CHASING A GHOST: STREET ART PORTRAITURE AND THE FUTURE OF GRAFFITI; A PROFILE OF THE ARTIST AKSE-P19
I will give you an extremely brief colloquial history of the street art world, one shrouded in mystery and yet one that bares itself to the world, tagging any available space that used to be in back alleyways, under flyovers, disused or derelict buildings, places that were away from prying eyes (or the local authorities) to assert a form of dominance over an area or district until during the late 1970s and into the 1980s in New York, to quote:
“In New York, an artistic revolution was taking place. Mysterious names like TAKI 183 and STAYHIGH 149 were being scrawled on walls all over the city. Then Phase 2, Seen and many more began to bomb the New York City subway cars. The trains were emblazoned with a new art form, spraypainted “˜window downs,’ “˜top to bottoms,’ “˜whole cars,’ and eventually “˜wildstyle.'”
This tradition continued with the ongoing tagging of random places of the wildstyle placard of pseudonyms of artists around New York, America and eventually the globe. It’s placement on subway trains meant that it was seen by millions around which lead to others taking upon themselves to repeat in places like London. The explosion of tagging pseudonyms is what would become the commonly viewed expression of street art/graffiti and something that local authorities/councils railed against as an illegal act of defacement of public property however:
“Street art seems to be born from a desire for liberation from the tight codes of graffiti which had begun to seem dogmatic and restrictive. A new breed of urban artist started to reject or ignore the “˜rules.’ Characters or logos became the focus of their art instead of letterforms; and stickers, stencils and wheatpasted posters became as common as spraypaint”
In my time in Manchester [UK] since the year 2000, I have found the stickerform, and posters more common place especially in and around the Northern Quarter area. Current ‘stars’ of the street art world have appeared [and disappeared] around the city. Near Deansgate a Banksy Barcode Leopard appeared which meant I had to get a photo of it quick before Manchester City Council painted over it. Sadly my particular photo is lost in the annals of files on defunct computers but here’s a similar piece:
The irony here is that, nowadays files are not so much lost but uploaded – everywhere. When the graffiti tags were commonplace but by unknowns (as in the artist was a mystery/pseudonym) it has proved easier to find who and what you like via social media, and I point more directly to Instagram. Artists such as the legendary Seen loads IG photos regularly along with other Street Art artists/appreciators: InstaGrafite, Street_Art, StreetArt_Now, PestOneP19, Dface_Official. (There are more) The immediacy of Instagram allows for art in action opportunities…more on that to follow.
Around the Northern Quarter, a poster piece by Shephard Fairey went up, with the now infamous Andre the Giant image or more so the OBEY campaign, Fairey’s sticker propaganda in support of nothing.
It would be odd to not talk about the recent film [there are other film and a wide range of books – which I implore you to look into, I won’t list them all here] Exit Through the Gift Shop, directed or produced by the mythical Banksy.
Speculation has it that the events of the film were an elaborate hoax created by Banksy and Shephard Fairey, and the protagonist and point of the film Thierry Guetta (originally from France), an eccentric ex-shopkeeper residing in Los Angeles turned amateur filmmaker used his wiles through his ‘cousin’ artist Space Invader or Invader to film the world of the street art vandals throughout the LA boroughs with the hope to get to film Banksy. However Banksy turned the camera on Thierry and with a backhanded comment ‘to create his own art’ created and documented the rise of a monster: Mr Brainwash. His introduction to the street art world came in the form of a massive art show, displaying art forms that seemingly ripped off Warhol and Banksy amongst others. This lead to the speculation that the entirety of the film albeit throwing light on the subject was a ruse…
In general, my general involvement in the street art world is as minimal as being an objective outsider, a fan and follower of the work in my local territory. That’s not to I have contemplated it myself, but as an appreciator of art in any that interests me lead me to what happened next with Akse-P19.
“It’s like chasing a ghost” – imagine finding out when wandering around Manchester that there is a portrait of Anthony Hopkins in the Northern Quarter (colloquially known as the bohemian sector of Manchester). I had to get a picture of it. I knew that many artists have put their work up on walls for a while now, something that seemingly Manchester City Council was actively supporting, but something about this painting was different – the sheer graphic realism. By the time I got there, someone had already defaced it, which we shall go into more detail later.
I was on my way to work on the bus, when I spotted another. This was Christopher Walken now, and I couldn’t wait until my next day off to drag my missus to Manchester to seek it out. It ended up being the day after my Rob Zombie gig at the Manchester Arena, so aside from being utterly vanquished, I felt rough – it showed. I soon realised that I was chasing a ghost around the city centre. Of course it’s easy enough to contact the guy direct, but that’s no fun. I was following the artist through his posts to Instagram to see what would happen next. This obviously included Twitter/Facebook/Tumblr but that’s what we all do these days.
Next I found out Jack Nicholson was going up somewhere. I was to become part of the Psychopaths Project Akse had been working on. So I’ve already picked Hopkin’s nose, had Walken kiss my ass, and now I got to tickle Nicholsons chin.
And then. Heisenberg.
Watching the progress unfold on IG about a new piece appearing got me excited, but I couldn’t get to Manchester until my next day off work. It turned out to be quite fortuitous.
Not only was I grabbing a photo with the latest piece by Akse, I was bandwagoning on the latest zeitgeist. However, I learned later that the street this was on was also the scene of a prior police raid on an actual Meth Lab a few doors down. This lead to some wild discussions on forums via the local newspapers as some residents of the area proclaimed it brightened up the place, whilst others decried the fact it was bringing further controversy. I suppose some people cannot separate fact from fiction when Breaking Bad as a show does not tend to glamourize the use and abuse of Crystal Meth.
Then, a day later it got defaced. Cue furore in the media over the ‘vandalism in protest.’
The scratching of his OWN name and a hammer and scythe made for an interesting dichotomy of rage. See here.
Akse did what he’s best at to fix and respray the art, with the support of many IG/FB community. Before it happened again. Someone was clearly not happy with what can only be described as epic art. Akse came back with another piece: Hank Shrader (Played by Dean Norris). So I managed to flit into Manchester yet again, right place, right time to capture a shot with the Hank (at that point unfinished).
Akse must have been followed by some people on social media to allow for this defacement to happen so rapidly. One thing to point out is the use of the phrase “˜Pushers Out’ scrawled under the eye of Hank. If my Breaking Bad recollection serves me correctly, I’m pretty sure the Hank “˜character’ was a DEA Agent, you know, those tasked with stopping drugs on the streets, breaking drug cartels”¦maybe the defacer was being ironic, or ill-educated. Read more here.
The popularity of these piece has lead the worlds media to take notice, and Akse has since had news articles appearing in Mexico and Holland, as well as here. So, I chose to track down the ghost I had been chasing. By email.
Originating in Franch but residing in Manchester, Akse works for pleasure on his art and has a large following:
Akse P19 Questioning the Zeitgeist
As a brief history from your start in 1992, what was it that pushed you over the edge from sketching to tagging walls?
Probably checking local graffiti halls of fame more frequently just gave me the motivation to experiment with the cans.
As a by-product of this, what is your art based education? Self-taught? Innate talent? College/University?
I have no artistic education but have been drawing since I’m a kid. So definitely self-taught. I studied chemistry at University so nothing related to art. I actually have a full time job related to science, so nothing related to art.
In your view, how has the graffiti art world developed/evolved since the early days of the 80s and NY train tagging to today’s commissionable pieces?
The NY graffiti scene from the early days had a lot to do with the hip-hop culture. Other forms of street art (stencil”¦) had always been present in the early days and there were already graffiti exhibition, commissionable pieces in at the time. But when I started 20 years ago you really had to go out there and look for Graffiti in the streets, Halls of Fame, graffiti jams to see what was going on, get inspiration, see what the other writers were doing. Nowadays you only need a computer. Internet has definitely changed the game and street art has become more dominant, popular and mainstream that Graffiti. As a matter of fact, I started as a traditional graffiti artist and now consider myself more like a street artist so I also myself naturally developed/evolved with time.
With respect to the last question [and in reference to current events] do councils [such as Manchester] seek you out for work on commission? Simply put, does this provide a viable financial income?
No, I have never been contacted by the council for any commission work. I have no financial income from spraypainting. All the murals I paint are at my own cost (spraycans aren’t cheap!). However, since the Heisenberg mural, I have been contacted for various projects. I am painting at the Buy Art Fair 2013 in Manchester this weekend for example. There are also lot of great potential opportunities coming: I’ve been proposed to paint in Albuquerque New Mexico for a Youth Organisation next summer, to paint at a Street Art Festival in Tunis in December and also at an event in Wynwood during Art Basel Miami in December.
Why does it seem that spray painted portraiture is a new concept in street art?
Maybe because people who now appreciate street art are not aware of what was going on 20-30 years ago. Characters have always been present in Graffiti on trains, murals”¦since the 80’s. Styles and skills have just developed over the years and I guess portraiture and photorealism have just become a natural progression for graffiti/street artists. My biggest influence in terms of spray painted portraiture is the French graffiti artist Alex (MAC Crew) who was already killing it in the late 80’s/early 90’s (http://www.alexlesite.com ).
How do Abstract artists that inspire you such as Klimt/Picasso inform your photo real portraiture?
I see it as a direction I’d like to take at some point, moving away from photo realism. At this stage I am still practicing, improving my technical skills. Once I’ll reach the point where I think that I cannot improve anymore technically, that’s where I think I’ll be ready to follow another direction. It might take me another 20 years, who knows”¦I have a full time job not related to art so I cannot paint/practice as much as a full time artist so things are moving slowly for me artistically.
I’ve been following your work via social media [obviously]; what impact has this had on the exposure of your work compared to say 10, 15 or 20 years ago? And further from that has the media furore garnered further exposure for your work?
Well, I’ve been spraypainting for over 20 years and I guess nobody heard of me until the last couple of years. As I mentioned before, internet has changed the game and social media like Facebook and Instagram are playing a big role in this.
Regarding the media furore I guess you’re referring to the Heisenberg mural; I think I only gained local exposure from it. But the real exposure for the Heisenberg mural came from the internet as it is the undefaced picture that has gone viral online, millions of people have seen it, it’s been insane.
Do you set out to improve a public space cosmetically?
Not necessarily because improving something cosmetically is subjective. Some people will like the artwork, other won’t. My only goal is to express myself. If I can please some people on the way, that’s great.
How has social media helped/hindered the effect of your work given the defacement of pieces such as portraits of Walter White or Hank Schrader?
The defacement brought a lot of anger and frustration from my followers on facebook/instagram/twitter, so it emphasized how much the artwork has been appreciated. The support I had from my followers has been incredible. What is even more amazing is that people travel especially to Manchester to take picture of/with the pieces, and even of/with the defaced pieces!
Is the portrait of the [fictional DEA Agent] Hank Schrader a progression from the “˜Psychopaths Project’ to the next logical step? And why psychopaths…? Or are you not at liberty to say”¦
Hank is not part of my Psychopaths project. Not all the portraits I paint are part of this project. The Psychopaths project is an artistic tribute to great actors I admire. I called it “Psychopaths” because most of them have played dark characters. As a portrait artist, I find it more interesting to paint people with a dark side. Probably because they have more complex personalities which are more difficult to understand and which I find fascinating to explore and portray. This is the type of emotions I’m interested in painting.
Actually Heisenberg only made it to the list because of the nature of the character. In the end, Heisenberg, Hank, Jesse and a few others to come are part of a stand-alone Breaking Bad project as a tribute to the show.
And finally, if you had to create [in the event of an apocalypse for example] your last, greatest art piece of your life; what would it be?
Probably a self-portrait.
….and then fortuitously on Sunday 29th September I met then man in person. After a brief discussion on the merits of art, the sheer coincidence of how the wallspace, timing and irony of the Breaking Bad images (due to there being an actual Meth Lab on Tib Street Manchester) came about to which infamy by association will only aid in the further exposure of quality street art. By default, the identity of Akse shall remain under wraps as like me, we have bills to pay.
Caught the ghost…Thanks Akse!
I shall finish with an exerpt from the poem ‘Genius of the Crowd‘ by Charles Bukowski: