Above born Tavar Zawacki is a Berlin-based international contemporary artist. Tavar Zawacki was born in California in 1981 and has been creating public art since 1995. Zawacki is best known for three different styles of street works, his multi-layer, full color social and political stencils, colorful abstract arrow compositions, and large text-based painted murals. Zawacki's stencil and text-based artworks usually have a strong message or awareness about social, political, or international current events, while his abstract works are a visual language of shape, color, and form. Tavar Zawacki began painting graffiti by tagging 'ABOVE' graffiti on freight trains in California in 1995. At the age of 19, Tavar moved to Paris, France, where he started painting his trademark arrow icon pointing 'above'. During the past 17 years Tavar Zawacki has painted artworks in the streets of over 100 cities in 60 different countries around the world.
Early career (1995–2003)
By his own account, Tavar Zawacki was born and raised in California. Tavar states that art and music were practiced and encouraged by both parents at an early age. At age fifteen, Tavar started spray painting the letters A-B-O-V-E on freight trains in California. Three years later, Tavar changed from painting traditional letter graffiti to an arrow symbol that pointed 'above'. In an interview he stated that he thought it was useless to paint the side of a fast moving train with letters if nobody could read it. Tavar said he wanted something that could be seen and understood in a fraction of a second regardless of how fast it was moving. In 2001, at the age of 19, Zawacki moved from California to Paris, France. At that time Paris was home to street artists like Zevs, Invader, Stak, Honet and Andre. Tavar and the other Parisian artists were part of a movement in street art that was heavily based on characters and logos rather than more traditional letter based graffiti. In 2003, Tavar returned to California where he started installing hanging wooden arrow mobiles.
Travels and artworks
Following his arrow mobile project, the artist went on a self-titled "U.S.A. Tour" in 2004. He drove 5,000 miles (8,000 km) across the United States hanging 300 plus arrow mobiles in 14 major cities. It was during Zawacki's self titled, U.S.A. tour that he introduced elements of word play by writing a word on both sides of the spinning arrows to suggest a dialog. Zawacki has declined to respond to questions about how he is able to hang his mobiles so high, saying, "I value and respect that we all have imaginations and for me to interfere with what your imagination would be wrong."
After finishing the U.S.A. Tour, Tavar returned to Europe in 2005. When asked in an interview why he did not hang his arrow mobiles in Europe after his U.S.A. tour, he responded, "In the United States there are an almost infinite amount of overhead telephone wires and street cables. However I was unsure of how the different European countries 'overhead' wires and supports were so I decided to evolve the wooden arrows I made in Paris in 2002 and focus on putting these on elevated walls around Europe while at the same time observing and researching more about the overhead wires in all the countries I visit." Zawacki visited 15 countries during his 4-month long European tour, installing around 500 of the larger wooden fabric arrows.
After returning to California, Tavar began planning a new tour, which he called a 'Sign Language Tour'. By his own reports, Above counterfeited Eurail tickets for the tour, which spanned 6 months and 26 countries. Zawacki's sign language tour focused almost exclusively on his wordplay sign language arrow mobiles, which were made from fabric glued onto the wood with stenciled four letter words on each side. Tavar is quoted saying 'sign language is a form of communication using movements instead of sound. I found a lot of charm and power knowing that the arrow mobiles when hung are constantly moving around, most of all spinning around and around. It made logical sense to paint 1-word on each face of the arrow so conceptually speaking when the wind would spin the arrow mobile there would be a small word play dialog to anyone who looked at it." Zawacki customized arrows to certain countries language such as French (J'ai/faim, chez/vous), Spanish (Hace/sol, como/esta) German (uber/alle) and Italian (ciao/ciao)."
In 2007, Zawacki expanded from the word play of the previous year by painting much larger word play murals on the sides of buildings in South and Central America. He said in an interview that he wanted to return to painting letters, like the traditional graffiti he did when he was younger, but instead of painting his name, he wanted to paint word-based art that was site specific and which could easily be read and connect with. Tavar funded his 'South Central Tour' by working as a waiter in a restaurant in Alaska for four months in spring 2007. Zawacki's south central tour lasted about five months, starting in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, spanning 18 cities in 13 countries, and ending in Mexico City, Mexico.
In September, Tavar traveled to Lisbon, Portugal, where he painted his "Giving to the poor" stencil commenting on social issues of homelessness. Zawacki stated "Every day I walked by this bank ATM machine and this particular homeless woman was sitting in the same place every day begging for money. I found it sadly ironic that just six feet away from here there were people lining up to withdraw money. The sharp social and economic clash inspired me to make this piece." In October 2008, Tavar returned to California, when the New York Stock Exchange (NTSE) took a drastic crash, marking a worsening of the 2008 recession. Tavar stenciled on the exterior of a Washington Mutual building (one of several banks that collapsed during this period) an image of the NYSE bar graph with a downward sloping red line that went all the way down into the street gutter, mimicking the results that occurred just a few days before.
In April, Zawacki created a stenciled mural depicting four children searching for "Easter AIGs" in response to the breaking scandal surrounding American International Group and the degree to which it profited from the 2008 bailout.
In May 2009, Tavar started another tour of Europe lasting four-months. This tour did not seem to have a title as with most of Zawacki's previous tours. In July, he painted a social and political stencil piece titled 'Bridging the divide' directly on the Berlin Wall where the artwork depicted a young girl jumping up trying to grab a bouquet of flowers from a person on the other side of the Berlin wall while a smiling guard looked on. This piece was painted on the 20th year anniversary of the Berlin wall being torn down.
In August 2009, Zawacki returned from Europe and moved to Portland, Oregon, where he started a charitable project involving the homeless population the city. He stated in an interview, "I wanted to address and draw more attention to the homeless crisis here in Portland. I wanted to learn more about this homeless epidemic by listening directly to the homeless community on an individual person to person level. During the month of November, 2009 I rode my bike around Portland wanting to listen to homeless individuals that wanted to share their story and suggestion on what shelters really help out with services as well as where I should donate the money fund raised from this 'Homeless not hopeless' print."
In January 2010, Zawacki went to La Havana, Cuba, to make a site specific stencil commenting on the recent earthquakes in the neighboring country of Haiti. Zawacki and Blek le Rat did an indoor gallery show together at the White Walls Gallery in San Francisco on 1 May 2010. This was the only time Tavar has worked inside a gallery space. Tavar was still using his street name 'ABOVE' for this exhibition. White Walls gallery wrote, "It is only because of Blek le Rat’s strong desire to show alongside him that Tavar finally conceded to his premier indoor exhibition." The exhibition displayed themes and techniques Tavar had previously developed for his outdoor works.
In January 2011, Zawacki flew to Sydney, Australia, to prepare for his first solo show, titled Here today gone tomorrow. In the press release for the exhibition, Tavar said that his older brother had died in an accidental car crash just three months before and the solo show's themes were the fragility of life, death and how important it is to live each day to the fullest. Tavar said, "I’ve been consistently traveling the world and the theme "here today gone tomorrow" applies to how I have been living my lifestyle for the past 10 years. It's hard to say goodbye when traveling and even harder when you don't even get the chance. I was deeply moved by the loss of my brother to make the new body of artworks that dealt with the fragility of life, death and how important it is to live each day to the fullest." Zawacki translated this theme into his artworks via large wooden arrows with a collage element and screen printed image of a celebrity that had died at an early age.
In October at the height of the global Occupy Wall Street protest, Zawacki flew to Miami, U.S.A., and did a city block-long word play that read "Give a wall St. Banker enough rope and he will hang himself." In addition, he added a hanging effigy of a suited banker to the installation. While being interviewed by the Daily Mail, he said, "I tried to clothe him and dress him up as if he was what I imagined a Wall Street banker might wear, it was the cherry on the top of the word play installation." He continued to say, "It's extremely shocking which is part of the point as well. I think it is really gone too far, but then again I think it's my retaliation to how far Wall St, has gotten in general. It is shocking to me when I look at these numbers when I see that one per cent of the people have all of the money." Zawacki explained that he was inspired by the proverb "If you give a fool enough rope, he will hang himself" and simply adapted it to fit the theme. When NBC news did a news report on Zawacki's Wall St. piece, he told them "You don't have to read it, you can just get it immediately when you see it. It's extremely aggressive and that's actually the point." Zawacki's final reply was "Everybody's entitled to their own opinion, and some people will praise it, others will deny it and criticize it and shoot it down, but the point being is that it's getting people talking about the movement."
In February, Zawacki traveled to Johannesburg, South Africa, where he painted a mural commenting on the illegal blood diamond trade. Zawacki painted the message ‘Diamonds are a woman’s best friend and a man’s worst enemy’ on the exterior wall of Jewel City, one of the world’s largest diamond exporters. The site specific message was 3-metres tall and nearly 80-metres in length, spanning the entire city block.
The story of how Zawacki was able to trick the owner's of Jewel city and paint such a large message on the exterior of their building wall without any trouble was, in the artist’s words, a "jewel heist" of his own. Tavar said, "I was able to get away with this diamond wall heist because I told the owners I would paint in big letters 'Diamonds are a woman's best friend' on the exterior of their building. The owners loved the idea and all quickly agreed." According to Tavar, the owners did not bother to step outside and inspect his work until after it was done.
In an interview with a reporter from ABC News, Tavar said, "I decided to take it upon myself to lie and twist the truth as I felt that making this massive painting seen, and topic of blood diamonds talked about more, would justify my actions. I have justified my lying as I feel it created a powerful social and political piece."
In July, Zawacki had a solo exhibition at the Metro Gallery in Melbourne, Australia, titled 'Jet Set'. The show centered on 10 cities from around the world that have significantly impacted or shaped Tavar during his travels.
Amidst the Eurozone financial crisis, Tavar flew to Zaragoza, Spain, in September to paint a 120-foot long stencil mural of a queue of silhouettes accompanied by the statement '24% Desempleados' (24% unemployed in English) that were waiting in line for the unemployment office. This social, political and time sensitive mural addressed the hard financial times that Spain was facing with its highest unemployment rate in the world. At the time that Tavar painted this mural 24.6% of Spaniards were unemployed; for under-25 year olds, 53% were unemployed.
In August, in London, England, Zawacki created a time relative stencil titled 'Timing Is Everything', a full color stencil painted on the side of a wall depicting a break dancer positioned upside down, with his arm extended down. At night, the context of the stencil is 'activated' by the street light and shadow of a street pole. The stenciled break dancer is now seen in a context of balancing himself on the shadow of the street sign's shadow. Tavar, quoted in an interview, said, "I’ve been wanting to paint this stencil for about 7–8 months. With all of my stencil works they exist in a site-specific context. I had been looking for this fixed shadow and high visibility location for the past 8 months during my global travels. I finally found the perfect shadow in Shoreditch area of London."
According to Tavar, the main reason why "the perfect shadow" was so elusive was "Location, Location, Location". A month earlier, in July, Tavar had found a shadow in Paris that was "good" but was "off the beaten path". Tavar writes, "Even though we live in a world where the vast majority of people receive information and images on their computer screen (like now) or in print, I still am old fashioned and want my art works to be in heavily trafficked areas."
The majority of Zawacki's street works have topics of social or political issues suggested in the artworks. "The Timing Is Everything stencil here in London was void of any political or social message," Tavar said. "But what it did have was an interaction with the city, and how things change or alter from day to night. It shows how something invisible during the day, can be visible at night and be the platform for a piece of work, like the break dancer to incorporate into the artwork."  Zawacki closes the interview with "My main intention and goal with this piece is to have people re-evaluate their surroundings and how literally, timing is everything." 
In June, 2014 Tavar Zawacki was one of twelve international artists invited to paint at Artscape, mural event held in the city of Malmö, Sweden. Tavar painted a mural titled 'Metamorphosis' on an eight story tall building in a style replicating the color printing process of CMYK. In an interview Tavar described his mural, "I've been interested for many years now in shapes and colors. The arrow is a shape itself and when overlapped using the CMYK color blend process it allows for new shapes and colors to metamorphosis into something new. It's about having fun and experimenting. As an artist it's important for me to experiment with my work, otherwise you become stagnant. Making this mural put the arrow into a new shape, context, and gave it new life. "
Starting in September, Zawacki had a three month long Artist-in-residence in Detroit, Michigan in preparation for his solo exhibition titled 'Remix'. Due to Tavar's engagement with street work and busy travel schedule, Tavar had not made a solo exhibition since 2012 in Melbourne, Australia. Zawacki's Remix exhibition displayed a variety of different laser cut wood panels that were then re-arranged and exchanged into the final piece. Remix had an emphasis on curved cut patterns and the exchanging of identical wood cuts. In an interview Tavar said "The intention for my most recent body of artwork is to explore new directions and re-invent the arrow icon I have been creating for over the past 15 years. The arrow icon is sharp and constructed of straight lines and angles, void of any curved elements. My intention is to contrast the existing sharp angles of the arrow, with the curved and circular cut lines, achieving a dynamic balance between the two with a new fresh look. Similar to that of a hair stylist making a Perm (hairstyle) on a head of hair that has always been straight."
Tavar described his process and choice of using wood as his medium for Remix "My process was to take the straight structure of the arrow and remix it with curvaceous wood cuts, contrasting color combination, all whilst maintaining the uniformed integrity of a line. had an emphasis on inter changing similar pieces of cut wood in an organized, curved Composition (visual arts), I had pre-designed. I chose wood as my medium as it’s a tangible and perfect for this style I wanted to achieve. During an interview Tavar was asked the question 'What strides do you think you have made with this work?' Tavar said "I feel doing this show It’s allowed me to break out into being more abstract, and colorful. I’ve been gravitated towards moving into dissecting the arrow icon. Breaking it into pieces, and then smaller pieces and becoming more abstract. This process has allowed me to experiment and learn from mistakes I’ve made with what works good, and what works even better."
In October, 2015 Tavar painted his largest mural to date, a 33 meter tall by 17 meter wide mural titled 'Incognito' in Johannesburg, South Africa as part of the City Of Gold Festival. Tavar spent ten consecutive days painting the mural and when asked in an interview about his process, challenges, and color choices he stated 'My color selections were predetermined by the relationship of how each color transforms when laid on top of another. This was easy, however, in the designing of the mural I had to constantly move colors and shapes to finally get the final color arrangement you see. The biggest challenge for me during the Incognito mural was ensuring the proportions of the design were correct. I needed precision, and a lot of it. The lines needed to be sharp and straight. If any line was miscalculated or skewed the design as a whole would suffer. This was my largest hurdle I had to overcome both with mapping it out, and painting it. Later in the interview Tavar said 'What I enjoy most about the Incognito design is the secondary shapes, and colors achieved from the overlapping of each arrow on top of another. There are many fun intersections of color and new shapes that emerge using this style of design. I look forward to exploring more in depth into this style in the future in my indoor and outdoor works.'
In the summer of 2016, Tavar Zawacki served as artist-in-residence of the Quin Arts program at the Quin Hotel in New York City, furthering his exploration of geometric abstraction through colorful multi-layer arrow compositions. As curated by DK Johnston, the exhibit featured 36 works of handmade sculptural relief using acrylic and resin on wood. It opened on July 14 and was Zawacki's first solo show in New York City.
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