Recalling the genius of design, graffiti, tribal art, and body modification, Australian artist The Black Math (TBM) decorates the gorgeously pristine figures and faces of his subjects with his own mark, leaving just a lingering trace of himself onto their personas, shifting intentions, and our perceptions.
Haunting and ethereal, intimate and evocative, TBM’s work recalls the traditions of previous art movements and styles, but carries a contemporary weight that is uniquely his. TBM incorporates symbology and text into photography using black and white ink. His work has been gaining worldwide recognition through his collaborative projects with fashion brands, surf and skate companies, photographers and products. TBM’s creations touch on history and culture in a very distinctive way, taking classic fashion photography and portraiture and changing it into strange, evocative, compelling fine art. There is a subconscious appreciation of African masks, Dada art, innovative designer Stefan Sagmeister and Jean-Michel Basquiat in TBM’s work, but he pulls a dark and gothic tone through all the work that helps make it interesting, accessible and intimate instead of abrasive and intimidating.
In preparation for our December issue of beautiful.bizarre, we sat down with TBM, and got to pick his brain on what drives him to create such breathtaking artworks. To see the full feature, visit our stockists or our webstore to purchase your very own copy of beautiful.bizarre issue 011.
Your work is very unique. Can you describe your process, for a piece of art, from inception to completion?
I find, am given or take a portrait. I then print it out and using ink and markers I start to develop a mask over the face of the person, leaving some parts blank and filling in others. Once the mask is on I add the finer details in white. From there I sometimes color the background using paint. I scan the piece in at a really high resolution and make any final tweaks or adjust colors on the computer. Some pieces I work on over a long period of time coming back to when I am feeling them. Others I can turn out in a sitting.
Do you photograph your subjects yourself?
I do sometimes depending on the piece / model. I also source images from photographers. The internet has been amazing for that sort of thing. It’s allowed us to connect globally as a creative community and engage with other artists who we will more than likely never meet in person.
It seems you are infusing tribal art, body modifications/adornment and graffiti in your works. Can you tell me a little about why you create in this style?
I draw inspiration from tribal art and graffiti for sure. I grew up admiring graffiti and the tribal art and markings are something I later gained a huge appreciation and fascination with. As for why I create in this style, I guess I just like the process and outcome. When I’m working on compositions of the pieces, I tend to zone out and they come together organically so it feels like it is writing subconsciously. All my other art projects have been reasonably free flowing and not overly planned. I think that’s how I work.
Does the adornment or decoration have specific meaning or significance to you?
As far as the masks as a whole I like the way that the perception of the initial image changes once they take on the mask, the icons, symbols and words I use. I don’t bear too much weight on them individually. There are always messages and references there within the drawings but once they’re done, I think they speak one big language.
What are you hoping to represent or express in this style?
Through the artwork I add to an image I think there becomes a visual dialogue that alters the initial feeling or relevance from where it was before I got to it. I like the way feelings could be evoked differently from the initial state of the photo, and it’s intention shifts to something foreign from where it started.
What is your art and education background?
I’ve been drawing my whole life. I studied design at university.
Who are your subjects?
Mostly I work with female subjects. I have liked using fashion style images. There is no meaning or message behind me drawing over these style images other than I like the contrast that comes from them and my work. I’m currently planning a new series with a more candid, raw style shoot of mixed ages and sexes, which I think will be a really rad transition.
Do you feel there is a running theme, feeling or concept in your work as a whole?
There is definitely a running theme. I think the style and approach make a lot of my pieces feel like a series. When they are on their own though they tell their own story.
You work in a lot of fashion style images of beautiful people, but then completely change them with your own additions and edits. Some are very haunting. Is there a symbolic message behind this, to you?
Not really, other than the idea that the perception, intention, and direction are shifted to something new.
What do you fear or dislike in this world?
I fear AND dislike ignorance.
What are some of your favorite things about this life, this world?
I’m fortunate enough to be creating, around amazing people and live in a relatively free society with a roof over my head. I love that! I also love that there are compassionate people in the world who are inspired to help, share and love.
Do you come from a family of creative people? What was childhood like for you?
My brother is the most creative person I know. My grandma is an incredible painter. My parents are creative in their own way. My childhood was amazing I had very supportive parents, a brother, and a tight group of friends. Fondest memories are skating, breaking rules and making art. Ha ha—real punk stuff.
Where do you draw your inspiration from? Is it always the same?
No, there are so many places. Current affairs, conversations with people, something I see written on a wall or hear said on a train. Most of the time, it’s not one thing in particular.
What artists have inspired your work?
I would say I get inspired by artists every day. I could list a heap of artists who I love but I feel like the artists that inspire my work the most are ones I am directly in contact with and who I bounce off. I have a space in Black Lake studio in Melbourne which is a collective of some really rad artists and I have always tried to surround myself with positive forward thinking people. I used to work in a cafe that had a wall painted in blackboard paint for kids to draw all over in chalk. It was insane how good that wall looked at the end of every day. One of my biggest regrets is not photographing it after every shift.
You’ve done quite a few collaborations. Do you enjoy collabs? Is there something you like in collaborating with another artist that you don’t get creating work on your own?
I’ve been fortunate enough to collaborate with some amazing people and I love it. I really like the planning process and the interaction where multiple minds and ideas come together. I find it really refreshing having someone else’s hands and thoughts working alongside mine. Plus when you are working with another artist or someone with passion it is a huge push to do the absolute best.
When did you begin creating work like this? How did this style come into existence for you?
I’ve been doing this for about four years, but it probably started before then. I started drawing over news papers a long time ago and using the blackout technique to edit articles into selective word poems.
Tell me a little bit about what a normal day looks like for you.
Wake up, have a coffee and check emails. Read the news. Have breakfast. Head to my studio and pick up where I left off yesterday or start on something new. I have commissioned art and design projects that I work on but I have a rule that I need to start and finish one piece a day even if it’s something quick.
Do you have a favorite piece/s you’ve made? Or one that has a compelling significance for you?
One of the first portraits I drew over was around 5 years ago and it is a loose piece. It was a magazine cover. My best friend saw it and loved it and that made me want to try another one. That piece is still on his wall so I’d have to say that one.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
I’m not sure where, but I plan to be happy and making art.