The graffiti and street art worlds are notoriously shrouded in secrecy. Both scenes have spawned a few celebrities who received adoration from the mainstream press and often disdain from the circles they once moved in. We have briefly covered the fledgling Czech Street Art scene from a distance, commenting on the few artists contributing to the ever-changing movement, but never really had an insight into the secretive and apparently segregated creative circle. Czech-based Pasta Oner generously flung open the doors to his studio to walk and talk me through his personal creative processes and inspirations for his impressive body of work.
The 32-year-old artist has roots in the early 90s Czech graffiti explosion, and was very open and honest about his (often illegal) artistic apprenticeship during the few hours we spent together for this interview. Located in Prague 2, Pasta’s studio is housed in a regular building, an unassuming location for one of the country’s most promising street artists.
His cosy studio felt like a treasure trove of goodies. Pieces from Pasta’s various exhibitions and projects haphazardly decorated the walls and ceiling, mimicking the alfresco methods he employs to spread his art throughout the city and, these days, abroad. His gaudy slot machines (created for the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, where Pasta represented the Czech Republic with other prolific creatives) with hand guns, medicinal pills and handcuffs replacing the traditional fruit and coin selection, immediately caught my eye, serving as evidence of his unique view of everyday items. “That idea came about from my graffiti days. I would spend a lot of time in herna bars waiting for a right opportunity to paint a wall or simply waiting for friends. You see a lot of interesting things when you spend enough time there. So that’s where I got the inspiration.”
How does he feel about all the media attention? “It’s a really strange feeling, you know. I think back to my graffiti years as a youngster, having to do my art illegally or in secret. Now I’m traveling the world producing the same style of work and getting paid for it.” Irony indeed; Pasta is a living, breathing example of how the Czech Republic isn’t far behind the rest of the world when it comes to praising their alternative artists.
Pasta Oner grew up in the leafy suburbs of Prague 6; the youngster became fascinated with design, studying and mimicking the lines and styles of packaging. “I would literally spend hours reproducing the labels of sweets wrappers and drink cans brought back from foreign locations by my mother.” Pasta recalls fondly. The communistic regime at that time prohibited (or severely limited) exports and imports.
Fortunately for young Pasta, his mother’s role at a successful airline company resulted in her regularly traveling abroad and bringing back items for her appreciative son. “I was lucky, my mother was traveling a lot for work and would always bring back exciting gifts” the artist says. “I was fascinated with the colours, lines, and names of the items my mother would bring back from her trips.” The graffiti magazines filled with images of the New York streets, trains and subways literally overflowing with bright, vibrant colours and shapes inspired the young Pasta to dabble in the fledgling local scene. By 1993, Prague’s graffiti scene was in full swing with writers (graffiti artists) traveling from Germany and surrounding EU countries to take advantage of the relaxed laws on graffiti in the Czech Republic. The teenage Pasta soon found others to join him in his extra-curricular activities.
The graffiti scene was (and still is) very separated by the artists and their preferred medium. Certain writers prefer to ‘decorate’ walls, some opt for trains, some choose legal locations set aside by the local authorities, others favour the illegal spots. “There has always been a real feeling of separation between the different groups and their chosen mediums.” Pasta recalls. “People have really strong connections to their particular form and style. I will always observe and respect that.”
By the mid-nineties, a new medium had arisen. The street art phenomenon incorporates sculpture, stencil graffiti, sticker and poster art, video projection and street installations. By this time, Pasta had developed his style and begun branching out of his ‘traditional’ graffiti confines by moving into the newly formed street art realm. 2003 saw the opening of Pasta’s first exhibition: City Needs You. “People didn’t really get it”, says the 32 year old creative. “It was the first time that anything like this had happened in the Czech Republic, and everyone was a little unsure with the young artists’ offerings. “Back then the mainstream press had absolutely no interest in City Needs You, it was no more than a side note.” remembers Pasta.
These days, the artist is literally batting off the unwanted media attention; with a minimum of 4 exhibitions a year since 2008 the one time graffiti-kid has come a long way from the young boy fascinated with western packaging and pop art design. Does Pasta see any trace of that young inquisitive adolescent in his current creations? “I can definitely see elements of my early influences in my current work. I can see a steady progression within a lot of my street work, commercial work, and exhibitions.” He says proudly. “Even though my creative process and execution has changed slightly over the years, the basic feelings and message are still the same.”
Nowadays, Pasta has a few helping hands to assist him. Often, the sheer scale of his productions often requires a projector (to help him visualize lines and block colours) and a few assistants. Pasta is constantly developing, using the skill set he acquired during his graffiti apprenticeship and pushing it to new and exciting levels. Pasta’s 2011 Peep Show exhibition (The Chemistry Gallery, Prague) saw him using new mediums. Mid-nineties style graffiti outlines scored onto reflective silver foil surfaces, bold acrylic paints depicting the artists much-loved Tom & Jerry characters serving as evidence of the Pasta’s continual admiration and fascination with all things foreign.
Earlier this year, Pasta was invited by the Czech Embassy to the Museu Nacional Honestino Guimarães, Brazil to provide a piece for an exhibition of contemporary Brazilian art called “MAB – Dialogos da Resistencia” (Dialogues of Resistance). Pasta describes representing his country as “a great honour” but was quick to point out the irony of the situation. From his beginnings as a young graffiti artist, breaking the law to have his work seen, to becoming a respected and recognised artist.
There is no doubt in my mind that Pasta has and will continue to evolve artistically. During our chat he spoke excitedly about his forthcoming projects and concepts that will be strong steps in the right direction for both him as an artist and the Czech Republic as a whole. “It has been a slow but organic, artistic growth. I have changed and evolved as an artist and I feel increasing free to express my thoughts and feelings with each exhibition” declared the suddenly animated creative.
I would say that Pasta has always been one to watch, a provocative maverick in a traditionally fragmented sub-culture which is usually cloaked in secrecy but now operating in the limelight. I couldn’t help wondering how his story could have been different if not for the recent mainstream obsession with all things street art. Would he be labeled a menace rather than an artist? It’s a shame that it takes a change in trend to recognize talent. Either way, it would seem that Czech street art has its very own homegrown talent. Prague 6 should be proud!