Edinburgh’s legal graffiti wall at New Street is home to a real spectrum of talent and style. It’s also a really interesting dynamic. When you think about it, very few artforms or galleries would routinely allow unproven young blood to rub shoulders with distinguished veterans.

The result?

Complex and ambitious pieces resting beside messy tags and testosterone fueled scrawled shit-slinging.

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Some of Asone’s recent work at the New Street boards

I’ve become a bit more familiar with the work of a few of those artists while taking a walk during my lunch hour. A particular piece painted late last year really blew me away. It was super-complex and merged slick figurative elements and tight letters on a background that looked just as time consuming to put together as the focus of the piece itself.

Who painted it? Why did they chose this spot and those letters? Why did they pick that particular colour on that day?

These are the sort of basic questions that I always want to ask when I see work like that. But let’s be honest, they can be embarrassingly simple and superficial questions to bring up with those embedded in the scene. Especially to artists in one of the least approachable subcultures and art movements going. Authenticity is a big deal – basic questions can, and will, mark you out…

But…nothing ventured, nothing gained. Right?…Right?!

Digging deeper into Scotland’s graffiti scene

I sent Asone, the artist behind this piece, a message and it turns out that he’s not only the real deal (having started painting back in ‘92) but is very approachable and totally open to the idea of me asking some daft questions, and some more probing ones too.

I love the artform. The bravado that often comes with it is really interesting if intimidating and brutal, and the cut-throat but principled culture of painting over paint ruthlessly, has a weird self policing pseudo-societal feel about it.

I wondered specifically what had brought him to this scene from a sleepy town outside Stirling in Scotland. For those unaware, Stirling is no 5pointz.  

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Asone’s work is well respected among other artists, an example of that being the piece I first saw of his (above) has stayed up and untouched since October 2016 (edit: now it’s been painted over as of April 2017). He began to tell me about his upbringing and journey to graffiti, catching me up with how he came to be where he is now, currently back in Scotland having spent time in Sheffield, Australia and travelling the length of South America.

“I went to Glasgow when I left school and went to college. It was Glasgow that kind of laid the foundations of my graf life, I lived there for years.”

“I’m still drawn to Glasgow when I’m in Scotland, as I feel it’s my home as much as Stirling and a good number of friends still live there. When I started out in ‘92 it was mad, I was the only graf artist I knew of in Scotland, and didn’t meet any others for a few years until I moved through to Glasgow and started painting down at the bench.”

“I’d seen tags in Glasgow and Edinburgh, but around Central Scotland I hadn’t seen anything”

I did an HND…I was more into going out painting

A structured art education through the higher and further education channels isn’t always the route graf artists take when learning their trade, not least because the bug can grip you from an early age, way before formal arts education even begins in school. So, where did he get into all of this?

“I was always into art as a kid, I used to draw comics and could be up in my room for hours without speaking to anybody just drawing and drawing and drawing.”

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“I did an HND in illustration in what used to be the old College of Building and Printing in Glasgow, now City of Glasgow College. To be honest I don’t think it helped me much at all, I didnae really take much from it. I was way more into going out painting.”

“I think graf had taught me way more than any college could have at the time when it came to colours, structure, composition etc. I still might go to a life drawing class though, as my figure drawing off the cuff pretty much sucks.”

A French Connection, carry outs and throw ups

I wanted to avoid the well worn street art and graffiti interview cliche of asking about specific influences as much as I could manage, so I chose to ask about what he remembered as the first spark that led him to pick up a spraycan.

Similar to how the sort of music you grow up listening to can influence what you listen to, or the music you make, when you grow up, I often wonder if the same can be applied to graffiti and art more generally. Do you need to have been exposed to graffiti at an early age in order for it to be your bag?

“I remember clearly the spark for me getting into graf, I’d been listening to hip hop since about 9 or 10 years old, but had never really made a connection to graffiti culture since I’d never seen it.”

“The tracksides amazed me, it was all pre CCTV and security, there were full colour pieces – skulls, eagles on fire holding colourful wild style names, B-Boy characters, boxes hit up with tag after tag for miles, piece over piece…it was the coolest thing I’d seen in my life up to that point.”

“I used to know this wee French dude who was a nephew of my mum’s pal’s mate or something, she was saying with my mum’s mate whilst at uni, and was looking for a way to get her nephew over here cheaply, so he would come over and spend 3 weeks with us in the summer, then next summer I’d go over there – like a cheap way of spending a few weeks abroad.”

“I think It was the first time I had been abroad, I was about 14 or 15 at the time, this wee dude turned out to be the graf catalyst”

“We ended up getting on really well, I introduced him to the method of getting folk to buy us carry outs and cigarettes from the shops, so I guess you could say I introduced him to real Scottish culture ha ha!”

…a legitimate Erasmus-style experience for the wee Frenchman then!

“One summer he came over and he’s drawing all these tags, throw ups and he was mad into hip hop. I went over to Paris that year for the first time and was blown away by all the bombing in the streets and then even more when I took my first train ride there.”

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Some example Parisian trackside spots

“The tracksides amazed me, it was all pre CCTV and security, there were full colour pieces – skulls, eagles on fire holding colourful wild style names, B-Boy characters, boxes hit up with tag after tag for miles, piece over piece – as a wee guy it captured my imagination so much. It was the coolest thing I’d seen in my life up to that point.”

“I returned to Scotland and started writing over everything and sticking tags up all over the place. I remember having to go to the local library to ask if there were any books about graffiti, and a month or so later they rang me up and said they had Subway Art, Spray Can Art and R.I.P – New York Spray Can Memorials.

“I didn’t even see Style Wars till about 1998 or 1999. That’s what happens when you start off in a wee Scottish town, you’re kind of naturally alienated from everything!”

Choosing Asone and developing a style

Most graffiti artists chose a name, or maybe a couple and stick to them over the years. Developing their style and reputation is important and that name is one of the only thing that associates the work to the artist.

A graffiti artist rarely lets his name and face become the focus of attention, courting publicity in that way feels at odds with the whole ethos. Basically that complete opposite of modern street artists like JR who lie at the more neurotic and egotistical end of the street art spectrum.

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So the name’s pretty important, correct? I wondered how Asone came to settle on just that, “Asone”.

“Folk that know me will know why I write Asone, I never really used to write it as “As One” with a space in the middle, but been doing it for years when I write about it. I used to bomb a whole load of different names with “Aess” being a favourite.”

“I might flip the S into a Z soon, just to change it up a wee bit, but I dunno, we’ll see. I’m still developing AS connections, so there’s always new ways to explore. The letters worked too, and the length seemed just right.”

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‘New ways to explore’ seems natural. I mean, can you paint the same 5 letters over and over in the same style without experimenting and tweaking things to see what else you can do? Basically to push yourself and your talent as far as you can?

“My style these days is continuing to evolve, and I like it like that – if I was a musician or producer I’d probably be the same. A lot of folk get trapped into painting the same thing over and over again, which is something I’ve always tried to avoid – would be like doing the same tune over and over.”

“I used to paint 3D graf back with Mak and sometimes Tues in the late 1990s to mid 2000s. I think my last properly 3D thing would have been a rare one in Sydney in about 2010 – I’ve pretty much given up on the style as it got boring for me to paint the same colour tones constantly for half a day.”

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“I might bring some of it back though in another way, maybe a wee letter or two and mash it together with something else who knows. Nowadays I’m concerned with strong letters but also making it more complex with thought out fills and backgrounds.”

“I have experimented with some abstract stuff too and doing some realistic but graf style, abstract characters and animal stuff, mainly for canvases. I’m really enjoying it.”

Going beyond letters

I noticed that his artwork often features some figurative stuff too. Artists like Mr Cenz have merged the two amazingly in the past. It felt as though this was an avenue that he’s been taking to more and more frequently of late, maybe even something he wanted to improve upon and use more often…

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“I think so aye, to an extent. As long as it’s abstract enough and draws on my graffiti influences. I’m still finding my feet with figurative stuff, but I want to experiment with figures and characters more just for a change, and especially the whole visionary, sci fi art angle.”

“I also want at some point to do some more art with a “message” that will amuse people or make them actually think. I have some stuff sketched out but not painted any of it yet. I’ll probably leave more of the animal style stuff for canvas work.”

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Obviously traditional graffiti styles have influenced Asone but having looked through his old blog, I saw a lot of other types of art he’d been appreciating. Guys like Gregory Euclide, Martin Grohs, Pixel Pancho but also WW1 dazzle ship designs to futuristic modernist architecture.

It got me thinking – is a large part of an artist’s success is the ability to translate those everyday bits of inspiration and be able to pull out those elements and put your own spin on them.

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Recent Edinburgh Art Festival WW1 dazzle ships

“I use tons of influences outside graf. Once I had this style nailed I started to look at non graffiti stuff. I love organic forms, geological deposits, plants, crystalline rocks , close ups of cells, smoke, ink in water, views of Earth from above when you see the sand mixing into the sea, I took all that and put it into what I already had developed to that point, and try and “graf it up”.

“Another strong influence outside of graf, is sci-fi and digital art. Abstract digital art has been huge for me, so the style I’m sitting with at the moment is a kind of blend of all of the above together mashed into graf letters.”

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“Last few things I’ve done though have been some quicker things just stripping it all back to letters and minimal traditional graf fills, which I’m liking too. I’m also getting really into psychedelic visionary art, and I like reading about a lot of ancient civilisations and listen to a lot of podcasts about similar subjects so that influences me also.”

Keeping the buzz and beating writer’s block

Asone’s a busy guy, not only does he find time for painting in the street, he’s self employed as an artist under the name “Scottish Graffiti Murals”. Taking your hobby into a profession can often be a fast-track to falling completely out of love with your passion. So how does he manage to keep that buzz and love for his craft going?

“Commission work takes up a lot of time – it’s really stupid – I spend too much time on all the admin shit and getting side tracked by the internet if I have to research a job.”

“the buzz is what it’s always been. The letters, the colours, the art form…after I’ve painted I always feel like I’ve got something off my chest, it’s a release.”

“By the time I’m done I forget about graf and always have to pull myself back. I think because of that a big part of motivation is time in general really, time to get out there and paint, there’s so many things I want to do.”

“In terms of the buzz, the buzz is what it’s always been. The letters, the colours, the art form…I like painting in different spots when I have time – abandoned spots are great, inspiring – after I’ve painted I always feel like I’ve got something off my chest, it’s a release.”

“The stuff I paint for clients isn’t really the kind of stuff I paint on my own, so it doesn’t kill the buzz too much”

It happens to most creative folk, writer’s block.

I mean, I think of myself as being only vaguely creative in that I’m writing this post on my own blog, but I often find myself staring at a blank page unable to get those first words down.

Even although they are just my thoughts, it should be easy! Other times it comes out quicker than my fingers can cope. So can graffiti artists get a similar kind of creative block?

It’s writing, of a kind…

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“I get it [creative block] occasionally. Sometimes music, checking out other art forms, looking at stuff online, exercise, going and doing something else, smoking a little weed, very occasionally I’ll have something psychedelic, and unwind and think about things, I always get ideas – even if I forget most of them by the next day”, he laughs, “but it all helps to unblock the mind and get the ideas get flowing again.”

The key ingredients of a good piece

Getting those ideas out in the open is obviously important, but I also wondered what makes a good piece in his eyes. And are there times when he might have slaved through something and left really unhappy with the finished product.

I think people can sometimes relate to the feeling of wanting to implode when hearing a mix back that you didn’t quite nail, or reading some writing you did a while ago and wishing you’d not bothered. Or maybe that’s my own personal battle!

“I met a well known D&B producer at a party once. My mate was producing at the time and asked him if there was one piece of advice for him what it would be. He said “if you start something, finish it”.

“If it’s a piece then letter style, fill in and background composition are really important. If it’s a good example of the style I’m working with I’m happy with it. To this day I think I’ve only ever walked away from a few things.”

“I met a well known D&B producer at a party once. My mate was producing at the time and asked him if there was one piece of advice for him what it would be. He said “if you start something, finish it”.

“I’ve never forgot that, I think the same applies to any art form.”

I feel slightly better about those things I’ve done in the past and looked back upon with a mix of embarrassment and regret. But hey, at least I stuck it out and completed them.

Part 2 of this in depth feature on Asone coming soon…

Steven
UKB

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