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Artist Interview: Martin Whatson

December 7, 2016
12 min read
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Norwegian Martin Whatson has a continuous urge to search for beauty in what is commonly dismissed as ugly, out of style or simply left behind. He looks for inspirations in people, city landscapes, old buildings, graffiti, posters and decaying walls. His interest for decay has developed his style, creating either unity or conflict between materials, backgrounds, and human intervention. He use grey tones as a basis but add’s vibrant colours to break the monochrome concrete expression and bring a splash of life to his motives. Since his artistic debut in 2004, he has had several solo shows and participated in many group exhibitions, both nationally and in international metropoles like Tokyo, Paris, London, New York and Los Angeles.

Hey Martin, let’s start from the color, in most of your pieces the color explodes behind a gray cover, or is within us while everything else is gray like concrete. What if it was the opposite? What if looking within ourselves we discover only gray while we are surrounded by multicolored banners?

Well, yeah, I work a lot with the colors and contrasts, as you might see strong contrasts has been an ongoing theme in my works for a long time! I think a lot of people will discover, if they really look within themselves, that they can be a little bit grey. With all the visual input you get these days it can be easy to feel like your disappearing in a jungle of noise. But for me creativity helps to discover the opposite.

For sure it would be a pessimistic view of life, but do you think is honest to associate graffiti culture to something more vital, colorful, while the rest seems discolored and free from stimulus?

In a city environment it definitely is. One of my missions is to open peoples eyes to something more than just what is perceived as the norm. I would hate a world that is not visually challenging! In my opinion we need some contrast and change in our life to see the variables and open our minds a little more.

I think that the first message coming from your art is always an invitation to look beyond, to discover life in a different sense, to pull out the joyful aspect that resides in us. What has brought into your life the artistic expression, the mural?

Like I mentioned before, it has been a mission to change peoples view. Maybe get them to question what they see every day. Imagine a wall that has been painted with colorful graffiti, and then overpainted in white. Well the graffiti still remains on the wall, its just laying below the white. By painting a street piece or a mural using this as an inspiration I hope to inspire just a few people to think beyond what they can just see with their eyes, I hope they’ll be able to scratch below the surface!

You have more than a decade of street work on your shoulders, and in these years we have witnessed the explosion of the street art movement worldwide. What is your point of view, what do you like and what would you like to change about this great “machine”?

It’s amazing to see how much has changed since I first began! I mean, coming from Norway we are always a bit late to the party, so I have seen how it was like before it got embraced by the people. It’s becoming more and more easy to get permission to do walls, and internationally the exploding amount of street art festivals has been amazing to witness. Only in the last 3-5 years it seems every American city has got its own festival! Which in one way is great for the people, but I miss sone context. If it’s only a gathering of artist painting walls it’s not as interesting as if you attach something too it! NuArt has been great at involving the locals into the festival, arranging workshops, presentations, talks, debates education and walks. With this creating a link between the artists and the viewers on another level then just seeing a piece of art on a big wall! I see several other festival are aiming for the same which is great. I just hope it’s not getting to be too much!

Can you see a future for this movement? How do you think the media attention will develop through street art?

Well, like every other populist movement you will have someone jumping the wagon to make a quick buck or to get attention. I still see great new artists coming up so thats really refreshing, although I believe its much harder to stand out from the crowd now then what it was 10 years ago.

I’ve always been interested in artistic urgency that drives you to communicate an idea outdoor, visible to all. What is your relationship with this inner need, how long it last the satisfaction for a just completed piece?

I think exposing yourself or your ideas is something we all have inside of us, I’m just lucky to have found a way of sharing that with a larger crowd and getting the attention I crave. I’m very fascinated about random scribbles on walls. Imagine walking home from a night out finding a spray can with some paint still in it. I believe most people will have the urge to use that spray can to express themselves. It’s just the alcohol that pushes them over the edge of doing it or not. Another fascinating thing about that is the randomness in what’s being written. More often are stupid words or out of context phrases. Maybe this is because a person has the urge to communicate something, they just don’t know what to communicate when they are thrown into the situation. What I find really refreshing about work on the street is that when painting it you have no guarantee how long it will stay and how many people will see it. It may disappear in a couple of days, but to me if only 10 people see it, I’m happy about it. And I will have my photos to spread the word further.

What kind of relationship do you have with the work of other artists? I mean, when you see a nice work it pushes you to do better or you don’t give in to the temptation of being influenced?

Of course seeing someone’s great work pushes me into working harder. I’m trying to be open minded about where I get the influence from, the hardest part is distancing yourself far enough from your influence so it’s not just a blatant copy! I try to use other artists’ work to push my technique and quality of the work to a new level!

Have you ever been afraid to seem repetitive? Sometimes lazy artistic curators or gallerists tend to label the artists with a specialty. Maybe you could be called “the one who plays with color tags..”  Have you ever felt the need to do something completely different?

Mmm…this is an hard one, on two levels. One is that I really enjoy what I’m doing at the moment, and yes, maybe it’s repetitive, but in the end, the person I’m doing art for is myself. I would still be painting even if I could not live from it. So I try to use that as an inspiration to do what I like, not what I don’t but believe others like!
The other is that to be recognized, you need a certain direction. I think Instagram is a good way of showing it. When watching an artists portfolio on Instagram you get about 9 photos on a phone screen, if those 9 photos does not have a thread going through them its very hard to stick out of the crowd. Look at the biggest artists in history. Everyone of them worked 30+ years in one direction, slowly developing their styles. I don’t mind being “the one who plays with color tags” as long as I’m comfortable doing it and enjoy the process and the end result. As long as I know I have a direction and a goal for the development in the future thats fine with me.

Most of the artists claim to be original, saying something new or better than others. But looking at the infinite artistic production achieved so far is very hard not to find something mentioned earlier. I know it’s hard to admit, but if you had to choose one artist or an artistic movement, of who would you say, “Well, I took something from him, I’m in debit with him”?

Gosh, I know it could sound a cliché, but I owe a lot to Banksy. It was after reading his “banging your head against a brick wall” book that I decided I wanted to explore stencils. He’s also such a driving force of the street art movement paving the way for most of us, that I find it hard not to mention him. In recent years there are several others, but if I only have to mention one it would be Banksy.

To conclude, tell me something about your future, tell me what would you like to achieve as goals, in five months, and in five years from now.

Well, I have a direction I want to be heading in a few years, but I’m still not ready to let anyone know what it is.
I’m still exploring the possibilities and want to keep it that way. Too many artists announce their doing a big change only to be running back to what they did before… I think introducing a change slowly both helps you as an artist to get comfortable with it and for the viewers to understand it better! My long term goal is to continue working full time and to explore the world painting walls.

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