In our recent recap series, we talked to the artist Tavar Zawacki aka ABOVE about his latest projects and views on the scene, and we covered many of his exhibitions. Although there is no need of further introduction to ABOVE’s prolific works over the past 20 years, you might not be as familiar as you would think with the artist himself.
Until recently Tavar Zawacki revealed his face and true identity to the public. Originally from California, and now Berlin-based, Tavar has progressively embraced a new turn in his artist journey. In this interview Tavar looks back at his career, discusses about his latest projects, and gives us genuine insight about his approach – starting from his early days, his experience and the recent shift in his work.
We hope you enjoy our talk with Tavar as much as we did!
Instagrafite: In the past the urban scene aficionados would have probably described you as ‘the elusive street artist ABOVE’. But you’re not so elusive anymore. After over 15 years of anonymity you finally stepped out of the shadows and revealed yourself to the public. Can you tell me more about this choice?
Tavar Zawacki: You are correct about my past of being so elusive and anonymous. Hmm, where should I start first? I suppose I need to explain that this decision to come out of my self-imposed shadow, and anonymity has been a process dating back about three years ago. As an artist, and person, I am striving to evolve, change, and improve myself. Change can manifest instantly, it can take years, or sometimes even a life time to make changes. I can identify in early summer 2013 when I was starting to notice a lot of changes both as artist, and on a personal level. Things that I used to like, I no longer had any feelings towards, and vice versa.
The most significant action that enabled me to change was to simply slow down my life. I consciously declined projects, travels, and didn’t want to spend time with other people. I simply wanted to re-adjust my internal compass, and take inventory of what still served me, and what I was ready to let go of. In December of 2013 I spent 14 days in isolation in a cabin in the California Mountains. It was a retreat where I could be alone with my thoughts, and ideas. I can honestly say those 14 days spent in complete isolation were the start of my break through and journey. I was brutally honest with myself and questioned so many things about my art, myself, and my goals as an artist.
I questioned why I have been anonymous after all of these years? When I started painting graffiti in California in 1996 when I was 15 years old, I was taught from my peers that you NEVER tell anyone your name. Once you tell people your name people will know who you are, and of course legal problems from police will catch up to you. For 15 years I was painting illegally around the world on city walls, so keeping this anonymity was important to me. However, in the past 3-4 years I’ve been very focused on cultivating and developing my studio practice. My interest in painting illegally in the street has faded away, and my interest to create new works in my studio has taken priority. I reckon you could say I’ve grown out of one phase of my life, and matured into another.
For those of you who don’t know my travel history, during the 10 year span from 2003-2013 I had been traveling the world, pretty much nonstop. Every year I would make a ‘tour’ where I would travel to different sections of the world. Each year these ‘tours’ would become longer and longer in duration. In 2007-2008 I think I was traveling for 10+ months in South/Central Americas, then right after in a few months in Europe. Already in my career I’ve painted in over 60 countries, and nearly 200 cities around the world.
Instagrafite: This brings a notable change for you, both in name and style.
Tavar Zawacki: 100% yes! By leading forward with my real name, Tavar Zawacki, I am able to break free from my past, and with each new day create, and build my new identity. I look at it as if I was in a 17 year marriage with ‘ABOVE’, and now that I’ve decided to leave that relationship, I am a new person, able to do whatever I want to do. By being ‘married’ to ABOVE I would always be associated with the arrow icon that I’ve branded for the past 15 years. It was a hard, but honest thing to admit to myself, that it was the name ABOVE and the style associated with it that was blocking me all these years from creating the works I have been wanting to make. At first this was a big shock to my system. The more I observed this truth about how creating works with my real name, Tavar Zawacki would allow me to be uninhibited. Creating works as myself, Tavar Zawacki I am free to explore new directions in my artworks. In these past 3 years, but more specifically this year (2016) I’ve been unafraid to let go of my ego as ‘ABOVE’, and have conviction with unlocking the ideas and creative styles I’ve been self-censoring.
Neil Armstrong said it best ‘It’s one small step for man, but a giant leap for mankind.’ It’s strange but I felt like I’ve accomplished the impossible when I decided I was ready to make my step to coming out of my shadow, and start creating new works with my name, Tavar Zawacki. It’s a small step for most people to look at, but it allows me complete freedom to create new artworks. I will evolve with time, while still bringing my fans, and collectors with me on this new journey. I’m not looking at jumping from ‘black to white’ in my style, but rather having a natural evolution and progression. My only regret is that I’ve not made this decision earlier in my career. However hindsight is 20/20 so it’s very easy for me to look back now and see with such clarity how much my anonymity and my ‘street name’ was blocking me with my evolution and progress. Present day I’m no longer blocking myself, or censoring my ideas, so it’s all forward momentum, and freedom from here on out! I look forward to the journey!
Instagrafite: What can we look forward to from this career shift?
Tavar Zawacki: I touched on this just now in the previous question. What I am looking forward to is being un-censored in my creative process. It’s normal for artists (and people in general) to be concerned by what others think of you. In my past I can see that I had made certain works because I wasn’t yet confident with showing the works I wanted to share. With my newer sense of self I have learned that what is most important to me in my art, is not if the piece sells, or not, but if I feel I created what I wanted to create. No reservations, hesitations, or second guesses. To be bold, confident, and make my work with complete conviction. If the ‘art world’ or people don’t like it, it’s okay with me, just as long as I’ve given my uninhibited creative energy into a piece. That is the most rewarding feeling in the world for me!
Instagrafite: You went for a few months on a US tour. It’s been a lot of fun following your latest productions there including your solo exhibition in New York City @ The Quin Luxury Hotel. You did many outdoor mural projects with the good people from the Lisa Project, an epic mural for Pow! Wow! in Worcester, Nashville, and a final stop in Washington for the Mural Project. What were your highlights from your productive visit?
Tavar Zawacki: Thank you, I’m happy to read you enjoyed this summer’s travels. This summer was very active with indoor and outdoor projects starting in Nashville, Tennessee in June, and ending in Washington D.C. in September. This might sound cliché but each project was a highlight for me. Every situation was different and allowed me new ways to create. Some walls I painted were HUGE, others were smaller, each allowed me different ways to approach and create. What I enjoyed the most about this summer was that I was able to paint a range of different styles. Some were text based works (Worcester ‘The Proposal’) and Nashville was a trompe l’oeil style. It’s a real honour to be at the stage of my career where I’m flown around the world to paint large scale murals in a variety of different countries. I don’t take this for granted!
Instagrafite: Let’s talk about your exhibition you presented at the Quin Hotel in Manhattan, which showcased a handmade collection of your iconic arrows. DK Johnston, Quin Arts curator, commented that you have separated from many of your peers in the street art community with a move from figurative expression to geometric abstraction. Could you tell me more about the execution and materials used for your creations?
Tavar Zawacki: The intention for this body of work was to put a spin on as you put it, ‘my iconic arrows’. I used the arrow icon as a foundation to build from. My intention was to add a balance of curved patterns, and designs to the straight lines of the arrow. If you look at literally each design I made for this exhibition, every single design is composed of a curved pattern. I feel that the arrow is a masculine shape, void of any curves. I wanted to add a more ‘feminine’ element of curves to be laid on top of the arrow. The fusion you can see in these works. What I noticed while making this body of work was that by adding curves, it allowed me to see these shapes in a whole new light. With many of these artworks, I don’t even see the original arrow, but a range of new beautiful shapes and colours from the design.
This exhibition opened my eyes up to some new discoveries which I’ll be continuing to explore in my upcoming works. I’ll quickly walk you through the materials and process. I started with designing patterns in Illustrator to be overlaid onto the arrow design. I had large Maple wood panel boards cut, and primed so I could screen-print, and paint onto the boards. Once the designs were painted on each board, I was able to have these laser cut into matching cut patterns. What I would do then is ‘remix’ pieces of the same cut, but different painted boards to create this push/pull effect you see in the artworks. I love working with industrial resin, so every work is completed with a thick coat of industrial resin to seal the works, and enhance the colours.
Instagrafite: You explored a different perspective playing with shadows with your mural in Nashville. Could you talk me through it?
Tavar Zawacki: The ‘Beautiful Decay’ mural was the first mural I painted as Tavar Zawacki, instead of ‘ABOVE’. I had purposefully decided to paint the Beautiful Decay mural as it was symbolic of peeling away, and putting to rest the arrow icon. Each arrow you see in the mural is folding over, and falling off the wall. I was very proud of this mural and the trompe l’oeil effect it has. When I was nearly finished painting the mural I was having people stop and ask me if the arrows were real? I had at least five people tell me it looked like it was real.
What I found somewhat ironic about the Beautiful Decay mural was that it was the shadows themselves that made the piece stand out. Here I am on one level coming out of my self-imposed shadow of my anonymity, and on the wall I’m painting a mural that its main selling point is how I paint the shadows. I find this funny, and interesting.
Instagrafite: I love how you translate your optimism in life into your work. The contrast, details and colours for your mural in Washington are just spot on. What message do you want the audience to be left with?
Tavar Zawacki: Thank you, that’s nice to hear from you about the colours and optimism of that piece. I don’t really have a message for this piece, but I hope people can have at least 50% of that enthusiasm that you have with it. 🙂
Instagrafite: You are well travelled. Originally from the US, you lived in Paris, London, and now you are Berlin based. How do you think it has influenced your work throughout the years?
Tavar Zawacki: I can honestly say that traveling and living in different countries, and cultures has shaped me more than anything else in the world. I was born and raised in California. When I was 19 I saved up money working as a waiter in a restaurant and moved to Paris with like $2,000USD in my bank account. I was eager to get out in the world and experience it to the fullest. Since that move back in 2000 I’ve never looked back.
The feeling I get when traveling or living in a foreign country is priceless to me. Since nearly three years now I’ve been based here in Berlin. My first time I was in Berlin was in 2005. I love how raw Berlin is. Studio space is also affordable and large. I finally feel like Berlin is a place I can see myself living for a long time. The proximity of other cities in Europe is so manageable as well.
Instagrafite: These days Street Art is popular, more than ever, what is your view on today’s scene?
Tavar Zawacki: To be honest, I’ve not concerned myself with much ‘street art’ things. I suppose I participate in mural festivals, but it’s strange as I don’t even know any of the artists on the rosters. I’m ‘old’ in a sense that I was painting arrows in Paris in 2000 when ‘street art’ wasn’t even a word or genre.
There are so many new artists, which is great, but my interests have changed. 5 years ago I would say I knew 90% of the artists working in the streets. Now I’d say it’s the opposite, I probably know 10% of the artists doing street art. My interests lay in a lot of contemporary artists making indoor works. Like I mentioned earlier in the interview, I’ve exited one phase, and entered another.
Instagrafite: You are a busy man, what’s up for you next?
Tavar Zawacki: In just three weeks from now I go to Hawaii for the annual PowWow Mural Festival. This will be great, considering it’s snowing here in Berlin at the moment.
I am preparing for my largest solo exhibition of my career. This will be a Museum style exhibition here in Berlin in September. The solo exhibition will coincide with Berlin Art week. I’m needing as much time in my studio as I can to achieve this ambitious goal.