Swel is a graffiti artist from the Montreal area who started the hip hop crew T.A. Crew, or Team Autobot Crew. Swel currently works as a career professional who does graffiti on legal walls with other T.A. Crew members. He is a modest artist who is known in the community for being big hearted and an all around great guy.
Swel is away on business, so we conduct our interview over Google Chat. I send him a message that I'm ready on my end. Once he accepts the invitation a window pops up, and there is Swel in sunny California looking worn out from his seven hour flight. I apologize for the noise on my end as my kids are watching television and being noisy. He smiles and says, "That's okay." Swel has a business meeting to attend so I dive right in.
Me: So when did you decide that you needed to move in the direction of a career over graffiti?
He scratches his beard and leans back in his chair.
Swel: I would say that it wasn't really that...I think that one of the things that hampered me, that really slowed me down in graffiti was the fact that got busted for doing it so, that experience kind of, although I still really loved it, it made me not want to do it anymore because I did not want to get caught again, because that experience was not very pleasant at all. That pretty much stopped me from doing graffiti, not one hundred percent, but back in those days there wasn't any legal places to do it, so if you wanted to participate in the culture you had no choice but to do it on illegal walls, where now-a-days I've had plenty of opportunity to do it on legal walls. But from a graffiti artist's standpoint that's kind of controversial because just doing it legally isn't enough, that's what a lot of graffiti artists believe. But it's nice that there is that opportunity to practice and not have to break the law while you get some skills. I would say that concentrating on school was something that I wasn't ever against, it was just I guess I got older and got tired of not being appreciated and working at crappy jobs. And making money to live on you know.
Me: And how did it make you feel to come to that realization? Were you kind of saddened at the thought that you may have to compromise a little bit or to put it on hold and not to improve yourself on your skill?
Swel: Not really because I had already pretty much stopped writing graffiti, at least, a large amount, when long before I decided to go back to school. So it wasn't kind of like an exclusive choice between those two things.
Me: Do you still write and how often?
Swel: In the summer there I tried to get out three or four times to the legal walls, in this year. So, yes I still write.
Me: And who influences you now? Out of the writers out now who do you think, "Ya I really like that style, I'd like to do that." Or makes you think.
Swel: As for how style goes I don't think I get influenced by other writer's styles, I kind of already have my own style, as primitive as it may be. It's kind of like what I do so I'm kind of set in that, but I do see a lot of graffiti art out there that I like, you know like the Crazy Apes Crew, they do a lot of amazing, amazing things. And um, there are a lot of old influences on me too, names like FLOW, big time FLOW and KAS...SIKE.
Me: What is it that makes you want to write still?
He becomes distracted for a moment and says "Did you hear that? It's the Queen Mary." He grabs his laptop and moves over to the window to show me the boat out in the ocean. Than after a few seconds he sets the laptop back down on the desk and we continue the interview.
Swel: Um, the thing about graffiti is, it's kind of, I hesitate to use the word addictive, but it's very, the feeling you get from it is very...it makes you want to improve yourself [art]. And it's like every time you do it you're putting it out there for everyone to see it, it's kind of...I'm trying to think of how to describe it, but it's a feeling you can't really get in a lot of other things. Because you're doing it on your own, but you're also...it's a very public thing that you're doing so.
Me: What do you think of your progression as an artist, from the beginning to what you're able to do now?
Swel: I don't consider myself to be a very, you know, a great graffiti artist, I do it for fun. You know, it goes back to getting up and I don't try to get up anymore. I'm only really competing with myself, it's more like I don't think there's anywhere I can go.
Me: So you don't feel proud of perfecting a certain style, or even having just a piece that you feel proud at having produced.
He begins to lean back in the chair and rock back and forth contemplating the past.
Swel: I don't feel proud, I'm just happy, happy with what I'm able to do now, but it also has a lot to do with the fact that I've improved a lot. When we were first writing I wasn't very...the tools were not great. Like the spray paint was not very good, um it really took a lot of skill to make something look good, where now compare to what you used to get what you can put up on the wall is pretty good.
Me: What frustrates you about graffiti?
Swel: Not a lot.
Me: Not a lot?
Swel: No I mean it's a...it can be political. It can get very political, people can be very short tempered whenever you have something to do with ego. It can get...people can get short tempers.
Me: Okay, so it doesn't frustrate you. So what do you think that your style says about you?
Swel starts to laugh, and I do too.
Me: Have you ever been in trouble for doing graffiti?
Swel: Yes, like I said before it's one of the reasons I slowed down my graffiti writing.
Me: Would you discourage your children from doing graffiti?
Swel: Yes, illegally definitely.
Me: And how would it make you feel knowing that they're out there doing what you did?
Swell: I don't want to talk about it. I wouldn't like it. It's not really necessary anymore [doing graffiti illegally].
Me: What do you think of when you think about your kids continuing on with T A?
Swel: Well I like it. I think it's something that we can hand down to the kids, a sense of community.
Me: How does it make you feel to think of the end of TA? You know, people getting old and not wanting to do it anymore, being apathetic?
Swel: I don't think it's getting like that. I think, I mean it's always hard to motivate people, it's always been hard to motivate people to do things. Even in TA's hay-day it was hard to motivate people. Because people have other things to do, so to get people together to do something is not easy, no matter how old you are, even in the old days it was hard to motivate people to do things together. You just have to do something that everyone wants to do and hope that the community keeps coming together.
Me: How long do you see yourself doing graffiti?
Me: Do you continue to work on your style?
Swel: To improve it definitely.
I look at my paper and realize we've gone through all the questions.
Me: Well that's all I have for now. Thank you for agreeing to do this with me.
Swel: Thank you for asking me.
I thank Swel for his time, he smiles and signs off with a wave. His image disappears from my screen and I feel like I know a little bit more about Swel and his ideas of community. The Montreal graffiti culture is strong, and from this interview I knowl Swel will be a part of it for a long time, and that he will keep T. A. Crew going as long as he can.