“Banksy of Brno” moves from streets to gallery

'Indoor Adventures', photo: Czech Television

Perhaps Brno’s best known street artist, the man known as Timo has just moved indoors for the first time, with a new exhibition at the city’s Off/Format gallery. Timo’s art has been acclaimed as poetic, funny and socially critical; the show, entitled Indoor Adventures, features some of his more subtle pieces, but also offers a sample of his street creations.

'Indoor Adventures',  photo: Czech Television
An unusually large crowd of several hundred people arrived at the modest Off/Format gallery in Brno on Wednesday for the opening of Indoor Adventures, the first exhibition featuring the city’s popular street artist Timo.

Sometimes referred to as the “Banksy of Brno” by local media, he has been spraying his poetic and witty messages on concrete walls, bridges, power boxes and other such places across the city for around a decade and a half. But his first gallery exhibition presents a different side of Timo, says curator Petr Kovář.

“We wanted to exhibit his personality as an artist and poet, rather than just his label as a graffitist. That’s why chose some of his more subtle pieces.

“There are series of drawings of pressed garbage, various tea bags and boxes, dried run-over frogs, which gain a very interesting charge which is not based just on the fact they were created by a famous street artist, but they have an artistic quality of their own.”

Not much is known about the person behind the pseudonym. Timo first began making graffiti in the late 1990s in Bohunice, one of Brno’s largest concrete housing estates. His early pieces were not much different from other taggers. However, he has since developed a specific voice that is easily recognized by his growing legion of fans.

Timo declined to be interviewed by Radio Prague, but last year he spoke to Czech Radio’s alternative music station, Radio Wave. Among other subjects, he recalled his beginnings.

“That was in Bohunice, in a passageway under some apartment blocks. I think it was a head, a face. That was my first spray that I got hold of; the first feeling is very interesting because it’s like waving a magic wand.

“You are not touching the surface yet you are painting. The feeling that you just wave your hand and leave a trace is absolutely magic. That was quite powerful.”

Mural by Timo,  photo: Czech Television
Timo has moved from simple tags and images to more intriguing art. His poems and images have gained him many followers, as have his various slogans addressing passers-by. One consists of just one word, neboj, which could be translated as ‘don’t be afraid’ or ‘there, there’. The comforting appeal has appeared in several spots in the city, and Timo says that it is his favourite.

“Public space is full of advertisements for all kinds of private things, such as bathroom tiles, chairs, cars, swimming pools and all sort of nonsense.

“Public space is reduced so that people become more private. And I like ‘There, There’ because it’s a gentle message in the middle of all these aggressive ads, strong words and colours, and so on.”

Timo’s work first received wider public attention in 2012 when he reinterpreted the logo of the Albert supermarket chain, part of the Dutch firm Ahold. Timo’s piece was similar to Albert’s signs telling drivers the distance to their nearest outlet.

“But instead of Albert, the inscription read Albertina, a reference to the famous art gallery in Vienna, and the distance of 144 kilometres between Brno and the Austrian capital. While critics considered his creation a witty comment on consumerism, the corporation was less amused, and had the painting removed.

Last year, Timo clashed with one of the country’s largest loan providers, Home Credit. This piece also parodied an official company logo. Taking the slogan ‘Home Credit: With Us You Can’, he replaced the word ‘Credit’ with ‘Less’ in what was considered a poignant criticism of the loan shark industry. However, the company was not at all pleased and complained to the rector of Brno University of Technology, operator of the gallery showing the piece.

“The CEO of Home Credit came to Brno to speak to the rector to tell him to remove the piece, that it’s not funny and that he was outraged. They even offered me to meet with their lawyer so that I can hear their side of the story and to realize that it’s not black and white.

“I thought it could be interesting to meet with a Home Credit manager. But I think they are evil, and you must not negotiate with evil.”

'Indoor Adventures',  photo: Czech Television
Timo’s exhibition in Off/Format gallery is not as controversial as some of his street creations. But curator Petr Kovář says that just like the artist’s outdoor work it has something to say to viewers – and this is what makes him different from other street artists.

“The quality of his art is I think based on its authenticity, and it fulfils the expectations people have from street art. That might distinguish him from what we usually see in street art and graffiti, which tends to be closed.

“The authors don’t seem to care if others understand their work and instead create more or less design variations. Timo, on the other hand, wants to communicate and address people, and I think he is successful.”

I discussed Timo’s art with Jan Zálešák, the head of the Department of Theoretic Studies and History of Art at the Faculty of Fine Arts at Brno University of Technology.

“There are two levels; one is the art that can be presented in a gallery, the other being street art version of Timo. He is of course known more for what he does outside, that’s how he made his name, and that’s I think what we should talk about.

“He works with text, which is quite common among graffiti artists. But contrary to what you usually generally see in the street, he does not just tag or write his name or that of his crew but he often sends poetic messages, from simple sentences to shorter poetic and literary texts, usually reacting somehow not to the immediate places or spots but to a more general context.

“That would require going into a bigger detail here but he usually works in socially and culturally predefined spaces like housing estates and peripheries, and so on.”

You mentioned the poetic qualities of his art; he has also been described as a very sensitive artist. In what sense is his work poetic and sensitive?

“Sometimes you can read his texts as pieces of poetry. But that’s perhaps not the most specific feature of his work; what I find most interesting are his short statements, just one or two sentences. He often plays with words and works creatively with the language.

“Just to give an example: he made of those wall pieces in the courtyard of the Faculty of Fine Arts where he studied in the past. It was a reverse version of the slogan, ‘you can aspire for more”, instead, he wrote, ‘you can aspire for less’.

'Indoor Adventures',  photo: Czech Television
When students take their exams, they can see this from the windows, so this provokes reactions. I would not say it’s any sophisticated poetry. But there is always a poetic aspect in what he does.”

His work caused quite a stir a few years ago when he made his own versions of corporate logos, one of the Dutch supermarket chain Albert, the other of the Home Credit loans provider. Is that typical for his work? Is he political?

“In a way, it is typical although these pieces were different in some aspects. They were both actually legal before they were censored. He usually works like a proper graffiti artist, and he picks the spots without asking.

“The first piece was on a wall next to Brno’s train station, and the problem started a few weeks after he did it. The pun here is that we tend to spend more time and money on shopping than on cultural activities.

“It was a general critique of Czech society, and it was not directed at Albert but at the society. Unfortunately, Albert managers and lawyers had a different opinion and asked for the piece to be removed.”

“The piece was again an appropriation of a company logo, Home Credit, and again, there was a strong reaction which insisted on the piece being removed. It was quite controversial because the gallery is run by the university, and you might say that university environment is neutral and it would not be that easy to censor something.

“That led to debates about the limits of freedom of speech. You now don’t go to jail for making political remarks like you would before 1989 but you can get into trouble if you get in a conflict with some strong players on the market.”

What do we know about the actual person who calls himself Timo?

“Well I’m not sure how much I can say about him since we have legislation which makes graffiti illegal, and no one wants to get into problems because most of his work is not legal.

“I know him personally but what can I say? He studied art, he comes from no extraordinary social background, he is not an outsider form the social point of view. He is a very sensitive person, he is very open-minded and a man of certain rules which he believes should be respected. He is Christian as far as I know, and he has some attitudes and values that he takes into account in his work.”