A monthly series profiling cutting-edge creators of all stripes with ties to Montreal.
Touring an artist’s studio is akin to peering into their private bubble, a safe space they’ve secured for experimentation, contemplation and creation away from the prying, judgy eyes of the world. For Montreal native Stikki Peaches (real name unknown), it also happens to be where the young husband and father can let his guard down and carry out his pop culture-inspired, mixed-media mash-ups. When I met the affable mystery man, a spirited sense of anarchy reigned inside his industrial, north-end studio – a word that’s also a fitting descriptor for his impressively layered, post-modern canvases. Inspired by a wealth of superheroes, singers, iconic athletes and actors, his nostalgia-laden oeuvre is driven by a single, overarching tagline: “What if Art Ruled the World?”
Since first flirting with street art in late 2008, operating entirely on instinct and without a clear purpose, Stikki’s surreal, eye-popping pastiches have built up a passionate following both online and IRL, with big-name fans of the Coco Rocha and Lady Gaga ilk. Of late, he’s reached first-name recognition on the local front, as a frequent MURAL contributor, with a first solo exhibition this past spring at Station 16 and an ongoing show (until July 6) at Galerie LeRoyer that pays tribute to female icons. As is the case with all superheroes, there comes a time when their origin story warrants revisiting, if only to remind us of their noble intentions. Given Stikki’s pieces now regularly command five-figure prices, the timing seemed right. As his friend Parallax Theater diligently packed up a few of his newly minted pieces and with local radio jams soundtracking our chat, an unmasked Stikki opened up about how his fashion-savvy parents plugged him into pop culture, and why it took the unexpected for him to hit reboot and set the Stikki Peaches saga in motion.
Your dad was a traditional menswear tailor, your mother a seamstress and gown designer. Would you say growing up in an artistic household served as an incubator for your creative interests?
Absolutely. As a kid, I would rummage through my dad’s discards, the stuff he wouldn’t use while cutting patterns. He had a small office at home. Anything he would no longer use, he would give to me to draw or colour on. Most often, I would turn these scraps into animated flipbooks. I would staple pages together, doodle on them and create my little stories, my little comic books. To this day, every once in a while, my parents will pull them out when I visit.
Were comic books an integral part of your upbringing, then?
Oh, yes! My parents used to buy me comic books as a kid. I was definitely into all the Saturday and after-school cartoons, and I guess they saw I was artistically interested. Rather than buying me candy or whatever it may be, I’d get a comic book if I had been good. So I built up quite a library of Tintin and Archie’s.
Your pieces are chockfull of cultural nods that really run the gamut: from superheroes to icons such as Elvis, Steve McQueen, and Kate Moss. Beyond comics, have you always been a pop culture fiend?
Without a doubt. Again, going back to my father, he’d always be working on a certain style, based on a certain look and a given celebrity. At the time, it was often stuff I used to watch: classic movies featuring James Dean, Marlon Brando or Steve McQueen. All that stuff was going on in the background, but as a kid, you tune into these things that catch your attention.
It’s interesting how your parents’ careers were really emblematic of Montreal at the time – a manufacturing epicentre in North America.
That’s true. They came here as immigrants in the 1950s, and back then, textiles were a big business. It provided lots of jobs for immigrants, and that’s what they fell into. It inspired me in some way. Although my dad was more on the technical side of things, he still had to draw patterns and mood boards, and choose fabrics, swatches and colours.
I haven’t found much information about what sparked your interest in street art. Can you tell me about that?
This is where it gets a little trickier – I don’t usually go into great detail about this stuff. There was a big shift in my life that brought me to where I am today. It was a health issue, and it completely blindsided me. I’ve always been relatively healthy and involved in sports, so this just hit me like a ton of bricks. Until that point, I was working in the textile industry, in fashion design, and things were good. I was travelling and seeing the world. I was happy with where I was when this came along, which really affected me more mentally than physically. I was just told that was the situation, that we’d have to monitor it. So from there, I went on a downward spiral. I didn’t know how to deal with the news, and it made me question so many things. I lost interest in my work and my daily life, so I decided to step back and reevaluate what was important to me. There were so many uncertainties at that point that I just really wanted to be doing what mattered to me most.
That’s when you decided to revisit all of these iconic figures and influences of your childhood?
Exactly, I was drawn to stuff from my childhood that soothed me, as a form of therapy. I had developed insomnia; I was staying up at night trying to diagnose myself. In order to take my mind off this situation, I built these characters and started heading out at night to put the work up with a couple of buddies. I definitely needed their help, because I didn’t even know what I was doing at the time. From the get-go, I decided I would go big. I started off with 20-foot pieces, and I’d tell my friends, ‘oh, we’ll figure it out on the spot.’ Those made for very interesting times; we had a lot of fun putting those up but they weren’t easy. I wasn’t about to put stuff up in a back alley where no one would see it. I wanted the work to be seen, without even consciously knowing it.
From what I gather, you started putting your work up in late 2008, before social media really took off to provide alternate opportunities for exposure.
Indeed. At the time I was doing this stuff, Instagram wasn’t even where it’s at today. After I began pasting my work, people would write and tell me my pieces were often popping up online – bloggers were writing about them, posting ‘who is this artist,’ ‘there are these paste-ups at the corner of this and that street.’ At first, I created a Tumblr page. It took a while for me to jump on the social media bandwagon, mostly out of security concerns. Now, if you look at Instagram, I think it’s a social media app that was tailor-made for artists. But at the time I was very skeptical of joining something like that, because a lot of my work was being done illegally. That was my paranoia, I guess!
Did it take a while for you to figure out how to circumvent risks associated with unsanctioned public art? After all, you had grand ambitions of jumbo paste-ups from the get-go.
Yeah, grand ambitions without even knowing where it was going. There was no set plan. What I couldn’t have foreseen was how I got this crazy piqûre to do more, to go bigger every time, and on an even hotter corner than the last one. That was driving me even more. I was eager to put this stuff out, and I had the support of a few buddies, who were pushing me just as adamantly. It was an adventure we all embarked on together. Quite honestly, if I didn’t have these guys… I mean, there’s definitely a certain amount of risk attributed to this, and no one wants to get into trouble or have their travel privileges taken away. We all recognized those risks, but we weren’t stupid about it either. We were semi-planned, most of the time.
Not many street artists manage to preserve their anonymity indefinitely, and yet you’ve succeeded. Why have you chosen to keep at it?
Protection is of course one of the reasons, but anyone close to me knows I’m a pretty private person. I love my privacy. I’m able to do this as Stikki and still go about my daily life. I’m more of a behind-the-scenes type of guy. Whether I put a face to my work or not doesn’t really change much, if you ask me. I don’t want to compromise the private life I have in order to put a face to the work.
In a way, mystery isn’t such a radical idea either. Artists from Banksy to Daft Punk have proven it can be a shrewd marketing gamble.
To be honest, it also has to do with how everything I liked growing up had this mysterious allure. A lot of the characters I deal with are masked, and there was always an intrigue in not knowing who’s hiding behind something. Not knowing the answers always excited me. To this day, I still enjoy maintaining a sense of mystery, intrigue and suspense, rather than putting it all out there. I mean, people might be disappointed!
In keeping with that theme of mystery fuelling art making, you were also just telling me about a forthcoming line of masks?
Yes, through staying under the radar, I’ve had some great opportunities come my way. It spawned the idea of developing a collection of masks as wearable art. I’ve developed that idea in a way that will allow me to be present at certain events, because I’m more than not absent from all my openings. This collection of masks could allow me to be there. I’m presenting a piece of art in the form of a mask, but it’s preserving the mystery of my identity. I’m working with a bespoke designer from Montreal, and they’re all hand-treated and hand-embellished. The craftsmanship is so well done. We’ll be working on this throughout 2017.
You’re also now repped by two local galleries: Galerie LeRoyer and Station 16. Were you always comfortable with the idea of embracing both unapproved street canvases as well as private art-world spaces?
The fact I’m able to have representation in my city with the work I do is still somewhat surreal, but definitely a blessing and something I would never take for granted. I’m a proud Montrealer and just grateful to be able to do this every day. There’s always these yin and yang perspectives when it comes to this type of art – such as “stuff that’s on the street needs to stay on the street” – but at the end of the day, it’s what I do to put food on the table. If I stop working or get lazy or struggle with a creative block, I’m only relevant with the work I put out and how I evolve. It’s not something that will just sustain itself, I constantly have to work at it and “water it” every day.
Lastly, while we’re on the topic of new ideas, what’s the impetus for this road-construction takeover you’re currently fleshing out?
I’m just fed up with seeing cones, roadblocks and signs everywhere in the city. It’s been churning and the wheels have been turning for the past couple of years, but now that I have the space to work on larger-scale pieces, I’ve been borrowing street signs and altering them. Eventually, these will be put back onto the street. I can pretty much go anywhere in the city and drop them off because there’s construction happening everywhere. In my opinion, it’s better to look at something like this than the original signs. It’s my way of dealing with the construction woes, which have become the norm in Montreal. Even people from out of town notice how bad it is. It’s a commentary on the problems it causes people on the daily, including for friends of mine that own businesses.
Interview and photos by Michael-Oliver Harding