When you’re travelling it’s not always the things that go well that stay with you, sometimes the frustrations and challenges are just as fortuitous as the glossy postcards and tropical beaches. For Dabs and Myla it was the ultimate traveller’s frustration, the stranded flight, that led them down a path that has been defining their work ever since. Since that day the couple have rebranded themselves as DABS MYLA, a single artistic collective that works collaboratively on pop-culture infused, nostalgia-ridden, architectural inspired, visual meditations. We spoke with them about finding each other, and themselves, on the path of a creative journey that has led them from Melbourne to Los Angeles.
Before you guys met where were your interests? How did you fall into art?
DABS: It was pretty different for both of us. When I was a young kid I used to draw and whatnot. My uncle was a massive collector of comic books and animation art, he had like a million books and a massive library of old 1950s cartoons on VHS. I used to go to his house and draw and look through all the books and watch cartoons. I guess I lost a lot of my interest in art until I got a little bit older and started doing graffiti. I went to study illustration because I wanted to get better at graffiti. I’d been doing it for 10 years but I thought if I actually went to school to learn about art then maybe I’d get better. So I went and did that and that’s where we met.
MYLA: I’d never painted graffiti or even used a spraycan or anything like that. By the end of our studies we fell in love and we started collaborating together straight away. Dabs showed me how to spraypaint. At the start he just taught me about graffiti and the history of it. It was really weird because I was in my mid-twenties, which is a funny time to start doing all of that.
D: Most people start as a teenager, so she sort of jumped in and got good real quick. Within a few years she was already better than a lot of people that I knew who’d been painting for ages.
M: I don’t know about that. One thing I do know is that when I started I was painting with guys who’d been painting for at least 10 years. I felt real toy and I had to not embarrass myself. It pushes you. So then we were working on a lot of collaborations together and we were working on our own stuff as well. After about two years of doing that (our own stuff) we just decided that we liked doing the collaborations a lot better.
D: We were on a plane actually, we’d been on vacation in New York painting and we were sitting on this plane and we had a little meeting about it, I can remember it vividly. It was like “Fuck, you know what? If you take what you’re doing with those and I take this and this, I think we could make it work”. We drew all these tiny scribbles and thumbnails all over these pieces of paper, and we said that from now on we were just going to fuck off all the shit that we’ve been doing on our own. Except for doing pieces, we do everything together. I mean, in graffiti your name is your name and we’re going to do our pieces separately, but outside of that we do everything together no matter what.
M: We just came back the next day and that was it.
D: That was when me as a person just ceased to exist [laughs].
And it has worked out so far?
D: We should have been doing it way before, I can’t believe it took so long to work out.
M: It was three or four years (ago) and I feel like we should have been doing it before. But maybe it’s good, because there would be the chance that we’d be like “Well, what if we didn’t collaborate?” But we know what that’s like and we don’t want to go back there.
So when did you make the decision to move overseas and what prompted it?
D: Well, it was all at the same time. We’d gone to the States and then we went to LA for a little while and then travelled up to New York.
M: This was in 2007.
D: We came over with Askem, Dvate and Ethics on this trip and we did a bunch of graffiti. We were in New York and we got on the plane to come home and it couldn’t take off. So we ended up sitting on the plane on the runway for four hours.
M: Just stuck there.
D: They wouldn’t even let us stand up. So we’re sitting there for four hours, man it was fucked. We’re talking about our artwork and shit and that’s when we decided to work together. Because the plane sat there for so long we missed our connecting flight in LA, so they had to put us up near the airport for 24 hours. That next day we went for a walk down the street to get cigarettes and we were talking to each other about how fucking good LA was, and just like that we decided we should move here.
That sounds like the best possible outcome from being stranded on the tarmac for hours.
D: Yeah right? Who knows what might’ve happened if we weren’t stuck there. We were forced by boredom to talk about absolutely everything in existence and that happened to come up as well. Maybe if the plane took off it would have been headphones on, fall asleep, get back to Melbourne and never think about it again.
Do you think that relocation has changed your work at all? I know you reference architecture a lot; do you think you’ve absorbed that LA look?
M: I think so, once we moved over here the colours in our work started to change. Because it’s so bright here, you go outside and the sky is always bright blue. Even the people dress differently. People wear more colorful clothes here and that just filtered into what we do.
D: In a different way I think it also affected our work in a pretty big way because outside of graffiti we were really into pop-surrealism and lowbrow art, which there’s really not a massive scene for in Australia.
M: Its birthplace was California.
D: It’s the best place to see it. You go see a Craola exhibition, or a Gary Baseman exhibition, or a Mark Ryden exhibition and it’s so good. In the space of a few months we’ve seen so much high quality art and that really pushes you.
Do you think as Australian artists it’s almost a necessary career move to relocate overseas at some point?
M: It’s good for any artist, anywhere in the world, to travel and exhibit in different places. Artists who get published in books and magazines and blogs are the ones that seem to be always moving.
D: If you live in New York and you don’t ever go anywhere you might still do just fine. But definitely for places like Australia because it’s so far away and such a small population compared to other big cities. It’s a good idea to move around and experience what is going on in other places.
Do you think that an online presence is almost a substitute for that travel at this point?
M: Almost, people see so much now that it’s crazy.
D: It’s honestly changed everything in graffiti and art. You definitely see how that affects everything.
Do you think the positives of that shift online outweigh the negatives?
D: With graffiti especially it definitely changed things; it has made it weird. Now there are internet graffiti writers. You can paint anywhere now, when it used be about painting a really good spot. You know like “If I paint this spot at Flinders Street Station everyone is going to see it”. Whereas now if you paint a factory wall in Ferntree Gully, as long as enough people blog it online more people are going to see it than ever pass through Flinders Street.
It also affects style as well. Now with the internet, dudes from Melbourne aren’t just seeing the best from their city, they’re seeing the best from the States and Europe and everything meshes together and you lose that house style that you used to have. It is another downfall but I think they’re worthy exchanges for the awesomeness of the internet.
So how do you guys balance those elements of your different practices in the composition?
D: We’re always working with architecture because that’s what Myla loves to paint, and then characters because that’s what I enjoy painting. For a fair while we were limited to always making a scene of sorts. The building was always at the bottom and the person would either be climbing them or coming up behind them. We decided that we couldn’t keep doing paintings like that. We didn’t want to be limited. So we made a point of never making work like that because we we’re trying to push our stuff into more of a surreal context, something not so literal. We’ve been trying to push different ways of combining the two into one thing.
M: That’s what we’ve been really trying to mess with recently, morphing the two together. It’s turned out pretty fun.
D: What is so different about the way me make paintings compared to someone who does them on their own, is that whole conceptual process is super verbal. Normally when someone goes through that first process, there’s no one to talk about it with. Whereas with this, it’s just as much talking as it is drawing because we have to come to an agreement between the two of us. It just slowly builds up until we’ve got to a point where we both are where we want to be with it. When it’s wrong we both usually think it’s wrong and when it’s right we both know it’s right. It’s a weird thing. We’ve got a similar personality and we spend every single day together. There isn’t a day in the past seven years that we haven’t seen each other, which is insane. I don’t know how many days that is, but that’s a shit tonne.
It’s a long time for sure.
D: It’s just built up like that over time; we’ve kind of turned into one person.
So where do you think you guys would have ended up if you didn’t find each other?
D: No idea.
M: I don’t know. I think that if we didn’t meet each other our lives would be very different. I can’t even imagine, because I’d never met a graffiti writer before. So that wouldn’t be there.
D: Who knows man? I mean we’ve thought about what would be going down if we didn’t start working together. But if we didn’t meet each other, fuck. If we didn’t start a relationship right after studying then I don’t know how much I would have pushed myself with my painting. To be honest, I never really gave a shit about being a painter.
M: I’ve always painted with a brush and he has always painted with spraypaint. As the years have gone on it’s like there has been an exchange of skills.
Do you think you need each other to balance each aspect of your practice, from the street and gallery perspective?
M: Definitely, for that and even for just the application of what we’re using and the way things look. I don’t think that Dabs’ characters would look the way they do if I wasn’t here and I don’t think that my painting would look the same. It’s the whole, it’s an aesthetic of everything, it’s the composition, it’s the subject matter and all of it is because of an exchange between both of us.
One of the things that I’ve noticed in your work right from the get-go is that you’ve always had a separate body of work for the gallery and the street. There’s a different aesthetic in your canvas work than there is in your walls.
D: Definitely. It’s strange because for years it was even further away from where we’re at now. I was really adamant about making sure that it was different, even though we used the same names for our exhibition I didn’t want it to look like anything that we’d do on a wall. I refused to paint any characters on walls for about six years. Now I enjoy it almost equally to painting pieces. We like two different things, even though there’s a similarity between what we’re doing on walls and what we’re doing on canvas we do want to keep them separate. If we’re painting characters outside on a wall we still really want that to look like graffiti, even though there’s there no letters we want the sensibility of the graffiti that we both like with bright colours and really bold, thick outlines.
I guess that graffiti culture is now very accessible. Where do you see that going?
M: I think so. It’s accessible to a much broader audience, not someone just from one particular scene. It’s a bizarre thing but I think it’s a positive for artists and those who enjoy that art. I’m excited to see what happens. It seems like every so often there’s a huge shift and right now it seems like there’s a movement of artists who are getting people all around the world really excited about art who might never have been interested before. Art gives society an image, we look at art throughout time and it’s always documented what’s happening at the time. I think the art now is reflective of that.
This article features in issue #28 of ACCLAIM Magazine – The En Route Issue – click to purchase.