What makes a work of art “good” is subjective, but any artist will tell you that having one’s work harshly critiqued is better than having it ignored. In an era where our attention is being demanded at all times, some contemporary artists have found that the best route to earning such a critique is with massive, eye-catching public pieces that get a foot in the door with their audacity and reel the viewer in closer.
Belgian artist Tom Herck has evolved from graffiti to murals to creating imposing monumental 3D installations that are as impossible to ignore as the man himself. The themes of his works, like his personal beliefs, are often controversial. PRØHBTD chatted with Tom to find out what inspires his rebellious streak and learn what he finds so fascinating about Trump.
How did you first get into art, and when did you make the conscious decision to “be an artist”?
My father is an artist. He paints and makes sculptures, but he never made a living out of it. When I was a kid, I grew up in a house that was one big gallery of canvasses. My father never pushed me into art, but I remember I was always drawing comics at very young age and building stuff. Being an only child, I was a lot on my own, so I had a lot of time to be in “my thoughts” and create my own world. Later, when I was a teenager, I went to graphical high school, got my diploma and went to university.
The only thing I could think about at that time was graffiti. I was obsessed about it. My whole life was graffiti. In class, I didn't pay attention and was sketching all the time. After school I went to the train station to “spot” trains and collect pics of painted trains. My evening was filled by checking spots to paint or reading graffiti magazines and watching graffiti movies. I did not really care about university anymore and dropped out.
Of course, I needed to put food on the table so I worked shitty job after shitty job. But still, graffiti was my biggest love, and growing up in a “social neighborhood” living with my single mom, we never traveled a lot. Graffiti changed that for me. I could buy fake Interrail tickets on the black market and went painting trains all over Europe for some years. This caused me some legal problems, and I had to pay some fines. My final graffiti action was actually in the States where I painted the NY Metro and then got a tattoo of the iconic NY Metro logo by graffiti legend SEEN. It was a perfect experience, a teenage dream come true. It seemed like a good time to stop painting illegal graffiti.
I went back to school, got a social worker degree and worked in total 4 years with refugees. When my Decline project started, I quit that job and went all out for that project. Like you already know, you can't become an artist, you are born an artist. There is a lot of sacrifice to make and a lot of willpower needed. But for passion, nothing is too much, that is the beauty about it. If you think 24/7 on creating and you have that itch or obsession, you find a way to make it happen. Coming out of a background with not a lot of chances, dropping out of school, doing a lot of shitty jobs, taking a lot of risk and putting always every penny back into the development of my work, I finally can say that I'm an independent artist.
What compelled you to move from murals to larger, grandiose and complicated sculptures?
After I came back from NY, I focused more on the legal graffiti scene. I started to paint bigger murals, but it was too limiting. I have this thing about experimenting and not putting myself in a corner. Without really thinking about it, I naturally made my first “installation.”
There was an old fast food building in my city, and I made a “church” out of it with a nine-meter-high wall with a TV instead of the face of Jesus. After that, I got that feeling there that I could use more than murals or spray cans to express myself.
Your recent work comments on what you perceive to be the crumbling of Europe and the EU. What do you consider the biggest issue the continent is facing today?
I think “the crumbling of Europe and the EU” is a pretty hard and dramatic statement. I don't take a real political statement as an artist, but I address them. I want to inspire people with my work and make them see something from a different angle. They can choose how they interpret it.
The biggest problems in Europe today, at the moment, would be the big migrant crisis. I'm very interested in this topic and, like I told you before, I worked in a refugee center as a social worker for two years. Later, I worked two more years with refugees in an integration institute.
You have a lot of artists making works around this topic, and it’s an important thing to do, but a lot of their artworks are not of good quality and never go further than the clichés.
I know people who went to Palestine and did a “brave” action of painting a slogan like 100 people have done before, took pics of it for their social media and were just there for three days without really socializing with the locals. They can pretend to care about the case, but they are doing it for their own ego and exploiting this miserable situation for their own profit. It's not a right or honorable thing to do.
What about your identity and nationality are you proud of, and how does that pride manifest in your art?
I'm a proud person in general. I like to walk around with my head up high. I think you can see that also in my work. It is big and outspoken. I love Europe. It's a very diverse continent with a lot of different cultures, history and identities on a small piece of land. Europe is a small world of its own.
We don't really have a big Belgian identity, as Belgium is an artificially created country. Most of the people go all out when the Belgian football team is playing, including me, but most of the time it stops there. Growing up in the north of Belgium [Flanders], I don't have a real big Flemish feeling of pride, but when traveling and people discuss Belgian beer, chocolate or fries with me, I’ll become patriotic about that.
Though much of your work deals with religious topics and motifs, you seem to be quite respectful of faiths. Are you personally religious and if so, how do you navigate those beliefs during your creation process?
It's interesting that you see it like that ‘cause most of the people that approach me about my work think I don't respect religion at all. I was baptized but protested against my faith and Christianity from a very young age and didn't want to take my communion, out of principle.
So I must tell you, I'm not a religious person. Still, all our society is built on religion, so of course it has a big impact on our lives. I think religion can be a beautiful thing, it can be a truly good philosophy, but it must be pure and between you and God. I know interesting Muslims, Jews and Christians with that mindset, and I respect them for it. I don't like it when people push it in your face and insist you need to practice it. If you use your religion as an excuse to dominate, abuse and hide behind, it can become a foolish and dangerous tool.
You’ve designed a logo for yourself, wear a ring with your initials and birth year, and have your name tattooed across your stomach. Do you feel this kind of ego is a necessity for or a byproduct of the ambition required to attempt the large-scale sort of works you do?
A lot of artists have big egos. Some just hide it better than others. Creating a work and putting it somewhere, especially in public space without people asking for it to be there is a pretty “in your face” thing to do in the first place.
I'm more extraverted in how I talk about and present myself because I am this way. My heart is on my tongue, and I believe in my capabilities so I show that on the outside. I am also a very humble and grateful person in some matters, but I don't think this trait is necessary to make large or monumental works.
Has this self-promotion caused friction or made you enemies within the art community?
Everybody who puts his or her neck out makes enemies. I know I'm not a typical art school guy from Bushwick who has a fixie bike, is vegan and wears scarves in summer. I like to expose my work and myself when I create art. I have high ambitions, and for me this self-promotion is a part of my personality. I'm not creating art to put it in the basement and get discovered when I'm dead.
I’ve heard you have a favorable opinion of Donald Trump. What is it that you respect about him and where does your admiration end?
“Favorable opinion of Trump” is maybe over the top. I don't admire this guy. I think the incredible story is around this character. I have sympathy for how this character, not the person, won the election. Nobody gave him a chance, everybody was laughing at him. The people had so little faith in the establishment that even some Democrats voted for Trump just because they hated Hillary so hard. Trump had the media, celebs, the establishment and so on against him… and he still won! People chose a reality star with no filter rather than a well-established politician.
Every day I open my cellphone, and there are always people telling the same jokes about him or making news out of his tweets. It's getting old. Sometimes I want to tell people in my own way not to copy/paste opinions and scream what everybody else is saying. Try to think for yourself.
Is there a point at which Trump's demonstrable and verifiable awfulness and harm he does to others would supersede your desire to push against the grain?
I'm always pushing against the grain, but not only against the conservatives or right wing. I push against all sides. Nobody is holy or untouchable, not even myself. For example, in my work The Bargain of Eden, I put my own logo upside down to play with my own vanity.
How has your opinion on Trump and your other more conservative political beliefs affected your standing in the traditionally liberal art world and among your fellow Belgians?
On the back of my car I have a mini-sticker of Trump's face covering a place where I was bumped into. It's satire. I'm not conservative. In American politics, I most identify with the Libertarian party, and if the so-called liberal art world is as liberal as they say they are, then they should be open for other ideas. If they think only progressive and anti-Trump ideas are fine, that makes them pretty closed-minded, and that's exactly what they say they are fighting against.
Aren't you presuming that they're being “closed-minded” to those other ideas when, in all likelihood, they've already heard and processed them and determined they're evil or incongruous with their own values?
If you have a personal opinion or values as a person, that’s fine. But why would you ban somebody for that? For me, art—and especially art with a lot of satire in it—must be free. Also, I'm not even making conservative art. I just think it's important that people have dialogues. If you only listen to one side of the story, left or right wing, you will not evolve, I believe.
If I was a curator, I would not care what your beliefs are. Why would I ban somebody out of my show if I like his work just because he is an Antifa, if she loves Hillary Clinton? That would be a shame. If you see the audience that comes to my solo exhibitions, it's a super mixed group. You have families, young people, old people, art collectors, hooligans, rich people, poor people, Christians, Jews, Muslims, all together to see art. That’s the core of it.