BIRDO: Freight trains, graffiti and surrealism

Not long ago, I sat down with renown Toronto-based graffiti and street artist BIRDO to get the rundown on his background, influences and thoughts on the painting scene all over the globe. Here are the results of a stirring conversation we had in a crowded bar about his journey from freight trains to surrealism to painting on the moon. 

What made you move to Toronto from Saskatchewan? I moved here as a young, young man just out of high school looking to pursue opportunities in Toronto. As they say, it takes seven years to “officially” become a resident in a city and I’ve been here over a decade. My love affair with the city just hasn’t worn off. It’s funny because people that know me from way back and from whom I’ve been estranged for a while have been really surprised that I’m an artist. It found me or I found it at some point but originally art wasn’t my thing.

What triggered in you to pursue art? Serendipity, I suppose. Back on the prairie, I ended up meeting a couple of hometown heroes, freight graffiti artists who have made quite the name for both of themselves. They’d take me to the train yard and I would watch them paint for hours, absolutely mystified, intrigued and instantly hooked. I wouldn’t participate, I’d just watch. Fast forward years later and I can see that when I’m painting, 99.9% of my friends and well wishers will come and I’ll see them get itchy in about 20 minutes. The boredom sets in, or whatever. But there’s that one decimal percentage of individuals that will stick it out the whole day and that’s how I was when I learned of the whole freight scene in Saskatchewan.

What aspect of graffiti got you into it in the first place? Said homies freights travel around North America. Moving to Toronto, I would be climbing around freight yards and suddenly see a piece from my buddy in Saskatchewan. I think that’s where the magic really set in, like: “Hey, I want to participate.” It’s interesting, you can meet a thousand and one graffiti artists and even though the actions are quite similar, there’s no two similar stories. Everyone has their own philosophy and if you were feeling the culture you could only be a spectator for so long. It was the entire scene that did it for me, this insane world of painting your name on a freight train, letting it go and knowing that it might be in Texas a month later.

Do you feel the Toronto graffiti culture is more inclusive or more competitive? I’m definitely of the mind that if you come to Toronto to put in your time as a writer and you can survive, that you’re almost better for it branching out elsewhere. I don’t know if it’s tough love but it almost feels like you’re better off doing it yourself in this city because you’re not impressing anybody. You might, but that’s definitely not the objective because it might not happen. You just want to be sure to be working hard for yourself and let the rest play out.

Do you let yourself get affected by the reactions or lack thereof? Going back to what I said earlier, there’s going to be a thousand and one different opinions, a thousand and one different philosophies. Have I gotten affected? Absolutely. You know, being young you’re trying to make a name for yourself, you’re trying to follow the rules and when something happens to your work or to you that doesn’t essentially fit into what you believe graffiti should be...it can bug you. But honestly, at my age now, shit doesn’t bug me at all.

You’ve gotten in trouble? Absolutely. It’s part of the course, you know. I’ve been asked before what type of advice I would give to a young writer and essentially it would be get arrested. I don’t truly mean that, but it’s going to happen and if it doesn’t then, fuck you’re lucky.

How did you come about developing your writing style into a more surrealist street art?Natural progression, I guess. I was tagging the city of Toronto with my shitty tag for a long time (laughs). I guess everyone wants their work to be special, to be unique and I just dissented from typical letter structure and got more into shapes and forms. I can’t really remember why, I think I just wanted to be that guy that resisted structure. I ended up learning technical aspects of art, shadows and stuff that definitely changed my game when it comes to graffiti and street art.

Have you always been BIRDO? I was Bird as a graffiti writer for a long time. It was when the internet popped up in the culture and my sadboys self learnt that there was another Bird out there. Every graff writer wants - or at least, should want - to be unique and have an original name so my solution was to add an O at the end. The progression was cool, especially when I was doing freights because it was one more shape to play with. The more the merrier.

Nothing to do with Super Mario? I do not associate with the transgender Super Mario, egg-shooting character, it is a fucking coincidence (laughs).

Why animals? Honestly, it came organically. I had been learning new techniques and I was painting with my homie Tenzo one day and just sketched out this gnarled-out abstract bird in a oogly boogly nest type thing and I loved it. It was something to run with and this is where I’m at right now. I have more, though… I want to dig deeper and am always excited for what’s around the corner.

What cultural observations have you made while painting locally and internationally? One of the things I adore about painting is that it’s not only about different cities but it’s also about different neighbourhoods where you make these observations. You can paint Moss Park in Toronto, a place deemed “not that nice of an area” and it’s a party... You have people offering you drinks and smokes and wanting to hang out with you and ask you a million questions. And then you go to the “second coolest neighbourhood” as deemed by Vogue or GQ or whatever and it’s a totally different case.

Why do you think that is? It’s manufacturing cool, that whole neighbourhood. I don’t want the focus to be on my thoughts about the trendiest Toronto neighbourhood though, it goes beyond that. Say Detroit, for example. Detroit is a mecca for graffiti right now, it’s bombed to shit. I was initially concerned about rolling onto their turf as a street artist. There I was on a sanctioned wall, painting large-scale on a lift and wondering if I was going to have to deal with how local graffiti artists felt about my work… and they welcomed me with open arms. It was the best vibes. I thought I would have to explain myself but that’s not what happened at all. What’s the lesson? Preconceived notions are bad, assuming is bad. (laughs)

What do you think about global street art in general? Do you think its current trend status is going to lead to it eventually dying out? I think, as is with graffiti, skateboarding, hip hop culture… the mainstream can get hold of all of it, turn it on its head and make it ugly but it’s not going to die out anytime soon. People are passionate about it and people are in love with what they do, they’re going to do it. It cannot die out.

What would be your dream spot to paint? The moon! Think about it... it’s backlit, it’s this  massive light box abstract creature that people have to see if they look up to the sky (laughs). To give a more discerning answer I suppose, I just want to see the world and experience culture and leave behind my heart everywhere I go.

Imagine all graffiti regulations were suddenly dropped in the city. How do you think the culture would be affected? Graffiti at its very core is a voice, a message that is most often counter to what we are “supposed” to do. If you were to de-regulate graffiti in the city, it wouldn’t stop. There will always be kids that want to paint shit; I would be painting everything. Now, the guys that are in it to be counter the establishment or whatever would have to find a new way to do what they’re doing. There would definitely be more painting but I think it would take graffiti to a different place, maybe pitting individual writers more against each other. It would be a very interesting sort of experiment.

What would you change about Toronto? Although I know the competitive nature is what drives us, I find it interesting that you’re not going to get that much support, at least in graffiti terms, unless it’s your camp. I get the drama, but honestly we’re all doing the same shit. Everyone else is after you, the cops, the heros, and the homeowners… adding that layer of other writers being after you seems a bit excessive. I wonder if we'd all have more fun if we just fucked shit up together.