Fantastic Artshub article by Rita Dimasi on Stormie Mills
When I met with graffiti artist Stormie Mills in Melbourne he was wearing a steel mouth grill, which was an homage (I think) to those famous steel-mouthed jaws we have seen on screen, mostly courtesy of a Bond movie or two.
Despite the startling look, or perhaps regardless of it, Mills seems a very likeable, quiet introspective sort of guy, and one who still seems to be marvelling over the level of success he has achieved in his career since he began painting the walls of public buildings in Perth with his graffiti art over twenty years ago.
Mills who was painting graffiti on the streets of Perth from the age of 12, is said to have failed art at high school (“they weren’t into graffiti like I was.”) and his early teenage years were troubled. His parents shipped him off to Wales to live with his grandmother.
The trajectory of Stormie Mills success is an unlikely story. When he first started painting there wasn’t really anyone in Perth doing what he was doing, he says, so he couldn’t pretend he didn’t have cans of spray paint in his cupboard.
He admits to being fairly honest about what was going on. Stuff would just appeared overnight, and some people that Mills knew, knew about it, and that was about it.
When he was 15, he went to live with my grandmother in a small town in Wales and it was an inspired piece of reverse colonialism, he remembers.
“My Grandmother made a lot of sense” says Mills. “She treated me with respect and made me feel responsible for myself. Instead of telling me to be home by a certain time and seeing me buck that rule, she would just ask me to let her know when I was coming home late. There was this sense of freedom and knowledge of being able to look after myself, and I got myself in a lot less trouble as a result.”
And because Mills was interested in painting, he eventually became involved with a nearby youth club in this little town in Wales, who then got him painting a bunch of walls. Mills also remembers the many graffiti jams organised on around the country at the time, one of which he helped bring to his youth club in Wales.
“We brought people from all over the UK to this small town to paint, and I kind of embraced it all and started getting involved with them. I also started painting sets for theatre companies. Then when I was 20ish I wanted to come back to Perth” he remembers.
This is all perfect back story for a street artist now turned successful collector’s choice, and when Mills spoke to ArtsHub, he was in Melbourne for the launch of Armadale based Metro Gallery’s On the Wall – International Street Art Group Show.
For Stormie Mills who has been working exclusively on his own work now for the last 12 years, it was always street art that grabbed his attention.
“Ever since I was a kid and failed art at high school, I was interested in Quentin Blake and I loved Roald Dahl. I loved those illustrations that were animated in the Yes Minister series. And I was always drawing. Then around the early 80s I saw a lot of graffiti from New York.
In was in late 1983 early 84 that Mills says he started to realise the scale of graffiti art. The more graffiti art he saw, the more this medium made sense to him, as did its immediacy. It was also a very unknown medium, particularly in Perth at that time, and Mills was finding his way in the dark. Something that seems to suit him nicely.
In contrast drawing and painting didn’t seem so immediate. Yet the transitory nature of graffiti art can also be frustrating for an artist who is clearly looking to leave a mark. Mills says he doesn’t have much documentation of his early work on the streets.
“I do feel for me personally that it’s very transient. It’s kind of like a shared experience except you don’t know the other people.”
“I remember when I was in Europe when I was younger and you would go to these cities and see some great graffiti art – like the scene at Covent Garden in London. I met people who were there when it was painted and have photos of what happened.”
Mills is referring to an incident in the mid 1980s, when the the Chrome Angelz (TCA), said at the time to be Britain’s most powerful graffiti crew graffitied Covent Garden and presented London’s first-ever graffiti art exhibition as part of the ‘Freestyle 85′ Hip-Hop event.
Now in 2010 Mills is not just a graffiti artist but a gallery fabourite, when asked to talk about how this transition evolved Mills says that for him it has always been about making the works – irrespective of where and how and for whom.
“I’ve only been called a street artist in recent years, before that I was a vagrant – a graffiti sprayer. It’s funny really – quite ironic.”
And even though he may have aspired to this end point from the very beginning, which Mills candidly admits he probably did, it is still nerve wracking to exhibit in a show, he says.
The belligerence of street art is overtaken by those anxiety inducing fears of whether people will like his work, and whether there would be sellers, or even whether the work was too expensive.
“Just putting your work out there” he says is stressful. “When you are at a show with your work, you don’t know what’s happening, if people like it or don’t like it. They are not going to come up to you to tell you”.
For Mills too, he doesn’t necessarily see himself as a graffiti artist with a political leaning, unlike the famous works by Blek LeRat or Banksy. Stormie Mills’ work is not anti establishment, although when he first started doing this in Perth in 1984, there was a lot of things happening to how his work was perceived, that was lost in translation he says.
“When I went to New York in 1986 I met a bunch of guys that were subway painters and I saw the work of Jenny Holzer and John Fekner. These people were the godfathers of street art. They had a movement, and I was so impressed by them that it certainly changed the way I was thinking and steered my work into another direction for which I am eternally grateful.
But according to Mills he prefers his work to be much more of an intimate experience. Something that you happen upon down a laneway or a street and the intimacy of that moment is important.
“I didn’t grow up in a big city. I went to London and New York when I was 16 years old, but I didn’t come along with that big city swagger. Essentially that’s represented in the work – that sense of isolation and loneliness”.
Indeed Perth is called the most isolated city in the world, and when asked if his work is an ode to Perth. Mills laughs. “It is in a lot of ways. I love the city. I still live there. It’s a great place to live and grow up. My work, particularly with those large flat plains of colour, of grey, is an ode to the city and the scale of the city – because you wouldn’t see the whole building.”
He does however remember feeling isolated there and not part of the rest of the world.
“I was a loner as a kid anyway, but I did get the sense that even in the big cities like London and New York, you could still live in them and still be alone. Alone in a crowd”.
Nowadays Stormie Mills’ work is represented in London, Los Angeles, Berlin, Birmingham, Melbourne and Perth. In fact his list of successes to date is truly impressive. From being invited to participate in a show in London to launch the Thames and Hudson publication Graffiti World where he also spoke at the Museum of Contemporary Arts, London, to in 2002 being invited to create large scale murals across Greece in preparation for the Olympics, to a series of commissions across London, Los Angeles, and in 2003 being invited to produce a limited edition in Tokyo and New York which in now highly collectable.
And isolation is not necessarily a bad thing we both agree. There is a power and containment in isolation and the way Mills paints as well as the works he creates that is neither isolationist nor of loneliness. As Professor of Contemporary Art and Dean of Art at the John Curtin Centre, Curtin University, Professor Ted Snell said of Mills when opening his show in 2003. “There is a sense of poignancy and a sense of familiarity that makes his commentary very pertinent and engaging.”