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A gent from Ghent
Roa’s prolific output has been recorded in videos and photographs, but the Belgian artist himself is virtually undocumented. Details are sketchy from the start. An educated guess places the year of his birth at 1975, the same year that gave the world Tiger Woods and Angelina Jolie. (More on target, in 1975 the U.S. Department of the Interior declared the grizzly bear a threatened species.) Roa grew up in the city of Ghent, experiencing all the pop influences of the U.S. of the 1980s. He has suggested he felt the strongest impact from hip-hop and graffiti.
The Ghent street art community of Roa’s youth expressed an active, eclectic mix of styles. According to Roa, there was no prevailing movement at the time. The scene’s evolution accelerated as foreign visitors passed through and added to the assorted collection of talents and skills. As for himself, Roa began with the most modest of throw ups against walls and beneath bridges. Like so many others, he became caught up by the passionate and addictive nature of urban art.
Despite the electric charge inherent in the street, Roa eventually felt the energy draining from his work. His creativity lost its spirit, became tired and let him down artistically. At that point he turned to the drawings of his childhood”but he wanted more from it, something more plastic, something looser.
Painting animals began on a trial basis for Roa, and he quickly felt the enthusiasm returning to his work in a rush of inspiration. The energy of his new efforts led him to abandoned factories and hidden spaces in the East Flanders province. Every painting became an experiment of line and scale, a joy in the sheer creation itself”and that thrill hasn’t left him yet.
Roa always kept out of the limelight, insisting that his persona take a backseat to his work. But the popularity of street art caught up with him by 2009. He received invitations and commissions, including permission from a music studio/cafe in London’s East End to paint the side of its building.
It seemed an innocent undertaking. Roa created a 12-foot rabbit and thought no more or less about it than usual. Within one year the local Hackney council declared that this was indeed a flagrantly illegal bunny and had to be painted over. (This is the same local government responsible for painting over a Banksy work in 2009 after letting it stand for eight years.) Local residents joined the building’s owners to conduct a petition drive that finally led to the council’s reversing its stance.
Roa is clearly obsessed with animals, creatively speaking. Whatever story he wishes to tell, his creatures say it for him. The back-story of a given city or landscape belongs to the local animal life, a sociological order that fascinates the artist.
“You know the whole world is really taken over by humans,” he has pointed out. “Well, there are a lot of animals who manage to use it to their benefit. I’m really interested in the circle of life as something that most people see as something horrific”it can be something really beautiful.”
Roa always discovers his animal subjects within each painting’s location. He explains it simply: “When I travel, I try to paint the local species. So I’m always interested in the little scavengers and rodents and crazy animals that live with the people in the city, animals that are survivors.”
No two walls are alike
Just as every project provides it own subject matter, every new space brings its own energy and setting, its own physical layout, its unique advantages and disadvantages”no two walls are the same. Roa thrives on the challenge of the street’s varying canvases. In addition to the obvious physical considerations of the doors and windows, sometimes inaccessibility itself, there is also the context of the street to keep in mind. Roa claims it all becomes part of his process: “If you work with it, it brings your work to the next level.”
Studio pieces are quite another thing for the artist, a game-changer that practically forces him to start from scratch. For much of his gallery work he has strives to paint on found objects, accepting the responsibility of building or finding his own structure with which to create.
A Roa painting is essentially a solitary event from start to finish. A video record of one project depicted his approach to painting a bat, partially articulated, along the Rue Oberkampf in Paris.
First he prepared the approximately 100′ x 30′ wall, employing extended paint rollers to divide the space and to lay down a solid background. Then he utilized the roller edge to map out the contours of the mammal based on a small hand sketch. He provided details and shading with other hand-held rollers, spray cans and brushes. He interrupted himself at times to study an illustrated text, even sketching a new figure or two before returning to the wall. The artist obviously altered his original plan as he went.
“I let myself be inspired by the impulses of the moment and trust that I will find the right animal for the location.”
The word “trust” is significant. Roa trusts in himself as he trusts in his work, as he trusts in the very form itself. Graffiti will always be one of the freest art forms in Roe’s world. He insists that street art is not for the sake of money or an institution”it’s free expression that liberates the creative self.