Askew One On 2020 And The Year Ahead
Askew One is one of the worlds most prolific street artists, starting in the graffiti scene in the 90s with his crew, TMD, and continuing on painting graffiti, large scale murals and producing studio work ever since.
Like most artists, 2020 was a strange one. At the end of 2019, Askew One was working to raise awareness about the waste being produced by the street art world — specifically when it comes to spray cans. But by early 2020 many of these conversations, and even his own pledges, had to lay dormant while the world figured out what was going on.
Soon heading to New Zealand for an exhibition and mural festival, Askew One joined Street Art Unearthed to chat about the wild ride that was 2020 and what is coming up for him in the year ahead.
Photo credit: Yoshitaro Yanagita.
Listen to Askew One on the Street Art Unearthed podcast below, or read on for select excerpts from the chat.
Travel, Lockdowns, and Big Moves
I’ve been mostly based in the US since 2016. I was living out in NYC, in Brooklyn specifically, right up until the pandemic. My wife and I went to Mexico City for her birthday, and already Covid was kind of in the news and everything, but there hadn’t been any reported cases in New York, yet.
We figured it was an OK time to travel. We ducked out to Mexico City for 10 days, or 6 days or something and when we left New York it was like two reported cases, and we came back, and it was like 280 something and a state of emergency, and I actually had to get on a flight straight to New Zealand for work. So I flew home, and by the time I got home it was like approaching 1000 cases in NYC, and we realised we could be in a situation here, and within 3 or 4 days New Zealand had closed the border, and I kind of got stuck there for 3 and a half months.
She kind of had the foresight to know that we just weren’t going to be able to hold it together in New York. Our landlords were super cool, and they weren’t pressuring us to pay rent or anything, but we thought no we’ve gotta be decisive, so she got all of our stuff and moved it to San Jose, where she is from. She was born here, but she hasn’t been here for like 15 years. So, we’re currently living in a basement apartment below her parents, which has been interesting.
Halted Environmental Progress
When I put that essay out there (Imagining the Spray Can of the Future), I treated it as an open letter to get people talking. I’ve had a relationship with Ironlak for a long time, so I do have channels to talk to them directly, but I extended that to all of the paint manufacturers, and I said, “Come on guys, this is something that goes beyond the general rules of competition. This should be a development that everybody adopts as an industry-standard out of a sense of responsibility and obligation to the planet.”
Not surprisingly, the only people that I heard back from were Ironlak. The only people who said they were really trying to problem-solve their way around this for a long time and they were always getting stuck at some point in that chain.
Obviously, now the pandemic just completely changed everything. Global supply chains have been completely disrupted in new ways, and a lot of companies are really struggling in new ways, and the priorities on one level were “oh great, this is great for the environment. Everyone has stopped flying everywhere, and they’re consuming less in some ways” but also people have made less of a priority in the last year in problem-solving their way through what we’re going to do longterm once we’re on the other side of this — the discussion just kind of stopped.
In 2020 I tried to issue myself a challenge to paint an entire year without using a spray can. Basically, I got 4 months in, and then the pandemic happened so I didn’t really do any painting at all. Also, a friend of mine who is Australian and ran a mural company had decided to leave, in light of everything that was happening here, and needed his house packed down and he left something like 1500 cans and probably about 100 buckets of paint, which I ended up picking up in the middle of the wildfires and moving it around San Jose in various spots to keep it safe while we were on these tentative evacuation warnings.
I found myself with a whole lot of spray paint again, and it’s spray paint that has been sitting in an outdoor shed, and the cans are slowly starting to deteriorate, and rust and some of them aren’t working, and the paint pots are breaking down, and you just see this nightmare. So I have this kind of white elephant situation, I got all these materials that I can work with, but I can’t work with them, and I’m watching them break down before my eyes trying to manage that, and I’m like “Oh god, isn’t this ironic after making that goal for myself.”
I did try a lot of things successfully. I painted entire pieces in garden sprayers cause I saw that the Brazilians were using garden sprayers really successfully to do throw-ups. Garden sprayers, you pump them up. It’s amazing. The hardest thing is just getting the water to paint ratio perfect. Then someone was like, “You should use airbrush medium”, but that defeats my purpose because I’m just trying to use things that can be cleaned up with water, not putting additional chemicals into the environment. So I did entire pieces with garden sprayers, I bought a Graco cordless sprayer, which is amazing.
A friend made an observation that they possibly need to create different shaped tips for the Graco cause it’s just a typical sprayer, like a chiselled spray, so if they had a round nozzle… Then I thought why are spraypaint companies not coming up with a collaboration with Graco or similar companies to make these sprayers and release their colour range as bucket paint. There are so many creative angles that haven’t been done.
Quarter Century of TMD
2022 is technically our 25th anniversary. The summer of 1997 is when the crew started. It’s pretty interesting how the crew started. It was kind of a super crew of prolific West Auckland taggers that were starting to get more into doing pieces. I wasn’t in the crew right from the beginning. I got put down in 2000, but I was friends with them. They actually had all been kids that had been caught painting graffiti repeatedly in West Auckland and got put on a course to learn from some of the best graffiti artists in the city at that time how to paint murals.
They were being taught how to paint, and they painted a really monumental mural work on the rail corridor which we called the Wall of Fame in 1996. There was a documentary made about it. It’s really cool. I got a screener of it from the New Zealand archive because we actually have a book and a documentary project in the pipeline, so all that will be coming out in the next year or so.
TMD in Auckland 2021
I had a solo show with Tauranga Art Gallery in 2018, and then he said at the end of 2018, that I would love to do a show in 2021 with your entire crew because I think they’re great and they’re doing interesting things.
A lot of people have now come out of the strictly-graffiti realm and come into the post-graffiti or urban contemporary space. So it’s a bit of a retrospective in some respects with an archive from various photographers who have documented the crews work over the last 25 years. Then, there is a lot of installation based stuff that we’re doing together collectively and a big exhibition of contemporary work.
So we’re heading home to do 14 days of managed isolation and then heading off down to Lower Hutt in Wellington to spend a week setting up a show, and then we’ll be doing a festival at the same time, painting 6 walls.
There are 24 of us in the crew. Not every one of us can make it. We had hoped that the Trans-Tasman bubble would be a reality and Sofles and Vans could come over, but at this point, they’re just sending work. And we have 4 Germans in the crew that are obviously unable to travel now, but at least one of them has managed to get it together and get some paintings done, which is wild. They’ve made some beautiful work which and on its way to New Zealand at the moment. So we’ve got these 6 walls, and there’s gonna be 2–3 artists teamed up on each wall working collaboratively.
I don’t think that we’ll be going there permanently just yet. We still have a lot to resolve here, but it’s very hard to work here at the moment. I think I need to go decompress and go and work out our strategy. It’s an interesting time to be in this particular field.