w/k - Zwischen Wissenschaft & Kunst
Press "Enter" to skip to content

Dai Cameron: Nature in Graffiti

In conversation with Anna-Sophie Jürgens | Section: Interviews | Series: Street art, Science and Engagement

Abstract: In this article, Canberra-based artist Dai Cameron – a traditional graffiti artist whose work includes large scale art installations, street art and graffiti – reflects on the role of graffiti and art in enabling deeper encounters with the environment, the ways in which the various artistic media he uses relate to nature and how this ties in with his background and interest in environmental issues, in particular environmental science and conservation ecology. 

Dai Cameron, how wonderful to welcome you to the online journal w/k! You describe yourself as “a traditional graffiti artist” whose work includes large scale art installations, street art and graffiti. Your art is not only versatile and multi-faceted in terms of the different mediums you use, but also draws on and refers to nature, which is intrinsically linked to your background in Environmental Science and Conservation Ecology. All of this is extremely interesting to w/k! In this article we would like to invite you to share your thoughts on your relationship with nature, your environmental perspective and the role of graffiti and art in the natural world. The aim is to better understand how you perceive public art – your own, but also graffiti in general – and its potential to enable us to have deeper encounters with the environment.
Thanks for having me.

Defining Graffiti and Street Art

Dai, by way of introduction, could you explain how you understand or define street art and graffiti?
Graffiti is directly related to handstyles and tags. Handstyles are an individual’s mark making (their genetic or individual style; some people have a very distinct style, that is, their own calligraphy). Tags are a moniker, alias or pseudonym. Pseudonyms are an old tradition, common with actors and authors. It is common in hip hop, too. There is also feel to a word or name that helps one express a style or character. It all relates to identity and expression. The word one chooses to represent has a huge impact on the world – an example is the word BANKSY. With identity associated with the word there must be follow through, to go out there and get seen. Get your word up. There is a contradiction here: be well known or even famous, and be anonymous at the same time. One must be disciplined to maintain anonymity. This graffiti identity is free from any art world and gallery superficiality. Graffiti is pure expression anywhere, anytime. This is the freedom of graffiti: no rules. Generally, graffiti artists identify as writers. Graffiti is an art form, but it is also, and more so, a culture and a mindset. It has changed since I was actively writing … but writers are wordsmiths that is for sure. Many graffiti artists are interested in words; I know I am. Street art, on the other hand, is basically any kind of creativity in public space. 

When you say you are an artist, people often have rock’n’roll associations (about gallery shows, bohemian lifestyle, etc.) but what associations or assumptions do we have about graffiti artists? 
Whatever these assumptions are, the reality is more complex, diverse and there are many spectrums and facets. The graffiti writers that get through and keep doing it, have it in their blood. This is a cultural thing. It is complex now that I’m attempting to convey the sense of it. To execute graffiti well there are hurdles and challenges, social, artistic and logistic. There is an introvert/extrovert spectrum (fame vs. infamy vs. anonymity). There is also the adventure, excitement, life balance. Graffiti is showing off style more than a person. It hides (meaning) in plain sight. It is provocatively out there and totally cryptic – even to other old school artists like myself. Does street art have this – the enigmatic dimension? Street art can be executed by almost anyone. Graffiti requires specific skills less easily replicated.

Another spectrum! – Why are names in tags? 
I think it is linked to ancestral tales of adventures, journeys and myths, archetypal heroes and heroines, the performative dimension: It’s an act – to embody the word in the art. Graffiti writers are playing on the idea of identity; writers can share a story with a name. It’s also a brand, a style (BANKSY!).

What would be an equivalent to graffiti in other (art) contexts? For example, is there such a thing as doing graffiti as a musician? And what is the relationship between the digital medium and graffiti? Is it like listening to Spotify vs. going to a gig? 
Pirate radio (UK 1970s) – where DJs plugged into broadcasting frequencies and played their own tunes over the airways – was a type of audio vandal, or musical vandalism. The cultural element, where we add to something that exists – not breaking it (not destroying the train or building) but adding a creative spark to it – would be key. Guerilla gardening seems similar: adding to the environment in an unauthorised way that doesn’t really harm anyone, does it?
Graffiti is intentional. Graffiti is a flip – you get the blank wall and make it into something. If graffiti is to be digital, then it has to have a flip. Creating graffiti style art with photoshop or AI is not really the same thing, but perhaps a malicious code that scrambles emails to say your tag, changing Youtube advertisements to say your tag or somehow going parasitically viral on someone else’s TikTok video. There will be some great examples of digital graffiti in the future for sure.

Public Art and the City Space

You started doing pencil sketches at the age of nine and were drawn to graffiti three years later by a book that made a lifelong impression on you: Chalfant’s Spraycan Art. You “loved the freedom of the graffiti, where you could create anything, without rules or boundaries” (McCoy 2016). Since then, the interest in public art has evolved (your own, but also the public interest). How would you define the place or role of public art – graffiti and street art – in our city and society today?
There is a long history of public art. Early man-made images, icons and names have been found at, and on, many ancient sites. The role of public art has probably changed over the last few millennia, however, I suspect ancient artists had similar creative inspiration to reflect the immediate environment and show off to their community. I would say the role of public art (graffiti, street art and public paintings) is simple: to catch the viewer’s eye – and a bonus if you get their thoughts. What is the role of private art? Is there a difference? Graffiti and the urban environment provide opportunities for artists who probably don’t have access to traditional art spaces.
Public art and graffiti play a role in social and political commentary, challenging the status quo, amplifying marginalised voices and hopefully encouraging critical thinking. The definition of vandalism is interesting and thought-provoking in this context. The etymology online dictionary defines a vandal as “willful destroyer of what is beautiful or venerable”. The word vandal itself is the name of the Germanic tribe that sacked Rome in 455 under Genseric. The term emerged from Latin vandalus (plural vandali), the tribe’s name for itself in Old English (Wendlas), which is associated with the Proto-Germanic *wandljaz, meaning wanderer. The literal historical sense in English is recorded from 1550s. 
Although graffiti artists do wander and some graffiti artists do damage the beautiful and venerable, generally, graffiti is focussed on the man-made structures that scar and destroy the landscape on a scale graffiti artists can only dream about. Perhaps the role of graffiti has always been about being seen and heard regardless of anything. A mark is there, who did it, what does it mean? It got you. There is always something rebellious in graffiti that is deliberate, antagonistic and adventurous.

What exactly makes graffiti (and street art) an attractive means of improving man-made structures – and the city experience?
There is a certain type of freedom that comes with graffiti. To me, this freedom is the most attractive means of improving the city experience. Modern cities are dominated by concrete and tarmac which lends itself to visual improvement. Graffiti claims public spaces that would otherwise be neglected. This can contribute to urban renewal efforts and improve the overall aesthetic of a city. There are many examples across the world where graffiti and street art celebrate local heritage, traditions and values, promoting social cohesion and inclusivity within graffiti groups and the community.

Dai Cameron: Kookaburras (2020). Photo: Dai Cameron.
Dai Cameron: Kookaburras (2020). Photo: Dai Cameron.

Public art paintings are well loved, and there are occasions when the public are upset when they see someone painting over their favourite piece. Some works become part of people’s lives. Much of the public/street art that exists is invisible to most of the world. When we look closely, we see the hidden-in-plain-sight city experiences. There are thousands of creations to see, if you know what to look for.

Injecting Nature into Writing

While figurative characters can be described as usual suspects in graffiti, flowers are perhaps more of a surprise. Are the floral motifs in your work graffiti?
Floral elements are common in graffiti, especially street art. I guess it might seem contradictory – the hard face of vandalism and the aggressive nature of graffiti, but there is a smooth side to graffiti; as far as I’m concerned, anything goes. 
I became fascinated with the natural world from a young age and have always drawn on nature for inspiration. The floral elements are a part of this exploration, bringing bright colour palettes, vibrancy and intricate details into the harshness of graffiti letters. There is a gritty contrast I aim for with these two elements competing for dominance and harmony.

Your “raw material work” includes “all tactile mediums, charcoal, pencil, ink, paints and other physical markings usually onto other tactile surfaces, paper, walls, canvas, textiles, masonry, wood, metal, glass etc.” (Dai’s website). How do these media and mediums interact with the natural world?
It is simply the fact these tools are readily available. The list above is a graffiti writer’s menu. These tools are always interacting with each other. My question is: How do we get the most out of these interactions? Intimate use of natural elements combined with creativity results in a unique form of alchemy. Graffiti is new, outer space. There is something futuristic about graffiti art in its form and the tools used to create it.
On another level of interaction, I often have conscientious conflicts when I choose to paint over the natural world. The main casualties are spiders, bugs, moss, lichen and other natural elements that are perfect and way more beautiful than anything I could ever create. Regularly this experience teaches me humility and respect for life. There is a lot going on close-up. I’m sure other public artists notice this as they paint over some part of the natural world.

Drawing (on) Nature

How has your engagement with natural themes developed? What artistic results have these explorations led to?
Nature gives me tangible lessons in change. Graffiti tackles change headfirst. Graffiti is impermanent. Life is impermanent.
Engagement with nature has inspired me to explore things I would never have drawn or painted. Over the years I have gained confidence to explore natural subjects in a technical way. It is a mix of fundamental art practice, scientific knowledge and graffiti. The physics of light combined with the abundance of information about the natural world – particularly the vast range of images available as reference. We have so much choice these days. I try to make the most of opportunities I have at hand.
Most of my photographs are of nature, sky, plants, inanimate objects and textures. My graffiti mindset carries through in my photographs. I ask myself: Can I take a picture quickly and tell the story with minimum effort? Is the grittiness and beauty in balance? I don’t care about the technical quality of the image. I care about documenting the moment and the fascinating part of the world in view at that time. Photo tags.

Nature has brought maturity and ego into focus. I’ve discarded limiting beliefs and ideas about art and art practice. I use the graffiti mindset to paint traditional subjects quickly with grit and flare – the fundamental keys to the writer ethos.

Dai Cameron: Screenshot (2019). Photo: Dai Cameron.
Dai Cameron: Screenshot (2019). Photo: Dai Cameron.

Do your works have any reach or message on environmental issues?
If my work inspires someone to view the natural world in a more positive way or find a glimmer of hope or joy, that would be cool. The thing about graffiti artists is that we have very different values from most artists. I’ve evolved as a human being, but my art practice is still deeply rooted in the writer ethos. Graffiti (and art) may appear selfish and egoistic, and that is hard to argue with. To me, most art is a luxury. Art can be a disgusting waste of resources. My guess is most honest artists struggle with this dichotomy – how to pursue (pure) expression in a sustainable and compassionate way. To me, this is where the role of graffiti in the community comes full circle: Graffiti can empower a sense of freedom and the potential to create something beautiful, even just a scribble. A scribble is affordable, effective and ephemeral. This is the most powerful message – the power of creative expression is an autograph away.

“When Does it Stop Being Art and Become Science or Vice Versa?”

Your graffiti work and the way you present it in your portfolio show a great appreciation for the natural environment. How does your background in Environmental Science and Conservation Ecology influence your art?
Canberra was a special place to explore as a youth. Canberra is a wonderland with a thriving ecosystem. The storm water drains and spillways are part of this ecosystem, where we went on adventures. We learnt about the bush and the waterways; the concrete channels had a lot to offer. The birds, blue tongue lizards, worms, water rats, foxes, cats and all kinds of slimes and plants in the drains. As a youth this was fascinating. The colours and the fractals of nature repeating and decaying: is there anything more spectacular? Of course, along with nature, the drains had graffiti tags and pieces. An entire new thing to be fascinated with. This appreciation and love for nature grew into a passion – and I went on to study Conservation Ecology.
Through observation of the natural world in a scientific way I became more aware of my insignificance and the lack of detail I could create as an artist. I was inspired to improve my skills to create more realism and more detail in my work and still keep it street. A balance I found, an imperfect replica of life, smashed together with harsh geometric letters and messy techniques. Letters with drips, angles, layers on layers, perspective, soft edges, hard edges all at play at once. A kind of graffiti ADHD.

Is there a stereotypical image of Art?
For me the physics of light, vibrations interpreted by our eyes and brain (for the sighted), produce thoughts, feelings and physical effects on the body, mind and emotions. The image of art, science or anything, is connected to one’s self. It is a personal thing. Images are one’s conscious creation. Perhaps in this realm, art is the core of science.

Fascinating! In a way, as a writer, you have very specific sets of knowledge and techniques to organise knowledge and apply methods, which could be considered similar to science. Is it true that some have access to it and others fantasise about it?
There is no doubt that writers possess specific skills. For example, the factors involved to complete a whole car – that is to embellish an entire train car with graffiti in a short amount of time – are diabolical. Writers accomplishing this level of graffiti are elite in their methods. So yes, some have it and some fantasise. The same can be said for any skill or practice. Some people take it to the highest levels. When does art become science or vice versa? When does the empirical give way to the natural?

Should audiences think more about the exploration and discovery, dimension surfaces, physics and ecology in graffiti and street art?
Yes, I hope they all do. When we observe with reverence, nature reveals itself. Explorations can lead deeper and or further into the world. It appears to me we have the one consensus reality where every thing is connected and interconnected. I mentioned before the physics of light and this being a basis for reality. Then we can explore the chemistry. The surfaces, concrete, bricks, metal, the aerosol paint’s chemical composition, the plants, the insects and mud all becoming one goop of matter on a microscopic plane. We can marvel at the facts, the matters, the creative spark, all the above and we can get involved. Graffiti is the best. I believe art (and life) starts with a little curiosity and a lot of courage. Sometimes observing nature is confronting. I’ll finish here with one of my favourite sayings: To the extent one is willing to be dust, to that extent one is alive.

Dai, one last question: If you could invent a science, what would it be?
Time travel.

Thanks, Dai, for this extremely thought-provoking conversation!

Details of the cover photo: Dai Cameron: Ok OK Orchids (2015): Photo: Dai Cameron.


Dai Cameron, “Dai”, artist website: www.daicameron.com.  

Dai Cameron on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/daicameron/

McCoy, Thomas: Street art brings Canberra’s laneways to life, Brisbane Times, 28 November 2016.

How to cite this article

Dai Cameron and Anna-Sophie Jürgens (2024): Dai Cameron: Nature in Graffiti. w/k–Between Science & Art Journal. https://doi.org/10.55597/e9374

Be First to Comment

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *