For a guy with a street nomer like The Dirt, it’s surprising to arrive at the spray painted garage doors of Erskineville’s artist residency and see this scraggly but youthful guy bounce out to invite us in with the childlike enthusiasm of someone who is greeting friends he’s known for ages. It’s the first time I’m meeting Jamie Priesz though, who’s gaunt skull street art and artist persona seem as far from the reality of the man as possible. When I ask why he thinks that’s the case, he explains, “I do the alter ego thing because I use it to hide behind, but maybe one day I’ll put my own name on something. But the best thing is going around your own show and there’s all these people there that don’t know who you are and you can start rumours about yourself.” That response alone says so much about Jamie who has this uncanny ability to say something so insightful and so right but always with a playfulness and a tongue-in-cheek. The sense of meeting Jamie is epitomised when he describes “the times when I’ve met people and they’ve been like ‘yeh yeh I love your work’ and they’re kind of expecting you to go ‘Ugh’ and walk out, but then I’ll be like ‘Come have a beer with me, lets go out!” It’s a disarming friendliness and an openness that may seem at odds with the darkness of his work, but Jamie admits no personal confusion or qualms because for him, “its okay to do stuff that’s dark, I think it’s the best way to get emotions out”.
When we first enter, he leads us through to his workshop where half-finished canvases are splayed across armchairs. To paint a picture (excuse the pun), a mountain of cans prop up canvases that lean against a wall full of photos and prints. I notice a miniature cabinet hanging near his desk with tufts of hair tied to it, and a few pairs of hotel slippers balancing atop one of the cans – “My friends all know I love slippers so they’ll come back with a whole heap of slippers for me from where they’ve been. Like I’ve got my studio slippers which are more like dirty and I’ve got my house ones, but I’m always wearing them”. He also shows us a soundproofed and porn-star velvet red room within the warehouse where he invites to “come over and make as much noise” on the drum kit and set up they have there. The space also has a set-up darkroom for the photographers on residence, and where Jamie has also begun experimenting with film photography and disposable cameras. Suddenly he pipes up to ask “do you want to come see my room? You’ve got to pick your favourite piece on the wall. I get everyone who comes here to pick their favourite. (laughs) I’m like a little kid”. Three guitars, one of which he pulls off the wall to play, and a shrine of different artwork including Birdhat adorn the walls of the room, and a basket of skulls from a friend in Cargo past Orange sit in his cupboard against more cans. All of a sudden Jamie’s pulled out a lighter and is sliding on a guitar while also explaining how “you need one creative outlet to be your job and the other one you have to keep as relaxation”. The corridors of the house are also furnished with artwork, which everyone gets by trading works with each other and many of which come from the artists who used to live there.
Jamie is the youngest of the twenty or so artists living in this cluster of houses in the heart of the Inner West. Everyone here is an artist and pays their rent according to what they can make with their art. “I’ve lived in studio space sort of things before but none have been as cool as this, because with this one you get your own space when you feel like it, you can have friends around when you feel like it and you don’t live on top of people either”. The artists living here are essentially “their own landlords”, with the residence having its own finance, management and maintenance committees. And the best part is that no one living here needs to be concerned about whether they’ll have a place if they leave, which is perfect for Jamie who’s headed to Paris for a residency. I’m tempted to ask, ‘what’s the catch’ because I’m hard pressed to believe a place like this can thrive in Sydney. But it does and it has done for 25 years. The enclave of homes also has it’s own gallery space where “we can just put on shows for people around Newtown whenever we want. It’s such a good place if you just don’t want to deal with the gallery world”. I don’t hyperbolise in the slightest when I say that there’s a real sense that this place, which is the only federally funded art residence in Australia, seems like a secluded artist utopia of sorts. And it certainly feels this way as we head out into the tranquil garden for a chat amidst the herb pots, weaving paths and overgrown ferns that connect all the houses to a central area.
Despite being a self-professed kid, it would be a mistake to assume that Jamie is flippant or oblivious to the realities of being a working artist. He didn’t need to speak to the matter because it becomes evident as he explains his process of working on two paintings simultaneously, which he hopes will encourage him to compete against himself and work harder. Not only is Jamie’s work ethic dogged and self-motivated but his insight into the business of art, an area of discussion that carries a stigma in street art and is so rarely openly discussed, is spot on. “You realise more and more when you start to sell work, that 20% of the job you thought you’d have is the painting, and the other 80% is all business. When you come to terms with that side, then it makes its all easier. But you have to accept its there, you can’t just lock yourself away in your studio. I wish you could do that. But you can’t just be an artist anymore. Some of the biggest artists in Sydney are also some of the best businessmen.” Having a clarity about the inevitable financial aspect of painting doesn’t mean that certain situations don’t annoy Jamie. For example, “everybody thinks that just because they’re hiring you to do a mural, that they’re designing it. They’ll say something like ‘We love your style, we want you to paint a cat sitting by a billabong with a fishing rod’ and I’m like ‘That’s a pretty specific thing that you want me to paint there?
Out of nowhere though Jamie pulls out a perfect description of the beauty of street art – “It’s so nice that its out of a gallery context. It’s just there. You can be out walking to work and you don’t need to sit there and read into it. You can either just be like ‘I like it or I don’t like it’. You don’t have to look around to see what everyone else thinks, you can just decide for yourself. You could’ve done that walk a thousand times, but you’ve always been thinking about work, and then one day you just stop when you see a mural on the street and you think ‘shit I didn’t see that there before’ and you’re suddenly reminded of the place that you’re in and the time you’re in.”. But like always, Jamie shows his patent childish likeability to offset anything too serious when we start talking about how he got into street art, which he recalls happened when he stole cans from his dad’s shed and started painting boobs on the electrical boxes of the Northern Beaches.
Jamie’s explained the origins of his street name ‘The Dirt’ many times before as a way of presenting himself as the “lowest of the low” to the enclave of street artists he was trying to be a part of and learn from. But as he mentions name after name of artists he admires, both in popular culture such as George Batai and Rowland S. Howard, who he cites as one of his favourite artists of any medium, and in day to day life, I can’t help but notice that the sense of humility in his name is not at all false. Over the course of our conversation he offers variations of praise, whether it’s to Jonathan McBurnie, whose workshop is next to his own, who he describes as a “workhorse” or to his friend David Kurzydlo who’s “an absolute monster”, to Terrible Horrible who’s work is the only piece he’s ever purchased because “when you see his work you just think ‘fuck I wish I thought of that’”. There’s a necessary balance between confidence and humility which Jamie acknowledges as we head back down to the workshop but as he puts on Pop Crimes, we manage to finally just sit back in silence and forget about the particulars of philosophical debate and about why we were there in the first place as we enjoy some great music.
You can check out The Dirt’s work at his online portfolio, and on his Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/thedirtart