The Madison-based street artist reflects on confidence and making work from other people's trash. (Header photo by Jess Haven.)
If you frequent downtown or the near east side, you may have come to know the work of artist Liubóv Szwako, whether you realize it or not. The warmer months bring his expression to the forefront, in the most happenstance spots and unexpected moments of our daily hustle (or grind, whimsy, whatever), and Szwako creates a lot of his work on things everyone else discards. Perhaps you've noticed an old mattress given new life on its very temporary curb perch, soon after its owner decided it wasn't worth hauling to the next dwelling across town (or beyond), or maybe a freshly cohabitating couple deemed it the loser in a duel of "whose-mattress-should-we-keep." Szwako covers such castoffs in bright colors and quick, sharp geometric shapes or thick, bold, infinite loop-and-swerve line stories punctuated with unapologetic dots and fanciful lashes.
Or, in your Instagram feed, maybe you caught a glimpse of a large, flat-screen TV put out to roadside pasture, momentarily reclaimed by gripping, life-giving cuts of paint in gashy-but-dripping primary colors against a permanent dead-black mute of electronic void. If you're observant, and not merely squinting at the given piece as you take your first blinks at it in a flash along your daily commute, you may have caught Liubóv's corresponding social media hashtag and artist moniker, @triangulador, marked upon the piece (props to you if you rounded the block and braved narrow isthmus one-ways just to take a closer curious look). Liubóv is Triangulador, and he revealed much more about his work, background, inspiration and vision in a recent conversation with Tone Madison. You can see more of his work on Instagram, at Szwako's website, or in an August show at Waunakee's Drumlin Ridge Winery.
Liubóv Szwako: Since I was little, I would write my name with graffiti letters and do a lot of lettering and stuff. I wanted to be a graphic designer, but then I wasn't a big fan of school. I just finished high school, I did not even try to go to college; I moved here when I was 20, almost a decade ago. But I never really gave it a second thought, like, "Oh, I can make a living off of this," you know? And then the minute I started spray painting, I realized how fun it is.
Every kind of paint—enamel, spray paint, acrylic, whatever it is, they do different things so it's cool to play with the paint. You come up with different colors and different textures. That's my ultimate passion about this—mixing the paint and seeing what it does… just the satisfaction of whatever's on your mind, just put it in. I don't sketch any of my work. I mean, I sketch it in a little thing but I don't trace anything. It's just straight up going at it. That's how 100 percent of my work is done. And that's why I do it on mattresses and that's why I do it on the street. It's so cool to just change something from being something you wouldn't notice to something you would stop by and be like, "Oh, this is cool." I like being able to have people see the work and just go out of their routine of seeing something that's trash on the street, like making it pretty and having someone appreciate something that they would not even look at if it was the other way. That's what it is.
Liubóv Szwako: I wanted to be a graphic designer. I grew up looking at graffiti and thinking it was cool. I've always been a hard worker. I always have been committed to whatever I'm committed to. I'm a committed person. I stay loyal to whatever I do. I like to think that I put in the work. But I never thought that I could make a career out of this, especially being raised in Mexico City until I was 20. In a huge city, it makes you feel like you don't matter that much, because you're in a sea of people that do all kinds of stuff.
I never really wanted to be anything but a graphic designer but I never really looked up doing anything. I guess I have been very independent since I was younger. My parents taught me that I had to earn everything that I wanted. I grew up going to private school and I was always able to have the things I wanted if I worked for them, but school wasn't a motivation for me. I was the kid that never did homework and just showed up because I had to. I always had it in the back of my head that anything I wanted I could accomplish because that's the way I was raised; to have the liberty to do whatever as long as it didn't mean damaging or hurting people. So I guess that's what I did; I just played it by ear until I found this and it felt right so I just stuck with it.
When I told my mom that I was moving here, she told me, "I always knew you were going to go somewhere else. I knew you weren't going to stay home." I traveled. I went to Denmark when I was 15 for a couple months by myself. I've always been very independent. Coming to a different country with nothing but a backpack and a laptop (to the U.S. at age 20), taught me a lot about myself and how much work I can put in, and that I know that I'm not going to end up homeless. That's my ultimate thing—that I really believe in my own work ethic and I know that I can make things happen. I think that was always in the back of my head, so that's why I never really worried about "I want to be this" or "I want to be that." I guess I have been fortunate enough to somehow always be confident about who I am.
Tone Madison: In your more recent trajectory, moving here when you were 20, from somebody who was interested in creating, and then at some point starting to quietly create, and then putting your art out there, what did that look like for you?
Liubóv Szwako: When I started doing this a year and a half ago, I just did it because I got the confidence from looking at Stefan [Matioc, a fellow Madison artist] and being like, "Yo, he's a normal guy. He's cool and he's nice." And he was always very helpful to me but I just realized, "Hey, this guy can do it and I can do it and I just want to try and see what it's like and what I can do." It just made it fun for me. I did it for fun, and literally all this, every single piece or even the website, or the galleries, it doesn't feel like work. It really doesn't. I've never done so many things in such little amount of time. None of it has felt like work ever. I think when you get to that point and you have something like that, I think that's kind of a calling. If it's working out and it's moving, and people are appreciating it and you can make a living out of it, then I think that's one of the keys of happiness: to just do what feels right. I think that's ultimately how I've gone about life. Just follow what's right and what's right for you, and again, just stay respectful and put in the work.
Tone Madison: I'm getting the sense that you're somebody who really grounds yourself in the present. Would you say that?
Liubóv Szwako: The art makes it for me like that. Everything that I did is cool and if people appreciate it, cool, and if they don't care about it, it's cool. For me, I'm doing it for myself. Like this, it wasn't like "Oh… She's gonna come and I'm gonna do this." I literally just felt like painting. That's what I do. I sit down and I play music and sometimes I smoke a little bit, and I just go at it. I like to see, if I do this, what's going to happen. If I do that, what.
For me, selling my work is hard, not because I don't want to get rid of it, but because I want people who appreciate it for what it is. I just want people to appreciate it as much as I appreciate it… to me it's not a product. It's just something that I did and I really don't hold onto it, like, I don't have super connected feelings to it —I just want it to go to places where it's appreciated as much as I appreciated making it. If there would be a way for me to give art for free and just get paid somehow, I would do that, to people that care, but unfortunately in the world that we live in you need to make money in order to do things.
Tone Madison: You mentioned Stefan Matioc. How did that relationship come to be? Was interacting with him the catalyst for you to put your work out to the public in various ways?
Liubóv Szwako: The reason why I put the work out to the public is because I wanted to share what I do. Honestly, when I started I just wanted to see what people thought about it. It was about getting feedback. Believe it or not, yeah it might be nice to see, "Oh, I have this many likes." But to me it's not about having likes on social media. It's not like I'm taking selfies of my stuff or with me. It's not for my ego. I just want to show my work and see how people react to it. Some people like certain things and some people like other things. Some people don't like any and some people like all of it. I like to see how people react to what I do but it doesn't really change what I do. It doesn't affect the work that I do, or it doesn't make me do more of what's popular. I literally do what I want to do all the time.
Meeting Stefan was the kick of confidence that I needed for me to give it a shot. I met him because I started working at Lucille and there was a mural of his there in the basement. I liked his work and I messaged him on Instagram and I was like, "Yo, I like your work. Would you do something on my walls?" He was like, "I'm in Mexico but when I come back, sure." I was like, "Well, if you're in Mexico and you need anything, I was born and raised there and I know a lot of people there. I can hook you up with anything." And when he came back to the US we met up and he sat exactly where you're sitting and we just talked about life. And we just talked about each others' opinions and perspectives and I just realized this guy has done a lot of cool work. He's down to earth and he's down to meet up and just have a conversation. It just made it a little bit more real for me that you can actually make this a career. I get a lot of inspiration from him and he was a very good mentor.
After he left that night I actually woke up from dead sleep in the middle of the night at like 4:30 in the morning. I never wake up in the middle of the night ever, like, even for the bathroom. I just sleep through the night. And I literally woke up at 4:30 in the morning. I remember it was really windy because there was a big branch outside of the door, like a five-foot branch. I came out and I had a spray paint that's like chalk, so you can spray paint and then wash it off. I was like "I need to spray something. I feel like I want to spray paint something." So I went outside and I did a triangle shape on the driveway. I didn't plan on it; I just drew something and it was a triangle so I just kept doing triangles over and over and the next thing you know I had a big chunk of the driveway painted with triangles. It felt good. I went back to bed and I woke up that morning and I went in the store and I was like "What's the biggest, cheapest piece of foamboard that I can buy?" So I taped it up and did triangles on it with a bunch of different spray paint. I fit it in here, and it was the first time I spray painted in here—no mask, no nothing. It was a good learning experience, for sure. And then Stefan came by later that day and he's like "Yo, that looks super cool," so he helped me take the tape off. And it's been an ongoing piece, like, every time he comes by he adds something to it so it's a cool little ah… I've never shown that piece and it's been on that wall basically since I did it. That's kind of my relationship with him and it's just an inspiration. I don't think he showed me how to do anything. I think that he just gave me the confidence and I learned from him—like "hey, he's doing this, he does this," and again, any questions that I had, I reached out to him and he was kind enough to, you know… and now we have a really good relationship.
Throwback to the first collabo w my dawg @stefanmatioc This was about a year and a half ago. @montanacans and @krinknyc on foam board #art #streetart #Collaborate #triangles #spraypaint #Krink #abstractart #ongoing #contemporaryart #SupportLocalArtist #decor #interiordesign #triangulador
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