Masks and Glue

On a cool April morning, Brisbane wakes to find a new public artwork. Overnight, someone has placed a papier-mâché egg beneath a model dinosaur outside the science museum. It’s painted royal blue, is about a metre wide and at least one and a half high, and has been hauled, miraculously, atop the shipping container the dinosaur stands on. People are murmuring and photographing the object by 7am, and word of the apparition continues to be spread all through the morning. People stop, point and photograph up until the egg is covertly removed in the early afternoon. 

Standing on a nearby balcony, watching the reactions unravel from afar, The Artist casts an eye over bypassers as they interact with his piece. This is it. He shaped the egg using a balloon and cardboard stints as late workshop nights bled into early mornings, strengthening its skeleton with papier-mâché, then coating it finally with layers upon layers of paint. It has a smooth finish. He bundles it into a black sheet and ties it off-shoulder, then rides down to the museum precinct where it is hoisted atop the container in the small hours of the morning. Now people stop, point, and photograph, oblivious. Construction takes upwards of a week, and the thing is retracted into the bowels of the museum after just hours.

The experience holds a truth that The Artist knows through rote learning: in the world of street art, visibility comes at the expense of longevity and vise vera. And so the artist keeps cutting pieces of hardboard in whimsical shapes, dipping them in the signature blue and fixing them to landmarks only to have them taken down again – sometimes hours, sometimes years afterwards. Pasted, removed, pasted, removed, up, down, up, down – a cyclical game of cat and mouse. 

This building, Building M (“Don’t mention its actual name,” The Artist implores), will be one of Brisbane’s tallest once it is built. As it stands now, under construction and with a moat of cameras and fencing, it’s designed to keep the wrong people out. But The Artist is used to using the tools of modern architecture to overcome such hurdles: neighbouring roofs, gantries and makeshift footholds all help to get him inside

Next The Artist slogs up 70 flights of stairs, higher and higher up the building’s spine. It’s what’s at the end that counts, though, and what’s at the end – harness-less past a sign reading “harness required if exiting onto walkway”, treading quietly around stacked planks of wood, then slowly but confidently onto the rooftop as it’s touched by first light – is all the world at your fingertips, or at least what counts of it. On top of the building, crowning it, is a stationary crane reaching far over the edge: a wicked invitation that could spell death, or glory. The Artist climbs up through the triangulated orange bars of the boom, then hoists himself up and through them, perching on a bar and letting his legs dangle above the city below. The rising sun hits the river and lights it up like a serpentine canal of gold. In faraway houses, the people are rising for breakfast.

The album that archives this journey is called “Postcards from the edge”, and the title holds truth in spades. I’ve clicked through dozens of times and my reaction never eases: my stomach knots, and all I can think about is the pre-dawn wind, or what it would be like to touch the cold, impossibly thin steel bars bracing me from a two hundred metre fall, and hold onto them for dear life. The Artist often shoots in first person so I feel these effects by transfer. For a brief moment I am thankful for being ordinary. Gravity’s strength seems to double in high altitude for me; on flights, it takes just the smallest bit of turbulence to convince me the plane will fall dead out of the sky. Where the artist sees an extended hand, I see a crane that might tip, my weight shifting its balance and driving us both back down, down, down to Earth after a plummet that would last an eternity.

My fear contrasts the confidence preserved by these photos, but this is the point. Like the blue artwork that winks from the city’s alleyways and out-of-reach walls, these photos both taunt and testify, “I was here”. I would spot these pieces throughout Brisbane and wonder how they got there, a reminder that someone was being incredible while we below kept to the footpath. To look at these works is to admire them from a position of wilful unknowing, with the questions of how, when and, crucially, who, liberally shaded in by you.

Here is what I expect from ‘who’: decent height; speech in aphorisms; deceptively lean muscles that bulge when called upon; an enigma; the impenetrable persona of the super-heroic, because his stunts are so removed from the threshold of regularity that I do find them super-human, vaguely. This is what I find when I meet The Artist: a somewhat gaunt frame; regular height; friendliness; a willing-ness to share. Paramount to these: a disposition that he is not extraordinary, and that his practice is funded by curiosity and confidence rather than whimsy or dissatisfaction with the everyday. He lists structures he’s climbed like he’s reading out a grocery list, with a matter-of-fact mumble. His cadence moves in… clusters of thought… as if the ideas race ahead too rapidly… to be formulated by language. I ask why he started climbing the city three years ago and he says, “I thought Brisbane needed more art, and… I was going to say something profound, but I forgot… um… another thing is that…”

My skills as a journalist rely on my ability to efface my own thoughts and persona, to become a tabula rasa as it were. A profession that places inordinate interest in the thoughts and activities of others fits the shyness I sometimes have when meeting others; ideally, my sources will look at me and simply see a pair of ears. But The Artist is an interview I find especially challenging, because he seems to doubt his incredible work is a story at all. What is interesting about what I do? I imagine him wondering, holding his adventures as a mere hobby. Oh, you’ve seen photos of me on that rooftop? The one whose panels sit on a forty-five degree slant, meaning its climber must dig their fingernails beneath the slats of corrugated iron lest they should fall three storeys? Yeah, I know it. It’s a pet climb.

 

Then there is the fact that profiling The Artist is a somewhat null endeavour, because few people would recognise The Artist as the person sitting, out of disguise, in front of me. In the former persona, he wears a bespoke, blue shinobi get-up, and takes the fitting moniker Blu Art Xinja. Some who know The Artist outside of Blu Art Xinja have, in the past, come close to foiling the degree of separation his Facebook account keeps between his lived and performative selves. “People say nice work… Bob. (That’s not my real name.) And I message them: “don’t do that! I know you know me, but keep the mystery there.””

The Artist/Not Bob has a plan which, if executed, will call out the kinds of surveillance that threaten his anonymity by drawing attention to it in droves. Using a rope and a harness to abseil down, he lands on a security camera that perches ever-watching on the high wall of a busway, his footing and his canvas. It’s a balancing act, him shifting his weight back to the rope as the piece sets on the camera. Then back up the wall and away into the night, mission complete. Buses drive past the next day, and scores of people notice the gaudy blue wave glued to the camera’s casing.

In popular culture, the superhero’s unmasking looms spectre-like, both a source of narrative tension and a key to understanding character when all is unlocked. Literary critics have traced a crooked lineage between gothic horror and contemporary superhero comics, finding conflict in both tends to be underpinned by psychoanalytic leitmotifs that originate from within the self. With superheroes, this manifests in the fragmented identities of characters who try, often in vain, to reconcile their personal and heroic egos. A mask is invested with power, self-actualisation and anonymity; it is an exteriorisation of the hero’s escape from the ordinary. Crucially, neither of these egos fully reflects or encompasses the whole. They are binaries defined by what the other is not.

This is why I am interested in The Artist: you could walk past him on the street and think nothing of it. What kind of normalcy exists when the mask is removed? What motivates that person to fill the streets with pieces that taunt and vanish?

I float the idea: do you see yourself as a pop art superhero?
But it is deflected, casually: “You said that, not me.”

Still, I find it a fitting title for the man who has substituted his lived identity in favour of a synthetic one, regularly risking his life, transcending his own limits and evading surveillance in the name of a Facebook-powered persona.

Truthfully, this image is something of a myth. There is fluidity between his masked and unmasked selves. The Artist inverts the superhero trope, intimating ordinariness to perform his stunts, while using the mask to collect cultural capital. The costume is for galleries, warehouse parties, and other places where people may credit his work. The streetwear is for being extraordinary. When climbing, he’ll wear a fluoro vest to feign the appearance of a tradie, or take up the guise of a wayward pedestrian who simply stumbled somewhere they shouldn’t be. His ninja costume is too conspicuous, so he hides in other identities to fatten his chances of security letting him pass if sighted; to pretend, in other words, that he belongs. He waves at an onlooker who spots his pre-dawn caper. “That’s the trick. Act like you’re meant to be there. Act like everything’s cool.”

They’ve been painting over stained concrete for a month, and gantries hug the tower like rungs in a ladder. It is early and conditions are rough as The Artist climbs them: a gale blows; a nesting crow spies the intruder and out-squawks the din of traffic below. But The Artist is both nonplussed and practiced, and so he just climbs, climbs, climbs up and down this building in ten minutes flat. There are few people in the street below, and those who are tend to be cold, drunk, or not looking for a stranger scaling an ugly cement tower. Those who look up after daybreak see only see a tall, blue carving erected on the rooftop – and none of the bird shit.

Urban explorers and street artists make the difficult seem effortless, like scaling a skyscraper is no harder than mounting a foot ladder. It is also somewhat performative: the installation contributes to the quality of the work, so the more unlikely the space utilised, the greater credit it commands. Like graffiti, it’s a practice where danger has come to equal freedom, its proponents’ exploration of out-of-bounds spaces parallel to their escape of the institutions they’re typically excluded from or punished by. It is a fitting metaphor: the misunderstood rogue locating freedom in marginal spaces where the order of everyday life is suspended.

But as an art that prizes heedlessness, urban exploration can be costly. In March last year, a Brisbane man celebrated in blogospheres for his luminescent photos of drain networks drowned after floodwater filled an underground tunnel he was kayaking through. Months later, reports circulated about an unidentified man who had fallen off a tower from a significant height. I spent days fretting The Artist had finally met his making when he shared a news article on Facebook. Headline: ‘Man’s body found at CBD construction site’, caption: ‘Attention: Not Me’.

But who is he? The Artist carries an appealing mantra while wearing the mask and without it: have the confidence that you can do something, and your nerves will likely see you through. He wanted to scout unlikely places to colonise with art, so he went about finding them and putting it there, pro bono, without any prior climbing experience at all. He wanted to revel in a sense of pioneering, so he sought nooks and crannies that few had laid eyes on before – amid the current boom of construction overwriting buildings with new ones, perhaps few people ever would. He wanted to climb, climb, climb, up onto anything that looked climb-able or stand-able, equipped with the confidence that, no, this crane will not tip, and yes, this really is no different to walking in a straight line.

Then, one day, The Artist is caught. Not during a climb, but a shoot he’d volunteered for, after climbing up and posing atop a building of offices then dodging the growing crowd below by shimmying down the other side. He was chatting to the photographer as two police approached; the man facing them matched descriptions of a trespasser dressed head-to-toe in blue.

They took a name, mug shot, address, thumbprint; had been alerted to high-hanging, blue illegal artwork in the past, but don’t connect the dots. They lift the mask. They reciprocate these details with The Artist’s first (first!) warning to date, and file the identification details – not those I was searching for, which I’m still not sure I have. The Artists asks me if I know of any blocks on my university campus that would make a good climb, jumps on a bike and rides off in search of more places to pioneer – more places to be no-one, and anyone at all.

Jesse Thompson is a Brisbane-based writer and radio producer.

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