The Inevitable Abstract - An Interview with Ukranian Street Artist Eas

January 24, 2018

In 1983, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Ramm-Ell-Zee, Futura 2000 (Lenny Mcgurr) and many other emerging urban artists were united by the exhibition Post Graffiti as those who made “the transition from subway surfaces to canvas”. It was the first time when the term “post-graffiti” appeared in the history of Urban Art.

Nowadays, outside players will use the term “post-graffiti” as a system of graffiti-associated signs which are more understandable to the wider audience in comparison to the “classic” graffiti writings. Meanwhile, the graffiti community itself defines “post-graffiti” as slightly more progressive and relatively less “inclusive” practice.

Still, some graffiti remain performative in nature, as the act itself is now closer to action painting; the DIY ideology is embodied in innovative painting tools and techniques, and illegality.

Yet, self-proclaimed post-graffiti artists are using the language of abstract/semi-abstract instead of letter “code”. Their work is highly site-specific (typically placed in an abandoned area), it requires a critical approach and is frequently extended by the studio practice just as it was announced by Sidney Janis back in 1983.

When we talk about the Eastern-European post-graffiti scene, it’s vital to understand that graffiti came to this region through Europe. Various experimentations on its way from New York gave birth to the new generation of artists with their own rules of the game.

Ukrainian artist Oleksiy Tristan aka Eas is a part of the scene. Living in Kremenchuk (Central Ukraine), he is well-known for his distinctively “spiritual” abstraction. After a decade of graffiti writing, Eas switched to abstract painting in the urban environment. Despite the fact that most of us want to see some archaic chronicles in his unpredictable gestures, the truth is hidden somewhere among the shapes, lines and colors.

Eas consciously rejects any reference to the outside world in his practice. The artist just continues his journey in pursuit of shape which leads him to the inevitable abstraction.


EAS, The Beginnings

Kristina Borhes: When did you start to paint in the street?

EAS: It all started in 2003 when I bought my first “DECO LACK” aerosol in the hardware store. I’d bought it together with my friend, one aerosol for two.

Kristina Borhes: And what have you painted with this one spray?

EAS: We were tagging [laugh].

Kristina Borhes: Can you recall the moment when you saw graffiti for the first time in your life?

EAS: I can remember my feelings regarding it. Those tags were kind of something unearthly for me... Some old pieces are coming to my mind now, but I believe that the main thing they gave me at that time wasn’t really about how to write graffiti, but more about how to experience it, how to be engaged with it.

Kristina Borhes: What was the thing which engaged you with graffiti so much?

EAS: I guess it was the pursuit of the perfect shape, the balance between the letters, the harmony of transitions... To “catch” the shape was my main aim in graffiti.

I was really engaged with the process of shaping the letters. I was fascinated by the play of shapes, forms and the colors. Even though the meaning of the letters somehow annoyed me, it was the only thing which was pushing me back from graffiti.

Kristina Borhes: You mean you were annoyed by the representation of the language performed by letters?

EAS: Well, it’s not really about the representation, but more about the meaning of those letters. I didn’t understand this meaning, the fact that I have to proclaim my name as something utterly important. It’s quite egocentric I guess.

Kristina Borhes: Some former graffiti writers used to say that they were disappointed by graffiti at some point, which was the main reason why they’ve switched to something else. Is this a part of your story too? Are you disappointed in graffiti?

EAS: No, I won’t call it a disappointment. Certainly. I gave it too much, graffiti was my life.

So, it was not a disappointment, I will rather consider it as a transitional stage to something that I’m doing now.

Moreover, even now I often feel like I want to make the letters, but somehow, I can’t...

A Collaboration between Eas, Grob7906, MH, Seikon
A Collaboration between Eas, Grob7906, MH, Seikon, Black Circle Festival 2015

Call to Abstraction

Kristina Borhes: How did you switch to abstract?

EAS: I was always interested in abstract art, even though this turning point was quite hard for me. I was absolutely into graffiti lettering and somehow it was unbelievably difficult and even frightening for me to paint some stain for instance.

It was very daring. I guess I can say that painting together with CXCVIII and O.K. [artists from Kremenchuk, Ukraine] was quite an important moment for me. They helped me feel it, influenced me at some point and I appreciate it a lot.

I clearly remember the particular moment of my “transition”. I was doing a piece which appeared to be very symbolic. It was the piece with simple letters entangled in netting. As if I was in a trap too. I understood the symbolism of it only afterward.

Moreover, some stranger reached me, while I was doing this piece. He had this very strong anti-graffiti attitude. A discussion started and despite the fact that usually, I manage to find some common ground with people, this time I had to give up on that... I left and came back after 2 hours in order to finish the piece. That was one of my last letterings.

Kristina Borhes: You said that it was very difficult for you “to paint some stain”, meaning the level of your personal perception, or is it about the public opinion?

EAS: Frankly saying, I don’t know how to explain it properly. The clear image of what I should paint was somehow imposed, or even self-imposed.

Graffiti was everything for me. I was practicing lettering for many years by that time, spent many hours on that, developed through it... But at a certain moment, I’ve found the courage to paint simple stripes.

Then I tried to use the elements which were inside my letters. I’ve made it with an expression and dynamics. So, it seems like the frame of my letters disappeared and it liberated all the experiments from the inside.

Anyway, shift to abstract was inevitable. Sooner or later it had to be done. It was determined by the inner feelings. At some point, I just started to feel that I’m on the wrong track... Even though the lettering and the work with the shapes were very interesting. I guess, I just overdid it.

Kristina Borhes: Sometimes the letters still remain in the abstract works of artists with graffiti background. I mean those letters are reduced to shapes and colors and aren’t represented as graphemes anymore, but still, you can feel them hidden in there. Do you still have this “writing” manner? I know a lot of people are tend to see some secret writings in your abstract artworks.

EAS: Nope. I’m happy when someone sees some mystic alphabets in my artworks, but it wasn’t my intention. I’m doing the lines and shapes. The whole idea of letters and fonts stayed in the past. Well, maybe there’s something unconscious in there, hard to tell...

Certainly, it’s not controlled by me. Maybe someone someday will decrypt the alphabet in my works. Sounds awesome. Although, for me personally it’s just a play of shapes, colors and lines.

Kristina Borhes: Ok, let’s imagine that someone someday finally had found the “Rosetta stone” to your body of work and read something terrible in it... How about that?

EAS: Well, it depends on those who read. Depends on what lays inside of them. There was a time in my life when I used to show my notebook with drawings to the different people. They had to describe me what they have seen in those drawings from page to page.

It was very curious, especially because one person sees only the genitals on every page while another is describing the clouds and rivers... That’s why I tend to believe that when a person sees something negative, or positive in my art it’s more about the person rather than about the art itself. Black isn’t always about something sinister, right?

Kristina Borhes: Does it mean there’s no right answer to your own Rorschach test? And there’s no inch of figurativeness somewhere in between the layers of your paint?

EAS: Yes. I’m not depicting something in particular. It’s a shape. I was fighting with myself for a long time in order to overcome the idea that there always need to be something pictorial. It was never in my interest to reproduce or to repeat something. I always wanted to create something new.

I’ve reached a stage when I don’t have the control over the flow. The place, environment and surroundings are those who leading me during the process of creation. And they don’t talk to me by the language of figurative art. My artworks are non-pictorial and I don’t want to impose some meanings on it. For me, it’s nothing but lines, shapes and expression.

Eas artwork
Eas artwork

The Wall

Kristina Borhes: When you go to the wall you never know what will appear on it, right?

EAS: Indeed. I think the whole point is in it. Everything depends on scenery and circumstances. I don’t paint with a sketch anymore because usually, it breaks the energy of the place. I’ve tried to do it at the beginning, but standing in front of the wall and turning the pages of my sketchbook, looking for something to paint... I felt lost, couldn’t find the right thing. So, at the end, I had to give up on that and just paint freely.

Kristina Borhes: What is your relationship with the wall? Watching you during the painting process makes one feel this tension. All these splashes, rough moves and the paint that strikes a surface of the wall... It seems like a fight a bit...

EAS: No, no fight at all. A fight is surely the wrong word... It’s rather a cooperation. I want to create something in “partnership” with the wall.

Kristina Borhes: In this case, I will take another turn. Many graffiti writers say that writing on the wall has some kind of therapeutic effect. As if writing/painting helps to get rid of problems.

EAS: For me, it’s harder to paint when there are problems behind my back. At the same time, when I’m not painting for a long time I feel harder physiologically. But then I paint and this anxious feeling goes away. So, probably yes, it makes sense.

Eas artwork in Andriyky village
Eas artwork in Andriyky village

On Painting

Kristina Borhes: You talk a lot about the energy field of the place. Do you feel the places in a different way?

EAS: Sure thing. It’s really important. A lot of things depends on the place. When the place is good I feel the elevation. At the same time, there are places where it’s nearly impossible to create.

Kristina Borhes: Are you coming back to your works after a while in order to check how the time made its job?

EAS: Yes, I surely do. I like to think near the old pieces. It’s quite difficult for me to understand the fresh work immediately. It takes some time to realize it.

Kristina Borhes: Is the spray can less eloquent in comparison to brush?

EAS: Not really. The thing is that both have their own effects and these “differences” work interesting together. I can get every color I want by mixing the pigments, but still, I need aerosol, because it gives me the unique effect, which you can’t replicate with any other means.

Kristina Borhes: What about canvases? I know you’re doing some from time to time.

EAS: I’m doing canvases, but not really often. Canvas isn’t “complete” for me somehow. There is a strong gradation in my mind: the paper, the canvas, the wall. A sketch is for paper, colors for canvas, complete artwork for the wall.

What is the aim of doing canvas? – to sell it. There’s something less spiritual about canvas for me personally... Somehow, it’s different when it comes to the artwork on the wall.

The wall has its own life, the spirit and the story. It’s complete.

Written by Kristina Borhes.

All images courtesy of the artist.