Valentina is her real name, but only her parents call her that. Everybody else knows this flamboyant artist by the more exotic name of Coco Wasabi. ‘It works. I have about four thousand stickers with the name on it. It looks like the Chanel logo and it reads who the fuck is Coco Wasabi? I’ve pasted them all over the city,’ she laughs.
She just got back from Stockholm, where she was working Bjørn Borg’s people.
Did you like the city?
‘Yes I thought it was really beautiful, but a little bit too clean. Everybody there was very strict and beautiful and flawless; it was too perfect. It looked like it was designed by Ikea,’ she says. ‘There wasn’t a sticker or a tag or any sort of street art. My hands were aching to do something about that and mess it up a little bit.’ Coco lights a cigarette; it’s the reason we’re sitting outside, although the weather isn’t perfect. ‘You know: cigarettes aren’t cheap. But talking about expensive, you have to be a millionaire to be a smoker in Sweden.’
I really like your art. It’s funny and esthetically pleasing . Is there a social meaning behind it?
‘Well, there isn’t a social meaning behind every picture, because a lot of them are bound by a contract and I have to do what the customer tells me. I don’t like that, because it stands in the way of my freedom. When you work with art, you work with emotions. It’s difficult to make something nice when you’re not feeling it.’
But isn’t it helpful to have boundaries?
‘It depends on the project. If I’m interested in the theme it’s much easier, but I have to feel it. Do you know Kurt Cobain? One of his most famous quotes was: “thank you for tragedy; I need it for my art”. And I can identify with that, because when I feel bad, my work is the best. But unfortunately it’s harder to sell art about tragedy; I never sell a picture that is full of it. I only sell the beautiful ones. I once made a picture about the revolution in Iran, but when I showed it to people – gallery owners – they never chose that picture. They prefer to stay on the safe, happy side.’
So if you want to make money it’s better to make happy art?
‘Yes. That’s why I try to make happy art most of the time. It’s also very difficult to sell art about politics, because people don’t understand what I mean. It’s my impression of things, and I don’t want to explain it to them. It means what they think it means. I’m not their teacher and they should vote on the basis of their own opinions. ’
So you don’t mind when they see something completely different?
‘No, I really don’t. It’s their view.’
I have the impression that contemporary art nowadays is not allowed to be cheerful, but is expected to be sad or provocative? .
‘Yes, but this is not what people buy. You don’t want a shocking picture in your living room. When I finish my study I want to make a living out of selling my pictures. Right now I’m still working as a part-time waitress in the evenings, because I have to pay rent. So that’s why I’m making pictures that people would want to buy. It’s a business life, and I just figured that out last year. It’s a hard business and it’s all about credits. Once you’ve built up more credit, people will buy more.’
What do your parents think about the fact that you’re an artist?
‘They don’t like it very much. My parents are self-employed and both really hard workers. When I started working with art they let me do it, because they thought that one day I would do something more serious. When I took them to the university they were proud for the first time, because I think they understood that it’s a business as well. I can be successful and I can make a living out of it. My parents’ view is that you have to be successful in life. They are materialistic. And they hate my tattoos.’ If that’s true, they have reason enough to be annoyed with their daughter: she has a lot of paint on her skin. But the biggest shocker is on her arms. She points at them, asking me: ‘You know who these people are?’ I don’t. ‘They are my mom and dad. I came home and I said: “look”. They were pretty upset.’
Does the government in Austria help artists?
‘There’s special insurance for artists. What’s so nice about Austria is that you have a back-up in every situation in life, which is not normal compared to the rest of Europe. If you don’t have a job, you still get 80% of your last salary for half a year. There is a very good social network. All my friends from around the world think I’m very lucky for living in Austria. And I think so too.’
We are interrupted a few times during our conversation, mostly by beggars. A cheeky-looking Roma boy comes to our table, knowing that the lady with the tattoos won’t let him down. ‘They know me from my work as a waitress,’ she says while giving him one euro. The little boy gives us a big grin and runs away. ‘Share it with your buddies!’ Coco yells after him. She turns back to me: ‘I always give them some money, because I think that the politics about refugees and immigrants are a critical point in this country. It’s not easy for them to stay and it’s not easy for them to create a life here. That’s why I think it’s important to be friendly to them.’
Do you think that every refugee should be welcome in Europe?
‘I think that’s a difficult issue. Every human being is the same so the refugees should have the same rights as we have, but if you open the border there will be so many people coming here. And the system can only work if people work with the system. I’m afraid that if there are millions more people, the system won’t work. So I believe we should help the refugees by creating a great system in their own country, so they’re not dependent on us.’
Do you feel European?
‘I’ve always felt very international and not Austrian in particular. I feel universal. I’m a child of the world and I’ve always been very interested in different cultures. I think that traveling has made me like that. If you travel you need to be open, otherwise you won’t meet other people. And if you want to get to know a different city or country you have to meet the citizens.’
Last May there were European elections. Did you vote?
‘No. I usually do but it depends if I have time. I’m not sure if I believe in this democracy. I think everything is manipulated and that people don’t really have a voice. They give the impression that you can vote but I don’t think it matters. But although I didn’t vote, I still hope there were a lot of green ones, because that’s my political preference. I’m a vegetarian, and I give money to Greenpeace and ‘save the planet’-things.’ I ask her if there’s anything the EU can do to improve the environment. She lights another cigarette – her twentieth? – and looks at the grey fumes for a while. ‘Apparently there are cars in Brussels with stickers on them, and you are allowed to use them only four days a week. I like that, because maybe it will create a system where people will share. I also think there could be more awareness of surroundings.’
Not so long ago there were all these southern countries, like Greece and Spain, who were having financial problems. The richer countries helped them out. What do you think about that?
‘I honestly can’t tell you, because I’m really not interested in financial politics. I don’t understand it. I’m way more interested in refugee politics, human rights and environmental things. So I don’t put an effort into understanding the financial things. I don’t even know how the European Union works.’
When we walk to the art-academy Coco attends, she gives me a beautiful compliment. ‘You know, I’m jealous of you. I think the richest man in this Youropeans project is you, because you will get so much experience from it. You have inspired me and because I met you my day is so much better.’ I hope she realizes that she made my day as well by saying this.
(interview by Mark, written by Sophie Markvoort)