A stalwart of the Australian Hip Hop scene, making his mark anywhere it wasn’t wanted since back in the 80s (when the word ‘fresh’ was actually fresh; full-colour productions featured characters rocking Kangol bucket hats, tracksuits and full-name belt buckles or five-finger rings. When Puma and Fila were legit and the chunky black Cazal frames were fly, not Black Ironic Peas fashion accessories), Melbourne graffiti artist SHEM was making a start at becoming the style master we now know him as today. Renowned for his innovation and experimentation with letter forms, coupled with his bold and always ‘outside of the box’ colour combinations, SHEM appeared to have a history that began with the classic homage to Subway Art era New York; putting his own touches to the traditional ‘backbone’ letter style, but developed and evolved continuously to sit on a body of work that is as consistently crisp and clean as it is wildly unpredictable. Whether putting his touch to a full-colour burner on a production wall or on the production boards (as ‘Jase – Beathedz’, a legend in the Hip Hop sphere) there is one thing that seems clear about the guy: he’s a perfectionist to the end and near enough is never good enough.
What do you think about the closing remark above? Do you consider yourself a perfectionist?
A piece reflects the artist. I’m serious about graffiti; letters, connections and above all style. I can’t relax until I’ve painted to the best of my ability and corrected everything I don’t like within a piece. I want to walk away content with the way it will inevitably be seen.
There are certain Melbourne pieces that are timeless and still get spoken about and shared around to this day. I’m trying to add to that legacy and produce burners that are on an international level.
I surround myself with like-minded people who consistently strive to burn in whatever they do. This keeps me motivated to be creative, not just with graffiti but in life in general.
Would other people refer to you as a perfectionist?
When it comes to music and art I’ve heard that a lot, simply because I work on pieces and tracks until they feel complete. In recent times, though, I’ve learned to accept that sometimes mistakes can look more interesting than the original idea and lead you down a new path. The way lines in a piece are delivered or executed is like a performance and that’s important to me: a sign of true can and nozzle control.
The end result is only a small part in the way I look at a piece as each one also holds a step in my evolution as a writer. You are never too old to learn in this game and try new things. Painting with people that have different styles and techniques can open your mind to new possibilities and having a crew that aren’t afraid to exchange ideas, critique and try new things.
It’s important to learn from the next generation as you get older so your work doesn’t look stale. The challenge to ‘evolve’ and adapt to new techniques and equipment makes it fun and makes me want to keep painting my six different words.
As also mentioned in the foreword, you’ve always maintained a very high standard with your pieces, with crisp lines and very clean fades and effects. Are you usually the last to leave a wall after a link-up? Or has your experience (or even starting out with more basic tools) helped you to become cleaner without as much attention to it?
I like to be crisp and clean but I still prefer my graffiti to look raw, have movement and flow rather than something that looks like it was done in Illustrator. I have a very traditional order when executing a piece and I use a lot of elements created by old New York graffiti masters, with my own added spin on it (arrows, bars, clouds, stars, bubbles, characters overlooking pieces, etc).
I’ll do a first and second outline then clean up each letter as I go along when doing my final outline to avoid losing site of errors. These days the bulk of my pieces are completed in 5-6 hours due to family and music commitments.
I’ve noted that in the past you’ve credited NY influences such as FBA, FC, TC5, TFP, TNB etc. What were your first memories of discovering graffiti as a youth in the 80s – particularly through the New York Subway Art wave? Take us back for a moment.
I grew up as a Noble Park kid running wild around Richmond station aged 13, often staying at PROWLA’s house which was a library for letter styles and early Hip Hop. He had NY train photos pre-Subway Art, pics and mags from L.A legends like RISK, SLICK , POWER and HEX and also from Europe’s stylemasters like SHOE, BANDO, MODE 2 and DELTA.
Watching local crews DMA, WCA, AKA, USA & FMC rock the lines and trains is etched in my mind. An average day would consist of searching for racking stores, doing loops and sitting at Richmond watching panels and window downs roll by all day on the platform, sometimes with other writers, 10-20 deep. There were no graffiti stores and no internet to check out pieces. Racking different brands like Fiddly Bits, Tuxans, Minisprays, VHTs and Spraypaks to make up your colour scheme.
You had to be resourceful. Most legal spots were strictly for the kings or connected of the time and I often sat in the background sponging in as much information as possible; watching people like MERDA, RANSOM, BONDY, PUZLE, ESKI and later EPICK paint, in the hope that one day it would be my time to shine and burn like these style masters. That feeling of walking the line and standing in front of a burner back then is lost these days with the internet.
How did the formation of RDC (Rock Da City) come about? Who was involved at the time and what was the primary objective for the crew – was it simply to get up as much as possible and get fame? Or was there more to it than that?
RDC has three major periods of being very active, first from 87 to 92: there was PROWLA, DECI, AOK, NRH, WHAT, KORE and SHEM aka DUNE. Next from 92 to 98 was the CI connection of MESK, SHOUT, JEDS, CALVIN and SKELPER with JORS added in 1991. RENKS joined around 1998 and was the final member. Then, in the last 14 years, PROWLA, JORS, MESK, JEDS, SHOUT, CALVIN and myself have consistently painted as a crew or under various aliases.
Melbourne, of course, is renowned throughout Australia (and even the world) for its acceptance and even embracing of graffiti/street art in selective but still several public spaces, with city laneways and many surrounding suburbs emblazoned with permission pieces, amidst the healthy addition of stealthy throw-ups and artworks added after hours. Is this still something that holds true? What is your view on the current climate of permission walls in Melbourne?
There is definitely a greater acceptance of graffiti productions in certain council areas. Galleries have definitely helped build the profiles for several artists who choose to make a living off their art. Places like NGV and Rtist gallery have really gone out of their way to hold traditional letter based shows and a wider audience now attend these events.
Bigger budgets mean grander ideas and large scale murals painted with cherry pickers have started popping up on hotels and car parks. It has taken over twenty years for companies like Adidas, Marvel and Porsche to request traditional graffiti work. Melbourne has a large amount of writers who sit on both sides of the fence and I think that creates a healthy scene of tags, throw ups, pieces, steel, tracksides and general street art.
Speaking of permission walls, earlier this year you were actively involved in the Marvel Street Art Exhibition at Rtist Gallery with fellow F1 crew member SIRUM. How did this come about and what was expected from you both?
Originally we were approached to paint Marvel characters live at their gallery event by a promotions company called Haystac. Around the same time Avengers promotions began and some of the marketing people at Marvel/Disney saw our portfolios and other character work and gave us the opportunity to create limited edition graffiti based t-shirts of Avengers superheroes in partnership with Jeanswest.
You were also included in the early stages of The Underground project, which features 800m of wall space over three levels of a South Melbourne car park. What was your experience like with this? Did you get to meet CES (FX Crew – NY) there?
Yes. I converted all the air vents in the car park to train carriages for different artists familiar with the steel to paint on them and then painted a “Rocking Da City forever” production in the form of a wood installation with crew mates PROWLA and JORS on the bottom floor of the car park.
CES, ENUE, DEM189, DOES, NASH and WANE were in town to paint the car park but we got down on other walls around town. It was a great experience grilling WANE about the origins of style.
Giving away as much or as little as you like, are you one of those lucky sons of bitches that gets to do what they love for a living? Or are you stuck in the 9 to 5 grind with the rest of the schmucks (like this one), only getting back to your creative work when you can make the time?
For the past 15 years I have been self-employed making music and painting, though recently, after I had my son, I scored a job teaching art and music production. So now I’m able to create all day and pass on my experience to the next generation and get paid by the government to do so. It’s great!
What is your favourite part of graffiti?
The feeling you get when you go back to your piece to get photos. Everything seems so new and vivid after a night mission the next day.
Watching the evolution of style and seeing younger writers who do their homework painting traditional wildstyle. Graffiti is meant to be illegal but I’ll be damned if after 25 years in the game I’m going to let some new toy who hasn’t done the hard yards land big contract jobs. Corporate companies want that street cred associated with graffiti and street art, and want to appeal to youth so I’d rather see one of my mates representing than someone out of the scene cashing in. It’s kind of like comparing the art in Style Wars to the Hollywood murals in Beat Street – Hahaha!
What is your least favourite?
Here’s my personal opinion.
People are way too concerned with what the next man is doing instead of just getting on with painting. The beef and ego battles between writers cracks me up but that’s the nature of the beast. You know you are making moves when someone starts hating. In the end it’s just paint on walls really and there is more to life. Also, kings don’t anoint themselves, so crowning yourself gets no respect. Just do you and pay your dues. That’s when the recognition will come!
I also believe the older generation should be passing down their knowledge, code of ethics and the legacy of style rather than whinge and hate on kids who may grow up solely on Flickr and Tumblr and painting pieces looking like everything else in the world. It is simply because they don’t know any better. The knowledge should be passed on rather than die with inactive writers. Going back to pre-internet, style was handed down or you were influenced by the kings of your line. The internet has opened up a world of influences, so the game has definitely changed.
In my time there was Richmond station and the City Square where everyone either hung out and went bombing or met face to face when there was beef. You would even battle it out on the trains and walls with no violence and many historical battles have taken place. Nowadays internet politics and beef are rampant as most are hiding behind an alias. Leave a name if you really have a problem!
If you could be doing anything right now for a career, anywhere in the world – what would it be, and where?
Just doing what I love: making records and painting with good trustworthy people and making good money to support my family is my main aim. I think I’m lucky to be doing what I’m doing now with music and graffiti – my two longest loves. I hope to eventually get serious about releasing more albums on Beathedz and Royal Deviates clothing with JORS. I’m not done yet!
Any young and upcoming writers around your way we should be looking out for?
Shouts to CREAS, NILER, BUKE, SARE2, SIRUM, LAZER, JORS, PROWLS and producers Dizz1, MK, Unknown, J-Squared, Whisper, J. Smith and Dutch and my fam RDC F1.
Artillery: Any final words? Speak on it, son!
Thanks for the interview.
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