We speak to Mo Hassan, a local Cape Town visual graffiti artist and chat about life as a creative and how his characters are opening up new avenues for his career.
What have you been busy with?
I’ve been playing around with animation and it’s more of a personal project for me. I have this book (shows us the massive book) that is like an animation bible. It teaches you everything about the art and I’ve been messing around with it and starting to make my characters move. It’s been a long project and I’m working on taking it to the next level.
“My characters started out very flat; I then started giving them shape and started putting them into worlds. This project is very exciting for me as I will be doing all the animation old school style, doing it frame by frame and hopefully finish this project by the end of the year”.
Mo graduated from CPUT in 2012 with a diploma in graphic design, took a gap year freelancing and then returned to complete his degree after not finding a corporate job. His BTech year proved difficult as the entire year revolved around theory and writing when all he was used to was practical work. The thesis was based around graffiti and it’s bylaws and creating a design solution around the issue as a lot of graffiti artists are viewed as gangsters and bad people. He then developed an application whereby artists can register and apply for permission to paint through the app, also creating a network for the artists. After graduating, Mo worked at various corporate companies and after a year, decided to go solo.
When did you start drawing?
I’ve always been drawing. I didn’t cope well in school; I made big headings for calculus with nothing under it. But I managed to balance it out at school; it was only after that I thought, ‘hey, I can actually focus on this and make something of it because I learnt that through studying graphic design and seeing other people doing it. I was always doodling at university and that managed to blend into somewhat of my own style and the doodling led to me painting on stuff and it grew from there.
With regards to painting, I think I picked up a can when I was 11 years old in grade 4, hanging out with Riyadh (Youngsta) and he said “I have paint, let’s go paint in my backyard”. Ever since then, I used to see tags around and thought it was a normal thing.
Then first or second year; that’s when I started drawing my characters and started painting. I didn’t practise much; people had an event and needed someone to paint and that ended up being my practise. I did a lot of the Gather events that Youngsta played at and ended up just painting.
“I painted for paint, painted for free just to get practice and now I am where I am”.
Do you think you would’ve honed your skills a lot earlier if you went to a school that was more creatively inclined as a child?
For sure, I think I would have. I would’ve taken it a bit more seriously because at school, all I was told was that I need to get a job that was going to make money. Nobody said that art can do that at all so I think I would’ve started a lot earlier. Even though I was always drawing, I used to write my own story books and draw pictures for it and people would pay me to paint their school bags and at the end of the year, I was the guy who drew on people’s shirts for a packet of cigarettes.
“It’s always been smaller versions of what I’m doing now”.
We did have art as a subject and I probably spent most of my time bunking class there, which is probably why I kinda focused more on that and started thinking like that.
Do you think it’s changed now and that kids have more opportunities?
I get a lot of younger kids that start painting and come to me and want to learn which is something I didn’t have at that age. The art of graffiti is less frowned upon now and mindsets are slowly starting to change.
What pushed you into doing art full-time?
I thought corporate is what I need to do; I’ve got my degree and it’s at the point where I need to find a stable and normal job. I was there and I wasn’t happy and I found myself happier spending time with everything else.
“The last conversation I had with the boss before I quit was that he told me I would never make it as an artist in Cape Town and I should just try and be the best at the job that he provided for me” – Mo.
The first month after quitting, I told myself, if I can match my salary then maybe it can be possible. In that month, I managed to double my salary that the guy was offering me.
I can’t say that every month has been good but it’s shown me that it’s possible and that was the tipping point for me.
How do you network and market yourself?
I get lots of small graphic design jobs through Instagram; the best thing about it is that it’s like a portable portfolio. Most times it is through word of mouth.
The mad thing is that there’s a very small network of people who paint for money in Cape Town and everyone who gets a job and can’t do it, they’ll swing it to you. So there’s a nice community of people who paint, who get work to each other so that’s how I’m getting by.
I feel like I’m very selective as to who I speak to, so when there is someone that’s interested in me, then it’s easier to open up, instead of going up to every person. I also do work for a bi-monthly newspaper called Chimurenga Chronicle.
Mo works from a studio in Observatory, that he shares with fellow graffiti artist Mr Migo and often works in the film industry, doing paintings for sets. His biggest project that he worked on was for an independent magazine last year when they flew him to Johannesburg to paint at the launch, which was also his first time on a plane.
“I met a guy from Soweto and the best part was going into Soweto with a taxi and then going to paint – it was the most memorable moment. I’m still very young in the game and I also try to have a head down attitude and that I’ve just got to do it. There’s nothing that’s gonna make me feel like I made it”.
How did you come up with the name Fok?
It just came up randomly. I always used to sign stuff with something that I thought worked together. Then one day I wrote it on a window and it didn’t stop. I started giving it meaning and got very attached to it and I liked the letter combinations.
I think about it a lot; it’s an acronym for fiend of knowledge – fiend to do with obsession and sometimes an unnatural obsession and it could be good. The idea of being obsessed with my work and what I do. Fiend of knowledge being that my work is a constant self reflection. I put these characters in a situation or space that I understand where I am mentally or emotionally, then I put it down in a space like that.
It’s kind of constantly questioning and poking at myself and figuring it out so I’m using my work to get further in life physically and grow as a person at the same time, which is hippie and spaced out but I like to make it work for me. I like that there’s some kind of mystery and it’s not just random.
Tell us a bit about your design style and why it seems so dark.
It’s a very simple style and cartoons mixed with something that is quite morbid and seems very dark. Sometimes it’s just because I’m in a dark space or state of mind. I like to think of it as a very numb feeling.
I use it to allow myself to feel that side of my emotions because drawing such dark, weird things make me feel very happy.
I love the opportunity that painting can allow for you, which is dope and if you put enough work in, then people will see that and call you out for it.
Who are your influencers?
I look locally for inspiration. If you would call it a role model, I’d definitely see it by the people I surround myself with as standard. One of my biggest influences is definitely Nadia Nardstar; she has major influence on why I paint and how I paint lately. She has taken me under her wing as a real mentor would and having been in the industry for about 19 years.
Mo has also interned with Atang Tshikare, another local artist hitting international scenes, who taught him to take things further than just a sketchbook.
“I mean he was on CNN, who the fuck is on CNN??”
Also a big influence during his childhood is his cousin, Anees Petersen from Young and Lazy as he was one of the guys doing his own thing and exposed him to a lot. His grandmother’s interest in arts and crafts has also had an impact on his life somehow. He’d love to collaborate with Fuzzy Slipperz as he’s never worked with him before. Mo loves the work of Aryz, How & Nosm and Shepard Fairy.
How do you feel your work falls into society?
I don’t feel like I have a bracket or market. I think creatively and I try and apply it to everything, whether it’s painting, video or photography. There’s so many things that I want to do but right now my focus is on illustration, graphic design and painting.
He’d love to paint in places like the Reunion Islands, South America, Germany and Indonesia.
“I’d love to paint on the Berlin Wall!”
What do you think of Cape Town culture?
It’s a crazy time. I have good and bad opinions.
“You show your shit to all your friends basically. So it’s easy for me to post something and have someone share it and people see it. It’s a small place to try and get work from. You can’t fully support art and for some people, that’s enough”.
The nice part is that you can easily go with everyone else or still just do the same thing and make the same amount of noise going your own way.
There’s a lot more independent things going on and people have stopped feeling like they need to rely on corporates to do their own thing anymore.
What advice would you give to someone struggling to find their own style?
It’s a very difficult thing because even I’m influenced by a lot of stuff that I see. To surpass that, I’ll stop looking at things before I start drawing, so that whatever does come out, is still my own because I’m not looking at it directly. For me, it’s just the mixture of things that I liked or maybe characteristics of stuff that I could draw that I liked and mixed together.
I think a big part of people recognising your brand is repetition and just having people seeing it all the time and see your name next to it helps. I do a bit of everything and that makes my style what it is, mixed with different influences and a lot of fucking drawing to get to that point. I generally just do a rough sketch on the wall then just go for it. I’d say that only 5% is done on paper and I add in smaller details toward the end.
If graffiti and graphic design never worked out for him, he reckons that he would’ve gone into journalism or law as he loves reading non fiction and fantasy books. He enjoys the work of Paulo Coelho like the Alchemist and his style of writing.
Did you ever have a moment in your life when you were doing this and you thought maybe you need to find a normal job?
Yoh. That happens at least once a week, where I wake up and don’t know when money will be coming in, rent is due and I don’t have petrol in my car, I don’t have medical aid etc. There’s small things that get to me but when I’m working on a project then I’m reminded that this is why it’s taking long and why I’m still fresh in the game but it happens often. It balances out quickly though. It’s just that fulfilling.
What’s the latest project you’re working on?
We moved out of our old house in Wynberg and a friend of mine put together a little photo book so I’m letting her use that space. She works at Woolworths and there’s people that are starting to believe her ideas. People have misconceptions about people from the southern suburbs and I think it’s allowed me to feel better as a creative from that side, instead of thinking I have to be in Woodstock. The internet allows for you to be able to speak to anyone from anywhere, you just need wifi.
We have a massive yard and I feel like it’s an amazing space to put up an exhibition, paint all the walls according to the theme and put some work up. This is a major personal project that I’m looking forward to working on as all the exhibitions I’ve done is always people wanting you to put your work up at their space but they have no idea how to display it and think of how it interacts with the space. I also stopped participating in exhibitions since one of my paintings were stolen at the last one.