choose, I go for the minimalist solution. I believe in DIY, I generally self-produce everything I require or recover objects. The vast majority of my interventions have a cost close to zero. I have “solved” some works using glow-sticks for fishing, € 0.50 each. Or using a toilet paper roll. My shopping is more from the hardware store than from fine arts boutique; Do-it-yourself department stores are real playgrounds for me.
Sometimes I write as you would do in a busy squat or during a demonstration: simply with a dripping roller soaked in black. I write a lot but I do not dedicate myself to calligraphy, although evocatively I’m leading somewhere (the squat in fact, or the decadence). Even more often I use a stencil letter kit that I bought in Boston, which gives a higher and conceptual tone to the text, even when I mean to be ironic.
This kind of art’s approach does not make it much easier for me in the world of so-called “festivals”. This is due to a number of reasons: the festival wants the artist to “leave” something, which is also the desire of mayors / administrators who often finance projects or release approvals. And their concept of beauty rarely coincides with mine. Moreover, since in my sector no one earns substantially more than the other, we all find ourselves having a very similar cachet and an organizer for the same costs, will always invite the most mediatic ass artist. Their goal is not to discover, is to replicate. In Greece for example, my sponsor did not find a carpet and two rows of curbs to borrow. I had to create everything in studio, with just 70-80 € made available. I would like to point out that these are investments, not expenses: with a silly amount I created a visual that was much appreciated and used in many situations. I therefore invite anyone to make use of art, to engage artists giving them a chance.
What was the project that most committed you?
I keep away from projects that are too ambitious, if not financed. Otherwise my low-cost philosophy goes to hell. One of the most ambitious was giving birth to an idea in the shortest time possible, and then painting it in colossal dimensions: a 28 meter tall silos at the harbour of Catania. All in just seven days, in summer.
What is the biggest mistake that an artist should never commit?
Street artist’s mistakes aren’t those of a conventional artist/painter. And, I would call them ethical issues. Like to open your wallet to make your way. Lying on your past, on your studies, use Photoshop. I’ve seen doing similar things. Let’s say that the art world is full of impostors; it’s full of people pretending to. Fake galleries and exhibitions, scams, spam, rubbish, prints and canvases in faux urban style. But they are easy things to unmask, even quite funny. The serious mistake is to believe in anything: not knowing how to recognize where an honest review ends and where advertising begins; do not understand the interests of the curators when they are also collectors, or when they are artists; do not understand when there is a gallery or a publishing house behind. Here we have plenty conflicts of interest, big and small. At least once, we all did some confusion.
Which artists do you like from the Italian scene?
I do not like evasive answers when it comes to naming and giving credits but I think some premises are necessary. Taste luckily changes, changes with the art we make; otherwise we would be stuck in a spot. I liked many artists that today I do not follow anymore. Also, I do not look at the central names of Street art. I admire those on side, the edge, doing a hybrid job, cross over and transversal; in the outdoor, but beyond the usual codes. I prefer those who have a good consideration but keep away from the spotlight. The ubiquitous weary me, like those who preside over the social media all the time, offering only advertisement, or those that must involve everyone: I fell their celebrity anxiety over me. In any case, I don’t see many Italians who are capable of crossing the lines between urban and contemporary, who know how to mix well the languages and offer something extraordinary. Perhaps some are just emerging now. Let’s say that after all these years I still gladly look at the new works of Guido Bisagni aka 108, Marco Barbieri aka Dem or Ciredz‘s works. They come are associated with street art and have no affinity with my work. But in Italy I find it hard to associate myself with the work of others. This time I can mention Filippo Minelli – his writings or his project “Padania Classic”), The collective of Incompiuto Siciliano (Alterazioni video) and Rub Kandy, especially the works of some years ago, made abroad. Among the multidisciplinary craftsmen I follow with pleasure Massimo Sirelli.
Internationally we have the names I was previously referring to, people capable of moving very well through installations, walls, exhibitions, theses or genres. I like the chaos of the compositions of Brad Downey, Michael Dean or Alexandros Vasmoulakis. For various different reasons I like the texts in the space of John Fekner, Rero, Mobstr, Mais Menos. I follow and I appreciate the mission of OX and I like the theoretical world of Mathieu Tremblin, artists with whom I am collaborating. The list would be too long, but I want to name a few more: Helmut Smits, Dan Witz, Harmen De Hoop, Maria Anwander, Eltono, R1, Daan Botlek, Francis Alÿs, The Wa, Mark Jenkins, Vladimir Turner, Markus Butkereit… in a scattered and horizontal order.
What is not your cup of tea, then?
The hype, the Street art with pedigree, the one that became a format, the one that must come only from graffiti, seen as extension-evolution of the usual five taggers from the NY subway. The one that must necessarily carry around the world the Top 50, now swallowed up by the business, the one that pushes endlessly the photographs of Mrs Cooper; that of the blogs that act like press office for the events. That street art that turns into a circus for families, with workshops for small hijackers, a candy-threaded show and pop corn. I’m also bored by the one that has to suits well with our sofas, because it has become a product. Fuck the style, the perfect line and the colour for the “beauty” of the colour; that’s graphic design. Art can be much more than this.
So how the Street art should be in your opinion?
This name should be limited to certain production. Street art should coincide with uncommissioned art in the public space (and I mean commissioned and organized by no-one, spontaneous) and should represent the underground of the art scene, the margin of the system, the border of the law, taste, living rooms; should really be the “alternative” paths. Since we know the times we are living in, at least should be so in the most of the cases. The world of Street Art is increasingly mainstream. It’s somehow peculiar compared to the art of the elite, but it is no longer a counter-cultural phenomenon. Ok, there are plenty of exceptions to be made, but still, I have this feeling. Presumably, there is no culprit: Street art is a victim of its own success, but those who market it and actively take care of it, certainly have responsibilities in this regard. Exhibitions using the term “street art” are uncountable, but at the end of the story they just show paintings and canvases. They do not even bother to specify much, because the “street art” brand pulls too much to give it up.
We would need more places for independent research and more valid curators. But the feeling is that we have only an increase of painters, of names. The streets (or the squares) are democratic places; they embrace all generations and genres. Enough with listening (and accepting) one single truth, the one told by the great collectors and game makers. It is in the street that the action must take place. Who wants to support those street artists should do so in this area, not trying to rescue us (for safe and little fake places), but funding our site-specific ideas.
More projects are needed, in any space and form. To comprehend all this we must diverge a thousand light years from the concept of the local festivals for the sake of the neighbourhood. That’s not enough anymore, either because we grow up or because times change. Projects that should see us involved should not only be those that last five days and take place in conventional places, convenient to the city counsellor on duty. Let’s go in the forests, in the deserts. Art is something extremely powerful if placed in the hands of artists with a good vision, of curators with a good nose, of investors with the desire to dare. The public must be educated and not just fed and served. The more it will be, the more we will finally make art.
It is clear that this world now rotates around a big business: does street artist make good money out of that?
Many succeed in that, especially abroad. Star signing exorbitant contracts apart, today those who make more money are the virtuous executor of commissions, of pictorial works for wealthy parties and multinationals. These “artists” are the busiest; their agenda can be jam-packed. It is not said that they are the most appreciated or relevant out there, but they are the ones who have made it a profession. With the mere sale of canvases or one-time festival participation, you do not make good money, generally.
Sometimes I would like to take a more commercial way too, but then I get sane again. I do not have the guts, the stuff; I have to do what I better do. I have sold enough and surprisingly not to people from my own city. This is a medal.
Globally, there is an exaggerated gap between the king of sales and auctions (Banksy) and all the others. Bringing aFairey or an Invader is possible, but a Banksy, no.
Is there any artist you dream of collaborating with?
I do not know, but I have a prerogative: not with an egomaniac. I know colleagues who do not even agree to be tagged on Facebook. They refuse to be associated. They fear, of course. On the other hand, I appreciate those who make it simple: we did or we do similar things? I open the door to you or you to me. This is how it’s happening lately with someone. I appreciate those who dare to approach me, openly offering to collaborate, for example. I like to build relationships based on ideas. I do not evaluate personal matters. But I don’t look after collaborations at all costs. I’m fatalistic; I prefer things to happen, sort of.
Do you have any plans, goals and future aspirations?
I push too little, both events and myself. I’m only moderately ambitious, not a career type of person. Every morning I open my e-mail and occasionally I find some invitation. I’m in mailing lists and chats with very influential artists in my field. I read and decide which exhibit to join, which auction to accept to send my portfolio. I have very little time for self-promotion and actually self-promoting is a nightmare. One thing is certain: I must push myself more. When I have a production to sell or exhibit, either I sell it or exhibit it. Fortunately, the dust on the works is just a memory. Consolidating my production is my goal. The other goal is not to sit down, find the time to think and produce more.
I had a whole, gigantic space for myself at the Outdoor Festival 2016 in Rome, I’m mentioned on one of the most significant books around (The art of Rebellion vol. IV), I was invited to the Urban Art Biennial in Völklingen and now I have an exhibition in progress at the St. Petersburg Street art Museum. These are not finish lines, but starting points. Everything becomes just more complicated now, not easier. Operating at high levels is notoriously difficult.
For the future I aspire to projects that can interest and excite the public and me. Soon I have an important participation in a video interview. I certainly have upcoming projects but I rarely disclosed them forehand. I also have personal, private goals. Art is not above my own life; art is in the things of my life.