Emic is an Urban Artist based in Belfast, Northern Ireland at LOFT studio. The artist paints on walls as well as canvas using a combination of aerosols and oil paint, whilst exploring themes of identity and urbanism.
Having painted all over Ireland, in London and in Berlin the Artist seeks to spread his wings and experience new cities as a means of informing his practice.
In Belfast, he was the curator of the Unlimited exhibition featuring some of the best Street Artists from around the UK. He also initiated the North Street project, an event aimed at regenerating a failing part of Belfast through Street Art.
His work is regularly featured on international Urban Art blogs and websites such as Global Street Art and The Real Art Of Street Art, as well as on other publications such as Aesthetica and Deer Brains.
DB: Alright, you all good man yeah?
EMIC: Yeah man!
DB: Right so let’s just dive right in. When it comes to your approach to work, do you have a day to day agenda and do you struggle with that? The sometimes, transient nature of being a practising artist if at all?
EMIC: There’s not really much of a set structure. There probably should be, but, I have to kind of work around whatever jobs are coming up and essentially make up my schedule as I go along. It would happen in fits and starts where I’ll be in the studio religiously for a period of a week, maybe two weeks. If a wall piece is coming up which would require preparation, that could take anywhere from one to three days between the studio and working from home.
If there aren’t any jobs or I’m not doing any studio work, you find yourself at the computer a lot. Whether you’re researching what’s going on around the street art scene at the moment or you’re researching avenues that you could possibly go down to secure yourself some sort of work. You try to be as disciplined as possible, keep yourself in check and make sure you don’t go off the rails too much.
DB: Okay, so in terms of how you use the studio space, what does that look like? When you say you’re in here for weeks at a time is there preference to canvas work or the outside space or how do they correlate?
EMIC: No, I mean I definitely would prefer to be working on location. I’ve recently decided that I’m going to be focussing solely on murals for the next few months. I want that to be my specialisation so it does involve getting out there and hitting up walls whether you have permission to do that or you’ve located somewhere that’s going to be cool to paint regardless.
The studio’s always there as a base but it’s out there painting which is where I want to be.
DB: So is there a struggle in that at all? Maybe waiting for a particular spot to paint or while you are, building up the canvas work? Or have you just made peace with the nature of that?
EMIC: Well, the decision to focus solely on the murals has been very recent so in terms of scoping out walls that’ll be free to paint, that just takes time, and working in this space (LOFT). Yeah I guess there is a sort of pull between the street, the studio and working at home.
DB: So talking about that lack of structure, how did art college affect your practice and in particular after your masters, was it in Multidisciplinary Design?
EMIC: Yeah, yeah.
DB: What did you learn in making that transition to working as an artist, applying for shows, selling work and making commissioned work? Did you feel like you need university or could you have got to this point by yourself?
EMIC: No, I definitely wouldn't have got to this point without university, especially the masters. I pretty much left university, undergrad with the idea that I’d possibly get into graphic design, or something more stable, less of a risk.
At undergraduate, I did learn the processes of creating work, figuring out the methods I would use, coming up with ideas and translating that onto a canvas or onto a wall. The transition into the masters was in two sections, the first year was very much learning business acumen, getting yourself online and noticed. Learning how to network, all the things you need to know as a business owner pretty much. The second, was a full year working on a project. So you had that opportunity to operate as an artist, live the experience and figure out for yourself with the safety net of the tutors there for advice. It was the masters that showed me the way to survive in becoming an artist and relying on that as a sustainable income.
DB: You definitely needed structure at that point then?
EMIC: Yeah, for sure. I mean after going into the masters with the idea of just doing graphic design, speaking to tutors and mentors and people with more experience, it showed me the way to get to that point. A fast track or a crash course almost in how to become an artist without going out there and maybe spending like three to five years learning as you go along. You needed to have a plan and an end goal which needed some structuring.
DB: Well yeah, from my perspective, obviously just doing the undergrad in fine art, even without a studio space after graduating, you can easily lose focus if you don’t separate where you work from your home. In terms of gaining that business knowledge that would be quite important to work professionally.
EMIC: Yeah, for sure, I mean losing focus is always going to be an issue with self employment and something to be aware of in terms of staying away bad practice. It’s important to have a place that you can come to and so work in.
DB: So do you see a difference in your methods when considering work inside a gallery context as opposed to street work and I know you’ve said you want to focus on murals going forward, so that’s the preference?
EMIC: Yeah I mean there’s pros and cons to both. Whenever you’re in a studio, it’s a more controlled environment and you can spend as long or as little amount of time working on a painting as you want to. So with that respect, it allows you the time to figure if something’s working or not and take the piece forward from there.
With the street pieces, if you’re going to do something that you don’t have permission to then you’re up against the clock, so whatever it is, it has to be well planned, thought out and executed confidently and proficiently.
I feel it’s more interesting that way because each surface whether red brick or a concrete wall or a doorway, they're all going to present their own textures and differences so it’s going to change how your piece looks so you have to adapt to that and figure out a way of using the surface to your advantage and making the best of what you’ve got. With a commissioned mural, then you have the time but you’re still out there, against the elements, especially in Ireland, you’re up against the rain and stuff more often than not, so preparation is key.
Going off in a tangent and allowing some sort of serendipity to happen is cool while you’re painting but it’s hit and miss whether it’s going to be good or not.
On the whole, if you stick to the plan and go with what you worked on in prep you’ll have more success than failure.
DB: So what about that concept then of bringing the outside in, so there’s certain artists that come to mind like Barry McGee. Street artist’s work is a lot more prevalent in galleries, more desirable to have in your home. In terms of bringing that aspect of what graffiti art is to the gallery. What came first to you actually? You go through art college, have work in galleries and everything, were you always spray painting alongside?
EMIC: No, I always had a really keen interest in street art, even when I was in foundation art or first year or whatever, I did a bit but not very much back then. What has remained the same throughout that time is my interest in the city as a space and how people operate within that or how they are related to the places around them.
Right the way through, that was always on my mind, but it was probably expressed in very different ways. I had like abstract, sort of colour fields almost at one point in second year and then in third year, I decided to completely change what I did. I figured if I could completely change the artwork I created and still make good work then I should probably try and be an artist at the end of it.
DB: Yeah I mean that’s the aim I suppose. Well, some people just go to art college or university for the sake of it, a piece of paper at the end. Was it more vocational for you then?
EMIC: I knew that it was something creative that I always wanted to do, but there was always this fear or not knowing how to do it exactly but whilst I was in uni, I was totally focused and completely content. But when you come to the end of that, then you start to question what am I doing here? You’ve got the pressures of these pre conceived ideas of what an artist and what kind of lifestyle it’s going to be.
Like you’re talking are you going to live up to a fucking stereotype of being this starving artist? It’s like a sacrifice, you say right I can do this and it’ll be a really cool lifestyle but maybe at the expense of other amibitions you had growing up. So you kind of have to let go of that which can be difficult. As you grow older, a lot of your friends sort of spread out amongst the world, living in different countries and you want to keep in touch. You’re maybe stuck in a place because of what you’re doing?
DB: It’s kind of defining you I guess? Well yeah I suppose you’re doing what you love but sometimes you’re giving up stuff temporarily, but in the end that thing can potentially take you travelling and give you those sacrifices back.
EMIC: That’s the ultimate goal, to see the world and do your job as you travel.
DB: So what’s your perspective on street art, and in particular, Belfast as that’s where you’re based and it’s wider societal impact on the landscape of the city? Where do you stand on tagging and bombing and stuff as well? It’s probably seen as a less attractive form?
EMIC: Street Art in Belfast is great, we have some really good artists here and there are some awesome pieces around from the Hit The North event.
I’ve got a lot of respect for tagging and bombing and graffiti artists and what they do, like how they totally put themselves at risk in order to express themselves.
DB: I suppose it’s just getting your name out there really isn’t it?
EMIC: I think that’s what it is yeah. Tagging’s really interesting, like it came about in the 60’s or 70’s in America. It was like the time whenever capitalism started really taking hold of cities, like there was billboards and advertising springing up all over people’s communities.
It was like overbearing on the senses and just fucking craziness all around. I think tagging and bombing reflects that in a really interesting way, it’s almost the antithesis of advertising. You have a guy who comes up with his alias and he’s writes that all over the city, repeating it over and over and over again and getting in people’s heads and that’s exactly what advertising is. That person is just putting their alias out there and they’re not selling anything they’re just trying to get in people’s fucking heads and get some sort of anti-fame or something?
DB: Yeah it’s completely relentless, which is quite admirable I guess.
EMIC: Yeah so I have quite a lot of respect for that idea.
DB: I can’t say I know you go tagging that much particularly, would you go out?
EMIC: No it’s not something I do, I just respect the art form, that’s where the roots of street art were formed. But being a graffiti artist and a street artist are too very different things.
It’s a lot easier to be a street artist. There’s a greater opportunity to grow an art career and live off what you do whereas graffiti you’re more tied to pure expression. Graffiti is all based upon respect, whilst that is also the case for street art, it has a more commercial element to it
DB: Yeah so it’s kind of exploiting the culture to an extent?
EMIC: Yeah, for sure…
DB: You’re pretty much taking the aesthetic and bastardising the culture in the process.
EMIC: Yeah, it’s an underground culture but what some people have done, is taken that sort of sub culture status that it’s built up for itself, exploited that, call themselves a street artist and then went to paint a shitty commercial piece of art using spray paint.
DB: So, off the back of that, in terms of what you use, your tools, obviously we’re surrounded by shit loads of spray paint but I know you tend to mix materials, do some wheat pasting and use acrylics and oils too? Where do you see that going as well?
EMIC: Well it started out with stencils and paste ups. The kind of work that I was creating back then was all very structural and architectural in a way which would have been pretty much close to impossible to paint with aerosols. So I focussed on preparing a drawing or using photography, editing something on the computer, printing it up large scale and pasting them around on walls. That progressed whenever I wanted to have exhibitions really to using stencils, so I worked on those techniques which was based around the same process initially except just cuttin the image out and painting the areas.
DB: I guess there’s more longevity in that as well, you’re actually making a mark as opposed to adding another layer that can be peeled away.
EMIC: Yeah I mean I don’t have a problem with putting up and paste up and it being gone in a week or two.
DB: Yeah that’s expected for sure
EMIC: Yeah you do expect it but I kind of think there’s something more interesting about a piece that lasts or stands the tests of time with the elements and stuff.
DB: That piece I put up near Clement’s is still there after a couple years actually.
EMIC: Yeah, exactly and it’s like those forces that are taking place outside on the exterior walls are happening to your piece as well, kind of growing and aging with the city. There’s something interesting in that, it’s like entropy or some shit.
DB: So how does your process affect what you’re trying to communicate? Obviously a great and necessary quality to have particularly for artists is the ability to be self critical and reflective. Do you struggle with that and if so how do you deal with it?
EMIC: Initially using stencils for the older more structural, linear work made sense but as I developed as an artist I realised that created images of buildings and putting then on top of buildings maybe didn’t make that much sense in that context.
I started to become more interested in people because it’s people that make the city, without the people the city would just be a shell so my process changed again then as I began to gain more confidence with using spray paint. I started to focus more so on representing people and laying down a figurative study or a portrait and having that study interact with the structure that was on the wall, that existed already.
So then, you still have that structural element which is 3D and real like a building but you had this image of a person maybe saying more so what I wanted to say than I could do previously with that work on it’s own.
DB: What informs your work then? Are you into any particular references, visually, writing or music wise that helps you create?
EMIC: I spend a lot of time walking through cities and trying to look at it objectively, I’m interested in stuff like anthropology, philosophy and reading about anti-capitalist ideologies. I’m really interested in how people are connected to the places around them and give that a meaning.
That’s pretty much what I’m trying to represent. You’ll see a figurative element then maybe some symbology whether it’s a tag or a love heart or a peace sign that you see graffiti artists write on walls and I take that as a visual language of a city. What people write on walls, I try to use that as inspiration because they choose to do it. If they don’t think about it that much themselves, they still made that choice so I tend to interpret that and attempt to reproduce that in my own work in some way.
DB: That allows for change and stuff as well then, obviously your taste can develop, do you think that then translates into the work? Music, for example, I don’t know what you’re listening to at the minute but while you’re working do you think that has an impact, or if you read something will that translate?
EMIC: Yeah, definitely reading and music too I think music more so when I’m going down to paint something whether that’s in the studio or outside. I find it really interesting listening to music that doesn’t have any words.
DB: So are there like go to instrumental artists you’d listen to?
EMIC: Pretty varied like, pretty much any electronica like Schlohmo or Fourtet. Stuff with kind of interesting beats and melodies but then I’ll also listen to shit like classical music and really fucking peaceful stuff that relaxes your mind and allows you to sort of develop a flow while your working.
I’m really into rhythm like i can’t help it when I’m listening to music and I’m painting my arms are keeping some sort of rhythm along with the music and I try to let that happen. That sort of stemmed from being fucking bored on the internet and googling if listening to Mozart actually makes you smarter (laughing) and it turns out that it does in a way as it makes your brain function at a faster to process the music whereas with vocals, you’re trying to figuring out what the person is saying and interpret that. So I try to stay away from music with vocals while I’m working
DB: Outside of that I know we’d throw on hip hip or sort of conscious rap as it's known. Does that sort of lyricism or story telling sometimes stick? Or is that more of an escapism almost cause those sort of cultures, hip hop, rap and stuff are definitely aligned with streetwear and graffiti so it all feeds in.
EMIC: Yeah it’s all part of hip hop culture for sure. I don’t really take inspiration from the music for creating artwork like I don’t hear a piece of music and say holy shit! I need to represent that in some way (laughing). It doesn’t happen like that, it’s more so moments like that come from reading.
There’s something about the process of reading, you build up images in your head and ideas start flowing and stuff but yeah I’ve got into hip hop more as it’s part of the culture.
DB: It’s kind of like a melting pot, like an amalgamation of different elements. Let’s talk about being self critical then, I know we vaguely touched on it in the process but yeah I feel it’d be good to get an insight on that.
EMIC: Yeah well it’s definitely something I spend a lot of time doing. After I finish a piece I could look at it for anything from 10 to 20 hours, the following day or two. I kind of get pretty obsessive about it.
DB: Do you think that can have a negative impact though?
EMIC: No I mean I’m always trying to better the last piece that I did so I have to first of all look at it and enjoy it if I’ve done something that I can be happy with. As you go along though, then you start to look at, figure out what’s not working here, what could be better next time as I don’t practice that much between pieces.
After a period of time though I develop a fucking hatred for what I paint. Work that I did a year ago, I despise and can barely even bring up the courage to put it on my website anymore. I’ll go through a load of stuff and just end up deleting it (laughing). Just cover up the shit you know?! But definitely I can be critical of myself after a certain period of time, but it’s condtructive. You do good pieces and bad pieces and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. That’s just the nature of what you do.
DB: Just talking about your website and stuff then (www.emicartist.com) if you’re kind of looking back and thinking aw I fucking hate that but there’s someone out there, who, for them, that’s the piece that speaks to them. You’re quite controlled in that sense, almost curating what people see, do you battle with that at all?
EMIC: Well yeah, I don’t do work to please everyone it’s always work that’s like self directed, or, self curated. I know what you mean, sometimes people take a photo of a piece you did three or four years ago and think sweet.
DB: And you’re like what the fuck?!
EMIC: (laughing) Yeah I can’t believe you like this?! But that’s the thing it’s like any creative process, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. So, if someone makes that connection, it’s personal between them and what they’ve seen or heard.
DB: I suppose that’s kind of a quality that creative people have, as we’re sitting in the studio with other artists and comedians here, it’s the same approach (room laughing) You can be quite hard on yourself regardless of the when being reflective.
So we’re talking about perception then, what do you think about the perception of artists and creatives in general to the wider public. Maybe it’s changed in the last few years but it ’s perhaps been seen before that doing art is more recreational. When we went to school it wasn’t like, do art, you can make a career out of this. It was more and appreciation of technical skill but beyond that you’re fucked. What’s your experience of that?
EMIC: I’d say growing up I experienced it big time when I was leaving school and I was round at a mate’s having drinks before going out. I remember one of the guy’s mums sitting drinking with her two friends. They were both in their 40’s or whatever and asking “ what are you doing next year?” and my mate said “ I’m gonna do law”. “What are you doing?”. Next mate, “gonna do architecture.” And then they asked me and I said, Art. And it was just like, sigh, atmosphere changed and basically they suggested I was fucked (room laughing). Then for some reason one of them called me a goth (laughing).
DB: Haha that’s random as shit.
EMIC: Yeah but there’s definitely that stigmatism, I guess people don’t really understand how you can survive as an Artist but I suppose that’s the way you’re brought up. From a young age you’re put into school and given this routine of 9 to 3 or 9 to 5 and you’re told to wear a uniform so you’re brought up in a condition that then translates to office job and suit and that that’s what life is.
But yeah it doesn’t change how fucking tough it is to make a living this way.
DB: Yeah i’m sure plenty of people don’t realise how hard artists really work like you probably had some shitty ass jobs, to supplement, say buying spray paint or whatever?
EMIC: Well tomorrow I’m actually going to paint a guy’s living room (laughing) and bedrooms and I’ll have to do that this weekend just to fucking…you know sometimes you do have to find avenues to keep yourself going.
DB: It’s a hustle really.
EMIC: Yeah it definitely is but you take the good with the bad.
DB: So I know you do some web design, obviously that’s something you can get creative with to an extent too. Do you see that stopping at a point?
EMIC: I’d rather be getting stuck into the art but sometimes it’s just not possible. I do some graphic design as I can use the programmes, so that helps to keep me going. But I try to give my art as much time as possible to develop. As long as there’s always that progress for me then I’ll be able to ride the storm until I can focus solely on art. I’d say I’m 90-95% reliant on what I do as an artist.
DB: Yeah man, I’d say that’s quite admirable like we both know plenty of people that have just graduated and just left all creative sensibility to the side.
EMIC: Yeah it’s an issue I had with the undergraduate degree, is that they showed you how to create work as an artist but they didn’t show you how to live as an artist or survive and I think that’s something that art courses, especially the University of Ulster are really going to have to take into consideration.
What are they really teaching you? Especially now, people are paying a lot of money to do a degree that will, in a way, define their career so it’s up to those higher education bodies to take more responsibility. You get two classes a week with a tutor for maybe half an hour and the spend the rest of your time just working. It doesn’t really prepare you for when you’re out there in the real world.
DB: So how about taking risks, we already touched on sacrifices previously so where does that come in?
EMIC: Well in terms risk, specifically to street art, you take the risk that someone having an issue and just fucking calling the police.
DB: So have you ever been stopped?
EMIC: No not really, like the only time we got stopped was with those paste ups and we pretty much just said we’d take a photo for a project and take it down. Otherwise, any police approaching are when it’s a commissioned artwork and you’re painting somewhere really obvious.
Now, you tend to be a bit smarter about where you’re painting, so some empty yard that no one’s going to be walking into.
DB: Just to close it out, or, well I don’t know if it will or not but what are you working on at the minute, obviously culture night’s approaching and I know you sort of started what is a big event each year now, Hit The North. What’s happening in the next while?
EMIC: Yeah got some projects for Culture Night, and Hit The North should be good, I have some thing coming up at the Moniker Art Fair too. At the moment I’m just sort of planning a few murals dotted around Belfast and looking towards 2016 to New York to do some pieces out there. It’s just a continuation of what I’m doing and my artwork is not where I want it to be or at the standard where I feel it needs to be right now.
So it’s very much a process. I’ve spent the past few years just working on pure technique, like aerosol techniques, are you good at painting? And I feel like I’ve gotten closer to where I need to be but after that I need to work on the aesthetic. As a creative you’ve got to figure out what it is, what you do and how it’s unique? Cause there’s no point creating work that’s like someone else's because the ones that are already established so they’ll be the one’s asked to exhibit or paint somewhere so it’s creating that uniqueness that will be the focus for the next year.
DB: Cool and I suppose in that respect, when you feel comfortable with the technique and the aesthetic and all. When everything aligns what does that look like? Could you see yourself doing commercial work or partnering with big brands? Kaws for example, a graffiti artist who started painting early 90’s I think, jumping on trains and bombing whole streets, to then defacing advertising and finally ending up working with Nike and Hennessey and shit. That’s kind of weird if you look at it in a certain way but somehow makes sense. With you talking about sort anti-capitalist ideas, would that ever be a consideration:
EMIC: Well, last year, I did a few commercial pieces. They were difficult for me to come to terms with doing. It was either do them or don’t and really struggle. But after doing the few that I did I got to a point and thought, fuck this, I can’t do it. I think it’s important not to go too commercial at an early stage of your career as you’ll find yourself doing the same sort of jobs or maybe stand still. If you stick true to your concepts, what you believe an artist should be or what you should be, allow yourself to develop and build quality then I think that’s more important. I wouldn’t ever really do work for Nike or Hennessey or whatever.
DB: Yeah I suppose it’s not really furthering you and your practice.
EMIC: It’s not something I’m comfortable with and it’s not something that the art world would look at with any fondness for you as an artist. It’s been since recent enough that I’ve not been doing that sort of work. It’s made things more difficult but you feel a lot more fulfilled and happier as an artist.
DB: Well that’s us, thanks very much for doing that man.