The bartenders at The Lord Gladstone know Scottie Marsh by name and they have no qualms about letting me through the bar and up the stairs to see him.
Marsh is between studios at the moment, so he’s working out of a little gallery above this iconic pub, just outside Sydney’s infamous lockout zone. I find him in a largely empty room staring at a piece of canvas, layered with light purple and orange paint, which has been taped to one of the walls. A milk crate filled with Ironlak tins sits at his feet and his dog wanders freely around the room. We sit on a sticky leather couch to chat about his art.
“I always try and let people know, like, I’m doing all these cool murals now but I used to fucking tag trains and all that kind of shit,” he laughs, explaining how he doesn’t fit into the graffiti scene, or the fine-art world. In the marble hallways and high-ceilinged galleries, critics would probably dismiss his work as too literal, too obvious, too pop-culture heavy (his submission for the Archibald Prize wasn’t selected). On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are the core graffiti writers who sneer at his bright, layered street-art style portraits, no doubt condemning his divergence from classic hip-hop style graff.
The irony is that Marsh grew up “fighting other graffiti writers and painting trains”. As a teenager from Sydney’s North Shore, other taggers usually assumed he’d be soft, which automatically made him a bit of a target. For a while, he pretended he was from the Blue Mountains, where his dad lived, because it sounded more intimidating but eventually he just owned his middle-class Mosman roots and faced the violence head-on. “They give me shit and I’m like, ‘Fuck off, I’ll punch you when I see you,’ ” he laughs.
In his 20s, dedication to graffiti became all-consuming. “My mates were going out and partying and I was setting my alarm for 3 AM, going to bed early, waking up and sitting in a bush for two hours watching a security guard so I could paint for 10 minutes.” This commitment to a practice that is criminal, highly dangerous and spurned by most of society is hard to fathom for your average law-fearing citizen. But Scottie says that these experiences account for much of his success to date. He describes it as his “I’m-just-going-to-fucking-do-it” attitude, adding, “I feel I owe a massive debt of gratitude to that culture and to graffiti.”
While he’s definitely proud of his apprenticeship as a young vandal, his practice has evolved into something insanely technical and now collectors are happy to pay good money for his prints. But that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s been embraced by the art world either. His point of difference from what they teach at contemporary art-schools (he’s attended two of them) is that artists are encouraged to make work that is subtle and cryptic and open to a thousand different interpretations. An educated few can analyse and appreciate this kind of high art, but Scottie’s not making art for the educated few—his focus is art for the people. He wants his work to be accessible to anyone and everyone. “Normal people don’t sit there and look at a painting and try to figure it all out, they just look at it really quickly and if they get it they get it, otherwise they just move on,” he says.
Tony Loves Tony—one of his most recent pieces—is a good example of this. Set outside a nearby cafe in Redfern, it’s a huge mural of the former prime minister in a wedding dress, marrying another version of himself in a suit. It’s an overt attack on Abbott’s bigoted views on marriage equality and the meaning is immediately obvious to anyone who’s heard the word “plebiscite” in the last few months.
It was last year, during the height of Sydney’s draconian lockout laws, that Scottie’s art started to become more political. He painted then-Premier Mike Baird holding a glass of wine in one hand, a kebab in the other and a stack of casino chips in the foreground. There was a clock in the corner displaying the time—1.31 AM. It was all very literal: the lockouts prevented people entering licensed venues within the zone after 1.30, except in the case of The Star casino, which became a safe-haven for late night drinks. The casino’s exemption became symbolic of a government that was determined to look after the interests of the wealthy elite, rather than your average millennial who’d want to go out and see a gig. The whole thing reeked of corruption, greased palms and baby-boomer conservatism and Scottie’s mural, titled Casino Mike, received a lot of attention from the press. Journalists were asking for comments from Scottie and he momentarily felt a little out of his depth.
“I was like, ‘Fuck I better really read up on this Mike Baird character and know what the fuck I’m talking about because otherwise I’ll look like a dickhead,’ ” he laughs. After doing some research, he found out that the lockout laws were “probably only the third or fourth dodgiest thing that that arsehole did,” which got him interested in learning more about politics.
This brought Scottie to Brisbane, where he painted a Betoota Advocate article on a permission wall. The piece was titled, ‘Palaszczuk Says Coral Bleaching Low On List Of Priorities After Rise Of Graffiti In Brisbane’—it was a joke news article attacking the premier of Queensland for greenlighting the environmental destruction of the Great Barrier Reef. The point of humour was that the conservative government were probably more concerned about petty acts of graffiti than protecting the world’s largest coral reef. But the authorities were quick to act.
Within two hours of painting Anastasia Palaszcuk’s face, the police arrived, immediately accusing Scottie of trespassing, despite the fact that the owner of the wall was standing by, telling the cops, “It’s fine, he can paint it. We want him to paint it.” The cops kicked him out anyway, making threats to arrest Marsh. Soon there were detectives on the scene, interviewing Scottie, along with everyone who worked in the bar next door. The irony was that the authorities had proved the Betoota headline right, establishing that they cared far more about nullifying a political piece of street art (and the potential for bad PR) than protecting the world’s biggest coral reef.
At the moment, Scottie’s activist art is proving satisfying and he’s stoked on the responses he’s getting. He explains, “You can get people who maybe don’t give a shit about whatever issue it is and you can connect to them with humour.” His theory is that if you can make them laugh, they’ll be more inclined to “go away and think about it a bit more”. This is more pertinent and fulfilling than pandering to art critics or graffers. It’s a pretty simple formula really; he explains, “When I read something that pisses me off, it gives me ideas and then I’ll just paint them.”
(Photos by Nat Kassel)