Our man in Amsterdam, Hyland Mather of Andenken Gallery, recently caught up with Laser 3.14 for an interview. Remaining anonymous, Laser 3.14 is the pseudonym of a poetic painter, also from Amsterdam. Writing his short socio-critical messages on fences and construction site hoardings all over the world, his pen-name is a reference to his love for Sci-fi. The 3.14 in his name stands for the numerical denomination for Pi, the letters of which also represent an abbreviation for Public Image. As well as working on the streets, he is an exhibiting artist and cartoonist, with a book, ‘Are You Reading Me’, published in 2009.
Here’s Laser’s take on the world…
Hyland Mather: We’ve only been out painting together a few times, but I’m always amazed at how you handle people. You’re very open and friendly with anyone you talk to, be they fans or critics. You have to be one of the friendliest ‘writers’ of all time. Was this a learning process, or did you always bring your non-confrontational vibe to the aerosol culture?
Laser 3.14: Yeah, I guess I’m pretty open and friendly to people I meet. I don’t mind that – I think it’s a good trait to have. The aerosol culture I grew up with in the 80s was very relaxed. Writers like Try, Nar, Hook, Meno, Hiz, Yep, Revolt and Nog were all really chill guys. We didn’t have this ‘act tough’ thing going on. We just liked to hang out, do pieces and tags and just have a hell of a lot of fun.
HM: Your ‘laser 3.14’ tag obviously has a history in graffiti culture and, since you and I have been on a graffiti mission boat ride together with Martha Cooper and I’ve overheard you tell her in no uncertain terms what an influence her seminal book ‘Subway Art’ was on your life, I know your history is from this camp. But I would argue now that the main part of your work is poetry. What are the differences for you between Graffiti and Street Poetry? How are these two ideas related in your work?
L: Yeah, her book was a massive influence on the writers of my generation, and beyond. So when we were doing that boat ride I just had to tell her that. But she probably hears that a lot. It was definitely special to be able to tell someone you appreciate how much their work has influenced you personally. And yeah, the main part of my work these days is poetry. The guys at Lane Crawford dubbed it ‘visual poetry’. I really like that term. The way I see it is that graffiti writers wrote mostly for graffiti writers and it’s very hard for passers-by to understand it, or simply read it, or emotionally feel involved in what’s sprayed on the wall. This is something I heard a lot when I was doing a lot of graffiti: that they liked the big pieces because they looked good but people hated tags and tagging because they couldn’t read it practically or visually. To them they are just scribbles, but it takes a trained eye to decipher them and see the beauty in the handwriting that a lot of different writers do. Graffiti is more for the in-crowd. When I started to develop the visual poetry I was aware of this fact and wanted to reach out to other people. So I started to write in easily readable letters and focused on trying to come up with a tag that didn’t look like a standard graffiti tag. I wanted to break away from the same stuff that people had been seeing for years on the streets and try something that involved and invited everybody, for good or bad, to be a participant in it. I think, in that regard, my poetry on the streets works because whether people like the work or not they are involved in it in some way by reading it, and that means it works.
HM: Your Street Poetry straddles a line between poetry for poetry sake, ‘A Party Inside Of Me When I Think Of You’, and a kind of agenda and political activism, ‘Nobody Believes The Media Except When It’s In Their Own Interest’, or ‘Buy To Be’ . It basically shows two views, a personal and a political. What kinds of reaction are you looking for from each and what hopes do you have for your audience?
L: Sometimes I feel taken by someone so I’ll write something like “A Party Inside of Me When I Think Of You”. Other times things going on in the world, or things that I see or experience surface or stand out to me and I feel the urge to share my thoughts and feeling on them like ‘Nobody Believes The Media Except When It’s In Their Own Interest’, or ‘Buy To Be’. But it’s always personal, regardless of whether it seems political or not.
HM: Many times the slogans are, I wouldn’t say dark, but I would say cynical, and yet you are, as I’ve said, generally a pretty positive person. Do you use your street poetry as a kind of therapy?
L: Well look at the world today. It’s more dark, grim, violent and far more dangerous than it’s been in a long while. There’s a lot to be cynical about. There are a great many things happening in politics, religion, the economy, etc. that make me feel sick and have a direct influence on freedom of speech, on real equality and a basic level of humanity. I have no problem with being cynical about things that deserve being cynical about, and really getting deep into it. When thoughts about feelings things come to mind I just let myself experience them and write about them regardless of whether they’re cynical or positive. Maybe it’s therapeutic, but cynicism is not something I consciously chase after. But there is definitely something about being honest with yourself about how you’re feeling, and allowing yourself to feel it, that makes it easier to process things.
HM: You are easily the most prolific writer in Amsterdam, I’ll likely receive some hate for that claim, and I don’t ask you to make it yourself, but it’s freaking obvious. Your assault is relentless. It’s almost so obvious that if you’re out of town for a week, I know it. How many nights a week do you work on the street, and what’s an average night like in terms of hours out, range covered, pieces up?
L: Really do you notice that? Cool. There are periods I go out a lot and periods that I’m preoccupied with other things, so it’s less. But usually I try to get out once or twice a week. When I go out though, I go out for at least a few hours. Especially in the summer it’s really nice to be out at night alone in the city and work. I cover a lot of terrain cycling from the centre to the west, east and south of Amsterdam and try to do as many tags as I have surfaces to do them on.
HM: How many cans of black do you blast thru in a year?
L: Not nearly enough.
HM: As I’ve said, you’re good company, so how come you mostly paint alone?
L: Because I like to be alone. And it’s nice to adventure by yourself.
HM: In recent years I’ve really enjoyed how your work has transitioned from street to gallery. You’ve been very smart about what you produce for a gallery setting. Your neon pieces, and steel shields are very smart. It helps make a clear distinction between the two venues, yet you maintain a solid, unified voice. How do you prepare your ideas for a gallery? Are there some slogans you love for the street that you just know won’t work in the gallery setting?
L: Yeah, it took me a while to get it right. I worked for some time exploring how to translate what I was doing on the streets to a gallery setting. It’s just not the same, but it’s been incredible being able to really explore different materials and settings with my work. Being able to take some time to make the work, something that you don’t usually get when you’re out at night by yourself. Working with Mark Chalmers of The Garage was a great help in figuring it out. It helps to have someone you can creatively spar with and have constructive and honest critiques from. For a gallery show I need a strong idea that I use to pull everything together. It doesn’t have to be conceptually or visually elaborate, sometimes it’s really simple but strong. Something that brings the whole show together. I like the entire process: starting to discuss and work on a new show, playing with what works and what doesn’t work, installing the show. But the basis for all of this is that I have to feel a connection to what I’m trying to create, otherwise it won’t work.
HM: Speaking of smart, you’ve been working with brands quite a bit lately, your recent work with Lane Crawford in Hong Kong, for example. In light of your obvious activism in your poetry and street pieces, how do you choose your brand association?
L: I don’t actually work a lot with brands. It’s not like they’re lining up at the door. But if it was the case I would be extremely careful with picking which ones to work with. Who they are, what they do and what they stand for needs to make sense to me. I worked with Denham for the collaboration with Lane Crawford in Hong Kong. I really like Denham and the story of the guy behind it, and this was a great chance to do a cool installation in a new city. I had a great time in Hong Kong, got to share my art in Asia and meet new fans of my work. And the installation looked really good. And on the activist thing, I don’t see myself as an activist. Don’t get me wrong, I feel triggered by a lot of things in the world, but it’s more of a creative urge to engage with the world through commentary, through my poetry, that spurs me on. As an artist you are almost obligated to use the times around you in your art. The great Nina Simone once said: ‘You can’t help it. An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.’
HM: You have a book about your street work ‘Are You Reading Me’ published with Lebowski, and you also have a book of poetry ‘White Phosphorus’ published. Are you working on a new book now?
L: Yeah, I’m finishing up my next poetry book titled ‘The Hippie Damage’. This new collection consists of poetry I’ve written in the last 2 years, so there are a lot of writings that are a reflection on what’s been happening in the world around politics, religion, society and culture, and also a number of very personal poems. I’m really happy with the work and proud of the collection. I can’t wait to see it printed. At the moment I’m still figuring out the publisher. I’ve got one interested and another is looking at it. So plan to sort that out soon. Next to that I just launched an online t-shirt shop where people can order Laser 3.14 t-shirts. The idea is that every 2 months there’s a new shirt with a new quote, and when the new shirt drops, the previous one is off the market. I’m also working on a site called The Counter Canon, which will archive Amsterdam’s counterculture from between 1971 to 2001. Also, Pieter Nooten, a Dutch musician and composer, and I are going to work on a sound design poetry project that will be released by MacLoud records. The idea is to also release it on vinyl and since I’m a vinyl collector this is a dream come true. So I have my hands full in the next while. It’s great to do these things alongside my art because while they’re separate it’s also really connected.
HM: In my opinion you have absolutely conquered Amsterdam in terms of street presence, though it is a fight that always continues. What other cities are you anxious to bring your street poems to? If you could go on a worldwide tour and hit say 6 cities in a year of travel, what cities would be on that list?
L: I would love to hit London again. It’s one of my favourite places. Paris too and Tokyo. But my dream would be to hit New York. 70s New York graffiti was such a big inspiration to me as a kid and it would be like giving back to the city that gave me so much
Check out more of Laser 3.14’s work and purchase his pieces and t-shirts here: