Stormie Mills likes it when people make up stories about his distinctive, moody, monochromatic illustrations.
“I don’t like to impress a narrative on someone,” says the 48-year-old Perth street artist. “I like to hear about what people see in my art and what they see in their world.”
Although Mills came up in graffiti circles, his art today has a presence in galleries, homes and public spaces around the world. You’ll also find his work permanently gracing the skin of especially devoted fans. It’s these people that inspired Their Heart on Their Sleeve, a joint exhibition between Mills and prolific Perth photographer Frances Andrijich, which features the former drawing on portraits of tattooed West Australians taken by the latter. The result is a series of 10 mixed-medium pieces that provide an intriguing look at contemporary tattoo culture.
Mills talks to Broadsheet about his latest exhibition, the dying art of conversation and tattoos.
Broadsheet: Who was the first person to get your art tattooed on them?
Stormie Mills: Ryan Smith from Foothills Tattoo. He’s also the tattoo artist we send people in Perth too. Garth, a tattooist friend of mine worked with Ryan and said that he wanted some of my characters tattooed on him, so I leant him some of my sketchbooks.
BS: As an artist, how does it make you feel knowing there are people out there wearing your art as a tattoo?
SM: It never even occurred to me. It was only when I saw Ryan and some other people get it done that I thought, that’s a great idea. His [Ryan’s] way of tattooing was very similar to the way I draw. He wasn’t taking my artwork and trying to change it to something else. He stayed quite true to the way it was done and I feel very comfortable with that.
BS: How many people are they out there walking around with Stormie Mills tattoos?
SM: Maybe 70? We get stuff emailed and Instagrammed to us from all over the world. There’s a guy in Rhode Island who’s got pretty much a whole sleeve of my artwork. When I was in New York a few years ago he and his brother drove down to meet me, which was really cool. He was a really nice guy and I got on really well with him.
BS: What sort of images do people get tattooed?
SM: All sorts of different things. People have their own narrative and will take their own idea or story from a drawing or painting. It’s good to let other people talk in that instance. Someone telling me how they feel is such a privilege, especially in this day and age when conversations seem so short and flippant. It’s like Snapchat, you don’t really get to know how someone feels. All you get to know is how they look or what they’re doing. When you’ve got two strangers standing there looking at art, you can have a real conversation.
BS: How did you both approach Their Heart on Their Sleeve?
SM: Frances said she wanted to start by referencing Richard Avedon. He’s the photographer who’d go to American fairs in the 40s and 50s and shoot people in exactly what they wearing and doing whatever. She came to my studio one weekend and tried a few things and I was the guinea pig at the time. She took all these reference points and then shot all of the 10 people involved. I got these prints of these amazing images Frances had taken and I was like, “Oh my god. What the hell am I going to do?” I printed them quite small and started doodling with a Sharpie. I liked the idea of a skeleton and the way it responded to the person as a nice response on an internal level.
BS: What was the process like for you creatively?
SM: Being able to respond to portrait has been really interesting. It draws really strong parallels between how I choose to paint a wall within a landscape. I like to have the character responding to something. What it’s doing in the broader composition of a streetscape is important to me. I try to simplify it because I wanted to add something to the portrait and not detract from it. It needed to be sensitive to the [tattoo] work they already had as well as Frances’s work as the photographer.
Their Heart on Their Sleeve runs November 2-17 at There Is (49 Stuart Street, Northbridge). The gallery is open Monday to Friday (10am-5pm) and Saturday (10am-2pm). Entry is free.