Tony Sjöman, has adopted many names, but most will recognize him as Rubin415, the artist who brings a poetic beauty to abstract murals. From the prime age of nine, he has felt the inescapable urge to markup walls and add some color, the natural inclination of a boy who grew up around the cold concrete projects of Gothenburg.
The Swedish-born creative now calls New York City home, but his work has taken him around the globe. Inspired by classic films like Beat Street and Style Wars, Sjöman’s love for graffiti informed his artistic sensibilities. Working alongside graffiti legends like Nic 707 (R.I.P.) the artist has learned from lettering to trust your gut and get up.
Mills: How did you get into art?
Sjöman: Painting on walls is probably in my DNA, because my earliest memories of graffiti started at a very, very early age, about nine, after seeing a movie called Beat Street. I was out there with crayons just making a mess and my mom had to clean everything up, so the other neighbors wouldn’t get upset. I was born and raised in Gothenburg, Sweden, and graffiti came to Sweden and most European and Scandinavian countries in ’84, when they showed Style Wars on national television.
Mills: Did you start with spray cans, markers, or some other medium?
Sjöman: Good question. I think I stole crappy markers from school, plus crayons and oil pastels, those kinds of things you can write with. I grew up in a housing project just surrounded by forest and concrete. There was gray concrete everywhere. So, I think that’s also like part of the reason. I don’t think any kid likes to be surrounded by gray concrete. It’s natural to want to add color to it. I still remember it vividly. As a nine-year old kid, it looked like what we saw on Beat Street.
Mills: How did you develop as an artist, from stealing spray markers to flying around the world doing murals?
Sjöman: I’ve had such a traditional journey in every sense. I was a toy in ’85. ’91 is when I started painting real pieces, I went from being a toy and painted a lot from ’91, up until ’96 or ’97 when it became difficult, when I started to become adult. As a kid, you don’t really ask yourself why you’re doing things. I had started losing the fun part. I took a break from painting for about eight years, where I tried to become a responsible citizen. In hindsight, it was the best thing that could have happened to me because I visited New York for the first time in the summer of ’98. And I’ve kept visiting New York ever since. Every time I could afford to go somewhere, me and my then-girlfriend, now-wife, we always went to New York.
I used to go to jams in the Bronx and I remember around 2008, I saw all these old school dudes, the pioneers. Living in Sweden, I always kind of had to hide my graffiti life from most people
Mills: When did you decide to move to New York?
Sjöman: I used to go to jams in the Bronx and I remember around 2008, I saw all these old school dudes, the pioneers. Living in Sweden, I always kind of had to hide my graffiti life from most people. But I noticed that night in the Bronx that these, guys in the 60s had grandchildren, and they weren’t hiding it at all. They were proud of their past and still doing it. I decided that evening to never hide my graffiti past and it was the kick-in-the-butt I needed to start painting again. It was difficult after a long break. I went back to basics of letters and fairly quickly, painting took over my life more and more until it just completely absorbed me. I started going to New York more often and it messed things up because after each visit going back to the small city of Gothenburg became increasingly difficult. I never thought that I would be able to live in New York City, or even less work as an artist. My wife and I got our one-year visa to New York, and here we are thirteen-years later. Nothing has been planned. I never wanted to become an artist. I never thought somebody like me could become an artist.
I’m not that sixteen-year-old kid running around in train tunnels anymore, my graffiti and art has become more personal. Now that I’m older, I question everything. It’s natural that you start asking yourself why. Painting helped me realize I can express what I feel and how I feel.
Mills: Where did the moniker Rubin come from?
Sjöman: 1994. It’s one of many graffiti names, but Rubin was supposed to be a one-night name. I had this plan to walk along the train tracks through the night and just paint one name for one night and do as many quick pieces as I could. I basically wanted a name with a letter R in it and picked that name because it wasn’t a big deal, I was only going to paint that name for one night. Somehow it stuck with me, and I started painting more and more. 1995 was my most active year. I was unemployed, my wife worked – when she went to bed, I went out. When I came home in the morning, she had gotten up and went to work. I’m not that sixteen-year-old kid running around in train tunnels anymore, my graffiti and art has become more personal. Now that I’m older, I question everything. It’s natural that you start asking yourself why. Painting helped me realize I can express what I feel and how I feel.
Everything originates from the letters I used to paint. For me, graffiti is about letters. I did characters and figurative works when I was young too, but it’s been a gradual thing. Moving to New York was such a big change, of course. I started to think back to my life in Sweden with a little bit more perspective. I realized that, despite having done graffiti for most of my life, I’m not from the Bronx, I’m not from New York. New York invented graffiti.
Mills: How did your abstract style develop?
Sjöman: Everything originates from the letters I used to paint. For me, graffiti is about letters. I did characters and figurative works when I was young too, but it’s been a gradual thing. Moving to New York was such a big change, of course. I started to think back to my life in Sweden with a little bit more perspective. I realized that, despite having done graffiti for most of my life, I’m not from the Bronx, I’m not from New York. New York invented graffiti.
Everything originates from somewhere. I started getting to know some of the pioneers and I was like, oh, these bits I’ve been doing in my letters, they actually belong to this person. I started a deconstruction process of removing everything, in terms of color and shape, that didn’t feel like me. I never planned to give up the letters, but I came to a point where they started becoming very loose. I did a lot of abstract geometric experiment already in early 90s. My vertical shapes that I do with a little curve, those used to be horizontal extensions from my letters. The reason they went vertical was because I’m still technically a member of 4Burners, the graffiti crew from the Bronx. It was a huge thing for me when I got invited to the crew almost ten years ago.
Mills: Is there a mural or a particular piece that you’ve painted that really stands out in your mind?
Sjöman: Painting my first piece out in Greenpoint together with legends like Nic 707, who became a mentor for me. Hearing he passed away from COVID was tough. He was one of my biggest supporters. I did my first piece with him, so, that was a big moment. But, then there’s been tons of those over the years that you don’t have time to look back and reflect because you’re just so busy all the time hustling in New York, like being the first artist to design an AmEx card.
Mills: Now that you’ve accomplished a great deal with your art, do you see your work as iconic?
Sjöman: Yes and no, because in a way, not much has changed in the sense that I still do the same thing every day, I paint. It’s pretty much the same thing as I did as a nine-year old kid in Sweden. Of course, coming from Scandinavia, sometimes it’s difficult to give yourself a pat on the back and admit you did something good.