Auckland-based artist Askew is celebrated for his abundance of creative talents, most notably his prolific history as a graffiti writer. Easily one of the most universally known artists to come out of New Zealand, Askew’s skillset offers quite the contrast, evoking the interest and appreciation of admirers of all kinds. Loved for his profound, urban-contemporary art as well as his achievements as a high-volume vandal, particularly in the train yard, Askew has plenty of stories to tell.
WORDS: SARAH HAZLEHURST / STUDIO PHOTOGRAPHY: LUKE HENERY
“The last time I was caught for trains was 1998. It was a long time ago. The last time I was arrested was in 2013 and it was just for painting a trackside,” jokes Askew.
“I was never the hardcore guy. For me it was still about art. I still wanted to paint a benchmark that was higher than what was being done at the time.
“It’s been a little while since I’ve painted trains, probably two years or something, and I haven’t painted trains in my own city for about three or four years. I probably did a few freights after that, but I kind of had my window that I focused on. I had a number that I was aiming for. I used to be a numbers man.”
After achieving his ambitious aim to paint and photograph 100 ‘nice panels’, Askew’s enthusiasm for illegal graffiti began to wane while his focus on graphic design and illustration led him in a new, less illicit artistic direction.
“I spent 23 years writing my own name... and just decided I wouldn’t mind doing something new,” he says.
Internationally acclaimed and universally praised for his progressive style, reputation and commitment to graffiti, Askew’s decision to let go of his involvement in the illegal art expression and his status as an active train painter to shift towards a more commercially viable (and less criminalising) career as an artist was a difficult one to make.
“It had been on my mind for a little while and I really struggled to let go. If you work really hard to be the king of your city or something, and kind of hold it down for so long, [it’s difficult]. Then there’s that voice in your head that says enough is enough… now is the time you need to focus on something that’s going to bring some stability into your life as opposed to doing graffiti, which really does the opposite.
[Painting trains] was really factoring on my health. It was factoring on my economic stability and the stability of my relationship.
[Graffiti] isn’t a career, it’s a lifestyle. I needed to get focused on making some art that wasn’t so ephemeral... something that was going to survive and last.”
Still a regular representative member of crews TMD and MSK, ironically Askew finds both creative and remunerative success within graffiti, now traveling around the world to paint with legal validity. It’s stories like his that prove success in notoriety can triumph over penalty and punishment.
“Right now, of the top artists internationally, there are a real disproportionate number of them that are Australian, particularly from Queensland, and a lot of them used to paint trains before they started focusing on large-scale muralism.
“I tend to feel I was lucky in a lot of ways to have also been doing a lot of work that was perceived as quite positive, and I had quite a large fan base and a lot of support.
“We took advantage of a very archaic time and were very fortunate that maybe 70 or 80 per cent [of trains] ran for a full day in full service, so you could photo and video nearly everything.”
Having his fair share of run-ins with the police and clocking up countless hours in courtrooms, Askew despises the over criminalising legislations and fines used against graffiti artists. He believes everyone has the right to dispute costly allegations when police “make up magical numbers” to charge artists obscene amounts of money for property damage and graffiti removal.
“I’ve been arrested a number of times, but I don’t think that any of my arrests turned into anything substantially detrimental to my lifestyle or what I do,” he says.
“Here’s the thing: if you’re dealing with cops that make up numbers, you’re going to need to call them to task to verify.
“It’s their fight against people who are under resourced, because you’re never going to have as much money as the state or the prosecution or the rail company. They’ve got endless money to throw at it, but we all have the right to ask for a realistic breakdown of cost and damages.
“This has always been my rule of thumb. I have no problem admitting guilt for something, believe it or not, if I’ve been caught red-handed. If you catch me red-handed, then that’s cool, that’s not what I’m going to dispute. But if you’re going to just make up a magical number and try to make me become completely indebted to the system for how ever long while I struggle to pay it off and also struggle to pay for my basic necessities... then no, I have a right to dispute that.
Askew says he’s always chosen to represent himself in court, getting legal advice and counselling to determine the process and the outcome he’s going for.
“I get the legal terminology so I can speak the judge’s language, which really helps,” he explains.
Although the success of Askew’s career as a contemporary artist is widespread, his connection and dedication to graffiti on both a local and international level is undoubtedly cherished.
Now spending almost all of his time in his Auckland studio, Askew works long days creating uniquely inspiring art using a combination of techniques comprising a fusion of photography, screen printing and brush painting.
Dramatically simplifying his efforts as a graffiti writer, he leaves on a jovial, lighthearted note.
“When I started writing graffiti, I was just writing my name to be cool. That’s all I was doing. I was just trying to say, ‘hey, I’m here and I’m cool!’”
As Askew talks animatedly about the experiences and occurrences of a colourful past, it’s clear that the artist will eventually tire of the train yard, but you’ll never get the paint off his hands.
Read the entire scope of artists in the NZ edition available in newsagents and online.