Scott Marsh on THOSE cartoons
Artist Scott Marsh watched perplexed, as his now-infamous Sydney murals became fuel in the slinging match between ‘yes’ and ‘no’ camps of Australia’s same-sex marriage plebiscite recently.
His painting depicting former Prime Minister Tony Abbott with his hand down the pants of Catholic cardinal George Pell was defaced and partially blacked out within hours of being unveiled.
Meanwhile, a painting of the late singer George Michael as a patron saint was defaced by a man claiming to be defending his religion. Supporters later added their own messages of love and tolerance, much to Marsh’s appreciation.
In Inner Sydney we step outside our homes and this art is free to be experienced, questioned, ignored or discussed at length. And those discussions got a little heated recently.
We caught up with Marsh in the aftermath for a more peaceful perspective…
Give us some context as to why you create these works?
I don’t know if there is a definitive ‘why’ but for me to get to this point, I was a graffiti writer in the traditional sense. During the peak of that I studied a Bachelor of Fine Arts and slowly moved into more graffiti, more commission jobs, and more social commentary.
And the political undertones?
That’s just a thing that evolved. I painted the “Kanye (West) Kissing Kanye” which got a whole lot of attention and then the “Casino Mike” mural which was purely because I had a lot of friends losing their jobs when the lock out laws came into play.
So it’s become satirical graffiti?
Yeah it’s political satire and social commentary. I had someone describe it to me saying, “It’s the modern day version of the political cartoon in the newspaper”. It’s just that now, it’s moved into these giant spectacles.
And those cartoons have historically been controversial, right? They’d spawn letters to the editor and a new wave of discussion.
They’ve always been topical and something that makes people engage with that particular issue. A lot of people say it’s being controversial for the sake of it. But artists should be looking into these things thoroughly. And there are more nuances to it than that. If I was just trying to be offensive, I’d go a lot harder with it.
What are the nuances you want people to find?
That’s up to the individual but because it’s art in a public space, it’s not just a pretty picture. I don’t want people to go about their day without taking a moment to stop, stand, and consider it. Humour is the easiest and most positive way to pull people in. If you’re going to be dark and serious, that’s just preaching to the choir. If you can have people having a laugh at something, they’ll figure it out for themselves. Humour is the key. Making people laugh and smile in a public space is one of the most important things for me.
But there’s always going to be two sides to every coin. There will be people that hate it and think it’s an outrage. But for every negative message you receive – and there’s a lot of them – you get four or five that encourage you to continue your work.
So, a busy week of messages recently?
It was pretty intense. Almost every mural I’ve painted whether it’s political or a popular cultural issue I’ll get hate mail. If I’m painting about climate change I’ll get bombarded with people talking about clean coal. But this was a new level. I had death threats and hate mail about a painting that had nothing to do with religion. It was a depiction of two individuals. And it was kinda a shame that people attacked the George Michael mural but there’s not a lot you can do about these things except to repaint them bigger and better.
You’ve always said you painted George Michael as a patron saint (which is an iconic image for people of so many beliefs, not one particular religion). How do you watch a debate escalate around something you never intended?
The whole thing happened because one religious leader made a bit of a call to arms and when people are on a ‘team’, you know, people say ‘come on team we gotta get this guy’. It’s just mob mentality and no one really listens to each other. I had a lot of people say it was disrespecting Jesus Christ because of the picture of a Sacred Heart but it wasn’t that at all. But even when you say George Michael IS somewhat of a Patron Saint, people come up with some other argument so you’re just banging your head against the wall. The thing is, that mural has had worldwide headlines and no one ever complained. It was the least controversial thing I’ve ever painted. People have come from all over all to leave a card and light candles and deliver tributes to George Michael. But no one was even interested in finding that out and having an open mind. They just want to destroy something people love.
How weird is it to see such uproar at something that has been repackaged and repurposed so many times in classical art, museum pieces, tattoo art, fashion, even advertising?
Yeah, someone ended up sending me links to all these candles for sale that depict Jesus Christ except they all feature the faces of famous rappers. If you Google search images of patron saints one of the first ‘saints’ that comes up is Saint Starbucks. That’s just so dumb you can’t argue with it. I feel bad for the people who live with the George Michael mural because they’re just super chillers. They never wanted to press charges when the mural was attacked two or three times during the plebiscite, it was just fixed. These people aren’t motivated by a respect for religion, that’s the excuse they hide behind – they’re pissed off about the plebiscite result.
The best description I heard throughout this whole debacle was from the people I painted the George Michael mural for. They said, “All the George Pell mural did was lance the boil”. The boil is always there. All this ugly stuff. Sometimes it just comes to the surface. But it’s always there.
Ok, he’s just a man, but, you must have known that painting a Cardinal in that manner was going to raise some eyebrows.
For sure. There’s always a huge argument for free speech and it’s funny how everyone screams ‘free speech’ until it’s something they don’t like child abuse or George Pell. If you take his collar off he’s just an old dude at Tony Abbott’s hen’s party. There was no motivation to take the piss out of religion, just individuals. Abbott made himself the head of the ‘no’ movement through his commentary and I’m dubious about his relationship with Pell. It’s a surprise no one touched the “Tony Loves Tony” mural, which now has a graffiti-proof coating on it, thankfully.