After days of neck aches as onlookers looked up at the progression of the Chinese artist SATR’s mural “Whisper” come to life, the dust has settled, and the residents of Mannheim Germany can now sit and ponder the work in peace.
Turning a “Whisper” into words
The muscle aches are gone and what we are left with is an enchanting mural or a leopard and a panther, communicating calmly in peaceful whisper. Smokey fades and layers of microscopic paint vapors have layered to create the scene that looks as if it has been transferred directly from the paper of a Chinese brush painting to a wall in Waldorf. The completion of the work also meant that SATR herself, could stop and take a breath, summing up the achievements of the work. It seemed like a perfect opportunity to speak with her and see if we could learn more about the young Chinese artist who was a long way from home. Here is what she had to say:
Montana Cans – We see a lot of street artists creating work that has graffiti or street-related origins. But after years of practice and evolution, what they present today is far from its original roots. We understand you entered into street art around 2013, yet your style is so uniquely yours, and so technically refined that the viewer could assume you have been painting for decades. Is this stylistic look you present today similar to the style you started with? Or how do you get to this point stylistically?
SATR – My early work was not similar to what I do now. And yes, like most graffiti writers I started by writing graffiti letters and painting characters. My early obsession was with the variation in letter structure and the accuracy of the outline of the piece. My favorite part of painting at that time was outlining. I would focus on the technique and can control. Some lines would be precise, others would focus on the effects to allude to floating or weightlessness. This gave me the foundations of skilled can control.
Although my style may be completely different from before, what hasn’t changed is my obsession with precise control of the spray. I still enjoy listening to music and drawing the lines, but I’ve changed from lettering outlines to animal shapes. Another thing is that one of my old graffiti character was a little cartoon tiger and now I love painting tigers just as much.
My style has gone through several progressions and refinements, at first I had a period where I was frantically working on lettering sketches, I tried as many lettering styles and colorways as I could manage at the time. Then when I was painting with a grey soft tip alcohol markers (like a watercolor pen or brush), I painted an eagle and the somewhat transparent layers appealed to me. So I started experimenting with just black, white, gray, and red to start working on it. The black and white are meant to revisit the feeling of the paper, and red is a very powerful color, I always like to use. This was the earliest change, from colorful graffiti fonts to just using black, white, gray, and red, And then to painting animals.
Then later I was introduced to transparent colors. They are clean and can adjust the shades of black as you increase or decrease the amount applied. I started to use less grey and just transparent colors with black, white, and red solid colors. I like the purity of opaque color and the fogging effect, which is what I want. Gradually, I have continued to progress and update my technique to make my murals look cleaner and sharper. Every once in a while I have a new understanding of my work. My understanding of my current style is to use the atomization or light vapors of the spray paint as a form, allowing seemingly intangible and ethereal objects to form images with power.
MC – Your art focuses on animals but does not always depict them in their entirety. What significance do the animals you have chosen to paint in your work have, and do you have criteria on how you choose the parts of those animals you portray?
SATR – I love painting animals, I especially like felines because they are full of intelligence, and strength and are not common in our lives. They are not the kind of animals that are trained. Animals can express a lot of emotions, just like people. In the draft stage, I usually have a general idea of the image, and then I will make a few quick sketches on paper to compare and see which one is closer to the expression I want. I feel that a partial portion of the image can present more of a concept or detail than the whole. I want the object to be somewhere in between the tangible and the intangible. Such an in-between state leaves room for the viewer’s imagination. I like the viewer’s mind to be involved in my images, the parts that are not fully depicted exist in the viewer’s mind.
MC – What are the origins behind the panther and leopard you have painted for Stadt.Wand.Kunst? Does the form of positive and negative space have any symbolic meaning?
SATR – Three keywords popped into my head as I sketched: two animals, the fluidity of emotional transmission, whispers. That was when the thought struck me, which is what you see now. As they whisper, with the spots on the leopard and the black panther floating and linking them together. That’s what I wanted to convey. In the negative space, I kept a large area of white space, hoping that the atmosphere of their moment was more relaxed and not boxed in by the perimeter of the wall edge.
MC – Your home is the Chinese city of Guangzhou. What is it like to grow up there if you are a street artist? Is there support for artists like yourself or do you need to orientate yourself to other parts of Asia or the world to further your artistic practice?
SATR – I like the city where I live, I can feel that people are slowly understanding street culture over time and there are a lot of budding new graffiti artists. You can paint a small piece in Guangzhou relatively easily, but the city is still very much lacking in comparison to large-scale public art. I have been painting graffiti for 8 years. But I didn’t paint a big 9-story mural in my city until this year. I am very happy to have fulfilled this wish and left a large mural in my hometown. It proves that there are people in my city who are gradually supporting and respecting my art.
On the other hand, I do need to go abroad to be able to paint more large walls and challenge myself to make better works. Different humanities and cultural collisions inspire me to create new things. So I welcome new challenges and thank the organizers of SWK who invited me. Thank you for believing in me!
MC – For those of us that may not have ever seen you painting live, or seen any video footage of you painting, your dynamic use of a limited color palette based on black, white, and a few other colors has a perfect equilibrium between transparent and opaque application. Is this style of working your technique, and you are applying solid colors to appear as if they are transparent? Or do you also incorporate transparent colors with opaque colors?
SATR – Yes, control of the spray paint and the shades of colors are part of my style. I use a mixture of solid and transparent colors. One of the concepts in Chinese painting is to combine reality with fiction. But I am not limited by the tool, even if it is a solid color, I can handle it transparently. I think the use of transparent color is a great assistant. Still, I am confident that even if I don’t use it, people can recognize my style because my work is not only liked because of the particular technique but also partly because of how I express animal emotions. These two aspects paired together form my style.
SATR – I like the transparent black of the GOLD series, it has the right amount of valve pressure to do some very subtle detailing. I use it with the black of the Montana BLACK range as the BLACK range has more pressure. The wide range of pressures I can apply with means my atomization technique comes out perfectly.
MC – How important are graffiti/street art, and traditional Chinese art-making practices to you? Do either have a place in the concepts you work with?
SATR – I think both are important to me. They are 50/50 and I enjoy the uninhibited feeling of graffiti and street art that allows you to splash around on the wall and expression. I am obsessed with the tiny particles of spray paint that eventually form the large mural. Graffiti culture has inspired a wild part of me. To be more confident and bolder while I paint. The integration of traditional Chinese culture just happens to make my works maintain a touch of elegance in the wild.
MC – What is your favorite Montana Cans can and cap combination and why?
SATR – In addition to the transparent colors I use in the Montana GOLD line, I like to use the Montana Black for other colors because it has more pressure. For detailing, I like to use the Montana Level 1 cap as it is the finest. For my atomization effects, I usually use the Montana Level 5 or 6 caps because of their compatibility with the paint.
MC – What was your favorite non-painting-related experience while in Mannheim for SWK?
SATR – Visiting the murals left by other artists. This was my favorite experience other than my painting because whenever I have time to look at other people’s murals, it means I’m completely done with my own. While walking to see the mural, I saw some stunning buildings along the way. For example, the super gorgeous cathedral where Aryz’s painting is. And the large chocolate factory next to the Nychos’s mural, the smell of chocolate is in the air there.
If this is how far she has come in only 9 years, we anticipate that there will be so much more great things to come. Not only does her youth allow her so much room to move in whatever direction she chooses, but it also means there are so many more blank pages in her personal artistic path that can be filled with images as engaging and aesthetic as Whisper.
Text by René van Kan; Photography by Alexander Krziwanie / MontanaCans