Fats Patrol (Fathima) is an Indian-Canadian artist born and raised in the Middle East. Her work is a study of symbols and semiotics and our drive to make sense of the world through mythology, folklore and storytelling. A 3rd culture kid who has spent most of her life torn between religious and cultural value systems and boxes, Fats looks to story-telling for universal messages that resonate across borders and categories.
Fats’ style of drawing takes inspiration from illustration and comic books her and her brother (who is a cartoonist) grew up with. Her style also resonates of Indian block printed fabrics, Arabic calligraphy and ethnic patterns along with many other visual influences. Her art isn’t so much about a particular culture but rather a fusion of several that all seek to tell the same stories and connect people.
Immigrating to Canada when she was 17, Fats completed a BA in Art and Culture at U of T and later an MA in sociology in the UK. Through her study she has developed a love for art with purpose, in particularly public art and outreach and travels to work with challenged communities most recently in India and Jordan.
In 2010 she was awarded the Sheikha Manal Young Artist Award in Dubai. And in 2011 she founded The Domino, a small business and platform that has helped pave the way for Dubai’s artist community and grass roots movement.
Interview with fatspatrol
One of your first murals was a summer youth project with Mural Routes. What was that first mural that you worked on, and can you tell us a bit about it?
That was actually my first proper mural! Before that I hadn’t really worked on work intended for a large wall, much less a public wall. I was 18, I had been in Canada a year and I was studying studio art at UTSC at the time. That project was called Flight. It was a piece that told the story of migration and a refugee population in that particular neighbourhood along Kingston Road through the narrative of the Monarch butterfly and its migration path from Mexico as well as its metamorphosis. Sort of parallel stories with similar sentiments, if you will. The project was led by Rob Matejka. It was a really important experience for me in my journey of working up to street art as on of the focal areas of my career, as well as developing an understanding of that place where community and art meet.
Did you know after that first project that you wanted to be a mural artist? What made you want to pursue mural art?
To be honest I wasn’t ever confident enough about my work to think I would ever call myself an artist or pursue a career as an artist. That didn’t really change until 5 years ago when a few massively challenging things happened in my personal life. But I did discover a few things in that project that I carried forward: most importantly a context for art that I hadn’t really considered previously ie. outside the gallery space, and the community and social aspect of art. Those concepts led me to eventually do a masters in Sociology where I wrote my thesis on art in public spaces as a model for how art affects and impacts society. For me personally, art just made more sense in public space. I have worked in galleries as well and I completely appreciate them as a space for a particular kind of work, but I just find the the way art vibrates in public space far more exhilarating, inclusive, engaging and ultimately freeing. I’ve also always had a love for scale. I was a super shy kid and I think working at scale has in some way given me a lot of power. Public art gives my life a lot of meaning. As someone who can be quite socially anxious, it gives me a way to engage with people that is more authentic and meaningful and honest.
You have been involved in murals now for over 15 years. Can you tell us about your career path, and the changes you’ve seen in the industry or field?
I’ve been involved with murals for 15 years, though not always painting them myself. After I finished my degree in Toronto I headed to the UK to do my masters in sociology, focusing on public art. I then moved back to Dubai for 10 years where the art scene was extremely young. The first galleries were just popping up so street art wasn’t on the agenda really and I wanted to change that after the things I had learnt and fallen in love with in Toronto and London. So in 2011 after I won an art award in Dubai for some large paintings i did, I started a small platform and company called The Domino which creates opportunities for artists while creating dialogue about a few fundamental aspects of working with artists like compensation, original work, artist integrity etc. and ultimately about public and street art as well. We started with little paint jams in parking lots and live art on temporary walls and construction hoarding to eventually now painting actually large public walls in Dubai. I’ve painted some of these walls but The Domino works with a massive database of artists and we’ve curated hundreds of projects over 8 years. I’m very proud of what we’ve achieved. The company is now run by my friend and fellow artist Paul Bruwer and I go back and forth through the year between Toronto and Dubai. In the last 5 years I shifted towards taking myself more seriously as an artist which the company helped with as well. I’ve been extremely lucky to have had the opportunities I have had and to represent for the communities I belong to whilst painting in places like Ireland, Australia, Jordan, Austria, Jersey, the UK and of course Toronto and Dubai.
In terms of changes: I think as expected it’s the commercialization of a field or movement that comes with its popularity. At least in Dubai where there isn’t significant funding or projects for public art like there are in Toronto, we had to rely on commercial projects to get paid and build a movement of sorts. And it’s that shift from graffiti and its implications of vandalism and illegality and to some extent freedom, to street art which is far more socially accepted but also attracts corporate endorsement and corporate marketing agendas that some might feel compromises the heart behind the work and bastardizes it a little bit. But I think if you want to be a working artist who gets paid, there is a balance to be achieved between compromising how you work and delivering something to a funder or client, which is what The Domino tries to do.
You were brought up in Dubai to Indian parents, and lived between there, Toronto and London, those experiences have impacted or influenced your work and career?
Visually, it definitely impacts my work. I think my style is just a big medley of all these visual influences I grew up with from Indian block printed fabrics to Arabic calligraphy to graffiti to comic books. It’s only recently that I’ve become really aware of those tiny little things that I was so used to seeing as a kid that are playing out unconsciously in my work today. I think my interest in storytelling, mythology, universal symbols etc. also comes from not really belonging fully to any one culture which kind of led me to create a style that represents all those different pieces. Spiritually, Dubai is where I learned to be ambitious and think about business, India is where i learnt about visual richness and values and culture, Toronto is where I learnt about community engagement and identity politics and London was where I first really took in the diversity and richness of street art for the first time and I think that’s why I’ve had a career that dabbles in so many areas from outreach with underprivileged kids, to super commercial projects for brands to recently taking up lino printing to just telling stories about mythological birds!
What artists or ideas have been major influences on your work?
My brother is an illustrator/ cartoonist in Toronto. I think as his little sister I’ve actually stolen a lot of imagery without realizing it! He works with a lot of animal imagery as well, giving them narrative and personality and messages and I think I’ve borrowed a lot of that in my own way in the last 5 years because I now write my own little poems to go with my drawings very much like he’s done off and on for years! Story telling runs through us both. The birds, the odd fish, again a lot of symbols and imagery could have come from being exposed to his work which I then develop in my own way.
In street art I would say my top top is ROA. Again a lot of that nature imagery/ illustration in public space. I love a lot of black, I’ve always used a lot of black. So when I first saw his work in London 12 years ago, it kind of epitomized my favorite aesthetic.
Do you have a favourite project of yours that stands out for you, and why?
I’d rather not pick a favourite because each one has such a unique story and sort of set of events around it that they’re hard to compare. I loved Australia because I’d never been there and I got to spend a few weeks with my best friend on the road. I love Jordan because the walls are so unique and fragile and the spirit of the people there is amazing. I love painting in Dubai because I every time I do it feels like a significant milestone for the local artist community there. Vienna was awesome because I worked with another artist for a change. So they’re all really unique and really special in their own way.
What are some common obstacles or challenges that you do encounter working in this field? What advice would you give to emerging artists interested in mural art?
I’d say funding is always a major one. The majority of the festivals I paint don’t pay but they do cover costs. I’m sure they would pay artists if they could but the costs associated with painting walls and flying and accommodating artists are quite high and I know first hand the challenges of getting adequate funding for a project. As The Domino the conversation with clients/ funders/ etc. about why a certain amount of money is required and why artists need to be compensated appropriately and why exposure is not an adequate form of compensation has a been an exhausting one to be honest. I believe so much in the value of art and to have to explain it can be disheartening sometimes.
I would also say it can be quite hard to stand out and be confident about your work. There’s some incredible street artists out there and I’ll be honest I’ll see images sometimes and say “well I might as well just give up!” It took me far too long to build up the confidence or self worth or feel legitimate enough to take myself and my career as an artist seriously. But everyone is somewhere different on a journey. Being an artist is a journey that involves learning and evolution and turmoil and doubt and triumph and all of those stressful and wonderful things. And you kind of have to just jump in and go through it. I look at walls I painted 5 years ago and I’m surprised anyone thought they were good enough and I’m constantly frustrated that my work isn’t improving fast enough or worry about what other artists think. But if you can turn that into something that drives you instead of holding you back, then you’ll start getting somewhere.
Can you tell us about some exciting current projects or one that you have planned for the near future?
I’ll be painting in Calgary as part of the BUMP festival in 2 weeks time! August 17 – 31st. I’m excited about that one because it’s the tallest wall I’ve ever painted and the story that I’ve written up to go with the piece is quite an important one for me. Calgary is where my family landed as immigrants years ago. After that I’ll be painting in Mexico City in September as part of the CIMU festival which is an all female street art festival. I have started to engage more and more with the conversation about being a female artist, being an immigrant, being a member of minority groups, etc. as I spend more time in Canada! I’m also coming to the end of quite a long stretch of painting birds I think. Not to say I won’t be painting birds at all but the birds were part of an important story and that story is ending, which I’m trying to piece together and tell in a book I’m working on! So that’s a new ongoing project.
Last question – Can you describe what is the value for you in having a Mural Routes membership, and what is the importance of Mural Routes and the work we do?
I now split my time between Toronto and Dubai. I had lived away from Toronto for almost 14 years so coming back last year and finding opportunities as an artist and knowing where to start was pretty tricky. The membership has really helped in being alerted to calls for submissions which is so crucial, even for projects that don’t involve Mural Routes. The resources really help. For me, the mentorship in that initial project was a vital starting point for my career and the fact that those programs not only still exist but are so much more developed in providing training and information and learning for young emerging artists is fantastic! I’ve been asked by a few younger artists recently where to start, and I always point them in the direction of Mural Routes.
Check out more of fatspatrol’s work: