Ink and aerosol

By Lorraine Ellis

Steve Cross is a veteran of the graffiti/street art scene, having put up his first tag 30 years ago as a 14-year-old.

A keen skate-boarder, tagging and sticker bombing became something he did as he traversed the streets of Perth.

These days Steve straddles two scenes: that of tattooing and graffiti/street art. He says the similarities between them are surprising.  In both, you have to earn your stripes, prove yourself, be aware of and abide by the rules.

I had the privilege of catching-up with Steve, a chatty, jovial man in his compact, tidy studio that is packed floor-to-ceiling with an extensive art book collection, sketchbooks and an enviable photographic archive documenting our street art history.

Steve is a disciplined artist. He completes a drawing each morning before heading to his studio. These are mostly female portraits, with a strong emphasis on light.

“It needs to be constantly flowing out of me. You could liken it to doing push-ups every day. I flick through my photos until I find something that triggers a response,” he said.

“It’s usually the light source or shadows that I’m interested in replicating, not the person.”

He proudly showed me his new possession – a Japanese micro-rubber, a stylish tool that is handy for highlights.

“I realise that hardly anyone paints a male portrait and female portraiture is what everyone seems to be obsessed with. To me, the female is ascetically more pleasing. It’s this that people relate to,” he said.

“I’m aware of the arguments around this but I find a woman’s face so much more mysterious. Certain parts of a face can be challenging and hair can create an atmosphere. I don’t aim for photorealism. I just take what I need and manipulate it.”

Steve has a “wild” colour palette and this has become his signature. Because of this distinctive colour theory, no matter what the subject is, the work is recognisably his!

“Sometimes I’ll turn up to paint a wall uncertain of what I’m going to paint. I like to wait and feed off the energy that flows from other artists. But when I begin, I tend to work fast and finish the piece in a day.”

“I’ve been documenting Melbourne laneways for at least 20 years, capturing them when they were virtually empty with perhaps just one tag. I made it my mission to photograph every piece I found and now have an extensive archive of the Melbourne and Perth street scene. I started doing this as I felt something was going to happen.”

And he was right. For this tag became two, then three and viola, it blossomed and exploded into the street art scene as we know it today.

“I particularly loved the period when Ha-Ha and Psalm began stencilling. It was one of pure creativity. Artists were bombing in isolation and there was a political and religious content to their work. I was documenting a movement that had social commentary.”

“I painted my first commission at 16 and that was it! I’ve painted ever since; surviving off this and tattooing. It was a two-year apprenticeship before I was accepted into the tattoo scene. Like graffiti, it’s a sub-culture that’s seen as having a criminal element to it. I’ve never wanted the graffiti/street art and tattooing scene to become as mainstream as it has. Through the internet it’s impossible for it to be otherwise. In fact, it’s becoming so acceptable that the police don’t do a name-check anymore and even my mum talks about it! What’s the world coming too?”

“I’m still enjoying being a writer and part of a crew that’s been together for 30 years. We seldom paint all together these days as we’re scattered around the globe and time is the essence. Everyone’s too busy being an artist.”

Self- taught, Steve considers that an art school background would have been a retrograde step for him.
“My education came through conversations and observation of fellow artists, who were willing to share their knowledge with me,” he said.

“I’m all for progression and forward thinking in both my street art and tattoo practice. I view my career as a stream in which one keeps moving and developing; encountering and being inspired by new influences.”

“Gone are the days of making your own caps in order to manipulate the can and pressure. I still enjoy seeing tags because at least they’re not controlled by commercial interests. I’d rather see anything than nothing.”

“Street art was developed from the tools provided by graffiti. With street art you can just paint a wall, but graffiti writers have rules and structure that must be abided by. I love this about the graffiti scene. It was the first time I’d had a connection with a group of people and at that time, nothing else had meaning for me.”

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