Brolga is a Brooklyn-based street artist and illustrator known for his bright, pop-styled wheat pastes and murals. In this interview, GSA writer Tawny Saez dives into Brolga’s story from Australia to Brooklyn and explores the deeper meaning behind his work.
What builds your sense of purpose as a street artist?
To be honest, it’s all about the adventure to me. I love painting murals. From the process of planning out the artwork in my head, to finally getting it down, and then being able to spend time in a new neighbourhood while painting – I find it all really fascinating. Most of the purpose behind it is based on around that. Like a surfer’s thrill of taking on bigger waves, I have the same feeling where I can’t wait to paint bigger walls and create better work. They say that whatever it is that you do while procrastinating is what you should be doing as a job. Well, when I’m wasting time, I’m doodling new walls or dreaming about the next fun project.
How did you get into street art? What brought you to New York from Australia?
New York had always beckoned, but I never thought that I would be living here. I used to read tonnes of biographies about New Yorkers like Bob Dylan, Jeff Buckley, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg, and in the city sounded like such a surreal place.
I was at the end of a few years travelling overseas, living in places like Tokyo and moving through Europe. I finally found myself in Central America where I met another Aussie while out surfing. He invited me to jump in on a road trip that he was doing up to Mexico, but when I told my family about my plans, they weren’t so pumped on the idea. The Aussie news channels at the time were showing lots of headlines about travellers getting caught up in the drug cartel wars in Mexico. So, my mum’s paranoia spurred the suggestion of New York instead!
To keep myself busy in the city, I took a few illustration courses at the School of Visual Arts, which I really loved! I always was a bit fanatical about drawing and I felt like a fish in water in that classroom, like it was exactly where I needed to be. I organised to travel back to New York later that year and I ended up studying illustration full-time at Pratt Institute.
It was once I got back to New York that I began experimenting with street art. Initially, I bought a big roll of paper and starting making artwork in my room, weird characters and whatever popped to mind. I put them up around the neighbourhood merely for my own kicks, just to see them on my daily walk to the grocery store or train station. The creativity of other street artists in Brooklyn spurred me on to make bigger and bigger pieces until eventually, I just started painting murals.
What is the street art community like in Brooklyn?
At the moment I’m taking part in a show at the World Trade Center featuring street artists from all over the city and I got to meet a lot of the community there. They’re really tight knit and super friendly.
If you factor in the art community as a whole, it’s an insanely talented bunch of people living and working in Brooklyn, and all in such a small area.
What is the mission behind your murals? For example, your Muhammad Ali and Louis Armstrong murals in Williamsburg!
The Muhammad Ali wall in Williamsburg was one of the first murals that I painted. At that time, I was obsessed with how colour and shapes reacted to each other. I still am, I think I wanted to see how the black and white photorealistic image of Muhammad Ali boxing would react against the flat, bold, and bright graphic shapes. In the shapes, I sketched out the timeline of Muhammad Ali’s life from his days as a boy in Kentucky getting his bike stolen, to his later years, fighting Sonny Liston to become the heavyweight champion of the world, and then finally crossing over to Islam.
What piece of work are you most proud of and why?
I illustrated my first piece for the New York Times this year! I was really excited about that. It has been a dream of mine for years and I was totally flattered to get the commission.
Newspaper jobs keep you on your toes! Because the shelf life of a news story is so short, illustrators are only given a small window of time to create the artwork, which normally amounts to a few sleepless nights to get to the final piece. It’s a big thrill, though, to see something that hadn’t even existed a week before as an idea, published on a big website or newspaper! I got to draw some fun characters for that as well.
What is your perspective on the role of street art in our society?
I think in our daily lives there’s more than enough manufactured messages like advertising out there, where it’s basically force fed to us. I think this is part of why street art is refreshing because it generally doesn’t have that agenda.
It reminds me of the punk rock movement in a way, in that it’s a platform that has no right or wrong. It doesn’t have censorship and anyone can do it. All you have to learn is a power chord and you can write a punk song, it’s super accessible. You don’t have to be a classically trained musician or artist to go out there and create something with emotion and raw energy.
Also, there’s nothing stopping an artist from creating work on the street. They don’t have to wait for a phone call from a gallery to get an exhibit because there are walls everywhere. That DIY culture is one of the cooler parts of this, I think.
What are your upcoming projects, murals or exhibitions?
Yeah, the World Trade Center project is one that I’m installing work into at the moment. A whole floor of one of the buildings is being turned into a street art playground, with murals and installations from artists like Ron English and other familiar names from all over the city. I was recently there to check out the space while a blizzard was hammering New York, and the city was blanketed in snow and the view was mind blowing.
At the moment, I’m also putting together a series of experimental pieces inspired by the work of the Japanese woodblock artist, Hokusai. I’m rethinking his images of geishas by throwing modern influences into the mix like flat pop art and collage styles. Stay tuned on that one as I plan to paint them on street walls around the US this summer.