Ornamental Conifer conveys his art not only in what is being communicated, but also in how. His unique hand lettering style evokes emotion in a time when the written word has perhaps become passé, replaced with convenient emojis and emoticons. Painting on everything from windows, walls, to even leather motorcycle jackets, he’s has taken his art all across the world.
We caught up with the artist to talk about his career, the freedom of riding, and his latest projects.
JOHN PANGILINAN: What do you think says more: the typography or the surface/platform that it’s on?
ORNAMENTAL CONIFER: Personally, I always feel the message itself is where the punch line is, and can actually be executed in many ways to emphasize the point, but as soon as a specific object or surface is thrown into the mix, this can further push the idea, whether it be juxtaposing an emotion or clarifying the point in hand.
How do you define your style? How did you develop it?
In regard to my current style of painting / lettering I feel it has grown organically from childhood where I was always far more impressed with the lettering in my comic books over the characters, this led me down a slippery path of graffiti, still always pursuing the letterform over the image, nowadays I try and incorporate the two, but prefer to pay more attention on creating an image through letterforms, in summary, I see letters as shapes rather than symbols and play with this as much as possible. Development came though always keeping my eyes open and continually drawing new ideas.
How do you choose what to paint on?
I have always loved to paint onto objects as I used to struggle when confronted with a flat surface, I like what the object itself adds to the piece, maybe this is harking back to my discovery of adorning train carriages or walls at a young age, mind you, even before that I was obsessed with drawing on my school bag, shoes, hats etc. I would often choose an object based on the message I was trying to convey, as well as finding interesting textures and shapes that I think work well with my style.
Where’s one place you want to put your writing that you haven’t yet?
I have always wanted to paint a plane, preferably a small light aircraft that is solely used for pleasure, rather than a huge commercial airliner.
Your work is relatively synonymous with motorcycle culture. What are you riding these days?
I currently ride a 1961 Triumph TR5C with an original Tracy Fibreglass Works Unibody with triply factory paint.
Where does the inspiration from your typefaces come from and the whimsical and tongue in cheek phrases often seen in your work?
In comparison to a lot of other artists who focus on lettering, I have a very limited palette of typefaces I use. I believe the message itself is more important than the beauty of the letters, I used to spend hours trying to replicate typefaces and tweak them slightly for my own use, but then I discovered I prefer to limit myself and create something that is recognizably mine, they are far from perfect but I consistently use an ALL CAPS sans serif, a casual one stroke, a script and most often a bevelled letter. The phrases pop out to me from all over the place, often hearing a common phrase or idiom that I will tweak slightly, by changing one word, or even one letter, sometimes you can change the meaning entirely. I read a lot of books, including dictionaries, I look at advertising straplines and always have my ears open when talking to people, especially from different countries and cultures, as it’s often very surprising to hear that many common cliches and catchphrases are translated across the world, but can at times mean completely different things. I have always been interested in poetry and language and the use of slang fascinates me.
What draws you to sign painting over tagging or graffiti?
Early on, when I spent more time scrawling on walls I was trying to find a way that it could make me money, a lot of people around me would criticize me and accuse me of selling out, but the requirement of money and the growing fear that as you get older, the prosecution became greater and pushed me to pursue a different path where I could charge people for my lettering, it also lasted longer as the pieces wouldn’t get buffed. I guess I got old and scared and gained too many responsibilities. I’m glad I made that change though as it has led me round the world and taken me to places I never assumed I would go – saying that, I still always carry a pen with me and often can’t resist leaving my mark.
Assuming you’ve explored other forms of drawing, why has lettering stuck?
I think I found it hard to tell the story I was trying to tell with other forms of art, I still draw and paint other styles, but these are rarely seen by the public, Like I said before, I am trying to tell a story, send a message, tell a joke, and it’s the easiest way to put it into words I guess. Maybe it’s lazy, or uninspired, I have just always been led to letterforms and images.
What’s your favorite thing to paint on? Why?
I have a huge love of painting leather jackets, I love the texture and the speed at which you need to paint, in comparison to a non-porous surface you must work slower, and consider every lump and bump to still get a straight line, you need to get the viscosity of the paint just right or else it will bleed, I love to create a dialogue on jackets that was once reserved solely for the macho biker gangs or anarchic punk bands, I like to use them as message boards to encourage a perpetual childhood, filled with mischief and deviance but using colours and designs that juxtapose the macho image... as well as leather I love to paint large walls, but rarely get the opportunity to do so these days, I enjoy the freedom of movement it allows when you are working on a larger scale, you can create a stricken form an entire movement of the body, rather then when I work on smaller pieces where it all comes from the hands or wrist. Plus you can play with concepts and textures when you go big.
What fun brands and projects have you been working on recently?
I have recently completed a couple of really fun projects with BMW and Levi’s, as well as being involved in a competition to help launch the Oscar line from Alpinestars. I have been working on a new body of work to be exhibited in Bangkok for Deus Ex Machina and have a capsule collection coming out with Nixon. Alongside all that I am continually working on private commissions from people all over the globe, which is how I stay on my toes, my work is extremely varied in regards to clients and collectors so I never get bored. I’m also piecing together a few ideas for a launch of CONIFER COMMODITIES later this year.
Tell me a bit more about the Oscar by Alpinestars project. This brand seems to be the most natural fit for you personally.
I grew up around Alpinestars products and know a couple of the team riders and have always admired the quality of their work. It’s rad to know that behind this huge international company it is still being led by the son of the founder, and they still have original employees on the team, working with them for over 30 years. Whilst I was over in France I met claudio who was using original tools from when he started at the company decades ago. There is a great sense or respect of the past and how things are still being made by hand.
Alpinestars let me keep creative control, which is a real asset when working with a commercial project like this, it allows a certain amount of should to remain in the final piece rather than it becoming a marketing exercise. The entire time I felt like I was working with a team of friends who were stoked to see whatever it was I produced, there was little to no approval process so we basically let the artwork appear organically from my mind on the pieces... it’s always a struggle when there are too many middle men involved. I didn’t feel pressured into working within an existing brand aesthetic, rather the opposite, the encouraged me to do what I do, no holds barred.
As your work has taken you all over the world and provided so much opportunity do you still find time to unwind and ride your bike?
In reality, I don’t get to ride half as much as I would like to, I have be careful when riding also in order that I don’t injure myself, I have to keep my hands in good condition in order to pay the bills. But, when I do get to ride it feels all that more special. I mean, on a day to day basis I use my bike as a mode of transport, but that doesn’t really constitute riding… it’s been a long time since I was able to disappear for a few days and not think of work, but that’s why I moved to California, and summer is just around the corner, so trust me, I plan to take an entire month off and ride the Pacific Coast Highway.
Follow Ornamental Conifer on Instagram @ornamentalconifer.