Interview with Kaff-eine

After the Funeral, ink on cafe wall, Brunswick July 2012

Kaff-eine is another of my favourite Melbourne street artists. Since first discovering Kaff’s characters pasted in Melbourne’s alleyways, I quickly fell in love with her work.

Kaff-eine paints using a number of different media, including aerosol, pigment ink, watercolor and acrylic paint. Her characters light up drab grey walls and alleys and bring real character to Melbourne’s streets. Her characters evoke emotion and feeling, in particular the sorrowful character cradling a dying swan is one of my favourite works!

‘Reveal’, aerosol + acrylic paint on cardboard February 2012

Kaff-eine has been part of numerous group shows, and has her first ever solo show opening in November called “Boneyard” at “Just Another Project Space” in Prahran. I can’t wait!

I caught up with Kaff-eine a few weeks ago and had a great chat. Here’s some of what we talked about:

LM: Tell me about your background. How did you get into street art? 

Kaff-eine: I’d stopped drawing a decade beforehand. I was at Uni, discovering new street art all around Melbourne as I went to and from Uni, but never thinking about painting myself. Then I met a new bunch of friends who really encouraged me to get back into drawing, and a couple were into street art, so I thought about drawing again, kind of followed my street artist friends around, tried it and loved it. It changed the way I saw urban spaces, and my own artwork. I started pasting my work up, but discovered that I preferred to paint directly onto surfaces. So I’ve been doing it ever since.

A Funeral in December, aerosol on disused shop wall, Brunswick July 2012

LM: What does your name mean? 

Kaff-eine: Aw it’s pretty basic. Everyone who knows me knows that caffeine is my drug of choice. So I tweaked the name a bit, and used it. Without caffeine there’s no Kaff-eine! And the hyphen works too, I think in German it translates as something like ‘coffee one’. So yep, that’s suitable too.

LM: Who are these little characters you draw/paint, where did they came from? 

Kaff-eine: The little childlike characters aren’t anyone in particular, they’re manifestations of the melancholia, sorrow or joy that I experience or am surrounded by. They’re quick, simple and easy to paint, but also challenging to create their emotions when I only use 2 dots for eyes and a simple line for their mouth. The other characters, the skull-headed naked ones, I developed from a simple sketch I did of a deer wearing English hunting attire. I kind of wondered what he’d look like without his clothes, so drew him naked, and it went from there! I love painting bodies, love how beautiful the fragile, vulnerable body can be. I love the challenge of using body language and posture to convey emotion through these characters, who otherwise only have empty eye sockets and gaping muzzles to express emotion.

Aerosol + pigment ink fox

LM: I’ve seen your work on walls, discarded TV sets and trees. What is it about found objects that attracts you? Do you mind that it makes your art even more temporary than being just on a wall? 

Kaff-eine: I like the challenge of painting on different surfaces. I’m not bothered by the fact that it makes my work even more temporary – I like that some of my work will only be seen by a few people, in a brief period of time until it erodes or gets demolished. Some things aren’t meant to last very long.

LM: What do you enjoy most about the whole street art process? The creation, the night missions etc? 

Kaff-eine: I love pretty much all of it, except the ‘getting caught’ bit. Painting street art, I’m really free to create what I want, to use the space however I like. I enjoy leaving gifts for strangers to enjoy, but it’s also a self-indulgent pastime, painting completely on my own terms. I love painting at night, under low/no light, and walking away from a finished piece undetected. I love traveling around to find great outdoor canvasses, and love that painting on the street is far more physical than sitting at a studio desk. I enjoy hanging out with mates on sunny days painting walls or drains… there are so many things to love about street art, I can’t pick a favourite.

Awkward, aerosol paint on wall, Trentham July 2012

LM: Who or what inspires you? 

Kaff-eine: What: disused industrial places and decaying urban spaces inspire me, I love peeling paint, abandoned machinery and workspaces, disused domestic places; I get anxious if I see a great wall or building and don’t have the chance to paint it.

I’m often struck by how light hits particular angles and surfaces, the sharp play of light, shadow and reflection, and I feel compelled to paint those elements in my characters.

Deerhunter, aerosol + acrylic paint, Fitzroy February 2012

LM: Which artists are you into at the moment? Local and International.

Kaff-eine: Artists I’m into all have a unique way of portraying character and emotion: From Australia: Ghostpatrol, Ears, Lister, Twoone, Leagues, Reka, Itch, Shaun Tan, Creepy, Nelio, Vexta, Stormie Mills, so many on my list…

Internationally I like Os Gemeos, Blu, Raymond Briggs, Faith 47, the list goes on…

drain pony 2012

LM: Where do you work from and what is your studio space like? 

Kaff-eine:  I’m very lucky to have a super space in the middle of Fitzroy, it’s a quiet, peaceful place where I can lock myself away from everything with my horror movies, coffee and cats, sit in the sun and paint. The indoors space is pretty organized, everything has a place and is kept packed away otherwise the cats would trash it all. The undercover/outdoor space looks like a cross between a junkyard and a mechanic’s workshop, it has everything in there – aerosol paints, canvasses and boards, floodlights, a birdcage stand, theatre seating, hard rubbish projects, a disused washing machine, some air-compressor thing, and about 4 old mufflers that I pinched without really knowing why. I put so much stuff in there, it’s so cramped, I trip over everything, it smells like auto-grease, and I love it.

Exposed, acrylic paint + ink, country Vic April 2012

LM: What is always in your “toolkit”? 

Kaff-eine: Transparent black paint, stacks of needlecaps, hoodie, money for coffee, and refillable ink markers. And usually a crate to stand on (I’m a shortass).

LM: What has been the highlight (or highlights) of your career to date?

Kaff-eine: Realising about a month after leaving my corporate office job to become a full-time artist, that I really wasn’t ever going back to that, or any other office job. And that my life really does now consist of me painting all day every day. Best feeling ever!

Cradle/Repose (in progress), watercolour on paper, part of Boneyard

LM: I remember reading an interview on Invurt a while ago where you mentioned “Early on I came across some young boys, complete strangers, happily colouring in my work and searching the lanes for more.” I’ve never heard of this happening before, how did that make you feel? 

Kaff-eine: It was awesome! It was the first or second time I’d been out pasting up, and I’d gone back the next morning to take some pictures. I saw some kids and thought they were ripping down the images but then realized what they were doing… I loved it!! It made my day that these kids were enjoying my art, adding to it, and making the laneways theirs! It was rad to see my work being interacted with, in a way I’d never expected it to be.

Kids colouring in Kaff-eine’s paste ups October 2010

LM: You’re one of the busiest artists I know! There’s always something new popping up on your wall/blog. Apart from street and studio work, what else are you working on?

Kaff-eine: Haha thanks! Yeah I’m lucky to have a heap of different work going on. I have the 2 children’s books due out next year (through One Day Hill and Scholastic) and another more intense book to start soon; some commissioned paintings and walls; a neat group show in Sydney in December; a fun summer painting project in northern Victoria; some other projects in Sydney that are still in the planning for early-mid 2013; and a residency at aMBUSH Gallery in May/June 2013! So I have heaps of painting, heaps of planning, and heaps of fun in the near future. I want to collaborate with some artists I admire over summer too. Oh and I’m hoping to take a break in January and drive across the Nullabor.

Kaff character, aerosol on Nth Fitzroy wall, July 2012

LM: So, Your first solo show “Boneyard” is coming up soon! You must be excited. How’s the preparation process been? Are you ready? What can you tell us about the show? 

Kaff-eine: Yes! I am, it’s very exciting! It’s the first time I’ve had the chance to paint pieces without having to fit it all in around office work, so I’ve been able to take my time and further develop the characters. I’ve loved the process, although I’ve had to also fit in illustrating 2 kids’ books at the same time, so I’ve been flat out.

The show is basically the first chance I’ve had to really dedicate time and thought to a body of work. I’m used to working to a brief, or doing one-off street pieces of my own design, I’ve never sat down and just painted a series of images with no guidelines.

What came out was more dark, elegant and sophisticated than what I’ve done before. People who come to Boneyard will see a real progression in my characters, and my painting ability, and discover a little bit about where my mind goes when given free rein.

People who have only seen my street work will recognize some of my characters, brought to life in watercolour paint instead of aerosol and buff-proof ink. People who have never seen my work before will be introduced to a range of characters from inside my mind, who will appear on the streets soon if they haven’t already done so.

I’m looking forward to it x.

Mural in acrylic paint + ink, Melbourne Central Shopping Centre. December 2011

All photos courtesy of Kaff-eine