David Strauzz on spreading optimism and positivity through street art
David Strauzz is a mixed media artist who was born to Czech immigrants in Ontario, Canada. Since 2015, he has lived in Prague, where he came to public attention mainly through his large-scale murals. He also runs the MEGA Gallery, located at the Karlovo náměstí and Můstek metro stations, which promotes street art. I met with David Strauzz in his studio in the Pragovka Art District in Vysočany and started by asking him what brought him to the Czech capital in the first place:
“First of all, this year is the 50th anniversary of my parents’ departure from Czechoslovakia, so it’s a very important year for me in terms of who I am, what I am doing and where I am doing it.
“In 2012 I was living in Boston, where my wife was employed by Harvard University. Two months after we arrived, the marathon bombing took place. So that was our welcome to American culture, which was very not Canadian.
“And we knew essentially that it wasn’t going to be a long-term project, that we were going to spend maybe three or four years in Boston, which is exactly what happened.
“And since I have had Czech citizenship since 2004, including an EU passport, we both decided as a couple that we would move to the Czech Republic. It would be another experiment for us and to be honest, since the moment we arrived in 2015, I have felt quite settled in the country.
“I enjoy speaking Czech although I have of course a heavy accent. I think the country is great and although I am not a nationalist, I do believe that the Czech Republic is one of the best countries in the world and therefore in the future I see myself living in Prague for who knows how long.”
When you were growing up did your parents speak Czech with you? Did you keep in touch with your relatives here in Czechoslovakia or what was then Czechoslovakia?
“My mother was pregnant with my sister when they escaped Czechoslovakia through England. Within two months my sister was born and so my father had to find a job very quickly in order to put food on the table. And so they, as a couple, were really focusing on speaking English.
“Between themselves, when they were maybe arguing as a couple, they would speak Czech. But with us, my sister and I, because we were going to English school, they were motivated to speak more and more English. So predominantly my whole life, we were speaking English.
“However, I played European football and my father was training me, so when we were on the pitch he would be screaming at me in Czech, so nobody would know what he was saying. And if I was acting like a brat then my parents would yell at me in Czech. So the idea of coming to the Czech Republic, for me, was really to connect with my extended family.”
What about your artistic career? Is it something that you wanted to do since your early childhood? Did you always know that you wanted to become an artist?
“I think that initially, naturally, my first talent was creative, as an artist. However, when I was six years old, I started kart racing. That was a big passion for me, but it was a very expensive sport, so unfortunately, my parents couldn’t support me for more than a few years.
“And then I thought, because I was playing football very seriously, that that would be something I could get into. But as a Canadian of course, although I had opportunities in Germany and in the United States to play, it was very difficult for me to believe that I could have a career in soccer.
“But I was always drawing and always creative throughout the karting or racing and the football. And so once I finished my football career, then the default was to go and to take art seriously. So I went through kind of an intermediate technical art school, between high school and university, which was two years, which is called Beale Art in London, Ontario. And then I went to university in Toronto called the Ontario College of Art and Design, OCAD University and I spent a few years there.
“And then once I finished school, I needed to put food on the table as soon as possible, so I found a job working for my father and that took me farther and farther away from art. But in 2013, when my mother passed away from cancer, I realised I have to really do something that she would be proud of. So I started painting every day, six days a week.”
You call yourself an urban contemporary artist. How would you describe your art?
“So the crudest term, and it's nothing to be ashamed of, would be street artist. But street artists are primarily those who are legally painting large murals outside in the public spaces. And I, as a street artist, also paint on canvas and I use various materials in my studio to depict the human experience, whether it’s canvas, wooden panels or found objects.
“So that’s where I would like to bring street art into the next level, where somebody that’s comfortable painting outside large murals, which is me, also feels just as comfortable presenting a new collection of artworks in a gallery setting or a museum. And that's why I like to talk about urban contemporary.
“I think that street art is one of the freest movements in academic art. It is most certainly one of the longest historical movements in art. When I paint outside I feel free. People come and talk to me, they ask questions or they yell at me because they're scared of spray paint.
“And inevitably, I start a conversation with them and then we sometimes become friends and sometimes I paint their portraits. It’s this miraculous moment where because of art I'm able to meet new people while I'm being creative which is a really magical.”
Your art is obviously based on street art or inspired by street art and graffiti. Have you yourself ever been part of an illegal graffiti scene when you were growing up in Canada?
“Yes. My father used to work in Barrandov when he was living in Prague. When he got to Canada, he had to find a job in a factory, but he never let go of that need to be creative, specifically through photography. So once in a while, when I was a child, we made several trips to New York City to buy cameras, because you could get professional equipment on the black market for a very good price.
“And that’s where I saw graffiti for the first time. And so at the age of 15 or 16 I really started exploring graffiti, drawing graffiti in my sketchbooks, and inevitably, when I turned 17, 18 and 19, I started painting illegal outside. So I do have experience with graffiti but my career didn’t last too long.
“However, as a 19-year-old, I was caught by the police. They had a database of pictures of my work, and they really put hard-core pressure on me. They came to my school, they came home to my room, trashed my room and stole all my sketchbooks.
“My father, as a photographer working at Barrandov, was interrogated by the communist secret police, because he sent photos across the border between 1968 and 1970. And when I got caught doing graffiti, it really affected me personally, because I thought: this is not what my parents struggled and left Czechoslovakia for me to do. Yes to be free, but not to go to jail.
“I knew that going to university, I could bring some of my graffiti experience into a more formal academic setting.”
“So at that point, in mid-1990s, street art, legal street art, was becoming more popular and I knew that going to university I could bring some of my graffiti experience into a more formal academic setting and that’s where I started to really explore street art as a style within academic art or contemporary art.”
I wanted to ask you about your murals. What does the process look like? How much time and how much time do you need to create these large-scale paintings?
“How is the question I have been asked a million times and I have come up with a simple answer. H is hard work, O is optimism, and W is willpower. It might sound funny, but in case of the most recent mural that I painted for IKEA in Holešovice, I started painting in -4 degrees Celsius and I think that the highest temperature was maybe 4 or 5 degrees Celsius above zero. So it is a difficult process, but one that I enjoy, because it really pushes me physically.
“There are various different techniques for street artists to enlarge images, which include projector or a grid or doodle grid. Everything I do when I get to a wall needs to be done quickly, because I don't have a month to paint the mural like I do with a painting in the studio. So there is a strategy that includes a lot of logistics and a lot of suppliers.
“When I painted for Nike and the Footshop in Holševice, I think that we spent something around CZK 200,000 worth of Eco Paint from Italy, which is paint that actually cleans smog. And in terms of spray paint, when I painted on Komunardů in Holševice, it was about 50 meters times four, and I believe I used about 150 cans of spray paint to complete the seven or eight portraits.”
You mentioned EcoPaint. How can paint clear the air? How does that work?
“This is a new product that has come onto the market where it is essentially similar to latex, whether it’s interior or exterior latex, which is mineral-based. It essentially works on the basis of photocatalysis, where when the paint is applied to a wall and activated by the sun, the paint starts breathing in the air and basically as a filter cleans the surrounding area. And every square meter of this eco paint works as one tree.
“So for the Nike and Footshop mural in Holešovice I painted about 350 to 400 square meters and essentially that mural worked as a forest of 400 trees, which is pretty amazing.
Apart from murals you do all sorts of studio works and since we are sitting in your studio right now, could you describe at least some of the works that we can see here?
“So we are sitting in my studio and we are looking at probably about 15 pieces of artworks from my latest exhibition, which I had at Pragovka. I say that I am not only painting portraits, but I am painting stories of the human experience. They differ in colour, they differ in intensity and also in materials.
“More and more I am utilizing optical effects to provide some story of the people I am painting. Whether it is kinetic, whether what you see on the left is not what you see on the right, or utilizing blinds, where the piece provides three different portraits. It could be a relationship between three people or it could be different moods within a particular personality.
“Regardless the colours or the technique, whether they are recycled materials or trash, I hope that everything related to who I paint, what I am using to paint will and the style of abstraction will reveal a true picture of who I am painting.”
I know you have recently returned from work trip to Bosnia, what were you working on there? What future projects do you have ahead of you?
“I had all sorts of ideas when I went to Bosnia, specifically a city called Tuzla, about historical figures that had some impact on Bosnian history and culture. But as I arrived in Bosnia, I realized that the country is in disarray. Existentially, I think that people are still dealing with the ramifications of the war 30 years ago.
“In fact, when I was painting on the lift for four or five days in 40 degree plus heat, every once in a while, people would walk by and scream at me. I had a young Bosnian street artist as my assistant and I had to ask him after a while of hearing these swear words what they were actually yelling at me.
“He said that they wanted to know who it was that I was painting and where they were born. Specifically, whether they were Serb, Muslim or Croatian. It was very, very difficult for me to understand this mentality. But the more time I spent with them and I hope more in the future, I started to begin to understand the tension within their being.
“So the person I painted in Bosnia was a lady that I know personally, but I told them: This is one of your neighbours. You are living with her. She is living with you. It doesn't matter where she was born. It doesn't matter what culture or religion she is. So I hope that I inspired the locals because I most definitely was inspired by the whole experience.”
What projects will you be working on in the near future?
“The closest will be a trip to Canada, where I will be painting a mural for the gallery that represents me in London, Ontario. After that, I will have a trip to Italy to paint a mural there, and that would be in October. And of course, there will be some collaborative exhibitions and so on.
“I also have a gallery here in Prague called Gallery Mega, located in the metro. One is at the Karlovo náměstí station and the other one at Můstek. Their aim is to support young and emerging street artists and graffiti artists who I believe are neglected by art institutions. So I try to keep as busy as possible and hopefully more projects come in the future.”
Finally, what is it that keeps fascinating you about street art?
“For me personally, large scale murals and street art have the impact of social campaigning.”
“First of all, I think that street art is always or usually high visibility. I think that street art has the potential to positively impact the people that live and work around large scale murals as opposed to corporate billboards.
“Also for me personally, large scale murals and street art has the impact of social campaigning. There are issues that I believe that we should be talking about more often such as racism, homophobia, misogyny, domestic violence, which is the theme for the IKEA mural in Holešovice. These are topics in Czech society that people still don’t like to talk about.
“So I think it’s maybe for me, as a white man, that I use this particular method of creativity to speak for the ones that can't speak for themselves, spreading the word of optimism and positivity. This is what I love so much about street art!”