mongolian street edge


if you’ve come across a mural of a horned vampiric tony abbott or a jabba-the-hut-esque gina rinehart on the walls of an australian city, then that’s the work of melbourne-based street artist, heesco. originally from mongolia, his works deal with a range of themes from the political to the mystic. his dark yet vibrant pieces can portray an aerosol ned kelly, a lofty shaman to a few young women dragging on a cigarette. over the last years, heesco’s been making his mark on snowboards and t-shirts, as well as taking his unique style across the globe. he took the time out to tell powder just what’s it’s like on the australian street for a guy from the country of the eternal blue sky.
interview with paul gregoire i.t.a.

heesco, it’s such a pleasure to catch up and chat about your distinct style and vision. thanks for joining us here at powder.

Thanks for featuring me in your magazine, I feel very honoured.

your works often feature political figures. a demonic rupert murdoch definitely sticks in mind. so as you’re politically motivated, what would you say are the most pressing issues being faced in australia under the current abbott government?

I do touch on political subject in my works, but by no means I’m an expert in that field. I’m an artist, not a politician, you know, I try to stay away from politics in general. When I see something that’s clearly not right though, I will put my two cents in through. I always think an artist should express their ideas and opinions openly and honestly. It is an occupation with the most freedom in that sense.

The first Tony Abbott portrait came out when the Prime Minister made some pretty awful decisions - decisions which began to affect me and my family, and people around me directly. He made it personal, so I went after him the only way I know how, haha.

As for the most pressing issue right now, I think it is to get rid of this backwards government, I guess. I can’t list all the fuckups and issues they’ve created, everyone surely can see it and read about it almost daily in newspapers and websites. It’s all there.

another of your works, free tibet, features a monk self-immolating. since february two thousand and nine, one hundred and thirty seven tibetans have self-immolated. what do you think needs to be done about the current situation? how can people around the world help?

Yeah, it’s a heavy one. I did a couple of murals to raise awareness about the self-immolations around Melbourne CBD because it wasn’t being covered in news and media. It’s a pretty damn sad situation, and I honestly don’t know how it can be fixed. Unless there’s a revolution in China and their whole system collapses, I guess. What Tibetans are fighting for is not just their freedom, but their culture and identity. Chinese government have long practiced this ‘soft power’ policy to assimilate the ethnic minorities into the dominant Han culture, by imposing Chinese as the main language, and through popular culture and economic control of the areas. And the ethnic groups that refuse to assimilate and take up Chinese culture are punished.

It’s not just Tibet though, there are other ethnic minority groups like Uyghurs and Mongols, who resist this assimilation and rise up in rebellion but are swiftly squashed. But we don’t see it in the news because the government there has total control over what gets broadcast to the outside world. The whole world has financial and economic ties with China, so the politicians won’t jeopardise their money-making relationships for some small minority groups, even when they’re clearly pushed to their limits and are so desperate as to set themselves on fire.

Mongolia has been in that situation in the past, in the early 20th century when Russia and China both were keen to take over and claim it their own. It took some clever diplomats and leaders just to keep Mongolia an identifiable nation on the map. The price of that was to be thoroughly run by the USSR as their satellite state, and give up Inner Mongolia to the Chinese. Only after the collapse of the USSR was Mongolia able to regain their true identity, culture and freedom again. I guess that’s what it takes for the poor to get free.

There are websites that you can go to and get info, and show support for the Tibetan cause, like Australia Tibet Council, International Campaign for Tibet, Free Tibet, Students for a Free Tibet etc. Anything would help, as the self-immolations are still happening, and the suffering continues. I expect things might escalate around July on Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday.

where does your inspiration come from? is there something you do that enhances ideas? and once you have the idea, what’s the process from there?

A very general question! Ideas and inspirations can come from anywhere, anyone can just sit on their ass and think of something to do. Finding the right one though, and developing that idea further and perfecting it takes a lot more effort, and this is probably what distinguishes a good artist from a bad one. As an artist, you never really stop working. Whatever you might be doing, there’s always that part of your mind focused on solving the problem related to your art. And it doesn’t go away until you resolve it, you know. And being switched on like that constantly allows you to identify ideas and things that help you solve those art problems.

You gotta have a strong discipline in order to be productive and be creative all the time too. Ideas only matter once you execute them. Otherwise you’re not an artist, just a dreamer. It is hard to be on the ball all the time, I had to learn to condition myself to get myself in the right creative mood. Like when I’m in the studio, I’d have the right music on, have enough coffee and food in you, maybe some drinks if it’s late enough, haha, so I don’t get distracted, just me and the painting and I get to work. Works most of the time. I been listening to audiobooks and podcasts a lot lately and they go really well with painting too. When I’m painting outside, it’s usually with other mates, it’s a completely different vibe, it’s always fun.

your work on the streets. what’s the advantage of doing so?

It’s just fun, full stop. As someone told me once a long time ago - painting a canvas is like masturbating, whereas painting a wall is like having sex. He was like, wouldn’t you wanna do the real thing too? Haha. He meant it in almost the literal sense, using your whole body as opposed to just one arm, and it’s a perfect analogy. I can’t spend too much time locked up in the studio, I go crazy. Studio practice is a pretty solitary game. Even though I’m in a big warehouse with 15 other artists, when it’s crunch time, it’s just me and myself, hunched over the easel in a corner, it can get pretty miserable, haha. So painting a wall is always the best break from that. And vice versa. It becomes an ongoing cycle. And there’s no gallery, no middle man, no media telling you what it is and what it is not. The work is out there for everyone to see, so everyone is welcome to make up their own mind about the artwork. It’s pretty direct and that’s the best thing about it, if someone thinks it’s not good they paint over it, or get it removed, you know. Your work only stays up if it’s good, if it’s deemed ‘worthy’ by your peers and the public in general, it’s pretty Darwinian. I don’t think there’s any other more honest system in the art world. And there is no other way to control or regulate graffiti and street art than painting something better over it really. I hope councils and the police are learning this fact gradually. Grey buff is just plain boring.

just which street artists have influenced you in your time? and other than streets, what other artists have made their mark on you?

I’m more inspired and influenced by other artists’ drive, dedication and work ethics than their actual artworks really. It’s pretty tough making a living as an artist, it takes a lot of effort that you can’t really quantify into numbers. Whoever’s out there right now being successful, they worked their way up to that. And there’s an army of artists below that line working their asses off each and every day, non-stop, without much reward, competing and striving to become better, you know, day in day out. It’s all because we have this little bug in each of us that doesn’t allow you to relax and veg out on the couch unless you’ve done something creative, big or small, whatever. I’m all about that little bug.

I look up to people who are blurring the lines between categories, creating stuff that’s hard to categorise. Inventing their own visual language, experimenting, making discoveries, pushing the boundary of the art form. There is no rule in art.

you left mongolia and migrated to australia sixteen years ago. what prompted the move? how’d you go adjusting to the new culture? and do you make it back there to visit?

I had to get out of there, or I would’ve ended up no good. I grew up during some pretty rough times, when communism collapsed and the whole country was trying to make sense of any of it. The entire socio-economic system went bust, every family went broke overnight, things got pretty ugly. Imagine each family given monthly ratios of bare necessities – meat, flour, salt and sugar, not enough to feed everyone, so crime and alcoholism went up, and everyone was hustling in survival mode. Situations like that bring out the worst in humans, and Mongolians are kind of aggressive in general, so yeah. I’ve seen a lot of my dad’s friends, artists, turn to alcohol and depression because they were crushed, you know. That whole generation never truly recovered from that I think, a lot of them died pretty young, including my old man. The way I saw it, if I wanted to pursue art at all, I had to get out of there somehow. Simple as that.

I speak Russian, and learned English from fairly early age. I could always understand stuff from foreign TV and media. It helped me form a somewhat informed idea about the western world, and I liked it a lot. It’s where everything cool was at, you know. I really had no preference where I wanted to go though, other than it had to be somewhere English speaking, as it was clear that’s the global language. Tuition fees were cheaper in Australia back then compared to anywhere else, and we were pretty broke, so that was that.

It took me some time to get my head around the Aussie accent at first, but maybe that’s because I was hanging out in dingy pubs in Sydney with all the bogan metalheads checking out local bands. I really wanted to lose myself in Australian culture and society though, so I just did that, I had a lot to learn and catch up on. I found my way in through meeting like-minded people, and making excellent friends.

I go back to Mongolia pretty often. I still have a lot of family and friends there. I always feel I had this massive privilege to go away and pursue what I want, so any chance and opportunity I get I try to give back to the Mongolian community, mainly to the young artists and kids. The whole street art and graffiti thing is obviously pretty exciting to them, and there is no other Mongolian dude running around painting walls, so they give me a lot of love and respect which I try and return with as much passion and love. I’ve done some small seminars with Q&A’s and open discussions about their art practice, sharing ideas and opinions. I try to make them feel it’s possible to do whatever they want.

what’s the street art scene like in mongolia? and what’s the art scene in general like in the country?

It’s still a pretty poor country, things have a fair way to go, but the scene is there, it’s young, it’s vibrant, it’s full of energy. They have internet now, which I didn’t have growing up, so they know a lot about what’s going on around the world, and street art is perfect for them because it’s big and bright and bold, and you don’t need to know much about art to love street art, you know. And right now there is no big divide between graffiti artists and street artists in UB, they’re all friendly and seem to work together pretty well, which is awesome. As you’d imagine, most of the guys try and copy whatever they see on the internet, but lately I’ve seen some of them start doing more original Mongolian culture influenced graffiti and street art, which is really, really cool, so I try to encourage that a lot. I wanna see a nice, unique, organic style emerge from there.

There’s a lot of really cool and edgy contemporary art coming out of UB, artists are beginning to be included in art biennales around the world, etc. It’s great to see that. But you also see plenty of the leftover socialist-realist school of artists there too, painting landscapes and portraits of celebrities, mostly for that tourist money. I love that old school style though.

how would you say your mongolian heritage has shaped your art? has it given you something unique compared to others on the australian scene?

Being Mongolian does affect my art, but it’s more on the mental side than anything else. It does give me strength when I need it, thinking about my ancestors, the rich history, and everything they once accomplished. It definitely helps power through life in general, not just in my art. Since becoming a father, I’ve been researching Mongolian history a lot more in depth, because I need to eventually start educating her about our culture and heritage.

There’s a lot of unique wisdom and philosophy particular to Mongolian culture that can be applied to art, and it does come through in my work often, but I only do it when it feels right, when it comes out naturally, because it’s a bit of a double-edged sword. It does bring some advantage of standing out in the crowd, but at the same time, without the right context it loses some of the intended impact I had in mind creating it, so it gets threatened to become this over-romanticised kitsch pastiche image of yet another exotic ethnic culture, and that’s really not what I want my art to be. I would never want my work to seem like it was cashing in on my heritage, exploiting it, you know. I do it in order to bring balance to my art practice, to get the audience to see the whole picture of who am I and what my art is all about. And it’s not being Mongolian alone that makes my art different to others. I also have Russian, Polish, and now Australian culture ingrained in my psyche, so if anything it’s this mixture that makes my work unique I think.

you’ve taken your artwork to walls around the world. just where have you been? what were the most memorable places and why?

I haven’t really painted overseas all that much really, but I plan to do more traveling and painting in near future. I’ve painted a bunch in Mongolia of course, and I’ve painted in Vietnam, which was really nice, it’s pretty similar to Mongolia, very young and energetic scene. And I’ve painted in New York, which is probably the highlight. Just being there, seeing where it all started is pretty overwhelming.

and lastly, what have you been working on of late? and what does the rest of two thousand and fifteen hold in store for heesco?

Last couple of weeks, I’ve been working on an album cover art for a Mongolian band, Nisvanis. It’s a bit of a dream job, they were the first band to come out and sing rude songs publicly, you know, they’re grunge/punk and I got lots of great memories from their early gigs back in UB. It’s an absolute honour to do some work for them. I also got asked to curate the gallery part of this year’s Rites of Passage festival in Melbourne, it’ll be a group show of some of my close mates. Pretty excited about it. And I got a few walls lined up in Footscray, working out the concepts for them at the moment. Can’t wait to get started.

As for the rest of the year, I’ll do some traveling around Asia and Mongolia for a short spraycation, and a solo show later in the year in Melbourne perhaps.

again thanks for taking the time out to give powder the lowdown on what you’ve been up to heesco. we look forward to coming across your new work in some city back alley. bayartai gej.

Thanks again for featuring me in your magazine, guys. Bayarlalaa!


check out the heesco site

on facebook heesco

insta @heesco