On the eve of artist and tattooist David Schiesser’s solo show, Spectator Mode, shown at FISK Gallery in Portland, Oregon, we speak with Bijan Berahimi and Michael Spoljaric—co-owners and curators of FISK—about their thoughts on this unique event. Berahimi and Spoljaric discuss the founding of FISK, the place of Schiesser’s work in it, and the intersections of commercial and fine arts practices more generally. Schiesser briefly joins the conversation in anticipation of a more extensive feature on TTTism.
How did you come to establish FISK Gallery? What were some of your motivations behind the project and what purpose did you want the gallery to serve?
Bijan Berahimi: I come from Los Angeles. I moved to Portland about five years ago. Michael came from New York. Portland is an interesting place in that there are many people moving in from cities around the world. Michael and I are outsiders, and we have kept those outsider perspectives. Our idea from the beginning—and now it’s become a lot more apparent—was to bring the outside into Portland. We don’t primarily show artists from Portland or Oregon in our gallery; we mostly show artists from Europe, Asia, Los Angeles, and New York. That’s the mission of our gallery—although we didn’t fully realize that until we were about 14 shows in. Initially it was just that the artists we were interested in were global artists, based outside of Portland. Michael and I got a space and started reaching out to people we liked. From there it has grown into a more specific mission.
There is a large population of creative people living in Portland. Maybe they haven’t started a gallery or their own project, but they’re thirsty for what’s on Instagram essentially. Now that everything is so accessible—and that includes artists—I think that what we’re doing is bringing what’s online in person for the people in Portland. In LA or New York you expect these shows to be there. It’s a question about what you take for granted in those cities. For example, people move to LA for the idea of life there, because they love the idea of being so close to the beach. But in reality, once they live in LA they never go to the beach! In major cities, you take certain things like the environment or the accessibility of amazing things for granted; in Portland, we don’t have a ton of access to stuff, so we don’t take either of those things for granted. Here our lifestyle has become so different and the quality of life is so much greater.
Selected works by David Schiesser, "Spectator Mode," 2018.
Selected works by David Schiesser, "Spectator Mode," 2018.
How did you meet Michael and how did you two decide to collaborate on the gallery?
BB: Michael and I are pretty different people and that’s my favorite part of our relationship. I graduated from CalArts in 2013 and moved to Portland in the hopes of getting a job here. After about five months I started working for Nike, where Michael was already a creative director in the basketball division. He was essentially a boss! I think it started when he overheard a conversation that I had…
Michael Spoljaric: Bijan actually asked me to do a show!
BB: That’s right. I was fresh out of school and about to sign a lease on this space. I wanted Michael to be the first artist shown there.
MS: I don’t do art though. I went to an arts high school and studied fine art in college, but I have a job where I just work with a lot of creative people. I’m better at connecting the dots than drawing them. It was rad that Bijan asked me to do a show—I was super flattered and it was very tempting. That said, I feel like you have to earn it if you’re going to have a show.
After that, for some weird reason Bijan asked me to join the gallery and I said yes! What’s great about Portland—something that makes it much different from New York, for example—is that space can be so affordable and the city itself is very accessible. In LA there are still some cheap places, but access is a lot tougher. We began running the gallery with a month-to-month mentality—it’s less about having a long term plan. I do it because it’s fun to meet people and to have a good time when the show opens. On the one hand, it’s an opportunity for people to come together and geek out on art they’ve never had a chance to see in person before. On the other, it’s a chance for us to meet people that we’ve been following online.
You’ve now had 22 shows throughout the different incarnations of FISK. Could you tell us about your interest in David Schiesser’s work? How does his exhibition, Spectator Mode, fit in the context of the gallery’s mission?
BB: Michael and I both have long term practices as graphic designers. Most of the artists we work with also have commercial practices. It’s a really interesting time to be in the tattoo world: I think it’s important to point out that David’s work as a tattooist is, in a sense, a commercial practice. His art is a part of that but it’s also part of a separate world. Most of the artists that we’ve shown also have a side thing—whether it’s graphic design, illustration, retouching, animation, and so on. If one thread connecting all of the artists is that they are based outside of Portland, the other is that we like to work with commercial artists.
MS: David’s work is definitely different than a lot of the stuff we’ve shown in the past. To give you a little backstory: we had a space in Portland, we rocked that for 14 shows. Then, coincidentally, we went to LA for a little while because we found a great space there. Then all of a sudden this newer space opened up in Portland, so we came back here. The first shows we did had a very commercial vibe to them. We thought this was really rad because, Bijan and I also coming from a commercial world, we speak a similar language. Lately, the artists we’ve been showing are based in fine- or abstract art. David’s work brings both of these themes together.
BB: Even though the artists we’ve worked with in the last few shows might be described as fine artists, I still see that commercial thread I spoke about. Our last show was this 80-year-old graphic designer, Ed Fella, who has had a commercial career but now focuses on making art. Before that was a Japanese artist named Kentaro Okawara who paints and makes small paper drawings but studied graphic design. We’ve kept that commercial element while also accepting that we can be a real player in the gallery scene in Portland and that’s changed FISK a bit. In this third space, we’ve gotten better at what we do. Neither of us knew a lot about curating or art galleries at the beginning of FISK but we’ve really honed our skills. This current space has had the best line-up ever. We’re taking ourselves more seriously and I think that David’s exhibition and some of our other recent shows are examples of that.
"It’s a really interesting time to be in the tattoo world: I think it’s important to point out that David’s work as a tattooist is, in a sense, a commercial practice. His art is a part of that but it’s also part of a separate world. Most of the artists that we’ve shown also have a side thing—whether it’s graphic design, illustration, retouching, animation, and so on."–BB
What considerations guide you as you’re organizing and curating these shows?
MS: Bijan thinks we take ourselves more seriously, but in a way we don’t take ourselves too seriously either! There are a lot of art galleries in Portland and they have a different approach: they’re more conservative in some senses—maybe they close at 8:00, or they don’t have alcohol, or their shows are always tied to the first Thursday of every month. With FISK we don’t care about things like that. The art is always first, but in a weird way it’s also kind of second to creating a good environment where people can chill. We’ve been really lucky because most of the people we’ve worked with have been really rad and low maintenance. Bijan has the artists live with him—they sleep in the same bed [laughter]. We have more of a DIY approach.
BB: It’s very much relationship-based. David has been staying with me all week. Kentaro also with me for a week. Ed stayed with me for a week. Especially with European and Asian artists, it might be their first time staying in the United States, so I act as their host. That and the party we have every opening night are my favorite parts about it.
In terms of curating, we’re definitely looking for a certain type of artist who is at a certain place in their career. This has nothing to do with age, but rather where they’re at professionally, how many shows they’ve had, and so on. As Michael said, we’re kind of DIY. We want to work with artists who are excited about the opportunity to have a show at our gallery and excited for people to see their work in person. It’s such a weird time—you could have 50 000 followers on Instagram and be “successful” but have never had a physical solo show.
MS: We work with people we like—that’s about it! Half the time I’ll be on Instagram and think, “oh, this is rad. I really like that artist’s work.” I’ll hit them up and say, “hey, I have a gallery and want to show your work.” It’s really that informal. We don’t have any sort of interview or screening process. If they don’t respond then it probably wasn’t a good fit to begin with.
BB: Aside from our gut feelings, we also rely on already existing relationships with artists. David, for example, was a student of Eike Koenig who previously showed at our gallery and had a professional relationship with Michael. Eike recommended David over and over again. Or, as another example, I met Kentaro while I was staying in Tokyo. These relationships are super important to us.
"It’s hard to put borders around the media themselves. I can use many in the same day, or just one. I can tattoo and draw on canvas in the same day. Am I more of an artist when I stand in my studio painting a canvas than when I’m having a conversation with a person that I’m going to begin tattooing? Somehow, I still think the same between all media."–DS
"Extra Extra," David Schiesser's newly released book of drawings, is published by Present Books
As you know, David is also a tattooist. His subject, the line, allows for at least a representational continuity across the media he creates: from the book Extra, Extra you are releasing with him, this exhibition, and the people he tattoos. Do you understand the relation between all of his output as only nominal or graphical? In other words, is the link between these different creative forms simply that they all use the line? If not, how do you understand David’s place as a both tattooist within the gallery setting and a fine artist within the tattoo world?
MS: David is an excellent tattooist. But I love the stuff on the canvases! In terms of my perspective as a gallerist, he is a great artist first. And then it’s like, “oh shit, he also makes really rad tattoos!”
BB: The way I understand David’s work is that there aren’t any barriers. I think he just happens to be drawing on canvas and tattooing. Obviously the choice of medium is intentional, but I don’t think they’re all that different to him. I think David probably sees himself as an artist who also tattoos, whereas maybe some tattooists see themselves primarily as tattooists. That’s what’s interesting about this new wave of tattooists.
David Schiesser: It’s hard to put borders around the media themselves. I can use many in the same day, or just one. I can tattoo and draw on canvas in the same day. Am I more of an artist when I stand in my studio painting a canvas than when I’m having a conversation with a person that I’m going to begin tattooing? Somehow, I still think the same between all media.
FISK t-shirt made in collaboration with Maison Hefner (@maison_hefner)
These interdisciplinary encounters are becoming more and more common. You have, for example, artistic production clearly informed by tattoo aesthetics, exhibitions that either involve tattooing or are ‘about’ tattoos, and a recreation of the figure of the tattooist as something much closer to the status formerly given to the artist. How do you understand the place of tattooing today in the context of artistic production and the art world more generally?
BB: David and I have been talking about this a lot. I’ve been questioning him about it: are all tattooists artists? Do they all draw? I think it’s an interesting area to explore. As Michael and I are trained in graphic design and we work in the world of art direction, we see the work of these tattooists and we immediately think, “that would be a great painting” or “that would be a great product.” There are a lot of amazing tattooists out there who I think could have solo shows. We’ve reached this place with a lot of different creative media. Everyone is doing everything—it’s very genre-bending. It’s the same with music, the same with tattooing, the same with graphic design. David and I were talking about what’s happening with tattooing as a commercial practice now and its similarities to the commercial artists and graphic designers making pop art.
MS: I have a bunch of tattoos. I was young and I wanted a naked girl so I got a naked girl. Then I got my mother’s initials, then I got a cat. I have a bunch of stuff like that. Now, I find that the way I collect tattoos has significantly changed. Maybe it’s coincident with the rise of Instagram: as an artist and someone who loves art, I’m not interested in my friends’ kids or what they’re eating. I’m more interested in following the MoMA, or following David’s work. At the same time, I’ve now got this art gallery and I’m curating and buying art. When I get a tattoo now, I feel like I’m collecting tattoo artists. On one side, I have all of this art at home and I’m probably not going to sell it. When I die it’s going to sit in my house. On the other side, I can spend the same money, get a really rad Toothtaker piece, and it’s going to live with me forever.
Tattooing is becoming a really weird way of curating myself. It’s not so much about the symbolism of the images I’m getting tattooed but more about the memories of the encounters and experiences getting tattooed—collecting and documenting those permanently. I bring up the importance of Instagram because I see all of these amazing artists and it makes me want to go to Hamburg, Germany and get some bizarre, tribal-looking thing, or it makes me want to go to Seoul, Korea to get some beaux arts cartoons. FISK Gallery is similar in a way. We see all of this rad shit from around the world and we just want to put it up on our walls. Our gallery is like a person and the walls are its skin.
David Schiesser’s Spectator Mode will be on view at FISK Gallery in Portland, Oregon from August 17th, 2018. To find more about FISK Gallery, please visit them on their Instagram (@fiskgallery) or online (fiskgallery.com). More information about the work of David Schiesser is available online (davidshiesser.com) and a portfolio of his work as a tattooist can be found on Instagram (@ds_008).