INTERVIEW BY MOLLY SIMMONS
Oz hal0 is a dynamic multimedia artist who creates soundscapes, visual art pieces and tattoos. Petit Mort sat down with them in their studio to talk about the importance of community, the influence of sex work in art and coping throughout the pandemic.
PETIT MORT (MOLLY SIMMONS)
You are currently working on both visual art projects and as a tattoo artist. Could you talk a little bit about your process and what has driven you to each of these fields?
I guess a good place to start is that for most of my life I’ve been a musician and performing artist doing improvised, experimental, vocally-driven, soundscapes. ”I’ve been performing solo as Morher (currently on hiatus) for about 8 years, and I was in a project called Stalebirth in my early 20s. I’ve made a lot of experimental films through the vessel of that space.
When I was 25 I got offered a scholarship to go to an art school. And while I was in that art school, I got really disillusioned by their sound department which was just a bunch of old white men with really expensive modular gear. So as a release from school I started leaning into painting and got really involved in the sculpture department. I started having a lot of really intense health issues, though, and dropped out and bounced around a little bit. Still playing shows, still going on tours. But in this moment where I felt like I was reaching my end with sound—it wasn’t where my heart was anymore.
I started having seizures on stage because my health issues were just getting worse and worse. My last show that I played was a week before the COVID lockdown hit. And I remember thinking, this is my last show. I was on stage for five minutes and I asked them not to do anything with flashing lights. They did. Because in DIY culture they just want to make it as weird as possible. And like, not throwing shade at anybody, it’s just not always the most accessible space.
So I entered into lockdown already feeling done with music. And then during lockdown, the first few weeks of being stuck in an apartment with all of the same visual stimuli was really hard on my mental health—I’m bipolar one and autistic. I started to have very mild hallucinations in the corners of my eyes, that sort of thing. My only ever good therapist has taught me that something that can really appease your brain in that space is visual stimuli. So I took out this dollar store thing of watercolor paints and I just started pouring water on cheap old canvas and then following the water trails with watercolors and doing a color therapy sort of stimulation with myself. And it really helped. I was doing it like every day. And the pieces just got slowly bigger and bigger.
It wasn’t my first time really fucking with painting. It was just my first time treating it as my routine. This is what I do every day. And when we got the Bernie checks for $600 a week I got an art studio, I bought myself a bunch of wood panels, and I started experimenting with other textures—things that I’ve learned from working in sculpture and also before that doing manual labor jobs like landscaping, interior design, finishing, and fabrication. I was mixing materials that I would use to finish a bartop with the watercolor and grabbing a random thing intuitively—actively just making work.
I think a lot of people started really leaning into decorating their homes and wanting art around and so the pieces also started to sell. One of my best friends commissioned like three pieces from me. It kept me afloat through the pandemic, so I really started leaning into it. My roommate at the time is a really, really incredible tattoo artist (@bigolbrat on Instagram). And they have this really incredible illustrative, cartooning style—all self taught. And they were like, “let me give you a machine.” We got drunk a lot, and probably did act a little risky tattooing each other.
It was the first few months of the pandemic, we had a lot of coping mechanisms. I really started obsessing with it—at the same time there was so much going on—I’d be on meeting calls about SWOP Brooklyn, while working on tattooing oranges, or disassociating playing video games for 12 hours straight. That first year of the pandemic I felt like I had to be doing something with my hands at all times, and learning how to tattoo became a sort of obsession, and was my daily sketchbook practice, whereas painting became the bigger thing. Then I just started trying to translate my painting style into tattoos. And it started with animals and shapes and then I thought, how do I bring more free flow into this?— and I’m still building on that right now—learning how to use stencil ink, putting that directly on someone’s body as a guide, using the liquid from that with different mixes of inks to paint on the body in the same way as a water color. I’m learning how to work on skin and still have that same intuitive process with it. I work with somebody and see their body and how it accepts or rejects ink the same way I would a surface with watercolor. And having to really develop a feel for it has been such an incredible and rewarding practice. And there’s so much trust—there that’s fucking love and trust. It’s bomb. It’s really great.
Both your visual art and your tattoos are pretty abstract. Some of your tattoos are more formative, but a lot of the work, especially your brushstrokes, are very abstract. What themes do you like to explore in your work? Is there crossover between the themes that you explore in visual art and in tattooing?
Where do I start? I’ve said this many times before, probably never in a formal interview. So for the first time it will be published: I’m a multimedia artist—in the sense that I’m not trying to learn or master a specific physical skill. I’m trying to learn or master an internal state of being. And that translates, no matter what I’m doing, whether I’m washing the dishes or making a giant painting. I’m trying to become a clear window for things to come through. I’ve had a very United States life—I’m not trying to act like I have this special spiritual knowledge and power as an indigenous person, but I come from ancestral lineages of Native Americans on my father’s side, and Rromani, and Slavic, whatever mix of Mediterranean and Eastern European and Rromani bullshit on my mom’s side. Before, I was trying to take the spirit of that into my sound work, and I feel like now I’ve been just doing that with my visual work. And learning how to trust the present moment is the ultimate goal, right?
The deeper that I can get into a simple brushstroke, the more detail that I can bring into that and the more expression and the more emotion and visual language, the better. I have no knowledge of what tattooing in the pre colonial era was like, they have this really deep connection to it—when you’re tattooing you are helping someone more so become themselves. Whether it’s like the most simple repeatable, it’s still one of a kind, and it’s made for you and I am listening to your body and responding—listening to your sense of aesthetic desire and responding to that. Because those are really deep, powerful motivators that inform who you are. So I’m really trying to lean into creating something with someone in the moment that brings my hand in, but also brings their aesthetic desire in and builds a new layer. It’s like building a language—not to get that deep about a fucking brushstroke. And it looks cool—that really informs a lot about yourself when something looks like you and informs who you are. Also, I think that it’s just really powerful when someone resonates with something strong enough that they’re willing to have it permanently put on their bodies. I know even if it seems like a dumb design, it still makes me feel like “oh my god, you want me to permanently mark you for for the rest of your corporeal life?” I’m so honored for that trust. Just, wow.
So you’ve also been a sex worker for several years. Do you find that has shaped your work at all? Are sex work and the things that you face something that you explore in your work?
It comes and goes, you know. Sex work is definitely a big part of my reality. I’ve been a sex worker for 17 or 18 years now. On and off.
I will say that being a sex worker has allowed me to become an artist and to really prioritize being an artist over anything else in my life. I would also say being a sex worker is somewhat circumstantial, because I have tried to conform to society and I usually get fired. So you know there’s a mix of give and take there. Sometimes I have resentment towards the space, I also have love and gratitude for it. But also, it’s only a small part of me. I think that the thing that motivates me the most that comes up in my work is that I really love making portraits of the people who I feel deeply connected to in life. And I haven’t done portraiture in a minute, but bringing in those elements—of my sex worker community, which is my fucking family, is a huge part of what motivates me.
I’ll also say I am really obsessed with the power and the mysticism of femininity – I have put hair extensions in my work, I’ve put the acrylic powder that we use on our nails into my work, I bring in aesthetics and colors and things that I think are really bringing that mysticism into my aesthetic language. It’s such a deeply embedded part of my aesthetic language from when I put my makeup on in the morning and do my hair to when I’m painting—I don’t know that it translates directly, but it’s about looking at what’s in front of us.
I was so inspired by the disgusting New York cement—walking around on it during the BLM protests, we were tromping on that cement. Then I brought in these little cupid watercolor angels, little shapes to smatter in there. Renaissance-type prints were really in, and I was just so inspired by all of the cupid lingerie that was going on—it’s not necessarily overt or direct. But it really informs what comes through in my vision.
IT'S LIKE BUILDING A LANGUAGE—WHEN SOMETHING LOOKS LIKE YOU AND INFORMS WHO YOU ARE.
I think that’s so interesting. None of your pieces are about being a sex worker. But I think the things that we create are always shaped by our experiences.
You mentioned community, and I would love it if you could speak more on it because even though people come into this work for a variety of reasons, I find that the community is a constant. Could you speak about your relationship to community?
I almost get butterflies thinking about community—It’s hard to describe. I really feel a lot of sympathy for people who don’t have a solid community in their life, or really good friendships, or have never experienced that kind of mutual support and commitment. At the same time I think that a lot of us who wind up finding that in our lives face a ton of trauma. And that’s what leads us to find each other is because we feel abandoned by our blood family, or we’ve been rejected by society. And we really need that really deep sense of belonging.
I feel like community is a learning process—it is the process of learning how to be a better friend. I’m doing that through the process of having people in my life who, for whatever reason, I can’t just cut them out when things go wrong. You can’t abandon situations because we rely on each other. So that is something that’s been really coming up for me lately, as I’ve navigated a lot of personal chaos, but also witnessed a lot of other people navigating a lot of personal chaos in this Third Age of COVID.
Before COVID hit, we were already really beaten down. And more and more of us have experienced getting beaten down and losing our stability and having to rely on each other. And it’s awful, you know, it brings me a lot of grief to think about the people that we’ve lost. Because we have lost a lot of people. And at the same time, it’s really powerful to witness how quickly we show up for each other, and how that is slowly becoming more and more normative on a larger social scale.
Knowing how to show up for each other, to have language around it where we’re like, “actually, if you show up in this way, that’s a little bit patronizing. But if you show up in this way that gives this person autonomy over their life.” We’re really deconstructing and learning how to be a community right now in a way that eventually might subvert the need for this fucking heinously oppressive government that is trying to oppress us at every turn.
I’m seeing how much we can take before we break and we’re probably not gonna break, we’re just gonna keep getting stronger and a lot firmer in our values and beliefs and learn how to never leave anyone behind and really revive a lot of the ways that we functioned pre-colonialism, pre-imperialism, pre-oligarchy.
Speaking of the fall of the American empire, the United States, as you know, is entering its third Pluto return. There are a lot of different astrological themes coming up for us this year, and this spring and summer season. And one of those is the idea of silence. Silence as repressive and silence as sacred. Do you have any thoughts around when silence can be sacred? How do you make the choice as an artist or as a sex worker what to share with the world and what to keep to yourself?
It’s one I struggle with a lot. Being a Gemini I don’t know how to shut up. I said this the other day, I said I want to learn more languages, just so that I can not know how to shut the fuck up in those either. But it is something that I definitely will check myself with—Is my perspective important in this situation? Or should I be listening? And sometimes that’s even with myself, right? Is my brain interpreting the bullshit in my body incorrectly? Or should I just be listening? As a really disabled person who’s on the brink of death quite often, learning how to listen to my body has been a big struggle in my life, which probably has been passed down for generations. Listening to the pulse of my heart and asking myself, am I just freaking out for no reason? Does my body need intervention right now, or is my body okay and I’m just misinterpreting these signals?
I have this mantra all the time that goes, eat when hungry, stop when full, sleep when tired, move when restless. Really learning how to listen to yourself I think is the first step in learning how to be silent and listen with others in the external world when major events are going on, and how to not come from a reactive or activated place. Actually coming from a place of presence and experience and wisdom that you can bring to the table, and knowing where you’re lacking. Knowing when it’s time to listen, and when it’s time to be quiet.
I had this come up yesterday—I just started working with a new organization, and I’m really new to the group. It’s a First Nations-led and non-hierarchical. I have to say, as someone with a really non-traditional and mixed background, who grew up in crack houses on and off the rez—our tribe is really small and very poor and riddled with drug and alcohol issues. I didn’t learn the name of our great creator—I didn’t have the same sort of cultural understanding of Indigeneity that the people in that room had. I’m also a sex worker, which is something that’s highly stigmatized in Indigenous communities. Oftentimes people who do advocacy work for sex workers rights cause a lot of anger even in Indigenous communities that are fighting for the recognition and safety of missing and murdered Indigenous women. There’s a lot of tension there, and I just felt very out of place. And I thought—I’m going to sit with this feeling. And I thought—how much of this is something that needs to be communicated? And how much of it is just me being new to a situation and needing to learn and listen? And I still don’t really know. I don’t know if I’m being judged, or not being listened to because of my background and because of judgments that come through about that. And I had to ask myself if I should be advocating for myself at this moment, or am I someone who needs to build trust with this group of people and needs to sit back and listen and learn. There’s always both—it’s never one or the other. But yeah, it’s an interesting thing we’re all learning right now as Pluto enters Aquarius.
KNOWING HOW TO SHOW UP FOR EACH OTHER, TO HAVE LANGUAGE AROUND IT WHERE WE’RE LIKE, “ACTUALLY, IF YOU SHOW UP IN THIS WAY, THAT’S A LITTLE BIT PATRONIZING. BUT IF YOU SHOW UP IN THIS WAY THAT GIVES THIS PERSON AUTONOMY OVER THEIR LIFE.
That’s all so amazing. What is on the horizon for you? What are your next steps? Is there anything else you’d like to share with us about your journey?
Oh, my God, girl, to pay my rent right now.
It’s hard to say. I have a really great shop that I’m working out of here in Brooklyn, called Rebels and Saints. I was booking up a lot. Now my schedule is just pretty wide open and clear for the foreseeable future. My bank account is sad-looking. I think I’m more in this state of how I pay my bills rather than future thinking. Which is something that happens to people in our community and why we can be so under-represented as artists.
There’s these high expectations of being able to function at these high levels—to not have any baggage you’re bringing with you when you’re an artist. You’re supposed to be bringing work in, you’re supposed to be able to think really deeply and have this tragic life story and always be profound. But then at the same time, you have to have the utmost professionalism, and to be able to meet deadlines on time and to think 10 years into the future and to be able to zoom out and see society for what it is.
So many of us who use art as a coping mechanism are actually deeply traumatized people who are constantly navigating chaos. And I’m really lucky—I’m not trying to give a sob story or say that I’m in a bad place—I’m not facing homelessness right now, or in the process of being evicted or anything. But it is hard to think about the future without the kind of stability that most of the people that we see represented as artists have. I do definitely have deep goals that I would love to complete. But I will say, as far as the future goes, I’m just trying to build my career as a tattoo artist. Who knows where that will take me. I want to make sure I keep making time for painting, and maybe one day I’ll have the bandwidth to also submit my work to galleries and apply for grants. I do have a social media project with incarcerated people that I have been drafting and working on really slowly for a couple of years. And I finally feel like I’m ready to push that forward. But honestly, the day to day is hard. The day to day makes it hard to plan for the future plan.
That’s totally real.
And sometimes I plan my future plan and it all goes wrong. So I think, why don’t I just stay right here and see where that takes me. Stay in the present. There’s a lesson in that.
OZ HAL0 INTERVIEWED BY MOLLY SIMMONS PHOTOS BY BODY UNBOUND PHOTOGRAPHY