You won’t recognise Scott Marsh walking down the street, but you might recognise his work. The former graffiti artist has, in recent years, turned his hand to political satire and brick walls. His murals have tackled issues like Indigenous justice, marriage equality… and Scott Morrison fucking off to Hawaii while Australia burned. He’s tapped the pulse of the nation, but not without controversy. You won’t recognise Scott Marsh because he’s had to hide his identity. Surfing Worldfound him, we rolled tape, and talked the plight of modern Australia. – Interview by Sean Doherty
SD: What are you working on at the moment?
SM: Yeah, so it’s another Scomo mural, I guess. It seems like he fucks up every single disaster that happens in Australia, so basically it’s a play on him. He’s always there for photo op. It’s him cleaning up – or pretending to clean up – the floods with a high vis vest in front of a green screen, with all the cameras in the foreground. He’s got a little speech bubble that says like, “So, this green screen’s going to make me look like I’m in Lismore, right?”
SD: You obviously watched what happened in Lismore with the floods fairly closely. How do you feel about it all?
SM: It was pretty sad, man. It was just like the fires all over again, really. It’s people in their worst moments, completely desperate with no help really. That’s what it seemed like. And like with the fires… I had friends down the South Coast. I went down there, so I was a bit closer to that I guess. The floods I’ve only kind of watched from a distance, but yeah, it’s pretty sad.
SD: How did art start for you?
SM: Well, I guess as a kid, I was good at art and sport. Mum was real creative. She always encouraged it and would have us painting and stuff like that. And then as a teenager I got into graffiti, and that kind of kept me engaged creatively, I guess, because I kind of gave up on art. That kept me engaged through my teens and into my twenties. And then after you start realising you got to make a living, and I had skills there – I could use a spray can, I was artistic – I started getting little jobs painting cafés or something like that. That snowballed into bigger mural commissions and it went from there. I think the hardest thing for any artist is trying to figure out not really howto paint, but what you want to paint, and what you want to say. I was lucky that I just kind of found that with the political stuff.
SD: So how did your first political mural come about?
SM: Well, the lockout laws were happening in Sydney, and I was living in Kings Cross at art school. I lived with DJs and bartenders, and I was just watching lots of friends lose their jobs basically, just watching the city that I loved fucking die. It hasn’t recovered at all from all the lockouts. And yeah, “Casino Mike” was kind of a nickname for Mike Baird [NSW Premier] back then. I did the Casino Mike mural on the back of the Lord Gladstone Hotel and that kind of blew up. I was getting people wanting to speak to me on the radio about it, and media requests and stuff like that. Before then, I was not politically engaged at all. I didn’t really give a shit. That kind of got me interested, I guess, and politically engaged. Then that just snowballed.
SD: For a guy painting political murals, the current state of politics must be, what they call, “a target rich environment.”
SM: I think it’s getting a bit too crazy actually. In 2016 I went to the States to paint this big Jimi Hendrix mural. I was like, “Oh, I’ll spend a bit of time there, get a feel for the States, I might even move over there for a little bit.” Just because it was Bernie Sanders and Trump, and I was like, it’s fertile grounds for political satire. But the feeling in the States was like… they were just so fucking divided and polarised that you couldn’t say anything without other people getting pissed off. They’d completely lost the ability to take the piss out of themselves or have a laugh. And we still had that here, so I was like, “I’m not going to the States, fuck that. I’m not really interested.” But now I feel like we’re where they were back then. I feel like that a lot. I paint murals and café owners are more nervous. Everyone’s more on edge about painting things that could be controversial. The climate’s changed which is bad, because that’s one of my favourite parts of the Australian identity, that ability to just absolutely take the piss out of yourself and not take things too seriously. But I think it’s kind of fucking dying a little bit with all this polarisation.
SD: The hard right has latched onto that whole larrikin idea and say, “This is the Australian way,” but they’re also the first ones to get offended.
SM: Yeah, I would’ve agreed with you if you’d said that to me like two or three years ago, but these days I get more shit from the left I reckon. In the last kind of six months, I’ve had probably half a dozen murals all destroyed by lefties. That’s crazy, to be honest with you. That’s what I mean when I say like, “Things are getting weird.”
SD: Can you tell me about going to Hawaii to paint Morrison? That wall looks like the seawall at Shark Cove on the North Shore.
SM: It was commissioned by the Hawke’s Brewing guys. So, I’ve been doing murals and working with them for three years, and we brainstormed different ideas and different issues. And they’re like, “What if we flew to Hawaii to do a mural of Morrison?” And I’m like, “Fuck yeah, brah.”
SD: Our mate Morrison seems like a favourite subject. Almost like a full-time job for you. What’s your take on him?
SM: Oh man, to be honest with you, I’m so fucking sick of painting him. I hope he loses this election. I hate it. Every week, it seems like he’s putting his fucking foot in it or doing something stupid, and it’s like an endless supply of mural ideas, but I’m just so sick of painting his head. I think he’s a fucking idiot. He plays a persona, and because of that, he can’t react to things in the moment. He has to go back, conduct a focus group and be told what he should be doing. There’s no authenticity there, there’s no warmth there, there’s no leadership there at all. He’s basically just doing focus groups for every fucking issue instead of having any level of humanity towards anything. I’ve been a Sharks supporter for almost 20 years. He’s not a fucking Sharks supporter. I’d never seen the c*nt until he became Prime Minister now he’s waving a blue, black and white scarf every five minutes. The whole thing’s so performative and gross, and yeah, it would be funny if it wasn’t so serious. There’s so much fucking serious stuff going on at the moment.
SD: What do you reckon it is with these pieces? Why have they resonated with people the way they have?
SM: I don’t know, it’s something that I’ve tried to figure out as I’ve been on this journey, I guess. You learn different things when you paint murals. Like, some of them work, some of them don’t work, and you kind of think about why and why not. I think the ones that work the best are where I’m not trying to tell people something, but it’s already in the zeitgeist. It’s how everyone’s already feeling and I’m just putting it up on a wall. It’s not like I’m trying to change hearts and minds on some issue or something. So, this is how we feel, and here’s a picture that kind of sums it up. When you do that, it just resonates with everyone. Timing is also pretty key these days. Something’s the biggest deal one week, and then next week it’s a non-event.
SD: With graffiti there’s always a subversive element to it. Has the popularity of the murals changed that at all?
SM: Not really. I think I’ve always kept my identity kind of pretty anonymous in terms of my face and stuff. I don’t put that out there, and I like to keep at least a little bit of privacy.
SD: Has it been hard to pull off the anonymity? Is it hard work?
SM: Yeah, it is actually. In the beginning, I wouldn’t put my face to my work because I was still painting a fuckload of illegal graffiti. I was still painting trains and doing all that stuff. And then as that’s kind of wound down and I’ve moved into the art, there was a period where I’d get media requests and they always want a fucking headshot, or they always want to show your face. But after the same sex marriage plebiscite, I painted a mural of George Pell and Tony Abbott on Tony’s hen’s night, with Tony in drag. A bunch of religious groups destroyed that mural, and then they went and started destroying this George Michael mural down the road, which had nothing to do with it, but they just lashed out. And then I got heaps of legit threats. Not bullshit threats where people were just talking shit on the Internet, but ones where guys were trying to tee up meetings, posing as clients. And I was like, fuck, I’m so glad that I haven’t shown my face or put my identity to my work, because then this would just be a way bigger nightmare.
SD: Have you ever finished one and looked at it and gone, “Fuck, I’ve probably gone too far here?”
SM: Yeah, sometimes. Like that George Pell one for example, because I’ll often go in with an idea of what I’m painting, and then it’ll take me three or four days or whatever to paint it. In that time, people will go, “Oh, add this or do this,” or I’ll come up with ideas while I’m painting. It’s hard to add things without fully taking into account the overall effect, you know what I mean? And so, like that George Pell and Abbott mural went from like a PG to a MA15 over the course of those three days.
SD: Your work features a lot of Indigenous issues. It’s obviously a subject close to your heart.
SM: Well, I’ve lived around Redfern for the last 10 years and I love the community here. There’s so much history and it’s such an interesting area with so many interesting people. But especially after the Black Lives Matter stuff, I was watching all that unfold on tele, and there was an image of an NYPD police car on fire with “George Floyd” spray painted on the back of it, and it fully just floored me. I got like goosebumps and shit. I was like, fuck, that’s such a powerful symbol that just like wraps all of this pain and frustration up. I was like, I really want to put this in an Australian context. I was about the same age as TJ Hickey, and I remember when he passed away, watching it on the news, and I remember the narrative was like, “He just fell off his bike basically and it was an accident.” That spun straight into my head when I saw the cop car thing, thinking about TJ and the riots in Redfern. Because I paint about Australia, I wanted to put that symbol in an Australian context. So, through some mutual friends, I reached out to TJ’s mum, Gail, and got her blessing for it, and painted the same thing. I painted a police car on fire with TJ’s name and “RF16” on it, which was the police car that chased and killed him. I painted it in Redfern in this laneway.
SD: What’s your take on modern Australia? How are we looking?
SM: Looking pretty lost at the moment, to be honest with you. We just seem to be following in America’s fucking footsteps a bit, I think. Politically, all these guys are actors. It doesn’t feel like many of them are real humans, or care about real humans. Where do you start? Money’s influence on our political system, all those kinds of things. They become embedded in the system, and I think we’re kind of seeing the results of that. It’s just a real weird and divided time.