MARK DREW ✎__
ain’t nothing but a p-thang ___ interview by Forty
It is pretty obvious that Australian artist and graphic designer Mark Drew - co-founder of China Heights Gallery who left Sydney in 2009 to relocate himself to Tokyo - carries a soft spot for nostalgia. But unlike others who often lose themselves in allegedly good ol’ times to rattle off glorified episodes like a weird kind of mantra, he’s basically paraphrasing it by putting influences from the past into a new personal context. After having held an exhibition on C90 Cassette Tapes and launching his new t-shirt label “Chronic Youth“ - that gives early hip-hop iconography a cheeky makeover - he introduced his latest project “Deez Nuts“ in Sydney earlier this year, in which he lets the beloved Peanuts characters converse in classic rap lines.
Mark, before we talk about your latest project, please tell me a bit about your involvement with Sydney’s China Heights Gallery and what brought you to Tokyo?
Well, by 2003 I’d been working in a bank for five years, and wanted to do something else. Apart from having access to free photocopying, there was no future there for me. At that time there was nowhere in Sydney showing the kind of artwork Edward Woodley and I were making, so we decided to open China Heights Gallery together, rented a warehouse space and got started. The scene was around already, but there was no regular meeting place, so we began doing new art openings every week. As such, things developed very quickly, so I was making less of my own works, instead focusing on the artists we were showing. After six years of curating/producing other people’s exhibitions, managing the studio, cleaning up piss and so on, I wanted to step back and spend more time on my own ideas. In 2009 I had the opportunity to move to Tokyo, and felt that China Heights was stable enough to run without daily involvement from me. It’s now in its 10th year.
Would you say that Japan’s capital is backing up your interest and enthusiasm for pop culture or is it working slightly counterproductively because unlike other places you’re basically bombarded with it nonstop?
Definitely it motivates me… or at least it finally does so right now. Initially, dealing with Tokyo was a problem, I was overwhelmed by the amount of foreign information processed each day. But over time, riding a bicycle across town and listening to music I began to understand how the city works, and my own ideas would arrive easier. Now I enjoy the bombardment and get involved as much as possible!
Your latest project “Deez Nuts“ was first published as a self-made zine… how did the transition onto canvas and into a gallery happen?
I have been making zines for a long time now, almost twenty years – it’s not a serious thing, just something I do for fun. And that’s how “Deez Nuts“ started. I love 90s rap, and I love Peanuts. Reading Charlie Brown when I was six or seven years old was my first clue that something did not have to be funny to be great. Anyway, I was in Australia for Christmas and decided to extend the zine into an exhibition at China Heights. I am still co-owner of the gallery, and really enjoy being able to step in and do an exhibition with my team, on home ground.
The Peanuts’ characters are citing the heydays of hip-hop from the late 80s and 90s… which basically isn’t only doubling the fun but the nostalgic component as well, don’t you think?
Of course! That is the whole point to my body of work – nostalgia. I am not the first person to link Peanuts and rap, but it’s a theme I personally wanted to work on.
How come you have such a soft spot for vintage hip-hop? Any thoughts on what’s happening right now? Lil Weezy or Joey Bada$$?
The artwork and graphic design that I make directly feeds from vintage hip-hop. Whether it’s obvious or not, it’s always an essential element. This works both ways, sometimes I will be at an exhibition in Tokyo, and a colour-scheme of a painting will remind me to go home and listen to King Tee or something that I haven’t heard in years. Being into rap in Australia in 1991 - as a 13/14 year old - was quite a rare thing… so I spent a lot of time alone, researching any way that I could, and trading tapes with older people in the community. They would school me on things and sneak me into clubs. A new world opened up, and because of that I feel a very strong affinity to vintage hip-hop. It is never boring to me – I can listen to “Illmatic” or “Check Your Head” three times over any time of the day. I first bought these albums when they were released, so it keeps me in tune with my teen self, which comes across in my work. I can’t comment on today’s scene – I have the period that I’m down with, and don’t feel the need to keep up.
So what do the cards hold for Mr. Drew in 2013?
Just over twenty years ago, I returned from a family holiday on a bus for two weeks across the west coast of the USA. My parents forced my sister and I to keep a diary of the trip – She was 12 years old and I was 14. So her entries are about being excited to go to Disneyland, while I am super angry, hate my parents, and just want to buy rap tapes and Raiders jackets. In many ways it was a definitive point for where I am at today, both in journal keeping and style. So the project due out next is publishing those two diaries together, along with the photos my father took of us in the Californian desert. Check my website for more!