It’s possible you haven’t met Liam Greenlaw, but you’d be hard-pressed to have not seen his work around BC. Maybe you’ve passed it by on the street, or seen it plastered in a magazine. Maybe you’ve watched it light up your television set. In the ten years he’s spent in this city, the man has made his mark.
Greenlaw is a Scottish-born artist, raised in the East End of Glasgow. He then spent years jumping around the world working every artist’s job under the stars: sign painter, graphic designer, art director, mixed media illustrator, video director, creative director—the list goes on.
Somewhere along the way, he ended up in Canada. After working in Toronto for a decade—a stint that had him directing shoots at Fashion Magazine and running his own ad agency—Greenlaw came out West for work. He was looking to do something he hadn’t done before, and the agency that had head-hunted him seemed to fit the bill. The other big bonus was that with Vancouver’s weather, he could shoot television commercials year-round.
When Wallace Hamilton catches up with the creative powerhouse, it’s a stinking hot July afternoon in Yaletown. We’ve made our way over to his place of work, ready to talk fashion, punk ethics, and being an artist in Vancouver (tip: loving the rain helps a lot).
Greenlaw is busy, sketching away in a moleskine book. “I’m always sketching,” he says. He has an affable attitude and a Scottish accent that hasn’t lost its thickness or charm in the decades he’s spent away from his homeland. He tells us he always has a sketchbook on the go, and in these books are the beginnings of ideas, words in rough skater fonts. Portraits and graffiti-style illustrations consume whole pages. It’s fascinating to get a look into his mind through his art.
The first thing you’ll notice while flipping through is the punk aesthetic. Punk has always played heavily into Greenlaw’s art. It was his first inspiration as kid back in 70’s Scotland, and has stayed with him not only in his personal art but throughout his career. Case in point? The sweet sign he recently designed for Wallace Hamilton’s storefront.
“It was the first time in a while I’d done something like that,” Greenlaw chuckles. The artist got his start painting signs professionally as a teenager. “I felt right back to my roots.”
We ask him about the creative process. Was there any inspiration that went into the sign? “Oh yeah,” he says. “Unashamedly. I’m inspired by a young Montreal artist who [like me] also [worked] in fashion. Name’s Sticky Peaches. He keeps his identity hidden. I was in Montreal for a creativity conference maybe six years ago, and I saw some of his throw-ups downtown. And the first time I saw one—I think it was one of my first Instagram posts—was me just going who the fuck is that guy. It was taking throw-ups, paste-ups, urban graffiti, ripping stuff and putting stuff on, taking it away again. That became a huge inspiration and I applied that to the Wallace Hamilton sign.” For Greenlaw, it’s like getting dressed: “Put on your best outfit, put everything you love on, and take things away. It’s a similar type of process. Sometimes it’s what you leave on the canvas, sometimes it’s what you remove.”
Similar punk inspirations are what got him started in the fashion industry twenty years ago. When we start to talk men’s fashion and personal style, we mention this and he chuckles. Controlled chaos is a close friend of his.“I’ve always mashed everything I can from different cultures all into one funnel. Basically the way it is for all my art.”
“My first introduction to fashion was through punk,” he continues. “Vivienne Westwood is one of my all-time heroes, and her brand for me was everything. When I was fortunate enough to have enough money to buy some of her pieces… I still have all of them and I treasure them.
“[Westwood is] as relevant today as she was twenty, maybe even thirty-five years ago… and she wasn’t afraid to let [clothes] become a political thing as well. I’ve loved that fashion can be more than just frilly frocks and a well-placed button.”
Greenlaw’s early days in fashion were a little different from the enduring work of Westwood. “I started off with flash-n-trash, disposable fashion. I got into the scene right around the time Diesel was emerging out of Italy. I was a fan of Renzo Russo and what he did with that brand… but I always loved to juxtapose them with other things as well.” The idea was to compliment the edgier stuff with elevated pieces. Flash-n-trash with the beautiful and long-lasting. “It’s about what you mix and match.”
From his creative process to his personal style, it’s easy to tell Greenlaw embodies what he believes in. From his art to his personal style, he walks the talk.
But for a multi-passionate soul who’s “day job” is currently in creative advertising, we couldn’t help but wonder: isn’t it hard to find balance?
The short answer is no. The enlightening answer, of course, is a bit more nuanced. “I don’t compartmentalize,” he says, shaking his head at the question. “I mash it up. I don’t really segment what I do at work or what I do at home. I have a similar process for everything.” He glances briefly at the moleskin in front of him. “Everything starts with a notebook and it starts with drawing and exploring. I don’t ever see what I do as work.” He pauses, and chuckles. “Obviously there’s work-like parts of it that I don’t like, but when it comes to conceptualization and raw creativity, it’s always the same for me, whether I’m directing a TV commercial or painting a duck. It’s done with the same amount of passion and certainty.”
Painting ducks, by the way, is his latest passion project.
“Yeah,” he says. “Lately, I’ve found a passion with rubber duckies. I paint black and white images on them that tell a story. They’re great material to work on; you’ve got this three-dimensional space that curves. There’s this creativity and boldness to it. And I just find it to be a beautiful, naive way to tell a story. I draw everyone from people like Salvador Dali, Amedeo Modigliani, to Robert Anton Wilson, to Debbie Harry. Y’know?”
He pauses, thoughtfully. “And the naivety comes from [the fact that] rubber ducks make you feel safe. It’s the first thing they put in your bath when you’re a kid, to give you some sense of comfort.”
There are practical sides to painting on ducks too, though. “They’re indestructible. I can drop them, I can kick them, as long as I don’t fuck ’em up. And they look great in your living room. Even in a corporate setting. It’s like a bouquet of flowers in your house.” An avant-garde, weirdly nostalgic, punk bouquet of flowers. It’s definitely something.
“I’m having a lot of fun with it,” he acknowledges. There’s a smirk in his voice, but there’s also unfettered joy in his eyes. “I call myself a Punk Duck Warlord.” It’s a nod to one of his heroes, The Clash frontman Joe Strummer.
As fun as painting rubber ducks may be, Greenlaw is just as happy with the agency work he’s been doing. He particularly loves projects that have a social cause attached to them. “When you can take your work and you can create humanity around it… that’s really important to me and it’s where my passion is.” He shares a quote by Strummer: “Without people, you’re nothin’.” It’s a poignant remark, especially in today’s economic and political landscape.
And at that, our time with Greenlaw is just about up. We ask him what he does when he’s not being an artist (“I’m never not an artist”) and why he likes Vancouver (“the rain gives me a great excuse to work on my personal art”). And like we do with all our featured guests, we ask him: what’s next?
The answer is Plovdiv, Bulgaria. It’s a place dear to Greenlaw’s heart. “I’d like to move to Bulgaria and open an art gallery there,” he explains. He first started traveling to Bulgaria when he met his Bulgarian-Canadian wife, and they’ve been making annual visits ever since. He loves it. “It’s one of those last, untracked places in the world, and yet ironically it’s 8,000 years old and full of history. People are living amongst chariot tracks and colosseums. I really feel a creative buzz when I’m there. It’s unlike any city I’ve been in. There’s a great area called The Trap—their creative district—that I’d like to work out of. Continue directing, work on my art.” It sounds like the kind of city that was made for someone like Greenlaw.
And while we love having him in Vancouver, we’ll admit it; we’re pretty excited for him.
Where you can find his work: on TV, online, around the city, and @liamgreenlaw on Instagram.