We caught up locally renowned street artist, painter and designer Kalle Heijkenskjöld to discuss his early career spray painting in Malmö, his inspirations and how he keeps his creative juices flowing whilst balancing work and family life simultaneously.
BTC: How would you describe your art?
KH: Colourful! Patterns. Strong colours; I use contrasting colours a lot. A mix of different techniques but mainly of spray paint, watercolours and acrylics. I also use watercolours too. Everything is welcome really. It is usually what I have at hand at the moment but it also depends on the feeling that I’m after. In the past I have used collage techniques by cutting and pasting paper together with watercolours.
BTC: How did it start? Did you trace Donald Duck comics in you room?
KH: Good question! I probably don’t have memories that far back. But drawing has always been natural to me; it has always been there. It might have started with the classic S (Superman). Some form of action figures maybe. Arms, knives and muscles etc. Could it have been in the third or fourth grade? I haven’t drawn action figures since then!
BTC: Maybe it’s time to revisit?
KH: Yes, perhaps. It is still stored somewhere in the back of the mental data bank so it might be time to bring it out again.
BTC: When did you start with street art?
KH: That was when I started high school and had many new influences. There was a whole bunch of other street artists who inspired me. I think the music had already come in then and I was listening to rap music. My friend’s big brother always taped Yo! MTV Raps so we sat and ploughed through the episodes during the daytime.
BTC: Were you inspired by any older kids in your surroundings?
KH: It was a classmate, Johan. I tagged along with Johan one evening to Östra Hamnen. He made a big flower. I was supposed to keep watch while Johan painted but I was allowed to help fill in the pink colour. The spray can had a fat cap that sprayed a wide and powerful beam paint. I wasn’t prepared for it so the paint ran down the wall, which Johan of course didn’t like, so he took over and continued. That was a powerful first adventure. After that day I was hooked! We have also always had P-huset Anna (parking building) that is close by. It was an inspiration source starting out.
BTC: Do you remember your first painting?
KH: Yes, I do. It was under the bridge near the canal just behind Gamla Väster. There was a Statoil petrol station on the other side, it does not exist anymore. That place was a good haunt and it was where I made my first painting. Not very big, it might have been 1.5 meters, maybe 2. It was silver with black edges, something that I always remembered! I remember that I had to sit on my knees and even lay down to do some of the details. I had to regret bitterly when any dog owner thought it was advisable to walk his dog right there.
BTC: Can you see the painting in front of you right now?
KH: Yes, Yes! There are even photos of it.
BTC: Do you have photos of all street art you have done? It is so perishable.
KH: Well. Not them all. There are many paintings that were not documented. Today, it’s so easy to take pictures with the digital camera, more than you will ever use. You just fill up the memory card. In the past you couldn’t take pictures right and left, just when a painting was done and you were really satisfied. I feel kind of sorry for that now. There are many paintings that are forgotten because I have no picture of them. If a painting was not finished, it did not deserve a photo. It’s a bit of a pity, it would have been fun to have today
BTC: Did you always carry around a sketchbook at that time?
KH: Yes. More or less and it is something that I still continue to do. There is not as much time to just sit down and bring out the sketchbook and sketch now, but maybe especially on vacation and so on. Then I’ll bring the sketchbook and a bunch of pens. It is important! And it should be ready and available next to the bed at all times as well!
BTC: You paint in a quite abstract style. How do you get inspiration?
KH: Everything between heaven and earth! It’s really hard to put it into words just what inspires you. It may just be that you have got to sleep properly so that you have more energy. Then I just go! I pick up something I have stored in the data bank and run with it.
BTC: How does an idea become a painting?
KH: Sometimes there is time but not really any inspiration, then you have to try to jump on the train anyway and start. Do a warm-up I suppose. You try to get something down on the canvas; paint a little bit. Then suddenly the squiggles are formed into something and I’m on my way.
BTC: You don’t do detailed sketches first?
KH: No. Usually not. It’s more maybe when it comes to design, where a problem is to be solved. Then you can think in completely different wavelengths. As I do that too, it may be a bit confusing for what I’m really doing at that moment. When I’ve just finished a design project and will start painting again, I sometimes wonder what the hell I’m up to; what is this? There are quite different issues and questions to deal with. Then you really need to straighten out and formulate what you’re doing!
BTC: When did you move into a studio?
KH: Well, not when I was 13 anyway. When could it have been? I think it was just after I had finished a preparatory art school. I might have been around 23.
BTC: Was it because you wanted to develop your artistry, or was it because you were tired of hanging out under bridges at night?
KH: Maybe a little bit of both. It was about trying to find a new language, a new form, and adapt to that format. In a way you can say that I’m still trying to figure it out, it’s always about figuring things out! Eternal experiments.
BTC: Was there anything specific you felt you could not do on a wall in the street?
KH: No, it was more that I found out that I could not just run around in tunnels and paint at night. And also because it is not really accepted. Nowadays it’s getting more and more accepted I think. People are more and more open to the existence of colour and shape on facades, which feels great!
BTC: Is there anything that you feel could, like P-house Anna, have helped you in your development? Something you missed then?
KH: I think we had quite a lot really. There was a bunch of youth centres in my time where even those who were a bit older hung out. This made that you see other possibilities. I got the chance to do some exciting assignments even in my younger years through school actually. They realised that a few of us painted so we were asked to paint a large garbage facility in a residential area. I wasn’t very old then and it was a great project. Maybe I had painted some small walls, but this was several hundred square meters. That was big and the local newspaper (Sydsvenskan) reported on it. You did not really understand what was happening then. My mum’s friend wanted to include me on some advertising assignments where I would do a painting in a studio and then they mounted shelves so the painting became the background. I also have a picture of that somewhere.
BTC: Moving into a studio, was it also a wish or expectation to earn money from your art?
KH: Both yes and no. At the same time, I had gathered so much spray paint cans and other things that I needed somewhere to keep everything. I didn’t have enough space at home anymore. I have two children now, so it’s no longer possible to create at home either. The studio is my sanctuary. It was a practical issue as well. The first studios were also a haven in a way – you cannot always experiment that much on the street because there you are always working against the clock; it is best to finish as soon as possible. Having a studio was a way to combine fast and slowly and a way to have time to think.
BTC: Are you still out on the streets and painting?
KH: Yes, I am. But I try to avoid it. Haha! As I have a family. But there are still places I visit. Then it’s often where I feel that I can defend the situation if something happens. That I can explain that this is basically a demolition object or so.
BTC: Do you look at art a lot?
KH: I seek it out and actively look for it in periods. I’m trying to do it at least. Now, something needs to be updated. Now I need to refuel! So I can “level up” so to speak.
BTC: Is it usually things similar to your own art?
KH: No. It does not matter what it is. Something is taking place that seems interesting. Then what it may be, I do not know. There is so much happening in this small city.
BTC: How do you work with your art today?
KH: I work less with my art than I really want to. I cannot really find the time. I am renovating both here in the new studio and at home. It takes a lot of time. That’s how it is right now, it goes and goes like waves. All of a sudden, it’s the other way around!
BTC: How to get things done between family, work, and everything else?
KH: I’m trying to finish things, I do. But then again if it is something that I do it for myself, then I can always stretch the deadline a little bit. It’s going well in some contexts, in others I’m more likely to postpone things. If it’s a commission I’m more than capable to really structure the projects! Then I’ll of course get things done.
BTC: Is it easier to set aside the time when you do a commission?
KH: Yes. Then I have something almost concrete, I can get started right away. When I’m in the studio and work more freely then I often just try to get started and get something going. If I’m not working towards an exhibition, of course. Then I’ll have a date to work towards. It becomes what it becomes. Just before the exhibition I know that, yes, now it’s done. Now it will be exhibited! Working this way suits me just fine.
BTC: A bit like a food show: Leave the workbench, time is up!
KH: Yes, it can be. And you see that some are close to a heart attack and others are completely satisfied. But it is also important to find out when it is good enough. Now it’s good enough to be exhibited or to be done and presented. Not to sit there and pamper with details forever and ever.
BTC: Are you more comfortable with “good enough” nowadays?
KH: Oh yes, absolutely! Very much more so (than before). It’s nice to be able to feel now it’s good enough. Otherwise, I would be able to work on a painting for several years. Then you come up with new ideas, and paint over the paintings if they take too long. So it’s important to get them done!
BTC: Do you work on more than one painting at the time?
KH: This depends in part on whether there is any final goal. If I have an upcoming exhibition, then I work that way. If I do not, I can go on a lonely canvas. Then it’ll be a single piece. I usually work with the same colours if I have several canvasses going. I don’t know if I experiment more on a single canvas than I do on a series? I guess we need to leave that question unanswered for now.
BTC: Can you notice your feelings of emotion in your paintings? In the colours or in the patterns?
KH: The patterns feel depressed in this one? Can I immerse myself in that?
BTC: Do you usually have the same mood when painting?
KH: Yes. Just the idea that I’m going to paint gives me such euphoria! I can’t do it when I’m feeling down, I think. Perhaps I’ll try!
BTC: Is everything allowed in the field of art?
KH: Yes, that’s what they say. There is nothing to censor in my art, it’s just patterns. Or not just that. It’s patterns! It’s up to the viewer to see what they see whether it is a big cock or what the hell do I know! I do not think it has been intentional at any time, but ….
BTC: What drew you to the abstract style? Is it a way to hide the feelings in a pattern?
KH: Now it has become deep. Could it be? I do not know. I have to go to a psychologist so we can figure it out and I’ll come back to you on that one. Or maybe this is the psychologist conversation!? I have both drawn and painted figuratively, but I have always had a draw to the abstract and especially patterns.
BTC: You are three sharing a studio. Do you share a canvas too?
KH: We sometimes paint together. It’s not always that we have it in exhibitions but we try to do things together as well. We paint more together outside the studio than we do in the studio. It’s kind of two different design languages, two different paths.
BTC: Let’s do a classic interview ending: Where do you see your artistry in five years?
KH: Hopefully I’m still get the same joy from painting! That joy is still the main driving force. I want to keep developing and create new exciting collaborations. I’d like to do bigger paintings, more exhibitions and take on new creative missions.