Dash88 is an Australian artist of Chinese Malay ancestry, living and working in Melbourne. He writes about how he began doing grafffiti and what it means to him.

As a kid I was always interested in drawing, getting my hands dirty, making stuff and breaking stuff, and I saw a lot of graffiti in my neighbourhood growing up in Thornlie, Western Australia. I didn't even realise what it was when I saw names on walls, but I remember seeing a wall that was totally drenched in chrome and black tags and there was something very hypnotic about it. Even though I didn’t know what it was it really spoke to me and communicated to me.

I think there was a combination of different influences at that time. Friends had older brothers who were breakdancing, they were also designing and painting back patches. I tried different things to fit in and find a place and my own identity, and dressing a certain way or listening to certain music was one way of doing it. But when I found graffiti I just naturally gravitated toward it because I enjoyed making art. My first outline in my book is dated 87, and in 88 I did my first piece.

Pre making graff I was always interested in making art, looking at comics, drawing characters and messing around with letters. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t think of graffiti as art - it was all an extension of what I did creatively anyway, just using different tools. I can be pretty single-minded and even more so when I was younger, and quite critical of myself, and liked the challenge of continuing to better myself at what I was doing. When I decided that graffiti was what I wanted to do and be good at, I guess it’s like anything, you have to be determined enough, but have a good time along the way as well.

I’m not as active painting as in years past but I’ve maintained the discipline of drawing and I’m still coming up with ideas. Now when I paint I’m a bit looser, and painting lighter works better for me. If I have to paint super hardcore realistic stuff I can do that but for now I enjoy loosening up and being a bit more free.

The style I paint in now is influenced by what I have grown up looking at and what I’ve been surrounded by. The entire process of painting the mural for the OzAsia Festival was very cool. I went back to Malaysia to connect with my family and research the content of the work. Being a Chinese Malaysian kid who was born in the UK and brought up in Australia, it has taken a long time to be grounded in finding a real place for myself – to work out who I am and where my place is in the world. Graffiti previously gave me that, it allowed me to mix it up with people of different backgrounds with a common interest, and because I had a certain skillset it allowed me to have a voice and to say "I exist" amongst everything that was going on, which was important to me when I was younger. This trip back to Malaysia was the first time in a long time I could say to myself, this makes sense now.

Before doing graff I really enjoyed reading comics like Mad magazines from the late 70’s to the early 80’s. When I was 12 or 13 I got my hands on some early issues of Heavy Metal with stories and art by Vaughn Bode, Rich Corben, Liberatore and Moebius, lots of sex, lots of blood, killing and drugs. I was also inspired by titles that were released by Kitchen Sink, Rip Off Press, 2000AD - comics that were a little more interesting than dudes rolling around in spandex. As a kid I didn’t really get it, but I liked looking at it. Those were some of my early, early influences.

I remember going into a joint in Perth called Hollywood Or Bust in the late 80s. The back carpark was pieced out. I didn’t quite make it to see the dudes battle on the day, but there was one wall in particular, a production by the original members of TFC. There was a Shime piece, a West Coast piece by Showbiz and there was a Buen piece on the end. That wall pretty much hit me straight between the eyes. It was above every level of anything I had seen before. You can see images on album covers, or in books like Subway Art, or clips on TV and think that’s graffiti but when you’re standing in front of a mad production and can actually see and touch and really look at a wall like that, it has an impact beyond seeing an image in a book. It becomes more tangible. I still look at photos of that wall and think “oh shit, that’s so good”. Eventually I ended up painting with TFC, and still put it up to this day.

Other influences have been my crew, all the people I’ve painted with, been around in my formative years with, even the dudes I fell out or had beef with, I learnt something from all those experiences. It’s all part of what makes up the building blocks of who I am.

Of course Subway Art opened my eyes to the pioneers and legends from New York, and Spraycan Art opened me up to the flow on effect that was happening around the world. Subway Art was the first book I racked, dacking it while the lady was standing right there at the counter. My mate Allan and I rode our bikes down to the side of the river and it really blew our heads back, pouring through that book. I can still look at those pages and flash right back to sitting at the river.

People have always generally got something good to say, but I do like it when I meet the one percent of dudes who get right up in your face and tell you they would prefer to see a wall covered in black tar rather than a colourful mural. I like meeting those people because it gives me an opportunity to educate them about what I do as a painter. Using a spray can might bring up negative connotations for some but I’m just out there doing my thing. I like it when someone comes up with something bad to say because it reminds me of the way it used to be, but times change I guess and now there are a lot more positive responses.

Artists make art, they have exhibitions, they show stuff in galleries. From a young age I had work in group shows. At a base level graffiti belongs on the street, it becomes a different thing when it gets shown in a gallery. The hardest thing is not losing that spontaneity and energy, and maintaining the integrity of your work in a gallery situation.

I think life in general is a big test, at different stages I’ve been at my wit’s end as to what direction I’ve needed to take when I’ve hit the crossroads. If you dump that much of your time and effort into something you believe in, I think it reaches a point where it just becomes “you”. A considerable amount of sacrifice comes with that.
There have been times when I’ve wanted to chuck it all in, it’s been like a cursed gift. What you are good at doing can also be the thing that drags you down. But even during the most painful times being creative becomes a way to get something off your chest. Generally it makes for the best work.

There was one time when I felt like everything had fallen apart, and I pulled out a case from under my bed. In that case was my first blackbook and one of my first mix tapes, and when I put that tape on and looked through my blackbook things started falling back into place again. It took me back to that point where I was so young and innocent, before I had had a cigarette or a drink of alcohol, when graffiti spoke to me in a way that inspired a pure energy, and it’s interesting to try and tap back into that energy as I progress through life. To try and view the world through a child’s eyes again.

Dash88 is an Australian artist of Chinese Malay ancestry, living and working in Melbourne.