With a work ethic to impress the staunchest Protestant, Steen Jones is doing what he loves.
Words by Meg Crawford Photograhs by Mark Clinton, Melissa Findley, Kiera Chevell & Billy Zammit
Steen Jones, a former tattooist and chippy, has had bugger all sleep over the past few days. To be clear, Jones, now a world-renowned street artist and entrepreneur, isn’t complaining – in fact quite the opposite: he loves what he does so much that he’d cheerfully forsake sleep in order to do it. “It’s my favourite thing, I’m just fortunate I get paid to do it,” he says.
When Jones moved to Brisbane at age 18 he gravitated towards the skating and punk/hardcore scene, which was where the seed of inspiration for his large scale, traditional-tattoo-inspired artwork was planted. For a start, he found himself surrounded by tattooed mates and became increasingly tattooed himself. “Before I knew it, I was 30 years old and covered in tattoos,” he says.
Jones’s experience with being tattooed, though, is something of a cautionary tale. “Yeah, I’ve lasered my hand, my whole left arm, all of my chest, the back of both of my calves and the side of my leg,” he says. “Although, I’ve already covered a lot of that up. When you’re young you don’t really understand the way illustrations should be or the difference between a clean and well applied tattoo, versus a poor tattoo. The more I understood it, the sadder I was about some of my choices, so I thought, ‘screw it’. I had a friend who had started lasering and I got rid of all of the shit.”
Jones also found himself living with a mate who was a tattooist, while he worked as a carpenter, and had his first glimpse of the solid work ethic the industry demands. “I’d be partying and drinking all the time and he’d be drawing,” he says. “I could see how much work had to be put into it – you had to live and breathe it.”
After breaking his right hand, Jones found himself hanging out at his mate’s shop, getting tattooed and helping out where he could (one handed). The boss saw him working in the shop for free and noticed that not only was he creative, he genuinely loved what he was doing (why else would you do it for nothing?) and offered him an apprenticeship. However, Melbourne’s siren song proved too strong and Jones moved to Fitzroy in 2012, staying in the thick of Fitzroy’s fertile street art scene. Jones only returned to Brisvegas when his mum suffered significant health issues just over a year ago.
The Fitzroy stint was Jones’s turning point. “It’s hard not to fall in love with the street art scene there,” Jones says. “It was almost overwhelming. I was living in an area that was so active in terms of street art. Our street was changing every day. I was also in the same suburb as Melbourne’s biggest street art studio and some of the most high profile artists. I found myself inspired by everything, from graffiti and tagging to street art installations and just Melbourne in general.”
Sensibly, Jones picked up carpentry again so that he had sufficient dough to live, while he honed his art, built his portfolio and took commissions on the side for artwork. It didn’t take long though before he was being commissioned so frequently that the day job had to go, which also coincided with the launch of his first business, the Few and Far Collective, in October 2013. “It was time,” Jones says. “I needed to break away from the job, but I didn’t want to hurt the guy I was working for – I really liked him. He knew though, I was coming in like a zombie every day, because I was up all night doing my artwork.”
Since then, Jones has had his nose to the grindstone with his thriving businesses – the Few and Far Collective and its new brother operation, Few and Far Studio, which launched in June this year. Few and Far Collective is an online store that sells casual wear, accessories, prints, skateboard decks and a few knick knacks (lighters and the like), all of which sport Jones’s beautiful and bold Sailor Jerry-inspired tattoo imagery, as well as images created for him by some of the coolest tattooists on the planet.
Jones’s new operation, the Few and Far Studio, is both a design studio and a one-stop shop, providing fine-art printing and laser engraving, as well as online store services. For instance, Jones and his team will do everything from building you a website and online shop to providing videography and art work, all of which is guided by Jones’s sharp design aesthetic and extensive experience with creative direction. Of course, amidst all of this Jones continues to be commissioned for his artwork. For instance, he’s recently designed the boxes for Melbourne’s hottest new doughnut establishment, Doughnut Time.
One of the unifying threads for Jones’s work has always been an abiding passion for traditional tattoo imagery. “I like tradition full stop – particularly traditional values,” he says. “I like the way the world used to be, at least in some ways. Plus, I’ve always loved the old guys with green and blue tattoos. They looked horrible and they didn’t give a shit about it. To me, that was cool. My granddad had really old ones and my uncle had a grim reaper on his arm, I was fascinated. The imagery appeals to me because it’s simple, bold and to the point – that’s what first took my interest. Later, that appeal was overtaken by my interest in the history of it all – why does it look like this, where does it come from and why is everything nautical? All of those questions made me even more curious and the more curious I was, the deeper I’d dig.”
Back when Jones first brought this style of imagery to the street with his aerosol artwork, no one else was doing it. “I know that because the minute that Sailor Jerry Rum found it, they flew me to New York and all of those opportunities just happened overnight because it was unique,” he says. “All of that happened because of my local influences, living in Fitzroy. You know, I’d been drawing at my desk for years and then one day it just hit me, why don’t I use my medium and create artworks that instead of being a tattoo the size of your hand will be a tattoo that occupies the side of a building? The bigger the better, the same as in the tattoo industry. You know, if you’re going to get a back piece, go as big as possible – I applied the same principles as in tattooing to my aerosol work. I wanted to do a really big flash sheet – something that world normally be done at A3 or A4 size, I was doing it five metres high and 20 metres long.”
Jones fondly recalls his first foray into the aerosol medium. “My very first one was a painting of a traditional rose in an abandoned building in Fitzroy,” he says. “It was scary, because I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I knew what I wanted to do, which was to replicate what I was doing on a small scale in a new domain. Doing it in an abandoned building was cool. It felt naughty. Also, I buzz off creating things in places where they don’t normally exist or where you’d never see them otherwise.”
His next work turned out to be for a dude who was “connected”. “His building looked like shit and I knew I could do better, so I went to him and said, ‘No offence, but your building looks horrible – it looks ghetto as. I’ve just moved to Melbourne, I’m a street artist with a trade background, so not only can I restore the building I can paint it properly and give you some eye catching designs and create a big landmark’. I even went there loaded with drawings. I worked on it all night every night for about two weeks. But during that time I got to know this guy and realised that he carried a pistol everywhere and was a bad arse. That really put a fire under me.”
Reviewing the history of the Few and Far stable of businesses, Jones has already enjoyed some pretty momentous highlights, including working with Vans, Red Bull, Sailor Jerry Rum and doing a mural with Oliver Peck (of Ink Master and Elm Street Tattoo fame). Nevertheless, Jones remains humble and awed. “I’ve done things that I didn’t think were possible – you know the fact that Vans even know who I am is insane to me,” he says. “I’ve been able to work with these top-tier companies and I’ve got a few more in the works, but it still doesn’t feel real. Some of the artists and people I’m working with I’ve followed all of my life and now I’m working with them on a professional level. If I was to give you one answer though about the peak achievement, it’d be being able to break away from the normal and create a life that I wanted.”