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Rapping With The Original Ornamental Conifer, Nicolai Sclater

Tony Stanton raps with Nicolai Sclater aka Ornamental Conifer to talk signage, screen printing and painting aeroplanes. Photos: Arief Budiatna.

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Hi Nico. Funny, my daughter’s name is Nico, but she was named after the Danish songstress from The Velvet Underground. I’m guessing you’re not Danish . . . where are you from, and how did you grow up?
My name stems form the Norwegian side of my family, but I grew up in southern Wales and England . . . although I currently live in Los Angeles.

When did the pen start to move? Did you doodle in maths class?
I always drew as a kid as my parents encouraged me very early on to make stuff rather than buy stuff, we weren’t allowed video games and we didn’t get a TV until I was already beyond obsessed with drawing. It was perfect – I was kid who was always on the move, with a backpack full of pens and paint and sketchbooks. Then later on as I grew older that bag became full of spray paint and I spent years obsessed with putting my name everywhere I went, until responsibility kicked in and I started to fear the cops. I rarely went to maths class.

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Did you ever have a ‘proper’ job, or was it all tagging and graffiti and bunking off school?
My first ever proper job was in a car spares shop, the same shop I used to steal paint from. I got the job there so I could steal boxes of paint from the warehouse rather than single cans from the shop. That job lasted almost a year until they noticed, then I moved to another car shop and did the same, only those guys clocked on pretty quick. I also did a few stints in kitchens, as most teenagers do, washing dishes, chopping veggies, stealing wine.

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When did art start to support you financially?
I guess my commercial art career began after I graduated. I studied graphic design, as I loved typography, and spent my whole three years focused on making things by hand – whether that was screen prints, letterpress, painting, woodwork . . . meanwhile my class mates sat in rows all scratching away at their laptops and standing in long lines waiting for the inkjet printer to spit out their generic posters. So when the time came to apply for jobs I did a few internships and quickly realised that even though I’d studied graphic design, it was actually the last thing I wanted to do for a job. So I nested down with some close friends and we shared the rent of a large warehouse studio in east London.

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Having low overheads allowed me to focus on my artwork and scrape by from commission to commission, just small jobs, but they became consistent, and word spread. I did things differently, but I could still talk the talk and knew the right info, so when I started working with larger clients I think they found it refreshing that I had a different approach and would show up with tangible work rather than presenting my ideas on a screen. It’s been a steady growth since then, I have stuck to my guns and enjoy every minute, but I always have that nagging fear, how long will this wave last? And then what? I’ve always wanted to be tree surgeon . . .

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Do you surf/skate/sing/ride or play beats? I’m guessing probably all of the above . . . which one rules?
I can barely swim, I’m tone deaf and have no rhythm whatsoever, I quite regularly fall of skateboards, but I have ridden BMX since I was a kid and hold my own amongst the other washed out 30-something boxers who remember when chain rings had 44 teeth.

Where’s the name Ornamental Conifer from?
A moment of madness . . .

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What’s Radical Departures – the name of your recent show in Bali – and how did the name come about?
Radical Departures came from a conversation with my wife, as I was explaining the idea for the new body of work I had been sketching out. Originally I was going to call the exhibition ‘Incandescent Undertones’ and was trying to explain it was a departure from my other work based around motorcycles.

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This time I wanted to focus on my other obsession, BMX and skateboard culture, the stickers and posters that I grew up with. So as we were chatting about this idea I kept saying that it was a radical departure from my previous work, and then the old light bulb thing happened. It struck me that I had given the show the wrong name, so that’s that – ‘radical’ giving a hint to the commonly used expression of my fellow subculture comrades and ‘departures’ meaning I have left my old self behind. Or something like that.

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Images or lettering – which is more important in your art?
I actually see them both as the same thing, always have done. Both play a vital part in telling my story. I want to communicate, and I don’t like the idea that you might not be able to understand my work. I don’t want to leave it too open, it’s like a punch line, a visual pun, an aesthetic anesthetic . . . so yeah, they go hand-in-hand and have always been lovers.

I’ve seen your work on helmets, signs, jackets . . .are there any canvases that you have yet to paint on?
I’ve never painted an aeroplane. I’d love to paint an aeroplane.

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Apart from Deus, who have you been working with for commissions recently?
Nike, BMW, Nixon, Chrome Industries, Levi’s, Alpinestars . . .

Where does the inspiration for your typefaces and your slogans come from?
All over the place, I’m always on the lookout. Bumper stickers, shop signs, book covers, road signs, songs . . . I always carry a sketchbook and have ideas, sometimes at the most inappropriate moment.

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What’s your travel schedule like in the next four weeks?
I head out to the desert to chase a bunch of friends on motorbikes, I’ll be driving the chase truck so if any of them break down I can pick them up or help them get going again. Then I’m driving up to San Francisco to go to the opening of a Barry McGee show, then I head to Sydney to paint something on the Deus building, then I go to Italy to do a talk and attend a show as some kind of special guest where I will most probably get super nervous and drink too much and just mumble on stage.

Give us five words to describe yourself.
Never perfect but always awesome.

Favourite footwear?
VANS Slip-Ons.

Instagram: ornamentalconifer