The realities of working as a graffiti artist – an interview with Vinni Kiniki

The realities of working as a graffiti artist – an interview with Vinni Kiniki

A couple of months ago i was asked to do an interview for an unnamed job industry search website about my career as a graffiti artist, however for some reason the article never got published, i decided it might be good information for someone who is aspiring to work full time as a graffiti artist so i put it up on my website for all to see, hope you find the information useful.

1. What is the your name? (As you would like it published on the website.)

Vinni Kiniki

2. What is your current job title?

Graffiti mural artist and large scale fine art mural painter – see portfolio – click here

3. What jobs did you have before you became a graffiti artist? How did they help you prepare for your current job?

As well as being my job, graffiti is a passion and hobby. You could say I’ve been preparing for this job role most of my life. I’ve been filling volumes of sketchbooks and experimenting with spray cans way before any form of paid employment. I’ve held many job positions prior to this one and most of them did not prepare or apply to my current position as a freelance graffiti artist.

All the creative and design work I’ve completed prior to working full time graffiti have benefited my job in some shape or form; I use my graphic design skills to create professional looking proposals for clients, so they can get an idea of how the finished painting will look, not all graffiti artists know both artisan and digital design skills, knowing both serves as a definite advantage and often gives me an upper hand. A general knowledge of composition and graphic design also teaches you how to visually express and communicate ideas. There is a certain psychological aspect of art that link all fields of art and design, for example knowing how people react or perceive a given colour or visual reference. There are also other art skills that are transferable and interchangeable between artistic disciplines. However there are cases where knowing or mastering one art skill will not be transferable to another, working with a spray can for example, is nothing like painting with a brush!

4. How old were you / what were you doing / what influenced you to focus on becoming a graffiti artist?

I have had a life-long love affair with graffiti way before I ever got paid for doing it, since an early age I’ve been very intrigued by graffiti, I would always notice it wherever I went and would try and mimic what I saw, I was very young at the time, but I do remember drawing graffiti style imagery (albeit on paper) since the age of perhaps 8, I remember thinking even at that early age it would be great having a future lifestyle or job that would heavily involve doing lots of graffiti art. Since then, I consistently experimented & practiced doing it as a hobby, my obsession with graffiti and street art never stopped.

As I got older and more serious about my career path I didn’t think being to full time as a graffiti artist would be possible, I took the safe route and started working full time as a graphic designer which meant a lot of hours spent by the computer, I felt this was generally a move away from being able to create art in a traditional sense which is what I enjoy doing and had hoped to earn money from.

I got really fed up and needed a way out of computer design and back into art as a career, seeing graffiti being accepted into mainstream pop culture and other artists before me managing to make careers out of it gave me the idea that it could actually be career worth pursuing. Certainly demand was increasing as graffiti was getting increasingly more commercial and sought after even in the mainstream, fortunately I had already amassed a good skill-set and a fairly large portfolio through years of hobby and practice and so it was simply a case of putting together my work in a portfolio format and getting my name out there, truth is being connected and knowing people helps, you probably won’t get any jobs by just featuring an online portfolio and expecting a torrent of job requests.

5. How did you start pursuing your career as a graffiti artist? What where some of the milestones you achieved on your graffiti artist path?

I’ve always wanted my career and main income earner to be something to do with art, I create and experiment in other forms of art also (body painting, sculpture, painting on canvas etc…) and actually graffiti is not the only art skill which resulted in paid employment. I started out by compiling a portfolio of my best previous works and assembling an online portfolio, I have my own personal artist website (www.vinnikiniki.com) and I promote my services through social media. Networking is essential in this industry and it pays to know a lot of people, I give out business cards which help the people I meet remember me.

My career milestones are not measured by means of fame or monetary value; I mostly get a kick out of achieving what I set out to do in the first place, and I ALWAYS make sure that what I am doing is challenging to myself, that way I stay fresh and keep myself on my toes…Creating something that is visually stunning pleases the client and helps me better my skills and practice, every job successfully completed can lead to the next.

I have however had some high profile jobs as a graffiti artist and it’s led me to be in positions and places I wouldn’t otherwise be able to experience or probably afford; I’ve painted and been hosted at luxury resorts, I’ve done performance painting at live music events alongside some of my musical heroes (Current Value, Kode9, 16 Bit to name a few), I’ve donated my art to charity and worthy causes, I’ve traveled on jobs to exciting and exotic locations, I get to meet a lot of interesting and important people and see a lot of things most people wouldn’t be able to see, all these things are huge perks that make sitting at a desk in a cubicle a living hell.

vinni kiniki graffiti art canvas

The beginning stages of painting a canvas i always find equal parts exciting and daunting…

6. What do you do in a typical day at work? Are the hours long? What is your working environment like? As a graffiti artist, what other types of people do you work closely with?

The beauty (and sometimes curse) of my career is that there is no such thing as a typical day at work. Most jobs I do are project based and a lot of work can happen even before any spray cans have been put to action (the proposal stage is the scariest, sometimes you must put a lot of time and effort into a project proposal only to be rejected). It’s not all painting! When I am not working or preparing for a project I am practicing my art skills and researching painting methods or promoting my artist services online through my website and social media.

Each project starts with an initial meeting with the client, a design brief and discussion about the space they would like painted, some clients know exactly what they want others look to me for ideas and inspiration, in some cases they have seen my portfolio and want something similar or the same to what I’ve done before… In other cases I practically get given a ‘carte blanche’ for what I can do as they like my style of art, so as long as it fills the required space they are happy for me to paint whatever I like (rare, but so nice when these kind of jobs come).

If the initial meeting goes well the next step is to physically inspect the painting space itself; every surface requires a specific approach to achieve a desired end result, once both me and the client are clear on what needs to be done and how, I will need to create visual proofs for the client to approve.

I like to make sure we are both on exactly the same page when it comes to desired result, that way there will be no disappointments once the work is done, it’s also essential to making sure I know exactly what I materials I need to buy, besides spray paint I sometimes need to consider materials for preparing surfaces and protecting spaces.

The proposal stage I do from my artist studio, this means planning the project on paper or digital format for the client to approve. Once designs and budget are approved I source all the correct materials for the given job and agree with the client on a time frame for the actual painting. I have my preferred places to buy specific things, but this can see me travelling for a few days just to amass the correct art materials for the given job.

In many cases the painting takes part in a venue that’s already open for business and cannot be closed for refurbishments in which case I need to do my work outside its usual hours of operation. In most cases this means I work by night, however in the case of nightclubs I will work during the day. In the ideal situation the client will have taken into account some days where painting work can happen and I allowed to work undisturbed and without time slot constraints: Once I start painting I don’t like to stop until the piece is finished – once I get a good flow I don’t like to break concentration (obviously I take breaks for eating and sleeping), preparation can be time consuming and having to pack away every time a time slot is over adds more time and effort to a project.

Some painting I’m hired to do can take weeks to complete due to the sheer size and complexity, in the ideal situation the space where I am hired to paint is clear or human traffic and is prepared for mess (such as a venue mid refurbishment) however in most cases I need to be very cautious about not making mess and hazardous paint fumes. I paint indoors and outdoors, at public locations and private venues, each job brings with it a new obstacle to overcome and I must be cautious to please the client.

All of the above can happen over a very short space of time, some clients require jobs to be completed practically overnight, other jobs may take longer due to extensive planning or finding the right time to paint at the venue, it really depends on the nature of the given job. It’s important to manage your schedule and be flexible with your time. Sometimes when you start a job, you have to be prepared not to have time for anything else apart from eating and sleeping. Things need to get done within a time frame and failure to complete art on time means no payment.

My job puts me in touch with a huge variety of people; restaurant, nightclub, hotel, bar and other venue owners. I will occasionally be subcontracted by people working on a given design project such as architects and interior designers. However mostly, for the actual art painting process I work by myself, although occasionally I collaborate with other artists.

7. What are your responsibilities?

My responsibilities are to make sure the job is done to match the client’s expectations and fit within the given budget and time frame. This means working to his or her preferred schedule; the work must be created on time with minimal disruption to the given space. I have to keep it clean and protect any surfaces which shouldn’t be painted or damaged.

8. What do you think are some of the best character traits a person considering becoming a graffiti artist could have? Is this work male or female dominated?

If you are going to do graffiti jobs you need a lot of physical and mental stamina, large scale painting is tiring and can be hazardous to health due to the materials you need to use and the spaces you will work in, you need to be health conscious and aware of your surroundings, if you are doing really large paintings fear of heights will be crippling as not looking down will not be an option.

You need to be a good all round artist, you will need to work confidently in a spectrum of visual styles, It is essential you have a flare for design and composition, your communication and explanation skills will be essential for sealing the deal with clients who are unsure of the process. Many clients can’t envision the process between ‘bare walls’ to ‘art on walls,’ you have to be able to communicate what exactly the job will entail so they can give you the space and time you require.

Some clients expect the artist to be just that, in which case having some sort of quirky or otherwise graffiti artist persona (whatever that is) may help you to land a deal, I think many people expect a graffiti artist to look like whatever is on the cover of hip hop connection or Vibe magazine, I would say there is no favoritism male or female, however at present it’s mostly a male-dominated industry, so being a talented female graffiti artist may get your noticed quicker in the short term, but don’t expect to survive in the industry based on a gimmick.

9. What do you like about being a graffiti artist?

Art is my passion, being able to get paid for something I love doing is the king of bonus. I really like the fact that my job leads me to meet new people and experience new locations and things on every job I do.

10. Are there things about the job that sometimes you don’t like?

It can be stressful; a lot of pressure can get put on you to get the job done to the highest level of quality in a small time frame, things can go wrong and in some jobs there is no time to make mistakes, this is when it can be hard to feel passionate about the job. It can also be physically strenuous especially when working on very large pieces.

11. What advice would you give to someone thinking of becoming a graffiti artist?

Practice makes perfect. If you are not sure you can paint something practice it and make sure you can accomplish it before committing to a job. Be prepared to work long and unsociable hours. Be prepared for long periods of downtime.

12. What jobs do you think you might do next? How will the work you do now influence the type of work you will transition into?

Interior design is always a possibility; I have a good concept of the effect on the psyche a given space and design colour scheme can have. I know what it takes to give a desired feeling to a space and though I may not necessary have formal architectural education I can work as part of a team alongside other people in order to get the job done and bring the vision to life.

tropical beach mural graffiti in progress

tropical beach mural graffiti in progress

13. What other inside-information can you give to help people considering this work?

Become flexible in your creative output. Although some few graffiti artists are fortunate enough to be hired for their given signature style or character, don’t expect to be so lucky. Your success will come in the form of a can do attitude with no job to big or too small, knowing how to paint one given thing or style may be lead to initial success but be wary of becoming typecast or a flash-in-the-pan artist, a client who needs a painting of a palm tree will not hire someone whose portfolio consists purely of lettering and font work, show diversity. Also learn the basics of standard painting and decorating practice, there have been jobs where this kind of knowledge is essential and could save you a lot of time, stress and effort. Spray paint is expensive and there will be jobs that will require you to have a full colour palette, saving paint from previous jobs will be a life saver when working on jobs with smaller budgets.

14. What would be an average salary progression for someone starting out in this field? 

It’s difficult to express a salary figure as the work is project based. However in the beginning when you are starting off and building your artist portfolio you should be prepared to work for free or simply break-even, a good job with a great outcome will be key in getting the next paid work, most people will be unsure to hire you unless you have a portfolio, so you must be prepared to spend a little to make a little. Some artists charge per hour, some per project, I charge per project (or standard day rate), some clients don’t have much of a budget and will compromise their choice of artist, however remember that as your level of skill increases so can the fee you charge for your services.

15. How long must someone work and train in this field before their money increases

It’s difficult to say, at the end of the day the commodity is art, and its value can fluctuate due to your level of fame and other trending factors, however some clients don’t care about that. In the case of a client who wants good results irrespective of your level notoriety, your level of competence and skill is key to achieving the wage you command. There is nothing stopping you from demanding maximum wage for your initial job, however if you don’t have the skills to follow through you’re not getting paid, and if you’ve spent your own money on materials you are losing out!

16. Is there any specific technology (websites, software, applications, devices) that helps you with your job?

I personally find a camera and ipad indispensable whilst working on the job, in some cases seeing a space and visualizing is simply not enough. I like to take a photo of the space and draw directly onto the photo using painting apps. There are many that will allow you to do this however I find ‘Brushes’ to be my personal favourite (update: i don’t recommend the current brushes, it’s gone way downhill, try adobe ideas instead). I know of other artists who like to use projectors in order to project the proposed image directly onto the surface they are painting to be sure of size and scale. I’m not sure if you could call it technology but a range of spray can caps is essential to get the job done, the truth is every artist works differently and will feel more comfortable using one method over another. Also invest in a good respirator (spray paint mask) your not going to paint if you can’t breath.

17. What are some of the best schools that you would suggest for becoming a graffiti artist?

It’s one of the few professions with no official educational body or required qualifications. However all things considered I would recommend to at least completing a foundation course in Art & Design, it doesn’t hurt to learn about other methods of creating art. Having said that, if you are disciplined there is no reason why you cannot teach yourself… painting alongside friends and other more experienced artists is also be a great and fun way to learn. Practice makes perfect.

18. What would you like this article linked to? Please provide the name of the company or institution and the website address for the link

Please link to my homepage at http://www.vinnikiniki.com (my general graffiti and art homepage) and if possible an additional link to http://www.yourfaceonvinyl.com ) my custom spray paint stencil portrait service)

Vinni Kiniki – Feb 2014

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