Tony “Rubin” Sjöman grew up in Bergsjön, Sweden, and began doing graffiti when he was 9 years old. Painting under the name Rubin415, he splits his time between large scale murals, and studio paintings, specializing in a unique geometric style, and a clean aesthetic, reminiscent of Scandinavian design. He uses fine line, and abstract shapes, meticulously painted with a very specific palette and many shades of grey.
Rubin’s style is an elaborate evolution of his longtime work with graffiti. The precise curves, lines, and shapes originate from his adopted graffiti name “Rubin” and along with shapes inspired by the surrounding urban landscape, appear in an abstracted form throughout both his studio and street art work. The 415 in his name is a homage to his hometown Bergsjön in Sweden. The thin copper lines accenting some of the pieces are a tribute to Rubin’s father who was a welder.
We met in his studio in East Williamsburg to talk about his current projects, the influence of his Scandinavian roots, and the effects street art has on neighborhoods.
Greenpointers: How many cups of coffee do you drink a day?
RUBIN: Oh I drink a lot, like 5?
Can you talk a little bit about the influence that your upbringing in Sweden had on your work?
Im Finnish by heritage, but grew up in Sweden. I found the environment where I grew up, like housing projects with grey concrete everywhere, to be very ugly when I was a kid, and that definitely affected me a lot.
Finland and Sweden are neighbors, but they’re worlds apart when it comes to language, and culture. Swedes in general, I don’t know if happy is the right word.. but Finns are definitely more melancholy I think.
I’m not good putting it into words, I express myself better with color, and shape. I think my art is also a way for me to get closer to my Finnish roots, and I think that’s something you cant get away from, no matter where you are.
What else shaped your identity as a graffiti artist?
Moving to New York! I came here as a graffiti artist. I spent most of my life trying to do graffiti, the way it looks in New York, but when I moved here something happened— I think getting away from Sweden, and Scandinavia, my perspective shifted, and that also started affecting what I do. Like some weird deconstruction process started.
I also began to appreciate the Scandinavian design that I was surrounded with growing up—Finnish design and architecture, like “Iittala” and “Alvar Aalto” which I took for granted as a kid.
I’m self taught, I never went to art school, but I think New York has been the greatest art school. It has taught me so much, I’m still learning, and you also learn that theres only so much you can take in, so you also have to learn when to shut off, and not be over stimulated.
Just walking on the streets, being on the subway, all of the amazing museums that are here. I think if you’re an artist or a creative person, New York has so much to offer. I think it’s really an inspiring place to live.
What else do you draw inspiration from?
Music. I’ve been playing guitar for as long as I’ve been painting, since I was like nine. I’ve always played in bands. I had a band in Sweden for ten years, that was really hard to quit when I moved here. I’ve always had a really hard time doing just one thing, and somewhere I knew I had to choose. So when two years ago the band I played with here fell apart, I decided to focus on just painting. But still, I listen to music, and I need to listen to a certain type of music in order for the work to look the way it does. I like bands like “Suicide” and “Kraftwerk”, minimal stuff.
Where do you usually paint murals and how do you think your street art affects neighborhoods?
I used to paint a lot in the Bronx, and I still paint a lot in Manhattan. I mean, nowadays I do this for a living, and it’s a balance between doing commercial work that people pay you for, and personal projects and nonprofit work. For example the mural near my studio, at the Graham stop, I didn’t get paid for, the wall just looked really bad.
There’s been a trend the last couple of years, a lot of companies market their businesses with the help of street art. And there are “property development” projects that sometimes mask as mural projects. It’s not always easy to balance in that grey area and working in the city has taught me that it is sometimes healthy to say no to stuff.
Do you have a favorite piece that you’ve done in Greenpoint?
I really like the collaboration piece I did with Dasic Fernández, in Greenpoint, on the corner of McGuinness and Dupont.
That wall looked very bland, and we didn’t have any plan for it whatsoever. We were both very busy, and it was very hard to make the project happen. When we got there, I sat down in front of the wall for twenty minutes and just did a very very rough sketch of my part. Dasic had this idea about the face.. And then we just started painting. I like that about working with Dasic – we both just painted, we both know our own thing so well. It was just one of those things, effortless.
Dasic and I both moved to New York around the same time, and painted graffiti in the Bronx for many years before both of our work evolved from graffiti to large scale murals. Ive known him for quite some time but we hadn’t painted that much together.
I also liked how the colors in that mural were all improvised. I always like to find one angle of how I can challenge myself, I never play safe. So for this work I wanted to go a little more vibrant but the work still feel like me. I used these muted pastel colors, but I definitely used a little more color than I usually do.
That was a very fun work to do!
I wanted to ask you what the story is behind the piece you did for the Saint Cecelia’s Church in East Williamsburg
That was a very special project for me in many ways.
First of all, I’ve never painted on a church before. The priest who commissioned me to do the mural, saw my work in the neighborhood, and apparently it reminded him of his church’s stained glass. He told me they had this really ugly auditorium next to the church, and he had this idea of doing a mural there. The only request the priest had, was that the stained glass windows in the church would somehow inspire the piece.
This was in November of last year, it was starting to get really cold. Its a really old church from the 1800s. I did a lot of research but went there without any rough sketches and instead spent a lot of time doing sketches from inside the church. I spent a couple of weeks being very site specific.
I painted the background of the mural white, which is also sometimes considered the color of death. It also had a functional meaning, in the back of auditorium theres a big tree, a lot of shadow, so it also allowed light to reflect more. I also painted the railings, the stairs, everything.
I’m not a very religion person, but halfway through that project my son was born and so I took a break for two weeks. It was very surreal coming back. I don’t know how to put it into words, it was the first time I was painting in a church, and in the middle of it, this big event in my life happened.
The quiet in the church was also a big difference. Usually on the streets you’re surrounded by so much city noise. And there it was just.. quiet. The thing is I always listen to music in the studio, but I never do when I work on the murals. I never even have my headphones on me, because when I paint on the streets I like to be present.
Working site specific, the sounds and the smells at each location are very different. And here at this church I was just alone in this quiet and peaceful place, and that definitely affected how the piece looks.
Do you have any current or upcoming projects that you’re excited about?
Its been a busy year for me with the release of my first artist book “New York – Scandinavia” and the solo exhibition I had at Wallworks Gallery in the Bronx.
I was also recently included in a group exhibition at the World Trade Center for the 15 year memorial of 9/11. That was very special to me. If someone would have mentioned to me fifteen years ago that I’d be doing it, I wouldn’t believe it. I also did a mural on the 69th floor at the WTC, also curated by World Trade Gallery.
I’ve grown to really love New York and its cityscape, and it’s in my work. The Chrysler building is my favorite building and I use some of its motifs in my designs.
I also have a couple of exciting shows coming up in Hong Kong, and I’m going to be in a group show in Marrakesh in Morocco.
Is theres something that you’ve wanted to do artistically, but haven’t done yet?
I would like to build my ‘Rubin’s Cube’, and make it interactive, or to add some kind of a sound component to it. I don’t usually use a lot of technology when creating my work. I never use projectors, and even when drawing large circles in my murals, I usually use a piece of string [to measure the radius], so if I add a technological component to an installation, I would like it to mean something, rather than just do it for the sake of it. And it would of course be cool to paint a skyscraper and all that stuff!