RISE/ABOVE at Dundas Street & University Avenue.
You probably haven’t seen the arrows around our city unless you’ve been looking for them—or looking up. Scattered throughout downtown Toronto are forty-three arrows just like the one pictured, all carefully hung high above street level by an globe-trotting artist known, appropriately, as ABOVE. In what ABOVE calls “Word/Play,” each side of an arrow (or “Arrow Mobiles”) contains one half of a pairing of words.
The signs are both simple (made of wood, with glued-on textiles or fabric, screen-printed text on top of them, and finally stencils on top of that), and inspiring; the most iconic of the Word/Play slogans is ABOVE’s motto—RISE on one side, ABOVE on the other. Now he’s on a worldwide tour, dubbed “Sign Language,” that is being closely followed by the New York-based Wooster Collective.
Torontoist caught up with ABOVE via e-mail over the course of the past few months (hey, he’s a busy guy).
LOVE/HATE on Adelaide Street East & Victoria Street.
(Note: though Torontoist has slightly edited ABOVE’s responses, we’ve tried to leave his unique capitalization style intact.)
Torontoist: Where’d the “Above” idea come from?
ABOVE: To “Rise Above” challenges, obstacles, and adversities in my life. A foundation to build upon in my daily life. [The idea of "Above"] really encompasses a great deal of things to me. Balance, optimism, fear, loss, death. life, serendipity, mayhem, and introspection.
How do you get the hanging Arrow Mobiles up?
How else? I fly up there and tie them to the overhead supports so they can spin and create their Word/play dialogue!
No, but seriously…
I just recently watched the movie The Illusionist. Following in magician’s ethics of their professional tricks and, furthermore, their secrets, I will only say that you need to believe in the abnormal and visualize how it could be done.
FIRE/ARMS & GIVE/TAKE arrows ready to go in ABOVE’s studio.
Would you call what you do culture jamming?
Sure, but honestly I don’t really care for labels as they confine. Call the street artworks and installations what you want. These words come to mind: Communication. Traveling, Creating, Challenging and Risky.
How risky? Have you had any near-death experiences?
Yeah, I have flirted with Death several times, on purpose and on accident. It’s part of the job. I feel that the closer I get and be with Death and Dying the more I appreciate and value day-to-day life. We will all die at some point in our lives. I want to not have that fear interrupt my path or passions.
When and where did you start?
I must say in the womb, it was just in a different form and outlet than today. I started spray-painting when I was around sixteen with my skateboard friends. I fell in love with the freedom and medium. In no time, I was more out at the local train yards, painting trains, than at school. This was in Northern California, and since then it’s been more like a Global Challenge….[but] I grew up in California skateboarding, painting and being a punk-ass kid.
Do you have a home now, or is it non-stop travel? What place is most like home to you?
For the past seven years I have not had a permanent address. I live by the statement “Go with the flow and trust in the unknown!” This means for six months I work a job, then [for] six months I go travel the world doing the ABOVE artworks and installations. The place I like to call home (and has been [home] for the past seven years) is, hands down, Europe in general. I dislike the USA and don’t find life here one-eighth of the quality of the life and Culture in Europe….the US and the laws within the US [against people like me] are wretched and fierce.
At left, ^ ABOVE ^ prepares the signs in a San Francisco studio. At right, the signs in action in New York City.
Why’d you choose Toronto as one of the cities [for your 2004 world tour]?
During 2004 I was doing a very large USA/Canada tour with the arrow mobiles. That year I drove 5,500 miles around the USA and Canada. I got denied entrance into Vancouver from Seattle (Twice) as my past police record was not updated…I flew into Detroit 2 weeks later with new paper works and [was] ready to visit that part of the USA/Canada. I chose Toronto because Its has a large art/music and culture there. I felt that I wanted to be (and have my art be) a part of this scene. I actually and honestly enjoyed Toronto the best out of the 14 cities [Seattle, Portland, Reno, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, New York, and Louisville] along the tour!
What was the police record from? Have you gotten in trouble before?
The previous record was for some silly Graffiti stuff. I have been handcuffed 9 different times. 6 of those times were from Police Officers in 4 different countries and 3 times were from Women in 3 different Bedrooms.
How many Arrow Mobiles, total, did you put up in Toronto?
When I flew into Detroit, I think I had around 200 Arrow mobiles to be hung in some eight cities. I remember hanging 46 in Los Angeles the month before, and then Toronto got second place for the most, with 43 Arrow mobiles hung around the city.
From your experiences here, what did you think of the city? There are plenty of people who are trying to do somewhat similar things here…
I loved seeing how much graffiti and street activism there was in Toronto. I also am a skateboarder, so seeing a city that really lends itself to skateboarders and graffiti kids reminded me a lot of San Francisco. The architecture of Toronto and its houses were interesting. These past five years I have spent more time in Europe than the wretched USA, so being in Toronto made me feel more at home like being in Europe!
OVER/COME & LIAR/DICE arrows.
What kind of reaction have the Arrow Mobiles gotten? Nick Mount, an English professor at the University of Toronto, features the Arrow Mobiles as an example of hope as represented in street art…
I like to agree that each Arrow Mobile has the capacity for any and all reactions. Some spinning arrow mobiles make me laugh, others are more serious, or political. However, you could have a completely different reaction due to your past, present, and humour.
Has the project become all-encompassing, or is it more of a hobby?
It’s 109% all-encompassing. I live for my art and base my life around traveling and doing art in different mediums in different cities and countries.
So this is a full-time job, then…
Yeah, The Above works are like a full-time job. What the beautiful aspect about the street works have done for me is that they are a piece of everything I do everyday. For instance, doing my street works involves Travels, community, and creativity, among other things. When I am doing research about a new country, or meeting new people, the artwork is the instigator for all of these interests. I travel so much because I want to do artworks in random and widespread places. If I was just traveling for fun I would have chosen a different route and path of travels.
How do you make money?
I make money by working mostly Seasonal Jobs at a restaurant. I believe in working hard for what you believe in and this transcends [not] just to the artworks. With my Job and lifestyle I travel a lot, so I own simply a few pairs of clothes, a camera and computer….I don’t spend much money on physical things in life. I have only a backpack-size of belongings and even that is a little too much for me to own. I save money on simple things that Everyday people seem to spend money on.
NICE/EYES at Dundas Street West & Spadina Avenue.
Why’d you choose to do this project anonymously?
Because I feel that the street works and art should take precedent and not my actual physical person. If I wanted to be famous I would have become a Rock-Star! I enjoy my quiet life and it feeds my split personality I am diagnosed with.
What do you think of people like Banksy, then, who remain anonymous but also become quite famous (and quite rich) in the process?
I think it’s great. I try to keep my anonymity away from the press and photographers simply because it’s more comfortable for me to be unknown and the artworks to be known. I think many people want to be accepted in life and feel important. Who doesn’t want to feel accepted?! It’s how you go about feeling that acceptance and from whom your seeking it from that is the important aspect. I can’t speak for Banksy but for myself I love the Double and even Triple life I live and enjoy my words to be read but my face not to be seen.
What do you want to do next? The ABOVE theme is sticking, right?
I already have planned a large South and Central America’s tour starting in October. Other than that I don’t want to say much more. Visit the website and keep checking back for news.
All images and video courtesy ABOVE. More on his website, or on Wooster’s YouTube account for Above.