The notion of ‘street art’ is a loaded proposition for David Hooke. His work under the Meggs moniker may fit the archetypes of spray-paint and stencil work, but the mere mention of the term provokes a long and contemplative pause from this Melbourne-raised artist.
“Being a street artist is almost a blessing and a curse,” he offers finally, flashing a smile as if to offset the statement’s potential gravitas. He’s chatting over Skype from his temporary home and studio in San Francisco’s notorious Tenderloin neighbourhood on the eve of his major solo exhibition at White Walls gallery in July 2012. Dubbed Truth in Myth, it represented Hooke’s first “decent sized” solo show in the US. “Coming from that background,” he continues, “it’s easy to be pigeonholed.”
It might seem an odd suggestion, especially coming from an artist who has made an international name via the street art vernacular. But the quandary of street art’s role and place has dogged the Australian movement since the proliferation of stencilling, stickering and paste-up culture in the late 1990s and early 2000s. While the graffiti scene was largely dismissive of street art as a kind of fashionable, overly intellectual appropriation of illegal murals and spray-can work, much of the art world still struggles with street art’s place in the gallery, with the form’s growing popularity among wider, non-traditional art audiences only fuelling the discussion.
“If you want people to take your work seriously on a broader level of the art market or art world, you almost have to work harder to develop it,” says the 34-year-old.
And if there’s one thing you could never accuse Hooke of, it’s idleness. Since co-founding Melbourne’s now celebrated Everfresh Studio in 2004 – alongside collaborators Sync, Phibs, Reka, Rone, Wonderlust, Prizm, Makatron and The Tooth – Hooke has held solo exhibitions from Australia to Hong Kong, London and Los Angeles, completed commissions for brands and buildings across Australia and North America and had his work added to the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Victoria. There are few artists to have played a more proactive role in helping legitimise Australian street art in the broader international context.
It seems fitting that Hooke’s path to the art world was an unconventional one. Growing up in Croydon, in Melbourne’s outer eastern suburbs, he spent much of his time drawing and riding the train to and from a nearby skate park, where “there was just a lot of graffiti around”.
“I was never really a football or a sports person in the traditional sense,” he recalls. “Skateboarding was a big part of my life for a long time and when you’re into that culture, you’re just surrounded by all those other subcultures like graffiti and hip-hop and punk and all that stuff.
“I’d been drawing my whole life, so when you would come across a big, colourful mural or whatever on the street, you sort of couldn’t help but like it,” he smiles.
While he was increasingly exposed to “serious” graffiti culture throughout high school and began working on his “hand style” and “busting out a few tags here and there”, he never embraced the culture “in any substantial sense”. It wasn’t until 2003, after he had completed a Bachelor of Design at Melbourne’s Swinburne University and had been working as a graphic designer for a few years, that his curiosity got the better of him. With UK artists like Banksy starting to get an international profile and stencils beginning to pepper inner Melbourne’s walls, Hooke dove in.
He and his friends started “going out on missions” putting up stencil art and meeting others in the scene through web forums like Stencil Revolution. “I had got a bit sick of commercial graphic design and I needed another artistic outlet,” Hooke recalls.
He moved into a share house with Sync and another highly active street artist at the time, Meek, and his interest soon manifested to a point of fascination. “It just grew into meeting more people in that culture and learning new techniques, like starting to do paste-ups and stuff, making stickers, doing more spray-can work and learning how to get my can control better and hanging out with the guys who are now the Everfresh guys.”
The studio was founded soon after. “At the time, it wasn’t really about being a member of a crew or a collective; it was more about just using the studio and splitting the rent among five or six guys,” admits Hooke. “It was a place to just hang out on a Friday night and just drink beers and make stuff.”
Despite the group’s informal approach, the studio was soon making an impact in and outside their inner northern Melbourne base of Collingwood. Indeed, from its earliest days, Everfresh Studio garnered a reputation not just for its members’ painting skills on the street, but their ability to negotiate commissions, exhibitions and bring their work to a more mainstream audience. Projects like their now famed 2009 mural commission, which spans a massive section of wall bordering Fitzroy music venue The Night Cat in inner Melbourne – touting ‘Welcome to Sunny Fitzroy from Everfresh’ – only confirmed their reputation for getting things done – big things.
Hooke cites his graphic design background as helping professionalise his practice. “I think it definitely helped … after being in the industry for many years and having that experience, you’re just used to getting things done,” he says. “You know what a deadline is, you know what needs to happen, you’re used to contacting people to help make things happen. It’s just that maturity of working process. No one else is going to do it for you.”
The fact that Everfresh operated as a studio also had an impact. “It was really helpful, just having the numbers and having multiple people to perform certain tasks helped us make things happen. It’s just teamwork basically … It’s not just about making paintings and waiting for someone to see them.”
Things haven’t slowed down for the studio and its members’ burgeoning solo careers. The last few years have seen the crew publish the vast Everfresh: Blackbook via Melbourne University Publishing imprint The Miegunyah Press, overtake the National Gallery of Victoria Studio and participate in the National Gallery of Australia’s Space Invaders exhibition (the largest ever touring exhibition of Australian street art). To top it off, Hooke, Reka and Rone were curated into Young & Free, a much-celebrated survey of contemporary Australian street art inaugurated by Melbourne collectors Sandra Powell and Andrew King and shown at respected San Francisco gallery 941Geary in late 2011.
Hooke’s solo career has also gone from strength to strength. He has collected endorsement contracts with New Balance, major mural commissions for brands like Canadian snowboard company Endeavor and has shown as part of group exhibitions in Tokyo, Hawaii, Singapore and Paris and held solo exhibitions in Hong Kong, Los Angeles and London.
Suffice to say, his work continues to refine. “When I first started, there were quite heavy similarities in the street and gallery work,” he says. “If you take straight-up graffiti or street art stuff and put it in a gallery, it kind of loses a lot of the energy and meaning and power behind it … So I made a conscious decision to separate the two.”
His recent paintings have invoked the binary between street and canvas to striking effect. The superhero characters that peppered shows such as his 2010 exhibition King for a Day, held at Above Second Gallery in Hong Kong, melded potent spray gestures with a rare sense of depth and tonality. While his works for last year’s show in San Francisco, and the follow-up series Truth in Myth II back home at Backwoods Gallery in Collingwood in October 2012, used vibrant painterly strokes and punctuations alongside heavily layered stencil work to channel various mythical and philosophical themes and references. Indeed, Hooke’s conversation conjures subjects not readily associated with spray cans and stencil work. He happily chats about Renaissance sculpture and Greek and Roman mythology, only to muse on the challenges in trying to evoke “truths about the human condition and social values” through art.
It seems fitting that Hooke frames his ambitions in a wider artistic context. “For me, I want to be a fine artist and push my skills and my direction towards that, as well as keeping the street side,” he urges. “I don’t want to be identified as just a street artist, like a stencil guy or whatever. So for me it’s just about maturing as an artist and, as I get older, hopefully developing a body of work that … is eventually getting up to museum quality.”
And with a move to the US on the cards, plus a new solo exhibition Heavenly Creatures opening at Thinkspace Gallery in LA in April, Hooke hopes he can continue to spread the Australian street art movement’s influence beyond our borders. “There’s definitely a lot of interest in us at the moment, which is great,” he smiles. “Young & Free was a good example – that show was really successful and people responded really positively.
“I’d like to think that Everfresh has played a significant part in the growth of the scene,” he continues. “And that’s a good thing – I’m proud of it – because street art leads to positive social change or a positive social mindset. These things that happen outside of institutions and outside of the rules can benefit society and make people think about what they’re doing a bit more,” he pauses.
“You can make cool shit happen yourself.”