In hindsight, it's ironic that Perth artist Stormie Mills started out concentrating on a medium as ephemeral as street art. He worked in an environment that was about leaving a mark but expecting, whether it be a day or a year later, for that mark to be erased. Now, Mills has fans who love his work so much they want a permanent reminder of it - not just on their walls, but on their bodies, using their skin as the canvas and a tattoo as the medium.
Mills has chosen Byford tattoo artist Ryan Smith as the go-to person for those wanting to recreate his art on their bodies. Recently, rather than having already-created works inked on, people have begun asking Mills for custom-designed styles. It's a request he finds deeply flattering. "A tattoo is such a personal thing and it's a form of body adornment that's been done since the beginning of time," the quietly spoken artist says. "There are people who are true artisans in the field, and it's just that their medium is slightly more unusual than what we see as the more traditional platforms."
It's been a big couple of months for Mills. He recently returned from Melbourne's AgIdeas conference, where he shared floor space with some of the international design community's brightest talents, from graphic designers and illustrators to architects, fashion designers and sound design specialists.
After many years of association with L&K Galleries, he's also recently been picked up by Greenhill, one of Australia's longest- running and best-known commercial galleries, where his work will sit alongside such artists as Leon Pericles, Ray Crooke, Charles Blackman, and Crispin Akerman. He says his inclusion in the Greenhill stable is both an honour and a little "terrifying".
"I remember about 15 years ago, walking down King Street and looking through the window to Greenhill and saying 'That would be the ultimate thing - to be in a gallery like that'," he recalls.
"It's pretty much the dream come true, and it's something I've been working towards for a long time."
His first solo exhibition for the now Claremont gallery will be Dark Lights, which builds on and extends his recent work in a minimal palette of grey, black and silver. Mills' stooped, shadowy figures continue to walk, somewhat haunted and forlorn, across his sombre canvases, symbols of the artist's continuing obsession with blurring the binaries of good and evil, dark and light.
While Mills' colour palette has transitioned from the bright pop colours that typified classic early street art of the mid-1980s to a more subdued, funereal palette, he certainly hasn't forgotten his roots. In what could be seen as a sly nod to the lucrative graffiti removal industry that built up around the first wave of street art to appear in Perth - a wave he was at the forefront of - Mills has begun to introduce a new medium.
"I've actually started using graffiti remover as part of the process of making these characters," he explains.
"I loved the irony of using the medium traditionally used to get rid of graffiti art, so I started experimenting with it to see what it did with the layers and the textures of the paint. I've worked out a process where I can use it along with spray paint, acrylics and oil paint, which is something I've never done before."
Unlike some artists who criticise those who cross over from the margins to the mainstream, Mills doesn't see the movement from buildings and walls into the white space of a commercial gallery as selling out. He continues to move between the public and the private worlds, from city walls to collectors' homes and traditional art galleries. Each method of displaying his wares is equally valid, he says.
"I never wanted to be the sort of artist who said 'You should show here and you shouldn't show there'. Ultimately, people have to do what makes them happy. I've heard so many street artists say 'I'd never go into a gallery', and a year later they've got a show. I never took that position in the first place. My primary objective has always been about making art - how you do it is the important thing to me, not where you do it. I can still paint walls, I can paint on canvas, I can have an exhibition. Why would you limit yourself to one thing?"
Stormie Mills: Dark Lights is at Greenhill Galleries from July 13-26. Details: greenhillgalleries.com.au.