Interview with Louis Masai

If you’re in London over the bank holiday weekend, we’ve got a great suggestion for how to spend your time: check out internationally acclaimed painter, sculptor, and muralist Louis Masai’s latest exhibition, Missing (May 25th-27th at The Crypt Gallery, Euston).

We sat down with Louis to discuss the show (which will include an animatronic penguin, amongst other things!), his creative influences, and more!

Louis Masai, Synch Earth, London, Photo Credit - Toby Madden

Tell us about how you first got involved in street art.
The first time I painted a wall was way back when I was a kid with some sprays I had stolen from a garage. I painted some tags and a couple horrendous pieces. That was the end of that until I was at art school and got fed up with working in the studio environment. That’s when I took my paints and brushes and went exploring— I started breaking into abandoned hotels and painting in the bedrooms. After that, I became intrigued as to how I could make cans do what brushes did. At first it was a mixture of everything and then I started only using cans when painting murals, and brushes when painting in the studio – and that’s kind of where I’m at currently.

Louis Masai, Common Carp (Berlin, Germany)

What do you find the most fulfilling about painting in the streets as opposed to
creating work for a gallery?

Well to be honest I don’t have a preference for a specific technique, environment or material. They each share equal importance for me and have influenced each other— the brush and the cans do the same things, just on a different scale and allow for alternative surfaces. Actually, though, if there had to be something that fulfils me the most in my practice, it would have to be painting with inspiring communities or in faraway environments that couldn’t be further detached from the idea of a street or a gallery. For example, last year I painted in the Amazon rainforest of Ecuador and in the mountain tops of Switzerland. Both were breathtaking and the communities there were humble and inspiring.
Tell us about the technique(s) you use to create your pieces.
Outside I use cans, inside I use brushes— but both mediums utilise the same stage process. I start with an outline then fill in the colour patches, followed by the filing of pattern details. The last stages are the highlights and shadows.
Who or what are your biggest creative influences?
Nature.

Louis Masai, Bee Swarm (Stavanger, Norway)
Your work frequently features endangered species, including the humble bee. Can you tell us more about why bees in particular have drawn your attention?
I started painting bees because I realised that everyone knew what a bee looked like, it was something familiar. The average being is far more likely to have seen a bee than a whale or rhino and if anyone was to ask their grandparents if they had noticed a decrease in bee numbers from when they were younger, a tangible understanding to the issue at hand is more likely. I switched my focus to bumble bees after I realised that their existence was far more fragile than that of the honey bees. Currently I paint bees stitching up my plush toy patchwork species to highlight that there is an issue that needs fixing, or rather stitching up.

Louis Masai, Fin back whale (Los Angeles, USA)
What’s the most memorable experience you’ve had while creating street art?
Mmm, you know what— I find this such a hard question to answer, because when I paint I’m so in tune with the painting that I hardly notice what’s going on around me until I stop and reflect. It’s not the painting that creates the experiences for me, it’s the opportunities that I am presented with. For example, last year I was invited to paint in Provincetown Cape Cod in the States where I painted a right whale for a whale research organisation. Cape Cod is on the coast and home, when in season, to many whales and dolphins—well, I say many, but they are all endangered and the numbers are dwindling rapidly. In any case, I was invited to join a whale watch cruise. That was an experience that will stay with me forever, seeing whales jump out of the water at only an arm’s length from me… it wasn’t the painting in itself that was memorable, but the journey that being an artist took me on.

Louis Masai, Mink, Crans Montana, Switzerland

If you could paint anywhere in the world, where would it be?
My goal is to paint as many species in their country of origin as possible—I would love to paint a polar bear in Alaska.
How has the public responded to your work?
Really well— I’m frequently told about how my work has increased awareness, changed consumerist patterns, and even diets. Who would have thought? That’s the power of art!

Louis Masai, Red panda (Shanghai, China)

You’ve got an exhibition called Missing coming up soon—tell us about it! What do you want our readers to know?
It takes places at the Crypt in Euston. It is an incredible space, beautiful and awesome to explore— and it is essentially a burial ground, which makes the message of my art all the more urgent and immediate. The show will be more of an immersive experience, so there will be smell, taste, sound as well as sight to be experienced. I will also be dropping a new edition of prints, bronze sculptures, T-shirts and also a robotic penguin.

After Missing closes, what’s next for you?
A few murals in France in June, a huge wall in July at the Zoological Society of London with Synchronicity Earth, as well as paint festivals: Upfest and Waterford Walls. Then in September I’ll be in residency at the Urban Nation in Berlin.

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