Meet Sebastian Schmidt, the German graffiti artist who just painted a Welcome mural for Karachi's visitors

Schmidt is in Karachi for a four-week residency by invitation of VASL Artists' Collective
Updated 02 Jun, 2016

Sebastian Schmidt a.k.a STILL SAME RZM, is a German graffiti/mural artist who was recently in Karachi for a 4-week artist residency by invitation of VASL Artists' Collective, supported by Goethe-Institut.

As part of the residency, Schmidt painted a mural near Karachi Airport, which portrayed monuments that represent Karachi.

Schmidt has spruced up a wall outside the Karachi airport
Schmidt has spruced up a wall outside the Karachi airport

Images sat down for a chat with the artist.

Images: Welcome to Karachi. From what I understand, you create different variations of street art/graffiti art/urban art, etc. How do you define your work?

Sebastian Schmidt: I would say I’m doing a mix of traditional graffiti (letters in graffiti style), mixed up with mural art. Normally for me or other graffiti writers, ‘real’ graffiti is illegal.

Images: Tell us about your journey. Did you start off making ‘real’, illegal graffiti and then move on to being a recognised artist who sells as well?

Sebastian: I started off on the streets. I’m from a smaller town in Germany called Wiesbaden, which has smaller bridges and highways. They were all full! That’s because I was the only graffiti sprayer there. Then I went to school in the city and met other graffiti artists who had more experience than me, and took me into the scene. So I was painting bigger highways and bridges

Schmidt has gone from painting his hometown bridges to decking the walls of Shenzhen and Sau Paulo and now Karachi
Schmidt has gone from painting his hometown bridges to decking the walls of Shenzhen and Sau Paulo and now Karachi

Images: That's great. But how did you get introduced to graffiti art in the first place?

Sebastian: There was a hip-hop fever in Germany from about 1995 to 2000. All these covers and posters were put up in the cities with graffiti, which inspired me. Before that, I just painted caricatures (which I did since I could hold a pen). I would paint characters like dragons, dinosaurs, anything I saw on TV. Then when the hip-hop scene came about, I started making letters and traditional graffiti. I had no formal training in art; it was natural to me. The only training I had was at the car brusher, where I learned the art of colours, tones, mixing. As for painting the lines via spray cans, I learned that myself, or friends showed me.

Images: Can you tell us a bit about your work method?

Sebastian: So I work on big murals mostly with spray cans, bucket paints and brushes. If I work on a car or canvas, I usually use the airbrush. Sometimes I improvise with mixed media.

Images: What is it that street artists aim to say with their work, with the streets as their canvas and the general public as their audience? Why not say it via a gallery space instead?

Sebastian: I can’t speak for every graffiti artist but for me, real graffiti doesn’t need to be framed in an art gallery. Real graffiti should be on the streets because it came from streets, and people from the streets do it.

Karachi's monuments dot Schmidt's mural
Karachi's monuments dot Schmidt's mural

Images: Do you show your work in galleries?

Sebastian: Yes, I also paint canvases and sell through galleries. I do it for the income and to reach out to a different audience. The real ‘hardlining’ graffiti guys will never show in a gallery; they are proud to be illegal. But I decided, why follow those rules? I’m not a hardliner, so I decided to follow my own path.

Images: That makes sense. The boundaries are blurring- Banksy, Shepard Fairey and other famous graffiti/street artists are showing through galleries. This makes me wonder, is it possible to make money from graffiti art done purely on the streets?

Sebastian: That depends, really. If you have a big name in the scene, you can do whatever you want. You can even paint a piece of crap and take it to the gallery and someone will buy it (laughs). But if you’re a hardliner, and well known - for example, SMASH, who's a totally illegal graffiti writer - you can also get money from many firms. SMASH gets sponsored in exchange for writing graffiti for companies.

Images: How did you learn about the VASL Residency and why did you choose to come to Karachi?

Sebastian: This is funny because the first person that asked me to come here was Akim, whose artist name is ZEBSTER, from On the Run, a firm that makes artist tools. He’s one of the pioneers of the German hip-hop/graffiti scene. I’ve done some projects with him before. I think the reason why he sent me here was because he knows I’ve been in different countries around the world such as Brazil and Mexico where it’s not so easy to spray graffiti or live i.e. it’s not a holiday place (laughs). I said yes immediately! I’ve also painted in Mexico, Sau Paulo (Brazil), Hong Kong, Shenzhen (China), Chicago, LA, New York, and other main cities of the USA, and in Europe, Milan (Italy) and in Spain.

My best friend is the owner of the expo called the ‘International Meeting of Styles’. Every month there’s a flight to somewhere, and we’re sponsored completely for going around to different countries - normally my flight, hotel, per diem etc. is paid for. Every year has a theme; this year’s is ‘Absolute Freedom’. We meet different artists, work there, and I help organize things also. In Germany, I’m the right hand of the organizer for this event.

Images: So, how did your your airport wall project with VASL come about? How it was conceptualised and carried out?

Sebastian: When we decided to do the airport project, I was certain that was not a space for traditional graffiti. We had to make something very clean, more like a welcome, so the best idea was to have an introduction to the city for people who arrive here. That’s why I chose to compose Karachi’s monuments and landmarks on the wall.

In fact, I put in some smaller hidden messages in the piece: I added many more trees and plants, which aren’t actually there in the city! In a way it was a message for the city to put up more plants for a better Karachi. I wanted to paint Karachi like a dream world of sorts.

Rumana Husain, Naila Mahmood, Air Vice Marshall Hussaid ur Rehman, Sebastian Schmidt, Council General Germany Rainer Schmiedchen, Adeela Suleman and Airport Manager Zafar Aitemad Siddiqui
Rumana Husain, Naila Mahmood, Air Vice Marshall Hussaid ur Rehman, Sebastian Schmidt, Council General Germany Rainer Schmiedchen, Adeela Suleman and Airport Manager Zafar Aitemad Siddiqui

Images: Tell us about your collaboration with local artisans. How did your designs develop here?

Sebastian: Haider Ali and the Phool Patti team worked with me on the mural and helped me to fill certain areas such as the bushes, plants etc.; mainly the parts that required brushes, while I worked with spray cans. They also did the ‘Welcome’ text in Urdu.

Images: What do you think of Karachi and how different is it from where you come from?

Sebastian: Whether it’s the traffic, the food, the heat, or the city situation, its totally different. In Germany, mostly, there’s no trash - everything’s clean. I personally don’t like incredibly clean cities though. At one point, there were some spots in Germany that had graffiti and were rough, but not anymore. Now even if you spit on the ground, you have to pay. Karachi could be a little cleaner, though (laughs). But it’s not so hard that I’d never come back here.

Images: But before you came here, you must have had some idea of what to expect.

Sebastian: I thought it would be more like India, though I’ve never been there. Here, I noticed, there are lots of weapons. Even outside McDonalds, I see guards slinging their guns! But some places in Brazil are worse; their children have guns, which is very dangerous. Also, there are 3 or 4 social classes here. In Germany we have the rich, middle class, and some poor people on the streets, but the difference is, our poor people don’t have to live on the streets. We are a social state; it doesn’t matter how ugly you are (laughs), you can go to the social department who will give you money and rent. But people are too lazy! They prefer to sit on the streets, drink and waste their lives.

Security forces use the new mural as a photo op
Security forces use the new mural as a photo op

Images: Are there any problems you have faced here? Was there anything that surprised you?

Sebastian: How much space do you have for me to answer this question? (laughs) So the artists I collaborated with for the airport wall were working more in 2D, perhaps because of their truck art training, while I work more in 3D in different angles and perspectives. But this is art, so it was not really a big problem because this is a part of the process. While collaborating, one has to find solutions.

I think the biggest problem was my stomach. I lay down on the bed for a week here! I don’t know, maybe it was the spice, or the heat. The heat here stays on you; you can’t concentrate while painting the walls outside. However, places like Hong Kong are worse, with intense humidity!

Schmidt put in a lot of greenery in the mural to drive home the point of their dearth in Karachi
Schmidt put in a lot of greenery in the mural to drive home the point of their dearth in Karachi

Images: With graffiti art in its truest form largely non-existent in Pakistan due to lack of exposure to this form of art, organisations such as I AM Karachi and VASL are taking up the initiative to beautify walls by asking artists to paint their unique ideas. How is this different from graffiti art in Germany?

Sebastian: It’s the same in Germany- some walls are illegally painted, while some are legal. If you want to make elaborate designs, you cannot do that illegally in Germany, because you have half an hour or so before the police catch you.

On the other hand, good graffiti artists get jobs from firms to paint their office walls etc. ‘Halls of fame’ also exist - these are mostly places the city gives to graffiti sprayers; essentially their places to ‘play’. There are set rules, such as: don’t go over something that you can’t beat. If you go over a better artist’s work, you get hate and no one will work with you.

Images: Who are your artistic inspirations?

The first person is DARE, from Basel, Switzerland, who passed away recently. He was the king of letters, done in a plain, beautiful way. I also admire Manuel, who’s called YOURS. He’s like a mentor.

Images: Being fairly familiar with the Karachi art scene, what advice would you give to emerging talent in Pakistan?

Sebastian: Graffiti art is not like the rest of the art scene - it's pretty tough on the streets. There are complications; artists also end up going to prison for doing it. If you decide to pursue it, you need to ask yourself why you want to do it. Those who work just for fame, their careers are over after 2-3 years.

For graffiti sprayers in Pakistan, using good tools and materials is essential. Otherwise the work ends up looking subpar. Remember, priorities create your life. If your priority is art, you will work hard at it and become successful some day. If you’re lazy, then you’ll go nowhere.

Images: Thanks for your time, Sebastian! It was great talking to you.

Sebastian: Same here! You’re welcome.

All photographs courtesy the VASL Artists' Collective