Mark Gmehling started on the graffiti scene in the late 80s. At some stage, he became tired of graffiti and started experimenting with different kinds of media and technologies to create his visual statements. The paint-brush became a spray can then a Wacom tablet.
He studied art and communications design, worked in advertising and now financing his “guerrilla fight” working as an illustrator. Inspired by pop culture, he developed his photo-realistic style.
In the last few years, Mark’s work grew popular and his art has been exhibiting all over Europe (London, Berlin, Weil am Rhein, Paris. Dortmund, Angers, Brussels, Moscow…). He was awarded with the silver CLIO award in 2011 and won the French famous urban art award ARTAQ in 2012.
Nowadays he is exhibiting his personal artwork around the world, as he loves to travel and paint murals everywhere possible.
Special thanks to Geoff from Generation WTF for putting me in touch with Mark.
Tell us a little bit about yourself: where are you from, what got you interested in art , and how did you get started in the urban art scene?
I’m based in Dortmund, Germany which has a long industrial history (coal mining/steel production). In 1984 it was the first city Graffiti started to grow and Chintz, Cole, Shark and Zhit were the heroes. When I realized their Graffiti was growing, I switched from skateboard to spray can that was about 1988 but even before my mother always supported me in painting and drawing. Actually I painted with oil and charcoal years before I discovered the spray can.
Have you taken any art classes?
After school I studied fine arts, I studied communication design, worked in advertising and then cut ropes doing freelance art direction and Illustration work. A few years later I started developing personal work and exhibiting it around the world. Next to that I teach digital illustration classes at www.wam.de
What is your preferred medium and why?
It was chalk, then spray paint and finally it became the Wacom Tablet, because it became the most efficient output, offering most possibilities. But I still love painting murals- the bigger the better, no matter how physically demanding it is in the end its very relaxing to me- like meditation.
How do you go about creating your art piece? How do you choose a wall/environment?
I usually take a photo of the wall and try to get most info possible about the area and the people living there. Then I start scribbling onto the photo to get a message across that mostly is a sentence that I translate to a picture that catches attention.
How much does your art affect or influence your everyday life and are there any role models or artists who inspired you?
Being an artist your daily life is about art, there is no 9 to 5, you dedicate every minute to it and try to manage daily life next to that. Markus Lüperz was a big eye opener for me, one of the most famous German artists (painter, sculptor), he was the leader of the art academy in Düsseldorf and his genius-cult really inspired me. It is about deciding to believe in your own genius which doesn’t allow to query your artistic output. Without this base you can’t develop your own aesthetic universe that needs to be build up over a long time. This viewing angle made things easier for me.
In your opinion, what is the difference between graffiti and street art?
Graffiti is communicating in its scene without wanting to please a public audience- it’s cryptic. In Classic Graffiti/ Writing the act itself is the statement that questions who owns public space. The problem is that classical Graffiti doesn’t not imperatively want to appeal to a public audience. The act of saying “Blah was here” or “this is “Blah’s hood” is an act of usage of public space.
Street art is addressed to the whole public, wanting to communicate, to make people think or just smile. It also asks the question about the property of “public” space, but also carries socially relevant topics and in its real form it is honest like graffiti: People going out to paint without any commercial background- risking consequences by decorating without asking for permission.
Since street art became hip and finally entered the fine art-market, things became influenced by commercial intentions and a scene of activists is watered down by “art handicraft” – copycats that enter the train. There’s a lot decorative “street art” out there hanging in galleries. One could ask the question, if the term street art applies in a gallery environment at all. I’m fine calling my murals “Street art“ but I wouldn’t consider my gallery work as “Street art”, even if I paint on a found object.
What are your thoughts on the way the internet is influencing the art world?
Hard to say, the internet definitely changed our behavior dealing with pictures. Pictures become inflationary. The attention span for pictures is becoming shorter and shorter, not only because of the internet, its the visual noise of advertising on top and the tempo of availability. Nowadays you have to hit people very hard visually to get attention. Maybe this another reason why street art is that contemporary and becoming more and more popular- it works well in our visually overloaded world and invents continuously new ways to catch the viewers’ eyes.
Have you painted in the USA? If so, how was your experience like?
I painted a mural at snap! Space (http://snaporlando.com/) building in Orlando/ Florida and had an exhibition there.
On the trip I lost my mobile at the airport and my glasses broke during Miami Check-in. I just had my sunglasses with the needed lens strength with me, which made me look like a Celebrity or idiot when the sun was down. But it was an experience I would never want to miss. I had a beautiful time, with the Snap! Orlando guys and the Art-Attacks-Team who organized and funded my stay and the exhibition. I was impressed by the social cohesion of the art scene and people running business not only in Mills 50 district. There is a very positive energy going round.
Do you travel to do street art or do you do street art when you travel?
Both, I can’t resist “art tourism”, if I see a possibility, I’ll paint- if time allows, but I do my best to manage having off time reserved for my family. Lately I’m mostly traveling to paint bigger projects that need a proper planning and don’t consider this as holidays, there’s always full focus needed because time frames are mostly short.
Is there a message in your art?
In general it is focusing on the triviality and absurdity of human life. It’s important to me that every artwork speaks for its own and gets a message across that acts like a diving board for viewers’ fantasy.
At the moment my work is about urban dystopia, human society, the meaning of life… the big questions, you know? I try to avoid creating stuff that just looks cool.
Street art is still considered vandalism, how is it for you to go out and paint in the street? Did you ever have any problems with the law?
Well I started in the classic writing form of Graffiti, of course that caused problems with family, law etc. Today I’m 27 years older and I don’t have the right to call myself a writer or Graffiti artist, because I’m not dealing with illegal painting 24-7. It’s not about bombing or say quantity anymore. I want to show the beautiful side of the whole movement, so I’m choosing my spots well and take time to plan them, often cooperate with galleries to get funds to paint spots that are really big and need to be painted with a lift. Next to that I enjoy painting in abandoned areas where I got the needed calmness and time to meet my expectations.
Because media in street art are that multivariate the “Law” often don’t really knows how to deal with you. Busted with a spray can in your hand next to a smelling tag they know what to do, but if you choose other creative ways to get your message across you often get away with a warning.
What have been your most challenging and rewarding piece of work thus far?
Doing what you love feels always easy. The challenge is to manage your passion in a way that makes you able to make a living of it. And there are a lot of compromises you need to master in a way that it feels true to your identity as an artist. People often think artist are sleeping a lot and earn a lot of money with no hassle but that’s unfortunately not the case. There’s a lot of discipline and time needed to gain the skills and the name to successfully sell a picture at a price that compensates the effort and the years for being able to do it.
What do you do when you are not creating art? What are your hobbies?
The word “hobby” already has a negative touch for me. If I do something I put my whole concentration and motivation in it and focus on it. I could say I made my hobby or better say my passion into my job.
What’s next for you? What shows or projects do you have planned?
There are some group shows in the next months, I’ll be back in the US to paint a big mural this year and I’m planning for a solo show and mural in Amsterdam at the end of the year. Next to that a fashion-collaboration project is planned for Art Basel Miami this year.
Thank you Mark for taking the time and answering our questions. SAUS wishes you the best of luck on your future endeavors.
At the moment Mark is exhibiting prints and sculptures at Grafik15 Gallery in Zurich, Switzerland. If you are in the area, go and say hi!