The Art of INSA

A graduate of Goldsmith’s, London, British artist and designer, INSA, began his career as a graffiti writer, painting streets and buildings as he traveled. INSA’s trademark ‘graffiti fetish’ pattern is now held in the V&A collection, and has been presented at Tate Britain, London. Outside of the UK, INSA has left his mark in major cities around the world including; Tokyo, LA, New York, San Francisco, Luxembourg, Lisbon, Hong Kong, Warsaw, Berlin, Brussels, Montreal and Seattle.

Often touching on polemical issues, INSA’s work unpicks some of the apocryphal stories of today. Departing from some of the symbols of modern aspirations, INSA’s visual motifs confront the fetishization of products in modern society, as well as the commodification of success and ambition. The paradoxical nature of his work questions both his own position as an artist in a consumerist world, and collective ideals in our society. Also key to INSA’s output is a pervasive sense of irony and self-deprecating humor that has made his work accessible and enjoyable to all kinds of viewers, in many different contexts; from the conventional gallery space to the streets of an inner city neighborhood.

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INSA Building Painting, 2012
 © INSA

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INSA’s early practice—creating high impact and ephemeral works—has undoubtedly informed his experimental approach with new media in recent years. INSA has independently built a veritable empire: encompassing furniture and clothing design, his own high heel company,  custom cars and much more. From public installations to large-scale commercial projects, INSA’s works often only appear in very limited editions or for a short amount of time, showing the artist’s continued interest in confounding concepts of time and space, the way in which we process and consume, as well as the transience of objects.

Always keen to push boundaries and innovate further, INSA has gained a huge global following surrounding his work, recently expanding with experiments in social and digital media. His most recent product design—a limited edition release of digital print INSA leggings—sold out in just six minutes through the platforms of Instagram and Twitter.

Another impressive online showing came from his collaboration with Nike. As part of the artist’s ‘swapshop’ project in 2011, fans and followers were asked to propose ‘swaps’ in return for a bootleg INSA x NIKE t-shirt. The offers elicited were astounding—one U.S. citizen bid to name her first-born child after the artist, while other fans were tattooed with INSA artwork to claim their prize.

An important facet of INSA’s practice is the ‘GIF-ITI,’ a term the artist coined when he began to create the first ever GIF animations of graffiti work; a meticulous and labor-intensive process often requiring the artist to repaint an entire wall by hand several times.

INSA’s unique GIF-ITI invention has captured audiences by creating street art that paradoxically only exists online. His most recent GIF-ITI creation was a collaborative effort with Stanley Donwood for XL Records, “Hollywood Dooom”; a special commission to celebrate the release of a new album for Atoms for Peace.

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Dope Magazine had the pleasure of sitting down with INSA and asked [him] a few questions:

What does INSA mean?

That’s a question I’m often asked. Everyone thinks it’s cannabis-relatedIN for indica and SA for sativa. I’ve read ‘I’m No Serious Artist’ among other acronyms over the years as well. What’s ironic about that, is that for all the hype and/or desire for there to be a meaning or backstory, the truth is there is no myth, legend or lore behind the name. It’s simply something I liked graphically that had no existing meaning or connotation. I started using INSA when I was 11. Why change it after all these years? It’s what made me who I am today.

There are many similarities between street art and cannabis. From cultivators and artists maintaining their anonymity to the generally non-accepted and anti-establishment themes the two communities share. What parallels do you see between the two?

The experiences shared between growers and street artists are very similar. Those that never thought they would see their activities and lifestyle become accepted, let alone legal, in their lifetime.

When I was a kid doing graffiti, no one ever thought it would turn into a real line of work; allowed or even accepted. I grew up as a criminal in a subculture where we stole our paint; our food; rode the trains for free; slept during the day just to smoke, paint or bomb at night. 

And now my art is legitimized and accepted, yet I’m still doing the same thing as I’ve always done. The same activity that put me in jail for my 21st birthday now supports my family and flies me first class around the world.

I can imagine there are growers, producers and shop owners that grew, produced and/or sold as teenagers and now find their work legitimized under the new laws. In many senses, there are many direct parallels.

To press the point of acceptance further, many of my contemporaries and peers are now in a place where they can afford to purchase art. And since they grew up with graffiti and are comfortable with it, they are more likely to purchase art that is in tune with their life and generation, rather than an old oil painting that doesn’t connect to them. The acceptance has purely grown with age. The more prolific and omnipresent graffiti becomes, the more it’s appreciated, the more it becomes a [generational] celebrated art form.

How has notoriety and fame changed your art?

 It’s hard to tell. In some ways I’m more aware of my audience because my projects keep getting bigger. Bigger projects mean more viewers and sponsors. It has increased my output because of the demand for my work and pushes me to go harder and bigger.

INSA-RacingSailBespoke Yacht Sail, 2012
 © INSA

How does art differ from street art?

To me it’s all the same, really. It’s just the location of where it sits and its accessibility to the public; and because of who views it, perhaps that changes its perceived value in society. I consider myself an artist that paints in the street.

In many ways I like to look at my art as ‘bondage of buildings.’ Fetishizing public space in deliberate, overt, hyper-sexualized ways creates the desire for ownership and consumerism. Much like a Louis Vuitton pattern, we’ve been taught to focus on the outer layer. So whether it’s limited edition leggings or a custom hand-painted car, my work focuses on the juxtaposition of luxury and lust and how that fits with our socialization to want and desire inanimate objects and consumer goods over deep enriching relationships.

My art has in many ways become the thing it was questioning in the beginning. Contradiction is key to understanding one’s self and the work one creates.

 INSA- Lincoln Continental

Custom Lincoln Continental, New York, 2010
 © INSA

Is designing for products & brands different than painting and/or creating for yourself?

In many ways it’s not all that different because I choose my projects carefully. Everything I create must have relevance to my life and my work. Nothing is without conceptual thinking and reasoning as to why it exists in my artistic world.

Design has guidelines and creative limitations with a specific outcome in mind. If I find myself stifled in the design, I’ll find my creativity and flow in the process. I’ve been very fortunate in that I’ve taken on projects that allow for my creative freedom, expression and satisfaction. 

As a street artist, what communities do you participate in and hangout with? Who do you identify yourself with?

As much as my work is a contradiction, so too are the people I surround myself with. From international artists to close friends and family, my life is pretty compartmentalized. You could call it self-loathing, but who wants to be around people just like themselves all the time? When I’m around people different than myself, I’m able to express my individuality more. I have my communities and circles I travel in. Some are artists; some are smokers; some are none of the above. I seek out good people; nice people. 

What projects have you recently worked on? What’s coming up for you?

Recently I’ve been traveling quite a bit for my work including projects for Pepsi, Netflix and Nike, among others. There’s a slight shift from my original work in some ways. I’m now looking at the relationships between the globe, space, time and the relevance of existence.

What are your goals as an artist? 

In my twenties, as a feminist who overtly used the female form to call out its exploitation; and an anti-capitalist with a closet full of Nikes. I’m the first to admit I’m full of contradictions. 

However, as I get older and now have a family, my focus has turned toward our place and time on earth. The relevance of our existence has all of a sudden taken on new meaningand the time continuum of infinity versus mortality plays a major role in my life and work at this time.

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“My art has in many ways become the thing it questioned in the beginning. Contradiction is key to understanding one’s self and the work one creates.” -INSA, 2016

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