You might have seen them dotted around the streets of London. Owls peering out from the walls. They are caricatures of the real thing, yet they’ve been watching over the East End for years.
Dscreet is the street artist responsible. Always fascinated by drawing cartoons and comic book characters as a kid. He would become obsessed by owls following a trip to his Grandma’s house. Picking up a book on ornithology he saw the anatomically correct illustrations in there and made up his own cartoon version. He didn’t know it then but the tag for which he would become known had taken root.
Originally from Australia, Dscreet’s art, his style and his inspirations were formed around the streets of Melbourne. At first a keen skateboarder, he told me how his early interest in skating would merge into an interest in tagging and then later into graffiti. Hip hop culture too. Imported from America it would associate itself with graffiti imagery and would start to permeate itself into the street psyche. Books such as Subway Art and films such as Style Wars would influence in Oz just as much as they influenced in the streets of London and Bristol.
This was around the late eighties when according to Dscreet, Melbourne was artistically one of the best places in Australia. “By the time I got into graffiti, it was very well established in Melbourne and around the world.” Citing influences from the period, he talks about local old school writers such as Merda and Puzle. Pushing the limits of their wildstyle, their work on the trains and the streets would be spotted and admired. Ultimately it would become an obsession for Dscreet. One which would start when he picked up his first spray can in 1991, at the age of just 12.
It took a while to settle on the name for which he has now become so well known. “I had loads of tags at first” he laughs before reeling off a number of experimental names such as ‘Scribe’ and ‘Crease’. “I was a proper, proper toy, most of the stuff I painted as Scribe was really embarrassing.”
“I think I was most active illegally between 1996 and 2000” he says, telling me that it would have been around this time that he really started to settle on Dscreet. “Graffiti is about getting your name up in the most visible or iconic way you can like on trains or on rooftops” he tells me as he starts to explain the origins. “In a way it’s got it’s own visual loudness to it but you’ve got to do it quietly to avoid detection. So for me there was an alignment.”
“I was out every night on a mission, it was very intensive” he says as he starts to talk about his time on the tracks. “I was doing a lot of bombing, a lot of streets, a lot of trains.” They would become an obsession! Taking every opportunity he could to get out onto the dangerous sidings. “It’s a total rush, it’s got a completely different energy to painting on the streets.”
For the young Dscreet it was a way to associate himself with the roots of graffiti. “It’s where graffiti as we know it today, stylistically evolved” he says. “On the subway trains of New York, you are tapping into the roots of what graffiti was really defined by. It’s dangerous, it’s dirty, it smells and you shouldn’t be there…. You’ve got to evade detection, everything is against you.”
OUTSIDE THE SYSTEM
He likens the experience to an extreme sport mixed with art. “It’s a very physical thing ” he says. “There’s a whole other level of risk involved in doing graffiti on trains which doesn’t exist with any other art form. It makes it unique and special and I think that’s why people get hooked on it. You’re really against and outside the system.”
It’s an insight into just why so many (mainly) young men chose to risk their lives going trackside. Much less prevalent now, it’s difficult to imagine just how common it was. “Everything is against you. Yet people are still producing beautiful looking pieces on the side of trains. Then watching them roll through the city and everyone sees them. That’s a massive rush for anyone and it’s really exhilarating. I only ever wanted to do one but when I did one I was completely hooked. I just wanted to paint trains all the time.”
Moving to London, the Owl for which he would become known really started to come to the fore in his work. “I started doing the Owls by throw up. I enjoyed the repetition and quickness of it. I also really enjoyed the simplicity of the Owl.” The personal connection to it was important too. This after all was his cartoon, his creation that had come to the fore, rather that others work copied onto the street.
“Owls look like mystical fantastical beings” he explains. “A little bit like a dragon or unicorn, something that shouldn’t exist in real life but they do because their features are so exaggerated. Even their movements…. they just captured my imagination.” The symbolism of the Owl was important too. “It’s associated with the Greek goddess Athena! Which is why in society we associate the Owl with wisdom.”
The Owl also went particularly well with his tag. “An Owl is silent in flight and is always just observing. Looking and being aware of its surrounding. It just seemed to work with the tag ‘Dscreet’ so it was a good match for what I was doing.”
TOP 40 COVERS EXHIBITION AT BSMT SPACE
Music is another big influence in his work. Lyrics are there in every piece, sometimes hidden behind but often up front. Sometimes written in words and sometimes using the 1’s and zero’s of binary code as an alternate way of spelling them out. “It’s an analogy for the way we share digital images through algorithms” he tells me.”Nothing is “real” anymore, binary code is our visual language now.”
The lyrics he chooses will have meaning for him and music is the basis for his solo exhibition at the BSMT Space which is kind of the reason we are meeting. The show features his top 40 songs or at least his artistic interpretation of them. Combining art with music, this is about celebrating the joining of both.
Dscreet was interviewed during October 2018 and all images used in the body of this piece were courtesy of the artist. The exhibition runs from 18 October 2018 to 1 November 2018 at the BSMT Space Gallery in Dalston. The opening night will feature music from DJ Ian Joliet with a specially designed playlist featuring musical covers of the artwork.