Jasmin Siddiqui (HERA) and Falk Lehmann (AKUT) paint like they have chips on their shoulders, but their angst has little to do with struggles over fame and acclaim, of which they have both. Rather, the German street-art duo known as HERAKUT seems emotionally torn apart by a world that’s seemingly gone mad, and the inner-anguish manifests as elegant and impactful art that challenges humanity. Some pieces showcase a dark sense of humor, while others showcase a dim view of society, but they all make emotional statements with layered meaning, photo-realistic detail and tragically powerful characters.
HERAKUT mixes fine art and street art with a wide range of techniques and tools, and the duo famously expresses itself with giant murals put up around the world, including in places of conflict. PRØHBTD spoke with Siddiqui about animal symbolism, killer rabbits and what it really means to be crazy in this day and age.
You first came to Los Angeles as a teen and went to Venice High School for a year. Did you know that’s Rydell High School from the movie Grease?
Grease, yes, that was our homecoming theme. Britney [Spears] also did “…Baby One More Time” a couple years before I went, and I’ve seen it in a couple of other shows. The school had a big sponsorship from the Creative Artists Agency, and all these people like [Steven] Spielberg and Madonna gave money. When we put on a play, it was so insanely professional that it was just ridiculous. We put on Little Shop of Horrors, and we had a dance coach come in from New York every other Monday. I was captain of the dance team so she would show me routines. I was in awe with all this money flowing into the arts. In Germany, it’s like, “Yeah, yeah, art.”
I was really lucky. I mean, I had no idea where I was going to go. I signed up with the American Field Service, and I said things in my application like, “Yes, I’m an atheist, and my father’s Pakistani, and my mother is German, and I consider nationalities totally irrelevant and outdated.” So at the age of fifteen and a half, I made this really far-left statement on the application, so it’s not like they could put me in the middle of the Bible Belt. I would’ve been considered a terrorist. I think that is why they had to put me in LA.
Your recent exhibit in L.A. was called Rental Asylum. My first thought was a reference to an insane asylum, but it also seems like a reference to escaping from the crazy world.
Yeah, it’s like, “What is crazy?” Times are so crazy with the outcome of your last election and the one in Germany. We never expected a nationalist in Europe to have so much of a base, which is seriously scary for us. All the tweets and changes seem so weird like someone is trying to go back in time. We thought [society] was further ahead, but I guess we are not.
Last year, I did a performance art piece in a small town in Germany that hosts one of the largest weapon producers on the globe. It was a hard lesson for me. The company is making so much money for Germany selling incredible weapons of mass destruction that will kill generations. No one in Germany talks about it, ever. They are trying to [look like] pacifists to the world. When you hear about school shootings in the U.S., it’s so sad and touching, and Germany’s exporting so many guns. We’re in this crazy state where we would love to have an asylum somewhere where we could check-in and, I don’t know, calm down for a bit. And we’d also like to check-in some other people.
I took the title to mean there is more insanity outside the asylum right now.
Yeah, probably. There’s a large piece in the show with a rabbit head, a girl with bolt cutters and a quote about insanity. Insanity is relative because it really depends on who built the cage, you know? What cage are you in, and who built it? I guess I would love to go back in time to ’96 or ’97 when I was still this rebellious girl saying that nationality is totally irrelevant. I was still so optimistic thinking we don’t need any borders and walls.
It’s getting really insane because more walls are being created, and I’m not just talking about the wall on the border with Mexico. We also have walls in Europe with the refugee crisis. Syria is in its sixth or seventh year of war, and Syrian refugees are still coming to Europe, but some European States are bordering up. It’s like, “Geesh, people, you know there was war in Europe not too long ago, and you guys had to flee just like they are now.” People tend to forget.
When you include words on the painting, do they represent a thought about the past, present or future?
It’s really an addition to it, like another layer of thought. For example, I talked about the girl with the bolt cutters, and I kept thinking about the British animation film Watership Down from the 1980s. It talks about these rabbits in a field, and someone is putting asphalt on the lot where the rabbits lived and trapping them underneath. The cute rabbits actually start killing each other. I was a kid watching this thinking, “Jesus, I am never going to touch rabbits again.” Actually, one rabbit in Jordan did try to bite me.
I kept thinking about what the movie intended to teach kids… that everyone, even the cutest thing, can have a wild side. They can flee, but at some point, they also have to bite and fight. But then I came across a really nice poem, and I decided to scratch the Watership Down thing and put the poem [on the piece] instead. It adds a different layer. Sometimes the words are a totally separate thing, and sometimes it even contrasts [the image].
For the wall we are doing [outside the gallery], it’s a rat, and the text says, “I’m not gonna leave this ship without you.” Rats are usually the first ones to flee a sinking ship, and I wanted to tell my American friends that, if this ship is going down, I’m with you. So, I might be the rat, but I don’t see rats in a bad way. It’s speaking to our future, but also there is something embedded inside that has to do with the past.
Many of the paintings feature animal hats. How does animal symbolism play into the artwork, and what is the significance of putting the animals on the head?
Well, we’re not the first ones who came up with this. I don’t know who started it because the Greeks surely weren’t the first, but there are so many Greek myths where this happens. For example, Hercules killed a huge lion and then wore the lion head, turning the lion into an outfit basically. There have also been African tribes who do this with the horns of the antelope, and in Peru they actually wore whole roosters on their heads. You find it all over. It seems like a tendency to interpret the acts and behavior of animals and find similarities in humans.
Everyone knows there are differences between a fox and an owl. Both are smart, but the owl has something majestic about it. Owls are obviously wise, and they are a master of disguise. So many things are understood without putting words to them. Little kids might not know how to read, but they kind of understand that foxes and owls [represent different things].
The piece Unloved shows two children looking very distraught, but one of them is wearing a Mickey Mouse hat. How do you see the Disneyland symbolism in that painting?
See, that’s the thing, [Disney] has been twisted so negatively by my generation of artists. So many people make fun of Walt Disney’s creations, turning it into Dismal-Land. They took this innocent creation, Mickey Mouse, and labeled it as something bad… monetary exploitation, capitalist Disney, blah blah blah. That is so sad for something that started out being so positive and happy. The title is Loving the Unloved, and we have always had love for Disney. I learned English growing up watching Disney. The fact that Mickey Mouse isn’t white is awesome. Think about that. It could have been a white mouse!
I guess I saw the painting differently. I saw it as an ironic reference to the Happiest Place on Earth, and the kids in the painting certainly aren’t happy.
That’s totally fine. If you put it that way, it is kind of nice because the kid [with the Mickey hat] is the stronger of the two characters. She’s leaning there, and the rat [on the other kid’s head] is trying to comfort it. The one is still in a better place than the other, but in that context, both of them are clearly outcasts.
With how much the U.S. moved to the right politically, are you surprised to see the country move to the left on the Drug War and cannabis legalization?
It’s obviously good. I hope they will revise all the laws to help the people who are actually in prison right now.
They are starting to do that.
Yeah, it’s so unfair. I really hope it stays that way [with the shift toward legalization]. There’s been so much effort, and so many people went through hard times getting those laws passed. I just really hope no one revises that again because, as I said, [society] reaches certain things and then turns around again with new legislation. There are so many things being changed [back] right now. Then there are all these scandals, from Twitter to this Stormie lady, and no one is really following up with the little issues that are being changed. That is why [legalization] is a great achievement, and I really hope it stays that way. I am just concerned that, when no one is looking, there will be another, “Let’s change that while everyone is all busy with, I don’t know, some other problem.”
That is why I am so excited about your midterm election. It could be the big change that balances things out. The good in all of this is that [exposed] people cannot cover up their real thoughts, and transparency is always good. I hope the young ones who are voting for the first time are going to use their right. It’s a shame how many people didn’t vote. Even for the little things, you have to vote. It’s really on us. I mean, I don’t smoke weed, but I’m so happy that this happened right now, and I just hope that you guys move to honor this right now.
It’s moving in this direction. The midterm should be a change election.
There are so many laws you need to watch, but the next thing you have to change is the gun laws. I read something that said you should start referring to the gun violence as late-term abortions. That might open some eyes. But again, Germany is producing weapons and providing arms, so we have to change a lot in Europe, too.
When you know a show will be in the U.S., do you create themes specifically for an American audience?
Not really so much to the U.S. audience because we have a global following. For example, our next mural [in Los Angeles] will feature one black and one brown unicorn. The brown one is going to have all these prison tattoos, and the black one is going to have a sign saying “hungry veteran.”
It’s a brick building that has arches so it’s going to look like it’s close to the L.A. river. I would love to do a white unicorn in Beverly Hills as a contrast. To me, it’s not only a gap between Republicans and Democrats, it is also this huge [racial] gap with people of color being reminded that they are of color. I had so hoped that was a thing of the past.
As a child, I hated being darker skinned. I really hated my complexion. My dad is from Pakistan, and I was embarrassed that he didn’t speak German without an accent. Back in the 1980s in Germany, it wasn’t easy. They had “Paki’s” and all these degrading ways to talk about darker people. It started to change when hip-hop got really big in Germany. The music was a lot more interesting than yodeling, and that was a game changer. Thank you hip-hop! Right now it’s more about diversity and empathy, empathy, empathy.
Last show, did you see the painting with Trump?
The one with the pig? How could I forget?
Yeah, yeah, it was a really nasty painting. The Statue of Liberty is a girl with Trump like a pig on a leash, and it said, “When you accidentally ask Satan instead of Santa for a New POTUS.” We got a lot of comments on that piece, and not just good ones back then. I pointed out one person, and that is usually what I don’t want. I would rather point out a mindset because that one person isn’t the problem. It’s the mindset that’s the problem. That’s what we need to change.
David Jenison (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD.