There’s a certain degree of obsession that’s intertwined with being a great artist. An intense devotion to the craft that manifests itself in various ways. Visual artists have a way of looking at the world that’s entirely unique, and their immersion in and search for beauty is often all consuming.
For Irish-born street artist Fin DAC, this obsession is revealed whenever he paints a wall. It’s like he goes into a trance. He finds himself forgetting to eat or take breaks, working through the night and into the wee hours. When he’s consumed with a piece, Fin is transported away from day-to-day concerns. It’s just him, the wall, and the muse he transposing onto its surface. Everything else melts away.
“There’s a Charles Bukowski* quote about finding something that you love and then letting it kill you,” Fin tells me with a laugh when I ask him if he has a philosophy. “That’s probably it. That’s the whole impetus behind what I’m doing.”
In the beginning, Fin DAC’s obsession with painting came out of a need to escape. He was a full-fledged adult when he went into the streets to paint his first street mural. He had never gone to art school, or gone the route of rising up through the graffiti scene as a teen. In fact, Fin grew up with no plans to enter the art world at all. He was simply an adult with a normal full time job, living a normal life. And perhaps he would have remained that way, had an ugly breakup not driven him to look for an outlet that might offer a few moments of meditative peace. As his life crumbled around him, street art gave Fin the stillness and beauty he was seeking.
Once he officially dipped his toes into the art world, Fin DAC’s obsession grew quickly. He became engrossed in becoming more skilled and creating more beauty. Now, Fin is singularly focused on his work. He strives to be unique, and let each piece speak for itself. His beautiful, large scale murals are incredibly distinctive. The artist uses a combination of stencils and hand painting to create portraits of women, with signature colorful masks. Once you know it, it’s easy to recognize a Fin DAC piece.
I spoke to Fin on the phone recently and he was incredibly candid about his work, what drives him, and his journey to become the artist he is today.
*Though there has been some debate over the origin of this quote, it’s most likely a 1986 quote from a singer named Kinky Friedman that has, over the years, migrated to Bukowski circles. The sentiment remains the same though.
What are your origins as an artist?
I used to draw when I was a child but I didn’t go to art school and I didn’t have a mentor. So by the time I finished high school, I had sort of forgotten about doing art as a career. I didn’t think I had anything that could guarantee that I could make a living from it anyway. So, I just forgot about it.
Then, ten years ago, I split up from my long term partner. She put me through hell in terms of court cases and legal stuff. I just needed something to get my mind off it. I was surrounded by street art in London and I thought I could do better than some of the stuff I was seeing. There was no real plan to be an artist. It was just more about getting some head space from the negative stuff that I was thinking about all the time.
How does art free you in that way and take you out of your head?
It’s like meditation. Yes, you do have to concentrate on what you’re doing, but actually, you go into auto pilot. When I first started it, the reason for doing it was to try and forget about all the stuff with my ex-partner. But, actually, what happened was I just forgot about everything. I could paint for 12 or 14 hours on the weekend and not even think about eating. I was just so, I guess, obsessed with it, immersed in it.
Your style is so distinctive now. How did you get there? And how did your art evolve to center around Eastern influences?
The Eastern thing came about by pure chance. I was painting in a suburb of Paris and a friend of mine had painted a Japanese-themed piece near to where I was going to be painting. So I just thought it would be good to continue the theme but I didn’t just want to do what he had done. I wanted there to be some kind of personal touch to it. So, I sourced an image of a girl. I just found her online. Then I contacted what I thought was the photographer to ask if I could paint this particular photograph or portrait. It turned out, the photographer was actually the girl in the photos. Once I had finished the piece and it was a very popular piece, I just contacted her again and said, “Would you be willing to continue being a muse for me?”
So, yeah, it was just pure luck. But, at that point, I was just painting Asian influence stuff. The real breakthrough came when I did the mask. The mask came about because I had a manager at the time and he was telling me to stop painting the Asian girls. He couldn’t sell them and he wanted me to paint rock stars and pop stars and film stars, etc. because that’s the sort of stuff that he could sell at the time. I was adamant that I wasn’t going to be a portrait painter for the rest of the my life. I had just been made redundant from my job. I was laid off. I think I just had a determination to try to make it work, to sort of stick a finger up at my manager. You know? To kind of prove him wrong.
It just kind of worked out. The thing is, the mask is the thing that is instantly recognizable, and that’s the thing that has propelled my work into a different level or into a different place.
As a male artist who primarily paints portraits of women, do you feel that you’re subverting the male gaze in your work or do you feel like, in some ways, your work contributes to the male gaze?
I would hope that it doesn’t because the reason for doing them in the first place is to get away from that male dominated way of displaying women or showcasing women, the objectification and the sexualization that you see in all forms of media, TV, and online. It’s something that I definitely didn’t want to feed into. I wanted my work to be a counter-balance to that. I don’t want the work to be seen as objectification.
You’re looking for kind of that beauty and that fierceness without the fetishizing or sexualization.
Exactly. The whole point of my work is to paint women in a positive way. I’m pretty sure that’s how people see them. I’ve had plenty of people contact me, both male and female, talking about the fact that I paint women in a completely different way to whatever they’ve seen before. Of course, when that comes from a woman, that’s a moment of pride for me because that means that not only have I managed to achieve that, but I’ve done it in such a way that these people have taken the time to reach out and tell me that.
When you boil my work down to the bare bones, I paint beautiful women, but I try to touch on their culture and their traditions because they’re the things that interest me most. When I went to New Zealand two years ago and I painted a portrait of a Maori girl, it got a huge amount of attention because the local painters don’t paint Maori girls. That’s a shame to me. If we all focus on our culture rather than our race, there would be fewer problems in the world.
What are you working on right now? Do you have any big projects going?
I just finished a wall in London a couple of days ago. Of course, I’ve got studio work to do because I have commitments to various projects or various shows later in the year. I’m going to be in L.A. and Portland in July and August, so when I get the studio time that I have now, I have to make the most of it.
On Friday, I go to Venice and then from there to Vienna for a street art festival, which is something I very rarely do, actually. I tend to stay away from the festival circuit and just do my own independent projects.
Why do you stay away from the festival circuit normally?
Because it’s a male dominated thing. It’s like, for want of a better phrase, when you go to these things, who’s got the biggest dick in the room. I really don’t like stuff like that. I’m not that kind of man and I never have been. I’m just kind of turned off to things when I’m in the presence of that many guys who are trying to prove that they’re the best.
Do you prefer gallery work or do you prefer street work? Is there one that you are more drawn to?
Yeah, definitely street work. The gallery work is really only there to balance everything financially. Nobody pays me to paint walls or to travel. That’s just something that I love doing myself. The projects that I paint, no matter where they are in the world, whether it’s from Columbia or New Zealand or Europe, they’re all, the majority of them, self-financed and self-organized. In order to finance those trips, I have to be able to sell work. So, the gallery thing is just a means to an end, really.
In the gallery, people are chasing me all the time to give them work and I’m constantly … It’s really hard to explain to them that it’s not a priority for me. It never has been. I’ve only ever done one solo tour in my whole life and that was actually in L.A.
It’s so hard, I think. All different kinds of artists deal with this, but it’s hard to balance your passion with the fact that you, of course, need money to eat.
Yeah, but I think street artists have an extra edge because we’re putting our work in public places (for free). That work is guaranteed to be photographed and put online to be instagrammed and tweeted and everything else. That automatically generates a certain type of interest in your work, but whether or not that interest equates to sales is negligible. The fact of the matter is when you’re on the wall constantly putting up new work, I think that does, at some point, tip over into online sales of prints or whatever it might be. Those are the things that keep you going.
What inspires you about a piece of blank concrete? What calls to you when you walk by a wall and you realize you want to paint it?
It could be any number of things. One of the things that I dislike most about street artists and the way they approach things is when don’t allow the surface or the wall or the surroundings or the scenario to dictate how or what they are painting. I’ve got plenty of examples of paintings that I’ve done where something in the setting has basically dictated to me what I should be painting, like something on a rooftop where there’s a skylight and the skylight is incorporated into the artwork. I think there’s far too few people in street art who allow those things to happen. The texture of the wall, the proportions of the wall, something within the surroundings of the wall, all of those things can have an effect on what I paint. That’s not to say that it happens all the time, but I am constantly looking for those scenarios.
There’s a piece I just painted in London. When I was originally approached to paint it, it was just a little curved wall on a corner, very narrow and very tall. It wasn’t very interesting to me, but the building itself was. Particularly, because it was so ornate with Georgian features at the top of the building. I just said, well, if you let me paint all the way up to the top, I’ll do it. What you’re left with is something that really could only be painted in that spot. It probably wouldn’t work anywhere else.
You started painting professionally a little later in life. Do you feel like there was some fear when you were younger that held you back from doing what you loved?
Absolutely. You know, this is one of the reasons why I feel very, very lucky and I’m always speaking to people or pontificating about the need to just forget about the fear. What happened with me was, because I went through all this crap with my ex, it honestly didn’t matter to me anymore if something I painted didn’t work out right. My life was just completely messed up anyway. Nobody cared if it turned out well or not, honestly. That’s one of the things about being an artist that’s the strangest thing. We worry constantly about what people think and, actually, when you start off as an artist, nobody cares.
For me, the eradication of the fear is what enabled me to just start painting. Because my life was a mess, it couldn’t get any worse. So I just thought, “Fuck it.” I’m gonna paint anyway because I’m miserable in my life. I’d been with my partner for ten years and I basically lived my life trying to please somebody else and for what reason? I don’t know.
I’d beaten myself up when I was younger because I didn’t go to art school. I didn’t have a high school where they taught art. I went to a technical school. When I left high school, I couldn’t study graphic design, which is what I wanted to do because I had no portfolio to speak of and I had no impetus either, you know? If I look back on what I was painting ten years ago now, it’s terrible, but it was good enough at the time. It’s like when you get into a car for the first time. You don’t expect to be an amazing driver. Certainly individuals will be amazing, but most of us won’t. Most of us have to practice. That’s the thing that I’ve done the most. I worked my ass off for years and years and I’m still working my ass off because I know that’s the only way that I’m going to make the improvements that I feel are necessary.
Do you feel, now that you’re following the things that bring you joy, that you’re happier?
Absolutely. The weird thing is that I came from a very, very negative situation with a very negative person. What I hadn’t realized is that I had become a very negative person as well because when you’re in a negative situations, it can’t help but affect you.
What happened with me was as soon as that negative influence was taken out of my life, lots of things changed for the better. To begin with those things that were changing were tiny and opportunities that came my way were tiny, but I took them because I thought to myself if I don’t take the opportunity, I know what’s gonna happen: nothing. If I do, I don’t know what’s going to happen. So I always took it and they always led to something else. It was almost like somebody somewhere was guiding me to a better life anyway. The fact of the matter is that I’m doing something that I absolutely love and there’s a very small percentage of people in the world that are given the opportunity to do that. So, I know how lucky I am but I also know that I made that luck myself.
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