The Third Dimension

Blurring the boundaries between painting and sculpture, Midlands-based artist Chu has introduced a new string to the bow of contemporary graffiti by taking it into three dimensions. Nick Carson dons some 3D goggles to investigate this new phenomenon.

“When I finished my first 3D painting, I put on the glasses and burst into tears,” Chu confesses. Simply by spraying two versions of a painting slightly offset – one in red, the other in blue – he had created an image that, through standard 3D goggles, jumped right off the canvas. “It’s a maths thing: I can paint them without wearing the glasses,” he continues. “I guess I’m a frustrated mathematician – too lazy to do anything with it except paint.”

Inspiration, he explains, comes from daily life, socialising, and a bit of pain: this all seems simple enough, but his work is nonetheless groundbreaking. “I’ve only ever heard of one other stereoscopic painter, and that’s some guy in Florida,” he tells me. But Chu’s efforts at distorting perspective don’t stop there: he is also in the illusionary business of making corners and ceilings disappear – again, armed only with an aerosol can.

Playing tricks on the mind

“It’s a facet of my mathematical ways,” he chuckles: “it’s all based on your point-of-view. By continuing a line up a wall onto the ceiling you can delete corners and make the ceiling disappear, depending on where you’re standing.” Unlike fellow Midlander Temper, Chu has never been into portraits: “I don’t paint faces but places: my pulses are beams, not beans. My work is complicated because I want it to be,” he explains. “I suppose I’m a mathematician at heart, but my heart’s not in mathematics.”

A recent project was a large-scale mural covering the outside of a gift shop at the bottom of Snowdon. Chu’s new ‘psychedelic bomb’ measures an impressive 70x20ft, covering three walls of the building and making both front corners vanish. This particular job also demonstrates the importance of good networking: when Chu met and played pool with the current owners of the shop in London, he showed them his work and was told that when they owned a gift shop in Wales, they wanted him to paint it. They kept their word.

Freestyle improvisation

Surely this kind of work requires expensive specialist materials? Not a bit of it. “There are lots of paints made specifically for graffiti art, but it’s all the same at the end of the day,” Chu proposes. “I use off-the-shelf British car paint: there may be more executive toys for custom-made paints, like nozzles, thousands of colours and other tricks, but this doesn’t mean there are any new ideas.”

Working large-scale and freestyle, all of Chu’s 3D paintings are done on the spur of the moment to keep a sense of immediacy. “Graffiti style is all about improvisation: this kind of technique is sympathetic to what I’m applying it to,” he reveals. “When it’s asked of you, you have to paint, produce and dazzle.”

Spreading the word

Creative flair will drive your work forward but, Chu insists, getting noticed in the legitimate graffiti market is little different from the illegal underground scene: you still have to spray your tag everywhere. “You see remnants of the old New York alter-egos – streaming through suburban landscapes. Just a name, scrawled by people who want to be bigger than they really are,” he points out.

But, Chu argues, even this has its place. “It’s cheeky nuisance material but they’re shouting their presence, which is as necessary here as with specially crafted works like mine. It’s all about exposure and self-publicity: if you don’t get paid well, make sure your name is all over it,” he advises. “Shout about what you do. Brand yourself, and maintain your own identity even when working for large companies.”

Starting young

From the age of eleven, Chu took to the streets of Walsall with cans of aerosol paint. “It’s fast, permanent and easy to buy,” he points out. “Longevity can depend on kudos, permanence or both: ideally you want a piece to survive on its kudos, but the more durable the paint the better.” Crucial to achieving recognition is a fresh sense of originality: “A good piece of graffiti is one that ignores graffiti,” he argues. “It can incorporate any visual style: you’re not limited to one particular medium any more than a portrait painter is.”

After enrolling in a BTEC National Diploma in Graphic Design at Walsall College of Art, Chu dropped out after a year. “I was an active graffiti artist at the time, which steered me away from curriculum activity,” he recalls. “I was heading towards disaster; then I got involved with Walsall Youth Arts.” Through this he established the area’s first legal paint site, and ran twice-weekly workshops. Promoting the ‘Graffiti Bastards’ exhibition at the Custard Factory helped to get his work noticed, and he was soon on the way to going freelance. By 1996 he was concentrating entirely on individual work, including the widely successful ‘Your Mum Rang’ sticker campaign.

Rising from the ashes

“This region has some of the most creative people in the world,” Chu argues, “but what can poison us – and has in the past – is a yearning to manufacture so much in so little a time if demand outgrows supply. You can lose your mind easily in a place that used to deliver nails along the canal. It’s an eye-opener, not an ego-booster: I get thorough inspiration surrounded by what has existed, but only through effort now and today can we re-create the throbbing heartland of one of the most industrious places on the planet.”

“The West Midlands never had an artistic reputation, and was often mocked by the likes of Manchester, Edinburgh and London,” he continues, “but we’ve now come to a position to be reckoned with.” And graffiti, he insists, has already tapped the mainstream market: “If you choose to excel in any field – not only in your own eyes, but also in the eyes of the viewing public – then undoubtedly your craft will be desirable. There are only three golden rules to being a graffiti artist: style, placement and survival.”

© Nick Carson 2003. First published on Channel 4’s IDEASFACTORY West Midlands

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