There is a long list of artists who have made their way over to New York City from our Australian shores, seeking what everyone else does in that big city across the seas – a chance to be inspired and create in one of the worlds most cosmopolitan environments.
Brolga is one of these artists, who, after leaving the Northern Territory, travelled the world for some time before finally settled into the city he now calls home.
With a pop styled aesthetic honed from his graphic design background, Brolga has been making a few waves in recent times. Recently, his Mohammed Ali painting in Brooklyn gained international attention with the legendary boxers passing – its a great piece, and a perfect example of his style, blending his love of colorful icons with realistic portrait pastage.
We had a chance to hit up Brolga with a few questions recently, and get a bit of a background and low down on the artist. As a relatively new name for us here until quite recently, we love finding talent like Brolgas and getting down to the nitty gritty of what they love, what they do, and what they create – so read on, and enjoy!
As with every artist, you must have started out somewhere! What are some of your earliest creative memories and when did you realise that art was a path that had chosen you?
My background as an artist started in my younger years, I was that kid who would draw on anything that I could get my hands on. Growing up, my family moved house interstate from Queensland to the Northern Territory and back a few times. We used to make the four-day drive across the country and it was just red soil and open plains the whole time. It was on one of those trips as a six-year old doodling in the car that I realised that I had a knack for drawing.
Later on as a young adult, I poured that energy into graphic design and did freelance design work while living in places like Japan, Ireland and Canada. Whether it be through art or playing music, I’ve always needed a constant outlet for making things.
You’re originally from Australia, but NYC is home – can you tell is a bit about this journey, and some of the background behind it? Where did you grow up and why did you move across the ocean?
I moved to NYC in 2013 after years traveling the world. I had just finished living in Tokyo and was looking for the next place to set up base. I passed through New York on a whim and took some illustration short courses just to keep busy. I decided then that it was the right route for me and I enrolled full-time to study illustration in Manhattan.
New York is a place that I’ve always held a lot of awe for based on its history and I never expected to be living there.
People outside of North-er Australia probably wouldn’t know that a Brolga is actually a native wetlands bird, kind of like a stock/crane – how did you adapt this name as your moniker, and does it hold any more specific meaning in regards to your art?
I was lucky enough to spend my younger years growing up in the Northern Territory. We were good family friends with an aboriginal family that lived in the remote coast of Arnhem Land and we used to go camping and fishing with them out there. It’s an incredible, untouched part of Australia.
I was kicking the football around with some of the locals and they were laughing, dancing around me and calling me “Brolga Legs”. I was a tall, skinny, long-legged kid and they were likening me to the stork-like water bird that inhabited the area. It became a nickname that stuck. It was only natural that I used it as a moniker for my art, especially in America where they don’t have a clue as to its origins.
Tell us a bit about some of the artwork you do out on the street – what is it about throwing your work up on a wall that gives you either a thrill or sense of purpose?
My move to New York was really the catalyst that led me into the world of illustration and street art. I took my first steps as an artist in the public realm by wheat pasting large two-meter-sized illustrated characters around the city. I find it really interesting to see characters that have come straight from my sketchbook get thrown into the New York City landscape. Once they’re out there, the characters wear with the city and just become a part of the daily life. New Yorkers are conditioned to be pretty accepting, but I was still pleasantly surprised when my work was welcomed by the community there.
The thrill comes from simply seeing some of my work up on my daily commute to the train station. I also get a kick out of doing something creatively on much larger scale than a sketchbook, canvas or computer screen, where there are no artistic rules or boundaries.
How difficult do you find it to distinguish yourself and your work from all the other artists in New York? In what way do you try to push your own aesthetic in your work, and hone your style amongst the competitive nature of art these days?
New York is an intensely vibrant city, there’s no doubt about that. It’s a beacon for talented designers and artists and everyone wants a piece of the pie. In moving there, I quickly found out how hard New Yorkers work. You really have to learn to hustle to pay the rent. Being absorbed in that climate and surrounded by people with that driven attitude, it’s only been positive for me personally. It’s a good environment for working hard and getting shit done.
The best thing that I read Andy Warhol say is “Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art.”
What advice would you give to any artist that wishes to move there to pursue a creative life?
To pursue the NY dream and get work there, Australians are actually at a big advantage. The E3 visa is set up exclusively to sponsor Aussies. It basically means Aussies have a visa, which is a cheaper and far less messy option then the route every other country has to take.
Trying to make a living off your work in NY is always going to be tough but win or lose, you’ll come out a bit wiser and better at your craft in the end.
Your actual style is pretty colourful, with liberal uses of bright pop-styled colours – in terms of genesis and evolution, what would you most pay homage to with your specific style?
I’m a huge fan of the pop artists, like Roy Lichtenstein, Tom Wesselmann and the screen-printing of Warhol. I was particularly blown away by Roy Lichtenstein when I first came across his work in high school. My favourite Aussie artist is Reg Mombassa, a guy with such imagination.
The evolution of my style is still moving and morphing quite quickly as I try to find my strongest voice.
Can you explain some of the regular tools of your trade? What are some of the essential pieces of equipment, mediums. .. Or, really just generally anything in life, that you just cant creatively live without?
From traveling so much in the past and being contained to a small studio in NY, I’ve been trained into keeping my supplies to a minimum. That is the spartan approach of using a simple fat pencil to sketch out my ideas as quickly as possible before jumping to the computer to tweak colours and layout.
From there I can take the design onto canvas, a big wall or whatever I am feeling.
I saw that you’re currently in Korea – what took you there? What is it about travel that you think inspires you as an artist?
Last summer in Brooklyn while working from my home studio, the outdoor hum of the air conditioners nearly sent me insane. This summer, I’ve escaped the hum to Asia and Australia, where I’ve been busy with some escapades. I painted a big colourful two-story mural in Fremantle, Australia a few weeks ago. I’m currently in Seoul, where I’ve been wheat-pasting characters around the city. Next week, I’ll be in Tokyo for a pop-up solo exhibition that I’m calling “Doodleography”.
There are a million benefits to travel but as far as inspiration goes, travel is an amazing contributor. I think as long as your out of your natural home environment, you will constantly be getting thrown ideas that your senses haven’t dulled to.
Outside of art, how about your “Day job” or other interests? What are they, and how do these feed back into your creative output?
I taught myself graphic design when I was younger and I’ve been lucky enough to use that as a day job ever since. While working freelance, it’s given me a lot of mobility to travel and it’s also taught me a lot of design fundamentals that I use with illustration these days.
If there are any young creative people out there that are looking for a reliable and solid career in the arts, graphic design is a solid stepping-stone to start.
Tell us about some of the more notable or prominent projects or pieces that you’ve created over the years? What crazy and interesting stories do you have that you could share about it all?
In December last year, I gained permission to paint a wall in my neighbourhood of Williamsburg, Brooklyn outside the famous Joe’s Pizza. I chose to paint Muhammad Ali because of the myth that he holds in society. Ali represented the true individual, he wasn’t one to be moulded by the pressures of his time, be it race, religion or the government. Muhammad Ali was a man willing to shake the system and speak his own mind, and not only that, he did it so poetically that you simply had to listen.
While painting the mural, I was approached by people of all ethnicities and gender. It was amazing to see the diverse scope of Ali’s popularity and the respect the community holds for him. At one point, I was approached by an older fellow from Louisville, Kentucky who told me a story of Ali growing up mere streets away from his childhood home. While Ali was training to win his gold medal in the 1960 Rome Olympics, he would borrow the man’s family axe to go out and lop trees down by the river to gain upper body strength.
In the wake of his death, the mural became a centre tribute point for the community in New York and in bringing everyone together. It’s been visited by uncountable well-wishers and fans. The artwork has been used by CNN, The Guardian, Sports Illustrated, The New York Daily News, Vancouver Sun, and countless other news sources across the world to depict the honour and tribute that New Yorkers are showing in the wake of Muhammad Ali’s passing.
What do you have planned for the rest of the year, and, indeed, the future? What projects lie unrealised, and what would you like to investigate with your work next?
Following my show in Tokyo, I’ll really excited to be back in New York later in the year to get stuck into the next chapter. I’m in discussions with a number of artists about possible collaborations and I’m really looking forward to painting some more walls around the city.
As far as unrealised projects, in the future I would like to go even bigger with the work on the street as well as delve into things like children’s books, toy design and large 3D sculptures.
Thanks for the interview Invurt, love your work!