By HuskMitNavn, Artist
Words by Nikolaj Hansson / Illustration by Sine Jensen
People didn't know much about him until posters, depicting a dick during wintertime started popping up all over the Danish capital during the early years of the 21st century. HuskMitNavn directly translates to "remember by name", so naturally, people didn't forget him right away. Throughout the years, the Danish artist has solidified his name on the global art scene through countless murals and exhibitions in New York, Brussels, San Fransisco along with other major capitals around the world. We met up with HuskMitNavn for a talk about not being famous, the misleading happiness of Denmark and why he wants you to remember his name.
Can it be claimed that you make portraits rather than art pieces?
I mostly do work that's for sale or things out in the public space. I don't see them as portraits. Sometimes, I do it for myself and at others, I do it for the purpose of selling. There’s no real way of distinguishing between a piece of art and a portrait; they’re not contradictive. A piece of art can contain all sorts of things, which that I try to do as well. I have my visual universe, where loads of things are related. I try to make it diversify it though. A drawing of a dog might solely by a drawing of a dog at one point, while it can be political or decorative at other times. It depends on your mood. If you’ve done one theme in a piece, you’ll do something different in the next to balance it out.
Are we too busy as a society?
I’m not sure. Years ago, you were busy but it was in a different way. Our grandparents had 16-hour work days. An early rise at 4 AM, then work before going off to school and then go home and continue with the labor in the afternoon. Today, we wake up, watch some television and go to school. At school, you might need to listen to your teacher, while checking your Facebook at the same time, which then gives you stress. It’s hard to compare. I’ve tried to embrace it a bit. When I started doing art in the streets, Facebook didn’t exist and things were way more analogue. I thought: “People are in the streets and the public space is becoming more interesting.” Other artists also saw this method of seeking out people in their natural habitat. Then the phone came along and people starting life inside the virtual space, so I figured I’d make something for that world. That’s where people were. Things move fast. Some people are constantly uploading things; taking pictures of their dinner, out the window, of the sunset and such. I like the high pace. You need to think about what works for you and experiment with it. People scroll through millions of pictures. How do you capture their attention? It’s the same with work in the public space. You need to make things that people will notice, when they’re cycling by, even though they pass by thousands of things. I make pictures surrounded by other pictures, but mine are the ones standing out. There aren’t that many technology free space left nowadays though. People bring their tablets to the toilet, on holiday, everywhere. You wake up in the middle of the night because your neighbour is loud and naturally, you check your iPhone. When I wake up at six in the morning, I check my e-mail. It’s just an automatic response from my hand. It gets a bit grey to bitch about it though. You should rather think about how you could turn it to your own advantage. It's the state of the world and you need to think about that. If not, you become like Dory from Finding Nemo, where you’re only able to remember what happened for the past 5 seconds.
Engelbrecht's Chairik chairs by HuskMitNavn (2009)
Benny Andersen once described Denmark as “a small neurotic country populated by smiling, happy people”. How do you see this?
I’ve lived in England a few times but it’s hard to compare. People travel a lot. I travel a lot. But we all have a tendency to meet people who are like ourselves. I have loads of friends in other countries, but we have the same interests. I have far more in common with them than my neighbour. The national borders are becoming more transparent. You have white trash people from Denmark who have the same things in common with the white thrash in the UK, while I have a lot of friends who do creative stuff across national borders. However, there are a lot of similarities in Denmark, due to the primary school and all. It’s quite the middle class society. We have yet to see huge gaps in living standards here. I read somewhere the other day that the reason for Denmark being the happiest population in the world was that the Danes have a different perception of happiness. Where other people strive for greatness, a lot of Danes tend to think: “I have my beer, I have this and that, I’m happy”. Marble cake and fresh air is all it takes to make us happy. In that sense, Denmark’s a safe place to live due to the welfare state and its safety net. We don’t have the grand gestures though. It’s fun when people have truly huge ambitions. I’ve followed a lot of careers and if you want to go to the top, you'll lose out on other areas. You won’t become the world’s greatest artist without losing out on other accounts. You won’t have any time for your family. You’ll discover along the way that everything has a price. You need to figure out how far you want in your career contra the sacrifice of that goal.
Are you placing irony over seriousness in your art?
It shifts. Irony isn't very fun on its own. It’s a 90’s thing; people sitting around, hearing Easy Listening, being ironic and reading Schäfer magazines. That might be its purest form but it has never really interested me. I try to pop a bit of humour in, but it’s not deliberate. It’s about finding your limits. It could be cool to make a heavy, monumental work. Make a huge series of paintings on the Holocaust. It’s just not my language. I could probably do something on the Holocaust; it would just be a different focus. That’s how it is with everyone; people who make serious art probably think: “It’d be cool if people laughed at my art, but I’m an artist with weltschmerz, so that's not possible.” Also, it’s more fun to make fun art rather than being serious all the time. You can disguise bad art by being serious about it. If someone thinks it's bad, you'll probably just tell them: “You can’t say it’s bad art, because you don’t get it. It’s too serious for you.” If you make fun art, there’s nowhere for you to hide. People will either think it’s funny or not.
No Mom Yes Son by HuskMitNavn (2014)
How do you think the financial crisis has affected the Danish population?
Things are different now. I make visual art; a luxury good. Some people might have experienced a small devaluation of their house, but if they didn’t move and still have the same jobs, they make the same kind of money. It’s rather segments of the society who experience the aftermath of the financial crisis. In my world, there was around two years, especially 2009, where things stood still. After that, the daily rhythm returned. Companies move to far away countries, using the financial crisis as an excuse. After 18 months, I figured it would be a normal situation. You couldn’t sell those half finished drawings that you were able to before. Today, you can sell good art, no half-finished work anymore. If you were younger, growing up when everything went well, your parents suddenly became depressed and things went from having the whole wide world in front of you to finishing your law school degree as quick as possible without having a job afterwards. That would have been something else. I’m from a 90’s generation. Not much happened back then. In the 80’s, we had the occupiers movement, housing was hard to get and people took over empty buildings. People are more introverts today. If they can’t find a place to stay, they think it’s their own fault. Years ago, people would blame everyone else. Something in the middle of those scenarios might be the right way to go.
Have you ever been arrested?
Never. I’ve been busted for painting many times, but there’s a difference. Sure, I’ve received a few fines but it really depends on the mood of the police officers. Is their shift about to end? Are they angry already? I once got caught where I was painting close to a cabin. Apparently, there had been a break-in or something that night. As the officers walked towards the cabin, their flashlight hit me by coincidence, standing in a football field in the middle of nowhere, painting a shed. They just said: “Fuck this” and gave me a fine. That was it. It also depends on what type of graffiti you do. I haven’t painted many trains. You often hear stories about some kid in a small town who discovered that he could scratch windows. Then him and his friends did that to all shops in the main street and got a huge fine. But it depends on the whole political spectrum. During the economic and social booms, graffiti tends to become an issue, since there aren’t that many problems but people need some, so they point out graffiti. Before the financial crisis, graffiti was a way bigger problem than after the crisis. Then as the shit hits the fan, graffiti drops down on the list of problems. In countries with major problems, graffiti isn’t a problem. They’re mostly saying: “Hey, someone has travelled here to paint. Woh, that guy’s tagging my house, that’s great!” or something along those lines. The lesser the problems in the society, the bigger problem graffiti becomes. But graffiti artists have way better terms in Denmark compared to Finland, Norway and Sweden.
Love Sucks by HuskMitNavn (2014)
Do you think it’s important to find meaning in everyday situations?
You can use the whole phrase about living in the moment and not wasting your time here. I’ve spent years watching bad TV but I don’t think I’d be able to do it differently. If you’re an author or filmmaker, you take those situations and use them as your material. People notice their own life’s through that; seeing a documentary on child abuse and then thinking: “Oh, the kids next door are probably also getting a good hiding once in a while”. All visual media is limited. On Instagram, there are a lot of things people don’t take pictures of. The same goes for visual art. I often see some incident and think: “That’s a funny situation, but it’s never been portrayed”. I try to fill in the gaps. If we don’t do that, people will think the 2010’s was only about sunsets, dinners at NOMA and coffee with your sweet girlfriends. It’s mystic; you can post everything but it’s just facades all around. Every time you’re in a good mood or you need people to feel sorry for you, you post it on Instagram. You can seem like the world’s happiest person but actually be completely miserable. Research has shown that the more pictures of your relationship you post, the shittier the relationship is. I only use my Instagram for my work. It’s up to people to decide whether or not it’s a situation from my own life or something I’ve observed. If I didn’t have my Instagram for work, sure, I might have posted pictures from my vacations and dinners. It’s just so bland. I went about deleting all people who posted pictures of their babies, dinners and all that the other day. Those people only need one kind of followers: grandparents. It’d be the same if you had a worm and completely loved it: “The worm is eating. The worm is sleeping.” Yes, you have a dope worm but I don’t care for it. But I think it’s really interesting, there are so many opportunities online. The rules of the internet are made while it’s happening. It’s the Wild West. There aren’t many rules. You can find places where people are talking trash to one another, places where young people are truly polite and places where parents are posting pictures of their adult kids when they were babies. It’s a circus. I’m 39. I’m caught in the middle of it all. When I was a kid, you had a telephone with the rotary dial until the answer machine came along. That was the most insane thing ever, the answer machine. You came home and looked that machine blinking: “Holy fuck! Someone left a message for me”. It was insane, compared to how fast it’s going today. You used to be offline when you were on vacation. Now you’re texting your friends from a swimming pool in South Africa.
Mona Lisa by HuskMitNavn (2014)
What do you like the most about working in art?
The freedom and being your own boss. That’s my motivation. I’ve had some shitty jobs, so I know what I’m going back to, if this doesn’t work out. But it does. You make your own rules. Art doesn’t have a particular function. In design, you need to think about if the cup works, if your factory can make it and so on. In art, I can take a piece of paper, make a drawing and that’s a finished product. It’s amazing how fast you can a piece of art. Everyone likes to admire what they’ve accomplished after a days work. Some people have a problem, if they’ve been sitting at their computer all day. Sure, maybe they’ve answered 700 e-mails but it isn't tangible. I always have that. When I’m finished with a piece of art, the satisfaction kicks in. The art world is weird at times, but it’s interesting to look at how it works. You need to. If not, people will fuck you over. When you start making art, no one is sitting around waiting for you to make something. You need to get yourself out there. The myth of the artist arose in a time where, at most workplaces, people had beers for lunch. It can be clever for me not to clean my studio, when people visit. If they enter a clean environment, it doesn’t fit their myth of the artist. When you start as an artist, you have this idea of someone working for 10 days straight, then getting drunk for another 10 days while having loads of unknown kids. That’s not how it works. You can do that. Sure. I know people who have, but they burn out. Their liver succumbs. Artists experience success for a few years but if you want to get beyond that, you need structure and a lot of work. I’m sure loads of artists live a life way more superfluous than mine.
Have you ever thought about making cartoon films?
There’s crazy much work in that. It could happen. There's been huge steps of development in animation over the last couple of years. Just draw a character from five different angles and they’ll make something from that. I like being finished with things the same day I start though, that’s probably a habit from days in graffiti. I think I’m a bit too impatient for cartoon films. But everyone knows the feeling, when they see the movements in their own stop motions. You feel like God: “Wow, I’ve created life! Do that move again!” There’s quite a lot of magic to it. However, I’ve tried to avoid doing the same drawing repeatedly. I did a cartoon series for Politiken (Danish national newspaper), always introducing new characters rather than reusing the same ones. There’s a lot of work in it, drawing Asterix from multiple angles over and over and over. It takes a tremendous amount of work.
Waiting Room by HuskMitNavn (2010)
In Denmark, you’re often called the most famous street artist in the country. Why do you think this is?
There are different reasons to that. When we started, it was a small community and we all knew each other through graffiti. Around the new millennium, we started looking into doing other things than three-dimensional graffiti. People did loads of different stuff, but I was the only one who attached a name to my art. I had heard a theory about how to remember jokes. You’ve heard hundreds and hundreds of jokes, but you can never remember any of them. The secret is to always tell the joke to another person. Then you’ll remember it. So I figured, if people wanted to remember having seen my work, they needed to tell it to somebody else. And if that should be possible, it should be easy to tell to others. You should be able to say: “Look at that HuskMitNavn-poster right there”. Short and precise. I attached my name to it, but that also lead to me getting both the glory and the blame for things, which I had nothing to do with. For a long period of time, I was the only one mentioned in the context of street art. That’s only one side of things though. The other side is I didn’t know what I wanted to do until street art came along. When these things started happening, you could feel the energy and acclaim around the movement; but no one really knew what it was. It wasn’t called street art. No books. No YouTube videos. But there was lots of it. So I figured I’d go for it. With every new type of art, there are always a few guys who are able to make a living from it. I wanted that to be me. I wanted to make a living from street art, so I had to do the appropriate work in order for me to reach that goal. I’ve worked my way up.
Can it be claimed that street art is a kind of graffiti that can be interpreted and understood by anyone?
A lot of it makes you think: “What the fuck do you want to do with that?” Sometimes it’s on purpose; sometimes it’s bad communication. There’s a difference to it though. Traditional graffiti is a closed language and street art is something used to communicate with all kinds of people. But what we did was a counteraction to graffiti; it had become too solidified and locked. Then that happened to street art as well. I always find it funny when I’m having a show at a gallery, journalists often go: “Street artist exhibits work indoors”. But the work in my exhibition is irrelevant to street art. Sure, there are some common lines in there but my style isn’t from the streets either. It’s a confusion of terminology. I’d probably do the same if I had to review classical music. People within the genre would go mad because I probably wouldn’t know the difference between lots of things there. That’s how it is.
A Real Man by HuskMitNavn (2013)
Do you ever attend your own openings?
Sometimes I’m there, sometimes I'm not. At my most recent opening, I went to the cinema for the first time in some years. I saw a really good movie actually. Just as the movie was over, the opening was done with. I went back to the gallery after the film and ate the rest of the crisps.
Do you ever want people to know who you are?
Never. If you know people who are famous, you have to be extremely weird, if you become jealous of them because of their fame. What’s worth to envy is that they have a job filled with possibilities to do cool things. They can go shoot a movie in foreign countries and they have a job in a field, where it’s really hard to be successful. But envying one because people stare at that person is something I don’t get. I saw some famous guy, when I went to the shop earlier today. He had his head buried in his iPhone, wearing sunglasses on a cloudy day. He probably also wear those at night. Copenhagen is a relatively small place, it’d be different had you been Brad Pitt living in L.A. I knew from the beginning that I wasn’t interested in that. I could be in contact with people and some would say: “HuskMitNavn is arrogant”. They need to have an opinion about you, even though you might just have a bad day. Or you might be arrogant. Then you’ve deserved it. I’ve always had the opportunity to have the best of two worlds. I get exposure in the newspapers, magazines and TV. I get all the interesting attention while not having to experience fame, when it’s irrelevant. Whether that’s me biking home from work or me taking a swim: “Wow. HuskMitNavn is really pale!” That would suck. I’m free for all that.
Mural in Kreuzberg, Berlin by HuskMitNavn (2014)