Arts

Scott Marsh: “I just don’t like being told what to do or where to paint”

Scott Marsh Happy Mag Charlie Hardy

Few Australian artists have their work censored as much as Scott Marsh. Whether it’s police, politicians, or the pious, a great many people would love it if he just shut up. But he won’t.

This article appears in print in Happy Mag Issue 15. Get your copy here

HAPPY: The first time Happy interviewed you was in 2017, and you said you “enjoyed being in the studio more than outside painting murals.” Is that still the case?

SCOTT: A little bit. Painting murals outside has its own unique set of challenges that I think studio artists don’t appreciate, or just don’t understand. Especially in summer in Australia on a 40 degree day, in direct sunlight, on a 14-foot ladder.

HAPPY: Physical challenges?

SCOTT: Yeah, it’s not the most fun. People want to come talk to you and ask you questions, just all the different kinds of things that happen when you’re outdoors. When you’re inside it’s nice to turn on a fan, sit in the shade, and listen to some nice music. You can really consider the work you’re creating, it’s a different process. With a mural, you’ve planned it and then you execute the plan because the scale’s so huge. In the studio you can sit and look at the painting for ages before making the next move, it’s a bit more improv.

HAPPY: What’s your studio space like these days?

SCOTT: It’s a shared space, there’s about half a dozen artists there, which I like. I could use a bigger space, to be honest, but to be on my own would be so fucking boring. It’s a living-in-a-sharehouse vibe, there’s friends to bounce ideas off, to throw stuff out there, and vice-versa.

Tony Loves Tony

HAPPY: Do you try to bring any elements of the outside – as a concept – into your studio space?

SCOTT: Not really, it’s not that I don’t like working outside, it’s just I’ve been painting graffiti since I was 12 years old. I’ve been painting outside forever, where I guess traditionally you’d start painting inside before moving your practice outside. I’ve kind of done the reverse, it’s taken me a long time to build a studio practice, you know what I mean?

HAPPY: It would feel weird going back, basically.

SCOTT: Yeah. I don’t know, I love painting murals, you love different things about different ones I guess. For now, with the political work, like I said you make a plan then execute the plan, but the actual painting of the mural is a bit more mechanical. The fun part is seeing the reaction, reading people’s commentary, getting people to think about something. Rather than the actual act of painting.

HAPPY: Did you ever stop tagging?

SCOTT: I dabble. You’ve got to man. It’s a thing that only proper graffiti writers understand, it’s like surfing or skating, it gets in your blood. When you’ve lived that for such a long time, if you don’t go out painting or get it out of your system every now and then, it sends me crazy. So I’ve got to keep it real, I’ll do a thing every now and then, blow the dust off. Let the young cunts know I’m still turning heads every now and then.

HAPPY: Your work is still very rebellious, did being a graffiti writer from such a young age help breed that?

SCOTT: Definitely, it’s a certain attitude, it’s a bit punk rock or something. I just don’t like being told what to do or where to paint, which I think has helped me do some things in terms of murals that other people might… most of my successful murals I’ve sent to my friends or my old man in particular, like “I’m gonna paint this next week” and they’re like “don’t do that, that’s a fucking terrible idea!” But it’s never a terrible idea, you know? Especially the George Pell and Tony Abbott mural that I painted, my old man was just like “don’t go against the Catholic Church Scott!” He’s old school, you know? “That’s a stupid move, they run everything!”

HAPPY: Sounds kind of encouraging, actually.

SCOTT: That’s what I want to paint, so I’m going to paint it anyway, I’m not gonna let the Catholic Church tell me what to fucking do.

HAPPY: Do you still suffer a split personality between this graffiti side and your fine art side?

SCOTT: Yeah, you’ve kind of got these two personas. Even me, the art activist side, the graffiti side… it’s like a bunch of weird characters, you know?

HAPPY: Are you getting better at balancing them out?

SCOTT: I think a lot of people who are graffiti writers that move into the art world find this, or even graffiti writers who are trying to get a fucking job and live a normal life, is finding a balance between the two… it’s fucking hard, man. I’ve seen so many mates try to go from full-time train-painting graffiti writers to a real job and doing normal life stuff and it’s literally so difficult. It’s all about balance.

Merry Crisis

HAPPY: Is marrying those two worlds a goal of yours, or are you happy keeping them pretty separate?

SCOTT: When I first started doing art I was trying to keep them separate, but I was making shit work. Graffiti’s such a huge part of me and who I am that I’m not really being true to myself or authentic if I’m pretending that it’s not there, you know? So I think now, particularly with my studio work, the whole concept is bringing the energy, aesthetic, and materials of graffiti culture and pairing them with the motifs in the fine art world – trying to build a bridge between those two worlds. So people in fine art can go “ooh, graffiti”, they can get a little taste of it, you give graffiti to them in a way that they can digest it, rather than a piece on a train.

HAPPY: How about the other way around? Can you do anything in the fine art world without pissing someone off in the graffiti world?

SCOTT: Not really. In every underground culture you get those ‘keep it real’ characters who call you a sellout or whatever. But I’m pretty legit in the graffiti world, so I’m not worried about that.

HAPPY: Are there any conventions from graffiti that you’d like to see migrated into fine art?

SCOTT: I don’t know really. To be honest, the graffiti world can be a pretty dysfunctional place. The things that make you really good at graffiti don’t translate real good into real life. So not really.

HAPPY: I understand, there’s not many perfect jobs for graffiti writers that are above board.

SCOTT: Totally. Back in the day you were either a sign writer or a drug dealer. Now they’re just drug dealers.

Saint George Michael Scottie Marsh
Saint George

HAPPY: Your work being censored seems to be commonplace now. How does it make you feel on a personal level when one of your pieces gets covered up?

SCOTT: For me personally? As long as I’ve got my photo, I’m happy. Especially now with social media and everything else, the works have a digital life that goes far beyond their physical life. About a thousand people in the suburb might actually see your mural, but potentially millions will see it in the digital realm. As well again, coming from a graffiti background, you spend a week figuring out to paint something on a train, but then they clean it off the next day. But you’ve got your photo and you’ve gotta be happy about that.

So for me personally, you can’t get too bummed out about it and I think if you did, you’d kind of be losing the battle. The only thing that I get upset about is, for example the George Michael mural that got destroyed, the guys who lived there got so much grief from assholes attacking their house. People get attached to some of the works, so they get really bummed out and I feel guilty bringing all this shit onto them.

HAPPY: Kind of a second hand guilt?

SCOTT: Exactly. But for me it’s like… I’ll just paint another one.

HAPPY: I like how opportunistic you’ve been when something gets covered up, like it seems that sometimes the reaction is as important as the mural itself.

SCOTT: Yeah, sometimes they’re covered up in a way you can play with it. This wasn’t me, but the George Michael mural got painted over with all black and then everyone turned it into a chalkboard basically, and wrote all these positive, nice messages in chalk. The people who lived there… I went to a mate’s bucks party in Forster and they sent me a picture of the mural with all the chalk messages at like midnight, and I’d had that much MDMA I got so emotional. Like “love wins, man!”

HAPPY: I do like where that mural ended up, despite all the shit that happened to the guys in the house.

SCOTT: Well it might be back soon, in a different form. Saint George will rise again.

HAPPY: Can’t wait. Somewhere less accessible?

SCOTT: A little bit! Actually with that mural I was supposed to put a graffiti-proof coating on it about a month before it happened, I was a little bit too slow.

Editor’s Note: Since this interview Scott did repaint his Saint George mural. See it below.

The resurrection of St George Michael

HAPPY: Do you feel yourself becoming a target at all?

SCOTT: Hmm, I don’t know. The Saint George work, the Tony Abbot and Pell work that got destroyed, they were the same people, but usually it’s different people with different gripes. So not necessarily.

HAPPY: And do you think controversy is an effective way of starting conversations?

SCOTT: For sure, you’ve got to get people’s attention. And as well, it’s so fucking counterproductive to paint over one of my works because every time someone does, it just fucking blows up, becomes a shitstorm, and just amplifies what I’m painting about. Whatever the message is just gets amplified by a fucking ton. So it’s like, leave it, let it fizzle away and let the locals enjoy it, or…

HAPPY: Make it a national story.

SCOTT: Exactly, because with any mural maybe it gets in the media or something when you paint it, then it just adds another plot twist. It gets recycled and recycled, so it’s just doing themselves a disservice.

HAPPY: And you a service.

SCOTT: I don’t think they saved any skin off Jesus’ knees by painting over George Michael.

A Symbol of Pain and Frustration
A Symbol of Pain and Frustration

HAPPY: One of the artworks that was painted over pretty pronto was A Symbol of Pain and Frustration. You’ve been developing this into an exhibition, right? What’s that going to look like?

SCOTT: That mural. While all the Black Lives Matter and George Floyd protests were going on in the States, there was a photograph of an NYPD police car on fire with ‘George’ spray painted on it. It almost gave me chills, it was just such a good symbol, it almost wrapped the powder keg up with a little bow, you know? So I painted that in the studio and then I started thinking about it more, and I really wanted to use that symbol and contextualise it in the Australian sense, especially with Indigenous Australians and deaths in custody. So I painted that mural, it was the same symbol but it was an Australian police car with ‘TJ Hickey’ spray painted on it. And that got painted over by the police less than 24 hours later, which was awesome. Fucking cunts.

It just got me thinking, it’s the same thing, it’s counterproductive. So I thought I needed to do an exhibition and keep using this work to tell people’s stories. Once you get into it and start speaking to these families, hearing not the story that you hear in the media or the story you hear from the police, but the real story from the families, this shit gets real dark. It’s shameful, to be honest. So the premise for the exhibition is repeating that symbol and using that as a vehicle for these families to tell their story, rather than the story that’s been portrayed.

HAPPY: The stories of different Indigenous deaths in custody?

SCOTT: Yep.

HAPPY: So you’ve spoken to TJ Hickey’s family?

SCOTT: To his mother Gail, a bunch of times.

HAPPY: How many pieces are there in total?

SCOTT: There’ll be between eight and a dozen.

HAPPY: Sounds like a rough process.

Scott Marsh Happy Mag

SCOTT: It is, and I’m just a regular blokey bloke, I’m not someone who gets super into my emotions, sometimes to my detriment. So it’s really taken me out of my comfort zone, all that stuff, it’s so personal. It’s so dark. Because usually my work is light and satirical, you know what I mean? It plays on humour, where this is the other side of the coin.

HAPPY: What would the ultimate goal of the exhibition be, for you?

SCOTT: Well it will be raising money for the families, so all the work that’s sold, all the money will go to them. So that’s something you can see and touch, a tangible benefit. But I think to just amplify these stories, and to see them all in the one room… I think as someone who just watches the news you get a little bit of this and a little bit of that, I think if you hear it all at the same time it makes a big impact. And you’re like ‘hang on, something’s gotta change here’. Hopefully, that’s what I want people to get out of it.

HAPPY: Sounds like something that might get shut down by the police.

SCOTT: Maybe, we’ll see it. Go for it, you fucking idiots.

HAPPY: What stage is the exhibition at, and when are you hoping to get it running?

SCOTT: It’s really slow going. The painting side of it, to be honest, is pretty straightforward. The works aren’t huge or intricate with all these different elements, the beauty’s in the simplicity with that kind of symbol. So the painting side of it’s not that hard, it’s documenting everything and getting these stories correct, doing it justice, being sensitive. Making sure it’s a positive for everybody, you know? Because it’s not my space, I’m a white fella trying to deal with these super sensitive things, it’s something that I’m very aware of so I’m treading cautiously and slowly and just trying to do it right.

 

This article appears in print in Happy Mag Issue 15. Get your copy here

A Symbol of Pain and Frustration the exhibition is expected to take place in 2021.

Interview by Tom Cameron
All artwork courtesy of Scott Marsh (@scottie.marsh)
All photos by Charlie Hardy