Gone are the days when graffiti was considered lowbrow. It's true what they say: the world is your canvas. And a spray can is Neil Uchong's paintbrush.
If the name doesn't ring a bell, the artwork should; Uchong is the Karachi-based artist behind THAT famous Mahira Khan graffiti doing the rounds on social media, that eye-catching spray-painted backdrop in Baaji's new song, Lucky Star Chowrangi's colourful makeover and the most Instagram-worthy walls at eateries like Pinch & Co., D'alma and Big Thick Burgerz to name a few.
He got his start in the urban scene through parkour and b-boying and says his initial graffiti was more of just shoe prints on walls while running on them or back-flipping off them.
"Our marks would rub off because it was just dust from our shoes. So then it escalated to shoes dipped in paint to literally leave a mark and make our presence known. Basic writings and tags followed and by 2002, I had my own hand style for tags. It stayed that way for quite a while and I tagged all over the city which obviously would get buffed out at some point in time but hey, it was fun while it lasted!" shared Neil.
Making his mark
A major shift came when he visited his grandparents in Sydney, Australia back in 2004.
"That's when I started getting into complex pieces and productions; that's where I witnessed large walls covered in these amazing pieces, each of a unique hand style. I was so inspired that I went to the nearest store, which at that time was equivalent to buying drugs as graffiti was highly looked down upon as vandalism, not to mention was illegal. Got out of that shady store which had the cans hidden behind a curtain and then hit the train tracks."
He admits the initial pieces weren't too grand but he did feel the adrenaline rush and a sense of accomplishment. Neil then returned to Pakistan inspired and started working with whatever cans were available here. It was different but after figuring it out, the possibilities were endless.
He adds, "For the longest time, I kept a low profile, stayed under the surface because this was something very personal to me and it was a medium to express my feelings. As time went by and I grew as an artist who had started to get recognised in the media, doing work for major commercials, I decided to take the plunge, leave my day job and do graffiti full-time."
That's when Neil started to use social media with a plan to get his work out there. "I had to bring my art to social networks in order to get more projects. Through a lot of hard work and dedication, I can proudly say that my art pays the bills, I am running my own house and life entirely off of it."
And here's a little something to tell your parents who aren't so supportive of a career in the arts: "I make more in one project than what most above average jobs pay for an entire month's work. So in that aspect, I am breaking social norms and I hope that my story inspires many to get out there and actually do what they love doing in order to find success in life."
While clearly a first mover in the space, Uchong doesn't label himself a pioneer (unlike some other artists ahem Sanki King ahem) but proudly claims that he's true to his craft: "The focus should be on the art and keeping the culture alive, not faking it and mixing graffiti with other things to then call it graffiti."
From idea to artwork
So what does it take to produce modern art on such a big scale? Is there a method to the madness?
Neil explains, "Although I used to go freestyle on most of my previous pieces. I've recently taken more concrete steps to properly execute pieces and productions especially when sponsors or clients are spending well over six figures per piece; it's good to have a good plan of action for execution. Every single piece or production is well thought through, original in every form and aspect."
It starts off with him brainstorming with sketches and then tossing paint onto a dedicated colour panel wall to get a basic idea of the overall piece and finalise the colour scheme "which would be between 50-65 per cent of the actual piece and then go free on the execution". It requires some serious thought and focus he adds, sharing it's highly influenced by how he's feeling at that particular moment.
I ask how long his productions take.
"For the commissioned ones, I take my sweet time so up to a week to complete to make sure everything is perfect. And that the piece stands strong for years. And if it's in the streets, then I wrap them up REAL soon in order to avoid being harassed by the police and random people. So in that regard. I'd take 10 seconds for a tag, 10 minutes for a throw-up and up to four hours for a piece. I generally avoid doing productions on the streets as that would take a lot longer," he adds..
While graffiti can seem random and abstract to the naked eye, Neil reveals that most pieces have a background story or subliminal incorporation of artistic formulated text or relevant colours based on what the project requires.
"Shade is always incorporated in letters created out of motifs of the theme of the piece. This also means that there are personal messages left in a lot of pieces as well which are only visible to who ever they are targeted to," he says.
Like this one, he shares that says 'Shade' and 'Blue' at the same time: "It's a commerative message for one of my Spanish crew members that passed away in Houston."
Some key advice for aspiring artists?
"I'd say that dedication is the key. Just because you have picked up a can, it doesn't mean you are a graffiti artist. It takes years to establish a proper hand style. Be true to the art and the art will be true to you. Attitude is also a major thing. There is a difference between knowing your worth versus being egoistic. Also do not bite (copy) senior artists' work be it local or international. Be you and be amazing."