Czech artist Jan Kaláb, whom some of you may know since his early graffiti days under the name Cakes or from his sculptural work as Point, shares within the latest Un-hidden Romania interview insights about his previous and current body of work, how the abstract visual language goes beyond storytelling and becomes emotion for us all to feel and understand, and the circle as a symbol of both existence and void. We also discuss the ephemeral state of the art in the public space, the significance and relevance of feedback, his visits in Bucharest, and more. Enjoy an in-depth view inside the artist’s past, present and upcoming projects.
f: Hello, Jan, let’s start by introducing our readers to your graffiti background. In the early 90s, graffiti pieces were beginning to appear around Prague, initially done by French and German tourists shortly after the collapse of the communist regime, which encouraged several Czechs to write too. You call them the first generation and, as stated in previous interviews, you consider yourself to be part of the second generation of writers in your country, thus being one of the pioneers of the local scene, known as Cakes (from Czech, translating as “splash”) and the founder of DSK crew. You did your first piece in 1993 and your first mural in 1997. You described the impact of graffiti in the days before the internet when you could only see the pieces in real life, without any additional information: “Bam! Shapes and colours on a boring wall, a message I don’t understand! From the first moment I saw graffiti on the wall, I knew I wanted to discover what this is; I needed to be part of it.”
Podzim [Autumn], Prague (1997)
In 2000, you were already in New York with your partners, painting panels and whole cars on the subway, a premiere for the Eastern European graffiti scene. Then and there, you realised that you could achieve anything you want, an experience also captured in words on your whole car piece with Romeo: “Go for your dreams/ P.S. We did it”. In an early interview from 2002, you said that by that time, you had painted about 200-250 trains.
Cakes & Romeo, NYC (2000)
We can only assume that your motto – “keep going, keep inventing new forms” – gained a much deeper meaning once you pushed your limits even further and turned to 3D Graffiti in the early 2000s. From Cakes, you built a new reputation as Point, sculpting abstract letters, which no longer needed spray and sometimes not even a wall to be part of the urban landscape. Your experiments with sculpture and canvas (since 2008) gradually led to abstraction, perhaps influenced by your studies as well, at the Academy of Fine Arts of Prague. In 2011, you were already talking about simplifying your style, reducing it to cubes and circles.
26 years after your first graffiti piece, what would you define as the “soul of graffiti” today? Tell us about the two stages before presenting your work solely under your real name. What has the experience as Cakes taught you that you still apply in your art today? Some of your pieces as Cakes are still out there. How do you feel about them overcoming ephemerality and the gesture of respect the community gives you by keeping them up? Secondly, since you’ve continued with sculptural and installation work, please discuss how 3D Graffiti opened the door to what you are currently creating.
Jan Kaláb: I think the real soul of graffiti is competition – in a good way. To make your mark, you need to do more and better than the other guy and the other guy likewise. It creates healthy competition and where there is competition, there is evolution. This formula works in any field. So, basically, I keep the same attitude as when I had been doing Cakes pieces on walls and trains.
I developed 3D graffiti sculptures because just writing your name became too narrow. To get into the third dimension was the first step to the so-called fine art. It was an act of going into unknown territory. Naturally, the experience of working in space influenced the flat painting.
It is, of course, great to still see some of my pieces around the streets, sure, but most of them are gone forever. Graffiti is an ephemeral technique – it fades out in a couple of years. I didn’t care when I was a kid, now I want to create long-standing things.
The Soul of Graffiti, Polasek Museum, Winter Park, FL, USA (2018)
f: When you made the transition from letters to abstraction, you became aware, as mentioned in a previous interview, of an essential aspect – the theme. It was no longer about repeating a name in different styles. You began exploring topics such as infinity, motion, depth, change, some of which are still of interest today. What were the new or unexpected conclusions you reached when dealing with these themes? What are you focusing on at the moment, what inspires you in your current body of work?
Jan Kaláb: To work abstract and minimal is much more difficult than having a specific theme like a figure of letters. I feel that I’m digging somewhere without knowing the right direction, hoping to discover something totally new. On this journey, I repeat and repeat until the work becomes different little by little. Sometimes, I create a different line of work. I try to keep it all fun in my work.
Inspiration is, for instance, how successful artists have brought their work on their paths so far.
ZOOOM, Magma Gallery, Bologna, IT (2017)
f: You once said that your work is emotional and that you wish to convey a universal emotion, intelligible to anyone, and create concrete feelings through an abstract visual approach. Share your view about the relations between and process involving emotion and abstract language.
Jan Kaláb: Once you simplify the artistic language, there is no room for telling stories. Your message should be the emotion, the shortcut to the point of the story. The good thing about abstraction is that everybody can understand it. You don’t need to have any education and knowledge. I wonder if an alien would enjoy my work in the same way as anybody else.
Murals painted in Prague (2013) and Buenos Aires (2014)
Red Circle, Red Gallery, London (2014)
f: How do people tend to decode and “feel” your work?
We noticed that you use social media as a way to receive feedback. Your March post about the “cut thru canvas” series generated different responses on Instagram and Facebook, as well as a prompt reaction from one of your collectors which made you conclude that it’s a matter of taste that makes a series more popular than another. Then, in April, you came up with a piece that you said took into consideration the comments received in the previous post.
So let’s discuss the viewer’s role in the creative process. To what extent are the public’s desires relevant to you? Did you ever get ideas from the audience that you applied in your work? Were there reactions that surprised you – either on the streets or during your exhibitions in galleries and museums around the world? What do you think makes a work a masterpiece that can go beyond public taste and become memorable despite the passing of time?
Jan Kaláb: In the beginning, I wanted to understand who my followers are. These people are my closest audience. Friends, collectors, gallerists, other artists, fans – people who know my work and have their opinion as to why they like what I create. So getting feedback from them should be the most relevant and objective feedback I can get, right? And it is great to get some brutally honest feedback once in a while. So I tried to ask my audience.
Every reaction to my work is a positive thing. It makes me rethink and maybe see it from a different perspective.
To ask someone’s opinion doesn’t necessarily mean I will follow it, but I’ll surely consider it.
Pluriforme, Openspace Gallery, Paris (2016)
f: Back in 2014, you took your paintings outside, in New York, and even invited strangers to assist in the photo documentation of your project Art in Public. You did a similar action for the solo show “Perspective of Clouds” at Mirus Gallery. Share some memories about your connection with people on both occasions. What determined you to use the city as the background of your art? What is your relationship with the urban landscape now, when you’re less present in the public space than before?
Jan Kaláb: The city as a background of artwork looks amazing when captured on camera. It is usually part of a great graffiti photo. I was missing that while painting on canvas inside a studio. I wanted to exhibit in NYC, but I didn’t have any gallery at that time, so I did an outdoor exhibition. I took all the paintings I had done in the NY studio to the streets and photographed them in different locations. It was also a great social probe in the city. It was challenging to deal with refusal and keep waiting for someone willing to give me 5 minutes of their life. I talked to a lot of different people. A Vietnamese veteran assisted me in Manhattan, a famous Dutch TV star in San Francisco and my schoolmate in Los Angeles.
Perspective of Clouds, Mirus Gallery, San Francisco, USA (2018)
f: In the past years, you focused on the circle, which you say it’s “the most complex shape”. In playing with form, you use a diverse palette of colours, with one usually occupying most of the canvas’ surface. You also add what you call an “imperfection” to the circle. What is the role of imperfection in your work? What did the circle symbolize when you first used it, and how did it change its meaning while working with it throughout the years? Also, does the meaning change when it’s a 2D representation versus a sculptural one (a sphere), as in the case of this installation you presented as an inspiration by/ tribute to Brâncuși from the 2018 exhibition at Trafo Gallery?
You continue to use angular shapes in your sculptures, especially. What do they stand for compared to the circular ones?
Jan Kaláb: For me, the circle represents two opposites – sphere and hole. Existence vs void. The imperfection brings movement to the perfect shape of the circle. Movement is life.
Talking about imperfection in my work, I try to make the art pieces as perfect as I can. The more fluid shapes I add to the painting, the more it represents the amebas of the microcosmos. In sculptural work, it is easier to use angular shapes because of the technique. I used it lately to create some Point sculptures. The circle in 3D is a sphere, which in sculpture could be used in different ways. The 20-sphere installation (a tribute to Brâncuși) is about repetition in time. Just like his famous Endless Column.
At the moment, I’m working on more organic shaped sculptures.
Point of Space, Trafo Gallery, Prague (2018)
TENSION, BC Gallery, Berlin (2015-2016)
f: One of the first events we recall with you visiting Bucharest was the screening of the film Trafačka – Temple of Freedom during the Documentary Mondays series at Czech Centre, in 2012. For those who didn’t meet you then, you were one of the co-creators of Trafačka, an abandoned factory space destined to be demolished and turned into an alternative centre for art, a highly dynamic cultural space in Prague, hosting over 160 exhibitions from its opening in 2006 until its closure in 2015. What are your best memories from that time? What about your first encounters with the Romanian public and the cultural scene in Bucharest?
Jan Kaláb: Before I answer, I would like to mention that Trafačka exists now as Trafo Gallery, in a different location, and is more like a white cube gallery than an alternative cultural space.
I have many memories of the good old Trafačka, lots of fun. It was a time of growing up as an artist for me. I had plenty of time to focus on my work without any real pressure from the art market. The only pressure we felt was the limited space available. We wanted to squeeze the maximum out of it. We came here to stay for one year, and the contract was extended every year, and we stayed there for 9 years. Then the documentary film happened, which kind of brought me to the Czech Centre in Bucharest. I was amazed by the architectural diversity of this city. Also seeing bombed subway cars at that time was cool for me, even if I didn’t have time to paint any 😊. One year later, I had an exhibition at H’art Gallery.
Since then, your work has been exhibited in Miami, San Francisco, New York, Buenos Aires, Bologna, Bogotá, Berlin, Paris, London, and elsewhere. Is there a particular place that is dearest to you, where you like returning to or that had a significant influence on your artistic path?
Jan Kaláb: The exhibition called “Salut” at H’art Gallery was my first solo show abroad in a regular gallery. I have nice memories. People showed up at the opening, which is always great in a city where you never exhibited before. Besides the exhibition, I painted a couple of graffiti pieces around the city. And it was really fresh because no one cared, and I did some pieces during the daytime.
If I have to name the dearest place, I have to say Prague, right? But talking about the most significant influence, I’ll say New York City. I learned there many things about art and life. Time is money and no mercy for losers. Haha.
POINT INVASION, Prague (2018)
f: We remember seeing in 2012 your Point pieces in the centre of Bucharest. Tell us about your impressions of the city and, since we’re always on the lookout for new interventions in the public space to add to the Un-hidden Romania map, if you plan new visits in the country and if there is a chance to see your work on the streets of the capital, not only indoor.
Jan Kaláb: At that time, I came to Bucharest invited by the Czech Centre. I also brought a couple of polystyrene Points and pasted them outside. I’m glad you found them!
I don’t know when I’ll return – when I have any new reason to come to Bucharest again 😊. As I mentioned before, I like the architectural chaos of the city. The vibe reminds me of the cities of Southern Italy like Naples.
f: At the end of our conversation, we remember browsing through an interview where you said that the greatest challenge is to make your ideas become real and “touch” what was at some point only a dream. What is the biggest dream you made reality so far? What does this process involve? What’s the next big thing you’d like to live?
Jan Kaláb: I was dreaming of working internationally and was thinking about how to make that happen. I have been working hard, and it is happening now. I’m now working on some sculpture progress. So I’m investing money made with paintings into sculptures.
A big thing to live? Doing great art, have a healthy family and be happy.
SHAPE & TONE, Castanier Gallery, Miami (2019)
This article is part of the Un-hidden Romania series of interviews with street art and graffiti artists, published weekly on feeder.ro. Together we will enter their artistic universe and learn how the city can be regenerated through artistic interventions in the public space.
Keep your eyes on feeder.ro, we’ll publish new interviews soon with iZZY iZVNE, Maria Bălan, John Dot S, Livi Po, J.Ace, Robert Obert, KSELEQOQYNQYSHY, Primitiv Print, Livia Fălcaru, Skinny Bunny, Obie Platon, Alina Marinescu, Maria Duda, Trun, Meguru Yamaguchi, Daia – Diana Grigore, Tobias Barenthin Lindblad, Irina Marinescu, Kero Zen, Lost.Optics, Serebe, CAGE, ILUC, Nicolae Comănescu, Nicolás Alfalfa, Boeme1, SUNSHINERS, Sorin Trăistaru – Bine Scris, Pisica Pătrată, Alexander Blot, and more.
Interview by Emilia Cazan
Images © Jan Kaláb & București Optimist (for the piece in Bucharest)
Un-hidden Romania is an urban regeneration programme conceived as a series of artistic interventions designed for the public space, co-created with the community, aiming at humanizing Bucharest and other cities in the country, as well as promoting their understanding and exploration through art.
The digital version of the street art map is available here:
The Un-hidden Romania street art project is organized by Save or Cancel, through feeder.ro and is co-funded by AFCN. The program does not necessarily represent the position of the National Cultural Fund Administration. AFCN is not responsible for the content of the program or the way the program results can be used. These are entirely the responsibility of the beneficiary of the funding.
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Since 2008, Save or Cancel is a medium of communication and propagation of the arts and culture, promoting and facilitating their role in contemporary society.
The self-initiated multidisciplinary programs of Save or Cancel aim to identify sustainable and adaptable opportunities for (re) valorization of the existence through architectural, cultural and editorial projects.
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