SuperBlast: Of Paint and Pixels

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Berlin graffiti writer-turned-graphic designer Manuel “SuperBlast” Osterholt has put in work for Ecko, Sony PSP, and Nokia’s Nseries (as well as some limited-edition items for Wood Wood and Montana Cans) but don’t call him a sell-out. As his career retrospective Neo Utopia: The Art & Work of SuperBlast (Publikat/Gingko; paperback, $29.95) shows, the guy’s got skills with paint can and pixel, and this book thoughtfully considers the moral and ethical implications of both getting up and getting paid by corporate clients.

But why commit to print in the first place? “A book is like freezing time,” says Osterholt. “You get an overview of your process and development and… maybe you can spark a thought for somebody, who then can benefit from it and pass it over to somebody else. For me, creating is something you don’t own.”

Similarly deep sentiments find their way into Neo Utopia, though the text is freewheeling and haphazard. No mind–what this book lacks in the editing department, it makes up for in wit, charm, and ogle-worthy images of SuperBlast’s work, whose bright colors, folk-art-esque characters, and free-ranging lines contain echoes of Dutch designer Parra and U.K. sketch artist Jon Burgerman, Brazilian street artists Os Gemeos and even old-school grafists such as Dondi White. Perhaps the raddest thing about this 160-pager, though, is the inclusion of SuperBlast’s fonts, the product of his training with typography maestro Lucas de Groot (who designed the Thesis and Calibri font families). “I love letters,” explains Osterholt, “so I want to understand all aspects of them.”

XLR8R recently sat down to chat with Osterholt about the book, his work, and the German graffiti community.

XLR8R: How did the idea for a book of your work come about?

Manuel Osterholt: I love books in general, so there was always an interest to create one of my own. A book is like freezing time. You get an overview of your process and development and share it with people who are interested. Maybe you can spark a thought for somebody, who then can benefit from it and pass it over to somebody else. For me, creating is something you don’t own. It’s free and it’s floating around until somebody picks it up and brings it to a form. The value of a book lies in this thought—passing on ideas.

Where did you get the name SuperBlast?

I started my graffiti career around ’89 with the name Komet. Later, at the end of the ’90s, when I started to mix up graphic design with my artwork, I felt a need for a more official name to separate my graphic and street work. So I played around with the name SuperBlast,which has a reference to my writer name. Also, it's kind of an homage to all the dope writer names from the ’70s, like SuperKool and so on. The name carries this double meaning of “super explosion” or “super Fun.” I like the idea of the name, of being powerful; it is also ironic and doesn’t take itself too seriously.

How does creating design work differ from your street pieces?

Both are ways to get ideas out. I try to balance them, though. When I’m sick of staring at the screen, I take my paint and enjoy doing something real with my hands. When I’ve messed around enough, I’m also happy about the possibilities I have with the machine. The feeling that I would relate to making a design or piece is happiness. The emotion is similar process-wise, when I realize that I hit something. Of course having paint in the hand has a more alive feel to it and the size of your painting is more impressive than that little monitor, where you push little vectors from one side to the other. And mostly you’re in the fresh air, which also helps with the endorphins.

How does the German graffiti community stack up against heavyweights like New York, Melbourne, and LA?

My friend Adrian Nabi, who runs BackJumps Magazine, has put on one of the best urban street culture exhibitions annually for the past three years. There is a lot going on, especially in Berlin. We have world standard graffiti-style writers. Classically trained, but really pushing the borders in this field. The government, as far as I know, is not as tough on graffiti as it is in the States, but is also not very helpful.

What graphic designers, graffiti artists, and comic book artists have influenced you?

There are too many to count. Also, I get inspiration from day-to-day situations, ancient religious art, the Dada and Modernist movements, and Pop art.
But all-time classics are M.C. Escher, Paul Rand, Herb Lubalin, Dondi White, Mike Mignola, Will Eisner, George Herriman, Walt Kelly, Chris Ware, and Basil Wolverton. Unreached are also Terry Gilliam’s Monty Python animations and Heinz Edelmann’s art direction for the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine.

Is blue your favorite color?

I do not really have a favorite color. It depends on my mood. I chose the color blue for my "Utopia Truth Paint" spraycan because of its color theory meaning. Blue is related to depth, wisdom, and truth.

Your street work is often very rooted in your hand style; do you ever feel that your design work is less personal or less expressive?

It depends. Right now I have the freedom to mostly work for clients who collaborate with me for my personal style. That brings a lot of freedom.
But in general I like both options of work. I try to have a good mix of both to keep the fun in my daily routine. It creates new ideas and the different ways to approach a problem, influences the other field.

How does the process of creating fonts differ from your graffiti pieces?

They are very different in a way, but similar at the end. To create a piece, you build a bunch of letters standing together, each with an attitude. The whole name or word is a unit and the letters interconnect. There is a certain dynamic created between them and it is influenced from the background, situation or feeling. If you take the process of building a font as opposite, then you realize that there are other tasks involved. Every single letter in the alphabet, capital and lower-case letters, needs to work with each other. So you need to have a certain system behind it. It is a more structured work, which is less free than hitting a wall with semi-wildstyle letters. As I paint mostly freestyle, without a sketch, I have to be concentrating on every single line at every moment. It’s more of an improvised play that deals with the surface and the moment itself. Of course you also have a system here, in which you deal with its borders. Like in every craft, I guess. The great thing about the two ways to approach letters is that you can change viewpoints. For me, there are influences from both sides that help me to understand the other part better. Both come actually from handwriting and took another direction.

Who are your favorite DJs, MCs, and bands?

From punk/hardcore to hip-hop, soul, funk, rare groove, jazz, music has to have the right energy. Early inspirations were Black Flag, Dead Kennedys, Bad Brains, Beastie Boys, Run DMC, then on to The Hives, Refused, The Roots, Mos Def, Madlib, Stones Throw Records, Blue Note, Keb Darge, The Propositions, and my homies Marc Hype and Jim Dunloop! The music I listen to while working depends on my mood and the deadline. Relaxed or more powerful differs from situation to situation.

You also create designs for shirts. What shirt labels and brands do you really like?

There are a lot of great brands out there. From Chocolate Skateboards to Zoo York, and from Rockwell, SolitaryArts, Stacks to Wood Wood and Upper Playground (my first design with them comes out in October of this year). And of course, my upcoming shirt label: Utopia/Truth.