Tall Poppy Interview: Specter, Street Interventionist
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Tall Poppy Interview: Specter, Street Interventionist

If you’ve ever noticed half of a bike coming out of a wall, naked plywood people screwed into the facade of a building, a portrait of the Gladstone pasted to the Dufferin bridge or a fat rope chain hanging from the next of Adam Beck, then you’ve seen the work of Specter. A self-proclaimed prankster, Specter’s canvas is the city. Always inventive, his art is meant to brighten one’s day and cause people to rethink their physical surroundings. On the verge of his first solo show, Cardboard Gates, which opened Friday night at Resistor Gallery, we caught up with the mysterious man to chat.

Torontoist: How did you get into street art?
Specter: I started doing graffiti about twelve years ago in Montreal—no art; just tagging. After a couple years I started to do more artistic work and helped start the Kops crew, which is one of Montreal’s oldest active graffiti crews. My graffiti was always a little different from the traditional stuff. I was always experimenting with different ways to spell my name, then I got in to doing more figurative work on walls and that led to my experimenting with three-dimensional street work.
How does your approach differ when creating installation-based pieces, compared to going out tagging or doing burners?
I can only compare painting burners or tagging to installing pieces illegally because the execution is done in a similar environment of stress and speed due to the fact that you may get caught. Installing pieces requires a lot of research and time while a burner or tag can be executed anywhere deemed a good spot. Installations also require a broader base of knowledge about different materials. I wouldn’t say one is harder than the other, but installing pieces in the street definitely takes more time, that’s for sure.
What are you hoping to initiate in people with your outdoor installations?
The purpose of my work is to engage people in their environment by altering their surroundings. This causes people to ask questions; What is that? Why did they do that? Getting people to ask questions involves them in their everyday settings, allowing them to view what they may usually take for granted differently. There are also deeper and more complex messages in my work that are intended for art educated viewers, but the main idea is to engage the public.
What are some of these more complex messages?
Most of the messages are not as literal as they may seem. They are more about subtleties such as the juxtaposition between a piece and its surroundings or the relationship between them.
Have you ever been arrested, and have any of your pranks ever gone awry?
I’ve been busted at least three times and chased more than I can remember. As far as installation gone wrong, there have been several. Sometimes you take weeks to work on a piece, put it up, come back for photos and it’s destroyed. And other times you make something and it doesn’t work as you planned because of forces of nature.
Is traditional, wild-style graff dead?
I wouldn’t say that traditional graffiti is dead because Canadian artists like Sight, Causr, Kwest and Stare are really pushing the art form. However, I do think that, for the most part, Canada has become stagnant. If you look at how the Europeans have pushed graffiti, it’s inspiring. If we follow their example, there is no telling what might happen.
Another impressive element of your creations is that each piece is different from the others. As such, how would you describe the Specter style to someone unfamiliar with your work?
My style is very open to change. I basically do whatever comes to mind, trying not to set limits on my art by not becoming too comfortable with one medium. Constantly experimenting with new styles and materials allows me to discover different ways to approach each one of my pieces.
As you do use so many different materials in your work, what’s been your favorite so far, and what would you really like to experiment with if money wasn’t a worry?
My favorite material is wood because it is so versatile, accessible, permanent and beautiful. If money was not a worry I would love to experiment with concrete and moulds on a large scale.
When thinking of a new piece, do you find a spot in need of a facelift or do you create something and then try and find a home for it?
Sometimes a spot will influence a piece or sometimes it’s just an idea that needs a spot to make it come to life. It requires a special attention to be given to things that may seem irrelevant or ordinary. I just try to think of things that are original and fun.
Which artists’ work do you admire, and what outside of actual locations inspires you day to day?
I admire all the rebel artists: Duchamp, Basquait and anyone who is willing to challenge the status quo. As far as my own inspiration, I get inspired by architecture, industrial design, graphics, humans—basically everything. I just take it all in and my mind does the rest.
As your work resides in the public spectrum, how do you consider your work in relation to advertising, often the most visible of outdoor visuals?
My installations and outdoor advertising relate in many ways. They both try to convey a message or emotion to the viewer. They both use existing space and create a new space to promote and both use imagery as a language. Though I see the many similarities between my installations and outdoor advertising, I feel that my work challenges the viewer and forces them to question their surroundings, which in general, ads are void of.
2007_06_29_specter05.jpgSo then what do you think of the intersection between today’s street art and advertising? Does advertising ever inspire you to create?
Some art directors are very talented, just like some street artists are very talented. I think that both take influence from each other. I do feel that street artists are more on the cutting edge however, because of the messages in their work. But as far as visuals are concerned, ads are pretty enticing. Personally, I’m inspired by them. Not only do I constantly think about adding to or changing ads, because they are a visual focal point in our everyday, but I also use advertising icons in my work. However, advertising’s biggest influence on me would be in how I try to mimic their ruthlessness—being that there are no limits to the location, magnitude or ends that advertisers will go to to sell their products.
As you’re about to embark on your first solo show in a gallery, what are your thoughts about going from street to gallery? Is it inevitable for any artist working outside, and how can that transition be made seamlessly and without losing your credibility?
I think that as long as you relate to the space you work in, it’s a great opportunity to create something completely controlled. The transition from street to gallery is inevitable for success in the arts because to make a living as an artist you must be able to sell your work. Unfortunately, it is impossible to bring the raw energy of illegal art to a controlled environment, but I think that if you use a different approach for the inside and the outside, you can definitely maintain your cred. Just look at Barry McGee.
All images courtesy of Specter. Find more on his website, and don’t forget to check out Resistor Gallery for more info. Specter’s Cardboard Gates installation runs during the gallery’s hours (Friday 10–5 and Saturday 12–4) until Friday July 13.