Nils Westergard is proud to be the first homegrown Richmond Mural Project artist.
Nils Westergard is proud to be the first homegrown Richmond Mural Project artist. A VCU graduate, Westergard got his degree in film, but soon gained fame as a muralist, traveling extensively in Europe and leaving behind unique, colorful murals everywhere from England and France to the Netherlands and the Czech Republic. Here in the US, he’s participated in the Painted Desert Project and painted several notable murals around his home city of RVA, even before getting involved in the RMP. And of course, we can’t forget that he directed Nickelus F’s unforgettable video for “GotDamnMurdah.” While his Belgian lineage and plentiful work in Europe has led many to mistakenly assume that he’s from overseas, he’s proud to represent Richmond VA wherever he goes. We caught up with Nils during the Richmond Mural Project and discussed hip hop, street art vs. muralism, and the internet’s role in modern street art culture, among many other things.
This article was featured in RVAMag #22: Fall 2015. You can read all of issue #22 here or pick it up at local shops around RVA right now.
How’d you get involved in the mural project?
I’ve known Shane since I was 16. Shane sold the first painting I ever sold. I contacted him originally, but for the first two years I was overseas. The first year [of the mural project], Roa was painting behind my house and I’d followed him forever. I was hanging out with all those guys for the week, and thought I could do this. I started painting [murals] after that, went to Australia and Europe. This year, [Shane] wanted me to participate, so I planned my Euro-trip to end early so I could come back for this.
You’ve seen the project develop; how do you feel about the murals?
I do most of my work overseas, and when I travel, people ask where I’m from. I say Richmond, and they say, “The girl in the jar!” People know it for that within the scene, and the fact that people can say they know Richmond from the paintings they’ve seen online is crazy. It’s a big deal for Richmond; these murals stick out and they’re all over the place. People who live here are only starting to recognize it, but internationally within the scene it’s getting really known for that.
Instagram plays a big role in that.
Sure, Instagram, Facebook, blogosphere, the internet… The fact of the matter is that 90 percent of the people who care about the work are looking at it online as opposed to in person. I had a conversation with a guy once, and he was taking a picture of a piece as he was working on it. He said, “The vast majority of people who are looking at this are going to be looking at it online, so I want to see what it looks like on my phone.”
It seems like you deal a lot with injustice and isolation. It’s almost as if you emasculate the people depicted, take the power away from them. Why deal with these subjects?
When I started, I was doing a lot of stencils, and I was really focused on police and military stuff, authority figures. I got in trouble when I was younger for some graffiti shit. They wanted to put me in jail until I was 21, and I was like 14. I couldn’t believe this was the reality, that they would consider putting a 14 year old in jail for seven years. That was insane, super scary for a 14 year old. So I was incredibly afraid of police, but also angry about it, and I’d been painting that [imagery] for years. When I hit the first Euro [mural] trip I was tired of being angry, but also, it’s harder to get people to let you paint cops beating some woman up on their wall. People aren’t really down with that, with a few exceptions. So I needed a different wealth of images and I had tons of pictures of my friends. My friends are really important to my life, so this was perfect. I could just show up, look at all my pictures, see what I can use, and go at it.
I came back [from Europe], and that stuff was starting to feel a bit saccharine. It had served its purpose. I felt like I knew what I was doing and wanted to approach something else. And now it’s kind of confusing. Every two weeks I feel like painting different images, but it’s all coming from the same place. I’m trying to invoke a mood of some sort. For a while I was heavily focused on women. I was afraid of police, and then I became afraid of women. I had gone through some rough shit in different relationships; it was a sentiment I heard a lot from dudes my age. Now I have a girlfriend who’s excellent. I started off painting her; didn’t know her at all, she was just a model. She just represented this female other, someone I would usually have these thoughts and feelings about, and now I’m dating her and it’s totally different. And so that focus is shifting.
The work is definitely dark, and I don’t think I’m a dark dude. If anything, I think I’m a very happy dude, but maybe that’s because I can let all the darkness out with these images. I’m trying to make you feel something, looking at it. If I could put it into words, I probably would’ve been a writer. But you can get these subtle emotions out of an image that you can’t get out of anything else.
What happens if there’s no angst?
There’s always gonna be some sort of emotion to convey. If that becomes super positive and super uplifting, then that’s what I do. Recently it’s been a lot of positive imagery–quite literally, people looking up and looking beyond. It’s also getting a bit surreal; Dan With Two Heads, Kyle With Two Faces, stuff like that. My grandfather painted. He was a big optical illusion guy in the 60s in Belgium–not that I’m playing off of that, but looking at the work of his contemporaries. What can you do with an image? If you want to just paint reality, then do that, but how can you distort that and still make it look real? How does that make you feel? Stuff like that. I’m exploring, I don’t have a set thing that I’m doing right now.
You graduated from VCU–how did your schooling help you?
I started with the intention of doing painting and printmaking, [the] combined field. VCU is super restrictive with freshman about graffiti–don’t let you use spray paint, period. Just fine art painting classes. After a couple months, I realized, “This is really gonna suck, and make me hate painting.” So I went into film, because I had an interest, and had never picked up a camera before. In retrospect, I think that helped a lot..One, because I could get really burned out on painting, and I could focus on film for the school year. And I’d get burnt out from the school year, and focus on painting for the summer. That kept me fresh. A lot of other people get super jaded by the time they get out of school. And two, film helped me understand the image a lot more. You can look at a painting and nothing about a painting can happen by accident, because the person painting it had to paint it. But stuff gets stylized, people get really abstract with it; with film there’s only so much you can do.
When you watch a movie, nothing is an accident. It helps you understand when you’re setting a scene; why did this director put this person here? Why does it look like this? I think a lot of the inspiration for stuff I do comes from films. I think more than anything films influence what I do. I have folders of screen caps I take when I watch stuff; it helps me understand how the image plays into stuff. Now I interpret paintings and all sorts of other art as if it were a movie. I think that helped a lot.
You did a really good video for Nickelus F (“GotDamnMurdah”).
That was the first thing I did in film school.
How was that process?
I feel like everything I did at VCU, I did in spite of VCU. You had to reserve a studio, and what I ended up doing was getting the janitor to let me in past midnight. You can’t smoke in buildings, but we had him smoking. It wasn’t really weed, but we had him smoking blunts inside a VCU building. No way that could’ve gone on. Later, the department saw it and said, “I love it, it’s great.” But they were just ignoring that I’d broken all the rules to do it. It was fun, [but] I wouldn’t make the same video today.
I’ve been trying to do a painting of Nick, for the project, but I’ve been getting a lot of flack for it. Feedback is rough; people [are] sensitive still. People said it was too thuggish; I can kind of vibe that so I made it super positive, and they were still saying he looks kind of thuggish. This is a really positive image! I literally removed his neck tattoos, it’s just a happy smiling black guy looking up, and people were like, “He looks like a thug.” But I’m still trying to make it.
Are you and Nick making another video soon?
He reached out to me two weeks ago about that. I haven’t done film since my thesis, and that was such a bitch that I was done. I focused on painting, but now I kind of want to again. I really want to do animation, but it’s not something you can really dabble in, because a month of animation work is like ten seconds of your film. And film is expensive; I don’t have the equipment I used to get when I was in school. I’ve got a pretty crappy camera and I don’t have Premiere [editing software]. I’d have to buy it or pirate it or something. It’s a whole other world to think about, and I want to, but it’s when I have the time or when I can afford it. I live off painting full time now, and I barely make rent doing it. If I can get film work that will pay that’s great. I love Nick but I don’t think he can pay me enough that’s it’s worth my time. So I have to find the time myself to do it.
D*Face brought up a point, that there’s a difference between street art and muralists.
I came out of graffiti, personally. I really like the Robin Hood aspect of the street art graffiti thing. And I don’t just do murals. I still really enjoy doing wheat pastes, I still really like tagging–there’s no question about that. Here they’ll cut your balls off for it; elsewhere, there’s nothing better. I can’t say I represent [that] aspect of murals, [but] I know a lot of people who just do murals or studio work. People I look up to; Gaia, or Roa. That dude [is] a muralist; he never fucked with anything else. He does studio work because he has to live–and I get that, that’s muralism. People want to connect it and say it’s graffiti because they use spray paint, but at a certain point, it’s just not. And it’s gotten to that point. You can’t call that this anymore.
You’re still young. Do you have any end game to it all? Or are you just doing it and seeing where it goes?
I’d like to continue living off of it, that’s really nice. I can do that now, because Richmond is a cheap place. It’s still a month to month thing, but that’s kind of exciting. Down the road? I don’t know, ideally I’d like to paint. I have a map of the world, and I have razorblades over everywhere I’ve painted, and I want that to be able to hold itself up with the razorblades. I’d like to paint all over the place. I’d love to be able to say I’ve painted on every continent. But for right now, the sun never sets on my murals. I’ve got shit in Australia, Europe, the States. And that’s crazy. I think about it a couple of times a month, like what time is it right now… it’s 3 AM in Australia? Some dude is probably pissing on a picture of one of my friends. Drunk, wondering, “Who is this guy?” That’s amusing to me.
But as far as an endgame? No, I don’t know where I want to end up. I love Amsterdam. My mom’s side of the family is from Belgium; I have a EU passport. I’d love to be able to move there and support myself there, but I love Richmond. I want to continue supporting myself with this and pushing myself
What’s next for you?
Looking into talking to a lady in San Antonio, looking to create some stuff in Texas. I’ve got stuff in Wisconsin, but basically nothing in the middle of the US. I’m trying to expand more in the US. I’ve painted all over Europe and have very little Stateside. Since I’m here for the summer for the first time in like three years, I’m trying to get a lot of work up in Richmond. So, trying to find people to let me paint their garage, get a lot of small pieces up in every neighborhood. I wanna be king of Richmond, basically. I want to have a lot of stuff in Richmond.
It’s difficult here; I faced more problems getting work up in the past month here than I faced in the past two years working around other places. I guess because people are more entitled if they own a wall, or they’re more conservative in what they want. But it’s worth the fight. I want to put on for Richmond. Saying I’m from Richmond and then all my work is in Amsterdam is a very different thing. People keep referring to me as this Dutch guy. They think of me as an Amsterdam-based artist. People will call me and invite me to paint and say, “I’ll get you a flight from Amsterdam,” and I’m like “I live in America, I’m from Virginia.” I want people to understand I’m from here, because I like this place. This is very important to who I’ve become. I wouldn’t have done this if I wasn’t here.