A Portrait of the Artist: Louis Masai

Louis Masai is a London-based painter and street artist with a passion for nature – particularly endangered species. Louis painted the patchwork hammerhead sharks on Barrack Street at Waterford Walls 2015, with the astonishing statistic that, ‘By 2030, 90% of marine life will be endangered’. This year, Louis painted the elephants on Barker Street, which have fast become a favourite of locals and visitors to Waterford alike. He is also known for the Save the Bees project, painting swarms of bees all over London to raise awareness about our planet’s dwindling bee population.

Welcome back to Waterford Walls! Can you sum up last year’s experience in one sentence?

Waterford is not somewhere that I was familiar with, but after just a few days in town, I can honestly say that I’m blessed to have been invited into the community and I’m excited to be back.

What is the story behind your piece from Waterford Walls 2015?

Well, my work focuses on endangered species, and more recently I’m looking at how toys can highlight the sad possibility that they might be all that is left after a species becomes extinct. Last year I painted hammerheads circling around a heart on a fishing hook. The heart represents concerned humans that want to look deeper into environmental issues – fishing with love.

When and where did you first start creating art?

Well, it’s one of those clichés, I’m afraid. I was always drawing and painting as a kid. I didn’t excel at much else, so it made sense to keep it up. I went to art school when I was 19 and here I am now.

Are there any particular artists or cultures that have influenced your work?

When I was 15/16, I became really interested in graffiti.  I did a few tags and pieces, but wasn’t much good, so never pursued it.  Hip-hop culture undoubtedly has influenced my life.  I lived with b-boys and sometimes got involved, I collect vinyl and have DJed for over 10 years, and now I’m painting walls with spray paint, so it’s always showing its elements in my interests. As far as reference in my work, I hold that down to nature. My interest in wildlife and plants has been with me since I was very, very young, and has only increased as I have grown into myself. I love looking at what other artists are doing, but I don’t think they influence my work. However, they definitely influence my motivation.

How has your work evolved over time?

I like the idea that, once I learn a medium and feel comfortable with how it works, that it’s time to switch up and learn a new tool. I started eight years ago with a stripped-down set of tools, just fine-tip black pens. That got me working with black spray paint, brushes crept in again, and then the studio work evolved as I tried to recreate my walls, then the walls changed as my studio work improved. Layered tags turned up in the murals, and once a finer understanding of can control was acquired, I could achieve what I’m working on presently. My new love is 3d work, but it’s very expensive to realise. That’s all technical things.

Concept-wise, I started with painting what I love, which is animals. That became refined when I realised that I had an opportunity to speak up for the voiceless – endangered species. Last year I worked on a series of studio paintings that explored species and toys hanging out together, and that has been refined again to just the toys, but if you look at my work over the last five years you will see a trail of thought. You can tell when it’s my work, I think. Well, I hope you can anyway!

What inspires you today?

Life inspires me.  I know that sounds very cliché again but it really is the only suitable answer.

Do you have a tag name? Where does it come from?

I write Masai. I chose it when I was about 10 years old, whilst looking at a coffee table book called Africa Adorned. I never stopped thinking about the Masaai warriors in that book. About eight years ago I started using it in my work and it became my moniker.

We launch this year’s festival with a discussion on the creative economy. What do you see as the artist’s role in society?

Well, in ancient civilisation, the artist was amongst the most important three members of any tribal society. You had the chief, the shaman, and the artist. An artist tells stories which later become history, so without artists, there would be no understanding of pre‑scriptures. For me, that emphasises just how important an artist is to society. Sadly, these days, we are taken advantage of, but that’s a tale for another day.

I do also think that a lot of today’s creatives have forgotten why they are doing what they are doing. The ones that are doing it just for money stand out a mile away and it’s not usually for good reasons. To be an artist and really be an artist, I think you have to be saying something.  It’s not about how you transcribe that message or the tools you use, and it doesn’t have to be concept-driven, but for me, today’s artists really need to have a message, largely because art is the one medium that can distract everyone from their phones and adverts.

What is the best part about what you do? How about the worst?

To be honest, I don’t think like that, so there is no worst; it is just what it is.

What does the future hold for you and your art? Do you have a dream project?

I don’t know. Surely I’m kind of living the dream already? I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing, I guess.

Visit Louis’ website at louismasai.com, check out his Facebook page and follow him on Instagram and Twitter @louismasai.