RUNNING TO URBAN ART
When in Berlin, street art is a vital part of the city experience.
Walking down the street, you can be sure to see tags – even every other house serves as the canvas for an elaborate art piece. The belgian entrepreneur Laurent Petit is one, who knows murals very well and is on a mission to make it accessible to a broader audience. He hosts the so called Urban Art Runs, which bring together running and street art. He inspires people do discover art in their city while being active. During the runs he shares his knowledge about the artists, the craft and takes the participants on a colourful journey. One of his favourite murals, which he tends to show during his runs, is by the american artist James Bullough. The Berlin based painter is internationally successful and has seen the city and its artistic landscape evolve, needless to say, he also helped shaping it.
Laurent visited James in his Berlin-Mitte studio that is set in the highest storey of one of those typically old Berlin houses. There he got a glimpse of the newest artworks and sat down with James to talk about their take on street art, how music influences them and how they deal with the pressure of always being on and present on social media:
Laurent Petit James, How are you today?
James Bullough I am good, I just came back from Sweden where I did a mural. My finger is a bit tense but apart from that I am good.
LP How long does it take to do a big mural?
JB That one was about five storeys high and pretty much like a square. That took me 6 days but in those days you do like 12 days worth of work. In the Swedish summer, the sun is up at like 3am and it goes down at 11pm. So we were painting from 7am to 10pm and just had ten minutes of lunch. We were two people with two lifts.
LP Was it your first wall of the year?
JB It was my first wall in one year. The last wall I painted was in Las Vegas before my daughter was born. I took six months off. Right when my daughter was born, at the same time my wife and I got keys to our new appartment. So I said, no work for the next six months. So it was my first wall in over a year, actually.
LP Was it okay to get back to it?
JB It took some time to get back in, I was really nervous that it would be really hard to start again and I was painting in a sort of new style. I was doing something totally different that I ever did before. My paintings have now a peeling effect, like they are coming off the wall. So there is a broken style to it. My murals usually had this broken style. So I thought that I come back now after this break, showing a new style, it was scary.
LP I’ve been following your work for a long time because I liked your special style and also because of my street art blog Music On Walls. When I then moved to Berlin in 2017 I was actually looking for murals, I saw one of yours and I took a picture of myself in front of it and then I tagged you. So you re-tagged me and I thought it was a good time to start a conversation. So I asked you if I could come by and then a few days later I visited you in your studio. Since then we have always re-connected for events and stuff. That’s how we met, or do you have a different story?
JB I wanted to hear that story because I actually forgot it. Sometime people ask me to come to the studio just to say hi and pitch a project and I remember that you said to me that we should meet and I remember saying, but about what? I am totally fine to have people come over so I said sure, just come over. I remember thinking, what are we doing? What does he want to talk about, there was no agenda. But then you came and we just talked. So that was it and then we just kept on bumping into each other. And you take people to my mural with your runs, you show them the one near Bülowstraße.
JB This is particularly interesting because the mural is on the building in a way that no one would ever see it unless you know it’s there and you go straight to it. It is a bit unfortunate because it would be way more popular. It’s cool that you are taking people there.
LP That’s what is very cool about it because it is like a hidden gem. So it’s also a surprise moment for the people that take part in my run. So we are running past it and then I tell the people to look back and they suddenly see your impressive mural. And because it is on a parking place and you can actually go there, take pictures and I can explain the details.
JB How much do you talk about the artists actually when you do the runs?
LP I think the runs are not so much about running, it is a nice way to get to one place to another which is cooler than just walking or biking. Of course you have the fitness component but it’s nice to stop and explain something about the artist, the curator or who produced it. So I ask the artists before, what they would explain about their mural and I can share this story with the runners, which is nice. So I tell them also that they can interpret it the way they want. I will give insight from the artist but you can think about the message you see in it yourself too. So I talk about the technique, the colours and collaborations. Sometimes I have to remind myself not to get lost and talk too much also, haha. What I wanted to ask you, because we also connected over music. How important is music for your work?
JB So I think about this a lot. It is a complicated question, I’ll try to keep it simple. I also host a podcast about mural painting and artists and all this. On my show, Vantage point radio, we said that the artist always brings 4 songs and plays those songs during this one hour. So it is also about how music represents me, how it influences my artwork and action of making art. you can also ask my assistant Lucy, she has been working with me for over a year and we’ve been listening to every kind of music you could think of during that time. Just before you came we were in 30 minutes of strange african tribal beat. Mostly for me it’s hip hop and drum’n bass, also electronic music. When I started painting, music had a huge influence on the kind of paintings I made and as I am getting older and I have my own radio show, we listen to more podcasts rather than music. Listening to music for ten hours every day gets very boring. Which is weird because there are so many different kinds. It is nice to listen to people talking, like news, podcasts, books and so on. It is something different.
LP That’s true, the idea of audio books and podcasts. It stimulates your brain differently.
JB I am also the kind of person that sings a lot. I hardly realize that but when the music is playing and it is a song that I know, I am not even a little bit singing. I am really singing. I used to just work alone and now there is someone here with me.
LP When did you move to Berlin actually?
JB In 2010.
LP Why did you come here?
JB My story is quite long. In 2001 I spent a year travelling around the world and lived in Australia for a while. I met a German girl there and we got together and long story short, she was from Berlin. We spent five years living in different countries and then she came to live in the US with me. The whole time I was coming to Berlin to visit her and fell in love with the city. So Berlin in the 2000s, it was just so different and I was also 20 years younger. I just had to be there, for the art scene – so I moved here to be an artist. I knew that Berlin was the perfect place to do this. Maybe a naive thing to say – but it worked.
LP I started my blog when I was in Paris. It was tough, the people were not so open and it was hard to get into galleries and meet people. So I wanted to leave and I was searching for a city that was active in arts and music. Directly I thought, I have to try out Berlin. I also had contacts there and so I curated a show for the Urban Nation Museum. I got to know more artists and it evolved into my runs and the app that I am planning. Berlin for me is a really good place. I have no plans on leaving. What was the reason you stayed in Berlin?
JB One thing is because it is so cheap and I thought about moving back to the US because I have lots of family and friends there. Anywhere I would go it would be so much more expensive. Things went really good for me when I moved here, so the chances of becoming a painter were very low. You can be a painter everywhere but to be successful is another story. Berlin had a lot to do with my success – the people I met and opportunities I got. I never had the urge to leave, except for every winter and I am not even saying that as a joke. I am from Baltimore, Washington D.C., not even like Florida. It’s cold there too but we have the sun. I stayed in the beginning because I loved Berlin and it was really working to be here. Then I started having babies and now I feel it would be a really big deal to move.
LP For me, I didn’t know if I would stay when I first came here. But I grew my network and my friends. There are so many opportunities every day, if you have the drive for it – I could connect all my different projects with each other.
JB The low cost of living here helps you to do all the things you want to do. If I would have lived in New York, none of this would have happenend.
LP you don’t have to take on five jobs and can also enjoy your free time. There is no big difference between my work and my private life, it mixes a lot.
JB Except I have the problem that I can never turn it off. I don’t have a boss so I am always working. On the weekends I am trying so hard to not think about work all the time. I can’t say anything because then my wife and kids know that I am thinking about work. I work so much more since I have a business because I am afraid that if I don’t work all the time it might all fall apart. My brother is three years younger and I was still living in the U.S. and he was in a very successful band. They were touring all over and playing big shows. Eventually they were going to release this one, huge album and all the record labels wanted to sign them. It was growing and growing, and they worked so hard. When they finally finished they just had to take a break. So for a few months, they had to live their own lives. So after some time, they came back together and in the meantime they had lost all their momentum. The fans were not interested anymore and they just asked themselves what was happening and it all fell apart, the guitar player went to the army and none of them plays music anymore. So when I am painting and I take a couple of weeks off, I always think about that. I get super nervous and think about if people will still care. Like I said I took six months off and I have a huge solo exhibition in LA coming up, so I ask myself if people are going to come?
LP But that story is also kind of extreme…
JB Haha, yes. But you know what is also kind of extreme? One guy that has never painted moves across the world to be a painter and it works. It’s all fragile in every way.
LP Haha, true. A question I asked myself. Painting is your work but also your passion. Does it really feel like work?
JB Yes and no. It still feels like work but I enjoy doing it. It’s always with a deadline. I am not the kind of guy that shows up to the studio and just paints something. Everything I do is with a plan for six months. So I know which people are waiting for what and it’s fun – it’s better than doing my taxes or working for a dentist. But sure, for me it feels like work.
LP So you are very organised?
JB I have to be. I am so nervous that something is going to slip so I have to be organized.
LP How did you manage those six months then?
JB I moved into a new house, we built everything brand new and I had a baby so I was busy.
LP How did you entertain your fans within those six months?
JB I didn’t. So I’ll see if they forgot about me. Before I had my second baby, I was very active on social media so I would post something at least every one or two days. Now I don’t think about it because I have so much on my mind. So now I maybe do it once a week and I have to make the effort. We’ll see what happens. How do you handle social media? Do you ever detach?
LP It’s hard for me because I use it to make a living. I realized that there is an extra amount of time which doesn’t go into work. I have to get away from that, so that’s why I asked you about how you organize yourself. I am struggeling to detach and I was thinking if I should maybe only spend one hour a day on there and then only do work related posts. I have five accounts that I manage for all my different projects so there is always something going on, I am not complaining because it’s my own choice. But then yes, I get busy when I could actually do it in a different way.
JB One of the biggest things I did over a year ago was, that I turned off all of my notifications. I would check every five minutes when I would get a notification and would go down the rabbit hole. It happens to me all the time, even when I get an email and it reminds me of something that I want to find on Instagram so I pick up my phone and fifteen minutes later I don’t know what I was actually searching for. It feels good that I am not online enough anymore.
LP You mostly paint women. Can you tell me more about that?
JB I almost only paint women and I get asked quite often why I do that. It’s because they are fun to paint – I love painting skin. I know other artists that like to paint old people because they are fun to paint with the wrinkles. I like to paint smooth skin, also because it’s easier, haha. Women are beautiful and I’ve always been attracted to them so when I first started that was the obvious topic. I also love painting hair. My paintings are very much about hair moving, I paid a lot of dancers moving and I like to paint that. It’s hard but it’s fun. That’s mainly why I paint women: smooth skin and long hair. Lately I have been moving away from women and started playing with some other ideas. The question is now: do people care. These will be shown soon for the first time. So if people like them, I can start doing less women.
LP As an artist, are you at the point where you just do what you like or do you very much listen to what the audience likes?
JB The cool thing to say would be, that I don’t care what the buyers think. The reality is that I live off of this stuff. If people don’t like it then I am not living as good as I did before. I got lucky and discovered something that people really like. So much that they would buy every painting I ever made. Every artist wants to try new things, even the new pealing technique with the girls was very different from the fractured technique. I always try to be careful. So when I would move to a new direction I would do it slowly. From the fractured girls to the pealing girls which is a small step and then it makes the move to only the peal a lot easier. If I would move too fast, people would not understand it. I talk to a lot of artists that are doing lots of different things and they are having trouble getting momentum. So I guess it’s important to focus on one thing and push that and when the time is right you can slide into other directions.
Words JULIA DEUTSCH