All Xero Gravity episodes
Hosted by Elizabeth Ü
RONE is based in Melbourne, Australia, but his paintings can be found around the world. He’s a street artist who resists categorization, and RONE explores the challenge of defining – much less selling – an art form that’s outside traditional boundaries: what’s the difference between a graffiti artist and a street artist? A street artist and a contemporary or fine artist?
He also digs deep into question such as: why is the forbidden so enticing? What changes when you move from painting for yourself to painting to pay the bills? When is it OK to make art for free? RONE describes how being a member of an underground art community opens doors worldwide. And his secret for promoting your work, even as social media platforms wax and wane in popularity, will work for anyone looking to stay connected to their audience. This is episode #85.
Visit r-o-n-e.com to view RONE's work and subscribe to his newsletter
Host: Elizabeth Ü [EU]
Guest: RONE [R]
EU: Elizabeth U here with Xero Gravity. You got to love someone who's so cool that they get to go just by one name. Our guest today is Rone, a brilliant street artist based in Melbourne, Australia. His paintings are found not just in the streets, but also in galleries around the world. Rone is known for placing his art on the side of buildings that are too many stories high. In this episode, he opens up about a world that don't you get to see. Like investing a small fortune into a gallery exhibit with no guarantee that anything would sell or running into squatters in a building he thought was deserted. That's just a start. Here's Rone to tell these stories and more. When was the last time you were actually outside working on a project?
EU: Oh, cool. What was that?
R: It's a project I haven't even told anyone about yet. I've been given a gigantic industrial site to do as I wish with which is kind of cool, but it's all going to be demolished. I'm just going in there painting as much as I can before it gets knocked down and just documenting the process.
EU: That sounds fun. You get to do something that's a lot riskier than you would if it were going to be a permanent piece?
R: Yeah, a little bit. It's more of other things and I have do it all clandestinely. I guess that's a good way to put it.
EU: Under the radar.
R: Under the radar, but I can kind of be a little bit more comfortable in doing it and also take a lot longer to photograph the work. Usually you just try to get in and out as quickly as possible, but now I know I can go back. Plus, you can bring in things like lighting to make it look a bit better and spend a bit more time kind of setting up a shot which is ... A luxury you don't usually have.
EU: Right. How does that work? Do you have a photo crew or you're also setting up the camera yourself?
R: I'm setting it all up myself. At the moment I'm doing stuff off a ladder in there, but I'm trying ... It's not so much taking a photograph of myself painting. It's just the final product is all I'm trying to get a photo of, but I might and get someone down there to document the making of as well.
EU: That sounds really cool. I know that a lot of construction companies are now or even architects they have slow motion cam. No, it's not called slow motion. What it's called?
R: Time lapse.
EU: Time lapse. Thank you. They have a time lapse camera set up so they can show the entire process from start to finish. That sounds super cool, but I imagine that in most street art situations you don't really want to leave an expensive camera set up in a position where someone could come by and nick it in the middle of the process.
R: Yeah, that's right. Even in this place it's such a big industrial site. There's people. Twice already the same people just in there trying to steal copper out of the walls. I'll just hear some of the angle grinder and they'll be like two buildings away. They're not meant to be there. I'm doing something which usually you're not to be there doing, but somehow got permission to do it. There's this weird kind of irony of like I am allowed to do it because someone said I could, but you're not allowed to do that because no one said you could.
EU: That's such a funny thing. I mean that's the opposite of what most street art would be.
R: Yeah. From anyone walking past, yeah.
EU: Okay. You're not supposed to be here. You're like, "Actually, I'm legit." Wait, so who actually hired you or gave you the green light in this case?
R: The property owner basically. I have to go through all the induction red tape, so I'm pretty much there like a construction worker literally. I have to have all my cards and insurances and do a few things by the book, but it means that I'm able to work there comfortably which is quite a luxury.
EU: That's so funny. Just to paint some graffiti. Was the property owner someone that was familiar with your work in some other context? Like his some young dude and he's hip to what's going on in the street art community and called you up? How did that connection even happen?
R: He's been collecting my artwork for some time and we just got discussing things I want to do. He's like, "Oh, I've got this space at the moment." One thing led to another and now it's starting to happen. It's very early days, but it's ... I don't know even know where or what I'm going to do with these images just yet, but it's like one of those opportunities where you just have to just jump on it while you can. I didn't even have time to say, "Oh, maybe next year would be a good time to start that." Literally I just finished the biggest project I've ever done and I'm straight away working on something else when everyone expects me to be taking a holiday. Everyone's like, "You're relaxing at the moment." I was like, "No, not really."
EU: Well, that's so funny. You're like, "No, I'm going to jump right back into this huge project, but hold on. Let me sign on the dotted line." There's like this all bureaucracy around doing my ‘time off’ street art.
R: It's pretty funny. This is exactly what I enjoy doing. If I was going to take holiday, one of the things I consider is that, "Oh, can I paint there?" Your work is the same as your holiday. I feel really, really lucky to have the job I do.
EU: What do you consider the difference between street art and graffiti?
R: Each individual person has a different understanding of what those things mean. For myself, I see street art is a subgenre of graffiti or if it's under the umbrella, but there's graffiti as a whole and then some people might consider the same thing when someone says graffiti and what pops in their mind is somebody else might consider vandalism. When someone says graffiti to me, I think of like the classic 1980s colourful letters, hard to read, wild style. That's traditional graffiti for me. Street art is again a subgenre of that. Probably wouldn't exist as it does today without the New York Style, but it's ...
EU: What's the New York Style?
R: Well, I guess the lettering style.
R: Well, yeah, it could be tags or just like traditional kind of like stuff you'd see painted on trains. Tags to pieces to throw-ups. It's like that graffiti to me ...
EU: What's a throw-up? Is that like a paste up? Same thing?
R: No, throw-up's a bubbled ... It's between a tag and a finished piece. It's often like a two colour ... It's just like one colour background, fill in the letters and then there's one key line colour. It's just like that's it. That's not a full ...
EU: Throw it up quickly and then it's ... I feel like at this point you're walking the line between graffiti and vandalism and maybe something more artistic. Although I mean graffiti artists, that's considered an art as well. I'm fascinated by the connection between vandalism and art and graffiti, whether people are considering themselves high brow artists or outsider artists. Where do you see yourself fitting into this whole classification system?
R: I don't know. I don't try to ... It's like one of those that you set out and say, "I want to fit in this classification." No one wants to be put into a box. It doesn't matter how much you fit that box. No one ever wants to be generalised as one thing. I'm sure I'm classified as a street artist, but it's great if I'm classified as a contemporary artist. I don't think I should be classified as a graffiti artist because what I consider graffiti to be is not what I do, but I might fall under that wider umbrella as a graffiti artist. It's like one of those weird lines to walk along. Some people consider graffiti is only stuff that's done illegally. I do work that's legal and illegal. It's kind of like this ...
EU: Can you get paid for illegal art?
R: Yeah. Sometimes you can which is a strange thing as well, but not often. The only way I've ever been paid for illegal art I guess is from a few works I've done recently where I've sold photographs of those works.
EU: Oh, that's funny. It makes it more valuable because you were trespassing or on private .... What makes something illegal?
R: I guess it's done without permission, but to be selling those works, I don't know if that's what gives it the value, but it's more part of the story. I don't kind of want that to be the only authentication purpose. The only way that authenticates my works. It's like just because it's done illegally, it doesn't mean it's better than the one that I've done that is legally. In the end it's down to the concept of my artwork. I probably would have done it if I could have legally just to be able to execute it. That's kind of what I'm doing in this industrial site at the moment like I can do this legally. I can do something better than I probably could illegally. It's going to let me flex a lot more in what I can do.
EU: You've talked about some of the consequences of doing something illegally including the fact that you've got to be quick. Gotta get out of there fast. You can't necessarily document it in the same way that you might if you were in a legitimate space. I mean I don't mean to use the word illegitimate I mean if you're in a space where this activity is condoned. Clearly there's some appeal to doing something that's again not totally above the board. What is that appeal? What kind of situations does that mean that you actually put yourself in as a result?
R: I don't know. There's something desirable about the things you can't have. It's just that I'm not really into stealing stuff from anyone, but there's things that you can't buy. More appealing to a lot of people is make some special. It's like they're unobtainable. To do something illegal almost fits into that kind of idea. It's a little bit exciting. It's a bit scary. It's not comfortable. You have to trick yourself into becoming comfortable to create an artwork. For me, I see what people call maybe sometimes vandalism or traditional graffiti and you see what they do. I've got a real appreciation for it just thinking of the way that someone's kind of got such a relaxed style and knowing that they're standing on a ledge or they've done that in the dark.
They had to climb up this thing and then you see what they have done. You may not appreciate it for the one second you look at it, but if you start to think about how much goes into that and the pressure they've done that work under, it gives it a whole different idea. There's something exciting about that in a sense of doing something illegally. It just puts it in a whole different concept of a way you look at something.
EU: I was imagining that when you first got into street art, you were doing things that maybe a lot more of an illegal context or you're under the bridge, you're in the train tunnel, wherever it is that you're able to get in this art. Now the people are hiring you to paint on their property. Does that mean that you're producing different kinds of work?
R: Yes and no. Everyone knows doing stuff illegally and small is like, "I decide to be able to spend more time on my work." It just gives you a lot more freedom when you can do something with permission. You can do something that kind of shows your full skill set. You can actually walk away from something when you're happy with it, not when you have to walk away. As an artist, it gives you a lot more room to breathe I guess. You can actually develop your style a lot more. When I was doing a lot of posters and stickers and stuff like that, my work was a lot more repetitive. I was just producing exactly the same image. It was more just about getting ...
EU: By necessity, right?
R: Well, yeah. Just more about getting that one image up. I was just trying to put that up as much as possible and it wasn't so much about creating something new and beautiful every time. It was just about getting something up. I was doing that with a more traditional kind of graffiti mentality, but that's at the time is all I had time for.
EU: Is that the currency for the traditional graffiti mentally? It's like your tag is in the most places or your image is in the most places or is there something else that that buys you?
R: That's like if you look at some graffiti artists, like there's a guy in Melbourne at the moment, right, NOST, and he's just so prolific. It's so everywhere. People love him. People hate him. It's just that you can't deny that you haven't seen it everywhere. He's currency is in like he's just ability to be seen ...
EU: Brand awareness.
R: Yeah. His brand awareness. That's his currency.
EU: Is that the motivator for me?
R: Well, yeah. It's almost like you're just chasing that fame or something like that. As I've grown and I've kind of gotten noticed enough and it's like just doing that same thing all the time isn't going to get me anymore famous. You also realise when you start to travel it's like you could be the biggest guy in your home city. As soon as you go next door, no one gives a shit.
EU: You got to start again from the bottom.
R: You got to start again. That's kind of humbling sometimes. To get noticed on a more global level it's like what's going to be posted online or what's going to be reposted and doing something huge sometimes, that's a simple way to like get noticed. Also just doing something really unique. It doesn't matter where it is. A lot of these houses that I'm painting no one's actually going to walk past and see them, but the images that I'm taking from there they're getting reposted so many times all over the world. The internet is like the new kind of street in a sense. It's kind of terrible to say that, but it's like that's where most people see my artwork. They don't see it in the flesh anymore. There's some artist like …
There's a guy called Lush and he's master of knowing how things work on the internet and how they get reposted. I think he calls himself a meme artist. He paints a lot of stuff from the street. It could have been just done in Photoshop and it's like the same joke and it's kind of funny stuff. It authenticates it because he actually went and painted on the street. Whether it's legally or illegally, it's just like ... He's actually gone and painted that dumb kind of meme of a frog or whatever it is and just painted on the street. It authenticates it in a sense, but no one might able ...
EU: Do you think it does? I mean there's something about that that's ...
R: It's tangible.
EU: It feels a little bit like squandering talent though. I mean here's someone who's so talented and they're just reproducing memes.
EU: Great. What does that do for the world? What does that for him personally?
R: It makes you stop and think. It's like that's like a throwaway kind of meme joke that's going on that makes no sense to 99% of the people and that guy has gone and painted on the street. That's kind of funny in itself that he's doing that and it's taking stuff from the internet and put it into the real world and that goes back onto the internet.
EU: I mean it's funny, but it's also glorifying this disposable culture. If I think back to the origins of graffiti and some of the street artists that I respect so much, it's like they are really putting it to the system. They are fighting for something that is bigger than themselves and bigger than just their own fame and fortune. There's gotta be something else I think behind just pure talent or I can paint photorealism. To me the truly great artists are those that are also towing a line and risking something of themselves for this larger purpose.
R: Everyone who's trying to do stuff like that it's a changing world around us and people like ... What Lush is doing is kind of changing that world as well. If you just towed the line of the traditional and what everyone expects to do, it's like no one's ever going to notice. Lush cops a lot of hate, but that's all part of it as well. If you're not ruffling some feathers, no one's going to notice you.
EU: What feathers are you ruffling?
R: I don't know. I'm sure I upset some people. It's like I'm not a traditional graffiti artist. I've never painted letters and yet, someone might call me a graffiti artist and someone else might get upset that I'm classified as a graffiti artist and it's just one way that someone might put it and somebody who's a pure graffiti artist like, "Oh, that guy's a fake." I'm not trying to claim that I am this kind of legitimate graffiti artist, but all of a sudden at the end of the day I come from a ... Not a commercial art background, but like a graphic art background. That's kind of how I learned to make a living. I've used a lot of those skills to continue making a living as a more fine artist.
EU: Do you get flack from that from some of your peers?
R: No. I think it was like some general flack of street artists now are often getting paid to paint walls and traditional graffiti artists are kind of getting left behind on that. A friend of mine was talking about he painted something. It was almost looked like my style. It was like this beautiful woman gazing into the horizon. He's a traditional letter painter, but he's like multitalented. He just posted about, "Oh, this is what people want. This is what I have to paint to pay the bills these days." We had a back and forward joke about it. There's flack about it, but the people I know well it's something we're kind of open about. It's this what I'm doing is very commercial, but almost I've been doing it since people won't pay me for it as well.
I haven't just jumped on the bandwagon. I was doing this stuff for just the sake of doing it back 15 years ago now. I'm just fortunate to be where I am, to be doing it earlier than a lot of other people were doing it.
EU: A lot of people would really be excited if they could as you said paint to pay the bills.
EU: I imagine that the transition from having a day job and painting small under the bridge works that you had to rush through on the side to going to being a full-time street artist that you even get to do paid work on what you might consider your time off is a enviable place to be. Ultimately there is some mark that you're hoping to leave on the world. What's that mark that you're hoping to leave?
R: To be remembered for something would be amazing. My work's all kind of about that exploration of beauty and decay and if I could be known for that style of painting like these really beautiful images in these kind of decrepit spaces. If I can make that style my own, I'd be pretty happy with that. It's kind of one thing at a time, bit by bit. I don't expect to change the world or anything, but for me, it's also I use painting almost like a trading thing with communities and cultures. When I travel with it, it opens up doors for me. My experience with the world. This is the way I'm going to be able to communicate with people and open doors for myself. It's not all that making money off it. It's about cultural exchange as well.
EU: You also mentioned that you've been working on some pieces lately that are larger than anything else that you've ever done. Do you feel like you have a different kind of responsibility when the thing that you're doing is multiple stories tall? The canvas that you're working on is going to be visible to so many more people in that context.
R: Yeah, totally. That's a huge responsibility. It becomes more personal for me when I go and do the spots that are more hidden or illegal because not so many people are going to be visually affected by them except for the people who are coming to see my work. For example, I painted a 13 story building in Sweden a few months ago. It's going to be important to paint someone local from the area because I probably would have looked at my reference photos of models I've worked with from Australia and it's like what's the relevance of that person in this space. All right. Let's find someone from Sweden to paint. That makes a lot more sense. Painting in Vanuatu, to paint someone local there was a perfect connection with the community.
It's not trying to make a huge social commentary or anything like that, but it's ...
EU: Why not?
R: Well, it's just I don't know the full politics of what is happening in Vanuatu or all those places. Just to least someone that they know and they recognise, that's kind of like a start. If it becomes something political, it's almost out of my control. Sometimes I've painted something and simply by the colour of what was already there and then I've painted a female image on it, it's connected to small things. When I painted in Juárez, Mexico, they have all these pink crucifixes all around the city and I didn't know the relevance of it, but I went and painted a building that was pink and I painted an image of a woman there. For them, it symbolised the same thing as the pink crosses because that's about all the women that were killed a few years ago.
Like 200 women in a city of a population of like 300,000. Most of it wasn't investigated. There's all these pink crosses and they say like, "No justice around the city." It's kind of like it's a protest.
R: My kind of work resonated with that. It's like it wasn't my intention, but it's ...
EU: That's pretty full on.
R: Yeah. They take that and use it as for a good cause. That's amazing to see how your work ends up.
EU: You're obviously very inspired by feminine power and you talk about the importance of the muse. What is it about that feminine power that inspires your work?
R: It's about trying to highlight females in a way that's not trying to be exploitive, but trying more play on the ... Often my personal work, it's more about the beauty contrasting with the concrete wall or these decaying walls. I love that kind of contrast that happens. In a community sense, it's taking someone who's important in that area and especially in a lot of communities, women aren't seen as the leaders or the matriarch which they should be. It's kind of cool to turn that around and all of a sudden you paint someone from a local area. It's like, "Why is she important?" It's like, "Well, go talk to her. Find out. Everyone's important." You don't have to do something to change the world. There's women do amazing things everywhere.
It's great to start that debate in the area when you start talking to people. It's really cool when someone recognises who you're painting and they know her and they get excited for her. That's a cool dialogue to start.
EU: Well, that does seem like a very refreshing approach in a world that does so often objectify the female form in the name of "art."
R: I get asked things all the time. People just, "Do you anything with boobs in it?" It's like, "No. Boobs are great, but it's not what I want to have on my art." I don't know. I look in the face like it's an emotional kind of connection rather than a physical one. I try and capture these tiny almost indescribable emotions with some of my paintings. I think that's the interesting part where you can almost read what they're thinking. You kind of reflect that on yourself and I have people tell me what they think that person is feeling or thinking. It's clearly a reflection of how they're feeling.
EU: It's amazing how your imagery is sparking an emotional response on the part of people that might not otherwise be acknowledging that they're even having these emotions. I feel like that's a pretty important role that artists are playing in all media.
R: It's almost unintentional. Recently with the Empty exhibition where we took this gigantic space which was an old theatre and we basically restored a lot of it. The whole building is about to be demolished. It became a bit of a swan-song to the building and it looked so beautiful. Like we set up really amazing light in there. In the afternoon the beams would kind of like shine across the room. It felt like almost a spiritual space. People come in there and just getting really emotional. It wasn't my intent. I just wanted to create something that was just like overwhelmingly beautiful. Then when people realise that it's already marked for demolition, there was no way to save it, people were having a serious emotional response to it.
There was quite a few people who were like physically upset about it. They have a real serious emotional response to something you've created is quite amazing as an artist. You realise that power you can have sometimes which is pretty ... It's a real honour to be able to say you've done that to someone. It's pretty special. It's made me realise the power of just these spaces that you can work with and how you can change them. Almost like the magic of theatre sometimes, but also making something that is real, that's important. This building's been here for like 110 years. It really is this beautiful and we kind of just made it even more beautiful at its last moments. We made it look its absolute best and now it gets destroyed.
EU: I'm really curious how that all changes when you mix it up with actually making money from that. I'd love to hear you say a little bit more about how that shifts to again doing this on the side when you had your day job and then doing this as your full-time vocation. That's got to change how things manifest.
R: I've been really fortunate that I get approached to do things all the time, but I only take on the work where I have pretty much have 100% creative control. People come to be all the time. It's like, "Can you paint my daughter? Can you paint a hamburger? Can you paint whatever?" It's like full commercial stuff. It's like, "I can paint that, but I'm not going to."
EU: Can you paint this disposable culture meme?
R: Exactly. It's like, "Yeah. I could paint all that stuff for the money." There's a lot of easy money I've said no to simply because I'm very fortunate enough to have enough people who just kind of support me in what I do and just painting my artwork whether that's on canvas or private commission. Even today people have asked, "Can you do this?" I'm like, "Yeah, I can, but I'm just going to paint what I paint." That's kind of how I keep my artwork my artwork. As a graphic artist for years, I was drawing, painting, creating digital stuff in any style that anyone wanted and it wasn't my artwork. It wasn't my direction. It wasn't my kind of creative output and people come back to me, "Oh, can you change this? Can you make this pink? We got to print it."
I didn't care because it wasn't my artwork. I said, "That's fine." As soon as it becomes my artwork it's like, "Oh, can you do this?" It's like, "No. This is it. This is kind of what I do." What I'm doing is I'm very lucky to have a style that's been commercially successful. I haven't had to change it to do that. I don't really want to do like name some digital brand or something. There's people doing billboards out there now that are hand-painted. They're extremely skilled. I kind of love their work for the craftsmanship of it, but it's not art at the end of the day. I'm quite lucky to be able to just keep producing what I say is my art and my style and be able to make a living off it.
EU: Given that privileged position that you're in and being able to make a living off your art and having that kind of creative control as you put it, what is the hardest thing that you do have to go through these days?
R: There's still so much logistics and admin that goes into everything. I am lucky to paint. Even this week I've probably painted four or five hours over the last week. In my head I'm like I'm painting all week, but there's just like answering emails. I remember I went for a meeting yesterday about something in the future. It's going already. I just forget about things that I'm meant to do. Even this afternoon I'm just realising now that someone's coming into my studio to interview me. In my head it's like, "I can paint while they interview me. All right. That's good. They can just film me while I'm painting. That will actually give me some time to paint."
EU: We should have given you something to paint on while you were in the Xero office.
R: Totally. Totally.
EU: Sorry about that.
R: That's fine. I often multitask. I take a lot of phone calls while I'm painting. The headset on. I get all that stuff done while I'm painting.
EU: How do you stay motivated in the midst of all this paperwork and logistical other stuff that you just got to get through?
R: You kind of have the cut off. It's like, "All right. Wake up. Do emails until 10 o'clock." Sometimes I'll just turn the computer off and forget about it. If it's anything really important, someone will call me. You do need to just walk away a little bit. I've actually got a really good friend who handles a lot of my I guess cold call kind of emails. A lot of them end up being really important, but there's a lot of not time wasting but you don't know if anything is going to come of it or if they're serious or they're just like ... Often they're students who write to me and they're doing an essay and they need all those questions answered. Often the questions are what is street art? It's like, "You can go do the research on that," which is kind of funny sometimes.
Then you do one questionnaire and then everyone from that same class emails you. All of sudden someone's gone, "Oh, this guy responded." Everyone writes to you. Okay. You all go to the same school and you're all doing the same thing. All right. Here's all the same answers.
EU: That's actually quite interesting though. You have the ear of this younger generation like what is that big message that you want them all to know if you could tell them all at once?
R: I don't know. It's not easy being an artist. It's not at all painting. It's a little bit the grass is always greener. I do get flown around. It almost does look like this rock star life sometimes which is kind of hilarious, but it's also a lot of people don't lay out the red carpet for you as you expect. If you want something huge and great to happen with what you're doing, sometimes you just do it yourself.
EU: Why do you think that's such a rampant misconception? If I'm just really good, someone is going to just plunk me up out of obscurity and blast me out everywhere. This is a really, really common phenomenon that people believe.
R: It's almost like a Hollywood misconception. I know so many artists who are amazingly talented. They just may not be as motivated as some others. Sometimes you got to be part of it is being a bit of hustler. You have to talk to people. We have to let people know you exist. If you don't ask, you don't get.
EU: Well, I also know so many artists that are totally happy to talk amongst themselves if they get accolades from other artists and their peers. They're super stoked, but anytime it comes to like you mentioned the hustle or having to ask for money, I mean there's so many artists that don't believe that they should even be getting paid for sharing their talents. What's up with that?
R: It's great to do stuff for free when you're starting out. Eventually someone's going to take advantage of you if you're doing stuff for free all the time and exploit that. Not only is it detrimental to you, it's detrimental to other artists. It's like if you're giving it away for free, that's not good for anyone. I still do stuff for free, but it has to really be for the right reason. I do it because a lot of other people are going to benefit from this or it's going to be a great promotional thing for myself or I'm going to have this experience in a foreign country. It will be great for me as just some experience. It may not be payment, but it's something.
EU: I remember when I was doing speaking gigs for a living and there are always people that wanted me to do it for free. I would only go for free it was in the same timezone. I hate crossing timezones if I can help it and if they would make sure to put me up the night before the gig as well. I had my whole list of criteria. It was like I would do it if I had friends or family that I really wanted to visit in that place. You mentioned that it's actually bad for the entire industry if people do things for free. Do you think that people are really aware of how they're affecting not only their own bottom line, but the value that the rest of the world perceives in that type of work?
R: I think there's so many gears to the machine. Each time someone might do something for free, there is their reasons or whatever, but often from the outside like I don't know they are. I'm not going to judge someone on doing something for free. They very well might have their reasons same as myself. You don't have to explain that to anyone either. It's kind of hard to say, "Don't do stuff for free” as a blanket kind of being. It's like just be aware of your own value and make sure you're getting something out of it.
EU: That's very much in alignment with something that we've encountered on the show quite a bit with our different guests is that don't just accept that making a lot of money is the only way to define success. Everyone needs to define success for themselves. Then really dig in. Do the hard work to get to that point, not some point that somebody else has defined for you. Where do you see your next edge? Something that makes you a little bit scared, but you know you've got to do it?
R: I don't know. If I did know, I don't think I would put it out there. I think that's another thing I've learned.
EU: Why? Because you don't want to be held accountable? I'm going to call you in two weeks if you haven't ...
R: Exactly, yeah. Don't be held accountable and it's almost like under-promise, over-deliver thing. I've told people I'm going to do things in the past and then for whatever reason you can't make it happen. It's like, "Oh." You feel kind of disappointed in yourself.
EU: That's so amazing to me. I mean you are accomplished on so many levels as a street artist and somebody who's really making a living and yet, it's like the one time when you let someone down. Don't let that get ahead of you.
R: Yeah. I've probably haven't done things because something else bigger and better has come up.
R: I kind of try and be a bit fluid with ideas. I don't get things set in concrete.
EU: You'd never go on record and podcast for interest.
R: No. No. No. Yeah, maybe not.
EU: For example.
R: I think the last podcast I did was just before I did my really big exhibition. It's like, "Oh, what's coming up next?" "I... might have an exhibition."
EU: Not going to tell you.
R: I don't know. At that point if I told anyone or everyone about it, it wouldn't have been what it ended up. It turned out to be something totally different. That's because I was ...
EU: So what?
R: Situations change.
EU: That's part of what artists do is they surprise you.
R: Yeah. Yeah. It's like being able to be flexible working for yourself. I wasn't commissioned to do something and there wasn't an idea of what the exhibition was going to be. It just became what it became which end up being like way out of control which was great. I could just run with that. I didn't have to go to the goal that I set myself. I would just like open the door and just started running and just seeing where it ended up.
EU: Well, again all of this seems totally feasible when you've reached the level that you're at now. You are a successful artist. You're saying no more often than you've said yes and you get to choose the work that you want to do. There must have been some point where you're like sleeping in your car with all your cans of paint and you're running away from the trainyard operator because you took too long to finish up that last piece. How did you go from that point to where you are now?
R: I don't think I was ever at that point. I was successful as a graphic artist. I was quite comfortable having a living doing that. I am very cautious I guess. I don't take huge risks. I take very calculated risks even when I stopped working as a graphic artist. I probably had some savings. I was just putting money aside. I knew if it didn't work out, I was a freelance graphic artist. I just call up a few clients that I'll be able to get money to come. I built myself a safety net over 10 years. I knew that I could swim back and forth between the two.
EU: Even with the safety net though, it seems like you should be in a position where you can take big risks. What's the biggest risk that you've ever taken?
R: Self-funding my exhibitions. It's cost me four times what I expected it to. No gallery would have ...
EU: How much?
R: More than a nice car. Which I don't own. If I went and asked a gallery, "I want to do this idea. It's going to cost this much." If I knew what that number was, there's like no way any gallery would fund that. It's kind of just insane. I made my money back. I'm very lucky and I made more money on top of that which was ... I went into it knowing that I've got enough people following that I could sell X amount of art and I'll break even. If I do this, it's a marketing thing at the end of day. I will get a lot of attention and I hope that people will ... Get more people interested in my art and that means the next couple of years I might get a few more commissions in. It just keeps feeding the interest in what I'm doing and get people to keep an eye on me in a sense.
EU: Wait, but just to pause for a minute, you spent like you were saying you could have bought a nice car for the amount that you invested in. Did you just have this lying around or did you have to go into debt? That must have been really scary.
R: Yeah. Me and my wife, we've got a home loan. We literally just borrowed off our home loan.
EU: Oh, my gosh. Is she freaking out? Just to put this into perspective, if you hadn't made that money back, the bank would have come after your home. This is what was at stake at that moment. That's a really big deal.
R: Yes. It would have been one of those things like ... It wasn't like our entire home put on the line. It was a chunk of money from our home. It's like, "All right. Cool."
EU: It's like “Family meeting. Okay. We're going to put the entire kitchen and living room on the line.”
R: Yeah. Yeah.
EU: You're being so chill about this. People don't spend that much money starting a coffee shop.
R: No, they don't. That's what was kind of insane about it. I thought it was only going to cost me a lot less than that and then once you start and then it just gets bigger and bigger. Each time something else comes up, there's no power in the space, there's no water, there's no toilet. You have to hire everything. It's like, "We need glasses to serve the wine in." It's like the tiny things. "Oh, that's another $1,000." It just keeps going and going and going. No one's going to do that for you. I've done most of my own solo exhibitions in Australia. Each time they've gotten bigger. To talk about the calculated risk, I know how much I made from the last exhibition and I know if I spend half of that on the next one, I should be able to break even.
That's the kind of risk I took. For each exhibition I've never made more money than the last one. I just spent more, but at the same time it's gotten me more and more attention.
EU: Have you ever had any doubts along the way? Are there ever those moments where you're just like, "Oh, my God. This is just not going to work out."
R: Yeah. Every artist has this. You have your exhibition and it's like, "No one's going to come."
EU: You’re saying every artist has this, but you haven't said a single thing so far that gives me any indication that you have any doubt. You're just like, "Nope. I know exactly how it's going to work. I'm going to take this calculated risk. I'm going to spend of what I earned on the last exhibition to fund the next one." There's gotta be something else going on somewhere!
R: I don't know. Maybe I'm quite methodical about everything I do.
EU: You're just like born with this amazing self-confidence and the ability to pull everything off?
R: No. No. It's not self-confidence. It's knowing your market and never take them for granted. Don't think they're idiots. Don't try to sell them something that's overpriced. I never try and be greedy on anything. I have a lot of people telling me to put my prices up. It's like I don't need to. I don't want them to jump. I'm lucky to have control of my pricing. I don't have an agent or a gallery. Maybe a bit of a control freak when it comes to all of that stuff.
EU: This is a little bit at odds with what you were saying earlier like, "Don't do any work for free. That brings down the value of the art in the marketplace." Now you're saying other people are telling you that you could be charging more, but you don't want to. Why not?
R: I think the other people who were telling me to charge more are people coming from a gallery representation view or collectors.
EU: Meaning that the gallery is taking half of any income received from the sale of their work?
EU: It's a different model. Is that why you're not interested in working with an agent or a gallery in addition to creative control?
R: I'm not interested in working with a gallery… but I am, but it's got to be the right gallery. They have to offer me something that I couldn't do myself like I work with galleries internationally because I just don't have as much as a following as I do in Melbourne or in other parts of Australia. They have the market there and it's all the logistics and stuff from the ground that you physically can't do. That's why you need a gallery or an agent in other places.
EU: How can you even find the one that's a good fit when you're so far away?
R: Internet. That's how it works. You see these galleries that are posting stuff that you like. They're the other people to approach. If you're lucky enough, they might approach you, but it's pretty rare that a gallery approaches anyone who hasn't kind of put their hand up first.
EU: What was the most fun international gallery you've been involved with?
R: We did a really awesome show in maybe 2010 in San Francisco called Young and Free at the now defunct Stone Space Gallery. It was an all-Australian show in the US. It was a dozen Australian artists all in the same gallery at the same time. There was huge turn out for that and it was kind of great to be in a foreign city with ...
EU: All your mates.
R: Yeah. All my mates and all my peers and then all their kind of expat Australian friends. It was just like a huge party for half a week it was on. Quite incredible.
EU: That sounds like fun.
R: It was a lot of fun.
EU: For all of those artists that are even thinking about making a shift into working with a gallery or working with an agent, what are those things that they have to keep in mind? I'm imagining this being the exact same thought process as any business that I might talk to who is thinking about getting in bed with an investor. There are things that the gallery is going to define as success. Then I imagine that you as an artist might have a completely different vision of what that means and you've got to get on the same page before you sign any paperwork.
R: You have to understand the gallery takes 50% most of the time on a sale which is a lot. You just got to be really clear about what that 50% is. Is it from the wall price? Just be aware of any taxes internationally and then for that 50%, if it doesn't sell, are they going to take on the responsibility or the cost of framing? Are they going to pay for it to be packed and shipped?
EU: I never would have thought of any of these details.
R: Who pays for it to get shipped from my studio to the gallery? Then if it doesn't sell, who pays for it to be shipped back? What's the timeline on that? Are you going to hold it for six months after exhibition or you're going to hold it for a couple of years, which often happens? If there's no deadline, they will just never send it back. If it's international galleries, what are you doing to do? Pick it up? People forget what they've said. Yeah.
EU: I have a really good friend who sent a bunch of artwork to I think it's called the Sugar Mountain Festival in Australia and he never got it back. It's been years at this point. I was saying, "You should raise the money to get a documentary film crew to come document the process of you trying to get this artwork back." He did some amazing paintings and works in graphite that he sent over to Australia and just never saw again. It's either on somebody's wall somewhere or it's wrapped in plastic in someone's garage. Clearly this artwork still exists, but he clearly also didn't do that paperwork to make sure he was going to get it back and now it's just lost.
R: There's a lot of assumed things on both sides of ... A lot of galleries that artists run say, "Oh, yeah. It'll be cool. Would you want to be on the show?" You're excited because of all these other artists are in there. You just send your artwork blindly into the ether and then the show doesn't really have much of a turn out. Nothing sells. They don't have enough money to send your artwork back. They kind of disappear. It ends up in a storage locker that no one's got a key for. It's in Tibet or some shit. I hate to talk ill on it, but charity events are a minefield of issues of the same thing. I'll send an artwork and A, I don't know if it's sold or not, B, it's like if it doesn't sell, are you going to send it back to me?
Who's going to cover that cost of sending it back to me? Because it's a charity event it's like, well, they don't have any money to send it back to you. Charity events also end up just be more of a party a lot of the times. You don't have any art buyers. No one actually comes and buys the art. They just come for the free beer. The nice sponsorship is paid for. Nothing sells.
EU: Or it sells for way, way under market value.
R: Yeah. They're like, "Have you got any buyers that might be interested in it?" It's like, "Well, why don't I just sell it and give you the money?" It ends up being just like a total waste of time. It's like often I'll just end up just donating money to charity events because yes, there's a good cause there, but it's like a lot of them end up just being a big waste of time and just waste of other people's resources. There's efficiency problems happening with a lot of it. People have this great idea to raise awareness for something. You're relying on all these artists to donate their hard work. It’s generally the artists who have the least amount of money to give away.
EU: It's the same with the bands. They always want the band to play for free as well.
R: Exactly. A lot of cautionary tales around charity events. I want to do things to help people, but it's got to be done right.
EU: What's the cause you're most excited about?
R: I think I'm just a big advocate for Melbourne. I just really love this city that I live in. If I can promote Melbourne in any way, that's kind of often what I do. The culture we have around street art and graffiti there. I'm just really in love with that. Whenever an international artist has come through town, I just let them know if I can help out in any way that's great. I know that feeds into our culture and the network we already have. There's a guy coming on Friday. It's like, "Cool. All right. You can paint this wall and this is happening." I'm excited as much as anyone else would be just to have someone new in town to do something amazing if I can promote anything that I know about as well. I'm not going to talk about a charity about cancer because I got no idea.
That's like, "What the hell do I know about?" Yes, it's a good thing to support, but what I really know about is Melbourne street art and graffiti. That's something I'm pretty well educated in.
EU: Well, I often have arguments with people that talk about like where can you make the biggest impact? Where's the biggest leverage point? For me, I think I really do believe that the biggest impact that we have and our radius of power is so much closer to where we are. It is in our interpersonal relationships that we have with folks everyday or it is in our own communities that we do know really well. I love hearing you say that that's where you want to make the biggest impact. The guys that are coming from overseas, you're going to take care of them. It's a much different image than the picture I have in my head of the graffiti artists and the turf wars and don't paint over my tag. We're going to rumble over this. It's like no, this is your international ambassadorship is through art.
R: Yeah, totally. It often comes around. I know if I ended up in one of their cities, I'm going to be welcomed there as well. Also the people that they meet here as well as much as me is kind of everyone else that come across. Someone might be from Colombia and then six months later they say, "This guy who's from Melbourne, he's in Colombia now. You should meet up with him." They'll know someone knows someone and it's like that's a great connection to have. All of a sudden you're both on the same path and you got some kind of connection and there's someone to trust in a foreign city which sometimes is so invaluable.
EU: It's like this amazing invisible network of street artists all taking care of each other around the world.
R: Yeah. A little bit like that. It happens with skateboarding and musicians I'm sure. It's great you have these little communities.
EU: Right. Right. It's every underground community or it's every business sector or whatever it is. It's like we've all got our own conferences or networks or the ways that we communicate with each other. This might be tough with you because again, you've had such a charmed existence and made it through to these enormous successes without much of a struggle it seems. What would you say has been the most high gravity thing in your life that's really been the uphill challenge for you?
R: It's maybe letting out the paint. Simply I paint at scale. I really worked on a lot of different techniques and methods where just didn't work out. Trying to take my work to the next level. I was just doing stencil works and I wanted to paint a lot bigger and it took me years to work out a method that worked for me to be able to take my artwork to literally the next level where it was more than just something that was arms span wide where it became building size. I saw other people doing that. I was like that was the dream is like how do I hell do I do this.
EU: How do you do that? Are you projecting an image on a wall? Again, I was looking on your website and looking at the picture of you or is this your Instagram feed? The picture of you and the cherry picker. I don't know how many stories up and I was like, "How are you doing that without a projection or something to let you know where you even are in that thing?"
R: That was the biggest challenge is like to do that without a projector. I started with a projector to work at how to paint thing at large scale. That was the first time I'd used projector on the wall. It's clumsy. You have to be in the dark. You have to stitch two images together. It's really not very efficient or effective.
EU: Like the aspect ratio is all off because the projector's sitting on the ground.
R: All that stuff. Yeah, exactly. It's a mess. Then I tried to do the grid method where you have to do straight lines everywhere across the wall and then you find out that most the lines on the wall or the wall itself isn't parallel to the ground. If you wanted to do a vertical line, you need someone at the top of the building and someone at the bottom of the building to do a vertical line to run the string across it.
EU: Oh, my gosh.
R: Then it's even harder if it's horizontal. Imagine you need to do a horizontal line that's four stories up. That means you need two scissor lifts. Then they have to be at that exact same height and how you work that out. All those techniques are just really clumsy and messy. I came up with a total new concept where it's just like I guess it's like almost you just superimpose your image over the top of the wall and use the wall itself, all the texture as reference points. If there is no reference points, I'll just chalk some in there and that's it. That gives me enough reference points to go from. Once I worked that out, it all just clicked. I could scale anything I wanted.
R: Since then it's like it doesn't matter how big anything is as long as I can take a photo of it. I can put my image on it.
EU: Okay. In addition to just having some superhuman sense of what's possible, you also have this incredibly wrinkled brain that is able to do this like computer-like rendering system that gives you an edge on other folks. That's pretty impressive.
R: I'm terrible at things that are literary. When it comes to things that are hands-on and physical, I'm a bit of MacGyver at making things. For me, it was one of those challenges like how do I make this tool that does not exist. That's exciting when you kind of make something that ... You can't walk into a hardware and buy this. All right. Cool. You're doing something different that is unique when you make something up yourself which is cool.
EU: In addition to being MacGyver, you also have that hustle that you were referring to earlier. There's something that is really key about having that hustle as well. It's great to see that hustle paying off.
R: It's quite nervous to ask someone for something. It's scary. You expect them to say no or to be rejected. Often go into things and I pretty much ... I think my mental preparation is like I accept the worst already.
EU: That's kind of counterintuitive. It's not like, "I'm going to visualise the best."
R: It’s counterintuitive. It makes me comfortable with like, "All right. They're going to say no. Cool." It's like, "Cool. Whatever. They say no, that's fine. It's not the end of the world. Blah blah blah." If they say yes, it's like, "Great. That's amazing. Okay. Cool. Where do we go from here?" I don't know. It's just like what's the worst that can happen? They say no. That's it. Once you get over that, it's like, "Oh, it's not that bad."
EU: Can you learn to get over that? So many people don't get past that one piece, is being afraid of hearing no.
R: I don't know. I'm not comfortable with it. I'm not saying that it gets easier. I still hate it. Even to go paint someone's wall, "Can I paint this wall?" You feel like an idiot sometimes trying to explain what you do. Yeah.
EU: For me personally, I like to take the approach where ... I love being a total goofball and I'm so not afraid of being an idiot. If I just lead with that, it's all downhill from there at that point because you start off by making a fool of yourself. They're only going to be impressed from that point forward.
R: I often approach people to paint their walls something just like, "This is a strange request, but." Random questions like, "Do you know who owns this abandoned house? Is there a squatter in here?"
EU: I guess the squatter's probably a good sign, right? Because no one's really keeping tabs on it.
R: No. It's kind of a terrible sign. It's like if someone's squatting in there, it's like ... I was literally in a house last week, a little empty. Then I get to the third bedroom. There's a bong and some needles and just like a thin mattress and a pile of clothing that's like that they've been coming back to. They're staying there. It's like, "Yup. I'm going to get the hell out of this person's house." It's almost when you realise that, "Oh, I'm actually in someone's space. This isn't abandoned." That's quite horrifying. They're not someone you want to really negotiate with. They might end up being fine, but it's like you upset someone when you come into their space whether they own it or not. You're dealing with someone who's on the brink of society.
EU: Well, and that's actually part of the appeal for some people. I sat next to somebody who was actually originally from Melbourne. A graffiti artist. He was saying he's actually really looking forward to going back to the graffiti scene in Melbourne because for one, in Auckland there just aren't that many bridges or tunnels and it's really hard to find a place where you can paint without getting caught. He was also saying that for him that is part of the appeal is that he runs into far more interesting people that aren't society's norm. I don't know that he'd be super excited about bongs and needles. That's maybe a little bit beyond the comfortable edge. I imagine you do get to meet a lot of really interesting characters.
R: Yeah, sometimes. It's different if you go painting with two or three other people and you feel comfortable. If you're by yourself, you're a bit more vulnerable. Bring your crew, it's a lot safer way to enter a sketchy space.
EU: Great. Well, thanks so much for joining us on Xero Gravity. This has been a really fun conversation. Before we close, is there anything else that you ... Some story that you're dying to tell that we haven't covered yet?
R: The thing that I think has been the most successful thing I've ever done is start a mailing list.
R: Without a doubt, that is the most valuable thing I own. I could give my mailing list to anyone else, but it's ... People are on there because of they're following me. It's way more valuable than Facebook followers or Instagram followers because all that stuff changes over the years. You might have a million followers, but the reach becomes really diluted for each year that they're on there. With a mailing list, it's someone's email and it doesn't matter what platform they're on. They still all get that email. It's a direct connection to people who really follow my stuff which is amazing. I know I can if I ever need to sell something, it's like they're right there. That's the reason you go to a gallery because of their mailing list.
It's not because of maybe what street they're on or something like that or the other artists they represent because they have the people that are already following your style of art. That's their mailing list. Yeah. Start a mailing list. It's my number one thing to tell people to do.
EU: That's a really good point that as technology changes and we go from MySpace or whatever else it is through Facebook, then that’s not the latest thing. It's Snapchat or whatever it is, you're always going to have their ear if you've got their mailing list.
R: No one from Instagram's going to tell you to do that. It's not in their interest. It's not in any kind of app or program's interest. A lot of my sales come from that.
EU: You mentioned earlier that it's important to know your market, but I think ... This is where you're bucking the system. You are owning your market. You're not letting PayPal own it. You're not letting Instagram own it. You own those names.
EU: This is a fascinating concept because people get really obsessed with Twitter followers or Instagram likes. It's like “Nope, just collect those email addresses.”
R: Whenever I had an event, I have the mailing list out. Thing about yourself is like you don't often go and sign up to those mailing list because they're just going to send me shit all the time. People who are actually committed enough to actually write their name down, they actually do care. They actually do want to be there. They do want to receive this crap of you. Don't send them crap. That's the other thing. Respect the people on your mailing list. Don't abuse it. I think it's a hugely valuable thing for each artist, each business to have is their own mailing list.
EU: Well, thanks so much for that insight. I'm seriously reeling right now. I'm like, "Wow. I've been completely wasting this huge opportunity here."
R: It's hard to do because it's not something ... There's not a trendy little app for it. It's not super responsive. It feels like you're just throwing stuff into aether, but it really does work.
EU: This has really been fascinating. Again, it is a rare recording where I leave thinking, "Oh, my gosh. I've really got to do something differently." Thank you for that. I'm quite inspired. Do check out Rone's work and we'll have all sorts of contact info, not contact info, we'll have his website and Instagram and all of those things. Also we'll let you know how you can sign up for his mailing list because clearly we now learn that that's the most important means of connecting with folks like Rone. Thanks again for joining us. We're really glad to have had you on Xero Gravity.
R: Thank you.
EU: That was Melbourne-based street artist Rone. As always, I'm Elizabeth U, producer and host of Xero Gravity and Alice Brine is creative director. Thanks also to Megan Wright, technical producer and Daniel Marr, Jonny McNee, technical editors. If you've got any questions, comments or suggestion for the show, you can find me on Twitter at @smallbizwithliz. Thanks for subscribing to Xero Gravity via iTunes or SoundCloud and we'll see you soon.