Creative Conversations: Tony 'Rubin' Sjöman

Mural in Brooklyn, New York, 2014.

Finnish Tony “Rubin” Sjöman was one of the most active graffiti painters in Sweden in the 1990s. Then he stopped painting for almost 10 years. After visiting New York it all changed again.

How did you become an artist? 

I never planned to become a painter. I’m from a working class home and for many years I tried to keep a “real job”. I did my first graffiti at the age of nine. In the 90s I was one of the most active graffiti painters in Sweden but I was lacking direction and ended up having a 10 year break from painting. In hindsight the break was the best thing that has happened to me.

Asphalt print, 2014.

Why is that?

After I had stopped painting graffiti I got a job and was able to travel to New York. Visiting New York, Bronx especially, was always very inspiring. I attended many graffiti happenings and exhibitions here. On one of my visits I met some graffiti pioneers who were in their 60s. They were still actively painting, and proud of their work. I could totally identify with them, we spoke the same language. At that moment I decided to never compromise again and I started painting a lot and it soon took over my life completely. I gave up pretty much everything I had in Sweden: my apartment, my day job and my company that I was running with a friend.

And when did you move to New York?

I came to New York with my wife and three suitcases in 2009. I have always been drawn to New York, and I have been visiting here since the late 90s. But New York messes things up for people who fall for the city. There was no turning back after coming here, after realising what this city has to offer!

In New York your career got a kick start.

I have always been a hard worker, but it was in New York that my work really started to pay off. Painting has always been the perfect creative outlet for me, and here the flood gates opened, so to say. I started by painting in the street, but soon people started asking if they could buy my work. Eventually I rented a studio and was asked to be part of exhibitions. Before I had my studio I painted on the kitchen floor and on the rooftop of our apartment building, until they locked it because I was there all the time. I never thought that studio work would be for me but nowadays half of my work consists of commissioned studio works. It’s nice, especially since 90% of my street work does not exist anymore; it has been painted over or the buildings have been torn down. 

How has New York inspired or changed your work?

I spent 25 years trying to paint graffiti with bright colors. After moving to New York everything changed. I started reflecting on my Finnish heritage. Growing up in a Finnish home I was surrounded by Finnish design like iittala tableware and Marimekko fabrics. We lived in a working class housing project in the Bergsjön suburb of Göteborg where everything was built of grey concrete and brutalism. Those childhood experiences left a lasting memory. In New York I started appreciating Finnish architects like Alvar Aalto and Eero Saarinen and I started erasing all the forms and colors from my works that didn’t feel "like me". I started telling my own story with my work. 

Photo by Liisa Jokinen

What have been the biggest milestones in your career? 

Last year I had my first solo show and the first comprehensive art book of my works was published ("Rubin: Scandinavia/New York - Studio works and murals” Dokument Press 2016). Seeing my book on the shelf of Barnes & Noble and the Strand bookstore in New York was quite a surreal moment. I also did a mural on the 69th floor of one of the WTC buildings as part of the 15th memorial of 9/11 with a bunch of other artists. When I painted I was alone in the building, it has huge windows and an insane view of Manhattan. That was quite a New York moment, too, painting on top of the city.

How about New York, does the city inspire your work? 

Yes it does, especially the contrast between the cityscape here and the wilderness of Finnish Lapland, where I have spent all my summers ever since I was a kid. It was in New York that my current style emerged. My work may seem very organized but the process is pretty improvised and intuitive. I only paint freehand, I never use a projector or a measurer. The shapes originate from letters and the colour palette comes in last in the process. My style and way of painting has definitely been inspired by the city and it has been refined to what it is here.

Interview by Liisa Jokinen

Exhibition in Cube Gallery in New York, 2014.