Protagonists is a series of interviews about life, identity, and pursuing passions…
Magdalena Wiegner was the first friendly face I saw when I moved to Berlin in 2014. I spent a week in the vacant room of her Neukölln apartment.
Magda is an artist. That much was clear from peeking through her doorway. Intricate sketches adorned her room, pinned to the walls and strewn on the floor.
The reward for her dedication is versatility. She is a brilliant illustrator and street artist, as well as a qualified stonemason.
When did you start drawing? And when did it become something you thought you could really do as a career?
I started when I was 2 years old, or whenever kids start, and never stopped since. The decision to make it professional came during school, but I was not brave enough to do so.
First I became a stone sculptor, then studied. I did a master’s degree in stone sculpting (Meisterbrief im Steinbildhauerhandwerk), just to be sure I had something in case drawing didn’t work out.
In the back of my mind I always dreamed of the life I have now. But I gained it through being brave enough to quit my old, well paid job where I made gravestones and move to a new city where I had nothing (except the best friends on earth, supporting me wherever they could).
What was it like to carve gravestones? Did you find it morbid?
No, not morbid at all. It’s very nice work but I always felt under-challenged because people always want the same boring or kitschy shit, like roses or dolphins or the sign of their football club. I will go back to stonesculpting one day but only for doing art, not craft.
Did it make you think about what you want on your gravestone, assuming you want one at all?
Oh yes, there are beautiful ones. And I know a few very talented stone designers who give all their heart in this. My stone would be a simple ashlar out of yellow sandstone, 50x50x50cm in size. And it would be filled with convex letters telling things I left back. It will lay under a tree with lots of others.
What do you mean by ‘things you left back’?
Everybody leaves something back [in life] that can be described in single words – things like hope, good ideas, nice talks, love, inspiration etc. At my funeral, people can write words which describe my influence on them in a book. Afterwards a good stonemason can create the stone [which incorporates these things].
What is your ‘philosophy’ – maybe etiquette is a better word – regarding street art? How do you choose your locations? When do you decide to use paste-ups or paint? Do you work alone or with friends?
Street art is one of those things I see as a little adventure. It’s a lifestyle I love very much. Painting walls – which I only do legally – means summer, beer and barbecue. Having fun with others and just chill.
Doing paste-ups – which is not legal – means going out at night with one friend, strolling around, having philosophical talks, finding a spot (which should be dry and high enough that it will last longer), climbing up and placing it, feeling like a ninja and enjoying it every time I pass by in future.
I try to never paste over something else, because I know some dudes can become quite angry about that. My aim is to fill the streets with little details. Things that you only see when you are here, in this very moment.
Do you still do parkour? Is that physical training useful for a street artist?
Haha, yes. I’m not one of those rad parkour girls. I’m more into yoga. But I can go up a two-metre wall which can be very helpful.
Is Berlin the ideal place for young artists?
Hell yes, it is. Berlin can make you successful or devour you and vomit you all over the place – it’s up to you. For me it was the most inspiring place on earth to start what I did. I was old enough to come here and not get lost. I like that you find some amazing people that really DO something, work hard and develop.
I never found them in the party scene – you find a hell of a lot of dudes, who may be relaxed guys to hang around with sometimes but NOT to start a project with.
Everybody in Berlin has a project, is an artist, a designer, writes or wrote a book, creates fair trade jewellery made of old banana skins, paints with his penis and so on. There are many, many talkers (which I definitely don’t like), lots of chillers and a few good artists. All in all, you need a good filter and you probably won’t have it when you’re on ketamine every weekend. But there are lots of characters that can inspire you, whatever that means.
Do you often get asked to do strange collaborations?
Yes and every illustrator knows this dialogue because it’s always the same: “Hey, I’m a friend of a friend of a friend and: I wrote a book and still need some nice drawings in it; I want to make an animation clip which is ONLY 10 minutes long and need somebody to illustrate it; I thought a weekly comic for my startup would be nice for my Facebook account…”
Presumably that becomes frustrating.
Yes. For example: “I have a bar and still need a painting on the wall…”
This sounds like a request for a job, but there is a big BUT:
“…I would love to have it all done in exactly this style (*a shitty comic style, that does NOT represent my art in any way*). Unfortunately, I can’t offer you money but this could be good advertising, and we can maybe mention your name.”
What is your favourite place in Berlin?
Schöneberger Südgelände because it’s silent and magic.
Who are your main influences?
What upcoming projects are you working on?
I will also illustrate a children’s book for my girlfriend’s mother this year. And the last thing is an animation movie project I do with my best friend and author Piotr Paluchowski. He writes the story, I draw the style frames. Then looking for a studio – that will probably take a few years. It’s megalomaniacal, but it’s our baby.
Piotr is more than a collaborator though, right?
Piotr is a life coach AND best friend or, rather, a brother. He was the one to help me when I almost gave up. Without him, I would never been where I am now.
He managed to make me improve my style. He looked into my soul, saw what’s in there and forced me to work harder than ever. It was crazy. He can’t draw like me but he always saw which drawings were made with soul and which were not – magic.
Why were you thinking of giving up?
You always have times where you think, “this all makes no sense.” Also, I had no money. I thought about becoming an art teacher or something which is not art but something related. I’m so glad that in these moments, there was always a voice to say “Magda, is that really what you want?”
By the way, he is a legitimate life coach now. The best one you can get. I was his prototype – I strongly recommend his work.
So he helped your career at the same time you were helping his?
Exactly. We both started somewhere, not knowing where this will lead. Now we are both happy.
How did you meet Piotr?
In 2008 at a party in Aachen. He did the beatbox and I was rapping.
So it was a complementary relationship from the very beginning.
Yeah. I’m like a gun firing with great power but in every direction. He’s the one say “stop, save your power.” He adjusts me so I can be focused and precise.
You have a comic series called ‘Orble’. How did you start creating these characters? Is this just a style you enjoy doing? Or did you have a specific vision for it?
Orble is one of my 3 Projects: I have one that I earn money with, the animated film with Piotr which is my life project, and I have Orble. Orble is the crazy one that feeds and expresses my rebel spirit.
Once I had a cat named Max. I drew comics of him when I was 12 or so. I was able to draw him very simply and quickly. When I was 24, there was this Party where I was very drunk. I sat with my brother (who actually created the word Orble as a kid. We had lots of names for Max like ‘rebel’, ‘ompel’, ‘rompel’…something like this) and I started to draw the cat with my eyes closed on little sheets of paper. I had this one character in mind but doing it with closed eyes created such wonky dudes that we all burst out into laughter. That’s why they look so funny and always a bit stoned.
What kind of practical work do you earn money from? How do you balance it with the passion projects you’ve mentioned?
I do digital business illustrations and graphic recordings. That has nothing to do with Orble. When people want to have something changed, it’s okay for me. I only spend a short time on those illustrations (clients mostly pay for quick stuff).
Sometimes it’s so simple that it sucks and sometimes I even get some ideas for Orble or the other project. All in all, I have enough time to do my art and that’s the thing I always wanted.
How would you categorise yourself? As a street artist, illustrator, or storyteller?
Exactly those three. You can also add concept artist and trash sculptor.
If you could only ever use ONE artistic tool for the rest of your life, which would you choose?
Only one for the rest of my life is not enough, but it would be a black kugelschreiber (I think the English word is biro). It’s my favourite tool for drawing, because the strokes are clear and crisp and you can’t erase it. Erasing something in a drawing is a no-go! One shot, one hit – like stone sculpting.
If you’re in a phase of low inspiration, what’s your solution?
How much time per day do you spend on your art?
4 hours when I have a job to be done. 8-12 hours when I have enough money.
How do you challenge yourself to keep improving?
Improving my art is a natural process. I’m always seeing something that can be done in another, more suitable way. It’s not over till it’s over.
You can find Magda’s work here or hidden throughout the streets of Berlin.