Croatia’s capital city Zagreb does not boast a big scene for street art; as is the case in most more alternative approaches to arts in relatively smaller cities, it usually depends on certain individuals to keep the scene alive. In Zagreb, one of those individuals is OKO. She built up her name on the streets of her hometown, even though it might not have been her intention. From the simple motif of an eye patched around the facades of buildings that started to appear in 2005, up to the recent showcases of her work in museums, galleries or festivals, her style evolved during the years and today she is best known for two different visual tropes: the black-and-white old school graphics of well-dressed animal creatures and the other full-color childish ghosts and beasts. For her, all of them are alive and have unique personalities. Guardian energy and protection symbolism are an essential part of her drawings. She simply and honestly loves drawing—which might be the reason she’s become one of the main figures and most prolific street artists to emerge from Zagreb.
We all know what OKO means (in Croatian,“eye”) but what does it mean to you?
There is a story from my childhood connected with a drawing of the eye which is following me ever since. So the whole thing started as a symbol that represents the opening of the eye and seeing everything with the inner being, to not judge on first sight.
You’ve now taken your drawings into many different media. You do skateboards, tattooing, design for Adidas / Nike / Puma, your work was shown at many music & art festivals and finally in the museums. Did it all start in the street? Was the street the first media where your work started to appear?
I have been drawing from an early age. I used to illustrate a school magazine in primary school and that was basically my first job (trust me, it’s really funny when you’re 10 and spend your weekends in school drawing different stuff for all the text you get to read as a preview for a magazine). Art high school just led more to that direction. I used to be amazed with theater. That’s why I chose scenography in high school, but after I finished it times and situations were weird and life takes you to different directions… I started to work so I could support myself and didn’t think I would ever do art as a profession. Like I already said, life takes you weird places… So after 7 years I just figured out I need to try the Art Academy. It was a mystical place for some “other” humans who perceive life on a higher level (well, at least that was the idea in my head). Happily I got in, and the whole “saint” idea started to fall apart. You figure out they are just regular humans with all their humanly behavior and for me that was a shock. I expected something bigger, something more holy. That’s when I started to draw a lot, and everywhere. In trams, in class, at home, just to be in my head, to keep my “holy” idea safe. Along with that I started to put things in the streets. I don’t know how it started to happen, but little by little things were going somewhere. I have no plans for where or how high, but I try to keep myself on the ground and “just draw” like I used to. Everything else will happen by itself, like always in life.
Where did it go from there?
For a few years I didn’t want to be part of museums or any other exhibition. In those times I started to get depressed about art: what does it mean, what’s the purpose, why are we doing it, is it completely useless? I stopped drawing for 6 months and decided I wouldn’t do art anymore, never again in my life. But, like always, when you try to run away from something that is your being, you just keep bumping into it. So I figured out—that’s me, that’s who I am and I can’t escape it, at least not in a peaceful way. So I just started to draw again, growing up little by little, level by level. I realized museums are not bad. If you don’t let anybody influence you, or any other “job” for any company, if you don’t make compromises against your own idea, then it’s fine. When you can stand in front of your work afterwards and not feel ashamed, that means you made a good decision. Every time the “painting” wins over you. You feel it. There is no faking in that. And if you leave your battlefield losing the battle, you can’t walk like a hero. And everybody can see that.
Can you tell a bit more about the street art scene of Zagreb, how it was before and how it looks like now?
The street art scene in Zagreb… Well, I moved to London 6 months ago, so for the moment I don’t know. It was always a small scene. It used to be a good group of people in one moment that had great energy and that “punk” attitude around it. Then I think something went quiet for a bit, and now it seems that it’s getting up again. I don’t know honestly. I used to be a part of a group: energy was up, chilling was up, drawing was up, sk8 was up… It was just street life. Now I usually go alone. It started to be something private and I like it that way. I do hang out with other artists. When I travel around Europe and do big festivals, we all hang out, everybody drawing on their own machine, big walls… There’s good working energy around it. And a lot of laughs.
Who influenced you and what was your motivation to go out into the streets?
Well, I always wanted to do it, and just one typical day over a beer things started. I went with my friend to copy my image, cut it and start. It was a great feeling to walk around at 4am and put stickers around. The city is empty, it’s quiet and you just feel alive. When you walk ‘till dawn and you see the sun setting up, you just can’t have a bad day after that…
You moved to London recently, how was that?
Yes, I moved few months ago. It was just a natural urge to see bigger things. And I did… London is a killer. All big cities are. You need to fight with them. It’s a constant battle. Sometimes you feel alive, sometimes you just want to be under your blanket. It’s a natural thing. All in all, it’s a growing experience. I know I leveled up, and I will see how much probably when I go back to Croatia for a bit… I’ll figure it out. Artists really don’t have an address. You live everywhere. I’m not a person that likes changes, but at the same time I feel that’s life, hitting you all the time. So probably I will be everywhere…
Will you continue your work there? I see you exhibited already in some London museums. Where & how was that?
I always live in my studio, always [do], probably always will. So surely I paint or draw there. Do I plan to stay there? Who knows… I try not to plan. That’s what I learned. You need to let go and let life flow, to not be too tight, and because I’m quite a control freak and usually always work like a machine, it’s not always easy for me to let go. That’s probably a lesson I need to learn now. Regarding exhibitions in London, how it turns out I have one exhibition every month. It’s not that I planned it like that, it’s just happening. When I moved I had the Victoria and Albert Museum thing, it was amazing… It’s a huge space, a huge museum, and it’s full of art of people around the world that you sometimes feel you don’t belong here and that you are a part of the whole humanity. It was packed. I never had anything with so many visitors around. It was about 6000 people there and it’s weird. The good thing is that people don’t know how I look like, so you can always pretend you’re one of the visitors and then it’s easier.
Any plans for the future?
A lot of them, but I’m trying not to force myself. I have ideas what I want to achieve. Will I do it or not is just on me, so it’s better not to talk about it too much. For sure I will try to draw and travel everywhere. The world is really a massive space to paint.
What I first think of when I think of your stuff now is the monochromatic animal-headed well-dressed people. Are they humans or animals? Why are they so well dressed?
I have 2 different styles of drawing. One is those black and white animals and the other is full of colors childish doodles. Both work for me so I just follow how I feel when I take the ink. Why are they well dressed? Because I love to dream about a better world, about justice “giants” that do stuff according to early human and moral ways, a better version of humanity.
Did you have the intention to make it your trademark? Even if not, I’m sure a lot of people equate you with it. Do you feel good or bad about it?
I never planned to make it my style. People think what they want. Sometimes it’s weird because people start to expect something from you, put you in some box and start to talk to you, give you advices and directions you should take. Art is not illustration. No matter how illustrative it can look sometimes, it’s your own personal story and perception of the world. In that way sometimes, probably almost always, those “images” are quite fragile, because all of us know how fragile our inner world is. We are all giants, but we don’t have courage to show that most of the time.
What are your other motives?
Motives in drawing… Who knows… Life… For the last few months I’m really interested in medical herbs and all ancient medicines that old cultures used to make to heal themselves, probably to try to heal humanity on some other level than just with big guardians.
What’s the last piece you did?
Last big one I did on 9x30m wall in Toulouse in France. It was a big show and a lot of artists from around Europe were there. It was fun, great people, great artists. For the moment I’m painting new paintings in my studio because I have an exhibition in 2 weeks, so I need to try to make them by then. They’re big canvases. The battle between them and me is on. Some days they win, some days I do. We will see who will win in the end—will I exhibit a painting or an empty ripped canvas.
Is drawing kind of therapeutic for you?
Drawing is always therapeutic. I think all art is. It’s kind of an escape from life around us. When you don’t live, you don’t have anything to “say” or “paint”.
How do you deal with all the ideas/research/decision making or simply said mental work? How do you choose the theme? Do you research for that? Is there some deeper metaphoric meaning, some history involved?
Don’t know. We’re probably more complex beings than just one layer humans, so our minds have a world for themselves which is sometimes working for us, sometimes against us. Hearts have other ways. And “real” life around us has its own ways also. So sometimes you feel like you’re standing in the middle of some crossroads and yelling like crazy, at least in your head. It’s hard to explain how you do what you do. You’re just doing it. Probably the whole thing is trying not to overanalyze it, otherwise you kill it even without starting it. When I get some kind of idea what’s happening, then I research. Depending on what idea it is, sometimes it requires old medicine study, sometimes old religions, sometimes science, poetry, music, geography, humanity or nature. I love science. I can’t fail to be surprised by it. It’s magical… Particles… One of the giants I really admire is Nikola Tesla.
I’m sure you went through a lot of phases in your work. After all the thinking and (probable) changes where are you now with your work and what did you learn?
Phases…. Surely it brings you up in the air and then slams you on the floor. I think art is a constant surviving mode on. What did I learn? To try to free myself from expectations, from others and then from myself. Because that’s the killer, that’s the one that keeps you tied and your brain can’t breathe. You don’t feel anything except constant frustration. Probably that’s the biggest thing I’ve learned, in my opinion—to keep myself free, not to be a prisoner of my own mind.
What do you do except drawing?
Drawing and painting is what I do. Every day. Everything else comes out of it. So skateboard or tattoo or any other design comes from that.
You don’t want your face to be really seen in any pictures that appear. Does it mean people should focus on the work?
I hide my face because I think it’s not important. I show it partly on some pictures. Lately I’m doing a lot of photo-shoots that actually show my face but covered in white paint or in glitter or who knows what’s it going to be in the future. In that context it makes sense to show it, painted like that… It represents something in a particular moment. But otherwise I think it’s not important because my ideas don’t have a body. It’s one of those collective energies floating around and when you try to put a face on it, it loses the magic in my opinion, it becomes human. There are a few artists that I really admire, and despite the idea that I know how their face looks like, I hope I will never meet them in real life. Somehow it makes more sense when their ideas and things they say belong to a collective energy (gaia). That way everybody feels it personally, it’s part of you, part of me. It’s not mine, or yours…
OKO is part of a group exhibition at Loud & Western Building London, Until 25th July 2014
She will also be in Switzerland soon to promote her skateboard designs for Faust Skate Company.