The Madison-based street artist reflects on confidence and making work from other people’s trash. (Header photo by Jess Haven.)
If you frequent downtown or the near east side, you may have come to know the work of artist Liubóv Szwako, whether you realize it or not. The warmer months bring his expression to the forefront, in the most happenstance spots and unexpected moments of our daily hustle (or grind, whimsy, whatever), and Szwako creates a lot of his work on things everyone else discards. Perhaps you’ve noticed an old mattress given new life on its very temporary curb perch, soon after its owner decided it wasn’t worth hauling to the next dwelling across town (or beyond), or maybe a freshly cohabitating couple deemed it the loser in a duel of “whose-mattress-should-we-keep.” Szwako covers such castoffs in bright colors and quick, sharp geometric shapes or thick, bold, infinite loop-and-swerve line stories punctuated with unapologetic dots and fanciful lashes.
Or, in your Instagram feed, maybe you caught a glimpse of a large, flat-screen TV put out to roadside pasture, momentarily reclaimed by gripping, life-giving cuts of paint in gashy-but-dripping primary colors against a permanent dead-black mute of electronic void. If you’re observant, and not merely squinting at the given piece as you take your first blinks at it in a flash along your daily commute, you may have caught Liubóv’s corresponding social media hashtag and artist moniker, @triangulador, marked upon the piece (props to you if you rounded the block and braved narrow isthmus one-ways just to take a closer curious look). Liubóv is Triangulador, and he revealed much more about his work, background, inspiration and vision in a recent conversation with Tone Madison. You can see more of his work on Instagram, at Szwako’s website, or in an August show at Waunakee’s Drumlin Ridge Winery.
Tone Madison: How has your approach to art developed over your lifetime?
Liubóv Szwako: Since I was little, I would write my name with graffiti letters and do a lot of lettering and stuff. I wanted to be a graphic designer, but then I wasn’t a big fan of school. I just finished high school, I did not even try to go to college; I moved here when I was 20, almost a decade ago. But I never really gave it a second thought, like, “Oh, I can make a living off of this,” you know? And then the minute I started spray painting, I realized how fun it is.
Every kind of paint—enamel, spray paint, acrylic, whatever it is, they do different things so it’s cool to play with the paint. You come up with different colors and different textures. That’s my ultimate passion about this—mixing the paint and seeing what it does… just the satisfaction of whatever’s on your mind, just put it in. I don’t sketch any of my work. I mean, I sketch it in a little thing but I don’t trace anything. It’s just straight up going at it. That’s how 100 percent of my work is done. And that’s why I do it on mattresses and that’s why I do it on the street. It’s so cool to just change something from being something you wouldn’t notice to something you would stop by and be like, “Oh, this is cool.” I like being able to have people see the work and just go out of their routine of seeing something that’s trash on the street, like making it pretty and having someone appreciate something that they would not even look at if it was the other way. That’s what it is.
Tone Madison: What exactly did you think you wanted to become when you were small?
Liubóv Szwako: I wanted to be a graphic designer. I grew up looking at graffiti and thinking it was cool. I’ve always been a hard worker. I always have been committed to whatever I’m committed to. I’m a committed person. I stay loyal to whatever I do. I like to think that I put in the work. But I never thought that I could make a career out of this, especially being raised in Mexico City until I was 20. In a huge city, it makes you feel like you don’t matter that much, because you’re in a sea of people that do all kinds of stuff.
I never really wanted to be anything but a graphic designer but I never really looked up doing anything. I guess I have been very independent since I was younger. My parents taught me that I had to earn everything that I wanted. I grew up going to private school and I was always able to have the things I wanted if I worked for them, but school wasn’t a motivation for me. I was the kid that never did homework and just showed up because I had to. I always had it in the back of my head that anything I wanted I could accomplish because that’s the way I was raised; to have the liberty to do whatever as long as it didn’t mean damaging or hurting people. So I guess that’s what I did; I just played it by ear until I found this and it felt right so I just stuck with it.
When I told my mom that I was moving here, she told me, “I always knew you were going to go somewhere else. I knew you weren’t going to stay home.” I traveled. I went to Denmark when I was 15 for a couple months by myself. I’ve always been very independent. Coming to a different country with nothing but a backpack and a laptop (to the U.S. at age 20), taught me a lot about myself and how much work I can put in, and that I know that I’m not going to end up homeless. That’s my ultimate thing—that I really believe in my own work ethic and I know that I can make things happen. I think that was always in the back of my head, so that’s why I never really worried about “I want to be this” or “I want to be that.” I guess I have been fortunate enough to somehow always be confident about who I am.
Tone Madison: In your more recent trajectory, moving here when you were 20, from somebody who was interested in creating, and then at some point starting to quietly create, and then putting your art out there, what did that look like for you?
Liubóv Szwako: When I started doing this a year and a half ago, I just did it because I got the confidence from looking at Stefan [Matioc, a fellow Madison artist] and being like, “Yo, he’s a normal guy. He’s cool and he’s nice.” And he was always very helpful to me but I just realized, “Hey, this guy can do it and I can do it and I just want to try and see what it’s like and what I can do.” It just made it fun for me. I did it for fun, and literally all this, every single piece or even the website, or the galleries, it doesn’t feel like work. It really doesn’t. I’ve never done so many things in such little amount of time. None of it has felt like work ever. I think when you get to that point and you have something like that, I think that’s kind of a calling. If it’s working out and it’s moving, and people are appreciating it and you can make a living out of it, then I think that’s one of the keys of happiness: to just do what feels right. I think that’s ultimately how I’ve gone about life. Just follow what’s right and what’s right for you, and again, just stay respectful and put in the work.
Tone Madison: I’m getting the sense that you’re somebody who really grounds yourself in the present. Would you say that?
Liubóv Szwako: The art makes it for me like that. Everything that I did is cool and if people appreciate it, cool, and if they don’t care about it, it’s cool. For me, I’m doing it for myself. Like this, it wasn’t like “Oh… She’s gonna come and I’m gonna do this.” I literally just felt like painting. That’s what I do. I sit down and I play music and sometimes I smoke a little bit, and I just go at it. I like to see, if I do this, what’s going to happen. If I do that, what.
For me, selling my work is hard, not because I don’t want to get rid of it, but because I want people who appreciate it for what it is. I just want people to appreciate it as much as I appreciate it… to me it’s not a product. It’s just something that I did and I really don’t hold onto it, like, I don’t have super connected feelings to it —I just want it to go to places where it’s appreciated as much as I appreciated making it. If there would be a way for me to give art for free and just get paid somehow, I would do that, to people that care, but unfortunately in the world that we live in you need to make money in order to do things.
Tone Madison: You mentioned Stefan Matioc. How did that relationship come to be? Was interacting with him the catalyst for you to put your work out to the public in various ways?
Liubóv Szwako: The reason why I put the work out to the public is because I wanted to share what I do. Honestly, when I started I just wanted to see what people thought about it. It was about getting feedback. Believe it or not, yeah it might be nice to see, “Oh, I have this many likes.” But to me it’s not about having likes on social media. It’s not like I’m taking selfies of my stuff or with me. It’s not for my ego. I just want to show my work and see how people react to it. Some people like certain things and some people like other things. Some people don’t like any and some people like all of it. I like to see how people react to what I do but it doesn’t really change what I do. It doesn’t affect the work that I do, or it doesn’t make me do more of what’s popular. I literally do what I want to do all the time.
Meeting Stefan was the kick of confidence that I needed for me to give it a shot. I met him because I started working at Lucille and there was a mural of his there in the basement. I liked his work and I messaged him on Instagram and I was like, “Yo, I like your work. Would you do something on my walls?” He was like, “I’m in Mexico but when I come back, sure.” I was like, “Well, if you’re in Mexico and you need anything, I was born and raised there and I know a lot of people there. I can hook you up with anything.” And when he came back to the US we met up and he sat exactly where you’re sitting and we just talked about life. And we just talked about each others’ opinions and perspectives and I just realized this guy has done a lot of cool work. He’s down to earth and he’s down to meet up and just have a conversation. It just made it a little bit more real for me that you can actually make this a career. I get a lot of inspiration from him and he was a very good mentor.
After he left that night I actually woke up from dead sleep in the middle of the night at like 4:30 in the morning. I never wake up in the middle of the night ever, like, even for the bathroom. I just sleep through the night. And I literally woke up at 4:30 in the morning. I remember it was really windy because there was a big branch outside of the door, like a five-foot branch. I came out and I had a spray paint that’s like chalk, so you can spray paint and then wash it off. I was like “I need to spray something. I feel like I want to spray paint something.” So I went outside and I did a triangle shape on the driveway. I didn’t plan on it; I just drew something and it was a triangle so I just kept doing triangles over and over and the next thing you know I had a big chunk of the driveway painted with triangles. It felt good. I went back to bed and I woke up that morning and I went in the store and I was like “What’s the biggest, cheapest piece of foamboard that I can buy?” So I taped it up and did triangles on it with a bunch of different spray paint. I fit it in here, and it was the first time I spray painted in here—no mask, no nothing. It was a good learning experience, for sure. And then Stefan came by later that day and he’s like “Yo, that looks super cool,” so he helped me take the tape off. And it’s been an ongoing piece, like, every time he comes by he adds something to it so it’s a cool little ah… I’ve never shown that piece and it’s been on that wall basically since I did it. That’s kind of my relationship with him and it’s just an inspiration. I don’t think he showed me how to do anything. I think that he just gave me the confidence and I learned from him—like “hey, he’s doing this, he does this,” and again, any questions that I had, I reached out to him and he was kind enough to, you know… and now we have a really good relationship.
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Throwback to the first collabo w my dawg @stefanmatioc This was about a year and a half ago. @montanacans and @krinknyc on foam board #art #streetart #Collaborate #triangles #spraypaint #Krink #abstractart #ongoing #contemporaryart #SupportLocalArtist #decor #interiordesign #triangulador
A big thing for me is to try to push people to do something they’ve never done that they’ve always wanted to do. Because that’s how I ended up doing this, so I want people to push themselves to do something that they always wanted to do that they never did. Because you never know, maybe you find your calling, or maybe not, but then you get it out of your system.
Tone Madison: I feel like it’s a little bit dangerous for me to vocalize, like “Why is Madison plastered in one person’s art?” It’s not about the person, and I really, really love Stefan’s work. But what is the city doing and what are the more socialistic ways that we’re helping people to have more of the confidence or have the financial or whatever resources to bring the equity up a little bit and get more people’s voices out?
Liubóv Szwako: A lot of people don’t have it with them, or they were raised with people telling them “No, you can’t do this” or “No, you can’t do that.” So they’re very stuck in, “Oh, I want to do that but it’s out of reach—it’s impossible.” They don’t actually see that thing happening. I think that’s the difference between me and some other artists. I was raised to do whatever the fuck you want; just be nice to people. And that’s what I’m doing. I’m doing whatever the fuck I want and I’m just going about it the nice way. I could be spray painting walls illegally and I have that itch so bad to like, just—sometimes I see walls and I want so bad to just spray paint them. But I’ve been good at it. I haven’t done anything illegal and I’ve talked to cops and I tell them, “Hey, this is what I do,” and I can spray paint mattresses or trash in the middle of the day without having to worry about getting arrested because I’ve been going about it the right way. It’s just confidence—it’s definitely a must if you want your shit to work out. It’s like everything in life.
I think it’s just dedication, hard work and just staying in your own lane, and getting out of your head. I think that’s the most important thing —to not criticize yourself. When I started doing this, I wanted to be perfect, I wanted to have clean lines, I want to not have drips, I didn’t want to have spots or imperfections. When I started going to museums and galleries and looking at paintings up close, and I realized that all of the paintings have imperfections in them…You can see them, you can get up close, you can see the brushstrokes and you can see a little splatter here. Once you realize, “Dude, I don’t have to be perfect to be in a museum,” that’s when you’re like, “I can do whatever the fuck I want.” And if it’s cool, I don’t care, and if it’s not cool, I don’t care.
Don’t try to do something for the trend; don’t do something because it’s popular. Don’t do something to show off, or to make money or to get the girls. Just do it for your own satisfaction and your own view and pleasure and if no one is looking, it’s fine.
And the reinforcement, it just creates this state of mind that you just vibe through your own thing and you learn to see through people. This has helped me be able to look at people and be like “Hey—I want you to be part of my life. Hey—I don’t want you to.” You just stick around the right people and you feed off each other’s energy and stay positive. And if people are not positive then you learn to real easily move people from your life. And the more you do that the more clear the picture gets and the easier things get.
Tone Madison: What do you want your work to do to or for people who see it?
Liubóv Szwako: I think if I can promote that message of like, believe in what you can do, that’s the biggest thing, because that’s how people create shit, by literally not giving a fuck about what people think and doing their own thing. That’s when people literally come up with inventions and things get created; things that you never think of.
Once you believe in yourself and you have that vision, it’s just knowing that it will work. And also, not to give up. A lot of people give up immediately once any sort of adversity comes; they just drop the towel. It’s like anything in life. If it’s really good, it’s not gonna be easy. Shit that is worth it is never easy.
Tone Madison: So it sounds like, above people liking it, people buying it, people putting food on your table, or people appreciating the work that went into it, you have this bigger, more macro goal of just doing what feeds your soul and inspiring other people to do the same.
Liubóv Szwako: Yeah. Again, I never knew that I was going to do this. I never thought like, ever…I just did it and I was just like, holy shit. So, if I’m able to make it and I don’t have any special abilities and I don’t think I do—I really don’t. I just think that I just did it. If I can teach that to two or three people, or even a single person, and they can go about the rest of their life and be happy doing that—that’s cool enough for me. Stefan did that for me, so if I can do that for a single person, that would be super cool. I think it unlocks a different perspective on life and expectations and the power of believing in yourself; it’s insane. Once you’re passionate about something and you’re confident that’s going to be the rest of your life, things get so much clearer and it’s so much easier to go about life. In every aspect of it—not just career-wise, but as a person, and as a boyfriend, or as a friend, or as a son. Things that matter before don’t matter anymore. Things that you thought didn’t matter, they start mattering. Things get cool.
Tone Madison: It’s like a hump, right? And once you get over the hump, you’re like, “Whoa, this was on the other side??”
Liubóv Szwako: Yeah, but it takes a minute to get over that hump, and some people never do. And some people rather put their head down and play it safe.
Tone Madison: Where did the name Triangulador come from?
Liubóv Szwako: Triangulador means “maker of triangles.” I don’t think it’s an actual word. It’s just “something that triangulates.” In Spanish “triangulador” means a device that triangulates, or something, like antennas or whatever. The first thing that I drew was a triangle and then I just rolled with that.
Tone Madison: I’m trying to think of symbolism. Is the triangle representative of change?
Liubóv Szwako: There’s this girl that I follow on Instagram and she’s all into astrology and a bunch of spiritualism and books from back in the day that talk about symbols and signs and stuff. And she sent me a thing about how the triangle has a lot a lot of meaning from back with the Masons, secret conspiracies. So, I don’t know; it doesn’t have to do with that but it’s kind of cool that it has more than just the triangles (the actual shape), but it has more meaning. I’m going to look into that more because it would be cool to have all the insights of different triangle things.
Tone Madison: It’s cool to think of how it might resonate with you in different ways over time.
Liubóv Szwako: And everybody sees it differently. Some people see a triangle as a regular shape and some people see it as this holy thing. I think it also had a lot to do with the light [points to light piece on wall made up of several different configured triangles which glow various colors in synchrony and to external musical rhythms]. I wanted to have that light when I was living with my ex and she didn’t want it because it was very loud and bright and colorful. I used to come back from work and all the lights were out but that light was on in the middle of the night, so my whole apartment would be illuminated with that light. I would just sit on that couch with the lights off and just music and stare at it for hours. If it’s completely dark and I have that light running, it illuminates the colors of the paintings. If the painting has red and the light is red, the red disappears and then other colors come out.
It’s definitely one of my prized possessions. I don’t use it as much anymore. The thing is the triangles—it just got engraved in my head and when I wanted to paint something that’s what I painted. But when I was doing it, it never connected.
Tone Madison: We talked earlier about the work that you do on street pieces, or found pieces or salvaged stuff in the community, mostly on the near east side, I think, right? And downtown.
Liubóv Szwako: Yeah, downtown, down here, and Winnebago area sometimes, like Willy and stuff.
Tone Madison: How would you describe that, if someone hasn’t seen something of yours, what is it that you do?
Liubóv Szwako: I describe it as, first of all, temporary, because everything I paint, I know that if no one looks at it, it’s going to the dump. It was a way for me to paint on canvases without having to buy canvases. And especially spray paint because I can’t spray paint on canvases in here because it’s really stinky. Sometimes I do it, but I try not to. So it was like a free big canvas on the street. Sometimes they’re on the ground and I just pick them up, lay them against a tree and just paint on them, and I just describe it as a temporary installation of free art. And sometimes you have people picking them up and putting them in their apartment or sometimes you have no one look at it. I painted one a few days ago in the middle of the night. It was like 3 a.m. on my way home from work and I came, dropped my stuff off, picked up some spray paint and I went back out there to paint it. I took a photo of it and I wanted to take a photo in the day and it was gone. I’m pretty sure it went to the dump because nobody messaged me about it…..yet. Maybe someone will eventually—that’s sometimes what happens.
It’s like a metaphor for life. You can spend your whole time making something pretty but it’s all temporary; everyone’s gonna die. It’s a really dark way to look at it but everything’s temporary. We’re not here for more than a few years and we’re all gonna be dead. So, it’s just to show people to live in the moment, do what’s cool, but if it goes to the dump it’s cool. And if someone picks it up, it’s even cooler. Everything in life is temporary; everything’s disposable. It’s just a matter of how you look at it, and if you have the time to appreciate it, cool. A minute it’s there, a minute it’s gone. I’m okay with that.
The biggest thing is that it’s legal. It’s the most legal way of doing the biggest pieces of something that I can get away with without getting in trouble. Because the next step would be to do it on walls and I don’t want to damage people’s property—not just because of the illegal point, but because it’s not cool to come and do whatever you want with someone else’s property. As much as the graffiti movement, I like to also consider other people and like, “Hey; I like doing this for myself but there are other people who own this property who have to deal with the bullshit.” I’ve been a fan of staying in the right lane and doing the right thing. It’s just my way of expressing myself in the streets without having to have any negative impact or have people say, “This motherfucker again came and tagged my store.”
I’m excited for Hippie Christmas, like a month or two from now. A lot of things to paint on. And I need to move fast, because I know there are people that come and pick up mattresses.
Tone Madison: Are you limited to anything in particular or do you just use whatever you see?
Liubóv Szwako: Whatever’s big. It usually has to be big. I’ve done refrigerator doors, I’ve done couches. Couches are fun. I’ve done mattresses, TVs…There was a really nice velvet chair out here and I painted the side of it. Anything that I can paint on that’s trash and looks cool. If someone wants to buy it, “No dude; it’s in the dump.” Or I don’t know where it is.
It’s a cool way for me to give free art to people who really appreciate it. People who pick up the trash, even if it’s expensive for me to do it, I don’t care because they deserve to have that, because they were appreciative of it. It’s kind of a free art kind of thing but at the same time I don’t do it for that. I do it because I just want to paint on things. It just works in different ways for everybody.
Tone Madison: It breaks up your dumb reality. How often are we like, “Ugh, today I have to do this at the office,” or some dumb thing, and then it just snaps you out of that and you’re like “Aw, that’s cool,” or it makes you feel like “Oh, I like this place where I live,” or so many other positive things at random.
Liubóv Szwako: Right. This cool little thing wasn’t here yesterday and it’s gone tomorrow.
Tone Madison: How would you describe your aesthetic?
Liubóv Szwako: I think my work is very abstract. I’m not very good at drawing faces or drawing in general. Like, if I were to draw a car or a face or a human—I don’t think I’m good at that so that’s why I don’t practice that much. I could be practicing but I’m not interested in that, at least yet. That’s something that doesn’t attract me. Something that Stefan mentioned is there are too many people that are already trying to do that. You can always put your twist and make it your way, but I’m not trying to compete with these people who are very passionate about that. This is my thing. This is what I like to do and this is what I think I’m good at and I’m going to stay at this because it’s what I’m comfortable with right now.
Abstract, colorful, and a lot of patterns, textures and layers. That’s basically my work—it comes down to textures. When it comes to canvas and wood panels, I have extreme amounts of texture. When it comes to paper, it’s just layers. Layers and layers. It’s usually a bunch of triangles and X’s. You see the blue of triangles in the back, the yellow triangles in the back, and then my sharp looking lines, and it’s just the same thing. It just a matter of how you play with the colors and which color you pick first. The combination of colors and the composition of it. If you put too much red, or you put too much yellow, if you put black in this area, it makes the whole thing different.
I don’t overthink it; I just do it, and if it doesn’t look cool, I do another one. If I do something that I don’t like on canvas, I keep it and I keep doing, and I literally don’t show it until I’m happy with what I have. It’s not about being perfect; it’s just about looking right. I don’t care about perfection. I care about “Hey, I would like to show that to people” and then sure, it’s done.
This is one of the pieces like what I just said. This I worked with four different times. I did the first layer of it and never liked it. I literally put it back there and it sat there for months. You run out of canvases, you run out of paper sometimes. I just want to paint and I don’t have anything to paint on so I go through pieces I don’t like. So this is the fourth layer process, I think. What happened is I did the bottom and I did a bunch of texture—the triangles and colors—and it was super colorful. I didn’t like it. I did another layer, and I didn’t like it. It just sat over there. One day I was just like, “You know, I want to paint it. I don’t know what to do with it. It has a lot of texture. Fuck it.” So I painted it all white. I spray painted it all white. It still looked cool with all the texture because it’s really, really texturized. But it didn’t look quite there. Knowing me and loving the color, I was like, “It needs some color.” So what I did was I spray painted acetone on the X’s and the triangles and I scrubbed it so basically, cleared the white paint from the X’s and the triangles and it started dripping, so I let it do that because I thought it created a really cool, cool effect. And that’s what it is. It’s just like four layers of me doing it and just finding …I think it was the perfect balance of it because it has color but it doesn’t have the crazy colors that I usually do. And I’m going to leave it like that. Again, it’s not about what people think. It’s about doing your own thing until you’re satisfied with your own work.
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