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People Used to Call the Cops on Andrew J Steel, Now They’re Buying His Art

"Kind of like Batman, I went to school and did science and shit like that, but by night I was out sliding around making art."
Photography: James Lowe

This article is presented by Nike as part of Air Max Month, which celebrates the enduring legacy of the Air Max

What was once a teen activity, where losing meant spending a few hours with the local cops, is now a career for Andrew J Steel. The NZ artist started on the streets—"the classic Banksy thing"—and is now making it with a more contemporary approach.

Steel paints simple figures with a cartoon edge. Humanity is a theme that runs through a lot of his work; expressions of Kama Sutra to represent vital love, and fighting scenes because of consequential hate. Sometimes, though, his work is just about a shark.


"Cartoons have a non-pretentious way of conveying message," he tells VICE. "Public art is for everyone, so I want mine to appeal to the widest audience."

He began by stencilling Simpsons characters everywhere because they were simple and relatable, and because he couldn't draw. "I've never done a day of art at school in my life. Kind of like Batman, I went to school and did science and shit like that, but by night I was out sliding around making art," he says.

Steel in his studio.

Steel in his studio.

Steel explains how growing up skating crossed over into his interest in art. "Skateboarders see the world as like a playground. It's not just a set of stairs or a handrail, it's something you can have fun with. My approach to art was like that: using public space as something to play around on and interact with."

Banging out works on canvas or sticking drawings in a frame isn't something he's interesting in doing. Instead, when he is commissioned for private, indoor murals, he'll work with a client to figure out what they're into, and he'll tell their story through his style—straight onto their hallway walls.

"It's funny that the same people who were probably chasing me away and calling the police on me are now commissioning me," he says. "It's a transition from downtown to uptown. I've moved into indoor environments, painting inside peoples homes. I think the world has changed a lot but I've also changed in the way I conduct myself. I get to work with some really cool people."

Behind every great artist is a dog.

Behind every great artist is a dog.

Despite the glitz and glory that comes with being an actual paid artist, Steel hasn't lost sight of being a bit rebellious. "I still like going out and painting," he says. "Especially when I travel. It's a good way to experience a city—you're out at weird hours and see weird stuff. I get to experience a place but also add something to it."

Spending so much time on street level means that sneakers are an obvious choice for footwear. "I'm from a street art background, so I still kind of sneak around a lot," he says.

"I love the elephant print on the Air Max Atmos, it's really fun. I've painted a lot of similar line work in my art, so it's cool to look down and see it on my feet."

Air Max Month celebrates the shoe that changed the sneaker world 30 years ago, and has continued to captivate generations of fans since. You can find out more about Air Max Month and the future of the revolution here