How to beautificate public advertising — painter Viktor Fehér

Interview: Nikolas Bernáth, Photo: Tibor Czitó

Viktor Fehér is the head of the Street Art Communication organisation. With his team, he’s been inviting leading European muralists to Košice and building the Open City Gallery. His ‘Natreto’ studio is working on bringing back the craft and artistic value into the everyday advertising and commission painting.
Read about his motivation, why his work is his religion and how cooking can be a work of art.

‘Natreto’ means ‘painted’, so tell me, what have you painted so far?

Our projects include works of art, advertisements, various technical paintings, machine revitalisations, brandings, decorative and design pieces, signage and typography. Some are white, some colourful.

I assume that some of them at least are located in public space, whether interior or exterior.

Of course. Most of them are. ‘Spoločenský pavilón’, for instance, was our first major project and gave us the opportunity to work with 300 m2 in a hall frequently used for public and private events, such as concerts, parties and fairs. We also painted the “Kulturpark” sign on the building on the Kukučínova street. I really enjoyed it since I like painting typography. In Svit, we decorated the basketball court with the local team logos.

Speaking of public space, one cannot forget Street Art Communication. For years, you’ve been inviting leading European muralists to Košice to take part in this festival. How did you get from painting walls of high-rise buildings to running a commission painting business?

Let’s start at the beginning. I was doing graffiti since 1996 and, two years later, started doing commissions as well. Along with that, I’ve been organising graffiti evets since 2000. That was the beginning of the Street Art Communication festival, which took off in 2008, followed by the SAC civic association in 2010. The design studio ‘Natreto’ is a new project, but one built on and walking hand in hand with our previous experience. The main goal of ‘Natreto’ is to promote painting as an aesthetic advertisement, decoration, design or simply a wall painting itself. SAC is an integral part of this effort; it is where we come from and helps us promote our business. ‘Natreto’, in turn, provides technical support for the large scale paintings that SAC creates as a part of the Open City Gallery project. Painting a mural requires careful planning, it is logistically demanding. We must make sure that a raised access platform is available, prepare the paint, be ready to assist the artists and protect them from the media.

So ‘Natreto’ represents the more technical aspect of your activities.

Yes, ‘Natreto’ is about the craft.

And SAC focuses more on art …

We see SAC as a way of educating the public, it’s our religion.

OK, that makes sense. But both these projects are your tools for the ‘beautification’ of public space.

I really don’t like that word. On the other hand, it comes from the word ‘beauty’. And beauty is the truth. My brother once used the word ‘truthify’. That could be seen as a synonym, so I guess that, after all, that is what we do. We beautify — ‘truthify’.

Back to the point, though. Advertising is an indispensable part of business, culture, art and so on. But today it finds itself in a state of decay, caused by our quiet acceptance and lack of professionalism so prevalent among all the parties involved. As a result of that, we are surrounded by ugliness. Traditional painted advertisements used to be aesthetic, created by true masters of this craft. That’s what we would like to bring back. I’m happy to see that new graphic, film and other studios are being created. They specialise in various form of advertisement and do so with taste and responsibility. So all hope is definitely not lost.

Many of the murals created in the past, such as the great wall paintings of the Renaissance, were in fact commissioned as advertisements.

That’s right. Murals have a long and rich history. Historically, most were commissioned by the church. But we do not need to go that far back in history. Let’s mention the early 20th century Mexican ‘pulquerías’ — folk artists who would paint the facades of pubs that served the alcoholic drink called ‘pulque. They were the counterparts of the famous Mexican muralists of the time, such as Rivera, Siquerios and Orozco, who made murals famous all over the world. We have our own tradition of painting the facades of shops, restaurants, menus and mural advertisements. In military barracks soldiers who had had some artistic training would be asked to paint various motives, mostly to serve the military propaganda. Monumental murals, on the other hand, were a fairly common sight on the housing estates built during the era of socialism and were chiefly commissioned by the government.

Right now, we are in the SAC Shop. I often see young people here, coming to buy spray paints. Do you feel responsible for educating them, for communicating some message? You, after all, are one of the older generation, one that probably started graffiti in Košice.

That’s what I’ve been doing since 2000 when I started doing graffiti jams and kept my spray paints in my parents’ garage. Later we opened Pyecka and, together with Dior, the first official graffiti shop, which has since moved to Tabačka. To cut a long story short, it’s never been primarily about business, this city is not big enough for that. What we wanted was to keep in touch with like-minded people. We provide support for SAC, local people as well as tourists. We meet people, talk to them and move on. In addition to that, the SAC Shop functions as the info point of the Open City Gallery (‘Otvorená mestská galéria’ — OMG), providing first-hand information about murals, places to paint or enjoy a good meal and have fun. We can help you experience a different side of Košice. Lately, we’ve see more and more artists, students and people doing DIY projects come to our shop. And of course, I love working with the paint, explaining colours and shades, mixing them. We offer more than 400 colours and that’s pretty good.

You’ve mentioned the state of the advertising in public space and visual branding. What do you think about the new generation of people active in public space — writers and street artists in this city?

What do I think? Well, graffiti is fascinating because it’s so alive. This might be the fourth or fifth wave since the mid-1990s and looking at them, I can still see myself 20 years ago. That tells me it’s more than just a form of art, stylised lettering. It’s an adventure. I grew up at a time when walls were demolished and new ones were built, in the sterile environment of concrete housing estates. That’s why I can understand a young person, who comes to a point when he decides to react. He may not even know why, but it comes naturally to him. And there is always new space to explore.

The ‘anti-style’, for instance, reacts to the oversaturation of traditional ornate graffiti by doing the opposite. You may think that everyone could do that but, in order to be able to say that, you need more than a felling. Naturally, I’m happy to see something new, more than just lettering. That’s what makes street art different. It could be a very small but well-placed piece. And yes, it is illegal and I’m definitely not trying to argue with that. But that’s what it is. Free and creative transformation of public space, that finds creative ways of communicating and transforming. I like authentic things that do not try to imitate anything from the outside but reflect our local themes. There might not be many of those but I’m glad they exist.

Your activities have definitely helped …

They probably have. SAC activities include classic jams where a wide range of ‘street aesthetes’, as my colleague Pali calls them, gets together. But SAC is not directly aimed at graffiti and street art, we do not want to tell young people not to do graffiti the way they want to or restrict them in any way. Our murals provide space for reflection, motivation and inspiration. We want to show a new way of using the facades of buildings, turning them into works of art that are available to everyone 24/7 and improve our shared space.

The attitude of street art and graffiti tends to be the opposite. It’s not about painting ‘pretty murals’. Unlike graffiti and street art, murals are technically and financially very demanding, they have curators and sponsors, official permissions. It’s an official form of art in public space. That’s completely incompatible with graffiti and street art, which is mostly individual, illegal, sometimes perhaps unofficially tolerated. It wants to trick the system, doesn’t aim for permanence and can be done by anyone and anywhere, a truly independent form of art in public space. I still struggle with clearly labelling what it is that I do and I’m still trying to ‘truthify’ it. Drawing from the experience I already have, I’m thinking about how to do things better. What we do does not really have an impact on graffiti and street art, those have a life of their own and that’s how it should be. Our work transforms the environment in which people live. That’s what we should focus on.

We’ve moved on from ‘Natreto’ to SAC, but that was probably inevitable.

Those two can’t be separated, even though they represent two separate activities. And that’s good. ‘Natreto’ is the craft, SAC is the religion.

Let’s talk about Viktor Fehér now. You’ve already mentioned your graffiti beginnings. Later, you studied New Media at the Faculty of Art. Currently, you are involved in ‘Natreto’ and many other activities that we’ve talked about. How about your own art? Have you given it up completely?

Well, that is a tough one. Even while at school, I was exploring ways of combining painting, murals, video and animation. That’s what I still enjoy and hope to continue working with. Saying I am too busy right now, both in my personal and professional life, might sound like a poor excuse but it’s the only one I have. My activities in recent years could be called research into the subject we’ve been talking about. And I hope that one day the projects I’ve started will be able to go on without me having to be so involved in them. I’ve been building a small studio outside the city and I hope that in the future, I’ll have more time to spend on my own art. Still, my work will definitely always be reflected in what we do at ‘Natreto’.

You’re also known to enjoy cooking in your free time.

That’s a long story. Cooking was the first hobby I took up as a child while growing up surrounded by drawings and paintings, since my mother was an artist. My older bother Robert died when I was 3 years old and my mother kept drawing him over and over again. I can still remember seeing her pencils everywhere. And cooking was something we did every day. We used to have big family gatherings where we would sit around a big table, eating delicious food. That’s what motivated me to start inviting my classmates to our house too cook for them in our tiny kitchen when I was just 12 years old. The kitchen was on the ground floor, just like my bedroom and another room that we used to rent to art school students. They were girls, about 5 or 6 years older than me. We used to spend nights drawing and developing photos.

When the time came to choose a high school, I decided to train as a chef. I didn’t care it wasn’t a cool school. All I wanted to do was cooking.

I was 19 and fresh out of school when my father died and I decided to leave Košice. I spent some time abroad, working as a chef, until I realised that in order to still enjoy cooking, I had to stop doing it for a living. At the same time, I felt drawn to art. I’d been doing graffiti since 13 and later, I would spend my free time taking photos, painting and drawing. But I was also quite ‘lost’ at the time. I was 24 when I returned to Košice, enrolled at the Faculty of Art and started SAC.

Today I only cook for my family and friends and I still see it as an activity similar to art. It’s very creative. Take spices, for instance. It’s like mixing paint. Or serving the food and presenting it, that’s a play of colours, shapes, composition and smells. That’s how it’s all interconnected, or perhaps mixed up, in my mind.

We haven’t mentioned the city of Košice yet, even though that’s your medium. Your paintings are connected to specific places within the city. Are you so closely tied to Košice or would you have done the same thing anywhere else?

I don’t think so. I’ve had offers but I’ve always said no. You are right, there is something about this city that makes it work and it wouldn’t work anywhere else. And that’s my relationship to Košice, which is the main driving force behind what I do. Perhaps it all comes from my graffiti beginnings. That’s how I got to know the city and formed a bond that might be different from the majority of people who live here. And that is the reason why I am who I am today and why SAC is based in Košice and not somewhere else.

Open Mural Gallery, photo: Palko Matia

Viktor is also a co-author of the design of a hotel room dedicated to the local street art scene. More on The Invisible Hotel.

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