Berlin, July 2012: Since 1998, the Berlin-based street art and design collective KLUB7 has been showcasing their work -- a mixture of pop art, street grunge, and childlike playfulness -- on street fronts and in store fronts. The collective's style emerges from a intentional democratic synthesis of its six members' six distinct styles, which is how they've been able to stay together for more than a decade. True to their street art roots, they spend a lot of their time on free, public art projects, although they're also pragmatic enough to know they can't live off of creating free art. However, instead of turning to the gallery, they choose to take on projects for businesses looking to bring a bit of street to their brands. They've customized everything from television sets and skate decks to album covers and entire stairwells in posh hotels. While they could easily sell their street work too, they say they like creating original pieces for commercial businesses because they are intentionally keeping their commercial and anti-commercial styles separate. It's a kind of code-switching that allows them to stay true to their principles while making a living as well. As perhaps another subversive twist to the necessary evil of commodifying their work, they say they never market themselves for commercial jobs which frees up more time for what they want to do: create. It hasn't been an unsuccessful business model either. They've been courted by some of the world's largest corporations including Google, Mercedes Benz, and Hugo Boss. We sat down with KLUB7 to find out about their latest projects, their working dynamic, and how their work endures its own ephemerality.
KLUB7 chalking the Williamsburg Bridge, Brooklyn, 2012. Courtesy of the artists.
Max Nesterak: You recently released a video of your trip to New York where you chalked the Williamsburg Bridge in Brooklyn. I love the idea of chalk. It's more temporal, more ephemeral than paint, but it's not illegal. And ironically that seems to be the most subversive part of your chalkings: that they're not illegal. How did you get the idea for this project?
KLUB7: The idea of using chalk is very old. We often try out different techniques, like in an art project we did in Vienna and Basel 2007. Then we lost interest for a short while and explored it again in 2010 while drawing spontaneous phrases on a playground near our studio just for fun. Chalking is on the border of public space and private spaces. Most people like it when we draw on the sidewalk. Drawing with chalk is like a clever solution to unfriendly experiences -- increased surveillance, fines and numerous campaigns against tagging and other media, including posters, stickers and stencils.
MN: What was your intention? What did you want people to get from this experience?
KLUB7: There are several reasons for our choice of this perishable material. First, it is tolerated by the police and passersby which allows spontaneous work in public space. Also the childlike charm and the unlimited availability of the material, the economic use, the speed of drawing. We like the possibility of directly i nteracting with passersby and the architecture. The experience of perceiving the streets has changed for us since we have started working with chalk. We climb between our drawn lines -- you're concentrating and listening very closely. Some passerby respect what we draw, some ignore it or do not even see it. If the art piece is destroyed by cars, bicycles, pedestrians, or rain, it is a natural process. We accept that. It's the process of doing art that is important to us.
MN: As I was watching clips of the video, you all started and kept going until you had created this incredible piece. How much planning goes into your work before you start?
KLUB7: The necessary foundation for the successful synthesis of our styles is a good idea. In the beginning we agree on a design concept before we start the artistic process. This is also the most sensitive point which must be overcome, because in most cases many of us have our own ideas for a good composition. So we decide democratically and according to the principle of variety. But the chalk-pieces are very spontaneous and there is no time to plan or make sketches before.
KLUB7 mural commission for a bakery in Williamsburg/Brooklyn, in New York; courtesy of the artists.
MN: Each of your styles is distinct and then the collective's style is really distinct as a whole too. Your work seems to be more than just a collection of several styles but rather a synthesis of creative energy. How would you describe your collective's style?
KLUB7: We find it very useful that our different talents complement each other -- so we all offer our own original ideas. We know the skills of others and can focus on their interests. All of us are able to draw some basic vocabulary of abstract symbols, characters or letterings. It can even remix the motives of others. By confronting our styles, we are also constantly challenged to respond spontaneously to the others to find what is inspiring for new ideas. The last time [we worked] we developed many patterns. They often use the same elements but in a new combination. So there is another rhythm in the picture. We play with the forms and contrasts and try out what we later use for other art pieces.
MN: What really stands out are your various typographies. You do do a lot of handwritten signs for businesses. Where does your love for typography come from?
KLUB7: It came from our love for graffiti in the early 90´s. Later we met Otto Baum in Berlin. He was lost in letters. Now he is a member of KLUB7 since 2004. He creates most of the hand lettering.
MN: Now Klub7 has been around since 1998. How have you stayed together this long?
KLUB7: From 1998 -- our founding year -- the combination of artists has changed. The founding members include Dani Daphne, Kid Cash, Mike Okay and diskorobot. Later came Lowskii and Otto Baum. The current constellation of KLUB7 members has been the same since 2004. The reason why we stay together is that we are friends. We have many of the same interests and respect the power of the group.
MN: You've done work for huge international corporations including Mercedes-Benz, Hugo Boss, BMW, Google, Levis and yet you don't actively advertise your services. How do people find you? And what's it like being sought after by these international name brands without even trying?
KLUB7: We never search for agencies or customers. We just show our work on the internet, magazines, books and keep our network updated. Thats one way to get jobs. Someone asking us [to do a job for them] is a better situation than us asking for jobs.
MN: Part of the ethos of street art, something that you frequently mention, is being non-commercial and anti-establishment. How do you stay true to your street art roots or have you sold out?
KLUB7: We invest about half of our time in free projects and the remaining fifty percent in commercial projects. To be honest, we cannot live from selling art in a gallery. We do illustration jobs for commercial brands, shops, bars, clubs, and events. Brands want to bring our image to their label. We do estimates for customers who give us the feeling that they really respect our work and pay decently. We do not refuse working with brands, as long as we are able to execute our ideas and our style. We take great care [to keep] a good relationship between free and commercial projects. One important factor for us is that we do not use our art elements from the street for commercial projects, for instance chalk as our technology for anti-commercial messages.
MN: Obviously it's a balancing act between wanting to create free, urban street art and needing to earn a living. How have you seen other artists or collectives negotiate the line between being subsumed by the commercial art world and staying true to the non-commercial ideologies of the street art movement?
KLUB7: We know so many artists coming out of the street art-scene and making commercial jobs now. They also can´t live from their sales in galleries. These artists who can live from that are in the situation to sell directly their famous style which they are known for on the streets. I could imagine that this is more a feeling of selling out the private stuff coming out of your heart. So for us it´s the same. Selling in a gallery or jobs for brands is the same. The difference for us is that we can change our styles, be playful, and try out new ideas when we work with brands.
KLUB7, edding art 4 retract – PERMANENT MARKER 2010 | Europe, more info: www.artseries.com
MN: Your business model is political and subversive in that you try to spend a lot of your time creating free art. Is the content of your art ever political and subversive as well?
KLUB7: We draw our common vocabulary of hand-painted symbols, characters, and letterings. So we just show what we think or feel at that time. Often it is very abstract and without any fixed main message. So it needs the interpretation of the people who see it. On the other hand we want to give the people a special view of the aesthetic of their streets or the various surfaces in their public space. We try to make some points in the city for a short time interesting.
MN: You've said you spend a lot of time maintaining your online presence by constantly updating your blog, flickr, facebook, twitter, etc. How do you use new technology to create and promote your work and why is it so important for street artists to be using these tools?
KLUB7: Street Art is an ephemeral art, especially our chalk projects. So the internet is the best way to preserve and document what is otherwise only available for a few single people.
ArtSlant would like to thank KLUB7 for their assistance in making this interview possible.
(Image on top: KLUB7 + 44flavours; all images courtesy KLUB7.)