Interview: Borondo on his ‘Animal’ exhibition, street art and gentrification

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Words: Alex Synamatix
Photography: Alex Synamatix

It’s not often that we get to interview artists at The Daily Street, but when we do I find myself revelling in the opportunity to explore the process and thinking behind their works, as well as discuss the cultural changes, impacts and dislikes that it often draws from. Borondo is a young artist from Spain, currently living in London, but by his own words still looking for his home. Although young in numbers, his work and its renowned would lead you to presume he was much older, especially taking into account the maturity of his art and the scale of his success.

Having recently opened his show ‘Animal’ at the Londonewcastle gallery in Shoreditch courtesy of RexRomae, we spoke with the man himself to learn about what goes on in his head when he makes his art, what previous works and artists have inspired him, how the street art community is changing and how street artists themselves inevitably end up feeding the process that they often took to the streets to rebel against; gentrification. It’s a raw and honest interview that had a surprising depth to it, not surprising because I didn’t expect it from Borondo, but because he wasn’t the most comfortable speaker in English. Regardless, I found our conversation fascinating and thought provoking. One of those interviews where I had to force myself to bring it to an end before it ran on into an article that would take a day to digest.

It goes without saying that you should check out ‘Animal’ before it closes on the 27th February, but I won’t have to sell it to you once you’ve read about it in the interview that follows…

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Let’s start by talking about your style, which appears to take a lot of influence from more traditional art forms, especially in comparison to other street artists. Where has that influence come from?

I mean, for my style I take influence from a bit of everything; my country, my culture, the museums where I live. I went a lot to the museums. My Father was a restaurateur of old charts and old canvases and stuff like that, so I think i got influence from that as well as the museums, the arts in Spain – Goya, Velázquez, a lot of painters from the Spanish Baroque. I really loved the spirit, so I think I took influence from that.

I think I am still looking for my style. The most beautiful thing in art is that you are always looking for something more. It’s like research. Constant research. I hope for my entire life I will continue this research. But yeah, for sure my principle influences are from Baroque, Renaissance – old fine art and classic style. I think that to look to the future, you always need to think about the past, so it’s important to not forget what was done before. You have to understand why they did art and how they did art and after, use it however you want, but you cannot just forget it and leave it like “Ah, this is old!”. So especially in the colours and the compositions, I have influence from the classical styles, but I think it’s quite easy to just say it’s a little bit classic. No, I’m not pop, but I’m not classic.

And do you think that’s why your work gets so much attention when it’s put on the street?

I think so, yeah. I try to make a work in the street that’s very different to the images that we are used to seeing in the streets, that are generally advertisements with colours that are very powerful, very strong, impacting your eyes. Big images, contrast, stuff like that. I think that’s saturated our brains, all this information, we don’t need that. It’s fucking bad for ourselves I think.

So I try to pick colours that make an interaction with the walls, with the buildings around, with the spaces – they kind of live together. I’m not imposing something, I try to work with the space, with the ambience and the atmosphere and not impose my images. So probably because it’s more soft somehow, not in the messages but in the way I do it, it gets seen by the people because it’s something not very usual in mural arts and graffiti. That’s more full-on colour. I started like that, but afterwards I mixed it with my studies of paintings and painters and slowly I started to put in the streets more of these things than classic graffiti style.

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One thing I noticed as well is that the imagery you’re making is much darker in context than traditional graffiti and I was wondering where that came from, but it sounds like that also might be a backlash to the bright, energetic, louder images.

Yeah, exactly. I think it’s very easy to paint a beautiful face of a woman and everyone will love it, but we are looking at this every day and it’s a fake reality. I try to create something a bit deeper that is in our lives as well. We don’t want to look at this fact, but it’s important. In the human being condition we try to just show what we want to show, especially the system wants to show us that we’re happy, that we must be happy, we must smile. I don’t want to make the people sad, I want to make the people reflect about their lives, their condition, what they’re doing, where they are, using symbols and images that suggest ideas and put a more poetical message than political or advertisement.

It’s funny you should mention using pretty faces as subjects – your work has a lot of focus on portraiture and on humans as a whole. Why is that?

Portraits, I use it a lot. Now I’m changing a bit and probably in the future… I don’t know what I will do. But yeah, the human beings and the human bodies, especially the human body language, I’m very interested in. You can explain a lot of things just with human beings and how we interact with each other. For example, shaking hands has a big meaning. It depends where you put it; if you put it in the south of Italy, in a Mafia place, shaking hands is a very strong message, especially if you cover parts of the heads. It’s more about using the human beings like a language to explain something, not just something to look at. It’s a medium. I don’t know why I use it a lot, maybe it’s because it’s what we are, it’s what I look at, it’s what I’m interested in. I’m interested a lot in anthropology.

Do you think it’s partly due to body language being universal, although interpreted slightly differently in different cultures and areas, it doesn’t have the restrictions of a lot of language barriers.

Exactly. Especially in this age where no one has time to read. You need to give it with images. I like the universal language because for example in my paintings I never put in things that come from a specific age, like a t-shirt. A t-shirt reminds you that “OK, this painting must be in this age” or 200 or 100 years ago. I try to talk with just the bodies. You could use a pair of headphones or a cap if you want to talk about the contemporary age, but I don’t want to talk about that, I want to talk about the human beings and what’s behind them. It’s about research and understanding myself and what’s around me. So yeah, the universal language is good, especially if you paint on the streets and in public spaces.

Also, to keep open the message, that’s interesting. You don’t give everything so clear, you just suggest ideas. I know why I do it, but I don’t want to explain everything, I want to make the people in the streets think. We go very fast – from the house to the shop, from the shop to the office, and it’s like “No, stop for a second and look at this and think why is this that?”.

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So do you think that that’s an important role in modern society, for what I guess we could call the public artist, to force people to stop and break that routine?

That’s one of the most beautiful things I saw in street art, especially at the beginning, when you see people running to work and they stop to look at something on the wall that maybe your friend did, and they start to look at this and maybe take a picture. Now it’s become totally different. It’s become a fashion, a thing, but in the beginning that was very beautiful. Somehow, especially on the big walls and stuff like that, you are putting something in the life of the people, so you are changing the lives of the people, like the architecture does. So for sure you need to take care with what you are doing and think “Well, what are you doing that there?” because if you put a big piece of pink in front of the houses of the poor people who are in the shit, they don’t want this pink in front of them everyday. I think it’s important for the street artist to think about what’s around and where they are doing their work, not just to go there, paint a wall, “That’s my style, they give me a wall, I paint it, I’m happy, I go to another place”… No. Take in the context of the place because you are working with the people who are passing it.

And how about the exhibition that you have on at the moment. Where did the inspiration for that come from and what’s it about?

The title ‘Animal’… it’s not that I want to talk about animals, I’m actually talking about humans. I’m talking about how human beings started to take more and more distance from nature. As we were talking about before, we have stopped looking with our eyes and we’ve started to look with objects. We’ve started to make artificial things be part of our body. I’m trying to suggest things. I don’t feel like I want to say that we are wrong and that this is the way we should be, it’s not that, it’s just to think about it, about where we’re going.

Sometimes you go to Stratford, for example, and it’s just like “Where am I man? This is another fucking planet!”. Or another example, we have a video at the exhibition where we just put a girl painted all white walking in nature and she was totally out of context. It’s like “What is this thing?”. You can put whatever animal in this place and it looks OK, it looks part of the same thing, but human beings have arrived at a point where we are totally out of nature. We take a very big distance from nature. All of the installations and the spaces in the exhibition are metaphors, talking about this distance and how we use nature without being a part of it. There’s very interesting things written about it and how in the past the animals and the humans lived together, then we started to make a distinction between the soul and the body and after that we decided that the animals don’t have souls, that the animals are on a lower level than humans. Before the industrial revolution, we needed animals, but after, because of technology, we don’t need them anymore, so they have become just meat, antlers, skin, just product. All of these things happen without us thinking about it. You look at an animal now and I think you cannot look at an animal like before. There is a big wall between us. So it’s to show that, especially in a city like London, we are losing our way to understand.

All of these things come from the fear of nature by human beings. We cannot control nature, and we try to, but we can’t. We want nature because it’s beautiful and we like it and we feel that we are a part of it, but we want it in our way; in squares, short grass, clean, not walked on. We try to have it, but how we want it. Why control it? Because if not, it’s dangerous, and we’re worried to die. All of this to me was an open war that no one thinks about, between nature and humans. Nature just works and grows and changes, and the human beings try to stop it and put a wall up between the city where the people live and nature. It’s like “If the animals want to stay in the city, they must be how we want them to be. If not, we will kill them or we will use them as food or we will put them in another place”. It’s like the gypsies some times – if you don’t adapt to our control, to our order, we will put you in a ghetto. This is the same at the end of the day with the animals. It’s quite weird this comparison, but it’s like that. We need to control the human beings as well, so we use politics, religion, different things. With animals it’s different – we can’t do it. We mustn’t do it. We need to find a balance because we are destroying the balance that nature has.

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It seems that most of the show uses installation to express this, focussing on the viewers experience. Why have you gone down this route when you’re better known for your paintings?

For me, if you’re making an exhibition, if you’re bringing people to a space and you have the opportunity to do that, I think it’s your responsibility to give them something and not just put your pictures on a wall and try to sell them. For me, that’s bullshit. You can do it just to survive, but for me it’s not a show, it’s a market. So when I had this space and this opportunity I came to London and said “OK, I will do an exhibition here, but I will do it how I want and I will do it in a good space and I will do something that I really want to do”. I like to experiment a lot with different materials. In the streets, on the walls, you can experiment and I experiment a lot with materials; glass, fire, hay packs, I experiment a lot, but the indoor space gives you another kind of language to use. You can use video, you can use installations in the space. I wanted to work with the space and to bring people an experience too. We see a lot of images every day, especially now with the iPhone and stuff, so the images are making us feel nothing. The reaction between us and the images is empty. OK, there are images because I am a painter before everything, but I tried to present them in a different way.

So do you think that people need more than just a painting today? That they need something louder, something more dimensional to get them to focus their attention?

In my opinion, yes. I am a painter and sometimes I don’t feel the images any more. I love paintings and I can be in front of a painting that I love for hours, but yeah, I think that the picture is not enough in this age.

In regards to the exhibition, I am using sound, I’m using the space a lot, the elements, animation, sculpture, installations, a lot of installations, smells, feelings. Feelings to drive you to where I want you to go, but not exactly. Not that. But yeah, to make them think. In this case I am using some friends to help me with that. I have a big space, a big opportunity, so I will take some friends that are good artists and they know about the things I don’t know. So we learn together and we discover different languages and we grow up. Because of that, I have another three artists working with me on this occasion.

So some of the works are collaborative?

Yes, four of the works are collaborations with them. It’s interesting because I have an idea, but after we develop it together and we arrive to another place that’s totally different and we learn a lot and we discover things that I’ve never seen before. It’s quite interesting.

In recent years, more and more galleries have been embracing street art, with galleries even starting up specifically for street art as if it’s an artistic movement. Do you think that we’ll ever see a time in the future where street art is looked back on as an artistic movement in the same way that Dada or Futurism are now?

I think it’s difficult because in street art there is a little bit of all of the movements from before. You can call it a movement, but inside there is people who make abstract and there is a movement of abstract people. There is a bit of all the other movements inside, so I think it will be difficult to put in a designated movement, especially because street art is just the freedom to go out and paint on the street. Whatever you want to do or to say, you just do it. Like a child with a charcoal painting – for me that is street art. Paint a wall that a gallery gives to you, that’s not street art, that’s public art. Let’s call is Neo Public Art or Neo Muralism or something like that, but what we are looking at is not street art for me. For me, street art was just someone who found an idea and would go to the street and do it. How we want, when we want, where we want.

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So what you’re saying is that street art, by definition, can’t exist in a gallery?

No, street art is another thing for me. Street art is a creation that afterwards the galleries take it to make money because it’s a huge thing, a very interesting thing as well. There’s a lot of people making very interesting things that probably if they don’t make street art, they will never be discovered  by the galleries. The galleries like taking these people because there’s a lot of good people making this. Some artists as well are just taking to the streets to make themselves more famous because it’s a good place to show. For me, that was not the essence of this. The essence of this was just freedom, especially when I started, I remember with my friends we would say “We’re painting the streets because we don’t like how the galleries and the museums are organised. Just rich people enjoying the fucking shit, so let’s go to the streets and paint. We are artists, we want to say something, we are painters, we are sculptors, so let’s go and say it. Why not?”. And now it’s like you need to paint a wall to be famous. What the fuck? For me, this freedom is totally forgotten.

I don’t know what will happen in the future. For me it doesn’t make any sense. For me it’s just making art and I prefer public space because I can communicate with more people, random people especially, that probably will never enter a museum. Cities like London are quite difficult because there is a lot of things to hide behind, but if you work in a small town and you paint a wall there, after you come back in a year and they remember you and say “I’m very happy to have this wall here every day”. There, there is interest to make public art because you are talking with the community, you are making something for the community and maybe they give you the wall – they don’t care if it’s legal or illegal. It’s not all about that. It’s about who wants to do it, who does do it and if you talk with the people you will feel whatever you feel.

For me, what happens here in London is very weird. All the world is coming here to put their signature on it and try to find fame and become famous in the hope some galleries catch them. And the galleries are doing the same because it’s all about money. In the beginning there was no money and probably there was more interesting art. For example, and not just because I’m Spanish, in Spain there is not a lot of money, there’s not a lot of galleries working with street art. One, two, three maximum? I don’t really know exactly, but there is not a lot of market for that. But there is a lot of interesting people. I mean, five years ago, what we were doing, what the people were doing there, I mean fuck, but there was no galleries and they didn’t care, they just found the time to go to the streets and do whatever they wanted and that was real and very interesting, but that was very difficult to put in a gallery as well probably. When there is no money, you do things more interesting because you are not thinking about how you are going to sell it afterwards as a piece of paper or a print or a canvas, it’s just about the interactions with the people. I love the interactions more than the walls. I love it! The littlest things, the clever things, how you play with the street, with the public space. You make it yours and you make it public. Real public. Now here [Shoreditch] you can paint, and why? Because the council has decided that this area must be cool and so everyone can paint on the streets and then the prices will go high… Boom! Destroyed. Gentrification. “Let’s put big buildings in there now” and everything is more expensive.

So in the end, the people who started making these things to make the spaces more public and more for the people, we are becoming mercenaries of gentrification. It’s fucking weird, how things change and how the system uses us as a tool to do what we didn’t want.