Toby Zoates is an Australian artist working in the mediums of painting, film, animation, writing, comics, and cartooning. Most importantly, virtually all of Toby’s art is devoid of the usual art-world middlemen. Instead Toby’s art travels straight from mind, to finished form, then finally to a public space – Such as the streets of cities, the insides of nightclubs, and the walls of squats and independent venues.
Pop art presented straight to the populace.
As a man, Toby has lived a life of adventure, creativity, spirituality, esoteric thought and constant movement. From tripping in the 1960s, to dancing and filming at concerts in the 70s, 80s and 90s, to further travels throughout India and other lands in the 2000s and onwards.
With Toby creating all the time.
Importantly, whilst being born in Melbourne, Victoria; Toby has made the City of Sydney, NSW home for close to 40 years now. Becoming an integral part of Sydney’s history through his key roles in the art, squat, music, and activism scenes. A status cemented by the City of Sydney purchasing Toby’s 2012 painting, ’21 Years Under Northcott’ for their permanent collection.
So with Toby having just recently released Part One of his Autobiography (‘Vagabond Freak‘), and completed a highly successful show in Sydney – we decided to ask Toby some questions all about his life, art, thoughts on spirituality and a whole lot more!
Read it all in the Art Talk Interview below…
Name + D.O.B?
I prefer to keep my real name a mystery, otherwise there was no point in creating my nom de guerre.
The same goes for my exact birth date.
City, State n Country you currently call home?
I was born in Collingwood, Melbourne in 1949 under the sign of Libra.
City, State n Country you’re from?
I’ve lived in Sydney since 1977.
Please describe some memories from key stages of your life: concerts, art, toys, romance, hunting, school, politics, crime, religion… ANYTHING really!
At the age of 3 my father tried to kill my mother and I was put with my grandmother for the next 3 years, told my mother was dead. She came back into my life when I was 6.
My grandmother was a Lutheran and tried to brainwash me with the Lord’s Prayer but I eventually grew out of it.
At the age of 5 the kids across the road crushed my thumb in a gate when they slammed it on me and to compensate me for the trauma my grandmother took me to the movies to see a pirate saga called “Botany Bay” with Alan Ladd and Patricia Medina, a movie so lush and adventurous I was mesmerized by movies and art from thereon.
At the age of 7 in 1956 we moved to the Olympic Village in West Heidelberg Melbourne on the edge of the city where suburbia met the bush and I led a Huckleberry Finn existence “down the creek”.
I grew up in a socialist household and had no religious influences.
Around this time I saw on TV a movie made by the Korda Bros in 1940 called “The Thief of Baghdad” wherein the Indian actor Sabu flew on a genie’s back to the top of the Himalayas to the temple of an unknown god and stole an omniscient jewel from its forehead.
I was so inspired by this movie that I was determined when I grew up to lead an adventurous life and myself explore India and the Himalayas which indeed I later did.
By 17 I’d been drawing since the age of 5, the human figure in all its movements, over and over a million times and now doing them in color crayons/pencils.
Due to my rebellious nature I was thrown out of every art class in high school, except for my first year with a wonderful old woman named Isabel Huntington who praised my figures and put them up in the classroom window for all the passing school to see.
Also at 17 I ran away from home with a rock’n roll drummer who I fell in love with and we lived 24/7 our rock addiction by hanging around clubs of the mid 60s called The Biting Eye, The Thumping Tum and The Catcher.
I’ve been a live music/electric guitar fiend my whole life and me and musicians go together like apple pie and cream. My best friends are musos and I’ve put music at the forefront of all my films, poster work and benefit gigs.
The most influential rock concerts of my life have been in front of, in the 60s: Rolling Stones with Brian Jones 1966, Lobby Lloyds bands, Wild Cherries and Purple Hearts, Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs, Python Lee Jackson, Jeff St. John and the Id, Wendy Saddington and the Chain.
In the 70s: Pink Floyd, AC/DC, and XL Capris.
In the 80s and 90s: Chrissie Amphlet and the Divinyls, The Pretenders, Eurythmics, Talking Heads, INXS, Def Leapord at Narara, The Angels, Box the Jesuit, Died Pretty, Nunbait, Regurgitator, Cruel Sea…
…so many I can’t keep going.
By the age of 20 in 1970 I’ve gone thru LSD conversion therapy for my queerness, conned into it by the cult The Family at a clinic named Newhaven…
Four radical LSD trips locked into a hospital room sent me into an atavistic spin, I travelled thru the history of life and humanity in my mind, finally escaped out the back door but never quite came down.
At 21 I travelled across Australia and over to India where I hit the road till I was 26, taking LSD till I could control the nightmares and finally bliss out, smoking hash and living communally with freaks from the top of the Himalayas to the beaches of Goa, and all over India in between.
All the time I practiced drawing and painting, inspired by Hindu art of their calendars, murals and temples, and Mughal miniatures.
Since 19 I’d had a Master artist who I’d apprenticed myself to, Murry “Latimer” Triggs of Adelaide, who came to India to die in 1973 and who I nursed for the year he took to die, all the while him drawing and talking about art. We threw his body in the Ganges river in 1974.
I then hitched overland to Greece and the Island of Crete in 1976, came back to Auz thinking my own country and culture would be the best place to contribute my art practice.
I worked in the Simpson’s Desert as a labourer for an exploration company then made it to Sydney on New Years Eve 1977 in time for the free AC/DC concert at the Haymarket where only about 300 punters rocked on to the young band.
I was 27 and I got involved in the anti-uranium riots at White Bay in Sydney, I arranged a benefit concert for all of us arrested, did the poster, and from then on realised it was a good holistic approach to art practice: get involved in some socio-political event, do a benefit with poster, choose and hang-out with the musicians, also show films to do with the subject of the protest such as women’s rights, housing for the homeless, prisoners rights, koori rights etc, and make some of those films myself.
I did about 21 silk-screen posters, most of which are in the National Gallery in Canberra Collection. I used Sydney itself as my gallery, pasting thousands of posters upon the walls over the years, eschewing up market galleries as elitist spaces, but they wouldn’t have me anyway… I politely pleaded with Frank Watter at his famous gallery in Darlinghurst and he politely refused me.
In 1978 I was pasting up a poster for Stanley Palmer’s Community Centre when an older man approached me and commented how my drawing style would suit animating cartoons. His name was Eddie van der Madden, he was an electronics genius and he built his own animation cameras.
I went to his studio and was smitten, animation was the art for me and for the next twenty years obsessively lost my life inside that difficult, labour intensive art form.
From my first arrival in Sydney I was squatting, first in Darlinghurst then in 1978 I moved to Pyrmont squats, where I stayed for 12 years doing all my art and films from there, using free rent to pay for all my needed materials and the freewheeling nature of squatting to make a mess with paints and rubber latex masks, and the community living giving me aid in building of models and painting of animation cells.
I applied to go to NAS in 1982 supplying the story board for my animated short film ‘The Thief of Sydney’ as an example of my art but they knocked back my entry so I went down the road and applied at UTS to do Communications supplying the same story-board and they snapped me up for the course.
I did it part time and majored in Writing and Text studies which has informed my work, giving it political / historical / philosophical clout, most of my art containing text as well as image, it has to be read as well as looked at.
I first made a Super 8 film ‘My Survival as a Deviant!?’ (1979), then 16mm film ‘The Thief of Sydney’ (1984) – winning Bronze Dragon for script at Krakow International Animation fest Poland 1985, then Super 8 ‘Darling It Hurtz!’ (1986), then 16mm ‘Virgin Beasts’ (1991) – co-winning first prize with Japan at Freakzone, Internat trash Film fest 1996 Lille France.
I gave up film-making in 1993 as too hard to raise the money and achieve the many complexities; I didn’t like half the people I had to deal with in making a film, hard hearted, boring rip-off arseholes; and the exigencies of life on the streets in itself overwhelming, the police framing me for an armed robbery I did not commit, taking me to trial saying, “You’re a thief, a liar and a poofter and we hate all three!” From all these troubles and travails I figured corrupt, class-bound, apparatchik Australia was not worth contributing to.
But in 1996, at age 46, I had good luck, I was flown to France for the Trash Film festival and competition, I won half the prize money, toured Amsterdam, France, Portugal and Morocco on the prize money and realised Australia was a backwater at the bottom of the world, my bubble had been burst and I could escape to the greater world if I wanted to.
In 1997 I raised the money to go back to India which I found was as a wild and freakish as ever, Goa trance music was peaking, mobile phones, cars and shopping malls had not arrived yet and I had the greatest time. I have been going back every years since, raising the money needed by working as night palliative care nurse in most of the hospitals, clinics and nursing homes in Sydney.
These travels have given me a wonderful, adventurous ending to my life that I don’t regret not making it as a Hollywood wannabe or great artist as exotic adventure and freedom is what I wanted most in my life.
I freaked out at the cop frame-up experience and had to have psychiatric intervention but going to trial, being acquitted on a case of mistaken identity, then winning Freakzone and travelling the world, I have indeed risen like a phoenix, absolutely enjoyed my life, dancing ecstatically in abandon in Goa, communing with Freaks around the camp fire, trekking the high Himalayas, and in Sydney being on my toes nursing, solving problems scientifically as the buck stopped with me the charge nurse, realizing all our humanity and my humility as I sat with hundreds of dying people, wiping their bums, cleaning up the body fluids, it was good for my hubris.
I have hung around the arts squat of the Gunnery down in Woolloomoolloo from about 1985 to 1990, done many group shows with them and others, particularly Damien Minton who has known me since he was 19 and has given me a break from 2011 onwards, helping to lift me out of the gutter if at all it’s possible.
It’s 2019 now and I’ve achieved much of my lifelong dreams, what I’d dreamt of doing since I was a child, making art, paintings, drawings, films, live performance and story-telling.
If I’ve still got a few years left in me I want to paint key scenes in my life, such as “Down the Creek” in West Heidelberg” or “Trekking in the Himalayas in the 1970s” or “Slam-dancing at Rock Clubs like Sellinas at Coogee” or “Abandoned Dancing at the Trance Parties in Goa of the 1990s”.
My other dream that I wish to accomplish is writing a trilogy novel, semi-auto-biographical but written in the third person, called “The 7 Lives of the Punk Poofy Cat”. I’ve already written and self-published on Amazon the first book, “Vagabond Freak” and am now editing the second book and looking for a publisher for “Punk Outsider”.
Remember, I majored in Writing in my Communications course at the University of Technology Sydney, I wrote all my film scripts and I’ve been published before, “Welcome to the Mens” in an anthology “Edge City” edited by Gary Dunne 1983; “Alec Farthing” in anthology “Being Different” 1985; and my comic book “No Future” 1985.
My personal motto is:
“If you want to realise your dreams you’ve got to make the sky the limit and go out and grab it because no one is going to give it to you if you just sit at home, waiting by the telephone, staring into the television set.”
Why did you choose the nom-de-plume of Toby Zoates for your works?
I discovered my name Toby Zoates in 1978 while watching TV. I was dreaming that I needed a catchy household name as my real name is too banal for an art loving public to remember.
A commercial for a famous breakfast cereal came on, the breakfast of champions, and the announcer slurred his S into a Z, Toby’s Oats became Toby Zoats and it hit me it would be the perfect Australian cartoonist name as it was funny, memorable and contained many double-entendres such as “sowing his wild oats”, “earning his oats” and satirising consumer capitalism. I just threw in the extra “e” to totally make it mine. And Z is my favorite letter = Z for Zorro, Zapata, Zippie the Pinhead and the Z list.
Also when scientists researched the wondrous nutritional value of oats they called it “the Z factor”.
Any pivotal artistic moment(s) / influence(s)?
The artists who have influenced me are: Breughal the Elder, Heironymous Bosch, Durer, Touluse Lautrec, Matisse, Miro, Otto Dix, Diego Rivera, Edward Hopper, Bill Griffiths (Zippie the Pinhead), Gilbert Shelton (Furry Freak Bros), and Robert Crumb.
From very early on I devoured illustrated books: Noddy and Big Ears, Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, Little Black Sambo, all the Marvel and DC commix but particularly Superman, Batman, Marvelman, Aquaman, The Phantom.
I’ve also been a voracious reader, in my early teens reading all of Ian Fleming, Rudyard Kipling, Mark Twain, Edgar Rice Burroughs, until by the age of 21 I’d read most of the classics and pop culture novels.
I’m particularly a fan of science fiction, reading all the Masters writing up to now.
I’m a total movie tragic, watching 2 movies a night and going to the big screen cinema every Friday since I was very young.
All of this informs my art and writing. My novel “Vagabond Freak” was influenced by Huckleberry Finn, My Brother Jack, The Thief’s Journal, Goa Freaks, The Dharma Bums, Kim, and Siddhartha.
Describe the process of producing your art? – Dot point all o.k!
The process I go through to create my art, from drawings, paintings, murals to animation, is to obviously first have a bee in my bonnet about some subject, for instance nuclear armaments and uranium mining.
I then research it, newspapers, books, films and photos, to get the image of a mushroom cloud, a nuclear reactor, a ruined city after a blast, a tsunami wave, the logo of an electricity company such as General Electric.
I then map out on a big piece of paper a kind of road map, a grid, a kind of dividing the theme(s) up so that one image can read like a comic book.
I then draw the images over and over again, rubbing them out and trying again till I got the look I want.
Rarely I trace the image off my computer screen or I get some friend or object to model for me. I might even cut out all the finished drawn images and replace them about the grid till I’m satisfied with my vision of a balance.
I then color it in, either using the full palette of the 7 colors of the rainbow or decide to stick to just a few colors, placing them beside me and ignoring the rest. I try to balance the colors, not having the same color in one area or on too many designs.
…Having something to say is the most important aspect of all this creativity. As a civilisation and an animal species we are on the brink of destruction, either through nuclear war, germ warfare, pandemics, environmental destruction, climate change, famine, neo-fascist dictatorship, enslavement of the majority, inequality of wealth, I can go on and on…
..And in my mind it is the responsibility of all human endeavour, the arts, politics, education, the media, to confront our dilemma and try to ameliorate it, improve our chances at freedom and survival, or at least discuss it, not bury our heads in the sand, as much of the arts seem to do. Why? Because it’s easy to avoid the tough subjects and get engrossed in bullshit, or they’re cowards, or they’re just plain stupid and don’t know what to say.
My novel, “Vagabond Freak”, was simply my life story and experiences with the emphasis on Australian working class folklore; the 60s and 70s hippie / freak phenomena; masculinity and growing up as a queer boy in the 20th Century; the search for “self” on the hippie trail in India; drug culture, especially LSD.
I worked on it for 21 years, rewriting it 21 times, mostly while in India from 1997 on, having nothing else to do as there was no TV, cafes or rock clubs to get distracted by.
Worst aspect of the contemporary art hustle?
Worst aspect of contemporary art hustle is the nastiness of many of the wannabes, willing to plagiarise, stab in the back, push out of the way, lie, fuck, steal, nepotism, infiltrate the grants boards, suck up to brain dead, boring fat arsed bureaucrats, sell their grandmothers to third world brothels, for the money, the ideas, the kudos, the cachet of being the grand artist – and the little gold statue to masturbate with.
Best aspect of the contemporary art hustle?
The best aspect, if there is any, of the arts hustle, is sometimes good people step forward to help, like Gail now down at the National Film Archives in Canberra who put Virgin Beasts on at the LGBQTA Mardi Gras Film Festival when all other slammed the door on me; or my fellow squatters at Pyrmont such as Gary who built my model of the Centrepoint Tower; or Damien Minton who has given me several shows since 2012 when, again, everyone else slammed the door in my face; sweet bureaucrats at The Aust Film Commission such as Chris Tillum who gave me a first break with funding for my first film, “My Survivor as a Deviant!?”.
..And when one finally wins appreciation, like I did in Lille France at the Freakzone Trash Awards when the crowd of French cognoscenti punks cheered en masse, or when the crowd gave me commendations and related how my art and life inspired them at my most recent show at the Sheffer Gallery hosted by Damien Minton, it makes me high and almost believing it was worth the long travail to get here, Nowheresville, as I’m still ignominious, broke and in the gutter.
How on earth did famed American outre film studio ‘Troma’ come to distribute your film ‘Virgin Beasts’ – that sounds like a tale for sure!?
I knew I was going to make Trash as a genre because I could only raise so much money, thus the sets would wobble, the hearts in the surgery would be obviously rubber, the actors wooden, the props made from reverse garbage, the costumes bought at charity shops; and the shoot could only go for 10 days so we couldn’t rehearse much or do many takes.
I had seen many Troma films such as Toxic Avenger and my lead actress was going to New York to visit her family so I told her to go to Troma and give a pitch. I then heard Lloyd Kaufman was in Sydney so I rang him at his hotel and he gave me an interview, I pitched VB again and he offered me $1000 for distribution rights and that’s all I ever got, even though he’s released the film twice, in 1993 and in 2005, so he must’ve made money from it.
I then went on to win the Trash Film Fest in France in 1996 and was vindicated as many bureaucrats at the Australian Film Commission tried to stop the production, in the beginning and halfway through. It has since shown all around the world in many formats and I continue to show it on the Australian underground circuit.
How has living in Government Social Housing changed in the close to 30 years you have been living in Northcott?
Living at Northcott Housing Dept has been a true school of hard knocks…
I moved there in 1990 just in time for the Surry Hills massacre where a crazed punk shot 5 people dead; I’ve witnessed several suicides, been beaten up a few times, have my windows continuously broken, am surrounded by schizos, crims, drug crazed maniacs, pensioners and hard working city dwellers.
The Daily Terror has called us slum rats and a thieves kitchen. I grew up in Housing Dept so I’m used to it.
Queer people are statistically more likely to be homeless… After years on the streets, on the road, in the squats, I finally had my own domicile and it’s heaven, it’s my palace, I can lock the world out and do my thing; it’s my arts studio, I finished Virgin beasts there, painted many canvases and wrote my my novel, so I appreciate the place very much.
My greatest fear is the Housing Dept handing Northcott over to the nasty, greedy developers and throwing us old paupers out on the streets. But for now, I go to bed with great relief that for one more night I can rest safe in my bed.
Odds n Ends
Does sex change everything?
Sex oozes from every cell of our body, it’s the glue of all life, but especially homo sapiens who through a million year history has used sex to form community, to conquer, to get ecstatic, to reproduce, to suffer, to obsess about.
Sex is at the bottom of most human endeavour, getting of power and money can often merely be the way to get all the sex one wants. But it’s a pity and an illness to get carried away by it.
Sex led me on my nefarious path, perhaps due to mental illness, childhood trauma, societal prohibitions and pressures. I wouldn’t be me, freak, renegade and artist if I hadn’t been tortured as a gay man and thus have a chip on my shoulder, hating the conservative, bigoted world that fucked me over.
Who was your 1st crush and why?
I have mentioned already that my first crush was when I was 16 and I fell in love with a rock’n roll drummer, even running away from home with him…
All this is detailed in my novel “Vagabond Freak”.
Please describe what you think the Australian zeitgeist is today?
I think there are two levels to the contemporary Australian zeitgeist: one is the “straight” capitalist program of increasing GDP, exploiting the environment by extracting what the corporate state can from it; consuming as much as possible; bringing up children brainwashed into these values; worshipping celebrity, money and illusory gods; sports madness and ignorance of the arts; protecting the national borders to selfishly hang onto privilege and greedy lifestyle as opposed to sharing the place with the needy such as refugees.
Then there is a more subtle and hidden zeitgeist, of sharing, of appreciating and supporting the arts, working towards a compassionate humanity; of living communally; of moving away from obsessing about 40 hour working weeks towards a more leisurely lifestyle where consumption is not the goal, a UBI is provided, and minorities and the poor are lifted up; protecting the environment; mitigating climate change replacing carbon with renewable. This gets back to the hippie dream of the 60s and 70s which got crushed by neo-liberalism, Thatcher’s and Reagan’s deregulation and monetarism and flooding the alternative social attempts with hard drugs.
These two zeitgeists clash, the first having the powers of police, the army, surveillance, media propaganda, money supply to stymie the dreamers’ hopes of a more humane and sustained environmental clean-up and re-growth.
What are the top 3 items you own?
The top three items I own is my second-hand laptop, my second-hand TV and DVD player, and my push-bike made up of other junked push-bikes.
Please describe your latest dream in detail…
My latest dream was very encouraging for me as it was one of my regular animal visitation dreams but almost for the first time a black horse came to me. It nuzzled me and let me pet it, then let me mount it and somehow it spread wings and took flight, taking me up to the 7th heaven, assuring me all was brilliant and in my quest I would have the visions I desired to further my colorful, informative art.
Of everything you have done what would you most like to be remembered for and why?
I guess I’d like to be remembered for any of my artistic efforts, be it posters, drawings, paintings, films or my writings, (novels).
I don’t have any illusions that I’m some great star who will be remembered forever, celebrated by posterity. Very few now know or care about me or my work, it will turn to dust like much of civilisations’ endeavours over the thousands of years. If climate change, sea level rise, hurricanes, nuclear war, pandemics really work out for humanity’s future, then nobody and nothing will be remembered.
Drugs – waste of time or gateway to the universe?
I smoked a lot of ganjha and hash when I was young and now wish I hadn’t as I’ve ruined my health and perhaps could’ve produced my art anyway. But it sure chilled me out while I did the infinite hours of hard slog and comforted me when the chill winds of societal opprobrium cast me down.
I never did hard drugs but I did take a fair amount of LSD from 1969 up until about 1985, and as much as it gave me nightmares for a few years I eventually got on top of it, got it under control, experienced elation, got rid of my boogie men and Christian heavenly father / Satan brainwash.
I experienced such amazing visions and myths of the collective unconscious that I don’t think I regret it all, it was the ultimate of of mind-tripping adventures, collectively tripping with freaks in Goa while dancing naked around a bonfire.
I also took MDMA every Christmas / New Years eve party season from about 1990 to 2010 as a sacred practice, vision questing, dancing in ecstatic abandon, freeing my mind of uptight delusions, (for awhile) and loosening up my muscles, and communing with nature, kind of fucking the whole Universe, definitely joining forces with a crowd of like-souled freaks from around the world. But I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone, as those with a weak physique or a screw loose can collapse and/or become unhinged.
How has Yoga, Hinduism, and general esoteric thought impacted your life and art?
I did yoga with some great Masters in Auz and India for 20 years, it has kept me very healthy except entropy is finally breaking my body down in my 70th year.
Meditation has helped me to relax, think things out, plan them carefully, concentrate, aim for a goal and single-mindedly stick to it till the project was finished with the through-line remaining intact all along the way.
Vedanta is the inner core teaching of Hinduism, all is One, (AUM), but while the quantum flux remains, everything else changes as surface illusion projected from that flux.
If people wanted to work with you or buy something – how should they get in touch?
If anyone wants to collaborate with me they can ring me or write me an e-mail though I’m now 70, quite fatigued, grumpy, reclusive and much of a loner, as I’ve experienced collaboration often ends in grief.
Any major projects you want to hype?
I’m hoping to slowly do some canvases of the high times of my life and have a show in about a year but in the mean time I’m working on my second book in my trilogy, Punk Outsider.