Artists take to the streets of Berlin
James Bullough and Addison Karl are the kind of friends you want to have. Of course, they’re exceptionally talented. But that aside, they’re really great people. They’re men of their words, great for conversations and laughs, afternoon drinks and evening ramblings. Heck, Karl even had HRM into his gallery for our launch in rainy Berlin back in May of last year.
JBAK, their creative partnership, has been gaining momentum since they decided to combine their vast array of artistic talents. The large-scale work they produce is something impressive to behold. Astonishingly detailed and accurate line work paired with surprising colour palates, contributes to an effortlessness and ease that is conveyed in the final product. They capture real people in tender and joyful moments, and then they magnify and explode these scenes across walls and cities in Berlin and Europe.
These two American boys have made themselves important figures in the Berlin street art scene. They have managed to strike a delicate balance between the expressive and the precise, finding a space that supports both the real and the imaginary.
By Lacey Haynes
What do you guys do?
We are both painters and illustrators in our own practice but together as JBAK we concentrate mostly on outdoor murals and large-scale studio paintings. When we first started painting together about two years ago we noticed that one common thread between our individual practices was the use of portraiture, so we made that the main focus of our collaboration. Since then, we’ve been working on a blend of our two very different styles and have developed a look that is quintessentially JBAK.
Why did you start working together?
We met by chance one night through friends of friends and got to talking. It turned out that we had a lot of common interests, mainly bikes and street art. After that, we tackled a few bike build projects and managed to go out painting a few times and it just sort of evolved from there. At some point we decided to work on one large painting together rather than painting side by side like we had done in the past. It went well and ever since then most of our murals have been together, although we still do separate work from time to time.
What’s on the go for this year?
Currently we are finishing up a large commission project we have been working on for months. It’s a series of 9 rather large portrait paintings of different people from Berlin (where we live) who had some connection or major life event tied to the division and reunification of East and West Germany.
It has been a major undertaking. From developing the project to finding the models for each painting, doing photo shoots with them and then of course the actual building of the custom “found wood” canvases and then painting them. It has been a huge project and we have really enjoyed it, especially considering that we’ve been inside the studio working during the long cold Berlin winter rather than outside hanging from the side of a building like last winter.
From here, we will have an exhibition in March to show the new series of paintings and then the outside work begins again. We have possible plans for two or three trips to North America for various projects and festivals and of course we will be out and about in Europe leaving our mark on walls in different cities.
What have been some of the highlights of your collaboration?
In our first year of working together, we were able to get two very big walls in Berlin to paint. One was the entire side of a five story building in a neighbourhood of Berlin called Wedding (pronounced Vedding) as part of the Wedding Walls Project. The other was an 18 meter wall sponsored by Etsy.com at the home of their Etsy labs workshop space. Those were both very exciting and rewarding projects and we learned a lot about what kind of work we wanted to do in the future.
We also had the chance this past year to do some travelling and take our paintings to other cities. We did murals in Chemnitz and Dresden as part of the Colour Revolution project and the CityBilder project were definite highlights.
What does being in Berlin mean for your street cred? Opportunity wise? And for you creatively?
Saying you are a painter or a street artist in Berlin is like saying in any other city that you like to eat food. There’s an overflow of artists here and because of the somewhat loose regulations on street art many people hit the streets with their work. This can be a double-edged sword of course, or maybe more like a quadruple edged sword. On one hand, the opportunity for spots to paint and people to paint with are seemingly endless. On the other hand, with so many people going out to paint every day and so many tourists coming to Berlin just to go out and paint, your work can get covered up quite quickly. Often a piece that you spend hours and hours working on will get tagged over in just a few days by some kid from out of town passing through Berlin on a two day “graffiti vacation”.
It’s just sort of the life of a wall in this city. If nothing else, it motivates people to be a little more selective with where they paint. It’s also really difficult to stand out in Berlin with so many different people putting up quality work, and also totally shitty work. We have decided that quality is paramount for JBAK over quantity. We may only get 20 pieces up over a year’s time but those 20 pieces are big and show off how much thought and effort went into them. It has become apparent to us that if you really bust your ass and look for good opportunities, they are out there to be found. Following this rule has seemed to earn us a level of respect that we are very happy to hold in a city with so many good artists.