Remembering back some years, I recall when I first became aware of Tom Civils work. I’d heard about a screening on TV of a new documentary, Rash, all about the emergence of a whole bunch of new street artists in Melbourne,. I was eager to check out what was happening over here (at the time I was still in Perth), and I sat through the entire thing, mesmerised by the ways in which artists here were expressing themselves and pushing their art in entirely new directions. Having only ever really followed graffiti until that point, Rash served as an early foundation for my passion for the Australian “street art” scene.
In amongst all the amazing stories and interviews in Rash, one artist in particular held resonance with me – Civil. This artist spoke of a lack of community based urban art across the country, and how he enjoyed contributing to the wider discussion, proposing alternative ideas and thoughts for the public to ruminate upon.
Over the years, Tom Civils work has progressed and morphed, however that one critical aspect has remained constant – the wish to talk to the public, to use his work as a way of communicating questions and ideas to the civilians of both the city, and the regional areas surrounding them.
Despite all the trriumphs, tribulations and trials along the way, Tom Civil still carries a torch within a constantly evolving movement. Whether it be via his art on the street, in a gallery, or through the independent publishing company he helped set up – Breakdown Press, its our opinion that he is one of Australians most important advocates of utilising public art as a tool for social awareness.
We really loved doing this interview, and we’ve been looking forward to sharing it with you ahead of Civils exhibition this week at House of Bricks – so read on for a small glimpse into the long story behind the work of Tom Civil …
You’ve been at this whole creative game for some time now, but how did you first get started with it all? What spurred you on to becoming an artist?
It’s always hard to say when things start. When I think of my earliest creative endeavours I’m always drawn back to those foggy, distant memories of playing, exploring and constructing as a kid with my brother and our close bunch of mates up at my Dad’s place in country NSW. Although this wasn’t art. That was learning freedom.
My Dad is a junk artist, ‘found object assemblage artist’ he sometimes calls it. He was the earliest inspiration, and continues to be, for me realizing the beauty and power of art and old rusty dirty junk, and also how art is good for keeping you sane and happy.
As an adult my earlier memories of discovering my own love of art was though punk art and culture, and particularly the art that accompanied the albums of my favourite bands. I’ve always loved lots of genres of music so I can’t just single punk out, but I loved collage and the DIY punk scene and got madly into ‘zines and the culture that surrounded it. I think in a way that was the start of my own personal art journey. This continued on into independent media projects, making flyers and posters for different campaigns, and out onto the streets.
Although, even to this day, I find it hard to call myself an artist – life’s strange like that.
Tell us about the differences between mediums that you use – you spread your work across painting, aerosol, prints and stencil work – what does each one bring to your work, and how do they all play across each other? How important is it for you to vary your processes?
I love playing with all mediums, particularly new ones to me. I’m fascinated by working with mediums that I’m not that comfortable with, and the images you can create through this process, and all the happy accidents along the way. I think also, because I never went to art school, I just get excited when I discover a new technique and wanna give it a go.
I really have to thank all my friends that have shown and taught me different skills over the years.
Your “stick dudes”, for want of a better name, are also hugely iconic – from such a simple image, you are able to put forth complex ideas, scenarios and perspectives that are hard to achieve in a more detailed piece. What is it about this simplicity that draws you in and why do you think they are so effective?
My stick people characters allow me to tell stories, and they allow other people to make up there own stories about them. I think that this is possibly the most important thing about art for me, telling stories, creating myths. I’ve been thinking about how possibly I’m some kind of folk street artist, or something, of late. Possibly all graffiti and street art is a kind of folk art? Often not really seen as ‘art’, but loved by so many people, and will be seen as one of the bigger art movements of our time in the future.
I often wanted to represent people in my painting, and to communicate across different cultural, language and sub-cultural barriers, as well as the fact people were often asking me too represent ‘community’ through different projects I was working on. I got totally addicted to drawing them, and people kept telling me how much they loved them, including my grandma, which I knew was a good sign to keep going.
I wasn’t that comfortable with drawing at the time and so developed my own style so I could represent community and different things that were happening around me. I now love drawing and realize how vital it is to the whole art process, and keeping a healthy mind.
I was also exploring the idea of being a civilian, and how to represent that? I still find it hard to draw my little people as the bad guy, you know the person in authority, the person with a gun; the police, the soldier. Although, now my people characters are developing in all different directions, and will hopefully continue to do so.
You are seen as a high profile social advocates within the Australian art and street art community, for example this week you will be doing a talk at RMIT on how street art is an appropriate medium to voice social concerns. Can you tell us a bit more about this topic, and why you believe it is important to you to speak up on such issues, and to also convey them in your work?
Well, thanks for saying such nice words to start with – there are so many people doing important work in this area.
I’ve always been interested in both politics and art, and how to find links between them. There’s so much going on in the world and I think we have a responsibility to get involved and speak up, while at the same time never forgetting our, my, privilege in the world as a relatively rich white man and the power dynamics surrounding this.
I continue to be fascinated by how graffiti and street art fit into this. Talking about graffiti seems to get to the core of the politics of space and the city. What avenues we have to communicate in, and how controlled or uncontrolled this should be. I love the anarchic participatory nature of graffiti and believe this should be protected.
You are also very active in regional communities and work on a variety of projects and workshops throughout the country, how important is it for you to expose communities to the power of art, and what have been some of the great experiences you’ve had travelling around doing the workshops?
I grew up as a kid in a country town, I suppose I still love the country and the kinds of people that come from the bush. I love being on the road, getting to know different parts of this country better, and learning the cultural variations that exist everywhere. It’s such a common misunderstanding about Australia, that it’s this homogenous mass. When it’s just so different everywhere, except for the KFC, Bunnings and 7Eleven on the corner.
I think one of the big changes I’ve seen since being in this graffiti game is the emergence of graffiti culture in regional centres. It’s just not that uncommon to see a tag on the sign into town, or a piece under the rail bridge in country towns. Murals are the new skate park, well kind of, well at least I think they should be. There is so much potential in regional Australia and, in years ahead, it’s going to be fascinating to watch as country towns turn into cities, throughout Australia.
We’ve seen the cool things you’ve been creating with Breakdown Press – publication is pretty different to art – what inspired you to found Breakdown, and what is the primary focus of the work you put out from it? Do you have any new projects in the wings?
Breakdown Press is sort of hold for the moment, but there’s a few ideas brewing. My partner Lou, who I founded and run Breakdown with, is finishing up her PHD in poetry at the moment and I’m just focusing on my art and living life – but we’ll see what happens.
I love publications and print: mass producing stuff, and getting it out into the world. Our aim with Breakdown was always to make publications we’d love to see ourselves that we thought we weren’t seeing enough of in Australia, and to produce engaging creative political publications and posters. Two things we are thinking of maybe doing is producing hand-made beautiful political posters (kind of in the vain of our comrades in the US, the inspiring Justseeds collective, but in our own style) and possibly a series of poetry books … we’ll see!
Sadly, your brother Ned passed away in 2010. Besides the unfathomable loss of a brother, he was also a long time collaborative partner of yours in a variety of cool projects, under the guise of Evil Brothers. We’d love to hear more about the work you guys did together, and the works you did as Sevil & Sons with your dad …
This is the long story. What my life has been all about. Trying to come to terms with the loss of my brother, my best mate, my crew and my moral compass when it comes to art and the world. Ned got into graffiti and street art before me and has always been my number one inspiration. He died on Boxing Day 2010, three weeks after being diagnosed with Cancer, just weeks after returning from a show we did together in Alice Springs.
The art installations and work in abandoned spaces I made with Ned are my most favourite things I have ever done. I am just so happy we took the leap and did them, culminating with an installation collaboration with our Dad, Tony. The Ghost Train installation Ned and I did at Carriage Works in Redfern, Sydney was incredible. I couldn’t believe we pulled it off. Ha ha. Ned had the brilliant idea to make spray-can torches that felt so real, just like a real can but with different coloured LED light coming out of the cap instead of paint! And we had collaborative stencil cut-outs in all the walls and as you walked through the tunnel – it was lit up with shadow puppets everywhere. All at the same time negotiating the tracks we built and the sound of the heavy gravel under your feet and the sound of trains.
Working with Ned in a gallery was always an experience. He would always have big ideas and demand to completely change the gallery context. The constructions he made before we started collaborating in the gallery with the Makeshift Collective (with Ned’s amazing partner Anna Crane, Emma Davidson, Anwyn Crawford, Marley Dawson and Pep Prodromou) were truly unbelievable.
He was a true street artist. Uncompromising, intelligent, respectful to the history of place, and had a powerful understanding of the impermanence of life and art.
There are so many other stories I would love to tell, but I wouldn’t know where to continue here. Least to say, we had many adventures together.
Your show coming up at House Of Bricks, Long Story, sounds as if it is a tale unto itself … we know you’ve had a both a hectic and tumultuous last few years. With your recent move from your long term stay at Seed Factory to your new space at the Everfresh studios, how is this new show, your first in five years, a culmination of all of these experiences?
All the art in this new show I have made since my brother died. After Ned died, I though, fuck art. I thought I’d maybe never do it again. Then maybe 3, 4 months after he died I picked up a pencil and started drawing, and couldn’t stop … Ned would want me to keep going, and I’m doing it for him.
The title comes from when people ask me what I’ve been up to, or what a picture’s about. My answer always seems to start with ‘It’s a long story…’ – so I though it was appropriate. It’s a culmination of a lot of image-making techniques I’ve been playing with over the years, but taken to a different level. Most of the images are memorials to Ned, to the things we loved and shared, to life, and to death.
Over the years, you have been witness to many changes in the Australian street art scene and culture – what are some of the positive things you have seen happen over this time, and what are some of the negatives? How different do you believe it is now, as opposed to when you first started out?
Things are the same, and things are different. I’m not sure if it’s me, or the world. I think a lot of political campaigning has moved from the streets and onto the web. I think we, as Australian street artists, have potentially a stronger more developed sense of identity. Things have merged: graffiti and street art. The CBD is bigger, richer, and more spread out. Interesting work can be found spread out over a bigger area now, probably mainly due to the fact people are forced in all directions due to higher rent. There’s a lot more deeper, more spiritual imagery generally in murals and characters. Actually the development of character graffiti in general is huge. I sometimes wish we had more street poetry and just general slogans written everywhere. I think we have some amazingly beautiful murals going on, and I reckon these can only get bigger and better.
I still believe in site-specific work, particularly in murals, linking into the history and people of the place, creates some of the most powerful and affecting work.
So what is next for Tom Civil? Will we hopefully be seeing more shows from you in the future, or will it be a case of “wait and see?”
I’d definitely like to do more shows, and I’m keen to do some bigger more ambitious murals too. But for now I just need to keep going, keep making things, and see what happens. Little by little, bit by bit.
Over and out.
X Tom Civil