Indigo: Urban Artist On The Go

by Kate Andrews | October 7, 2009

Shallom Johnson is an urban artist, dancer, and fashion/arts writer currently based in Vancouver who has been painting under the alias Indigo since 2008. She paints beautiful, layered, and emotional pieces using meticulously cut stencils, spray paint and house paint. She’s moving fast, literally and figuratively, making her mark in the art world in just 1.5 years of professional painting. Consider that she just left a live painting event in Brooklyn, is now painting with C215 in Paris, then is off to Brittany to paint with artist Liliwenn and then more events and collaborations in Berlin, Moscow, Dresden, London, New York City again (in late November), LA, and then home to Vancouver. And despite this frenetic schedule, when you speak with her you sense the patience and quiet that is required to create the works that you can view below. I met her in Brooklyn, and we have since had an interesting email exchange over the past three days:

NoD: Where are you from?

Indigo: I’m currently based in Vancouver (have been living there for 10 years now) but I grew up in a log house in the middle of a forest in Northern BC.

NoD:You just painted at Mark Batty Publishing’s Urban Arts Festival in Brooklyn. How did that come about? How did it go for you?

Indigo: My involvement with MBP came about via facebook. I was going to be in NYC anyways, because it is so much cheaper to fly to Europe from there than it is if you go straight from Vancouver. I saw the event listing online, noticed that they hadn’t announced all the artists yet, and messaged Adri (one of the festival’s directors) to ask if they had space for me to get involved.

Shallom painting after the rain stopped.

Indigo painting after the rain stopped (Photo by Vincent Cornelli.)

It went really well, on all fronts – but during the days leading up to it, it seemed like everything that could go wrong, went wrong! First the paint shipment from MTN never showed up, then they got a little bit of paint but it was the wrong kind for me to use with stencils…finally got to the venue the day before to get my background done, and the space I was given was up on a narrow ledge with no available ladder to reach the top…then someone ran over two gallons of my housepaint with his car and got very angry at me because he couldn’t be bothered to watch where he was driving…then on the day of, we almost got rained out, and I was extra worried because I was leaving the very next day for Paris and wouldnt have had time to come back and finish my piece…it happened to be a full moon the evening of the event, and we were feeling the effects of that crazy full moon energy…

Indigo at Urban Arts Fest in Brooklyn. (Photo by Indigo.)

Indigo at Urban Arts Fest in Brooklyn. (Photo by Indigo.)

However, it all worked out in the end as I kept saying it would – managed to pick up paint at Blick, got ahold of a cherrypicker lift to paint the top of the wall, angry dude with the car came back later to apologize, and after two hours of rain the sun finally came out and the wind died down and I got my piece finished before dark!

Another work by Indigo.

Indigo at Urban Arts Fest in Brooklyn. (Photo by Vincent Cornelli.)

I met so many amazing people over the course of the two days I spent painting, was really happy with the end product of Mania and my collaboration (he provided the background stencil, I did the foreground images), the canvas pieces that I painted ended up all going to Wal-Art gallery in LA for a group stencil show in November, I made a connection with Modern Multiples (also based in LA) and began talks about doing a series of art prints in the future, and I headed off to Paris exhausted but extremely satisfied.

NoD: You left the Urban Arts event in Brooklyn and went to Paris where you are now painting with c215. Tell me about that, how it came about, have you collaborated before, send me a photo of the two of you and your work together! Take it from your mobile phone now! Don’t hesitate.

Indigo: I also got in touch with C215 over facebook – which I guess is either a sign of the way the industry works these days or just a sign that I am a bit of a social media addict, haha. He put up a posting about some legal walls in his neighborhood available to foreign artists to paint, and I said I’d be interested in painting one of them…I think there will be about 20 artists involved in total. We have never worked together before, but I have been following his work ever since I got into stenciling and have always found him to be a source of inspiration, so I’m really excited to be a part of this project. I don’t have a picture of the two of us together but I do have some pictures of the wall that we painted here.

Indigo's Collaboration with C215 in Paris

Indigo’s Collaboration with C215 in Paris. (Photo by Indigo)

NoD: Where to from Paris?

Indigo: Well my plans are constantly changing as new opportunities come up and I try to find the time and money to work them into my schedule. From Paris I am going to Brittany to paint with Liliwenn, then from there I am going to participate in the Paint and Beer festival in Amsterdam. After that I am headed to Berlin, where I will meet up with a group of artists from Tacheles and travel to Moscow for a 3 week residency. Once I get back to Berlin from Russia, I am going to try and visit Koloni in Dresden for a couple of days before flying to London for a week or so of painting and visiting. On my way back home, I am going to be flying back in through New York and LA and hopefully staying for at least a few days in both places. Then home to Vancouver where I will be showing some of the new work I am creating in Moscow (details still TBC).

NoD: You have not always painted? What is your education background?

Indigo: I have always painted and drawn but have only been pursuing a career as a visual artist for about a year and a half. I have a BFA in contemporary dance and English. I have been dancing since I was 4 years old. After highschool I had planned to do a double major in visual art and dance but ended up having to choose one, for various reasons, and dance won out.

NoD: And after you received your degree…

Indigo: I graduated from university in 2004. For 4 years I was working as a professional contemporary dance artist – performer, choreographer, instructor – until I got frustrated with the opportunities available to me, and the way that the industry was structured…in summer of 2008 I decided to give myself a break from dance over the summer and start spending more of my time painting…I still very much consider myself a dancer, even though I am not currently dancing. The transition from dancer to visual artist has been at times very challenging and I have gone through several moments of creative identity crisis…

I started stenciling in March of 2008, took a break from it for about 6 months over the winter and worked with acrylics and collage and ink….got back into it in early 2009 and haven’t slowed down since.

I have been working in the fashion industry since 2005. I started out as a blogger and now in addition to being the editor of Stylefinds, one of Vancouver’s top independent fashion blogs, I also freelance as a fashion and arts writer for Spade Magazine and ION Magazine. In writing for print I have been able to expand my subject matter to covering art and fashion, which has been a rather refreshing and appropriate change that has happened over the past year or so. In the past year I have also started being more active as a stylist and event planner.

I am a workaholic and I really don’t ever stop working, or sleep more than a few hours a night. My life tends to go in phases where one of my interests – art, writing, dance – takes precedence over the others – I have had to make some concessions in my creative practice and admit to myself that I cannot do everything all at once if I am going to do anything to the best of my abilities. Right now, at this moment in time, art comes first. I’ve just made the leap into being a full time artist, having had to quit my day job in order to take this trip. Hopefully it is something I can sustain even after I get home.

NoD: Describe your work / painting? You create multiple layers / stencils using what material? Do you digitally manipulate the photos you use first? And where do the photos come from?

Indigo: I make multilayered photorealistic stencils, mainly pictures of people. I am drawn to images that are melancholy, sad and thoughtful. My work is quiet and contemplative. to me it feels like it is somewhere in between fine art and urban art, in terms of aesthetic and concept. I am interested in hinting at the stories of the people that I portray, while leaving the viewer to interpret a narrative or underlying meaning. I get my images from a variety of sources: photos I’ve taken myself, pictures taken by my photographer friends, or found images.

I cut my stencils from Duralar (a clear plastic film). I don’t use a computer at any stage in the creation process, other than to print out the original picture onto a transparency. From there, I project the image against a wall, tape up a sheet of duralar and trace each layer directly onto the plastic with a sharpie. After that it’s just a hell of a lot of cutting and more cutting. For quite some time I was using a pyrograph (a heated point tool meant for decorative wood burning) to cut my stencils, then I shorted out all my tips this summer after a few too many 10-hour burning sessions, and I’ve since gone back to cutting everything with a blade.

NoD: How did you begin calling yourself Indigo?

Indigo: I chose it because when I was a kid I had some peculiar unexplainable experiences consistent with how people describe Indigo children.  Last summer those peculiarities in perception started reasserting themselves, and now they seem to be here to stay.

NoD: OK…big philosophical kind of question. New artists, primary market artists today (more than ever) need to do more than make good art. Do you think this is true / becoming increasingly true? What I mean is, the artist has to be accessible. Like any other career, artists now have to maintain an online AND community-focused personality that their audience can get to know…and that personality needs to be interesting and sincere. I think there is sincerity in your work for sure, so I don’t intend to come across as cynical, but I also think you understand the need to package your work with a persona and that is ultimately what people want. I’m rambling. Do you find this line of questions interesting?

Indigo: Totally interesting, on a few levels. So many artists, myself included at times, have real problems handling both creation (creation of a body of work) and promotion (construction/dissemination of,etc). And I’ll admit it is exhausting to try and do both. One usually suffers and if I am going to choose one it will most definitely be creation because if you don’t make anything then what the hell are you going to spend your time promoting?

Audiences have always been interested in the artists’ personality just as much as the art itself. I think that with the prevalence of the internet, that interest has just found a new venue, and it is one with which audiences can easily find out more and have a more direct connection than ever to artists who they are interested in. I am a social media addict, I feel like a bit of a dork about it sometimes, but it’s true. I think that accessibility is important but it has to happen on the artists’ own terms, with a more fine tuned awareness about how public everything has the potential to be nowadays.

I think that with venues like Twitter and Facebook it’s really easy to just say whatever the fuck comes into our heads, no matter how random or personally revealing that might be…I know I am horrible at self-censorship and have had to make a conscious effort to become more aware of what I am putting out there and how it’s perceived by the rest of the world. I am not crafting a persona for myself, however. I am just being me – and luckily that seems to be interesting enough all on its own. I think that the most successful users of online social media are the ones that promote and engage the participants on some level of communication or collaboration offline as well. I wrote a bit about this a while back, as it related to a project that unfortunately never really got off the ground.

That said, persona aside – substance is key. If your work cannot speak for itself, if you have nothing to back up whatever face (or lack of face) you are putting out to the world, then you won’t be taken seriously by your peers, or by those people in the industry that know what they are talking about when it comes to art, and have the potential to impact your life and your career in a positive way. You need both – a way to engage with your audiences with more than just your artwork, and the commitment and motivation and creative energy to consistently be in creation mode, pushing your boundaries. Talk is cheap, and at some point people are going to expect you to stop talking and start doing, or find some way to do both at once.

blah blah now I am rambling I have been too long on airplanes today and it is time for sleep. more questions or points of discussion are welcome.


Designer and writer Kate Andrews was the original editor of Notes on Design blog, founded in 2007.


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