Hybridisation is probably the most and least suitable noun to describe Michael Kershnar’s work : a mixture of graffiti and skate cultures, indigenous American iconography, Old Testament stories. We met him at an apartment he’d been keeping for a few months, close to the Grands Boulevards, where he took time to graciously share his story with us, along with some cheese and avocado.
How would you describe your artwork, its message, the audience?
Creation, The Creator, something larger, trying to invoke ancient feelings, too, something kind of familiar, which touches people regardless of gender or age.
I want little kids and their grandmothers to like it. I want a hard core audience to like it: skateboarders, cynical graffiti writers, – everyone across the board. And of course, not everyone will like it, but I like to make it accessible. I keep trying to approach what I would call ‘aesthetic truths’: perfect composition, perfect use of space, that there’s some mastery or undeniable beauty.
How is it connected to skateboarding?
It’s connected to skateboarding because it’s outside, and for me it’s a lot about spots. If you skate from place to place, you grind the curb, you ollie up the curb – and every curb is valuable to a skater – when you approach putting up stickers or street art, as it were, it’s the same only about poles, for example. There are the little ones you walk by, which you can apply stuff to, the back of crosswalk signs… The little nooks and crannies of the city are valuable and you’re kind of tickling them, appreciating them and adding to them, and the public doesn’t care so much for either one, but to a select audience, they’re the best the city has to offer.
(top) Abandoned Paris shop front on Rue Vertbois, Paris’ 3rd Arrondissement.
Who are some of your favourite street artists? And what is it about street art that you like?
The artists I think are the best are people like Barry McGee, he’s the guy who’s doing it the best. You can find handstyles, you can find stickers, you can find fill-ins, so he’s maintained an active practice. Same with Pez or MQ in SF, and right here in Paris, you have Supe. Ed Templeton‘s out there every day doing photography in the streets.
It’s public, it’s for everyone, it’s like Paris’ green Wallace Fountains – everyone can drink from them. I don’t think art should be some ivory tower thing, I think it’s kind of populist in nature, and it’s one’s way of showing what they’ve got, and want to see what other people have got. I like it when really masterful people do stuff in the streets alongside the new jacks.
It shouldn’t just be ads in the visual landscape, it’s much more personal to see someone’s art. It shouldn’t just be a company or money controlled thing. There should be marks of individual expression.
Michael Paints at Le Dude bar on Rue St Marthe and Rue St Maur in the 10th Arrondissment. Photo by Marco Zavagno (2014)
An archetypal wolf face inspired by his childhood pet, a husky dog named Keomi.
Who’s your art made for?
I do art for myself, my family and friends. It’s always spiritually dedicated, so I feel like it’s my contribution. It’s my way of showing up and doing something in this world, so it’s for everyone. I also really like Instagram, I like posting there for the homies, sort of like “This one, there’s a lot of Francisco and Nina and Jack in it,” and this one is someone else.
Nina and Jack?
They’re friends in San Francisco who inspire my work. Lovely people. They’re also into living in nature, for example, practicing fishing consciously. It’s the other side, there is not much nature in the city, so it’s fun to bring the animals to the city through my art, and remind people that it is a big world, we’re just one species.
How did you get the ideo of bringing nature into your work?
I grew up with a Siberian husky, her name was Keomi. I loved her so much and she had that wolfy face. My sister and I, we used to draw her as kids. So my characters actually stem from trying to draw my dog’s face. I was always interested in the dynamic between wolves and men and the spiritual tie that exists there. I feel it’s really ancient.
Michael Kershnar (left) skates at République. Photo by Luidgi Gaydu (2014)
Homage to Thrasher
What’s been your experience of the indigenous American culture. How did your personal ideas about spirituality develop?
As a kid, I always identified with Native Americans, I liked that they lived close to the land and their spirituality. Through my work for the skate brand Element and a program called Elemental Awareness, we’ve become good friends with people on the Apache and Navajo Indian reservations. I’ve been there a bunch of times, and worked on art and primitive skills. Especially when I’m around the world, I can sort of present that. It’s a bigger story than ‘white man draws a tipi.’ It’s not just like, “Oh! What’s in for Spring 2015? A neon tipi wearing sunglasses!” I love the Native American culture of ancient days, and I love it now. I feel blessed to be a part of it today because as a kid I didn’t know any people from that culture, I didn’t know any Caribbean people, I didn’t know any French people. We can choose to be citizens of the world, if we go on that adventure.
I fully grew up Jewish, I had a bar mitzvah, learnt to read Hebrew… I am pretty familiar with the Old Testament, Jewish literature – I like all those stories. When I was a kid I didn’t want to go to Hebrew school on Tuesdays and Thursdays and Sundays, I wanted to skate. But now when I go to a synagogue, I know the stories, I feel like the education was really good for me. All my grandparents are Jewish so I maintain some kind of cultural dogma for them, I eat Kosher and I don’t have tattoos, but other than that, I spend money on Saturdays and things like that. I’m interested in all religions of the world. I’ve been to Nepal. I’m interested in man’s search for meaning, and I can see that my ancestors’ journey was the same. It gave me a strong foundation as a kid, “What’s your interaction with God going to look like?” It’s a good question to ask a young person, and that’s like the Jewish question. With the Abraham story, “How are you going to do it, dude?” So, I was like, I’ll do it through skating, I think. And to do something positive in the world, it became about Elemental Awareness, this non-profit that my best friend Todd and I co-founded with Element. And then it wasn’t running a non-profit organisation, that wasn’t for me, it was the art. And now I feel really at peace with art as my contribution for that. And so I’m keeping covenants that I made in childhood and developing and growing, and acknowledging who I am, and who I could be, and who we all can be, that’s my story.
Beastie Boys concert poster by Michael Kershnar
Imagery on the primitive skills Kershnar learned growing up, which he teaches to others through the foundation he helped to build, Elemental Awareness.
Kershnar gets up by Notre Dame Cathedral
Michael’s great grandfather.
And the idea of anti-Semitism?
I was just going say; I’ve heard some anti-Semitism in France, more than in the US actually, quite a bit. I think many French people don’t know so many Jewish people closely. They’re like “Well, you know, I’m not talking about you or your mum, but you know, Jews in general.” And I’m like “I don’t know. Who are you talking about?” Maybe there are like secret people or something but I don’t know them. This was my great grandfather and he came from Poland and the rest came from Russia, but they were just dudes on their spiritual path. But what I like, the way I feel connected to it is that his last name is Toreschreiber , which means they were calligraphers, and I feel like that’s in me, and that’s a strength in my letters, and that I can pull these Hebrew letters that no one else really does, with Hebrew and English. My story is a Jewish one, and I identify with it, but I think a problem can be that sometimes people think it is a closed tribalism, and there’s a lot of anti-Israeli sentiment here, and maybe those issues coincide. I don’t know, at times I feel like I have to keep my head down about Judaism or something. I think Israel has the right to exist, I wish it was peaceful with everyone in the whole world. These are hard issues.
And then it even comes to World War II. It’s a heavy story, I don’t always want to get into all of it, but I’m down to talk to anyone about whatever they want to talk about, if they have a sincere interest. My grandfather did a Kosher chicken market in Brooklyn, it was where my dad grew up, five brothers, and there were these beautiful old sign paintings, “Kosher Poultry”. I feel pretty neat because they all went on a boat to America and do something still kind of related to the Jewish culture and feed the people and generations later it’s me and I’m doing fine art, but I feel connected to it. Even being in France, my grandfather was wounded in WWII in France, and ended up in a hospital here and didn’t know if he was going to make it or not, but came home and then my dad was born. I wish I spoke French like him. My story is a Jewish story and sometimes I think people think that’s a bad thing, but it’s the culture I was born into and I received my education from.
What were the negative aspects that tribe created from that collective story?
Well there are the stereotypes, of course, like ‘Jews are cheap’, so I then I might have to always make sure to buy rounds of drinks, or treat people a lot or something. You always have to act against the stereotypes. And then even if you think you’re doing a good job of countering a negative stereotype, someone will come and tell you that you’re being a greedy Jew or that you are probably rich anyway. I don’t agree with greed, some people are greedy in every culture. But it’s obviously better to share than to horde. Everyone knows these things and I think everyone on Earth is trying to do their part. For me, I am asking, “Why am I Jewish? What is the big lesson? Maybe it’s humility. You carry something in you that has given you a lot, but some people don’t like it. That’s kind of the nature of the world, there are positive and negative elements, so just take it and focus on the positive and even things that people can perceive as negative, internally to you it can remain positive, and that’s kind of what Judaism has been for me. Everyday I feel thankful for the stuff I was taught when I was a kid, which was straight up Old Testament literature, and why that was spiritually valuable for a person in their daily life, and I think that’s good teachings. And some of those stories are crazy, so you have to find out, “Why would good people allow a stoning to occur?”, and there would be these really intellectual takes on every little bit of it, so much commentary. It was an education. What are you feelings about Judaism?
I don’t know the stories. But I have massive respect for the legacy. And in terms of the holocaust, in fact, I’ve been noticing the book Mein Kampf on sale in certain bookshops. What are your ideas about this book?
I mean I wouldn’t try to get it on the Oprah top ten list but I think if people are interested in history and they want to read it to find out what he wrote, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t. I’ve not read it, I don’t know exactly what argument it makes against the Jews. Obviously, there’s no truth in global conquest, and making the whole world Germany, everyone can say that’s ridiculous. We’re all going to die to invade all these countries? Ultimately, hatred is wrong. That’s not what we’re on earth to do. We’re here to create greater understanding and love and communication. And that’s why, even in the arts, I do animals. It’s beyond all the differences between humans.
I would also encourage the people to maybe read some other stuff on WW2, some holocaust survival stuff, The Diary of Anne Frank to balance it out. I went to Auschwitz alone, just to see it. I was really troubled by the holocaust as a child and I even thought when I was a little kid that maybe one day the cops would take me out of school because I was one of two Jewish kids in my class. Just like how I read in a book how it happened in my grandparent’s time in Europe. But I would tell my self that that’s a crazy fantasy, it’s never going to happen. It was maybe a historical trauma. And the trauma goes on with Israel, a safe place to go which has been historically yours, the Hebrew language, the Roman expulsion, but then it’s not a popular cause and it’s not working out right, it’s not stable. I wish it was stable, it would be so great. I am sure Jesus and Mohammed and Moses and all the dudes would want Jerusalem to be the most peaceful place on earth, where you can walk around stoked, feeling the good Godly vibes.
Canvas work by Michael Kershnar
What are your thoughts on what could be done to ease the Israeli-Palestinian situation?
There’s an excessive use of force by Israel and I hope there’s a moral shift soon because to me the whole thing is borne out of the ashes of WWII so it should happen before that generation has gone and the memory is gone. Otherwise it becomes like a historical footnote “Some ancient war happened a long time ago… ” Some historically insignificant war like the War of 1812 that no one thinks about, you know what I mean? So the sooner the better for stability. I guess the fear is “Are these people ever going to give us peace?” The whole region is unstable, there’s always stuff going on. If it gets fixed, on the Palestinian side, there needs to be a shift, too. If they get the keys back, they can’t continue saying, they hate Israel or they hate the Jews, otherwise it won’t be peaceful. They both have to give and receive and take and share. More same schools, all that has to happen more and more. Tons of different kids in the same classrooms, growing up together. Which is kind of what they did in America with racism and segregation. Not that racism is dead.
Michael Kershnar paints at Rue Saint Marthe and Rue Saint Maur in Paris’ 10th Arrondissement. Photo by Marco Zavagno (2014)
Back to Judaism, would you say you use any of the stories in your work?
Yes, some of them, for example in a concert poster I made for Stephen and Damian Marley there was a Moses and the Red Sea reference. So in reggae posters I’ve definitely referenced a lot of Old Testament stories. But it’s not that usual, and then only a couple of my friends would know that’s that. Or maybe very Jewish or Christian people who’ve read the Bible will know it. The Binding of Isaac, I’ve referenced. It’s a crazy story, and in my religious class we would have to work it out: “Why would a loving God ask a father to cut his own son’s throat?” It’s a hard story to cling to to, so there’s a lot of deconstruction and metaphor, and ultimately it’s can be seen as an uplifting tale. But even as a kid, I was worried about the animal being sacrificed, “But the animal got sacrificed, why do we have to slice a ram’s throat for God?” And then it’s like the nature of life is consuming in the way that we’re all born, live, and die and if you plough a field you’re going to take homes from mice, so even the agrarian way can be cruel, and you, in the end it’s done to you. And all those stories, in the end the right thing happens, goodness ultimately wins. I believe in Buddhism, and they say the Universe is created from a formless void, total chaos, and it’s not from a loving God, and Judaism says that it’s actually from a loving God and people’s internal nature is good, which makes you feel more at home in the world. Internal nature is good, people are good, everyone wants to see the good, it’s hard to explain. All these tenets, do good things, don’t do the bad things, give and receive love. I don’t think it’s a reward system, it’s more like an energy flow tidal kind of thing. And then nature is proved over again. That is something I took from Judaism, “Look how perfectly balanced nature is, that’s how much God loves everything, even the big animals that eat the other animals, it’s all connected. But you have to see it more as all balanced in love not just as a vicious shark amongst all the beautiful colorful fish in the world, you know. Because the shark plays its role too.
So do you want some food? I have avocado and cheese…
To discover more on the awesomeness that is Michael Kershnar, check out his website and Instagram.