Shai Dahan: Bringing NYC hustle to Borås

2012 is a hectic year for Shai Dahan, american street artist living in Borås. Three solo exhibitions and murals in Stockholm, Borås and Palestine. And when talks to him he´s prepering a lecture at TEDx. Meet a hardworking and energetic artist.

Tell us a little about your background

I was born in Israel but raised in Los Angeles, California, since I was about 10 years old. I moved to New York City in my mid 20s and spent a few years there before moving to Sweden. In Los Angeles, I grew up around skateboarding and that whole culture had a big influence on me. As I grew older I began to get into breakdancing, listening to Hip-Hop and got into graffiti and I think that all those cultures have stuck with me until today. One influences the other and they all kind of work really well together.

You started out as a graffiti writer. Why and when did you leave graffiti for street art?

I got into graffiti at 14 while I was living in Los Angeles. Los Angeles is heavily surrounded by graffiti culture. Growing up, you couldn’t turn a corner without seeing it, much like today which is a true testament to how strong this culture has been over the last few decades. I began mostly because I was really into Hip-Hop and I loved the idea of being a bit anarchist against the police and the norm. As someone who was skateboarding at that age, we used to get a lot of problems from the local police for skateboarding late nights. You couldn’t skateboard around my neighborhoods growing up without getting the police involved. They used to come and confiscate our boards. So I loved the idea of doing something to throw it back in the faces of the law.

I don’t feel I ever ”left” graffiti really. I just shifted over to street art mostly because I am an illustrator and painter by heart. I always drew when I was at home, and when I tried to do really good graffiti pieces, I wasn’t very good at it. My spray-can control was useless compared to other guys I ran around with. I’d like to think my tags were good and I had good flow but I slowly stopped with tagging after a while. When I was in my 20’s I began surfing and I was still skateboarding so I slowly started to paint skateboards and surfboards for fun. I was painting all kinds of stuff on them (from Star Wars characters to random dogs). I was doing it for fun and started to make boards for friends and charity events locally in Los Angeles. Started to take part of bigger charity events and I was really stoked when Jason Mraz bought one of my painted surfboards so I kind of kept heading in the direction of making more and more art.

At some point I discovered street art, I can’t say when because frankly I don’t remember. I just remembered I loved the idea of taking my art and placing it in public. So I started to make little birdgun stencils and ran around putting those up. I was already familiar with the rebel like motivation behind doing this since I had my time doing graffiti when I was younger. My birdguns and my deer guns began to kind form into wheat pastes after I wanted to begin adding more details to my work and realized stencils was very limited for me so with wheatpastes my work started to get bigger and so on. There was something really great about putting your art up in the community. Being from Los Angeles, I was surrounded by OBEY posters (this was back when Andre Has A Posse was on every corner). And in New York art is EVERYWHERE. So it felt like I was adding my own thing to the city. Part of me went into the walls. I was embedding myself into the city forever. The work may fade away, but my work and effort sunk into the walls of New York and Los Angeles forever and for a brief moment, I provided art for the city in one way or another.

I eventually met this guy Jordan Seiler in New York who had these projects through Public Ad Campaign called ”New York Street Ad Takeover” where he invited artists to come and paint over illegal advertisements throughout New York. I loved the idea of being able to take away advertisements, which are forced on the public for the sole reason of profit, and replace them with artwork, which has a sole reason of beautify the community. It is a shame that street-artists are still considered vandals and criminals when they want to paint on a side of a wall but putting giant advertisements to make you feel bad about yourself is totally fine. So I really got into doing it more and more and putting public art in the community as much as I can.

Working in New York, how was it? Some stories from those days?

New York was a totally different experience than Los Angeles. I think that NYC is where my art really flourished and I truly believe it was because of the people I met. While I was in New York I met some amazingly talented street artists and painters. New York is such a hustle. If you are not doing 20 things at the same time, you are not doing enough and I took that with me when I moved to Sweden and I think that is why I am always so busy here in Sweden because I never let go of that New York mentality. Always hustling myself. Working hard. New York gave me some of the best experiences too.

I had the pleasure of doing the New York Street Ad Takeover, I had the pleasure of doing the Mom&Popism project with some amazing graffiti legends and most personal to me was the Underbelly Project. It was a project where roughly 100 street-artists from around the world were invited to be part of a selected group going into an abandoned subway station in the belly of New York City underground and paint there. That was a great experience because I got a chance to paint not only next to friends who I already had the pleasure to work with in the past, but I also had a chance to paint in the same place as some legendary artists who I really admired. I think the beauty of that project was that there was no financial gain from it. We were not getting paid to paint, and the art wasn’t being sold either. So really, we all took the risk just for the sake of painting for the love of painting. I loved that about it. New York is the best place to learn how to work hard. You get a lot of rejections and you see a lot of artists that are really amazing, but I think that forces you to keep pushing harder.

Influences? Artist you like? Music? The history of art?

My influences is mostly my environment. I enjoy painting depending on where I am both physically and emotionally. I do enjoy going to museums and get inspirations. I go through phases. When I first arrived in Sweden, I was really influenced by the culture here and it really inspired a lot of the things I create now (Dalahorses, Royal Guards) but that will also change. I have people tell me ”You can do the Dala Horses for the next 30 years and make it your thing” but I don’t really care for that. Sure, I can sit and make a career out of painting Dala Horses all day, but I think at some point I will get frustrated and annoyed because who the heck wants to paint the same thing for 30 years? I want to evolve. I try to learn new techniques for painting on the streets and at home. I want to try new things. I used to never paint humans in my art. Mostly stuck with painting animals. But this year I began to paint a few pieces that contained human characters and I enjoyed it. Not to mention a large scale mural in Palestine which did really well so now I am slowly evolving myself. My new series for my September solo exhibition is actually going to contain some cars too which I never tried before. I could have made a whole show of just Dala Horses, but I think even if that is what people want to see, thats not really what I want to paint and if I am not enjoying doing an entire exhibition of Dala horses, you can see that in my paintings.

You seem to have a lot of new things going on, all the time. What keeps you going?

I think when you are passionate about something, you work at it 24/7. A lot of it is the driving force from New York mentality but I also think its because I guess I am dumb enough to stick with it long enough. There are a lot of really talented artists, better than me even, that I met or seen and some never become successful because I think life gets in the way. You get bills and kids and not to mention a lot of rejection. I guess I was dumb enough to keep trying rather than walk away. I didn’t get here over night. I have been an artist longer than I have been a street painter. I had a lot of rejections and a lot of hardships but I think the important thing is to keep your ambitions in check. I have this ”Art Bucket List” that consists of things I really want to accomplish personally with my art before I call it quits. I put most of my focus on accomplishing those things and the other projects kind of happen because of that. The things on my bucket list are not even anything financially rewarding. Its more personal goals. Painting on the wall in Palestine and Tedx were both on that list BEFORE I was invited to do either of those things and I think its because I focused on achieving those, they happened. And luckily for me, other projects happened because of that. People saw my Palestine project or heard about me speaking later this year at Tedx and invited me to other projects.

I also think you have to know your limits. I used to say ”YES” to everything. From doing big projects, books or whatever, to even the small things like painting on someone’s garage. But at some point, you get burned out and I learned it is ok to say ”sorry, but I can’t”. Its ok to say no. I think you have to look at every project individually and consider what it means to you. I do turn down projects that can pay me, and accept projects that don’t sometimes. It sounds like a dumb thing to do, but I think its important to be satisfied with the work you’ve done. You have to be able to finish something and be proud rather than doing it for the sake of money. I have a few rules I try to follow when I have a project offered to me. It has to meet certain criteria and not all those criteria are based on money and I am ok with taking jobs if they are not paid as long as I feel they are personally rewarding. TedX is a good example. I feel I can teach or share an idea and that is more rewarding than being paid. After all, this is my career and my art and my passion so I have to think long term and how things may effect my other projects and opportunities. You have to consider your work as a business and if you treat it that way, you will do whats best for yourself and your business because you want to see it succeed.

Painting in Borås, what´s the story about the big mural in in the center of the town?

Borås has always seem to have been a forward thinking city when it comes to public art. One of the first things I noticed when I moved here was how many sculptures were all around that city. But the second thing I noticed was the lack of murals. I thought to myself that it was rather strange that the city was so open to putting sculptures in the city but lacked other forms of art. So I took it upon myself to help that. I began pasting Dalahorses around town, without permission, and found a few abandoned buildings in the city that someone showed me and began to paint large murals there. At some point, the local paper put a picture of one of my Dala Horses on the streets on the front page of their Culture section. It wasn’t long before I was sitting in front of the curators at the Borås Museum discussing both our interests in having me do an exhibition there. Things progressed rather quickly because people were really interested in my artwork being placed around the city. It was something new for them and I think they found it rather provocative. A year later, I had my solo exhibition at the museum and was asked to add a mural as a permanent piece to the city of Borås during their Sculpture Festival. It was the first time anyone added a mural to the city center, in the past it has been mostly sculptures, and it was also the first time a street-artist was invited to participate so it was rather ground breaking for both myself and the city. It was something the city never experienced before.

You have of course heard about Swedens (Stockholms) zero tolerance attitude againt graff and street art…

I remember painting the mural on my first day and the police approaching me because they had no idea what I was doing. Here is a guy on a ladder painting a 4 meter Dala Horse. I had to explain I had permission, which is ironic since I have been doing it illegally up until then all around town. I think that is a big part of pushing the urban art culture in that town and in Sweden. Whenever I do interviews, I use my real name and I had people ask me ”are you not worried the Police will show up at your door since you are admitting to breaking the law in the newspaper?” but I feel like, if they want to show up at my door, they will but I really don’t think that most of them agree with the current ”zero tolerance” law anyway. I think that if I am going to try and have an open dialogue with the city and community about how important public art is, I should be open too. I think the law they have in place is just there to give punishment. I don’t think it resolves any issues or concerns people may have with graffiti and street-art and that is the problem. I think people should voice their problems and concerns to the artists and let the artists voice their concerns and find a common ground.

The funny thing is that I think the Zero Tolerance pushes us to do it more. You have to remember that graffiti and even street-art came from disobeying the law. From being more gurilla than the other art forms that existed that were ”safe” in galleries. This art culture, it skipped over all the ”normal” standards of other forms of art. We didn’t go to art schools and get to learn from professors and then applied to study at a studio or apply for grants and go hitting up galleries with portfolios. The way all other art forms had to do things, we kind of chose to say ”Forget that. We just want to paint”, so we hit the streets. Street-Art and Graffiti, at the end of the day, need to be on the streets. It belongs there. Its where it does its best. Where it looks best. It is where it reaches the most potential both visually and through its messages. Eventually, galleries and museums started picking up the phones, which is great. Because now, street-artists and graffiti artists who are extremely talented get recognition for their art form rather than be minimized to titles like ”Vandal”.

I recently did a 12 meter mural in Stockholm. The piece was a 12 meter Royal Guard who’s left side of his body was painted as a Royal Guard standing and his right side was made from graffiti tags. This was supposed to be a crack at the zero tolerance policy. There is art in street-art and graffiti art. Authoritative law can be there to try to punish the art form but it doesn’t slow it down. This is the strongest art form. It is an art form that breathes best when it is done outdoors and I think the community recognizes that. The law tries to take care of something that isn’t really a problem. It is a law that is just based on an opinion that ”THIS ART FORM IS NOT GOOD ENOUGH TO BE ON THE STREETS”.

I think the city needs to rethink who they punish. I prefer they go punish people who don’t pick up after their dog or people who park their cars like idiots or people who try to hand me flyers when I walk around town. They shouldn’t focus themselves on artists. Its strange how by the current zero tolerance law, my Dala Horses displayed on the streets is ”criminal” or ”vandalism” and somehow, I just did a museum show that sprung out from my illegal work on the streets. Go figure. Same image can be a valid work of art and a criminal act at the same time. At the end of the day, its a form of censorship when the city paints over something we as artists try to voice. But hey, can’t all be easy. If tomorrow we all got permission to do street-art and graffiti, who knows, maybe half of us would stop doing it anyway because it won’t be as fun to run around and rebel.

Working with “ikons” of the Swedish popular culture, how did you got the idea? And how do Swedes responds to this?

The Swedish iconic figures I have been painting such as the Dala Horses and the Royal Guards for example have both a cultural meaning as well as a metaphorical meaning. Coming to live in Sweden as an American, I felt like I wanted to find a way to concrete myself into the Swedish culture in some way. I always try to find a creative way to represent my environment or things I feel strongly about along with my art in a smart and innovative way. The Dala horse was one of those things where I felt it is instantly recognizable and every generation familiarizes themselves with it. It has such a long and historic background here and although most Swedes would say it represents Dalarna, I think the rest of the world sees the Dala Horse as a representation of Sweden as a whole. When I chose to paint them in a realistic manner, it gave them life. Gave them force and gave them movement. Once I placed them on the streets, with or without permission, they became part of the city and they became wild horses. American culture has that same image in their culture. The wild horses. The old cowboy, Marlbro man. So in a way, its my way of touching on both cultures. I also try to add some metaphorical message to it as well. I think the Dala Horse has become somewhat of a stamp for my views on street-art. That the horses being wild and untamed gives the idea that street-art and graffiti culture can’t be contained or controlled. Some of my images of the dala horses have police officers riding on them or even cowboys so it gives the idea that the street-art scene is eventually in control of the authoritative figures. They can be on their high horse and think they are in control, but at the end of the day, this art form does what it wants.

The Dala Horse specifically have been really popular. What shocks me is that it is also popular outside of Sweden. I have sold art to clients around the world requesting Dala art. I have been able to really enjoy the freedom of doing what I want with my art and see the culture in Sweden except it. Being invited to the museum was a very big accomplishment as well as painting a permanent mural in the city. I even had the chance to tattoo a Dala Horse on someone and that is just a bit surreal to me.

Living and working in Sweden, what have that “done” to your art? More or less fun? New ideas?

I think moving to Sweden really helped me find new methods and ideas for my art. My career grew quite a bit since I moved here but it has been a long journey. I have been doing art for years and took part of many group exhibitions in New York and Los Angeles but Sweden really gave me the opprotunity the try new ideas. This year has been rather insane to be honest. I had 3 solo exhibitions lined up this year before the year even began. So I already knew it was going to be a busy year. Three solo exhibitions take a lot on you as an artist. I take about three to four months to prepare (between ideas and concepts, research, to preliminary sketches, ordering custom canvas and collecting reclaimed pieces to paint on). On top of that I had murals in Stockholm, Borås, and Palestine as well as preparing for TEDx, working with both Swedish and International brands on collaborations like ELVINE for example, and still somehow finding time to paint outdoors just for fun. So it has been rather busy but I like it this way. It can all be gone tomorrow so I try to soak it all in.

How was it working with Ekta and Ollio? Do you have more connections with other artists in Sweden?

I always enjoy working with other artists. Collaborations are fun but it is also very inspiring. I get to learn something everytime I work with a new artist. I worked with Ekta, Ollio, Simple (originally from Germany) as well as groups like Kollektivet Livet in Stockholm and Project Wallride, in Vaxjö. I think collaborations are important. Its the way to help change the community on a larger scale. None of us can do it alone. Even though I have been doing this for a few years, there is always something new to learn. Especially in a new country and in a new culture.

By the way, Swedish street art, what do think about it? Some stuff you like?

I think Sweden has a lot of really talented artists but the Zero Tollerence law really prevents them from being exposed on a national level. I think it is important for all of us to continue to do it so that the laws can hopefully change and be more open so that artists can go anywhere and do larger murals. I think Sweden is a bit behind it all. You see a place like Norway which has the NuArt festival or the Basel festival in Switzerland and Miami, as well as Germany has a huge explosion of large murals, it feels as though Sweden is not trying to reep the benefits of urban murals. At the end of the day, the art benefits our community. They provide public art. It turns your neighborhood into an outdoor gallery and helps make discussions, debates or just make you smile. I think there is a lot of potential for Sweden but the city laws are holding a lot of it back.

Your trip to the wall in Palestine. What was your idea and purpose? Was it a close collaboration with the photographer?

Palestine was a fantastic, and career changing project. In early May I was invited by friend and film producer David Freid to come and be filmed for a documentry about the street art in Palestine, on the wall separating the country of Palestine with the country of Israel. It was a big honor because only a handful of street-artists I was familiar with have been there; Banksy, JR, Blu among only a few others. There was danger and there was worry but when it was all completed, it was a life changing experience. The project was filmed and will be released as a documentary later this summer so I hope anyone reading this can check my site for more details because I think it is a very important view at what is going on there and how art can help people. My experience there can fill a whole new article in this magazine, so perhaps your readers can tune to my TEDx or the documentary to get the full stories of Palestine, since there are too many to tell here in such a short paragraph.

Ok, what´s next? What will we meet at your next exhibition?

I have a solo exhibition in September at A-Gallery in Gothenburg. I have my TEDx lecture in October 10 in Gothenburg, I have a few private projects in the works including a new book, some murals for both personal clients and companies around Sweden and I am continuing doing lectures and workshops for both young and old to help educate on the benefits of public art. I also have a couple of surprise projects but I can’t talk about those yet as those are not finalized at this time.