Can artists save the world? A Conversation with Gary Taxali

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Gary Taxali will eventually give you an answer to that big question, but first let’s chill and talk about fear of heights, Black Santa Claus, design student predators, and why it is important to have a paper shredder.

Text & photos: Simon A. Kjær
All images: Gary Taxali

– Gary Taxali! What are you doing here in Stavanger?

– Street artist Pøbel messaged me out of the blue, maybe five years ago, to do this project for a library, but then COVID happened and the whole thing fell flat. And then earlier this year, he told me about a street art festival in Stavanger. I said I’m not a street artist. He said, “That’s okay, we can take your art and make some stencils, and you can spray paint it on the walls!”. I said that sounded great except that I don’t do ladders! And, you know, I have a fear of heights…

“Fear of heights”? When I first met you, you were up on a lift doing your “golfer mural” on a wall just around the corner from my house.

Yes, I have tried the lift a few times. The first time I got into the thing, I realised it has all of these controls, and I hadn’t taken any lessons. I didn’t have a certification, I just got in the thing and did it! And the lift kind of shakes a bit. The first time I was like, “I wanna come down! I wanna come down!”

– Haha!

I wanna come down! I wanna come down!

Gary Taxali

I was maybe seven feet up. I could probably just jump down, right? I had to build up my courage. So I got up in the lift the next day for the mural that is just by your house. I felt a bit more comfortable. I also felt a bit safer since there was a tree there. If something happened I would just grab onto the tree…

– Sounds like you are overcoming your fears! I painted my house last year. I was very scared in the beginning when I used a ladder. You feel unprotected up there, but after a while, it gets better.

These street artists go up 30 metres like it’s nothing. Pøbel showed me the stuff he’s done in Stavanger and the surrounding area, like the one in Bryne. Amazing, it’s massive, and it looks fresh – nice and spontaneous, it doesn’t look stiff and weird. It looks gorgeous.

– You mean the one with the football player, Erling Braut Haaland?


– Making murals must be like a whole new ballgame for you. How do you find it?

Still strange. I’m very comfortable with a paintbrush in my hand, to me that’s the easiest thing, like breathing in a way, I’ve been holding a paintbrush my whole life. But with an object with compressed air, I still have to get used to the flow and feel of it. For the golfer mural by your house, I actually had an idea that came up after I had finished the mural. I thought, “Wouldn’t it be kind of fun to add a golf ball somewhere?”. So I asked the owner for permission, and Pøbel said, “Let’s go back to my studio and draw!” We went to Pøbel´s studio. He asked if I needed a pen or paper or something and I said, “You know what, I’ve been working so long in my career, I’m sure I have that shit (a golf ball) on the internet”. So I googled my name + golf ball, and a golf ball came up! I said, “Here we go, let’s just use that, it’s sweet!”.

– Haha!

He took a screenshot of it and removed the stuff around, then we just made it black and white, and kind of tilted it a little bit. Then we printed it out and cut a stencil…

– But that’s digital art theft!

I steal from myself all the time! My stuff is very simple, it’s character driven and very geometric. Circles, squares, cones and boxes, sometimes with the same noses and eyes moving around. It’s very easy to copy myself.

I steal from myself all the time!

Gary Taxali
Gary Taxali adding a final signature to one of his murals at the Nice Surprise street art festival.

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Gary Taxali adding a final signature to one of his murals at the Nice Surprise street art festival.

“Wouldn’t it be kind of fun to add a golf ball somewhere?” – Gary Taxali

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“Wouldn’t it be kind of fun to add a golf ball somewhere?” – Gary Taxali

Mural co-opting the words “JUSTICE JUSTICE” just across the street from the police station in Stavanger.

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Mural co-opting the words “JUSTICE JUSTICE” just across the street from the police station in Stavanger.

– You know, I was very shocked to stumble upon you here in Stavanger, I´ve been a longtime fan of your work. I’m also happy I could invite you over to play around with the letterpress at Iddis (the Norwegian printing and canning museum). In case you are wondering where you are, let me fill you in on some details about the town. Besides shipping and shipbuilding, the fishing industry has played an important role in Stavanger. With the brisling (a type of sardine), came the canning industry. Some of the walls you’ve been decorating belonged to the old canning industry of Stavanger. Stavanger gained more inhabitants because of the industry. People moved to town from the surrounding rural areas and all of these people wanted to live as they were accustomed – in wooden houses! The wooden houses are protected and considered part of the city’s cultural heritage.

– It’s beautiful! It reminds me a little of Cape Cod in the United States near Boston. It has houses with a similar structure, by the sea.

Once a proud canning factory, and subsequently the atelier space of artist Terry Nilssen-Love, before it burned down in 2014. Today, Verksgata 31 houses a beautiful mural by Gary Taxali.

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Once a proud canning factory, and subsequently the atelier space of artist Terry Nilssen-Love, before it burned down in 2014. Today, Verksgata 31 houses a beautiful mural by Gary Taxali.

– With the canning industry came the need for labels. Let me show you some. We call them “iddiser”.

– That’s amazing. These are awesome! The type is spectacular.

– As kids, we used to have piles of these. We ran through the school yard throwing them high up in the air for others to catch. That was a typical Stavanger kid experience.

– That one is so strange, the little one here with the pipe, encouraging smoking!

– And it’s very good for you. High in omegas and low in mercury!

– The ”Crossed fish” trademark used by Stavanger Preserving Co. was designed in London. Stavanger has always been an international town, more than 20 percent of the population here has an immigrant background. My wife is from Belgium.

– The Flemish part or the French?

– Flemish. She studied at the Academy in Antwerp.

– I was a speaker once at the Grafixx festival in Antwerp in 2018, in November/December. To be honest, I was a little disturbed in Antwerp, I didn’t have the best time, because everywhere I went I would see this ”Black Santa Claus” character, or black Pete as they call him.

– The blackfacing! Yes, that is horrible.

(For readers unacquainted with Swarte Piet/black Pete – the helper of Sinterklaas, he is often experienced as a negative stereotype of people of African descent and a vestige of colonialism and slavery.)

– I was thinking, this is bizarre! And it is so normalised. I was thinking “What the hell is going on here?” It was odd to see…

– They have the same traditions in Holland too…

– Yeah, they need to stop that.

– I recall you mentioning something about a teacher when you were four years old who told your parents that you were always being “silly” at school.

– I got lucky in this life, with an amazing family. Both my mother and father, in their own ways, would do the opposite at home to what my teachers did in school. That’s not common for a lot of Indian families. They will in many cases be like, “Oh, you should become an accountant or a doctor…” I would get that a lot when my family had dinner parties, all these adults would be saying things like, “Why are you doing this?” and, “Do art as a hobby!”. But my parents would stick up for me. I felt very proud of them and thought they were awesome. My dad would drive me to painting classes in the wintertime and just sit in his car while I was learning how to paint. When I got into art school, it was a really hard school to get into, my mum came down to my high school and pulled me out of class so I could open the letter. She was crying and so happy for me when I got accepted. Having parental support almost makes you feel like you can’t go wrong in life. When you’re young, you are sensitive, I was traumatised by what negative teachers and adults would say to me, but luckily the people at home were awesome. So at a certain age, I thought, “Home is the place that matters!” My sister Vandana Taxali from is my agent, she’s my lawyer. And even when we were little kids she would protect me too.

Having parental support almost makes you feel like you can’t do wrong in life.

Gary Taxali

– People in this business really need support. I’m happy to have Grafill, among others, who’ve helped me out in difficult situations.

– I really don’t like talking about money and contracts, I just send my sister what she needs, and she’s an amazing negotiator. With the Canadian coins I designed for example, the agency phoned me and said, “Ok, we wanna do these artists’ coins with different artists”. I phoned my sister up and asked if she could handle it for me. She said, “I’ll take care of it”. She went to the meeting and the first thing she said at the meeting was, “No no no no… You don’t want six artists, you just want Gary, and let me explain why…”. She comes to me afterward saying, “You’re doing all six coins!”. I couldn’t do what she does all by myself. It doesn’t matter who you are, it is harder to do that for your own business than for somebody else… She also doesn’t take on other artists.

Royal Canadian Mint Celebration Coins. Whenever you go to Canada, check if you have any coins designed by Gary Taxali! © Gary Taxali

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Royal Canadian Mint Celebration Coins. Whenever you go to Canada, check if you have any coins designed by Gary Taxali! © Gary Taxali

– At the same time, my sister can get a bit overprotective, I have to tell her to chill out a little bit! But in general, she’s amazing. If she doesn’t like a contract, she just throws it back at them and says, “We’re not interested”. Artists get taken advantage of all the time. I think I’m pretty good at business, but then I think she’s even better. That is also fortunate.

– From my experience, I think it’s best to stay away from people who don’t value art.

– Yes, it’s better now I think than when I was younger. People prey on young artists and designers. You’re out of school, you are emerging, you’re just happy to get to work. I see that all the time with my students.

– Yes, I’ve also been contacted by design students, telling me they earn more money from summer jobs behind counters at the grocery store than when they start working for big successful companies, and these are graphic designers with bachelor’s and master’s degrees. They’re asking me, “Is this normal?”.

– It’s ridiculous and awful when that happens.

– You said you present yourself as an artist, rather than an illustrator. Why is that?

– It’s communication. The average person doesn’t know what the word illustrator is. They can’t picture what I do. Artist is an easier word. It’s a nice and simple word that a lot of people fear and distance themselves from because they think it’s a word you earn. You don’t have to be afraid of calling yourself an artist. If you are creative and do that for a living – you’re an artist! It’s hilarious because, in the film world, makeup artists are more comfortable with calling themselves artists than illustrators. Why is that?

– What does your sister say about that?

– There’s a gallery that did a catalogue and she was like, “Put the word artist in there!” They were saying, “We’re doing the show, Gary is an illustrator” and she was saying, “He’s also an artist, and I want that in there!”. They were like, “But we’re going to press”. “Doesn’t matter, don’t print them. We don’t want it, we’re not signing the contract”, she said. So, she’s even tougher than I am. I love how she will stick up for me. She’ll get more sensitive about it than I do.

– Are there any legal advantages or protection in that word?

– I don’t think so. “Illustrator” is a branch, and “artist” is more like the tree. I think “design” is part of that same tree but there is a little bit of a sensitivity. “Illustration” straddles the fence, as a discipline, I think it’s closer to design but it’s also artistic in terms of how images come from that same place of personal expression. An illustrator might have the kind of job where they are rendering something over and over again, and they may not feel like an artist, and they are just like communication graphics – they are detached from it. And there are people who have a personal voice, and a style, and they bring their own kind of sensibility to it and I think they’re very much artists. So I think there’s room for both in this world.

– Do you consider yourself a pop artist?

– Yeah!

– Andy Warhol is like a teacher to me. The gallery world can be a little bit esoteric, where you have to do a deep dive inside that one particular person but in the commercial world, it is about accessibility, familiarity, and communication. One of my favourite quotes is from an illustrator named Brad Holland, who lives in New York, he’s an older guy. He said, “There’s three kinds of artist. There’s commercial artists, there’s fine artists, then there’s real artists. Real artists don’t care which of the first two they are,” which is kind of true. I’ll spend 15 months working on a show, so I guess I have a different hat now, I guess I’m a fine artist. Then I’ll also spend months working on an illustration project that is very commercial for an agency. So what now, I’m an illustrator? Who cares? In a way they both look the same to me, they’re the same kind of pictures. Like in a Converse ad I did, there were no sketches, “Just give us a picture and we’ll use it”. The brief from the agency in a way gave more creative freedom than a gallery because galleries can often restrict you to a lot of requirements

– Yes, I’m used to working with galleries.

– So, you know what I mean, right! They can also be dictating too…

– Did you bring a sketchbook to Stavanger?

– Every day I draw. I always have something I am working on, an assignment for a thing or something. I´ll bring a sketchbook just in case I need it but I don’t really like sketchbooks and the reason why is that it automatically starts becoming like a precious object and then people start looking at it as a record of your ideas. What I do instead is draw on shitty paper, like multipurpose paper for printers, I also have a paper shredder. If I don’t like the drawing, I shred it. The reason I do that is that I think it’s important to draw knowing that you can be free without the judgment of other human beings. If you think too much about somebody looking at what you do then you’re chained to a drawing instead of thinking, “I am going to try and explore and go to the depths!”.

– Yes!

– And if it doesn’t work out, shred it! Who cares? I have folders organised by year, containing drawings I want to keep and sometimes use later for my art. In that sense I have sketches. Having said that, I’ve debated with other artists about this and I think it’s cool that sketchbooks work for others. There was an illustration conference once in the States, and they asked everybody who came to the conference to send in a drawing. They were going to take everybody’s drawings and bind this little book and you’d get this really cool little gift. Everybody sent a jpg file, and they asked ten of us who were speakers at the conference to give a quote, to go in the sketchbook. People were writing lofty things about creativity and sketches. Stuff like, “Sketches are just as important as the original, if not more important”. I wrote, “I hate sketchbooks. They’re only good for storing recipes. I have more creative freedom drawing on a napkin or the back of a phone bill than a sketchbook”. The guy who asked me to give a quote was so mad at me, he sent me back an angry email saying, “Well, if you don’t want us to use your quote we don’t have to!”. I had to explain, “No, you can use my quote. You asked me, and here’s my quote!”. So they printed it and at the conference, several people came up to me and said stuff like, “I agree with you!”. I also hate the gutter in the book. It hurts my hand. How can people work like that? Especially when people get all fancy and it’s a Moleskine, leather-bound and it has these beautiful inlaid pages. This is a fancy object.

– I actually buy a Moleskine every year. But it’s a calendar and everything I write down is pretty trivial, meetings and shopping lists. But I kind of like it when the object gets a bit ruined, the imperfections give it personality.

No, you can use my quote. You asked me, and here’s my quote.

Gary Taxali

– This brings us to the (only) question I had prepared for you in my beautiful expensive black leather-bound Moleskine: Can artists save the world?

– I think the only people who can save the world are people who create art and people who love art. If you are not one of those two people then you are not contributing to the future of this planet, cause if you do not value human expression and what makes us human, which is creativity, then what are you encouraging, and what are you interested in? We record the pulse of the time, the people, the music, poetry, dance, sculpture, writing… Those are the things that mark the pulse of the times, not people’s tax forms, their income, stuff like that… So, I think for sure... At the same time, I don’t think art should be put up on a pedestal. I think that’s kind of anti-art. It shouldn’t be worshipped, it should be accessible, it should be available, a gift given to society and embraced by society. I do think the most important thing is the process. It’s fun to make something and once you make it you put it into the world and it kind of belongs to the people and people can do what they want with it, especially if it’s something that can help people...

– There are people who lose their sight or get brain-related dementia, then they’ll remember songs that will help trigger memories. The energy and vibration of the music are saving people. In painting too, Vincent van Gogh only sold one painting when he was alive, and it was a sympathy sale. He actually had a loving sibling, Theo, that helped him along. And yet, he’ll never know the impact of his art, and how it has touched millions of people.

– Did you see that van Gogh movie they made?

– I have, it’s beautiful.

– Since I met you here in Stavanger, and having seen all of your work, I couldn’t help thinking to myself “It would be funny if they did a movie like that in the style of Gary Taxali”.

– Haha!

– Have you done animations?

– A little bit. But I’m not a big fan, to be honest, I’m more interested in the still picture. I think there’s something about a still picture, for me, that is more enjoyable. The relationship I want with the viewer is for them to be a part of it and maybe think about the before and after.

– Maybe it’s because the still image brings with it more ambiguity?

– Yeah. I have done my work a few times animated, for Coca-Cola commercials. And I have some work in progress, a video for Aimee Mann. So this animator wants to retain my sensibility. It´s fun but I don’t think of my work in moving pictures. I even have a hard time thinking sequentially. I did a children’s book but there’s no real narrative.

– It’s good to have both. I noticed with my four-year-old, that the best reading moments we have are when we just look at the pictures, pointing and saying stuff like “This is weird!” or “What’s this guy doing here?”. Something happens, you kind of trigger something inside you.

– Yes, there are stories within stories. You open the doors to creativity. It’s awesome when children’s literature can do that.

– I mentioned my older son plays the viola, I noticed it’s almost therapeutic for him.

– Art is surging through all of us, it’s in our DNA, and when you tap into it. Whether it is music, drawing, writing, or whatever the case may be, it feeds the soul. I have a friend in Toronto who is the head of paediatrics at a hospital called SickKids. This hospital deals with the worst cases, they helicopter children in. I’ve been to their cancer ward many times because I have a little cousin who died there as an infant, and I don’t think I have ever seen an example of greater hell than what goes on inside this hospital in terms of the suffering of these little children. This guy’s job is to save these children. I have to tell my students, “Hi, look, it’s just a picture”. If we have a bad day at work from ink spills, my friend has a bad day at work where a child dies. So let’s talk a little bit about what our roles are. He told me all the doctors there have 24-hour therapy available to them. They have monthly mortality meetings, so all the doctors sit down and go over all the cases and what they did, what their procedures were.

– One day I met him in a bar, and he showed up late. He was stressed and said he lost another kid today. I asked him, “How do you manage to do this?”. He said, “Well, I’m really good at what I do because I know what I’m doing. I’m saving lots of children and I’m excellent at my job. Sometimes there are things out of your control and you do the best you can in that situation, and you remind yourself to stay focused and do the procedures”. But he also said, “On the weekends, I paint”. And the guy can’t draw or paint, he is a surgeon. But he loves it because he says he forgets about everything. He is in the moment. It’s like meditation for him. And even people like that benefit from doing art, from balancing their mental state. I think about him all the time...

– I’m really happy I bumped into you by coincidence, around the corner from my house. By the way, I noticed someone had tagged the electric box next to our main entrance door. I was having a bad day, walking through the rain, we were all expecting Hans the storm to arrive, then out of the blue, this wonderful nice surprise popped up in front of my house! It certainly saved my day! Do you know who did it?

– No idea.

– Maybe I have to ask my kids if they know.

– Awesome! Thanks for everything!

Gary Taxali managed to leave Stavanger just before the extreme weather Hans reached town.

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Gary Taxali managed to leave Stavanger just before the extreme weather Hans reached town.

Hovedbilde: © Gary Taxali