In our continuing series featuring people in professions other than photography who incorporate mobile photography into their creative process, Misho Baranovic talks to Brisbane-based street artist Guido van Helten, one of a new wave of practising artists who use their smartphone cameras to inspire or capture their public artworks.

Untitled, painted for the 'Back Alley Gallery' project, Lismore, NSW, 2012. 

Throughout the world, street art is growing in terms of its recognition as a legitimate art form. In my hometown of Melbourne, Australia, the city’s street art scene has become a key tourist attraction, with once seedy laneways transformed into busy thoroughfares filled with visitors snapping the many stencils, paintings and sketches covering entire walls. There are now dedicated festivals and gallery shows which celebrate the creativity of artists who use their urban surroundings as a canvas (some of whom, such as British artist Banksy) have acquired celebrity status.

He tells me that he has been painting for over 10 years, and that his earlier “graffiti” style has evolved during that time into something more sophisticated and personal, encompassing portraiture and other image-based work. “I’ve been working on developing my own style based upon developing a unique visual language,” the artist says, “communicating with pictures but also in a way that represents myself.” Guido van Helten, 25, is a painter and street artist from Brisbane, Australia. During his recent visit to Melbourne, we sat down for a coffee in the grungy inner city suburb of Fitzroy—the epicentre of the Australian street art community—where van Helten was working on a large outdoor mural.

Although van Helten recently celebrated his first solo exhibition of paintings in Brisbane, bringing the “street” indoors, typically his canvases are the walls of cities and towns throughout Australia. Often he is commissioned or invited to create a mural for a business owner or government-sponsored client, and such murals can be anywhere from a few feet to over 1,600 feet (500 meters) in length.   

Painting a mural for Studio Xpose, East Brisbane, Brisbane.

I was particularly interested to know how and why van Helten uses his smartphone as part of this creative process. Although I had seen via his Instagram feed that he uses his phone camera to document his finished works, I did not know that he also uses his phone to “sketch” out his subject ideas. He started using his phone out of convenience, realizing that he could recreate similar editing effects he’d previously done on Photoshop. 

“I have worked out a method of ‘posterizing’ a photo to create a deconstructed version which creates an abstraction. Otherwise I end up painting things literally. While not wanting to reveal too many secrets, van Helten mentions that he found a posterization app which has helped inform his style to date. “I don’t paint directly from the posterization, but is it a base to elaborate from.  It started out as a simple three-layer process and has become more elaborate over time. I switch between programs; I twist, rotate, invert and overlay other images over the top.”   

Untitled, Collingwood Silos, Melbourne, 2011.

Van Helten also uses his phone to capture photos used for his murals. 

“I prefer to use my own images, but it’s not always possible so I do use ones from blogs as well. I’m always changing the base image so much that it’s hard to tell what images it actually came from.” He notes that his own images are often of people he knows. He stresses that he is not trying to represent them, rather, he explains, “I’m looking for the face, the emotion in the image I’ll use.”  

When developing a concept for a location, van Helten notes that “I’ll definitely need to see the space first and then look for an image that I think will fit and express what I want to express. It all works together as one.  I’ll need to have all those elements together before I start.” As part of his recent works, he’s particularly looking for patterns and materials that reflect the sense of place of a specific location. 

Van Helten kindly shared a couple of images which show this progression from photograph to mural. The mural, titled Surface Level is painted on the wall of Jugglers Art Space in Brisbane and was one of eight works for van Helten’s solo show Veneer, held in September.   

The original photograph taken in van Helten’s studio.
The edited image, achieved by applying layers of posterization.
The work in progress.
The finished mural.

Van Helten also uses his smartphone to document and share his work, the painting process and the finished work.

“I use Instagram to display my works and my travel,” he says. “I don’t use it for anything else other than my art or to represent myself. I share a process shot, a finished shot, a photo of where I am at the time.” 

I ask whether there are any specific tags being used by the street art community.

“I pretty much always use the #streetart tag on the photos as well as my name #guidovanhelten.  I usually do get a few hits from a few people I don’t know.  But I usually follow people who already know me and add me. There are a couple of exceptions – street art fans from Melbourne, a guy from South Africa. I connect with them that way.  I’m not overly concerned with finding new work on Instagram, I use it for myself.” 

 A snapshot of van Helten’s Instagram feed (@guidovanhelten).

I ask van Helten whether photography plays an important role in preserving his works, in light of their ephemeral nature.

“Yes definitely, especially today at this time in Fitzroy, murals aren’t staying without being tagged over for whatever reason that is. Even today, I painted over an old work that had been tagged over and probably will be tagged over again, not because they dislike me.  It doesn’t even really bother me, as long as I get the photo. I’m looking to do a job, get a photo and that’s the end of it.”

Untitled, Brooklyn Rooftop, New York, 2011.

You can see more of van Helten’s work at his blog, Instagram and Flickr sites.