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How did a paint company out of suburban Australia become one of the international graffiti world’s most prominent brands? Well, that’s the question we posed to Levi Ramsey. As the mastermind behind Australian aerosol paint company Ironlak, Levi started the brand in 2002 with zero knowledge of the paint industry. A speaker on the ‘Building a Brand’ forum at CARBON festival earlier this year, Levi is a testament to following your passion – having built a successful company out of a love of graffiti writing and a simple desire for the availability of cost effective, high quality paint in the Australian market.

Photos by Sebastian Petrovski

What was your first motivation to start your own brand?

I think paint here used to be so expensive, I think that was the primary thing. I wanted to paint more but I couldn’t afford to pay $17 a can and I used to spend all of my time mixing cheap paint to get as many colours as I could so I just hit a point where I basically went up to some paint manufacturers and said “Hey, look, I think you guys need to make a few changes here. Can we do something together?” And they all kind of blew me off so I was like “Right, I’ll just try start my own paint company.”

How do you even start to do that? That’s such an insane undertaking.

I can’t even remember. Early on, my brother and I, Heath, we used to go to the State Library in Sydney and we’d just read chemistry stuff on paints and aerosols, just so that when we stepped into a meeting we didn’t look like total idiots. I think that we just started to get a basis for knowledge with that and then I think we just talked to major paint manufacturers and they kind of slowly pushed us in the right directions ‘til we found a contract filler who was semi-willing to help us and it just took a lot of prodding for them to eventually want to come on board and then it just kind of went from there.

Being based in Australia, do you think this is has impacted on your company’s trajectory, positively or negatively? What are the good things and bad things about being based down here?

I think, Australians… we like an underdog. So I think, starting out people really started to get behind us. We knew a lot of people just through doing graffiti and that helped give us some momentum and a fair bit of grass roots. Obviously as Australians, to a certain degree we like to see people success but only so far.

Have you found that limiting?

A little bit. I think sometimes I feel like, maybe it’s just my perception, but maybe Aussies should be a little bit more prouder of Ironlak, that we have taken on the world. Maybe that could be me just being a little bit of a victim and I need to just suck it up.

I think that’s something that anyone doing something independently encounters. When you guys opened up the store in LA, what was the feedback from Aussies regarding that?

There was a little bit of “Why didn’t you do one in Australia.” It was something that we definitely did look at but we have a few really good retailers in Australia and we don’t want to shit on their doorsteps, so to speak. So we need to be mindful of that kind of stuff. As much as we want to support Australia, not hurting the business of those retailers is still us supporting Australia. It’s funny because I remember watching that INXS documentary and they were talking about the same thing. As they got more success in the States, they got more backlash here but I still feel like for the most part Australia is still really behind us and supportive of us.

I think it’s so impressive that the Ironlak name is up there with all the other best-known paints. How much of that was the result of strategy or was it something that you felt just happened organically?

I think, I don’t really believe in a big bang theory, so I feel like there had to be a certain amount of strategy behind what you do. I really felt like we didn’t take on Europe until we were fairly well positioned in other parts of the world. Even Europe is taking quite a while to really break in, but at the moment we’re starting to make some inroads, particularly with the new products we’re releasing.  So definitely there’s some strategy behind it.

I think that’s a good way to put it though. Obviously part of it’s organic but you also need that strategy there. Do you find that you really have to tread carefully, because the graffiti scene is one that’s so staunchly obsessed with authenticity, what’s real and what’s not. In that way it’s different than an apparel brand or something like that.

It can be quite hard. There is a fine line to walk and I think you do need to be quite careful about it. We’re starting to get more interest from the fine art market and that’s something we want to pursue but there’s certain lines that we feel like we can’t cross. We feel like it would just do too much damage to the integrity of the brand for us to cross some of those lines.

So is that the motivation to branch out the product lines, with the pens and the notebooks and stuff like that?

Definitely, we’ve always had writers asking us for that stuff and it’s just a case of, we can only do so much at any given time. I feel like at the moment we kind of have our ducks in a row. We’ve invested the time in over the last 12 months, so there were huge amounts of product developments that are only really starting to roll out now.

I think it’s a really good idea because even though I know about the brand, I’m not just going to casually go buy a can of spray paint. It’s not accessible and the scene itself isn’t accessible. But then you can be like, I know the brand, I’m a designer, I can just buy a pen.

That’s the thing. We realised that there’s so many people who identify with Ironlak and like Ironlak but they don’t necessarily paint but they’re the kind of people that turn up to CARBON and if we’ve got a product that is useful to them and they identify with it then there’s a chance that they’re going to go buy it.

I think that the scene itself is a lot like the core skate scene. If you don’t skate, you’re not going to go buy a deck but you might buy a t-shirt from the same brand. I guess you guys treat it similarly. 

Yes, there are a lot of parallels with skateboarding. At least that’s what we always reference.

When I was doing the research that’s what clicked in my mind. What is one of the biggest lessons you’ve learnt from this whole process? Given the CARBON forum you’re on – building a brand. What have you learnt is important?

Probably the biggest thing I’ve learnt is that, you can bend a brand and you can stretch a brand but you’ve got to be careful where you take it so you don’t dilute it. Once you start to lose that core audience, you can pick up other people and you can build other products under that brand but we couldn’t go out and do footwear, you know what I mean? It just wouldn’t fit. Backpacks, t-shirts, sure but there are certain lines, and that’s what I feel is the biggest thing we’ve learnt. Like Airwalk… that was one of my favourite brands but eventually they just branded out to everything and it just imploded. So I’m always mindful of that.

If you didn’t end up starting Ironlak, what do you think you’d be doing?

I’ve got no idea. I think I always would’ve gone into business regardless. I think I would’ve stumbled onto something. It probably would’ve been less enjoyable and less exciting.

Do you think that you’d always be working for yourself? Are you that kind of person?

I think so. I think my dad was always pretty influential with that. He was always like “Don’t work for the man, go out and start your own thing.” So from an early age that kind of rubbed off. I like taking risks and trying new things.

For more info on CARBON Festival, head over to weareallcarbon.com