Elliot O’Donnell (aka Askew One) is a Kiwi street artist who’s transitioning between “just tags on a wall” to legitimate art. And with paintings of Ralph Hotere in Kingsland, work on Queens Wharf and his impressive creations in the Wynyard Quarter, he’s trying hard to turn his passion into a viable business.
What first got you into street art and graffiti?
I started graffiti for all the wrong reasons. Peer pressure, wanting to be tough, knowing that I wasn’t tough. It’s kind of hard to be cool when you’re in the choir. Graffiti is the only thing that’s maintained my attention. It’s the only thing that’s kept me completely captivated. It’s robust, it’s for the people, you’ve gotta be amongst it.
How has graffiti art changed since your days as a kid growing up in Morningside?
We could get away with doing things you just can’t do now. I remember walking down the train tracks in Mt Albert with ladders and paint in broad daylight. Nobody would bat an eye, we were just some kids getting into mischief. The styles have all changed too. It comes and goes through cycles. Back then the aesthetic was definitely tag focused, now it’s about broader art.
Do you consider yourself to be successful?
I’ve failed at a lot of stuff. My friends all think I’m really financially successful, I’m not. I’m a little sick of failing. I’m very sick of eating baked beans.
You’ve been relatively quiet for a few years, then burst back onto the scene with your work on the Wynyard Quarter silos. How was that experience?
It was amazing to see the response from Aucklanders about this thing I’d done. It was really humbling too ... to see people looking up and taking photos of something I put so much into.
How important has Hamish Keith [art curator and commentator] been in your recent resurgence?
Hamish threw me a bone. He gave me a break when others wouldn’t and validated what I do as legitimate. He kept talking about the Te Mana art movement, this big exhibition of Maori art before my time that took it to the world stage. He refers to my work at Wynyard Quarter as the equivalent for New Zealand street art.
If you’re “sick of baked beans”, what are you doing to be more commercially viable?
I’ve devised some new techniques and methods to make my images much faster. I was never very good at making the process work smoothly and efficiently, so that’s been something very new. I’ll be doing work that’s not just tags on a wall. I realised quite a while ago it’s very hard to sell a painting on a wall that doesn’t belong to you ... I’m doing a lot more work with paint on glass and I’m very excited about how that’s turning out. I spent six months eating nothing but baked beans at one point. Maybe I should do a Wattie’s sponsorship deal?
Is it difficult to get bookings and commissions overseas, where most of the money is, being a street artist in New Zealand?
I want to build it up what I’m doing to a point where doesn’t matter where I come from. Unfortunately, it does matter. A lot of these shows and exhibitions have to make the hard decision between paying $3,000 to bring me over from New Zealand, or getting in three or four artists locally.
I’m focusing on doing an exhibition in [Detroit] for a while. It’s a humble small show … I’ll be in a smaller studio next to a larger show, but it’s one of those places that act as a big stepping stone for artists.
- This article originally appeared in the July/August edition of NZ Marketing.