Tavar Zawacki aka ABOVE has been in the street art world for over 20 years, but not until recently has Tavar revealed his face and true identity to the public. Known for his iconic arrows & extremely detailed stencil work Tavar has made his way back to NYC for a solo show at The quin Hotel in midtown Manhattan and several large murals and pasters all over NYC.
Tavar is a self proclaimed “certified chatterbox” and I 100% concur. Usually my interviews are about 25 minutes long because they take me forever to transcribe. Tavar could have chatted all day, but I had to cut him off at the 1 hour and 15 minutes mark. Needless to say we talked about a broad spectrum of topics including his early years in Paris to his first gallery show with Blek La Rat.
So tell us about how “Above” came to be?
Well I grew up in San Fransisco skateboarding and I would skate with the older kids, and they were already into tagging on things. So by hanging out with them and skateboarding we would end up out in the train yard, with freight trains, you know they have great panels. Wait, let me back up a bit… so I come from an family of artists and was introduced to art at a very young age. My mom was an abstract painter and my dad is a ceramicist.
So you were not the rebel in the family becoming a street artist?
Right, what was cool is that I was always encouraged to create art. A lot of parents are not in tune with this idea and don’t encourage their kids as much as my parents did, but because of this it was cool to them if I wanted to sit in my room all day and just draw.
When was the first time you painted a train from the yard?
So I think the first time I painted a train I was 15 and just loved the rush of it! It was a really lazy yard with lax security so you could really spend a lot of time working on your panel. But it was fun because the spray can was a new medium to me, it was just a lot of fun to use. I quickly got really addicted to it and I started ditching school in 11th grade to go to the train yard. You know who need to learn math anyway right?
So Where did “Above” work into all of this?
The reason I started writing Above was that I am a really optimistic person. I originally wanted to write “Rise Above” but everyone was saying its 9 letters and will take forever to write. I was told to have 4-5 letters at most so I simplified it to ABOVE. Plus it was a positive word that means to me to keep pushing your self forward.
So you have been using Above since the beginning?
Gosh it’s been over 20 years now… But as I was saying I just kept going back to the train yard and playing with different letter styles, but there was a huge pivotal point when I was painting in the yard in a kinda “Wild Style” inspired font, but I’ve always strived to make my style very legible and identifiable. I mean the SF style in the 90’s was inspired by guys like TWIST & AMAZE and they worked really well at making simple legible letter styles and thats the work that attracted me primarily. I loved that you could look across the street to a roof top and see and easily read “TWIST”.
So what happened was that one day I saw my train leave and I couldn’t read it as the train started to pick up speed… so it made sense at the yard… but not once it was in motion. My objective especially with a freight train was to have my work seen by a lot of people, so to be able to see my work it clicked that it would have to be huge or legible.
So I wanted to write “rise above”… and I thought to myself how about an arrow? That seems logical as a representation. I mean it points above! So I created the arrow icon based on my graffiti techniques. So you have you fill in, you have your inline, your drop shadow, and your outline, and thats basically what every graffiti piece had at that time, so I took those four elements and repacked it into an arrow.
So when did the arrow really start to take off?
So fast forward to 1999 and I was saving up all my money from this restaurant job because I wanted to move to Paris more than anything. The first girlfriend I had in high school she was French and the culture I experienced with her and just going over to her house was very sexy to me, and because of my parents would take me to the library and show me books full of the old masters who were basically all from Paris… so I was like duh if I’m going to be a professional artist I need to live in Paris.
So eventually in late 1999 after saving up all my tips I made it to Paris with no real plan other than to stay there really.
So I needed a job and friends were telling me to get a job at Euro Disney but there was some crazy amount of paper work I couldn’t deal with, but then someone suggested I become an au pair. So basically all I had to do was take children to school on the metro and then later just pick them up and bring them back. So that’s cool and easy and perfect for me. So I found this magazine called FUSAC “French & USA Connection” which helped me find a family who lived in the 9th district of Paris and my job was to at 7:30 in the morning take the metro to Bastille and then drop them off and at 4:30 pick them up again. So included in the au pair gig I had room & board, unlimited metro, my own space in the family’s house, and all my food included! Plus asides for 7:30 & 4:30 I had all the free time in the world!
Perfect for a young street artist!
Exactly! So I had all day free almost every day and this was incredibly important to help me get my art out there. So it was the year 2000 in Paris and at that time there was almost no street art. There was a hand full of artists like Mr. Andre, Space Invader, Zeus, ONET, STACK, but just a handful of artists who are doing what we consider street art now, but we were all doing stuff that was illegal in the street but not using traditional graffiti style.
You mean using pictures instead of letters?
Yes, exactly! Like Andre would go around town tagging his character “Mr. A” but it would be a image that resonated much differently with people than letters. These images by Mr. Andre, Invader, & Zeus etc. resonated differently with the public because they were not just for like 150 graffiti writers who were in the know, they were more for the mainstream.
So the scene in Paris in 2000 was jumping of?
Actually no… so coincidently I didn’t know when I moved to Paris that the entire city just a few months earlier had been completely buffed. The mayor did a city wide buff of anything under 2 meters tall. Plus a bunch of the train writers had been busted as well so I walked in to a scene which was essentially dead.
Well sounds like you had a blank canvas for yourself?
Right! It was just the right timing & right place. Plus finding this perfect au pair job as well…
Did the family you were staying with know what you were doing in between caring for their children?
No… I tried my best to just appear super chill but it was funny some times I would take them off to school with a ladder and a backpack full of paint because I would go out bombing right after I dropped them off at school.
Where were you bombing in Paris a this point?
So in Paris they have all these fruit and vegetable markets and all the trucks are always bombed. So basically I went to each fruit and vegetable stand and asked if I could paint some arrows on their trucks. At first I told them I was happy pay for supplies, I just needed to build a resume. They really thought I was crazy to spend 3-6 hours painting arrows on their trucks for free.. but my french back then was terrible as well so who knows what they thought i said? So I started doing this and it picked up momentum quickly. Because of this I got to know the markets really well and because they were all related and moved their stands together I painted for the entire fruit and vegetable community. I would walk up to a new guy and ask and he would be like “Oh you painted my cousins truck with blue arrows… can you paint mine with green?”
So I got a lot of trucks this way, and I would make it a complete black wrap with the colored arrows on top which was cool at the time. But was truly monumental was that these trucks were constantly traveling all over the city.
So you had crazy amount of “free” exposure?
Exactly, I mean look at the amount people pay in NYC for those advertising trucks just to drive around, so i was getting that 30 or 40 fold. Suddenly people were asking “who is this Above guy I keep seeing everywhere?”.
So when did you reveal yourself to the French public?
So within a few months it was funny how much my name got out there. it was funny because there was this huge french graffiti magazine at the time called “Graffit” circa 2001, and I didn’t know anyone in Paris and I’m essentially a loner by nature anyway to this day. I mean I was walking around the lower east side of manhattan last night putting up stickers by myself. But anyway, I wasn’t hanging out with a lot of people but there was this blog called Armour which was a play on words because in French it means wall art but also signifies art being your protective armour and they were kinda like a early version of The Wooster Collective here in NYC, but you could send photos and they would upload them uncensored.
So the main guy who ran it was a train bomber as well and he liked my work and being connected he hooked me up with Graffit, and they wanted to do my first interview ever and my name was on the over with a 2 page spread! I was flipping out thinking this is crazy! Because I was some what of a loner I had no checks and balances or anyone to give me feedback so the fact that they wanted to interview me was really cool to know people were digging my work. They were all asking who is this Above guy? It was like this Pokemon Go game… You keep seeing it everywhere… but what the fuck is it?
So at this point you were also doing illegal street work?
Oh ya for sure… but I have a funny story to get into that…
So I now had a somewhat portfolio created from photos taken with disposable cameras from painting the fruit trucks and I would go to all the corner spot because they had the most exposure and would be like “I’m American and I like to paint arrows. Can I paint your shutter?”, and again they were all dogged on with shitty tags and I was still offering my services for free, all I wanted was a stamp and signature saying I had the authority to paint their shutter. So I eventually had this book full of these licenses to paint, I mean their was one night I painted six shutters I remember. I mean I could only work at night because the shutters were only down once they closed, but I was an addict. I’ll paint the whole street if I can. I mean my au pair salary because I had no expenses was literally all going to the paint store. One shutter would cost me 20 euros max to paint so I could do at least 20 shutters a week. After doing this for awhile I noticed that although I had these contracts with the store owners I realized that no one was coming to check them most of the time. No police were being troublesome really, I mean maybe once a month the police actually asked to see my book with the authorization stamps in it and they were just like “ok” and went on their way. So I realized at night I had carte blanche to do really whatever I wanted so I started just making up the authorizations in the book myself. The police didn’t care because my work although being created with a spray can which had a negative connotation attached to it wasn’t invasive, it wasn’t fear based, or scary, it was very much pleasing to the eye. Plus I would always be very positive and go out at night to work with a ladder and a painters jump suit. I wasn’t trying to hide, I was very much hiding in plain sight.
I mean it would take some big balls to to be out there like that if you weren’t aloud to be there, right?
That exactly what people though! This idea built a large confidence in me about doing something illegal but in plain view without getting in trouble. If you just assume the role people don’t question you. Even last night stickering the lower east side late at night with loads of people around I could use the city itself as a buffer or as camouflage. But when I’m all alone on a street on a ladder I don’t have this cover.
So when did you stop au pairing and actually making art your career?
Well after I built my name in Paris right before I left I created an Invader style creation which was my arrows painted on pieces of wood that was like 2 meters tall I would tack up as high as possible with double sided tape. But when I moved back to the USA in 2003 and went back to being a server and saved all my tips again to finance my art I wanted to put up similar wood arrows but because the infrastructure here in the USA is different I had to find a new way to hang them. But I realized that I could use all the overhead power lines to not just hang my arrow but it would also spin which would be fucking sweet! So it took me like 6 months to figure out a way to make a contraption that would get them over the power lines. I mean we all know about tossing shoes over the lines but they have two shoes that act as a counter balance, but I wasn’t going to throw two arrows on each spot so i spent month finding a way to hoist them up there quickly and easily.
What part of California did you move back to?
Oh right! I hung my first arrow in San Fransisco in late 2003 but I finally created the device that would get the wood arrows up there and decided to take a huge like 5000 mile road trip across North America putting up arrows everywhere I could. I started in Seattle, then Portland, Vancouver, San Fransisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, then I flew to Detroit, wet to Toronto… I also made it to St. Louis, Louisville, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and a bunch more. I’m not really answering the questions your asking am I?
Well we have recorded about 35 minutes so far which should take me about 3 days to transcribe but no worries…
Ha Ha… ok I’ll try to stay more on topic… Ok, so for 5 years after making the hanging wood arrows I could make extras and sell them on my web site.
What was the original cost on one of those?
$750.00 I think. I had never exhibited before and my focus and addiction was on the streets, and people wanted my work and they had no other outlet to get it but my web site so they were willing to pay that much. I didn’t even want to exhibit really at this time either. All I wanted to do was travel and get my art out there. But ya, the arrows were not redly available all the time for purchase on my site but when they were sold consistently, and I would be like “holy shit I can’t believe I sold another one, thats like an entire week of busying tables!”. So it’s 2008 and I still haven’t exhibit my work and I was making enough off the web sales to quit my waiter gig, especially because I was selling direct so no middle man fees to pay. Some months I would sell 20! So to ACTUALLY answer your question 2008 is when I made my actual living off my art.
Was this around the time you started to sell screen prints?
Actually yes! That’s when I started to get into screen printing because I was flown to Southern Italy in the summer of 2008 and I did my first edition there. It was extremely eye opening because I realized that there was a lot of money to be maid in screen printing my work.
That’s funny because I bought one of your screen prints for I think like $6 during a 1xRun special sale where it was an edition of 60 and each one was priced between $1 & $60 randomly on the page when they were released for sale.
Oh ya sick! That was for the Remix show. Those sales actually majorly crashed their servers!
So ya it was 2008 and I started screen printing and also started to get into stencil work as well and I realized that screen printing is almost the exact same thing as stenciling but you just have a lot more time! So I came back to California from Italy and went to the college near by me and approached the professor of a screen printing class and begged her to let me in the class. After showing her some of my work and stretching the truth a bit I was in. I couldn’t be in the printing lab during school hours but I was aloud to be there at night and thats where I pulled my first screen print. It was a one color word play that said “One man’s junk is another man’s treasure” which was based of a piece I did in Panama City the year before. It was an edition of 15 with a hand finished background and the one color text. The price was like $250 and it sold out in a matter of minutes. I was like “Whoa… what just happened”?
Much easier than making big pieces of wood and tossing them over cable right?
Yes! I knew I was starting to tap into something big. I mean at this time all I had was these arrow bubbles that were pretty expensive and took a lot of time to produce. I was getting a lot of press and there was a demand. Everything I was making was just gone when it went on sale. I still had not had an exhibition yet but finally in 2010 Blek Le Rat invited me to show with him at Wide Walls in LA, and that was the start of my career with art galleries. I worked with him on Spring Street and saw his show in Paris a coupe years earlier, and I speak french so we really clicked. He couldn’t believe I had never shown in a gallery, and the space he was showing in was huge, and he really liked my work which was stencils at the time so he invited me to do the show, and there was no way I could turn that down.
So you were doing all of the work and sales yourself?
Yes! All this stuff was teaching me how to run my own business. I was producing and selling all the work myself on my web site, on my own terms, my own qualities, and this led to me producing over 50 different screen printed editions that are all sold out.
So now that you are in galleries how did you and DK hook-up? What’s the theme of the Quin show?
Well in 2010 DK showed my work in Miami at Art Basil because he heard about my show with Blek. It was at The W in South Beach and everything sold out! This was a great time for street art. I mean at this point Banksy and Invader are really well known and in demand and this was pulling a lot of street artist like me into the spotlight. (Although Tavar’s show at The Quin is over there are a select few pieces still available by emailing [email protected]. Get your piece before there all gone!)
Any interesting NYC stories?
Let’s see… oh in 2010 I was stickering in the Lower East Side and I got stopped by an undercover cop who jumped out of a van and pulled his gun out and tells me to “put my hands against the wall” and I’m in shock! He gives me a seriously aggressive pat down and asks me “what have you been doing? We have been following you for 6 blocks”. It was a vandal squad guy informs me they have a zero tolerance rule for graffiti. So I’m arrested and taken to central booking and the judge didn’t show up to night court that day so I am in a cell with 23 other guys who you can imagine were in there for more serious offenses then stickering, and they are all sizing me up. I can only say it was an experience being in there for an entire night. So finally I go in front of the judge the next morning, and the judge can’t believe I was arrested for stickering when there are women being raped and people being robbed. So he gave me a slap on the wrist and I had to be on a kind of probation for 6 months and the vandalism charge would disappear from my record. It was just so nuts to me that I would be spending a night in jail because of a sticker!
So anything else on you want to talk about other than the ridiculous cost of peanuts in the mini bar at the Quin?
Well I am coming back to NYC next month to paint even more walls. Specifically two for The Bushwick Collective. I also have some other tricks up my sleeve but NYC will have to wait a month to find out.
All Photos and text are © Matthew A. Eller 2016.