With the combination of weird, dumb, meaningless faces and words, Multistab has been stabbing normative thinking on the illegal and legal walls of the Estonian streets since 2009. Signor Ssick, Karma and Pheriskoop – three artists with disguises, who have never adopted any specific genre or traditional stenciling of graffiti and street art. Instead, they set their base on “destruction of absolute two-sided thought models”. In doing so, their long-nosed, pig-faced, and crocodile-faced characters have made satire, mocking and fun towards linear and limited thought-process, that has already brought them into the keen attention of art enthusiasts and critics.
This was more than just an interview, a conversation in which everyone took part, expressed and exchanged views and generated points of departure by engaging each other. Due to the pandemic reality of Covid-19, we all hung out on Skype and Pheriskoop joined in at the end of the conversation, as he had fallen asleep on the couch. During the conversation, we did not keep our cameras on, nor did we call anyone by their real names. They talked about their beginning and very recent works, the choice of themes, characters, selection of walls, the process of painting, how they see Estonian and European graffiti and street art and eventually about their way of thinking.
How have your art activities been going on in these pandemic days? Have you painted any walls this year?
Ssick: Yeah, this year is coming to its end and we have done eight works; five of them on illegal walls and three are commissioned. You know, Karma lives outside of Tallinn, in another city, so all three of us didn’t always paint together. Some we painted together, but the rest either Pheriskoop and I or Karma and I did as pairs. Besides wall painting, Karma and I did one graffiti writing at Paljassaare. It was in April and because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the city was in lockdown, but you know it was summer, it was very sunny outside, and we really wanted to paint something together. So, we did. It’s on an illegal wall, but such a wall, that already had some other street art. And if I say about the commissioned works that we have done this year, they are more focused on the environment and urban life, but the themes of the illegal walls are completely from our own head. For example, Pheriskoop and I did one wall with the theme of a small bug which is very dangerous and is common in Russia, Finland and Estonia. If it bites you, it can cause death, it is as dangerous as the coronavirus. So, this painting represents this region and its forests and its seasons of summer and spring.
That’s nice, coronavirus couldn’t stop your art activities. Let’s talk about your beginning. How did all this start with Multistab?
Karma: In 2008, as far as I can remember, Signor Ssick started his own movement with… was it with your girlfriend at that time, Ssick?
Ssick: No, it wasn’t. She was my classmate from high school, not a crew. We did drawings and writings of the Necker cube. Back then, I only drew like letters, sometimes characters, but it was mostly graffiti. And then I met Karma at Linnahall. I think one of our friends was doing graffiti and painting there with a bunch of other people for his birthday occasion. I asked him first: let’s go and paint something and we painted there, and somehow, I saw the possibility to do something together. Then we sat together and thought – let’s call it Multistab.
Karma: Um, yeah. If I remember correctly, I was quite bored with just painting graffiti letters, and I really wanted to get into character drawing, and then I met Ssick. Back then, the main aim was to draw or paint only our made-up characters. That way, it was like a change in graffiti work for me – from letters to characters. We started with weekly character painting together and went through a lot of paintings. That is how it started a decade ago. In the beginning, it was like a side project that became the main project over time.
That means you guys had been very passionate at the beginning of your journey. Now it’s more than one decade you have been active in this scene and have attained a lot of attention from the art enthusiasts and critics; could you give some idea about your theme, wall selection and process of artwork?
Karma: Let’s talk about the two standing black and white characters on the old Patarei prison wall. Besides Ssick and I, Pheriskoop was also involved in this work, and this was his first work with us. This was not an abandoned building, but they didn’t use it anymore at that time. It had many, many buildings, and this was one of those walls, and we did it during an art festival. I don’t remember the name of the festival, but it was a legal wall, and as you can see in the picture, we had photos printed on the right side. Ssick’s canvas runs diagonally along the right wall, and the two main characters are painted with spray paint. So, we wanted to make something that fits the place. Basically, we painted two prisoners, and the weird thing is that my grandfather was once in this prison. That is why I somehow wanted to paint something for him, and from the left side of the picture you can see something colourful painted on the wall, which is Pheriskoop’s work, but he was not in Multistab at the time. Through this work, he clicked with us, or, can say the three of us clicked with each other. Eventually, Pheriskoop got his own character and his own vision of doing character graffiti.
Ssick: I remember something from this picture. We did this work as part of the festival called Kultuuritolm or Cultural Dust and were invited to paint or do something basically. It was in 2010, and I think nobody knew us then, so we made a lot of effort there and so on. We really had the intention to transfer our true thoughts to mimic the idea of the prisoners. And the wall was really a nice spot to paint standing characters vertically.
I am also curious about a painting – two figures reading a newspaper.
Karma: Yeah, have you translated the words to that?
Yeah, something like good news and bad news…
Karma: Yes, yes. On the left side the pig (that is Ssick’s character) is reading the bad news. The news about the weather forecast, which shows that it’s raining, and on the lower left side of the newspaper, there is a picture that shows a tree falling on a person. The media in Estonia at the time said that everything was quite bad, and people read this news and started to worry. And, the reflection was that many people left Estonia for better weather, better life, for example they left for Australia, New Zealand, etc. So we were quite fed up with this mindset. I really love living in Estonia, because I know that in autumn and winter, when it gets dark outside, I have something to do inside, like making music, drawing or doing something creative. And I thought that if you say Estonia is a bad place to live and therefore leave, you just do not have much to do if it’s not sunny or warm. So, I wanted to make jokes about these people. So, my character is on the right side. Ssick’s character pig reads the bad news and my character begs him, please let’s go abroad, let’s leave Estonia. (Laughs.)
So, you develop ideas from the media?
Karma: Not always from the media, something that makes us scoff at painting for fun. For example, the mural from Rummu’s prison wall, on which the three of us worked together. It has three characters. If you zoom in, then you can see that the left character is holding wires, electric wires. The middle character is tearing down buses, and the right one is like eating buses. So, our main idea was to mock the decision of the Tallinn City Office to create a new bus lane on the street where regular cars were not allowed to drive. So, we thought, OK, we will mock this decision with some evil characters. Because the city office wanted to make the city better, and in this way our characters were evil on this wall, and evil will eat up all the buses. It’s like a kind of performance to tear down the buses and demolish the city… (Laughs.)
I am coming to the point of your process of painting and selection of walls. Before I move on, I want to ask you about your pseudonyms – you three took three different names under Multistab.
Let me ask Karma first, why did you take this name?
Karma: (Laughs.) Yeah, I have to start from the beginning. My father has always been interested in metaphysics and spiritual consciousness and everything that has to do with his spiritual thinking. When I was growing up, I always read about destiny and then a lot about karma. Personally, I am not religious, but I really believe in destiny and that some things are really written down in that sense, and eventually karma has become something like my philosophy of life. So, when I started thinking about the tag name, karma just came into my mind, and I chose it as my name. It’s just a gibberish tag and that is how I have become Karma.
Seems like karma in Buddhist philosophy. What about Signor Ssick?
Ssick: For me graffiti is really intuitive and somehow random. I took that name after I painted some graffiti and character paintings and I wanted a different name for painting the characters, to separate it from writing graffiti letters. At some point I thought I needed a transformation of myself that could be taken in many ways, like ill or crazy or cool or just a tag as a placeholder. In my other tag or graffiti name, I had some letters like “I” and “S”. Then it somehow evolved into ISick, you know what I mean…
No, I don’t know what that means. (Laughs.)
Karma: (Laughs.) It just means that I am sick.
That’s really fun and a very existentialist expression as well. What about Pheriskoop, has he arrived here yet?
Ssick: No, I don’t know what the problem is, he didn’t answer me yet.
Okay, I am really interested to know one thing that is written in your book Multistab that the basis of Multistab’s work is “destruction of absolute two-sided thought models”. Does this mean that Multistab criticizes the normative way of binary seeing? Normally people see things as either good or bad, right or wrong, black or white – as if there is no other layer between two folds. Last year I visited the exhibition of Tommy Cash and Rick Ownes at Kumu Art Museum, and their exhibition title was “Damned and Pure”, which is a straight two-folded frame of seeing. So, I am really curious to know what you really meant by that.
Ssick: I think, yes, if you look closely at our works, you will see the reflection of multilayers of thinking, not just the two-sided meaning. Multistab is a shortened form of Multistability which comes from seeing a geometric form or a picture or an image that plays with many perspectives. We are particularly fascinated by geometry and geometric forms with the idea that there can be one thing, but it always has many layers, not just two meanings. Our logo is a Necker cube, which is an optical illusion that consists of a simple wireframe drawing of a cube and can be interpreted in various ways. When people see a childish image on the wall with this name Multistab, I think it somehow plays with their minds with multiple meanings. What we have painted on many walls, I think they have multiple meanings or jokes or sarcasm, you know.
Let’s talk about the characters. If I am not wrong, the long, pipe-like nose is Karma, isn’t it?
Ssick: We have no main character like the German street artist Flying Fortress – flying trooper, something like a teddy bear. Karma and Pheriskoop have their own style, which they use quite often when they draw the characters. Pheriskoop, for example, has a static character with the same look in its eyes and other details of the character. Similarly, Karma’s character always has a signature feature – a really big nose. But for myself, I feel that I don’t have that kind of static character, a certain thing I always do the same way. Of course, I also use some patterns that I like to use, but somehow, I always make some changes in detail. What are your thoughts on this, Karma?
The left one is Karma and the right is Ssick, Kalasadana, Helsinki, 2013. Photo: MultistabKarma: Yeah, I think it’s very clear that everybody has their own vision of their characters, and Ssick is always changing, and I really try to stick with my character, that somehow, he always looks like what I am. I don’t bring that much change, but I really like that big nose. (Laughs.)
Most of your characters take some features of monsters, square faces, Boogeyman, sometimes a mix of all, that look very different than what we generally see or imagine – kind of scary, but funny at the same time. Why do you choose such features? Isn’t Boogeyman an Estonian cultural thing?
Karma: A bit of it, yeah. We, or our parents or their parents or their grandparents always said that Boogeyman will come or something to scare us. I have two kids, but I have never told them the Boogeyman is coming, but it’s part of our tradition that the Boogeyman or the monsters live in the woods, and if you are bad, they come to you from the woods. In that way, yeah, it’s in our culture and therefore reflects on our characters. I really like the naive part of my character. I always want to put my character in a silly situation where he looks a little bit stupider than me. (Laughs.)
That’s a very subtle way in engaging local mythology. As far as I know, street art is prohibited by law in Estonia, so, how have you managed your activities on the open walls of urban sites from the beginning to date?
Ssick: I think in the beginning or in the first five years, we were really active and did a lot of, like, let’s say, illegal walls. But these illegal walls were mostly in abandoned spaces or this kind of places where nobody cared, basically. In our experience, local people have been very curious about our work and instigate conversation with us by asking questions, like, how much does a spray can cost or why are we doing this or commenting that we are doing great, mainly positive talking. Most of the time, we receive support from them. And, regarding police action, basically once a police car came to our site while we were painting in 2010 and they asked to show our identity card. We don’t have that many bad experiences dealing with such things, but the possibility that something disturbing could happen during the illegal wall painting is always stressful. Therefore, painting on an illegal wall is always different from a legal wall in terms of time and process.
So, there are walls, ideas or themes, and characters and letters. Could you tell me a little about the process by which you put sketches, lines and colors on the walls?
Karma: You know we don’t do traditional stenciling, that’s our choice. In the beginning, we started to do graffiti only with spray paint. Then we realized that we could make really large murals with bucket paint, and our plus point was that Ssick and I knew how to use spray paint before we got into Multistab. If I say in a way that getting an idea or theme is a mental part of our painting and the rest is really physical. For example, go to the spot, make the sketch on the wall, then press the button and apply the paint and then with the roller press synchronize it with the paint. And then you realize that paint is not enough, then you apply more paint. Sometimes, fingers start aching. This is really both physical and mental work, like sports.
Have you travelled to other countries to paint?
Karma: Yeah, but not that much. For painting, Ssick and Pheriskoop, I think, visited France in 2017, Pherishkoop and I worked in Denmark during my studies in 2011. And the three of us worked together in Finland in 2012 and 2013 and Latvia in 2014.
How do you see the European street art scenario while Nug from Sweden, Egs from Finland, Petro from UK, Flying Fortress from Germany have been significantly involved in the scene?
Karma: Nug is a really big inspiration for me. He is a character himself and he has unconventional ideas and he is definitely a good guy. Especially the things he did, when you look at the train graffiti and the way Stockholm Graffiti has evolved, Nug has definitely played a big role. But I really like the work of Egs and Nug and yes, they are the kings for me.
Ssick: Yeah it was 2013, I don’t know if I somehow got the chance or I do not remember how it went, but I organised a festival and an exhibition of street art in Helsinki and then I was like a curator or something to invite artists. I invited those I thought were interesting at the time. So I invited Egs. I like his work. We met first in 2010, since then we meet one to three times a year to paint or travel around Estonia and Finland. We are still good friends.
What do you think about the Estonian street art scenario? Edward von Lõngus, also known as Estonian Banksy, how do you see his artwork? What about other artists like Lé 60, Mina Ja Lydia, Uku Sepsivert?
Karma: Of course, they are part of the Estonian street art. Edward von Lõngus has definitely done something, but I really like Uku Sepsivert a lot. If you look at the artwork of Lõngus and Mina Ja Lydia, they do this kind of street art that I don’t like, for example stencil graffiti. It’s something that isn’t ringing my bell, or I just don’t like it. I don’t hate it at all. It’s just really static, and I don’t understand it, at the same time I don’t need to understand it that way.
Ssick: I don’t want to be skeptical, for me this scene is kind of boring. I don’t think that much extraordinary artwork is happening here these days.
Well, the very frequently asked question now comes up in my head. It’s about Banksy, you know, it’s like the whole world knows the name for his street art, and it’s claimed that no one has ever seen his face. Besides Banksy’s mysterious identity question, how do you see his artworks?
Ssick: Nowadays I don’t think about him, like, not in a bad or good way. I just don’t think or read anything about him. But when I was very young, like 10 years ago, I saw news about him. He had some interesting thoughts, and of course he made street art really popular. Like Karma, I am also more of a fan of freehand, graffiti, drawings and things that involve this kind of hand touch. In the beginning of my artistic journey, I was really a big fan of the artist Blu. He did really big, really nice, kind of surrealistic, detailed, also quite sociocritical works on the wall.
Karma: He has a lot of good ideas and he has a really good team behind him. But when it comes to the aesthetics of graffiti or street art, I just don’t like his style. In that respect, Nug is much better compared to Banksy, because he’s like a real graffiti guy.
Ssick: I am seeing Pheriskoop here.
Wow, he has joined in, finally! Hello, Pheriskoop!
Pheriskoop: Hi, really, I fell asleep on the couch. (Laughs.) But I am fine now.
(Laughs.) No problem. We have already discussed the style and process of Karma and Ssick’s work. What about your side? And, why did you take the name Pheriskoop?
Pherishkoop: Well, I also do music – hip-hop. As a musician I use a different name that has the two letters P and H. So, when I was added to Multistab, I thought I could use these two letters and I got the name Pheriskoop. That is how the name Pheriskoop was made up. And about the process of work, I usually follow the errors and then correct the technique. When I write lyrics, I always draw at the same time. When I draw, I have made many mistakes and I continue to do so until I get something right. I follow the same process in writing lyrics. Sometimes I get nothing, but sometimes I get something I can use. It’s nothing romantic, I just put my pen on a piece of paper and scribble until I get something.
It sounds nice. Now, if I ask all of you, what’s the future plan for Multistab?
Karma: Doing graffiti or street art is something you can’t erase from your identity. You will be looking for a cool or unique place to paint your stuff. It really widened my way of seeing the walls, especially the way I see a regular gray brick wall. After starting this journey as an artist, I see the possibilities on the walls, how to express something we didn’t express earlier – that might sound romantic, but it is what it is. My plan for the future is to do the same thing I have always done: walk around, see new places in Estonia, find walls, take pictures, draw characters, see my friends and paint together.
Pheriskoop: Actually, we have been talking about stopping it for some time. It has just been like a word we’ve thrown out, but we haven’t stopped. I don’t think we are going to stop, we have been doing some commissioned work, clothing design and silkscreen stuff apart from street painting and graffiti writing.
Ssick: The point is, the dynamics of our work have changed and it’s normal in a sense that it will change in the future to adapt our personal lives. We never did or do work according to a master plan or mission. It has always been organic, and we want to stick to that.
Multistab was interviewed by Shameema Binte Rahman.