Onur and Wes21 are two Swiss artists who’ve been collaborating on murals for a while, but have established artistic careers in their own right. Since he’s a decade older, it’s no surprise that Onur has a bit of a head start over Wes21; however, as you’ll learn from this interview, Wes21 was a teenage prodigy who soon began breathing down Onur’s neck. Neither of these two artists believes in working against other artists, though, and once they encountered each other, they quickly formed a partnership and set out to take over the world of street art. Some of their more noteworthy murals include their work at 5 Pointz in NYC and their work for Lisbon, Portugal’s 2013 ARTURb Festival.
When they’re not getting together to do murals, these two artists stay busy in a variety of other mediums. Onur has done quite a bit of graphic design and theatrical set work (which was apparently pretty boring, as you will learn). Wes21 is a freelance illustrator and designer who also does the occasional sculpture. The Richmond Mural Project was the first visit to the United States for both of these Switzerland natives, and while they were in town, we caught up with them to talk about drone surveillance, the temporary nature of street art, and many other topics.
Photo by Marc Schmidt
So how do you like Richmond so far?
Wes21: We didn’t see a lot. We were standing in front of the wall in front of our faces the whole time.
Onur: We like your backyard.
Wes21: Yes, we like your backyard very much.
Onur: When we drive around… [it’s] really nice, the architecture is nice with the brick stones.
Wes21: It looks like in a movie. The whole city is like a large film set. Looks like a perfect large film set.
How do you decide on what you’re going to do for a mural? What’s the inspiration behind this one?
Onur: It was a long way to that sketch.
Wes21: Yes exactly. We first saw the wall and then we had some–
Wes21: Two or three ideas; we were working on it. Then we selected the best theme.
Onur: We didn’t want to make just something that looks nice. We would like to say something on the wall exactly. We came here very prepared. We have fixed sketches, but there are still some free parts on the wall. We try to interpret [the sketch] in a new way on the wall.
There’ve been a lot of recent discussions about drones, and of course, cameras everywhere in America. Did that play a part in the piece?
Wes21: In Europe there was a big wave… that Edward Snowden thing about observing everything. Maybe for guys like you in the States, it’s not something new. But for us in Europe, it’s kind of a new thing–getting observed everywhere. And we would like to show it to the people in a friendly nice way. Not in a dark way, like, [to] make people afraid of something.
Onur: We show the circle, it’s a Doom Loop. That’s the title of the piece.
Is it a part of a bigger series or just by itself?
Wes21: I think the walls we do together [are] kind of a series. Because he does his own work and me too, and sometimes we meet and we follow that series of putting things together and mixing styles.
That makes sense. I saw the painting of the ship and it breaking. You had mentioned that you see all these people drinking and their breaking their minds.
Wes21: Yeah, that was our first… we would like to paint to put the right theme on the right place.
Onur: It’s the same at 5Pointz, the same.
Wes21: Exactly at 5Pointz.
Onur: There was this um.. What’s his name? The owner of the building? The land..?
Wes21: The landlord.
Onur: The landlord.
Wes21: …tried to pull the building down.
Onur & Wes21 with Semor & KKade at 5 Pointz, photo by Wally Gobetz
Did he like the piece? Did he get it?
Wes21: No, he doesn’t like 5Pointz anywhere. He would like to cut it off. I think now there is a large towel or something over it.
Onur: Maybe that one [was] the first piece that they whitewashed.
Oh no, so it’s already gone?
Wes21: Yeah, the building is gone.
Onur: No, the building is still there. But they whitewashed the whole building overnight. So, we got some pictures from our wall [before] they buffed it.
That’s disappointing, huh? How do you feel about that?
Onur: We already knew it [would happen] when we painted there. That’s not forever, that’s not for the next year. And it happened last September I think?
Wes21: It was there for a long time.
Onur: It was there for a long time, for 5Pointz a very long time. Because sometimes people paint there and one day later a new piece is…
Wes21: Painted over. Sometimes its hard if you spend two weeks on one work. But I painted a lot in hall of fames. It’s kind of normal. You paint your piece, and a guy can arrive the next day and over paint it if he wants.
Do you have that on canvas anywhere? Or did it just live on the wall, and now it’s gone?
Onur: Well, we got some prints. It’s a really high definition, high quality print. We did it in England.
Do you notice a difference between the European art scene and the American art scene?
Wes21: That’s a hard question.
Photo by Marc Schmidt
I thought about it when I wrote it, like, “this might be too broad.“ I see your work, and Robert Proch’s work, and Chazme, and there’s a real stark difference between what the Americans are putting up and you’re putting up.
Onur: It’s really hard because we just [look at] the American artwork on the internet. And when we are here, then we paint.
Wes21: We don’t want to paint some kind of traditional European style, but we do it anyway. I don’t know, I guess because of influence. [It’s the] same thing [with] American people; they don’t want to paint American pieces or something. They just paint, that’s what happens.
Onur: There’s of course some influences in art. It’s very technical I think, European style. We can see it on the wall from Chazme and Sepe, and also Robert Proch. It’s the art of technique. I just saw the pieces on the internet from guys from here. There’s a lot of comic influenced stuff I think.
Wes21: Yeah, I think more than in Europe.
Yeah, a lot more pop culture references, because American entertainment is so big.
Wes21: Yeah, I think it’s pop culture.
Onur: It’s more like… sometimes it’s more the people talk better. When they talk, it feels important.
Wes21: It sounds better. Where they talk about their work, we are like very… quiet.
Onur: Quiet and…
Wes21: Let the painting speak.
How did you guys meet? Was it in school?
Wes21: It was in [city name I didn’t recognize], at an exhibition, I think?
Onur: Yeah, that was the beginning of our… I quit my job and that was one of the first exhibitions I joined.
Wes21: [In] that exhibition, I did a dark room with another painter. He did a dark room, with some UV…
Onur: Black light.
Wes21: Black light colors, and then they flashed the light, switched the light off, [and] the black lights came on.
Onur: When they switched it the pieces changed. And with this other guy, we didn’t know who he [was]. So we just saw these pieces… “This guy paints like a monster.” And then he comes in, 17 years old, really young guy. I was like, “What the hell.”
Photo by Marc Schmidt
And that was Wes?
Onur: Yeah. We talked about break[ing] his hand because he’s so fucking talented. We were a little bit drunk. So that was the first time.
Wes21: And I still have my hands.
There you go.
Onur: After that, Switzerland is pretty small and he lives 32 kilometers, or… how [many] miles is that? 20 miles away from my town. And then there was a couple of jobs we did together. Sometime after these jobs, we did some canvas together, after the first wall…
Wes21: Yeah, after realizing there was always some paint left.
Onur: Yeah, we do something free. That was the point. Because we do some paintings for guys, they show us what they want, and after that, we’re like, “Fuck, we did this job just for this guy. We’ll do something free.”
Onur: Yeah, and so that was the start.
Was it scary to quit your job and just be an artist?
It was easy?
Onur: Not easy, but I was so bored from my job. And I worked for a theatre, painting some background stuff, set design. There was always these guys that told you: Paint this. Take this color. Take this brush.
Wes21: Like a chore.
Onur: Like a chore. After two years, I was so bored doing one day to another, I quit my job. And 9 [out of] 10 people tell me, “Man are you crazy? That job was so nice, they paid you for painting.” The first couple months was hard, but when you don’t think about it and just do what you want, and be productive, then it works.
Wes21: I was also not scared, but I didn’t have a job. I [went] to Art school and then I started to do work as a freelance illustrator. The beginning was hard but it’s getting better and better every year.
Onur: The nice thing in Switzerland is [it’s] so small, you know a lot of people, and people help each other.
Wes21: We don’t work against each other.
Onur: That’s right. There’s never a conflict. There’s always just a good competition, not a bad competition.
You had mentioned that this is your first time in the United States and it looks like a movie set. Do you like any American movies?
Onur: Yeah, I like.
Wes21: No, I don’t like movies. I don’t watch movies.
Onur: You don’t watch TV?
I ask because I saw some of your work, and like, this mural reminded me of Terminator. They do a lot of sketching beforehand [in pre-production] of futuristic stuff like spaceships and environments, and it reminded me of that.
Onur: No, the movies are not the influence of the pieces. It’s more this brainstorming stuff, we don’t think about how we will do something futuristic…
Wes21: It happens.
Onur: It just happens. Most times, Wes put his whole pictures together on the tablet. Sometimes he takes the pictures, not from movies it’s just from… we think about it and talk about it.
Well, maybe that’s the difference. We were talking about American and European–I feel like Americans pull a lot from…
Entertainment; advertising is really big.
Wes21: Yeah, but we would like to paint some new stuff never seen before. That’s why we paint, that’s why we put things together. Because we have to create our own little world in the painting.
Are there any other muralists that you want to work with in the future?
Wes21: Yeah, there’s a lot.
Onur: Of course the Poland guys.
Wes21: It would be nice to do something with them.
Onur: But maybe they’re too fast now. We need experience, and a couple more walls and I think we are ready. We just saw how Robert Proch is working, and he’s fucking fast. [laughs]
He had to be fast, too. He had to leave soon.
Onur: Maybe we need family to go home to, so then we work fast.
So what are you guys doing for the rest of the year?
Wes21: The most important thing is I’m working on [pieces] to put in a solo show in Zurich. I don’t know the date now, but there’s still time. I would like to use that time to create something new.
So you don’t have murals lined up for the rest of the year?
Onur: There are some invitations, but we can’t go everywhere, because it takes so much time and we don’t earn [enough] money.
Wes21: We have to pay.
Onur: That’s the biggest problem. Switzerland is quite [an] expensive country, and sometimes when you don’t have money for one or two months, then it’s going to be hard.
Wes21: It’s always a struggle if you don’t have a fixed job at the end of the month.
Onur: Yeah, you know?
I know that very much.
Onur: So we just pick up the things we really want to do.
Wes21: Yeah, that’s why we do it very well. We would like to give our best.
Onur: We talked so much about this Richmond Mural Project. [We] started 6 months ago, I think.
Wes21: We talked a lot about it.
You did research on Richmond before you came?
Onur: On Google Street View, I saw this wall before I was here. We picked out this wall because I drove around [in] Google [Street View], and I was like, “Ooh, this is a nice place. No bricks!”
Interview by R. Anthony Harris
Introduction by Marilyn Drew Necci