We caught up with Norwegian artist, Martin Whatson at NUART Festival to chat about his artwork. This is some stuff he said.
VNA: So, you’re from Norway?
MARTIN WHATSON: Yeah, from Oslo. It’s nice, but it’s not the best place for street art as they have a zero-tolerance policy for graffiti and stuff. It’s very hard to get proper walls to paint and they remove stuff straight away, so it breeds a culture of tagging and really quick throw-ups. That’s nice, but it would be nice to see some proper pieces. We have that, but it’s not the best place for street art, for sure.
VNA: Was that difficult for you? How did you first start painting?
MW: I remember from when I was around the age of six to twelve, my best friend was living five or six subway stops from me so I used to take the subway from my school to him almost every day. So we just watched all the tagging and pieces along the subway line and how everything changed every day. It was much more like the ‘beef’ culture, so people had beef and got lined out and people had battles and stuff. You’d never see that these days, but they really painted fresh, new stuff every day. Then there was this subway thing, so you see people tagging in the subway or jumping on the track painting. The subway system in Oslo is very small, it’s like five lines and it’s easy to keep track of all the lines.
VNA: Were you ever King of the lines in Oslo?
MW: Well I didn’t do any graffiti then, I just followed it, but then I started doing legal walls, doing sketches and all that. For me to do graffiti hasn’t been the most important thing, but more to follow it and to learn the culture and see how everything works. I also like seeing how the walls and the environment develop. How you have someone painting a grey wall, then you have someone going over that wall, then you have someone buffing it out and then you have someone painting it again. It’s like a constant thing all the time and that fascinated me, how persistent people are.
VNA: Well, you’ve got to do it every day to stay ahead, right?
MW: Yeah, so after that I really started to enjoy colourful walls and feel I could see the beauty in a tag, or a piece, or a throw-up that people didn’t want. So I took that and started doing stuff, and then I started adding letters to my thing then I started doing some characters and that was okay but I wanted to do something more. So I started doing stencils so I’ve been on and off and I don’t do too much illegal stuff. I’m more of a fine artist that’s interested in street art, than a graffiti artist that’s interested in street art.
VNA: It seems that you started off observing, looking and appreciating and came at it from a theoretical aspect rather than just painting?
MW: I’ve always been interested in art of some sort, cos I remember all my friends were really not interested in museums and stuff, but every time I was travelling my mum used to take me to galleries. We used to go and see the Picasso Museum in France and all that stuff. So I feel like my background is more from the fine art world, but I found interest in doing art myself through graffiti so I like to incorporate both. I do multi-layered stencils that take a couple of weeks, so for me it’s more about the process of cutting and the way your mind relaxes; like therapy. It’s very nice just getting into it, blocking everything out and listening to music. So I feel it’s like a fusion of two interests – the fine art and the street art – but I find that the aesthetics of graffiti is my favourite thing, so that’s why I try to incorporate it. And also the culture is just so interesting; how much people put into it and they work their whole life for it and people put so much effort into it. And they risk arrest, like the two Iranian guys [Icy & Sot] here who had to move from Iran because they painted graffiti. It’s about the effort that people put in, it’s really fascinating.
VNA: And obviously it wouldn’t have been quite so dangerous, but it would have been difficult for you to be painting in the streets in Oslo?
MW: I’ve been around here now and I think I’ve seen two police cars in one week, but when there’s graffiti, you see two police cars in two minutes. It’s very much more surveillance and CCTV in a lot of other places. And there’s also the problem that it’s two people that own the whole of Oslo, property developers and stuff, and they’re proper businessmen.
VNA: They hate it?
MW: They have frames, they keep in those frames and they don’t go outside it. They don’t experiment, or decorate with graffiti. Of course you have a few people that do it but… Also we have something famously known as zero-tolerance for graffiti. So the rule is everything is supposed to be removed within twenty four hours. Obviously it doesn’t always work but on subways it works and on the big, managed office buildings. So I feel that breed’s more of the really hardcore graffiti culture.
VNA: Like, ‘fuck you’?
MW: Yeah. A lot of tagging is really big in Oslo compared to here, cos you almost don’t see tagging here [in Stavanger].
VNA: And again, somewhere like Berlin is just bombed.
MW: Yeah, but I feel that they’ve given up years ago (laughs). It’s a bit difficult and my works also translate better when I can take a lot of time. I have to plan it and it takes around two weeks to prepare the stencils, I can’t just rock up and paint straight away.
VNA: You use quite a lot of colour as well in your work. It’s a nice juxtaposition, this messy colour and nice clean stencils…
MW: For me it’s like we talked about, merging the two sides of me. It’s like the stencils can be like the fine art if you do it the right way and you have the graffiti that counters the fine art. I also think it’s very interesting how, if you do graffiti in the right way, people that don’t enjoy graffiti on the wall can buy a piece of art and put it on their wall with graffiti on. So I try to put small rude words in as well.
VNA: Just sneak them in?
MW: Yeah, just find stuff that people write in the street, like if you’re drunk and you find a spray can. I find it interesting the way people express themselves, cos everybody has the urge to do that, you know. It’s like we put restrictions on ourselves when we’re not drunk, then when we’re drunk or you’ve had a fun night out you’re suddenly, ‘yeah, let’s have a go’ and paint some stuff. So I think that’s very cool to see how people actually are interested in it even though they don’t do it in the way we do it, cos we live from doing art and live for doing art.
VNA: Yeah, it’s interesting cos we were in Berlin recently painting a wall with EINE and met these girls from a PR company and they were watching. And we said, ‘have a go’ and they said, ‘no, no’ so we said again, ‘have a go!’ and they said, ‘alright’. Ten minutes later they were doing fills, it’s just the way it happens.
MW: Yeah. I don’t know if you know Lush. He did the truck and if you find the truck you can paint your name. Of course he only had girls paint their name.
VNA: Of course (laughs), it’s Lush…
MW: I think that’s a cool project as well. You were with him when he did it?
VNA: Yeah, we were with him in Berlin and he did a couple of spots there… So what’s it like having NUART here for you. What’s it been like having it in Norway, has it opened up new opportunities, new expectations?
MW: Definitely, it’s opened people’s expression in Stavanger cos during NuArt you can paint where you want. The police drive by and they stop and take a picture and go, ‘that looks very good’ because they’re used to stuff happening all the time. But it would be totally different somewhere else in Norway. It depends where you go but in Oslo it would have been completely different, if you didn’t have a letter that you had permission to do the walls the police would probably have stopped you five times during it. I think it’s done a lot for Stavanger and it’s also very good example for the rest of Norway; if you’re going to try to do something somewhere else, then you can use Stavanger as an example. I don’t know if you know this but in this town there’s no advertising at all, a couple of bus shelters and that’s it, you don’t see the big boards. Of course there are some illegal posters at bus stops, but it lacks all commercial stuff and that’s completely different to Oslo because they sell the spots on the walls. I feel that Oslo is much focused on the money aspect of it, so instead of someone painting a beautiful wall, they’d prefer to have a few thousand Kroners a month for a billboard to be up.
VNA: Well there’s a bottom line at the end of the day, money in the bank. As you say, it’s run by two big businessmen who are into property, so they’re not interested at the moment, as it’s not a financial raise for them. And Norway’s very rich at the moment so they don’t need to regenerate places, which is where a lot of the money ideas come from. Such as when people realize it’s a run-down area and art can regenerate an area they don’t need that so it doesn’t make any sense I suppose.
MW: Yeah, I find it a bit strange that they don’t allow more but there’s a couple of people that really go through all the hassle to get walls. Cos you have to apply, not to the City Hall but you have a Board for each area in the city, a Council, so you have to go there and present your idea and there’s so much bureaucracy to get over. And then you can’t paint with spray paint cos all the toxic stuff in the spray paint damages the walls and all the buildings are protected….
VNA: Well I guess that’s interesting because there’s Ironlak sugar paints, Montana water-based paints, so it’s changing…
MW: Yeah, yeah. But they have to use this special paint that makes the wall breathe and it’s really, really difficult. And even if you talk to the owner of the house you might not be allowed, because of traffic safety or things like that. So you can’t put it up, because people will get distracted when they drive, but they still put up billboards that are supposed to make people look at them. So there’s some financial thing, I don’t really understand. Like you say, they don’t really need the money either.
VNA: Interesting. Some of the biggest advertising zones here are for NuArt, huge great banners for NuArt (laughs) and nothing else. There’s no Coca-Cola signs.
Yeah, and also one thing they have here is Martyn Reed. He’s been doing so much stuff for the city and been arranging lots of music festivals and cultural stuff before so he already has this connection with the city and the Mayor and he knows everybody. So that makes it a lot easier, as he already has the connections to important people. Also in Oslo it’s much harder to get into the government, it’s much harder to get into the core of the politics there. This is a small town compared to some of the other towns, so it’s a very, very good thing for Stavanger and for Norway.
VNA: Does it put you on the map as an artist, now the attention is now focused on Norway, are people looking at your work more?
MW: Definitely, cos you’re here, you have a lot of press, you have film-makers, you have newspapers. I did a really short interview with a national TV news channel. So people come here and they see then they send it on the news or on the radio. So of course it attracts more people, but it’s definitely helping a lot, not for the fact that it is in Norway, but more because they’re really good at PR and really good at hosting people. They invite all the good photographers with a lot of followers on Instagram. I hate to say it, but that’s really important in the art world. And it’s really easy to reach everyone with the sharing culture. So I find that very good here cos they’re really good at working with the press.
VNA: How does that work for you if you wanted to go abroad?
MW: Well, I’ve come here for the second year now, so you can say you’ve been here, you’ve painted the walls, you have that on your CV or in your portfolio and you also have really nice photos. That’s the thing that can really help you and of course other festivals and other galleries follow this festival cos they know they’re really good at doing new stuff so of course it helps, it helps a lot. And I sit here and talk to you now (laughs), so that’s one good thing too.