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With graffiti influenced graphics popping up on everything from skateboard decks to designer jean labels, some may lament the death of the spirit of street art. But, as with anything, there are always elements of fresh growth to be found lurking below the surface. One of the people spearheading the movement for meaning in street art is Dutch artist Laser, whose cryptic prose and ubiquitous "3.14" tags pop up throughout Amsterdam like mysterious messages from the ether. "Nuclear Polynesia" one forebodingly proclaims while another reads "They want you dead or in their lie," an eerie truth made all the more poignant by the state of world affairs. LAS recently caught up with the enigmatic pavement poet to query him on his origins, his art, and his take on the evolution of graffiti. [photos by Henry Niemyer]
LAS: One of the primary Laser markers that distinguishes you from the average graffiti artist is the poetic nature of your tags, which leads me to assume that you read a lot - is that true? If so, who are some of your favorite writers, those influencing your work perhaps?
Laser 3.14: I really love to read, but I have to admit that I do so at intervals. Meaning that there are periods when I read a lot and periods where I don't. At this moment I'm actually in a period of reading a lot.
I remember that one of my first favorite books a kid was Where Monsters are There - in Dutch it's called Max and the Maxy Monsters. When I got older I read a lot of books by Roald Dhal and Guus Kuijer, a writer of Dutch children's books. In my teens I read a lot of Stephen King books and later books by Berthold Brecht, Krishnamurti, Shakespeare, Milton, Phillip K Dick and a whole lot of special interest books, as well as a whole lot of American and Dutch comics. I especially love the work of Frank Miller.
I grew up religious, which I'm not any more, so I grew up reading the Bible. I really like that book for its stories, its metaphoric imagery and the allegories. I use a lot of Biblical text in my works, even though I'm not religious at all and never really was. I find more truth in science.
What prompted you to make your first tag? Do you remember what you wrote?
It was in the early 80s that I started to notice that there were tags on the walls. It was also the time when the electric boogie and breakdance phenomenon arrived and really exploded in Amsterdam. I was always a kid who liked to draw and had been drawing from an early age so graffiti art came naturally to me. One of the first things I can remember tagging was MIKE.L. Before that there was a logo kind of thing that everybody was drawing called The Skavla. But MIKE.L was one of my first real tags.
Graffiti in Amsterdam had a slightly different origin than the American version of it. It started here with the punks and the squatters. Later on it became very much influenced by American graffiti art and then really took of. The work I'm doing now is more influenced by the punk and squatter graffiti that I saw as a kid, especially he anarchistic lines squatters used to write all over town. That style has influenced me heavily and shows in the Laser 3.14 work I'm doing now.
What sort of non-literary influences do you find reflected in your work, perhaps unexpected?
I'm very influenced by everything around me. Every I hear, everything I see, feel, smell. My environment evokes ideas.
I love movies and music and sometimes when I've seen a good film or heard a good song or piece of music it does something in my in my head and with my emotions, conjuring up images or ideas which I translate into my own words. But I really use the feeling and the emotions to create my sentences.
Do you think that your work has, for lack of a better term, a higher purpose than a random tag that serves only to leave an artist's mark? Do you approach your scripts with the intent of having a resonance beyond yourself?
I think as an artist, or any other person for that matter, one always needs to find a way to transcend themselves and their own abilities. To find new ways to get the message of your work and what you are trying to say with your work. I always find it very exiting when I discover new things or new ways of approaching my work. That always gets the artistic fire burning again. That's exactly what happened when I started to place these tags around town. It really brought me back into a state of new creativity.
I think that my work is different than the random tag because it has a line written underneath it that gives it a little more purpose than a normal tag, which people aren't necessarily used to. People are kind of used to the normal tags. I think that what I'm doing is not just leaving a mark, but making statements that are sometimes very personal. My work is a reflection of my wanting to get something I think is important across, to place my so-called "lucid moment" into society.
But in truth I never really intended my work to have a resonance beyond myself when I started. It was more that I was bored with the art I was making at that time and decided to do graffiti again, as a way of rekindling the creative fire in me. But I soon realized that spraying 100,000 Laser (Lazer at the time) tags wasn't going to give me any gratification what so ever. So I started experimenting with placing sentences underneath and added the 3.14 behind my tag. That really got me very much inspired again.
And now people are getting into my work and that is cool. It does seem to have resonance beyond myself and I really dig that.
Does the temporary nature of your work bother you at all, or is the work itself merely a mechanical means to an intellectual end?
No, it doesn't bother me at all. I believe in the transitional nature of things. Nothing lasts forever, and "nothing" is the only thing that can last forever. It would actually bother me a lot if the tags ended up staying visible for too long. I see the city of Amsterdam as a long, ever-changing poem.
I don't really actually consider myself a great intellectual, to be honest. As I see it I have my lucid moments that resonate through into my work. I just write them down and use them in my art. But it's not like I'm thinking in poetry 24/7. It's more like 4/7. Or 2/7 even.
What sort of reaction do you have when your work is covered up - either by a fresh coat of drab paint, or by another artist? Do you consider that an affront to your art, or is it part of the game? There have been several times when I have read about or heard about artists getting pissed off when their tags are covered or vandalized, yet they seem to have no qualms about vandalizing someone else's private property.
It doesn't bother me at all. I hardly have any qualms about it. It's just like you said - it's just part of the way things work. When my work gets covered I just make something new somewhere else. I use and see Amsterdam as a canvas.
What do you make of graffiti's infiltration of the mass consumer culture that it has traditionally worked against? Walk into any department store today and the stereotypical street style of graffiti pops up on mass-produced clothing, in framed art prints, all over product packaging. Does that seem contradictory, or do you see it more as a progression - an instance where counter culture changes the normal state of things that it originally opposed? Or is graffiti not in a progression, but rather under the thumb of the organized world that it initially shook up? Is graffiti co-opting society, or is society co-opting graffiti?
Graffiti has been influencing art, music, typography, and advertising for years now. Even the fashion industry has been picking it up - albeit in smaller quantities - for a while now. By the way I like the way you said "traditionally worked against it" - just as rock and roll and a lot of other things had traditionally worked against but then were later embraced by the masses, graffiti is slowly but surely being used by those same forces that it initially attacked. It's not even a contradiction; it's just the way of things. At the end of the day even the forces of opposition see that money can be made with street art. Kids love it. Teens love it. People in their 30s love it because they used to love it when they were kids. I like the idea that a kid, who would normally have meager chances of making something meaningful out of his life, can make a living, and maybe he can get out and make something of his life by doing the thing he likes most, doing the thing he did or does on the streets. As long as he doesn't cheapen his work by going more commercial just for the sake of going more commercial. That will really take the soul and the spunk out of any artist's work and stab their art to death. That's not what anyone wants as an artist - when that happens an artist will be truly under the thumb of the organized world. As long it is a two way street and it doesn't cheapen the work, commercial co-opting of art is okay by me.
Is your birthday March 14th?
Back to the topic of graffiti's evolving status - many cities around the globe are now sanctioning spray-painted art in public spaces - although in these instances they are generally considered "murals" - either as a way of filling in dead gray concrete with color, or as an olive branch to street artists. Or perhaps both. Does graffiti lose it's punch - cease to become graffiti at all - when it is authorized? Does the vitality of this type of art depend on its contradiction to rules and order?
Yeah, it sure can lose its punch. Although I like some of the artwork or murals some graffiti artist make it doesn't get me off the same way as when I see the same piece being done illegally. Because that's what graffiti was initially all about. Getting up at night, doing your thing on a subway train or wall, and getting away with it. You simply don't feel that same rush when you're doing a legal, authorized wall. I myself hardly do any ultra-illegal walls anymore - I guess I've become older or something like that. I mostly use wooden construction barriers for my phrases. It is not entirely legal but people don't seem to be bothered as much by it. Yet you still can get arrested for spraying on them. But to answer your question graffiti almost ceases to be graffiti when it is sanctioned - then it's just a commissioned piece of art. It still can look cool, but it isn't really graffiti at that point.
What do you make of the Internet and its ability to connect obscure, small-scale artists with the wider world? I dare say that if it weren't for those guys at MIT decades ago, our paths would have never crossed (and indeed LAS would just be another small-run print magazine with 300 readers a year instead of 40,000 a month).
The Internet is a great way for an artist to get word of their projects to a wider audience and to have the possibility of people who would otherwise never see it to enjoy and see the work they are making.
Do you aspire to any sort of celebrity status for your work? If you look at street artists like Banksy in the UK, who has used his notoriety to deliver a sort of anti-commercial message, or Shepard Fairey in the US who has used his message to attain massive commercial notoriety, it seems like the guerilla street artist is often eventually transformed into a one-man publicity show. I dare say that the creation of the Laser 3.14 identity wasn't to remain anonymous - you've got a website after all.
I find it preferable to remain as physically anonymous as I can. That's why I don't like pictures to be taken of me. I never allow them to be placed next to an interview. It's kind of a cliché but I prefer that my work do the speaking. Plus I don't want to be in the position that I have to deconstruct the meaning of my work all the time. Not that I do that when asked.
My work has never been about celebrity status. I don't really care about that. It's too superficial. I do art because art fascinates me and when I have an idea in my head I need to execute it. I just love to execute my ideas; it is as simple as that. I love the process of taking an idea in my head and making it into something tangible. People who make art with the intention of becoming famous shouldn't be called artists, and I think when that is the case it can be seen in the art. Art is something that comes from the soul, something that is done because it has to be done, because it's something beyond the yearning for being in the spotlight or to gain fame or any of that superficial shit. You do it because you want to, because you have to. It's as simple as that. SEE ALSO: www.laser314.com
Eric J Herboth
Eric J. Herboth is the founder, publisher and Managing Editor of LAS magazine. He is a magazine editor, freelance writer, bike mechanic, commercial pilot, graphic designer, International Scout enthusiast and giver of the benefit of the doubt. He currently lives in rural central Germany with his two best friends, dog Awahni and cat Scout.
See other articles by Eric J Herboth.
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