Every issue we try and do a feature on a crossover art form, this time, I wanted to look at Graffiti. I have been a personal fan of the work of Smug One since I was first introduced to it at the “See No Evil” festival in Bristol a few years ago. He had painted a guy trying to catch his teeth as they came out of his mouth; I had never seen something so realistic of that quality, and so I began to follow his work. A few months back I had seen that he had painted the guys up a Custom Inc. in Glasgow, so I got in touch with Billy to see if he could put something together for me to publish in the magazine. Luckily he agreed, so here it is.
Interview – Billy Hay
Photography – Smug One
So tell us a bit about yourself and how you ended up in Glasgow.
I’m originally from a little town called Nowra about three hours away from Sydney in Australia. In 2003 I moved over here to the UK, just travelling and doing what every Australian did back then. Work brought me to Scotland, and I settled here.
Did you notice a big difference between the scenes in Australia and here in Scotland?
Yeah, for a start the Scottish scene is shit. It’s not a very productive scene, and people aren’t very supportive – of me anyway. They kind of hate me here, they always have. I think it’s just because I’m good at what I do, and I’m getting to be a bit successful with it. Although it’s still a negative scene in Australia, it’s very cliquey, it’s all really territorial and stuff. There are some amazing artists coming out of Australia that are really positive, doing really good things, and are really nice people; but I think Australia is a little bit behind Europe. Not so much Scotland, but the Europe scene is crazy, generally everyone is really friendly, and they’re all being really innovative. When I think of myself as a graffiti artist, I see myself more as a European artist. I think I paint more in Europe than I do in Scotland, and I think Europe is leagues ahead. But then Scotland is leagues below everything! I do love it here in Scotland, but the graffiti scene has some catching up to do.
What you’re saying about Australia is the same with tattooing, there’re some amazing artists coming out, especially in the past four years. There’s been some of the best names in tattooing coming out, but when I was over there about six years ago, it felt as if I had stepped back ten years with the shops and everything. I think a lot of that is because it was all kind of ‘bikey’. What style were you painting in Australia?
I started with a very traditional background – I began with tags like a little hooligan. I was tagging kind of prolifically for years before I even picked up a spray can. I just used markers to tag my little skater crew’s name. Then we realised it was part of something bigger, and we started to look at the graffiti scene in the neighbouring cities, and later on the internet, as well as just through hip-hop and skateboarding. When I got into graffiti art, I started by doing normal graffiti letters, and then I started to put a little cartoon character next to it, like a manga or Marvel character. I began progressing just by pushing the boundaries of the spray can, just to see what it could do, and I kept trying to aim to do something more and more difficult. Like I would try 3D graffiti letters that look like a model or a sculpture, and then I went back to traditional graffiti and then to a fusion of both – I just kept trying to push myself. For my characters it was first b-boy, then manga and then marvel; I went for a bit more detail each time. Instead of hard graphic shading, I’d do a soft render and then build on detail in a slow progression up to photorealism.
Do you still consider yourself a graffiti artist or do you consider yourself – I don’t know if fine art is the right term, but you know what I mean?
I think I would consider myself a graffiti artist, but there’s a big grey area. I would consider myself a graffiti artist, but someone who goes out there painting trains and bombing the streets I would consider a graffiti writer. I still do letters and a bit of naughty stuff now and then but I think there is a definite line where your title would change, and I don’t do anywhere near enough letters to be considered a ‘graffiti writer‘. I wouldn’t call myself a fine artist, I don’t do canvases and I don’t really use a brush or anything like that.
All these walls that you’re doing, am I correct in saying a lot of them are commissioned work, and it’s become almost a living for you?
It is a living for me, I do it full time. Commission work is a tough one. It’s what I’ve done for the last 6 or 7 years, but nowadays I don’t know whether I’d call it commission work. Maybe I’m just getting paid to do what I love now. More so this year, I’m just getting paid to do what I want to do, it’s not someone asking me to do a picture of their son or do an underwater scene in a kids bedroom – I don’t really do those jobs anymore. If I’m pushed for cash, I’ll do a commercial job for some corporate company, but I try not to do that so much.
I know what you’re saying. For example, you painted all of us from Custom Inc. recently as a commission piece, you’ve got so much freedom in that.
It was technically a job, I did get paid for it, but they asked to see sketches and I just told them no. I showed them random portraits I’d done in the past and said they’d look something like that but they didn’t know who it was going to be or how ugly you all would look! [laughs]
I think it’s awesome! It’s a really strong piece and I really like it, there’s been a lot of good feedback. It’s almost every few days that one of us gets tagged on Instagram with ‘I just passed this in Glasgow!’ It’s a good reaction, I think.
Your portrait was until just recently the most liked photo on my Instagram! [Laughs]
I really love the work I used to see you do where you would incorporate some 2D flat elements in with your 3D realism stuff. I remember seeing a piece and it was a portrait of this little dude and if I remember correctly you’d done a beanie hat on him and the dude had a big afro that was one flat colour, mixed in with the realism in his face – I really, really love that style. Have you moved away from it, or have you grown as an artist and kind if stepped up a bit, or are you not interested in that style anymore?
I don’t know whether it’s growing as an artist or anything. I first started doing that just because I would do it if I ran out of time. So if it was winter and it was getting to an hour before dark and I still had all the hair to do, then I would just do the hair in a cartoon style in 5-10 minutes. So really it was out of laziness and time constraints! It had been done before by other well-known artists. Not that I took the idea off them, I found their stuff later, but I was getting known for this 2D/3D thing, and I don’t consider it to be my own thing. It was sort of what I was getting labelled with so I wanted to take a step back and try and find myself a little more.
Also the things I’d make cartoony would be the clothes or the hair, but those are the things I most like to paint realistically! Hair is my favourite thing to do, it’s always the last thing I do on a character. It makes it pop and look, if not more photorealistic, then more exaggerated and expressive. It gives it more character, and I could never leave that out and do some cartoony hairdo now. The folds in clothes are really easy to do in the photorealistic style because you can exaggerate or change them easily and no one’s going to know that it’s not accurate to the actual reference photo. It’s more fun to do it that way.
Yeah, one of the biggest pieces of feedback we had from the portrait was the beards on us, everyone was going crazy.
The beards are my favourite thing, because you just keep doing a million tiny things and eventually when you put the final highlights on it looks great. There’s a spray paint called transparent paint, which is like watered-down black or watered-down white. It’s sort of considered cheating to use it because it’s a new paint and it just means that you can get these renders and shades and stuff really easily without having to layer on colours. I don’t use it so much anymore, I think the only thing I use it for is just hair. I do a hard black little line, and I go over it with the transparent and it just makes it look like it’s softer and more natural.
I personally wouldn’t call that cheating.
That’s because you don’t have a traditional graffiti background!
With the graffiti scene, anything that makes work easier is cheating.
You get to do a lot of travelling these days, which must be great. I saw that you went to Louisiana recently and painted alongside Belin. That must have been a great experience for you because I understand that he is regarded as one of the best in his field.
He’s the enemy! [Laughs] He and I are actually really good friends and we’ve painted together quite a few times. Or at least been at the same event painting on the same production loads of times. We share the same sort of ideals, and he’s a really productive artist, he works really hard. For me, in graffiti, it’s difficult to find a hard-working artist. When I go to a wall I work my ass off until it’s done. Typically graffiti artists are just lazy, they do the minimum that they can do to get done. I like to do the best possible thing that I can every single time that I paint, no matter if it’s for a job or just a personal wall. Even if I’m painting with some guy I don’t think is very good on a commissioned piece that we just really want to get finished and walk away from, I’m still not going to do something substandard with that guy.
It’s like with tattooing; every piece carries your name.
Exactly. So finding another photorealistic artist who is just the same as me in that respect is quite rare. He is the best in the world at photorealism, everything is easy for him. Fair enough, some people might say my pieces look better than his, or more accurate or photorealistic, but he’s doing his piece in half the time that I am. Even though I am getting fast now, he’s still done so much faster. Well, sometimes. Everything is one hit for him – there’s no mistakes and he doesn’t work back into something again. I’m doing this now as well, but he does it with so much more style.
He’s certainly got a look about his pieces that I don’t even know how to describe – like realism, but they just seem to come alive.
He’s that asshole that can do everything, and he’s done everything. There’s not so much you can do with photorealism except put your own stamp on it. Every time I find something new, I find out he did it ten years ago. He’s an asshole! Also his colour concept is amazing, putting purples and greens and all sorts of weird stuff into his faces but you look at it and even I don’t see it. You’ve got to get right up to within a few centimetres, then maybe you see it. He’s taught me a lot. I don’t tell many people that.
What about the colours you use, what inspires these colours? Do you take natural tones and then just jazz it up a bit?
Yeah, I just use sort of monochrome browns and skins, similar to what you would do for a tattoo I guess. Then I add in pinks around the eyes, loads of reds and pinks around the nose, which is a straight influence from Belin, and I put some purples around the eye socket area. As for the highlight colours and stuff, I basically do that to tie in with whatever other artists I’m working with. If the background is purple I’ll just add a purple glow or an orange or something to complement that purple, or if the artist next to me is using blues I’ll do a blue glow. There’s only so many colours that can be used as a glow so it’s become turquoise and purple all the time – it’s crazy! I need to lay off those turquoise and purple for a bit…
Are there any other artists you look up to in other media, not just graffiti artists?
There’s a lot of tattoo artists, fine artists and digital artists even. There’s so many though I don’t know where to start. I could sit here and list names for a year!
Do you use any other media or is it strictly spray paint?
Pretty much strictly spray paint. If I do a canvas, which is not often, nowadays I might use a little bit of brush for the white detail and maybe a bit of the black detailing – but I’ve only done that a couple of times. I am working on two Munnys (those customizable toys) for a collector in Copenhagen just now, so I’m modelling these Munnys with Super Sculpey and putting little hair details on them with paint brush bristles (and my own hair, but my girlfriend doesn‘t think I should tell anyone about that). So I guess I work in other media in that way! They’re looking cool, but it’s taking me a long time.
Are there any up-and-coming guys in the graffiti scene that are getting you excited with what they are doing?
I don’t really know about any up-and-coming guys, I mean you only really see the up-and-coming guys when you are actively a part of a specific thing or a specific town. I’ve been travelling a lot this year, so I don’t really see that so much. I just see the work of the artists that I’m travelling with, but I think the most exciting thing for the UK graffiti scene just now would be Bonzai. He’s a really close friend of mine, he’s in my crew. He’s really pushing boundaries with his innovative style and he’s getting a lot of exposure this year, which is really good because he’s one of the hardest workers I’ve ever met. He’ll paint from sunrise to sundown seven days a week, and he’s doing some really cool stuff. Although he’s only 5ft tall and looks like an up-and-comer, he’s actually got ten years on me.
And you should definitely check out an Australian artist Sofles. In my opinion he is one of the best in the world. He’s one of those guys that does everything, with ease and style. He’s the fastest painter I’ve ever met and because of this his pieces and characters have so much life.
Have you got any other plans coming up for travelling, any big Jams coming up?
I’m off to Australia in November for a series of different things. The guys from WonderWalls are flying me over, and I’ll be there for about two months. I assume I’ll be doing a lot of stuff while I’m over there. Nothing’s booked in for next year yet, though. It’s a bit early, but I‘ve had some enquiries for America and Japan.
Is there anybody you really enjoy painting alongside? I know a lot of the walls that you do are collaborations sometimes with two or more guys. Is there anyone in particular you have a good time painting and having a laugh with?
Pretty much everything I do is a collaboration piece with other artists. There’s a certain circle of guys throughout the world that I keep constantly bumping into at festivals and events. We’re all on the same wavelength, we’re all good friends and we all work really hard. We do stuff at a similar level – completely different artwork, but at a similar level. I really like painting with all of my crew members like Kak, Bonzai, Epok and Dead. We were good friends before we started our crew, Infamous Last Words, and we always have a really good time. Maybe so because they’ve learned how to tolerate me and my constant verbal diarrhoea!
What do you think of stencil artists? I only mention this because of how much it’s come into the public eye because of Banksy.
I actually hate stencil artists. Well not all of them, one of my best friends is a stencil artist! But he’s of a different calibre to someone like Banksy. This friend of mine spends 400+ hours cutting each piece, doing ten layers and the most intricate little details. I couldn’t do these super intricate ones that take 400+ hours, I don’t have the patience for something like that. They work for months just cutting before they even put paint to it whereas I like to walk away from something two or three days after I’ve started. But generally stencil art is something I don’t respect as much a freehand art. To me, anyone could do a stencil. I think as far as people like Banksy go, it’s just cheap fame. Banksy has done a lot of different sorts of art forms and he can paint like a fine artist. He did do graffiti like a normal graffiti artist, but now it’s all quick and easy. Artists like that will do something in really prolific areas with a political pun or joke, and then they send it to every web blog and whatever they can find. I think I’m not a fan of the political stuff, doing political humour and things like that. I mean, I can appreciate it, and it’s funny, but it’s been done. I think a lot of people are just jumping on the fame bandwagon. You see people like Banksy making hundreds of thousands or millions on something that took him ten minutes to produce. No, sorry, took his people ten minutes. I don’t think he even signs them anymore; he just gets his people to sign them. It’s art for people who aren’t actually artists. It’s like that naïve art. I hate that whole movement. It’s only art if these artists can convince you that it’s art. I want something to be obvious from the very start, that the artist is skilled at what they do, not relying on the essay that goes with it. I did a radio interview a few months ago, and I went on about this subject for about half an hour, so I better stop here!
What about the guys that are still just doing tagging and throw ups etc.? What’s your opinion on that, do you still enjoy that type of graffiti?
Yeah, of course. I’d rather see a wall with that all over it that a wall with nothing. Tags are such a refined art form, they spend 20-30 years perfecting just four letters – and not even elaborate letters. They are really simple letters where they style might change so that over time the curve of the ‘e’ is at a 43-degree angle instead of 45. But that style progression looks so obvious when you see it up on a wall. To me, anyway. I really respect bombers – guys that do tags, throw ups and quick pieces – because to be honest that’s what I’m worst at. My handstyle is one of the worst things about my art form. My throw ups – which is just a quick bubble piece for all you non graffiti people out there – I love it but I struggle with it. So I really respect the guys out there that do that. Plus if they fuck up a wall really bad, the owners come to me and ask me to do a mural and pay me for it, win-win! [Laughs].
How do you go about planning your future projects? You come up with a lot of really clever pieces, stuff like the kid eating the worm and a Chinese guy eating a shoelace with chopsticks – changing normal objects for something that shouldn’t be there – which I think works really well. Where do you get the inspiration for that?
Nowadays I take all the photos for the portrait ones myself, so to keep things fresh I’ll take a photo of someone pulling whatever expression and I’ll take a few photos of their hands in different positions. While I’m painting I’ll work out what to put in the hands, maybe something to tie in with what the other artists I’m on the wall with is doing. For instance I was on a wall with a bunch of guys two weeks ago, and I was going to do the guy in my piece crushing a toy train because the portrait of the guy I was painting is a prolific train writer. The other guys on the wall had a really cartoony explosion theme with a call of duty character sitting there with a gun so I changed it to tie in with their concept. I had him waving a white flag to surrender which was a pair of stained white undies, that sort of thing I just change and adapt. Back years ago when I did the ones you just mentioned, I would just search the internet for pictures that I liked and find one that I really wanted to paint, and then I’d find something to add to that picture to make it my own. Like with the Chinese guy, I did the face and the chopsticks, and I did the shoelace last because I didn’t actually know what I was going to put in between those chopsticks. I think I was going to put worms there or something, but I just thought a shoelace was funnier and less obvious.
I really liked that piece, it’s a shame it got wiped!
I heard that they smashed through that wall with a sledgehammer before they painted it or anything. I want a photo of them smashing through that face with the sledgehammer! Someone in the world must have taken a photo…
Where did ‘Smug One’ come from?
I don’t even know where it came from, maybe I found it in a dictionary or something. It was one of the first tags that I had actually. For my first few years I went through a lot of different tags. My first tag when I was ten was ‘Smart’ because I just picked out all the letters that I liked and made that word. So maybe the ‘S’ and the ‘M’ came from there? I don’t know.
What about tattoos? I see you’ve got a bit of a collection starting, what was your first introduction to tattoos?
When I was 15 or 16 and with the crew of skater kids I used to tag with, we always had a pipe dream of opening up a shop that would be a skate, clothing, tattoo and piercing shop. We had all picked the jobs we would have within the shop and I was always fighting to be the tattoo artist! But I was 27 when I first got tattooed. My first proper introduction to it as an adult was my girlfriend starting a sleeve, I met you guys at Custom Inc. and it went from there.
Some people would say it’s a good thing you started getting tattooed quite late instead of being covered in shit from about the age of about 12! You’ve got quite a good collection starting there, have you got any future plans for the rest of your body?
I do have plans, but they’re all very vague just now. I don’t want to rush too much because there are friends of mine in their early twenties who are out of space. When you run out of space what are you going to do?! It is fun getting a tattoo and having it worked on until it’s finished and most of my pieces are big, so if I have another four tattoos then that’s my body covered! I’m just going to chill it out for a little bit. I am working on my left leg, which is going to be a collection of skulls from some of my favourite artists. I think it’s the only part of me that is going to be like a collection, everything else will just be big pieces. I’ve still got a lot of space left though, so we’ll see what happens next!
With the artists you’ve chosen so far, their work could merge really well, and it could turn out to be an awesome piece.
Yeah, especially from the knee down I’m aiming for everything to be able to flow together. On my left collection leg, I’ve got a piece from Kynst, and Jason Butcher has just finished off his skull. I’m not 100% on who to get next on there, but I think they’ll need to flow as seamlessly as those two artists have. Then maybe from my knee up my thighs, I can get some different styles or something. I’ve also got a couple of amazing large pieces from Marcus Maguire, with my left arm still in progress!
What attracted you to those guys you’ve been tattooed by?
Just work that I admire, and also that they‘re really nice guys. Basically though it’s people doing something better than I could ever do, so that’s what draws me to them. I’m a big fan of skulls, I paint skulls a lot and these guys do the skulls that I wish I could do. I’ve actually got a skull on every limb so far so I think every tattoo that I have will have a skull in there somewhere! I don’t think Mum’s so keen on that…
“If you want to do realism you’ve got to have so much patience. It took me a long time to have the confidence to be able to do things like the eyelashes.”
I know a lot of the graffiti artists from the Scotland scene, and a lot of them are into tattoos, but none of them seem to get typical graffiti-style tattoos.
Really?! A lot of the Glasgow guys do.
Yeah, I see like traditional Japanese sleeves and stuff.
I don’t actually see that many traditional graffiti tattoos on graffiti writers, it’s maybe a little cheesy sometimes. But I guess they have them where its not so obvious. Usually the people wanting graffiti-style are doing it because it’s cool and have nothing to do with the scene at all. Most of the artists that I’m friends with get top-quality work, they hunt down the artists that they like as any serious collector does. I think new traditional is the most popular even within the graffiti scene, but a lot of people also get this weird digital looking stuff. Hipsters…
Maybe as well it’s because their graffiti is their style so they’ll show respect by going to an artist whose work they like and not ask for their own style. It’s the same with what I would do, I’d go to an artist who does work that I love and let them do their thing.
That’s why it took me so long to actually get tattooed. Because I’m an artist myself, I’d always say I’d get my own work on me. That would mean finding an artist with the same mentality as me and if they got one line a fraction of a millimetre wrong I’d notice! But I actually found Marcus Maguire and he did have the same sort of mentality about as me about artwork and a lot of other interests. We like a lot of the same stuff, similar styles – so I guess I’d found the artist that supposedly I’d been looking for. Eventually I let him do whatever he wanted on me, as long as there’s a skull in it. Which is pretty much what I’ve said to every artist since, as long as there’s a skull in there you can do anything you want!
Do you have any words of advice – maybe on the transition into realism style – for young guys who look up to you as an artist and your style of painting?
If you want to do realism you’ve got to have so much patience. Don’t rush anything, and take as long as you need to get it done as good as you can. It took me a long time to have the confidence to be able to do things like the eyelashes. The beauty of spray paint as opposed to tattooing is that you can make mistakes – you can go over a black with a white or yellow perfectly. Saying that, you do still need a lot of confidence to get certain details in there and it takes a long time. I’ve been painting for about 15 years and it’s only in the last 24 months that I’ve become really confident with what I’m doing. Also, don’t ask for hints and tips if you’re just starting out, because you can’t learn anything from someone else at first. You just need to get to know how the can works and get a feel for painting without any contact to the surface. And for portraits, have an understanding of how the face sits. I was painting for ten years before I was able to take on someone else’s advice. Lots of my paintings when I first started out were on my shed or on an old wooden door, to keep my work away from the public eye, and I’d try new things out on those – because in a nutshell, although it’s fun, you’re going to be shit for years.