Atle Østrem is an artist based in Oslo, Norway who has been painting graffiti since the mid 90's and has been doing artwork on canvas since 2000. He draws inspiration from life, traveling, music, film, graffiti, typography, and cartoons. He currently has a solo exhibition up at Exhibit No. 9 in Asbury Park, NJ until September 20th.
A: What led you to become a graffiti artist? How did it all start?
Ø: I have been drawing all of my life and I remember seeing graffiti as a kid. I didn't really understand what it was at the time but I was fascinated by these colorful paintings on the wall. Around 1995, when I was a bit older, a neighbor introduced me to a video that he had called Style Wars. Style Wars is a documentary from the early eighties about the subway graffiti in New York City and watching this made me realize what graffiti was all about. I immediately knew that I wanted to do it myself and from that day on I painted graffiti every week for the next 15 years.
A: Does it feel much different painting on canvas than it does when you are painting graffiti?
Ø: I wouldn't say that the feeling is completely different because I do get some sort of the same satisfaction when I am happy with the results of my painting on a canvas that I used to get from graffiti. Graffiti was sort of like an adventure. I would walk the streets looking for spots to paint, and then go home and draw out sketches to plan out what I would do and when I would paint that spot. With graffiti art, you usually have to paint late at night and you have to do it fast so you don't get caught red handed. This is what gave graffiti a special kind of energy that is hard to capture when doing studioworks on canvas.
I've always tried to keep separation between the two but I have brought lots of elements and references from graffiti into my paintings. With studiowork you spend a lot more time and thought on what you put into a piece versus doing graffiti on the streets. Graffiti is much more quick and spontaneous.
A: At what point in your career did you decide to stop painting graffiti and start painting on canvas and exhibiting your work in galleries?
Ø: I don't think that I ever made the decision to go from one to the other. The transition was sort of natural. For a long time I was doing both and somewhere along the line they started to blend together. In the mid 90's at the beginning of my career when I started doing graffiti, I began to make a small name for myself within the Norwegian graffiti community. I started doing canvases around 2000 so at that point I already had a small following that liked my graffiti and also enjoyed my canvases. Later on I opened up an art supply shop with a friend selling spray paint mostly and this shop gave me the opportunity to hang some of my own paintings on the walls.
Fast forward a couple of years, and a gallerist from my hometown walked into my shop and invited me to do a show with him and from then on one show led to another. I have built a customer base brick by brick and for the last couple of years I have been lucky enough to be able to work as a full time artist.
About 5 years ago I started to get really bad headaches from the spray paint fumes. The headaches started to get worse and worse and lasted longer and longer every time I painted. After a year or so of suffering through these headaches, I started to realize how serious it was and that my health was the most important so I completely stopped using spray paint and solvents. So for the past 4 years I have focused more on studio work and less on graffiti for this reason.
A: Do you write the text that you use in your work yourself?
Ø: I often make the title a part of the visual expression of a piece. Sometimes it is text that I write myself, and sometimes it is a quote that I feel describes the subject of my work. This comes partly from my love for letters and partly from the idea of wanting the artwork to communicate something to the viewer. The text often says something about the meaning behind the piece.
A: What was your inspiration behind the painting, "Unsung Heroes"?
Ø: Today with the whole street art thing being very popular and street artists are celebrated like rockstars, it's easy to forget that before street art there was graffiti, and before artists were getting paid and put up on pedestals for doing art on the street, people were getting fined and put in prison for doing it. I had gotten in a lot of trouble for doing graffiti. The first few times that I was arrested, I was released from jail after a night or so but in late 1999, I was taken to court and had to spend a couple of weeks in jail.
I ended up having to do 11 months of community service and pay about $30,000 in fines. The "Unsung Heroes" painting is shining a spotlight on the forefathers (and mothers) who had built the foundation for what is going on today, but who didn't get the same recognition from the public as the street artists do today.
A: What did it feel like to be punished for your passion?
Ø: It made me angry that kids/youth are punished more for painting on walls than someone who has committed a violent crime.
A: What is the inspiration behind the body of work that you are currently exhibiting at Exhibit No. 9?
Ø: I would say that my art is somewhat of a journal of my own life. I use art to tell stories from my life, whether it be a specific situation I have been in, a certain way that I am feeling, or as a commentary to what I see around me. In many ways you can say that my art is like a visual diary. I create art from my point of view but also try and make my pieces ambiguous, universal, and open to interpretation.