Making a mark: SWIFF Light Box artist Ash Johnston’s bold approach to public art

Street artist Ash Johnston is one of the featured artists working on SWIFF Light Box and a true Coffs identity, with decades’ worth of exhibitions under his belt. Through his Open Studio gallery, he advocates and promotes local artists via numerous initiatives including group exhibitions and his street art event November Reign has seen almost every available surface in parts of town covered in eye-popping graff and street art. We catch up with Ash to find out what we can expect to see of him in SWIFF Light Box… (Photo courtesy of Elliot Daniel)

SWIFF Light Box is an extension of what you’ve been doing for years in Coffs which is advocating for public art. How did you come to be involved in the project?

The brief was pretty loose, the fact that it’s out in the public and it’s art on the street, it fell into my avenue of work that I’ve been doing. It was a given that I’d get involved!

How did you first get into street art and public art?

I’m originally from Newtown, Sydney, and arrived in Coffs in 2000. Coming from the inner city I grew up surrounded by graffiti and street art. My grandfather used to be a painter and he always had to paint over graffiti in the street, and it piqued my interest as a kid. I met a few graff writers when I started high school. I was a heavy metal kid, and I was reproducing logos of my favourite bands on my schoolbag. The graff writers saw them and said: “This kid can do letters!” They took me under their wing, showed me the ropes, and now, I’m still going.

What do you love about it most?

It’s a lifestyle, not a job for me. You get to travel a lot, meet interesting people of different cultures while sharing your own culture. I like that graffiti can cross all those social boundaries that we put up. Doesn’t matter what sexual orientation you are, or your religious beliefs or social demographic, if you’re into painting and you want to get down on a wall and paint at a jam, you can end up standing next to someone from the other side of the world.  You won’t necessarily be able to have a conversation but you can have a bloody good time painting some artwork together.

For the initiated – what’s a jam?

It’s basically a festival (such as November Reign,  which Ash organised in 2015 and 2016, results of which can be seen all across town). It’s basically a gathering of graffiti artists from around the world, all painting together.

Where are you guys up to with your work on SWIFF Light Box?

We’re full flight at the moment. Myself and the other artists are contributing our every day artwork. I’m not an animator, I’d love to be involved in the animation process though. For now we’re basically handing over a lot of content – including illustration and some time-lapse stuff. This will hopefully animated and beamed up too.

Is there a story or message behind your art in SWIFF Light Box?

I’m a letter-based artist, and coming from a graffiti background, my work is more of a graphic form – painting things that look good, not really a story, that’s more muralism.

My artwork by its very nature is considered transient. Graffiti has a lifespan – it comes and goes, and it gets washed off. Coffs can be a pretty transient town, we’re in the middle of two major cities, with a lot of travelling artists coming through. There will be some trains in my stuff for Light Box, which is where graff really comes from.

In terms of a message? I guess there’s an innate human need to leave a mark: “I was here” – and that’s basically what I’m doing, but hopefully with some style and taste and some pretty colours and people can enjoy it.

Why do you think street art and graff has gotten more popular in recent years?

The graffiti scene isn’t as underground as it used to be. A lot more people are open to trying to understand our culture and what it is. Essentially it’s ornamental lettering and calligraphy but we’re using a different medium, and in a different placement.

People are more aware of the fearmongering in the media about the gang aspect associated with graffiti. Ad agencies and graphic designers are appropriating it, or are potentially graffiti writers themselves, so you get a lot more graff and street art showing up in advertising these days. It’s even become a real estate thing – for example people are buying in to Newtown because of the street art culture (and then complaining about the tags!).

What would you say to Coffs locals who don’t normally get out to look at art, to encourage them to see SWIFF Light Box?

Man, I’d say snap out of it. Take a bit of time out from going to the same pubs and clubs, there’s heaps of art happening across Coffs. Step out and have a sniff about. I tend to see the same people coming to galleries in town, it would be great to see a different a contingent step out and see what’s happening during the festival, and meet and support the artists. If you like the murals you see around town, it’s good to find out a little bit more about what’s behind them.

*Story & interview by Louden Up