INTERVIEW WITH ISAKOV – Speaking to the man behind the frog

The 2021 summer season Stadt Wand Kunst (SWK) brought with it a breath of fresh air, some new-found (old) freedoms in the form of freedom of movement, and some world-class murals by artists from around the globe. One such artist was Berlin-based ISAKOV, responsible for the work titled “Frog”, or жаба as it is written in Ukrainian. Mannheim was a much-desired destination on his “have to paint there” list.​ Not just because of the people, the cities history, or the local cuisine, but particularly to paint at SWK which is now a reference festival for street artists and muralists around the world. During his few moments of downtime when his Montana BLACK and GOLD cans were not in hand or being shaken, we managed to exchange a few words with ISAKOV to learn more about his art practice, the importance of his origins, and what makes him tick generally. Here is how the conversation rolled out.  

How important is your heritage as a UKRAINIAN to your artwork? How much of your current artwork is influenced by the UKRAIN, and how much from outside?

My heritage was always present for me, but for a long time, it carried no special weight in my artwork. It has only been in recent months that I have really started to consider it, and work with it. It impresses me how much I was actually inspired by it over the past years without being aware of it. Now that I am aware of it, I have realized that there is a linear path that guides me in my processes. My current works have elements that derive from my culture, but also many elements that are typical of my style.

There seems to be a lot of beautiful UKRAINIAN influences in your work for the outsider. At the risk of sounding obvious, the elaborate patterns, delicate ornamentation, and references to different architecture seem important to your work. Can you relate to this, or do you see your own work as something different?

I find it nice when a viewer sees something in my artwork that reminds them of something. It has often occurred that the viewer reads a completely different meaning into my work than I do myself. I enjoy these moments as it is a sign that I have inspired creativity, or even at least creative thought, from within them. I don’t believe in dictating meaning in my artwork. I prefer independent interpretation through hints, without giving away the whole story. 

Did you know what the building you would be painting looked like before you arrived in Mannheim? Were you aware of the many challenges the building was to confront you with? Did you conquer them all in your own opinion?

I knew before I started drafting my ideas what the building looked like and which quarter of Mannheim it was in. So in that context, there weren’t any surprising challenges. The methods of working and the organization made it very comfortable and easier to complete the work.  

Does living in Berlin change the way you make art? Is there a uniquely BERLIN aspect to your current art practice that you can identify?

I am like most artists or creative heads convinced that we allow ourselves to be inspired by experiences, people, and places. For some people it conscious, for others it’s less conscious. I belong to the latter. Berlin is a city with a strong and fast pulse. You experience a lot in a city like this and you meet a lot of people. It is fun to live here and allow yourself to move at the cities natural pace. But I have also come to the conclusion that you need a balance to achieve your best results. The city is great, but you also have to remember to get out of it every now and then and to get back to nature.

Assuming that you are at the beginning of your career, have you already experienced different stages in your art-making where the references or approaches to creating changed? Can you describe them?

I try not to see myself as some sort of a master as I don’t want to stop learning. I am constantly changing and varying the way I work to achieve even more exciting results. Particularly when it comes to mural painting. I find that a singular and pragmatic working method is important to me to get to the end result as cleanly as possible in the least amount of time. In the studio, it is exactly the opposite. I try to allow time for errors, which often lead to new developments in creativity. 

Do you have any connection or history in classic graffiti style writing? If yes, how/when did the transformation to focusing on street art and studio art occur?

I don’t have a real graffiti heritage or past. 

How do you see classic graffiti style writing now?

I have a lot of respect for the graffiti scene. I know that without these roots and this beginning, I would probably not be able to paint walls as big as I do today. There are many styles I really like and always walk through the city with eyes wide open.

Do you have any goals or a timeline of what you want to achieve by when?

I definitely have small goals and targets, however, I don’t have any major end destination. The path is my destination. I don’t want to be rigid due to some sort of plan. I find it better to use the moment and to grow through those experiences. 

How important is the spray can to your art-making?

Without spray cans, my artwork wouldn’t exist. They are elementary to my style. 

Are there any particular artists that are making work or doing projects that you see as particularly inspiring or influential?

I am a fan of a lot of artists. However, I try not to allow that to polarize me. It is more places and historical buildings that I allow myself to be consciously inspired by.  

Is there anyone doing things you see as important for the future of fellow artists that work as you do?

Every artist makes a contribution so that we humans can continue to develop culturally.

Is there any idea or project that is your ultimate dream to achieve? A place, a festival, or a particular approach you want to make happen?

I would love to fly to Hawaii to participate in the POW WOW! Festival. But Asia is also an unwritten page for me. There are a lot of places that I still need to go to. 

What is your favorite Montana can and cap combination?

Montana BLACK Black with a Level 1 cap on it.

If, for some reason, you couldn‘t work with black anymore to create the outline or skeleton
to your works, which color would be the next in line? Or do you think this would force you to
change your approach?

Firstly, I hope that it would force me to change the way I think so I could develop further. But if we are just speaking on a comfort zone level, I think I would first reach for another color that was a dark alternative to black. 

What is the favorite type of food you like to eat in Berlin?

Örnek makes the best Lahmacun, and at New Arirang on Warschauer Str. you can eat delicious Korean food ; )

Interview by René van Kan; Photography by Alexander Krziwanie / MontanaCans,
Video by Robin Kachfi/ Gallion Film