Dutch Artist Ottograph Visits New York City
Written by Ana Candelaria
It’s been four years since my last visit to Welling Court in Astoria, Queens. I was meeting Lois Stavsky from Street Art NYC this past Sunday. I was both excited and eager to see what was still there. Upon my arrival on the ferry, I thought to myself, wow I remember when I had to walk 30 minutes to get to Welling Court from the train station. I was grateful for the new Astoria ferry stop that was only seven minutes away, especially since it was 90 degrees. I had no idea that this trip to Welling Court would lead me to meet an artist from the Netherlands. Welling Court Mural Project Director, Alison Wallis, introduced Lois and me to Ottograph. He had spent his time in New York City making his way around town painting at Lower East Side’s infamous Freeman’s Alley, Harlem, and The Bronx. We arrived at a house in Astoria that he had just finished painting just one day before his departure back home to Amsterdam. It took him two days to transform a three-story dwelling into the coolest house on the block. I was fortunate to catch up with him for a quick interview right before his trip back home.
Candelaria: Do you consider yourself a graffiti artist or a street artist?
Ottograph: I consider myself an artist.
Candelaria: How long have you been painting?
Ottograph: I started at 12, so about 40 years ago.
Candelaria: What was your inspiration?
Ottograph: My inspiration came from a Chaka Khan music video. I saw a guy who was actually roller-skating and at the same time painting on a wall with a spray can. I said to my mom, ‘Mom, I’ve got to do that!’ I painted my first piece in a suburb in Amsterdam and was instantly hooked.
Candelaria: What was your tag?
Ottograph: I had about ten. The first one was what the guy was painting in the Chaka Khan video. BEAT. I didn’t have any reference to graffiti. I‘ve never seen it before so I copied the name BEAT. This was when I was 12. Then I realized when we were watching the subway trains go by, we would always say “Oh shit! You saw that one?” That’s when I took on my second tag SHIT. I made pieces all over Amsterdam with the name SHIT. One thing I really like to do is blockbusters. I made a lot of giant blockbusters on the subways. This was around 1985. The best thing about it was the bombing because it was so scary on the train, like the biggest adrenaline rush ever! I remember the nights when we finished a cart, we were elated. It was like winning the world cup. We were like Yeah! We did it! I was 15 or 16 years old. Later I changed my name to ZEY because I liked the letters and you can almost make it like a COCA COLA logo with the sling from the Y going under the other letters. But then I figured it was too short so I added an apostrophe and an S so it became ZEY’S and then I changed it to ZEIS and then ZEISER that was the last one.
Candelaria: Were you involved with any crews growing up?
Ottograph: Yes, funny story! When I was a kid like 17 or 18, I created the SHIT HAPPENS posse and for the first three months I was the only member. Now it has over 300 members. I see people putting S.H.P on their pieces and I don’t even know who they are. This was around 1988 or 1989.
Candelaria: How did you get your name OTTOGRAPH?
Ottograph: My real name is OTTO. I was listening to a song by NWA and one of the artists EZ E shouted, “And all the ladies want my autograph” and I was thinking Otto? Autograph? Hey, that’s me! Do you know what’s crazy? Over in Europe or in Holland no one gets it but in America people instantly start smiling when I tell them my name. I’ve stuck with that name for the past 15 years.
Candelaria: Do you prefer doing murals or painting on a canvas? Is there a particular surface that you prefer to paint?
Ottograph: I love them both. I approach murals like a sport. I try to paint as fast and concentrated as possible. I also like the feeling of a marker on canvas. You can press the canvas in a little bit, and it flows so well. The lines are perfect. I can’t choose between the two.
Candelaria: What are some current projects that you are working on?
Ottograph: One big project I’m working on is an office building located in east Amsterdam. The owners asked me to transform the whole building. I’m painting the entire building inside and out. Every month or so I’ll paint a hallway. The last time I was there I painted the elevator and did all kinds of stuff outside. When I think about the building, it’s almost like a transformative thing. The people walking through that building are in my artwork. So crazy!
Candelaria: Where can we find your work?
Ottograph: I have a lot of stuff online. There are a few galleries in Amsterdam that sell my art. I also have a big mural in the STRAAT Museum that I’m really happy about. It’s a really nice piece. I think the STRAAT Museum is the biggest street art museum in Europe. I also did a really big piece of my face on the floor in NDSM as part of a project to paint 100 selfies. The character is an African style mask I drew that ended up looking like me. You can see it from Google maps. It took about a week to complete and every few months or so I go back to touch it up. It’s been there for about three years now, maybe even longer.
Candelaria: What was the biggest highlight of your career?
Ottograph: There are a few. Painting yesterday on Sedgwick Avenue at the birthplace of Hip Hop was special to me. But one really special memory I have is from Five Pointz. I was painting at Five Pointz and I remember standing between seven guys in their 50s or 60s who all had massive pickup trucks. They found a way to link up their sound systems together and played Busta Rhymes songs the whole day. It was so loud and really good quality. The scene was amazing! They all had their wives with them BBQing right outside Five Pointz. The kids were playing soccer, and we were just painting. I will never forget that day. Busta Rhymes, BBQing and painting holy moly it’s perfect.
Candelaria: Talk to me about your current visit to NYC. Where did you paint?
Ottograph: This was a good time because of the 50th birthday of Hip Hop. I was painting at a lot of block parties. Last week while I was painting in Harlem some guy walked up to me and said, tomorrow we’re actually having the real celebration of the 50th anniversary of Hip-Hop at the birthplace of hip-hop at Sedgwick Avenue. Would you like to come over and paint? And I said ‘Yes, I would love to paint.’ It was so cool! They had open mic the whole night. It felt like I was playing music in my studio but then I would look up and they’re actually rapping in front of me. I felt like I was in a movie.
Candelaria: What is your creative process like?
Ottograph: It’s crazy I don’t need inspiration I just go with it. I paint every day. I get annoyed if I don’t get to paint. All I need is a nice hip hop beat and maybe a few beers.
“I paint every day. I get annoyed if I don’t get to paint. All I need is a nice hip hop beat and maybe a few beers.”
Candelaria: What materials do you prefer to use to paint?
Ottograph: My favorite thing to use since I was 12 is markers. In my day we didn’t have paint markers. But now I use paint markers and squeezers.
Candelaria: Have you done any wheat pastes?
Ottograph: I’ve only done it once my whole entire life. So no, I don’t have any wheat pastes.
Candelaria: Is there a message behind your work? Does your character represent anything?
Ottograph: For me they represent a lot, but I want people to have their own interpretations. I don’t want to explain how you should look at this painting because of the story behind it. I want you to look at it long enough to make your own story.
“I want people to have their own interpretations. I don’t want to explain how you should look at this painting because of the story behind it. I want you to look at it long enough to make your own story.”
Candelaria: Where can we find your work?
Ottograph: Within the states I painted in Hawaii, San Francisco, Denver. I’ve painted in Russia like 15 times, mainly in Saint Petersburg. Japan, Berlin, Spain, Italy. I’ve traveled a lot. I painted in Africa a few times, in Gambia and Zanzibar. The next big project I have coming up is in Nigeria. I’m supposed to go out there in three weeks but the political situation is a little out of hand at the moment so I may have to push it to a later date. I can’t wait for it to happen.
Candelaria: Are there any artists that you would like to collaborate with?
Ottograph: I’ve collaborated with lots of artists. One of my favorite street artists is Invader. I love Invader but I like collaborating with everybody, you don’t have to be famous. Their style doesn’t necessarily have to match.
Candelaria: Are there any cultures that influence your aesthetic?
Ottograph: Yes, my style is influenced by a native art from the aboriginals. Asian and also Native American culture. I love how they do the patterns. I incorporate that into my work. Also, I put a lot of dots into my artwork. That comes from the aboriginals who used to make artwork using only dots. The dots for me are a good way to fill in spaces. I always try to fill out a drawing. I usually start with my character King Canary and then I work my way around it.
Candelaria: Do you currently have any exhibits?
Ottograph: Yes, there is a good street art gallery in Amsterdam called O.D. Gallery. I almost always have something there. And as I mentioned before, the STRAUSS Museum, which I advise everyone to go see. It’s beautiful. They just had a massive Shepard Fairy opening last week.
Candelaria: Some artists say street art saved their life. Do you feel that way?
Ottograph: That’s maybe a little dramatic but I’m happy I found it.
Candelaria: Where do you see yourself five years from now?
Ottograph: I see myself doing the same thing. Traveling the world painting as many murals as I can and meeting interesting people.
Ottograph’s work is highly praised globally. He has made a significant impact within the street art community of Amsterdam. From the streets to galleries, his contributions go beyond painting his distinct pop art style. I’m certainly looking forward to his next visit to New York City!
Ana Candelaria is a Lower East Side based photographer. She is currently an active contributor for Street Art NYC and a member of Shooter Street Art. Ana’s work has been featured in YV Magazine, displayed in MIKEY Likes It Ice Cream Shop, Unbound: Authentic Visions and Voices as part of a series, as well as Home Grown, a group show that featured Lower East Side natives. Ana has also collaborated with artist My Life In Yellow on a limited edition run of prints. Within the past three years she has established herself as a self taught street art photographer, writer and artist and has received recognition for her photos from street artists from all over the world. She enjoys traveling and nature.