Their work is all around us, some of us notice it and perhaps crack a smile, while others might just walk by without even thinking about it. We've had two street art themed gallery shows in the past few months with Streets Dept Presents and Wheat Paste Your Heart Out. These two shows curated contemporary Philly street art practically in real-time to a generation that values immediacy. It also works well for this style of art that is here today, but might be ripped down or pasted over tomorrow. If you pay attention you'll find that a lot of street art in Philly displays humor, wit, minimalism, color theory, pop culture references, poetry, satire, photography, and recently the Occupy movement.
With the rise of this type of art and its coverage, one often wonders about the people behind it. In this Q&A, I speak with an up-and-coming street artist that goes by the moniker Sebastian Owl. You've more than likely seen his minimalist black and white owls around Center City. His work first caught my eye because it looked like something done by a fellow graphic designer; due to the style and illustration technique, so I reached out to him to find out more about his background and the goal of his work.
1. Tell us a little about your background in terms of art. How long have you been designing?
I have a bachelor's in graphic design and I've been screen-printing posters/textiles since 2005. As far as how long I've been creating art, it has literally been my whole life. My very first art teacher in grade school told me I should become an artist; this is why it saddens me to see schools dropping art programs because without her to guide me at a young age I'd probably be sitting behind a desk doing mind-numbing math equations (for a while I thought I wanted to be a mechanical engineer).
2. Your style is very bold and minimalist, what's your process like in terms of conceptualizing the pieces and then preparing them to be pasted up?
Everything I do starts as a few words or scribbles on a page. I am constantly writing ideas and thoughts down; Mrs. Owl supplies me with a constant flow of post-it notes. These rough ideas are then taken a number of different ways. Some are completely built digitally; others are sketched and then scanned in the computer. As far as printing, it's a mix between regular printing and screen-printing (sometimes even on the same paste).
3. What's the story behind the Sebastian Owl moniker?
Sebastian Owl comes from a few things. First and foremost it is my homage to Hunter S. Thompson. I am a huge fan of his writing. He was crazy in a great way, lived life day to day, and loosely followed the rules. I try to live like that, not so much the crazy, but definitely living for the now and following the rules I believe are morally right. Also, I feel my best thoughts/designs come to me in the middle of the night. It also references my family calling me a "night owl" because I would come home when the sun was rising just about every night when I was younger.
4. What was the catalyst or inspiration for getting into wheat pasting?
My reason was and still is simply to get people to think.
5. I have not noticed many Philadelphia street artists venturing into politics (as yet), however your 'We shall overcome' paste-up references the Occupy movement and greed, what are your thoughts on the movement and protests?
Occupy is a current issue that needs to be taken into consideration. Again, I just wanted people to think. Most people that were/are going to see those pastes are part of the 99%, whether or not they believe in the movement doesn't matter. Hopefully it got them to think about the simple idea that change is a good thing to better the future. The 99% should have a chance to live where their opinions matter, and are actually taken into account. Greed is one of the worst things in the world and it has a snowball effect. I also feel occupy needs to focus a little more. There are many problems in the world, but they cannot all be addressed at once.
Finally, I do believe occupy needs people to rise up and become leaders like MLK Jr. did for the civil right's movement. Their work will not go unnoticed if they continue to move forward.
6. Conrad Brenner of StreetsDept.com had this great quote in regards to street art, "We're all just these robots doing our own little thing: going to work, going to the grocery store. But if something can stop you and break you from that, I think it's really powerful." Jumping off that what's the goal of your work?
I was recently talking with Conrad about this quote (I love his wording). I love the idea of turning a corner and finding things that make you stop and think, or at the very least slow down to get a good look. Next I try to create art that people can interpret in many ways. Everyone is entitled to his/her opinion and it changes daily. My new "Dear World" piece truly aims toward this goal. I made it big and at eye level because after living in a city most people stop looking up (there are beautiful things above your heads). I also mean figuratively looking up. Everyone has an inspiration or someone they look up to, and that is a good thing. We learn a great deal about ourselves when we have people we look up to, which makes for a better tomorrow. Finally, simply to just put a smile on people's faces.
7. We definitely have a tradition of sanctioned public art in terms of our wide variety of outdoor murals, and unsanctioned public art with graffiti legends having paved the way in Philly back in the day. What role do you think street art has in contemporary Philadelphia? Do you think it might get to the point where street art and mural art can be seen on relatively the same level in Philadelphia as more trained graphic designers and fine artists get into the game?
I think street art plays a major role in modern Philadelphia. More and more people are accepting the art form daily. The legends truly did pave the way; we are building on their alternative traditions and making them our own. You don't need to be trained to be an amazing artist, but I feel my background definitely helps me portray my work exactly how I want. To me, street art is already on the same level as the mural art. Especially since many great street artists now are being asked to create works in public locations for all to enjoy.
8. Becoming a street artist can be a risky prospect, your art might be here today but gone tomorrow, you can get fined or probably even arrested if caught. However what do you find to be the most exhilarating and maddening parts of being a street artist?
That is all part of the game. Even if two people see a paste before it is ripped down, hopefully it got them thinking, and that is what matters to me. I try to be respectful of property; I only hit spots like abandoned buildings and construction walls. These eyesores are abundantly around the city and I'm trying to just make them look a little better. Otherwise, I like to think of it as a competition, not between artists, but between artists as a whole vs. them (the city, building owners, citizens etc.). The city is a little more accepting these days, but when something gets ripped down (+1 for them) two more take its place (+2 for us).
The most exhilarating would have to be the act itself. The most maddening for me is when a paste rips as you are installing.
9. Are there any local artist you'd love to collaborate with or look up to?
I adore so many local artists and each for their own reason. If I had to pick one, I would have to say Nom Now because every paste is done with thought and they are always inspiring.
10. What's next for you?
All I can truly say for sure is that I will be continuing to design. As for what it is, we will just have to wait and see what the next post-it note says. I live by the motto of "Keep Moving Forward" meaning as life/world evolves, so do I. On Monday life can be going the way you always dreamed, and then Tuesday can throw you a Cliff Lee spiked curve ball. It is how you react to the situation that can either make you stall or move forward. I prefer the latter.
A big thanks to Sebastian Owl for this interview.