Devotional street art: an interview with Markos Gage

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In the heart of Melbourne, Australia, Markos Gage works and lives creating public art inspired by mythology and his own personal spirituality. Gage identifies as an Hellenic polytheist, Dionysian artist, and Bacchic Orphic. He said, “I’m a devotee to Dionysos and claim some kind of initiation into his mysteries. I identify these mysteries as Dionysian Artist.”

The Funeral of Medusa [© Pan Fine Art, used with permission]

Gage grew up in Frankston, and was reared by his mother and grandmother. He said, “My memory is a blur in this period as a result of child abuse from my disabled and alcoholic stepfather.” His mother, who he described as a exceptionally kind, was the “sole bread-bringer of the family” and worked long, exhausting hours. He’d often hide away in his room and just play with his toys.

Gage’s mother eventually left his abusive stepfather, which was a life-changer for him. “I felt free to explore what I wanted to do in life, including art.” He added, “My childhood has undoubtedly left emotional scars, ones that I am dealing with now, but it also shaped the person I am today.” He holds no grudges for what happened, and he uses his past to shape what he does today.

His difficult early years were not the only challenge in his youth. Gage is also dyslexic. “I don’t like thinking that dyslexia is a disability or a hindrance,” he said, “but a different function of the brain, especially in regards to visuals.” This condition also led him down a creative and visual path. “I was inclined to art, attracted to it because I could understand it directly.”

Today Gage and his partner are a fixed presence in Melbourne, creating devotional sidewalk art dedicated with direct connections to mythological stories, Renaissance paintings, and Pagan spirituality. For eight years, they have been creating sidewalk art downtown or on the Southbank promenade along Melbourne’s riverfront. They have also visited other cities along the east coast of Australia.

Artist Markos Gage [courtesy photo].

We spoke with Gage about his work, both past and present, and how he integrates and manifests his beliefs into his life.

TWH:  When did you first start creating as an artist? 

Markos Gage:  My first serious attempts at art came about when I was 13 or so. My sister is interested in New Age and has some talent for herself, so we both attended drawing classes for what is called “intuitive drawing.” This was influenced by New Age artists like Carole Bourdo. This style of drawing was very popular at New Age festivals, and obvious cultural appropriation.

The actual process of intuitive drawing is allowing your subconscious or spirit guides to control the art, which is usually planned out in abstract shapes then rendered over with pastels, eventually drawing animals or people. This was my introduction to spiritual art and pastel drawing.

TWH: Did you eventually study art in school or professional institute?   

MG: I studied art at Frankston TAFE (technical and further education). This was, at the time, semi-free vocational training for two years. Attending TAFE for two years equals to a portion or unit of a Bacherlor’s in visual art.  While I now appreciate the time spent there and people I met, I found TAFE to be lacking in artistic technical training and more focused upon art theory, especially modern , post-modern art. I consider my skills as an artist as self-taught. The most important feature of attending TAFE was meeting my life partner Wayne McMillan.

TWH:  Do you have any specific artists that have inspired you?

MG: I honestly don’t think I would be an artist (or at least the artist I am today) if it weren’t for my partner Wayne. We are unique in that we work collaboratively in almost everything. Be it input into each other’s works, actually co-painting, drawing, co-designing, sculpting,  mould-making. From when we met we started working together as one artist, thus when I talk about my art I refer to it as our art. We often credit our art with both our names.

TWH: Tell us more about Wayne and how your unique artistic partnership works.

MG: There is a usual generalisation of artists being egotistical and individual. Instead, we’re an artistic partnership and work as one individual. Apparently, our relationship is so interesting a short documentary has been made about it.

After coming together there has been no art made by either of us that isn’t influenced by one another. This is done though input, directly drawing/painting on each other’s work, inspirational insight, suggested subjects and learning together. So I can’t speak of my art without speaking about Wayne’s influence, the same can be said of Wayne regarding myself.

As for Wayne, he’s a bit of an acquired taste. He can be a clown, outlandish, loud, vulgar and absurd. In many aspects his personality is opposite of my own. His background is similar to my own, coming from a broken family. He has a very unique heritage with one side of his family originating from the tiny Pacific republic of Nauru. I’m unsure of the extent of it, but I suspect this tribal background influenced him as a person.

Wayne is a naturally-talented artist, in terms of technique he has always been more advance[d] from myself, thus he has taught me everything I now know. Though Wayne has a respect for the gods, he refuses to categorise or identify himself as anything religious. That said, I’m often amazed by his profound insight into the gods and taps into the spiritual realms without the knowledge/education and study that I maintain.

Intuitive drawing 2001 [© Pan Fine Art, used with permission].

TWH: Do you have another job? Or are you a professional artist?

MG: I’ve never had a “real” job.  Things have changed since I was at TAFE, but I was very lucky to be entitled to student welfare while attending school and also the schooling was mostly free. That is not to say that I was living well off, there were many times Wayne and I were literally starving artists, but we both refused to get a job – thus focusing solely on our art.

During art school I came up with plans for when we completed school, one was an statue business. We established Hephaestian Studios (H-Studios) in 2006. This was made possible by a government business grant system that sponsored our business for a year. It lasted into its second year when we decided to do chalk art, which we’ve been doing since.

TWH: What forms of expression does your work take right now?

MG: It’s best to divide this question up, as our art is separated between street and studio. Until this year our street art has focused on Greek mythology, including esoteric and strange elements that involve personal cultus. However this year we have decided to go back to reproductions of old masters, still attempting to keep it in theme. This is because doing original work on the street is really hard on both of us. It is consuming to much of our time in the studio. It’s either dedicate all our time to the street or keep the street apart from our studio art.

Our studio art is typically dedicated to oil painting, [although] we’re both proficient in digital art and currently learning acrylics. The statues are an on-off venture, we need serious funding to restart them. The studio work is usually the same themes of Greek myths, there is typically a darker flair to it, including mystery elements, symbols. Most are Dionysian in nature. Lately, I’ve been working on paintings directly inspired from Greek pottery.

TWH: If money was no object, what is your favourite type of artistic expression?

MG: I think we’ve already done it. Between October 2011 to January 2014 we embarked on one of the most ambitious independent chalk/pastel drawing in Australia called The Awakening of Pan. This drawing is dedicated to Pan and Dionysos and comprises of eleven two-by-three-metre canvases all linked together to make one big drawing that is 22 metres (72 feet) long. This was made possible solely through donations off the street, thus proving the power, freedom and sacredness of the street itself. That all said, I would be happy to spend the rest of my days making small icons for the gods. It’s something I feel is a duty and honour to do as a devotional artist.

TWH: Let’s talk about your religion now. Tell us about your journey to polytheism.

MG: Religion was never a thing for me growing up; my family are mostly agnostic. My grandmother always had a dislike toward any religion and installed that into her children and they unto us. Later, after my stepfather left, my mother and sister developed an interest in New Age, including attending festivals, crystal parties (think Tupperware party but with crystals), meditation, Reiki, tarot, I Ching, neo-shamanism, aromatherapy, healing, cleansing, etc. I was exposed to this stuff but it never clicked with me, but otherwise I grew up in an open-minded and religiously liberal family. No-body cared when I ‘came out’ as a Pagan.

I can’t recall when I started being interested in mythology, most likely it was some kids books or claymation film or something. When I was 15 I got my first computer and thus the internet was opened to me. I still had a lot of problems reading at that time, but I fell in love with images of gods. This is when everything started changing for me; it was at this time I discovered my sexuality, when my reading skills went from pre-school equivalent to near my current grade level, and when I started seeking something.

I would often skip school and read myths all day on the computer, first Norse, Celt, then Greek. I fell in love with Greek myths and started experiencing spiritual encounters with the gods through dream. Half-jokingly, I searched to see if there were people who worshiped the Greek gods (honestly thinking I’d get no results), and bang, Yahoo groups with active members. Hellenic Pagan was the first group I joined and I have been an active member of it since. This was my serious starting point where I was introduced to basic concepts and begun reading more on Greek religion and history.

Poseidon statuette [© Pan Fine Art, used with permission].

TWH: Will you tell us about the moment you became a devotee of Dionysos?

MG: When I was 25 Wayne and I decided to go homeless, not due to financial reasons, just a desire to travel and live freely. We discarded all our possessions and walked away from our apartment with nothing but backpacks with some clothes. (I still practice asceticism to this day.) This was when a Greek god, one I had given little cultus towards in the past, literally burst into my life. I still don’t know the exact time this happened, or how, but he became a massive presence in my life, I became a devotee of Dionysos.

TWH: You call yourself the Gargarean and the Dionysian Artist. What do these terms mean?

MG: The Gargarean was a moniker I developed in 2010. Gargareans are a mythical tribe of men, counterparts to Amazons. The inspiration came from a fiction that Wayne and I have been working on for many years. In that fiction, Gargareans featured as a homosexual tribe of men directly inspired by the historical Sacred Band of Thebes. It was a name I kept until I had an initiation experience at the end of 2015. This experience totally reformed who I am today, thus giving rise to the Dionysian Artist known as Δ (Delta). I no longer use the Gargarean as a name, nor identify with it.

The Dionysian Artist is derived from the Dionysiakoi Tekhnitai (or Tekhnitai Dionysou). This was a historic guild and cult of theatrical professionals of ancient Greece; think Hollywood and the Vatican joined as one. The Dionysiakoi Tekhnitai became a powerful guild and is often considered the first trade union, first international religious organisation, and also ancient diplomats equivalent of the UN. They were religiously apolitical and stateless, granting actors immunity from taxes, free travel and freedom of imprisonment. The reason why they were granted such powers is that art was recognised as a holy duty, one that would be hubris to suppress due to political boundaries and philosophies. Likewise, it was expected that these artists perform for everyone, even those deemed enemies of their native homeland. Historically this didn’t always work out in practice, but it was the Tekhnitai ambition and goal.

I relate to the Dionysiakoi Tekhnitai due to their function as devotional artists and as a public performer, thus it is my aim to replicate their practices, identity and re-establish their cultus including giving devotion to the Dionysian artists themselves. I therefore have strict rules in which I engage on certain topics, I attempt to remain neutral at all times, I’m apolitical, I do not vote, I do not hold nationalistic ideas, I don’t express political opinions, and avoid related conflict. This can be difficult at times.

TWH: Explain the use of the symbol Δ in you work.

MG: Δ is the name of the Dionysian artist – which is me – but it is a role I play as a devotee to Dionysos. This role is not mine, it has been granted to me by the gods. There may be other Δs who are different people in the future. Δ functions as a sacred link between artist and the divine, meaning all my artwork and writing is signed Δ as an indication of my devotion and lack of credit ownership of the work. Thereby I am the creator of this divine work, only that, the work itself is owned by and credited to the gods. Anyone who purchases my devotional art is a custodian of the art, I strongly encourage the buyer it to understand that.  Admittedly, this is out of my hands once I sell the work.

TWH:  Beyond the obvious connection to religious expression, your work stylistically recalls ancient works as well as renaissance art. When did you decide to go in that direction?

MG: The style of our work is really something that developed naturally. Before meeting one another, Wayne and I had unique styles in art that was quite opposite of each other. The back-and-forth artistic exchange between us over many years developed into the Renaissance, Botticelli-like cartoon style you see. The Renaissance and the pre-Raphaelites being massive influences on us both. Lately we’ve been focusing on Roman fresco and adopting the Apelles palette (red, white, black and yellow) to achieve similar effects.

As for why do we draw or paint in this style, well I don’t put much thought into the artistic process and allow it to develop naturally. That said, the Mannerist style was historically a deliberate avoidance of the real and influenced by Greek and Roman art, the focus is on the classical line, which is rooted in Egyptian artistic aesthetic.

[© Pan Fine Art, used with permission.]

TWH: Are there particular ancient works or renaissance artists that compel you?

MG: There is so much art that really inspires me, but overall I don’t think there is any other artist greater than the divine Michelangelo. The entire Sistine Chapel, David, The Slaves, Moses, Christ Carrying the Cross, The Pieta and Bacchus being my favourite pieces.

TWH: Even with this influence, your works aren’t copies. What is you thesis in rooting your art in these older images and evolving them to manifestation through spirituality? 

MG: Apart from the obvious reproductions (and call them such), the artwork attributed to us are not copies, it is also not pastiche art. It’s all original from basic composition sketches to full completion. Although there are some style choices that are similar to the Renaissance, Mannerism, the work is unusual in terms of aesthetic and standards of that epoch. Thus this is contemporary devotional art.

TWH: Do you believe your work fits within a particular genre?

MG: Our art does not fit into any modern genre of art. Nor do we identify it with any art movement. It is all devotional in nature, thus not even applicable to human definitions/labels. It’s for the divine to decide what it is.

TWH: Outside of your public street art, what other types of art have you done?

MG: I started with spiritual pastel drawings, including totem animals and basic portraits of spirit guides as a teen. In high school my finals in art was a modern western mandala based upon the Buddhist mandala, this piece inspired by naïve concepts of unified religious ideals. During art school I focused on figurative sculpture, icons for gods and oil painting related to urban decay.  Apart from the latter art, religion has been a continued focus of my art.

TWH:  Let’s talk more about the street art. Do you need licenses or legal permissions?

MG:  Melbourne is the most liberal, tolerant and supportive city in the world for buskers. I’m proud of that fact. … I have been involved in developing some of the permit rules, including granting artists the right to sell work on the street, opening new areas for artists to work, and also discarding some of the more nonsensical rules.

The rights that the council has to regulate buskers are a legal grey area. Technically the rules are deemed by-laws, not laws, and were not developed by lawyers or politicians. Thus the policing of the rules could be subject to legal or lawful query. Busking is not illegal so the council must regulate via public safety and amenities, which only include fines equal to littering, smoking in non-smoking areas, drunken disorderly, disturbing the peace etc …

Melbourne’s permit system is complex, yet, often cited as a good model for other cities… Each [type of] permit has rules designed around the act performed … The pavement art permit allows us to remain on the “pitch” (spot we busk on) for the entire day. Initial payment for the general area and pavement art permit is $20 for a year and $10 for yearly renewal; the prices of other permits range.

TWH: For these public works, what medium and process do you use? How long do they last?

MG: For a few years we just worked directly to the pavement, using chalk and pastels. In these cases how long it lasted depended on weather and street cleaners. Some would last up to a week, others less than a day.

We began working on canvases when we started developing plans for The Awaking of Pan. We wanted to do something big, but knew it would be impossible to do direct to the ground. So we developed a technique for pastels on canvas. This is done via a priming paint I mix up with pumice powder, to give the canvas an adhesive sandpaper-like surface. The pastels are then applied in layers working from light to dark body colour with final colours applied on top in successive layers. This application of pastel is very sculptural and allows easy alteration if required.

The techniques we use are relatively new, some we have developed by ourselves. So in terms of longevity, it is unknown. However there are pastel drawings from the Renaissance that have held up better than oil paints. Pastels are a non-volatile medium and many of the pigments we use are made from earth tones. In theory, and if cared for properly, the artwork could last hundreds of years, maybe thousands.

Clash of the Tides [© Pan Fine Art, used with permission].

TWH: How does it feel to be working while people watch and walk by? 

MG: I have to admit that it can be nerve-racking. The street is a beautiful thing, something I worship and regard as the source of all arts. It is the agora, the open forum of the city and thus life. It is chaotic, dangerous, kind, powerful, seedy and splendid. It is Dionysian. The street has been very good to us, but also we have suffered from physical assaults, gang bashing, stalking, and regular petty theft.

When we work we enter into a meditative state and focus on our work. This disconnects us, to a degree, we enter a zone where we’re totally engaged in art making. But in the back of our minds we are also aware of our surrounding, it can make us a bit paranoid. I tend to place up personal barriers, both in my attitude of dealing with people and spiritual barriers. There is a lot of miasma we have to wade through on the street which can be spiritually detrimental to us.

Then there is the positive, of all the negative this is counteracted a thousand fold by the support and praise and beaming smiles of the street. Seeing people engage with our work, seeing them take photos, us receiving constant compliments (and coin!) is a great encouragement to making art. I sincerely feel this is an honour and I’m proud that we are able to brighten up people’s lives.

TWH: One notable aspect found in some of your works is the presence of Phanes, which can appear to many as a visual subversion  with regard to the body. Tell us about this image. 

MG: Wayne and I happen to be in a homosexual relationship, but one thing we avoid and strongly discourage is being labelled gay or queer artists. It’s simply not what we’re about. We don’t identify with gay culture and live apart from it.

Phanes plays a very important role in the personal mythos that Wayne and I have. Phanes is the first god in many Greek creation stories, the god that binds the universe together and creates union between heaven and earth, thus he is also known as the Elder Eros. As a supreme deity he is a mixture of male or female, in flight and grounded and of animals – that include predator and prey, essentially he is a paradox of extremes. In my mythos and cultus Phanes is one of the first form or incarnations of Dionysos, the purest form.

The Awaking of Pan [© Pan Fine Art, used with permission].

TWH: Have you had backlash with regard to this image or to any other evocative works?

MG: I don’t expect the public to understand what we’re doing. The times we are working on ‘evocative’ images is deliberate means of opening spiritual doorways and reintroducing what has been forgotten back into reality. It is direct and powerful. In these instances our ambition is to produce something spiritual, how people interact with this work is consequential and not the main ambition.

The Awaking of Pan and The Epiphany of Phanes are both related drawings in that they mean the same thing and feature Phanes. How people react to this is up to them, some find it awe inspiring, some have cried in joy, others are offended and yell abuse (Christian fundamentalists love us!). However it’s the street, a chaotic mess of random madness, I expect nothing more or less.

We’ve been producing street art since 2008, as of writing almost nine years. In that time we have completed hundreds of drawings of various subjects, themes, levels of nudity. In that time we’ve supposedly offended people by doing fully clothed figures, characters dressed in fur clothing, images of women, images of men, images of children, images of nudes etc. People will find anything to be offended.

That being said, the city council has received a total of four complaints against us (at least what I’m aware of). So far it has resulted in no action because our work fits into standards of nudity of other public artwork throughout Melbourne. It also has historical, cultural value. In terms of Australian law, censoring us would be difficult, we’re entitled to free speech and expression based upon implied rights in the constitution and the UN charter. Busking is not illegal and only governed by by-laws regarding public safety and amenities.

TWH: Why do it? What is your mission?

MG: This is a question asked a lot. The most superficial and basic answer is money. Wayne and I could have “real” jobs: working for some art store, teaching, or working at a café. Or we could work on the street making art for free to the public and generate a similar (or more) income as those supposed “real” jobs. It’s difficult being a professional artist, but we have found a niche that enables us to make a full time income without constantly selling our work, or catering to corporate businesses.

The other reasons as I’ve touched on in previous answers is that this is a spiritual act; this is more of a personal philosophy and function. It is our way of bringing our gods back to the people. But also passive enough that it is not in the face preaching or seeking to convert people.

Lastly is the impact we have on people’s lives. There is[sic] countless times where a typical middle-class Australian bloke will come up to us and say, “I’ll never set foot in an art gallery, but this is bloody beautiful!” People walk away with something that they would never of had if we were not there, it is memory, experience. Through our art with give the ultimate gift to the public completely free, in some cases this changes people’s lives. I can’t claim this is an ambition, but certainly something that is an incredible side effect of our presence. I find this to be a very beautiful correspondence and uplifting as an artist.

Sketches for their Sea Thiasos [© Pan Fine Art, used with permission].

* * *

Gage said that the coming year will be “massive transition” for both he and McMillan. “I’m experiencing spiritual nudges to get myself to Italy. This is why we’re becoming a little more commercial, i.e., producing reproductions of old masters.” Gage said he’d also like to visit the U.S. and see if he’s “eligible for initiation into the Starry Bull cult.”

As for projects, they are in the process of developing a tradition centered around a modern expression of the Dionysian artists, including a book project. With that, he continues to work on devotional paintings, ” especially inspired by Greek pottery and Roman fresco,” and his partner McMillan has started exploring chthonic deities and daemons, as well as a project based around the sea gods. Gage said that many of these project are worked on over years, so who knows where they’ll be or what will develop as time goes on?