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Upfront: John Kaye

Murals, paintings, book-making, and everything in between

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This weekend saw the launch of graffiti artist John Kaye’s book, Porcelain Paradise. A log of sorts, each book gives a tiny insight into the levels on levels that all of his murals boast. The Brisbane-based artist took a quick break from putting them together by hand in the studio to talk us through the origins of his conceptualised paradise.

Kaye spent the first four months of this year travelling eight countries, and his recent return to Brisbane was tainted by his desire to make his time back home as beneficial as humanly possible. Ergo, the graffiti artist completed several murals, including one in Coffs Harbour during the same week as his solo exhibition and book launch. For us, that’s exactly the kind of workload that warrants pulling a sickie, but for Kaye, it was child’s play because here in Australia, he has “a car and people speak English so it’s a lot easier to organise things”. He was able to take photos of the space is Coffs Harbour and plan the mural before getting to work. Overseas, it was a different story.

“It’s all really last minute,” he said. “Usually I catch a train or ride by bike to the paint store, get the paint, go to the wall, and just figure it out when I get there with a notepad and a pen.” Without so much as a planned sketch beforehand, Kaye is able to transform spaces into an elaborate twist of words and images, where the layers of complexity become increasingly apparent the longer you stare. It’s this style of abstract lettering and grungy motifs juxtaposing soft floral emblems that has become his iconic style. “It’s just evolved on its own I think. I like that, I definitely wanted that… but I’m not sure if you can force it. It’s just sort of trial and error… and that’s sort of why I made this book.”

Porcelain Paradise, which is “sort of like a diary”, stands as Kaye’s way of bringing together all that he has learned in his 10 years on the scene into one collection that is as personal as it gets. “I had been doing so many different things, bricks walls and drawings and paintings and watercolours and digital work and I feel like I’ve tried all these things and from that, I’ve narrowed it down to what I like and what I enjoy.” After returning from overseas, Kaye set himself the project of the book, yet what he produced seemed too mundane and similar to his earlier line of zines. “Different content, but similar outcome… so I kept adding to it.” Since then, “adding to it” has resulted in a series where the core “idea was to make it like a souvenir,” as each book combines a set of Polaroids from his travels, notes from the road, snippets of songs, stickers and actual canvas from the original murals.

“I’ve been painting these canvases whilst I’ve been doing walls, I’ve been putting the canvas onto the wall and taking a part of it home… so I decided to do heaps of them and chop them into pieces and use them for the cover of the books. Each book has like a section of a wall as the cover.”

Along with the book launch, Kaye had the chance to showcase nine pieces that were inspired by his travels, as he noted that he can’t actually show people the murals he painted overseas. “The focus isn’t to sell the paintings,” rather, to show how his work and taste has developed. “I still feels like I have so many things I want to change and improve on and how somebody else views what I do is different to my own perspective. But to me, it still feels like a work in progress.”

As an artist, Kaye believes in doing what feels original rather than riding a wave. “I think it’s good to look at everything that’s happening but not to directly take from it and persist with something just because it seems really cool right now.” Hesitant to offer advice as he “doesn’t know how to tell people what to do,” Kaye suggests the key to finding your style is to appreciate what’s happening around you and to forget about trying to impress others. “It takes a long time for people to appreciate something. I think if you feel comfortable with what you’re doing and you stick to it, it won’t matter if people come around or not.”

Yet some who definitely came around were the good people at The Culprit Club, who hosted the exhibition that will now run for a month. Through their site, the remaining copies of Porcelain Paradise will be made available online from November 16. In the meantime, John Kaye is already sitting in another plane, hopefully catching up on some much-needed sleep before his next creative venture.

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