Grant Gronewold (HTML Flowers) visit & interview
We visit artist and musician Grant Gronewold, a.k.a. HTML Flowers, at his Melbourne home-studio. The day after his performance at Sugar Mountain festival as part of Brothers Hand Mirror, he discusses music, art, tattoos, zines, and living with a chronic illness.
Interview and photography by Fraser Stanley
Hi Grant, what are you up to today?
I am working on four paintings for a show I have coming up in Madrid with Simon Hanselmann (Girl Mountain). I have set myself the task of doing four a day so that I can get all my work finished early and not worry about juggling it with Brothers Hand Mirror release stuff and travelling.
Also I am watching movies with my brothers (There Will Be Blood, The Outsiders) and I am meeting up with Oscar [Oscar Key Sung, the other member of Brothers Hand Mirror] to have sushi later before a show we have tonight. I also need to clean my room.
Where did you grow up?
I was born in Carbondale and I lived the majority of my young life in Lincoln – both just outside of Chicago, Illinois. Small towns, poor and weird. I moved to Australia in 1998 with my mother and my brother.
"While I was in a really sensitive zone the internet asked me if I would like to dedicate some virtual symbolic flowers or light a virtual candle in honour of his passing."
Were you into comics as a kid?
I was very into comics as a kid but mostly really superhero-y stuff: X-Men, Fantastic Four. When I was 14, this young cartoonist me and my brother were friends with gave us six boxes of old comics he didn't want anymore, and there was some stuff like Spawn, Image, Vertigo and Dark Horse.
When I was 18, I got into Melbourne's zine culture by hanging out at Sticky, the zine store in Melbourne's CBD. After that, I met Simon Hanselmann while touring, and eventually we ended up becoming best friends and living together on and off for a few years. I read his collection, which was more like Fantagraphics, Drawn & Quarterly, PictureBox, Buenaventura Press, etc.
Lately I have been into Space Face, Koyama Press, Kuš!, and Gang Bang Bong (run by the amazing Inés Estrada).
Is there a specific meaning behind your working name, HTML Flowers? Why the change from your previous pseudonym Cougar Flashy?
My father died very estranged from his entire family, so much so that we didn't find out until nine months after, when we were Googling his name. (Well, my mom says she was Googling his name to send him pictures of me and brag about how awesome I was and what a sucker he was for not being in my life. Lol, momrules.)
Anyways, the day I found out I went to the website of the obituary, and while I was in a really sensitive zone the internet asked me if I would like to dedicate some virtual symbolic flowers or light a virtual candle in honour of his passing.
I picked that name to remind myself of how distant and alienated he was from any kind of reciprocal love, simply because he couldn't handle it – he was too selfish, too scared. This way, the name will always follow me and I will always be reminded of the challenge of love and the reward of being intimate and honest with the world.
"... exerting small acts of will to reassure yourself that you do have some form of control over reality, even though you have such minimal control over your health."
Also, I had changed emotionally, which in turn affected my style of communication, and when I feel new it's important to me to mark it. Sometimes I tattoo myself; sometimes I change my name. Sometimes I just cut my hair a bit! I think it's a sick person's thing – exerting small acts of will here and there to reassure yourself that you do have some form of control over reality, even though you have such minimal control over your health.
I'd like to ask about your illness and what it's like living with Cystic Fibrosis.
It's really fucking shitty a lot of the time. I have to sing to deal with it. It's made me so deeply obsessed by death since childhood. It's completely altered my family's life – in a lot of ways for the better – but for a child, that is too much weight to bear. My earliest memories are of trying and confusing hospital stays, and journeys to find care – going from county to county with my mom looking for a ‘charitable’ hospital.
I can never go a full day without feeling it – some form of pain connected to the illness, some sad reminder of its influence on my life. And, of course, it motivates me; it has moulded me into the determined person I can sometimes be, and I owe everything I create to it. Honestly, my family and I are living lives ten times as fulfilling and empowered as we were as a disenfranchised family struggling to care for its sick child.
So I can't ever be without it. It enters my daily life, my pain, my sadness, the way that I love, my gratitude, my self-esteem, my strength and the lives of those who care for me. There are times when I can look on it with joy for how it has changed me, steeled me in some ways, educated me in others, given me time alone to imagine… Oh I don't know, I feel a bit silly by the end of this paragraph. It's pretty intense.
Your blog is quite personal, like a diary, yet you also invite people to ask you questions and discuss things. Why do you feel it’s important to have such an open dialogue with your fans?
I think it's a coping mechanism. I started communicating with others over computers while I was sick in hospital. Since then (when I was about 18), it's been an important part of my practice to be open with anyone who listens to me.
It all started with long desperate pieces of prose/diary entries into music forums about what it was like in my WARDLYF, worrying I was gonna die so young and inexperienced. But in just under a decade it has become something that sustains me and helps me grow, as much as it demands I respond to it and haunts me if I don't.
What kind of music influenced you growing up?
Alps of New South Wails, Aaron Wallace, Patinka Cha Cha, Psyche, Pikelet, Public Enemy, Wu-Tang Clan, Björk, Edan, Madlib, J Dilla, TLC, Destiny's Child, Scissor Lock, Pure Being, Extreme Wheeze, Anonymeye, Jessica Says, Fugazi, Minutemen, Beyoncé, Beyoncé, Beyoncé.
I think it was mostly local stuff, friends… I mean I’ve been watching Oscar Key Sung play music since 2007. Same with Marcus Whale of Collarbones. Before even Oscar and Marcus, there was Chris Hearn (Alps) and Aaron Wallace. I think we have all influenced one another to a very enriching extent.
"People often tell me beautiful stories as I tattoo them."
How did Brothers Hand Mirror come about?
Oscar contacted me to try and collaborate and a few years later we actually did it. Then we lived together for a while and became very close friends and made a fuckload of beats and raps.
You have a substantial number of zines in your collection. Do you have any particular favourites?
Um, lots. I think I'll just give everybody some names to Google…
Oscar Vicente Slorach-Thorn (Oscar Key Sung), Girl Mountain (Simon Hanselman), Jr.Blue (Lashna Tuschewski), Dave Mahler, Lee Lai, Katja Mouvlin, Katie Parrish, Michael Hawkins, MP Fikaris, Ghostpatrol, Al Stark, Dylan Martorell, Marc Pearson, Elliot Lamb, Adelaide Short, Inés Estrada, Patrick Kyle, Ginette Lapalme, Evie Cahir, Maren Karlson, Josephine Edwards.
Get all of the material you can by these people.
How did you get into stick n poke tattooing? What do you find interesting about the medium?
I got into to stick n pokes when I was 19. My friend Oliver Van Der Lugt tattooed H-U-C-K F-I-N-N on my knuckles. We boiled a needle in a pot of water and used Indian ink.
As the years went on, I began to use it as a coping mechanism when things would be difficult in my life. I would honour hardships I had overcome, or try to release some of the pain surrounding a hard situation, and also use it as a form of meditation.
Tattooing is the healthiest thing for my mind. I become focused and engage with the medium and the subject in a very present and grateful way. I get ecstatic by the end sometimes. The process of defining shape and concept and detail by congregating tiny dots together slowly, like piling up pebbles, inspires peaceful feelings for me and creates something with care for someone else.
People often tell me beautiful stories as I tattoo them as well. It's a beautiful way to exceed the barrier of not really knowing each other, and most of the time it gets quite deep quite quick, especially if were listening to Arthur Russell or Collarbones.
You seem to be constantly creating and working. How do you stay so focused and motivated?
Maintaining my focus is actually the hard part. Part of the reason I explore so many different mediums is because I get bored and frustrated easily. The reason it seems like I am always finishing some project is because I set them up and complete them in increments – they all get done in-between each other. I'll edit poetry for an hour until it starts to confuse me and then I'll work on some mixes or maybe draw for a few hours. I get overloaded by details easily, and after too long on any particular project I need a minute with something else or I just lose my potency/stamina.
That said, I also don't have a day job and I deal with a chronic illness. So every day I feel my frail body struggle against menial tasks that others do without even a second thought, and I have most of my day to obsess about it – get worked up into a fear so familiar and powerful that creating something is the only way to properly manifest a sense of hope again.
I’d say pain and fear of death are the top two motivators, alongside wanting to share my secrets before I go and wanting to positively influence my world with my only skills.