14th August 2012


Feature interview from VERY NEARLY ALMOST magazine issue 11. First published 15.04.2010 Words by Geoff Whitehouse

Heels and Hearts
“70%, maybe more, of the ‘street art’ I see makes me ill. But then so does a lot of the graffiti I see. The ‘street art’ has no artistry, just a total waste of space. It’s boring, with no thought or process and quite often displaying very little skill.” INSA may well be highly opinionated, sometimes even contradictory, but he’s also always interesting and an artist who goes to great lengths to explain where he’s coming from. And that’s not meant as a criticism; it’s highly refreshing in a world of bland statements. A world of blogs and boards that hype anything that moves, of statements as insightful as “that’s so fresh” and “he killed it on that”. What’s more, it’s not like he’s saying it be controversial, or in an attempt to make a name or create some sort of persona. It quite clearly comes from his huge passion for art and the process of creation, whether that is artwork or a pair of shoes. This at refreshing honesty manifests itself the longer you talk to him. What can at first appear to be an off- the- cuff remark is actually the result of someone who has taken great pains to consider each piece that’s being created, who it’s created for and where it will be seen.

Getting started early
Some say Apparently TV and the lack of parental control is to blame for the state of modern society leading to what the mainstream considers to be vandalism, including graffiti and street art. You could blame the parents. But then so to, with a smirk, does the man himself. “Oh yeah it’s definitely my mother’s fault. I mean I was just this kid interested in art and she bought the Subway Art book for me and that was it. I did remind her of that on the numerous times I was in court for graffiti.” “I also saw these guys on TV doing stuff with paint and it was like the light bulb went on. That was it! That was what I wanted to do…so I basically went out grabbing whatever I could…household paint, CarPlan whatever, you know, and just created a mess.” If you have a vision of heels and hearts plastered over town you couldn’t be further from the truth. This early work was “rubbish toy scribbles” but that wasn’t really the point. The fuse had been lit and no one and nothing, – not even various arrests and spending time locked up for graffiti – were going to stop INSA from fulfilling his need to draw, to paint and hit up walls. “It was freedom…not some bullshit freedom of expression but just being out there, doing my thing. Hitting walls, tracksides, just learning how to make paint do what I wanted it to do. With that came a lot of crap, a lot of terrible pieces but they all led to where I am now.” “At the time I felt like I was the only one doing it. There was no internet to spread the word, so you learnt your craft and gained respect for the work and nothing else. Not how you looked, not how you acted…it was simply about what you put on the wall and at that time it took needed skill to do that. I think people often forget that…” INSA shuffles slightly in his seat with an intense look on his face. Looks around and sips his coffee, clearly thinking about of these early times. “I feel like a lot of that has been lost to be honest.” He doesn’t need to add ‘to be honest’ though because it’s obvious the way he in which he passionately describes art, defends it from what he seems as a creeping laziness. “At the moment the whole ‘graff vs street art’ mentality seems to be taking over. It’s interesting to me because clearly I come from a graffiti background. There is no denying that. But at what point does it become street art? “Too many people try and follow certain routes. I tried to forge my own path and to me that is more important than anything, in spite of the ways that other people should choose to categorise it. I prefer to be defined as an artist…I don’t feel I fit into any one category. I purposely don’t follow up a lot of my ideas if I think they are derivative of the cliché street art look. I think the most important thing is being original.” He sips his coffee again and looks around… “When I started, you had hardly any paints or any of that. No different caps; graffiti was about making tools do the reverse of what they were meant to- like clean lines from spray paint and drippy lines from marker pens. You had to be resourceful and really think about how to achieve that. Now all you need is a shop selling a certain marker and ‘hey, instant drippy style’. It’s cool but it’s a bit like taking a short cut rather than understanding how things work.”

The evolution from letters to objects
For years INSA hit the streets, predominantly in South East London, creating some big pieces and refining his style as he went. “I think the 3D letters were about as good as I got in ‘graff’ where I’d developed this style and felt like I had the technique down to the point I could just about hold my own against the people I admired, you know? ‘Yeah I can rock a burner’…but I kinda got into a rut where I was doing them almost to the point of boredom.” Impatience seems to be a virtue for INSA, helping him to stay fresh and challenge himself with new projects, new styles and new collaborations. It was out of this need to change things up that arguably his most recognisable style emerged – the heel motif. At once a swirl of colours and shapes, it also maintains a definite form that seems equally at home on a tee as it does on a wall. “Pretty much yeah…I took the lettering to the point where my patience kinda went and I had to just do something else. I got bored with the notion of writing my name as some sort of statement and wanted to give it something different that you couldn’t instantly connect to someone. I dunno, just more obscure almost like a separate entity or identity, so that the heels eventually became ‘INSA’. It’s reached a point where it has become my tag without being my name and I love that.” The heels have indeed taken on a life of their own with huge heeled walls painted from LA to the heart of Tokyo, but now while there are still some big INSA pieces on the streets, he’s noticeably less prolific in that arena. But that doesn’t mean the fire has gone, or his the desire to create art. Now INSA’s creative outlets are simply broader, is likely to rangeing from collaborative clothing, furniture and exhibitions through to his own brand of shoes as much well as it would blank walls city streets. Creativity (or lack of), KAWS and kicks These creative outlets have led some to accuse him of no longer ‘being ‘true’ to his roots’. Rather than take offencse at the suggestion, INSA sits back and mentions how he admires artists such as Delta and KAWS, the latter of whom has his own clothing range and is as famous for his celebrity collectors as he is for his gallery shows. The whole question of ‘value’ is also one that INSA is keen to explain discuss and as in his view it’s leading artists to taking short cuts. “Now what once was a subculture based on peer appreciation is now rated on money. People’s rating of artwork has been skewed by ‘X’s work goes for this much, and Y’s only for this much’. It’s messed up and that has led to a decline in talent in my view. Artists, myself included, feel the pressure to get shows, do prints, make money and get a reputation. The pressure and expectation to succeed on a financial level doesn’t allow people to develop as artists.” “I think this is maybe my bone with the ‘street art world’. To me, before you can attempt to subvert or mix things up you have to learn your craft – not just use empty slogans and clichéd images. That’s why I really respect artists like KAWS, Honet, ESPO and Delta. They are on a different level. Yeah they have progressed away from traditional graffiti, but they put the work in.” “From there they’ve evolved to something altogether different, I mean it’s no longer graff or street art, it’s something all of its own. To me you can’t get to that sort of level, or even close without knowing and mastering the basics. Now people see KAWS or someone and think it’s easy to just do some abstract graff or make a toy without realising why those guys are the masters of what they do.”

The commodity contradiction
INSA certainly shares a few similarities with KAWS in that both have openly embraced collaborative projects with well- known brands. Both have at one time or another been accused of ‘selling out’ by aligning themselves to firms such as Nike. It also appears, at first glance, a huge contradiction to on the one hand embrace projects with the likes of Nike while a minute later passionately advocate the rejection of commercialism in favour of bartering and exchange of goods. “It’s almost expected of you as an artist to become a commodity. Think about it…to be a ‘fan’ suggests ownership, the ability to buy that limited print or painting. In an ideal world there wouldn’t be monetary levels put on things but that’s not a reality unfortunately. We live in a capitalist system and I’m fascinated by the contradictions we face as individuals of what we like and do and what we know is wrong.” But perhaps the real answer to that, as with so much surrounding INSA, is a contradiction. Yes, he’s worked with some big corporations but he’s also tried his hardest to do it on his own terms. Witness the Nike tie-in show “‘Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places’” where the very title of the exhibition goes some way to show the existential nature of INSA’s work, plus the slightly- less- than- official accompanying t-shirt shows he’s not just bowing down to the big brand. “Yes I work with Nike. I think they are a great representative of this kind of creative contradiction. On one hand they are a global corporation focused on making money and taking over the world- – but then on the other hand they have had some of the best designers, artists and creative innovators work for them and so there is a level of prestige and honour being asked to do work for them.” “This fascinates me and although yes on one level it could be seen as just a collaboration with a brand that manifests itself as an item of clothing, that doesn’t mean I haven’t thought long and hard about what it means and how I should approach that work. So naturally I want to slightly bite the hand that feeds but also explore this huge contradiction both in the world at large and also my work itself. Working with clients is just as much about using them as much as they use you as an artist to piggyback on your perceived credibility or to reach certain audiences.” “But that is what’s crucial to all those types of projects, I have to get what I wanted out of them too otherwise I wouldn’t do it. I wouldn’t just work with anyone. I mean it’s a school kid’s dream to have your own name in the Nike logo, so I did it. My inner twelve- year- old got a massive thrill from that!” Then there’s the subject matter itself. INSA is often identified with the curvaceous lady, whether they be rocking a pair of his Nikes, filling one of his swimsuits or indeed reclining on a chair he’s designed. “Looking at naked chicks…we do it, we know it’s wrong because they’ve become objectified but we still do it. I see it as very similar to the commodity issue earlier so I often link the two in my work. “ ‘I’m interested in the idea of ownership of objectification- – how products can take on this sexualised identity. It’s an identity quite far removed from the majority of real women and real lives and more connected with excessive consumerism or an unrealistic projection of wealth. So in my work and also the photography that accompanies a lot of the ‘lifestyle’ stuff , I’m playing around with these ideas. It’s all quite tongue in cheek, and an illusion of course; so different to what I actually want out of life – like happiness and a family.” “That said, I do realise some people will like my work purely because it’s tits and trainers. I don’t mind if that’s what people like in my work. I never like to dictate what people should get from my work and I like it to be enjoyed on whatever level the viewer wants to see it. It’s just that personally that’s not what I’m trying to do with it, ultimately.”

Evolving styles and the notion of success
Perhaps one of the most striking elements of INSA’s work is not only the amount he’s put out there in various guises but the evolution of his work from canvas and prints into what could more loosely be defined as ‘installations’. It also shows the contradiction again. I mean INSA is definitely a graffiti artist to me at least but is there a point where it no longer becomes that? Is a black and white striped room with a silver sculpture street art? There’s plenty of arguments about that but really art should only ever be split into two categories:, good and bad. “These days if I do a show I don’t want to just do 12 canvases…why restrict myself to this square or a piece of wood? Art is about freedom without restrictions and that’s why I first got into graffiti and bombing. So why now, years down the line, do I want to lose that? I want to take the entire room as the canvas and go to town on it.” “What’s more, I feel canvases are purely a commodity. Large artworks have become little more than stocks and shares. Being an artist is trying to escape the notion of monetary value and instead be creative. And it also goes back to my life as a graffiti writer where your art only exists for the time and in photos and memories.” Now he’s reached a certain level of success it is clear that, aside from the large ventures with Nike, he’s also keen to pursue more independent routes to deliver his own, more personal projects such as his range of shoes. In some respects it’s clear that he is using the money gained from big clients to do his own thing, his own way. “The heels came from a need to be independent. I could have done a collab with someone,

I could have just as easily made more trainers with any number of companies but I wanted to do something truly independent and on a smaller scale. “ “If I want a pair of shoes to represent me then high heels do that far more than a collaborative trainer. It’s an exercise in creating a high -quality collectable product rather than any sort of grand money making scheme.” Not that he’s stopped with the bootleg ideas either, creating his very own ‘Swap Shop’ to get around any cease- and- desist orders. The rules are pretty simple, it’s open to anyone and the best 100 items sent to INSA get a tee in return. “It’s about taking money out of the equation completely,” he explains with a smile. But even with him striking out on his own with projects, it’s inevitable that people will look at how successful these projects have been in terms of money. Then there’s always the notion of success now that street art and graffiti are seen by some as a way to make big money. So how does he think he’ll be remembered? “Wow... that’s deep… haha… it’s not something I’ve really contemplated, at least not consciously. You know ‘hey is that an INSA piece? Who?…oh, yeah, that dude obsessed with tits and ass, right...” He chuckles then leans in. “…honestly, all I ever knew was that I wanted to be creative, have a happy life and not get a ‘proper’ job, I just couldn’t do it. Fifteen years later I still haven’t had one.” Whether you’re a fan of INSA or not, whether or not you like or even agree with where he’s coming from; you really can’t say fairer than that.

INSA is a fine artist and designer who has established himself from a graffiti background through extensive street level work and gallery shows around the world. Throughout his career, INSA has allowed himself to explore different approaches and outlets for his artistic agenda, including designing signature collections for brands such as Kangol, Kid Robot and Oki-Ni, as well as starting his own heel company ‘INSA HEELS’. He has undertaken many private commissions for clients such as Sony and Nike and was recently invited out to Sweden as one of only two British artists to help curate and sculpt the 2008/2009 ICE hotel.

INSA’s canvases and installations are often hyper real, finely crafted creations in which sexual desire and commodity-fetishism merge and contrast.

Always with a heavy sense of irony, INSA visually exaggerates the notion of objectification meets commodification with graphically depicted oversized body parts that are suspended in the controlled architectural lines of a sneaker or bold black and white graphic patterns. INSA uses these powerful patterns to play with and distort the spaces where his work is installed to entice the viewer into the ‘fantasy’; a shallow fantasy of materialistic aspiration where sexual objectification is flaunted as a symbol of wealth and success.

We’ve teamed up with INSA to present an exclusive ‘Photo Print’ artist tee series from his infamous ‘Girls On Bikes’ project featuring the three ‘London Girls’ Vicky, Layla and Emily.

CLICK HERE to view all the tees. Enjoy!