Remi Rough is a London born and raised graffiti writer who’s been painting for the better part of three decades. While most of the current generation of Aussie graff writers were in primary school, Remi was trading outlines with Puzle and Merda via international post. But after 20 years in the scene Remi had an epiphany, taking his work away from traditional letter structures and embarking on a personal journey through the exploration of abstract form and colour. We caught a few minutes with him to discuss the current state of the arts, and the recent popularity of abstract graffiti styles.
How’d you get a start painting?
Totally cliché, and I hate saying it. But someone came into school with ‘Subway Art’ and it was like “Oh that’s interesting, can I borrow that tonight?” So I borrowed it, and copied loads of stuff out of it. Then myself, the guy who owned the book, and another guy went and did our first piece together about two weeks later which we subsequently got arrested for. Should have put me off for life, but that was it. The whole thing just enveloped me completely, but I suppose about ten years ago everything just changed.
So what happened?
I mean I always had a slightly left of field ideology of what I was doing and what I was part of, and I never quite sat comfortably in the kind of traditionalist methodology. I met a guy called Juice-126 from Birmingham in 1989; he was a completely abstract graffiti writer. He was really interesting, he’s still one of my best friends in the world all these years later, and he kind of put a different spin on my perception of what graff was. I think from that point, just bit by bit it kept deconstructing. Then by the late 90’s early 00’s I was doing a very deconstructed version of lettering, it was stripped down to just black and white and then it kind of broke down even more into using those forms that those letters come from. So you’ve got bars, you’ve got kicks, and you can take them out of context so they’re detached.
Do you see that as something as happening in terms of wider style, a shift away from letterform?
Well you know I was dabbling with abstract things when I met Juice in ’89, you know and I’ve got completely abstract walls from ’89 as well. So it wasn’t new, it was just refined. It is funny because now it does seem such a kind of trend I suppose, that there’s this abstract version of graffiti they’re calling graffuturism or whatever. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t the first to do it, people like Futura and Rammellzee and Dondi and Juice they were doing it way before me, but I think there’s so many generations of it. I mean you have The Beatles for example who made all these amazing albums full of love songs, two minutes long with jangly guitar bits and that was it, they did so many of them that they had to abstract. So they did Revolver and The White Album etc. Artists are like that, you get to a point where you have to make a decision to either go forward or keep doing the same thing forever.
Do you think now with a lot exposure you get from the web that it’s pushing graff stylistically? For better or worse?
Possibly for both. The internet is a fantastic tool; played well, played wisely it’s brilliant. Played badly its not so great. It’s opened up a lot of doors for people; it’s made the Flickr generation what it is. It’s made people who just take photos of street art and graffiti celebrities.
Yeah but you also had Martha Copper and Henry Chalfant doing the same thing in the 80’s.
Yeah exactly, it’s nothing new. It’s cyclical, and it keeps turning around but as it does that little pockets of sharpness point out and make new lines and new pathways, and that’s what comes out of it that’s interesting.
Do you think there’s now an emphasis on global style, as opposed to regional styles?
To be honest I think people are now looking elsewhere. I mean with what I do I’m not looking at what Futura is doing, I’m looking at Malovich or Franz Kline. I’m a forty year old man, I’m not entrenched in graffiti anymore, it’s not doesn’t hold as much relevance to me anymore. I mean I love it, I can appreciate the technique and I can appreciate good style. I love seeing graffiti, and I enjoy seeing the aspects of colour and style that people put into it but it doesn’t have as much relevance to me anymore.
I think there’s so much amazing artwork in the world outside of this genre that people should be looking at. And they’ve been referenced anyway; if you go back to Futura he was looking at people like Kandinsky and Rauschenberg. It’s there but people just always look at the graff, and they go to the graff websites and the graff blogs when what they should be doing is going further out and look for where those influences have come from.
Is that a journey that you’ve taken over the past thirty years? Because you started out steeped in that subculture as well.
Yeah, absolutely. It’s a journey that’s very difficult to control because I’d never imagine that this would be my full time living, I would never imagine that quite literally right now there’s a show opening in New York that I’m in at the Opera Gallery. I just wouldn’t have figured.
When you started working with colour again, where was that palette drawn from?
That would be my only back reference to style-writing days. My problem with graffiti was that it was always over flourished, people just over-emphasise too much. The work that I do now is about tension, and colours can have a good sense of tension, linear tension or composition, you can just literally colour something from top to bottom with no form and it will have tension. Like yellow and blue, classic, I use them a lot. I like making things look beautiful, but I like them to be slightly uncomfortable at the same time. I suppose that’s just my subversive nature.
Yeah but that’s where you get that energy from, when a piece can’t be resolved it’s always more interesting to look at.
It’s difficult because I’m not educated in art, I can’t contextualise what I do in an academic way. I can only literally tell you what I think I know and what I think I’m doing. I’m at an interesting stage of my life where I’m forty years old and I kind of really want to contextualise what I’m doing, and explain to people that it’s this, it’s that, but I really don’t know how. I just know that I need the tension in my painting, my life is lovely I’ve got a lovely family and I lovely home and a nice car and all that shit, so the painting needs to be my source of tension.
Do you think it’s your role as the artist to have to explain that though? Or is it that for the people who are documenting your work and writing about it?
Yes, it probably is and you’re probably right. But the problem is no one is doing that. Do you know an artist called Mare 139?
Yeah, the old New York writer.
Yeah, but he’s really progressive and still making amazing sculptures. He often says to me that the problem with this whole genre, and he encompasses street art and graffiti and whatever you want to call it, is that no one has critiqued it.
It’s just kind of happening, and everyone thinks that it’s amazing and it’s the next best thing, but it’s been the next best thing for forty years. And no one has said what wrong with it, or pulled it apart and dissected it, and maybe someone needs to do that.
But do you think that access should be public though? If you’re coming from that style-writing background it is a subculture, it’s not for everyone.
I think maybe it should be public to the extent that it would feed into the people who need to know, and who are interested in this art form. It was also educate the people who like it, are involved on the periphery, but don’t really understand it. It’s difficult, because we’re public artist. We paint in the public. So you’re kind of open to criticism but it’s not really there.
I guess an example that I always come back to is that in Melbourne we’ve got one of the largest Keith Haring murals in the world, but people don’t know that it’s there unless they actively seek it out. But we had a tiny Banksy stencil that was painted over by the council and that was all over the papers for a week.
But the difference there is that Banksy is in the generation of iPhones and Flickr and Twitter and Facebook and Instagram, and Keith Haring wasn’t. Banksy has a huge amount of PR behind him and Haring didn’t. I’m not saying Banksy doesn’t have credentials because he does, but Haring’s were his own, everything he did was down to him. He opened the shop and no one did it, no one stumped up the cash and said “Hey, do this”. It was done on such a grassroots level, he came up from nowhere. Whereas now it’s so easy to get a company to big you up and get you into GQ or Vogue Italy or whatever. It’s different, so it’s very difficult to compare the two. I can totally see your point because the history that Keith Haring has is unbelievable.
And in some ways it’s more relevant.
Yeah but don’t forget when he was doing what he was doing in New York people looked at him kind of like Banksy. Like “Look at him, he’s kind of commercial, he’s got a shop, he’s not really a graffiti artist, he’s kind of kooky”. You can look at it from so many different angles.
I was talking to System, an old school graffiti writer from the UK and a good friend, about Basquiat and I was like “I get it, I totally understand it”.
But when I was painting graffiti I’d look at Basquiat and be like that’s terrible, that’s just wack. Now I understand, I wish that I had his foresight at twenty-five, but I didn’t. I was so entrenched in this, and so under peer pressure, when he wasn’t.
When you get things like that, it just opens new doors for you. System and I did a painting called Three Kings, and we did the three faces of Dondi, Basquiat, and Rammellzee. It was like an itch I had to scratch, almost like I was apologising for not getting it.
Paying your dues all those years later?
Yeah, you can look back at things. I can’t and I don’t ignore my history. I’ve got people like Crash who are collectors of mine and when I started graffiti I had ‘Subway Art’ and it had Crash trains in it. Now he collects my work, that just spins me out. You know I’m so lucky. I’m part of this thing that’s like a run away tram. You can’t really handle it and you can’t control it and I love it. I get to travel the world, I get to come to Melbourne, I’m going to LA in September, I’m going to Newcastle, which isn’t as glamorous, but it’ll be good. I get to do all these things.
What do you want to leave behind?
What about your work?
She’ll take care of it.