Originally published on February 21, 2017 (minor revisions to images)
Emic is a Belfast based artist known mainly for his murals dotted around Belfast, and for the keener eyed amongst us, his paste-ups and stickers. Belfast Beyond was lucky enough to catch up with him in his new East Belfast studio (in a shared space with a number of other Belfast Creatives; Belfast Bankers) and find out a little bit more about his art, influences, and future projects.
Will you introduce yourself?
My name’s Eoin, I’m an artist called Emic. I’ve been painting murals and street art around Belfast for the past 3 or 4 years.
How did you get into street art?
I did fine art at university and I was always interested in cities and city living because I grew up in a really rural part of Tyrone. That transition had a big impact on me, so my artwork was always about that. Once it came to the end of my degree, it made more sense for me to put work that’s about the city, on city walls as opposed to on gallery walls. I identify much more with work that’s on the streets, than work that’s in galleries.
Were you using aerosols at university, were you taught, or self-taught?
My work was different in uni but I did have a few aerosols that I used more for making marks, without any sort of technical ability. Once I graduated I went on to a street art workshop that was being run by Kev Largey (KVLR) and organised by Adam Turkington (of Seedhead Arts), and Kev gave me a brief introduction to using aerosols and since then I’ve just been self-taught. I’ve learned the most from trying to teach kids how to spray paint. I started to take workshops, and on the day of my first workshop I was out the back of my house frantically trying to learn how to spray paint myself! You learn a lot from passing what you know on to other people.
Where were you able to practice?
Out the back of the house; I was lucky enough to have some big, 20ft x 10ft wall space, so I used that, and whenever I moved in to the Loft I did a bit of practice in there. I haven’t done an awful lot of practice work, it’s something that I’ve always wanted to do but I find myself just learning as I go along really.
What’s the significance of the hand in your work?
The hand was one of the first images I ever painted in uni. It was a project based on ‘1984’, like control from an outside source, and I thought that the hand coming out of a ‘nothing’ space was kind of impactful, for me anyway. I never really tagged or did any graffiti, so I thought ‘just print out your hand and use that’; I think you do need to have a bit of repetitiveness so that people can identify you with something. So that’s where the hand came from, I just never let go of it really.
Do you think it’s something you’ll always feature in your work?
Maybe yes. Maybe not the same hand but I’m starting to look at using hands in different forms, and different ways the hand could be presented. Looking at that is more interesting for me now, after using the same one for a few years.
After learning at KVLR’s workshop, would you say he is an influence on your work? Do you have any other artistic influences?
Yeah definetely Kev was a big influence for sure. I try to draw influence from different things. There’s definetely street artists like Conor Harrington, Shephard Fairey, Banksy, all the big guys that were in books and magazines when I was learning, they’re obviously massive influences, but I take influences from architecture, philosophy, music, fine art, painting; I think it’s important to have a broad range of inspirations to feed into something; if you are striving to have your own uniqueness, and to develop that, which I do think is important if you want to follow a career in art.
Is there a word, or a few words you would use to sum up your style?
I don’t think there are a few words; I combine photo-realism with abstraction and deconstruction. I’m just trying to put across people and places being interlinked, abstraction and chaos, and being a reflection of urban living with so many things happening in the same place all at once.
From your initial idea, to getting it up on a wall, how does the process work?
I would have an idea, depending on what it is, I either take my own photographs or try to source photographs online, then I usually put it together on Photoshop and then do my own sketches for my own reference. Depending on where the wall is I’ll go have a look at it and see what suits it, and then from there it’s just arranging everything, and getting gridded up and painting it. You’re sort of incorporating photography, sketching, illustration and graphics, and bringing them all together which is quite a long process; I spend a lot of time working on concept sketches and designs.
Do you use digital resources more than you used to?
Yeah. Usually if a client gets in touch and they want sketches for an idea that they’ve given me, I would send them some sketches and a rough digital mock-up, but I’ve decided to focus from this week onwards, on only doing Photoshop concepts because it’s closer to what the final piece is going to look like, and you can start to bring in colour schemes and stuff. Digital has opened up a lot of new possibilities for creating aesthetics that we haven’t seen before and that’s the real positive thing about them.
What challenges come with getting your art on a wall?
It depends on the surface of the wall, that’s always different. There could be a hole in the plaster that you have to work around, there can be overhead cables that you don’t think about until you’re going up on the scissor lift and they’re there and you have to completely change everything. Then depending on where the wall is, is there enough room for people on the street to walk by? You have to consider a lot of different things but usually if you’re well prepared you know what those challenges are before you take to the wall. Street art is about going there with your design, and painting the piece in 6-10 hours or whatever; it’s not like painting on canvas where you can go and paint something and come back to it a day, or week later and keep working on it. So it’s all about the planning, and executing as close to what you’ve planned as possible.
What’s your favourite surface to paint on?
Just flat walls; they’re the best because especially if you’re a detailed worker like myself, there’s less noise coming from the wall and you can see all the details that you’ve put into your work.
Have you ever encountered any dangerous situations?
Thankfully not; I went up a scissor list last year which was more designed for indoors but because of the commission, which was on a very low budget, we just had to make do with what we had. So we had the scissor lift levelled up on planks of wood so it was rocking back and forth, and if the planks gave way you were just going to hit the ground! That’s probably been the most dangerous. There is a lot to consider even just making sure the people around you, on their daily rounds in the city are well away from what you’re doing, if you have heavy gear like ladders and whatever else. But thankfully it’s been ok.
Are you, and street artists in general, getting more commission work now than when you started out?
Yeah it’s a really popular tool for getting a message across, whether that’s something from the artist’s voice, or something that a business wants to put across; the great thing about street art is that it reaches out to the wider public, something that maybe finer art and gallery art don’t do. I’ve noticed in the past year that there are are way more people and businesses interested in having something on their wall. Why not?
How did you come up with the idea for your 3D project in 2016?
I had been offered 2 exhibitions last year and they were both great opportunities so i didn’t want t let them pass me by, and so I wanted to come up with an idea of linking the 2. I had the 2 exhibitions, and ‘Hit the North’ in the middle in a very short space of time, and I guess I was in a place where I was going through some stuff. I was trying to do this technique of separating my thoughts from myself, and to look at myself as this separate entity, so that’s where the 3D idea came from; it was kinda like, just working through some shit, and that was the idea I came up with. I still haven’t had a chance to step back and look at the exhibition; I was really pleased with some of the studio work I had done because I hadn’t painted on canvas in about a year and a half, so I found that I got a lot from that, but yeah it was just crazy; working 7 days a week, for 6 or 7 weeks, and just about making enough work for 2 exhibitions. I didn’t really have a chance to make too much work and then pick the best from it, so I just had to make it work and throw it in to the exhibition. There are a few pieces from each show that, if I had a show now, both of them would be scrapped; they’ve actually both been scrapped!
In your opinion, what (if any) is the difference between street art and graffiti?
I guess you’re approaching public art or statements in a very different way in street art and graffiti. Some artists have a problem being called street artists and I get the feeling that some graffiti artists don’t like being called street artists. It’s just a different methodology, the outcome of what you want to achieve is different as well. I like graffiti although I’ve never done it much. I do enjoy going to cities like Berlin, New York and London where some places are completely covered; it’s a sign of visual language on a city, people taking ownership of walls and that’s cool for me. But I guess when you’re talking about the differences between the 2, I would say that street art is more like murals and picture based, whereas graffiti is names on walls. But street art wouldn’t exist without graffiti and you have to appreciate that.
Where is the best place in the world for street art?
I do love Berlin, I’ve been there a few times and it’s amazing. I think its just the whole vibe you get from the city and the people, it’s really unique. I do want to check out New York, I was there about 11 years ago but it was before i was really into street art, so i would like to go back and check out the scene there; there seems to be a lot happening in Bushwick and Queens. Apart from that, the only other places I’ve been to are the UK, London mostly, which is great; the London scene is like an international scene in itself so I would imagine New York to be fairly similar. The cities that i want to get to are Paris, Berlin, New York, LA, Sydney and Melbourne, One of the first street art books I ever got was purely Melbourne so I’ve always wanted to go check it out; they’ve got some great artists there like Rone; he’s been one of my favourites since knowing about what street art was.
Would your aim be to paint in those cities?
Yes that’s the idea. I’m not a home bird by any stretch of the imagination, I consider myself quite a free spirit but I’ve sacrificed those ambitions to travel the world and experience different peoples and cultures, to focus on doing something that I want to do. It’s through that, that I want to travel; I want to see places because I’m going there to paint and not just be a tourist to check it out, so that’s definitely the way I want it to be.
In 5-10 years time, do you think Belfast will be up there with the likes of London and Bristol, as a city renowned for it’s street art?
I think so yeah, that’s been the aim for the past few years from chatting with Adam Turkington about what’s trying to be done with the city centre. Belfast is in a great position for street art because the old murals are so well known throughout the world and the opportunity is there to take control of that identity and take it into the 21st century. With people like Adam, who are working at that, I think it is going to happen and I think it is happening already. I would say Belfast is one of the big European attractions for street art at the moment and it’s going to get better for sure.
Do you think the recent demolition around North Street and Kent Street is going to set that back a bit?
It could set it back in the short term for sure, because there’s a lot of wall space there and lots to paint, but its natural for big cities to change and whenever you lose an area, usually another area will pop up. There are other spaces; they may not be as convenient and in such close proximity to the city centre, but there are still loads of places in the city that you could have a really great collection mural, so its whether we can make that happen as seamlessly as North/Kent Street.
What’s your favourite piece in Belfast?
Probably the Conor Harrington piece because that really set it all off, that was just a really big ‘holy shit’ moment for me anyway. I didn’t know it was there until i just turned a corner, probably on the way to the pub, and then there was a Conor Harrington piece. And that was sort of when he became huge with a show in London, he was just putting out that style for the first time, that old school, classical style painting. Also the Christina Angelina piece, and the MTO wall; they’re both amazing.
Will you tell us about the Loft?
Some friends from my class in uni got the studio space in 2011 and started doing ‘Drink & Draw’. I went along and Brian Kielt mentioned there was a space in the studio to rent; I had been looking for a space for a while and hadn’t had much luck so I took that opportunity straight away and moved in the next day. We made a Facebook group and everybody put their skills together and tried to do cool stuff whenever we had the opportunity. There was myself and Brian who are painters, we had Badger who is an illustrator, we had a web designer, and just loads of different skills sets that we were able to bring together and creat interesting things, and create an online presence without any overheads. So the more we were putting out, the more people saw this unique space in the city centre, and we started getting contacted by people all the time looking to put on gigs, comedy shows, book it out for photoshoots and videos and whatever. We had no real plan other than just to support people who were creative and, similar to us, were at a grassroots level. ‘Drink & Draw’ started to take off after 2 or 3 years; it was doing quite well, we were getting 15-20 people initially and then it dropped off to 5 or 6 for a while, but we kept plugging away with it and now we’re in Town Square and were getting 70 or 80 people every month which is great.
Are you thinking of getting another space?
Not really. I’m at the point where I need to focus on myself and what my output is, rather than what a collective is; the collective was very multidisciplinary which was great in getting us to a point, but that was maybe a distraction to people like myself and Brian who were fairly serious about our own work, so I think we had taken it as far as we could go. It’s regretful what happened and being asked to leave the space for its demolition but I think my output has improved a lot since I’ve been able to focus on myself and I know Brian’s has as well, and Badger has gone on to get a really sweet job doing graphic design for a publishing company, so I think it’s worked out well. You always have to keep pressing forward.
Will ‘Drink & Draw’ continue?
Yeah for sure, we’ll always do ‘Drink & Draw’.
Finally, what are your plans for 2017?
I’ll be 4 years self employed in July and it’s been great; I really need to focus on the business side of things and sort out a liveable income because I’m just scraping by at the minute. You sign up for that when you’re an artist, you know what the craic is, but I need to just work on what my own output is. Really just pushing my aesthetic further to where I want to get myself; it’s still not completely finalised, I’m still trying to get to an end point and I’m not really sure what that is yet. But that and paint outside of Belfast for sure, and outside of Ireland as well.
See more of Emic’s work and blog, at his website.
And check out Loft for detail sof the next ‘Drink & Draw’.