Drain Gang’s Bladee and Varg2™ Are “Fucked for Life”
SUNDAY, ?:??PM MAY 21, 2023 NYC
When Drain Gang member Bladee [Benjamin Reichwald] and fellow Swedish musician Varg2™ [Jonas Rönnberg] were asked by their labels to collab on a new record, the musicians, who have known each other since they were teens tagging Stockholm’s underground train tunnels and abandoned buildings, quickly agreed. But instead of spending their time together writing songs, the duo ended up revisiting the art form that led to their introduction in the first place, creating a colorful-yet-sinister collection of graffiti-inspired work. With no record in sight, the boys are instead showcasing their art in an exhibition titled Fucked for Life, now on view at The Hole’s Tribeca basement gallery. To find out more about the inspiration behind the show, fellow Drain Gang member and graf artist Ecco2k spoke to Bladee and Varg2™ the day after their opening about life in the late aughts, when the drainers were still kids, tunneling and spraying their way through the urban landscape.
ECCO2K: Benjamin, remember that guy we met on the train like 15 years ago? The train was completely full of people on the way to work and he was just bombing the whole car.
ECCO2K: He was a little older than us, and he was by himself, wearing a mask in the middle of rush hour. Everyone was terrified.
VARG2™: It was called Reclaim the Streets. That whole era was crazy.
BLADEE: He asked us if we had pens so we gave him ours. He started bombing a ton and people were trying to interfere, but he’d just ignore them.
ECCO2K: When I saw the exhibition, the first thing I thought of was that guy. [Laughs]
BLADEE: We wanted to do it in that spirit.
VARG2™: Yeah. [Laughs] We really came with that energy. I remember when I first saw all these videos from Reclaim the Streets. I thought it was so sick because they had 5 guys rolling around in a car with duffel bags just rinsing gas station after gas station for cans. Then they went to Stureplan in central Stockholm and handed it all out. They had a box truck driving around playing jungle as all these people were rioting.
BLADEE: Ah, sick. I remember we ran into [Redacted] at Slussen with these metal pipes and rocks in their backpack.
ECCO2K: It was kind of like the Swedish May 1st demonstrations, but really it was just, “We’re going to destroy everything.”
VARG2™: My friend, [Redacted], we used to write together and now he’s like a Rolex collector and yacht-owner. We were at “Reclaim The Streets” and we loosened the cobblestones in the old town the day before so that they were easy to lift up and throw during the protest.
BLADEE: Who organized it? Was it some anarchist thing?
ECCO2K: It was a demonstration, like a politically motivated thing. It wasn’t even really about graffiti, more just like breaking windows and trashing stuff.
VARG2™: I wonder where the line is between destruction for a political reason, to express something, and that guy on the train who’s just like, “I’m fucked up and I feel like shit.” It seems like most of it’s just an expression of your own internal psychic horribleness.
ECCO2K: Everyone does it for their own reasons.
VARG2™: It’s beautiful in a way, everyone is teamed up—
BLADEE: Together in destruction. Just anti-vibes.
VARG2™: “We know we’re not going to feel better so let’s just fuck shit up today.”
ECCO2K: It was a really interesting time, a lot of crawling in tunnels.
VARG2™: I’ve thought about that a lot recently, the tunnels. When me and my mom would come down to Stockholm we’d always stay around Rådhuset, that’s one of the stations that smells like the inside of a mountain. The whole Blue Line is like that.
ECCO2K: Smells like tunneling.
VARG2™: And that smell is so magical for me.
ECCO2K: Tunnel-smell and spray can-smell together. [Laughs]
BLADEE: Someone should do a perfume of that.
ECCO2K: Oh my god, yes.
BLADEE: Those places were really inspiring.
ECCO2K: They were like mythical places, you heard people talk about them, these forbidden places that nobody could see.
BLADEE: Legendary places.
ECCO2K: Places people died trying to reach.
VARG2™: The fact that you guys opened up Vin & Sprit [an abandoned industrial complex in Stockholm]—I’ll always be thankful. You opened a door to an underworld.
ECCO2K: When we were young, because we had no money and no influence, it felt very special to find those secret spaces. We were there every day.
BLADEE: It gave meaning to life, you thought about it all the time.
VARG2™: Yeah. I remember when I’d get photos from other people and I’d be like “Where the fuck is this?” They’d give a little hint and I’d have to go out in the woods scanning for the entrance.
ECCO2K: We were never on any forums either, it was always when we’d be on the way to some tunnel that we’d meet some guy who’d talk about another place.
BLADEE: It was just word of mouth. You’d be like, “The manhole is really close to that weird building.”
VARG2™: Were you ever down in the Akay Temple in Slussen?
BLADEE: Yeah, we were there a ton.
ECCO2K: We’d just go there to hang out.
VARG2™: And you’d go in under the mattress in that little house, down the secret ladder.
ECCO2K: One time I climbed down really far through some ventilation shaft.
BLADEE: That was where someone died.
VARG2™: That was when they closed it down.
ECCO2K: It was the most mainstream spot, it was only a matter of time.
VARG2™: I know, but I always thought it was so chill, being in the middle of Stockholm and being able to find a little peace of mind.
ECCO2K: One of my favorites was the manhole by St. Eriksplan. Imagine walking on a busy street and suddenly seeing all these kids crawling out of the ground. You needed a crowbar to get them open, so we’d keep one in our locker at school and go there during recess.
VARG2™: That’s the sickest part. I wonder if this is something the TikTok generation is ever going to get into—it feels like in 2023 teenagers aren’t digging into tunnels in the middle of the city.
BLADEE: I think people do, for YouTube and stuff. Urban exploration.
VARG2™: Of course, but is it in the same way?
BLADEE: It’s not really the same thing, there was something to how all these places had a name.
VARG2™: Exactly, Tollare.
ECCO2K: Duvornas Salar.
BLADEE: They all had their own vibe.
ECCO2K: People didn’t go to those places to broadcast them, people went there just because they didn’t have anywhere else to go. They were looking for somewhere cool to be.
VARG2™: Nowadays in Stockholm there aren’t a lot of homeless people who live down there, but before you would run into so many tunnel people.
ECCO2K: The guy who introduced us to all of this was a kid who went to our school who was much younger than us. He was like 10 or 11, a little adventurer. He just hung out in the tunnels by himself every day.
VARG2™: I have to go back to Vin & Sprit, I can’t thank you enough for that. I remember WUFC crew had a ton of stuff there.
ECCO2K: For the record, we’re talking about the Vin & Sprit building in Årstadal, a crazy big building that was abandoned about 15 years ago.
BLADEE: It was a factory building with a mountain behind it, and the whole mountain was full of these tunnels that went really deep.
ECCO2K: The overground section of the building was huge, and everyone knew about it. Tons of people painted there, and we were there every day at recess breaking windows and shit. The building itself was so big, people didn’t know about the tunnels below.
VARG2™: I heard that you guys went really deep.
BLADEE: When it was still standing we only ever went in the building itself, it was only after they tore it down that we found the tunnels.
ECCO2K: We came back after the demolition when there was only rubble left, and found an opening that was 30 by 30 centimeters, 4 meters up on a wall in the foundation. We moved a concrete pillar over, I climbed in and unlocked a door from the inside, three stories up. When the house was still standing we had already explored the basement so I knew the way in the dark, but we didn’t know how big the network of connected tunnels was. But from there we could then research the whole inside of the mountain.
VARG2™: The magic of discovering a whole tunnel system as a teenager is insane. It’s so nice that there was electricity and lamps down there as well.
ECCO2K: I remember the first time we found the breaker, because for several weeks we were just walking around in pitch darkness, but we already understood that it was big just because you could hear the echoes.
BLADEE: And you could smell how big it was.
ECCO2K: And then one day we found the breaker, and there was electricity. It lit the whole thing lit up. That was when we found the tunnels that went deep into the mountain.
VARG2™: I’ve always been too fat to go into tunnels, too claustrophobic as well. But there was a factory my grandfather worked at in Ursviken that made masonite stones. They abandoned the building and the ground was totally polluted with arsenic so they couldn’t do anything with it. I broke in through the fence and I was always there painting during recess, in this little village in the middle of nowhere. One day, a bunch of builders came and complained that I’d painted the place. They called the cops, and I had to have a meeting with the guy who was responsible for the building. He gave me a safe card so that I could have this factory as a play place. When I think back on it I’m like, “That was fucking dangerous.” There were holes everywhere, I was walking over plank bridges and shit. I could’ve died really easily.
ECCO2K: Part of it was that you could never completely relax. There’s always a lot of risk when you’re trying to get out of the tunnels—going in is easy, but coming out you’re in a really vulnerable position. It was always extremely stressful.
VARG2™: Especially because everyone cares so much in Sweden, not just passersby but also “CSG” [train security], they don’t just survey trains and the subway tunnels, they’ll keep watch on places where people paint and wait at the entrances until people come out of the tunnels.
ECCO2K: In Sweden, spaces like that aren’t really tolerated.
BLADEE: Many were more dangerous than others, some you could fall through the floor. You risked everything to go in, not knowing if you were going to come out.
ECCO2K: We had no idea where we were going, it was pitch black and nobody knew we were there. There were all these legendary places, but we just wanted to find new ones.
BLADEE: Even our school had tunnels underneath, and we broke into all of them. The only one we didn’t get to was this tunnel that was big enough to drive a truck through. It ran from our school to this hospital nearby. It was made for wartime. I think we found the door but it was locked, we had the staff keys but they didn’t work. But we had our own little room under the school that only we could access.
ECCO2K: There was an abandoned train tunnel that ran to Södra Station. Recess was like 90 minutes, and every day, as soon as the lesson was done, we ran and grabbed as much flammable material we could and went to the tunnel. It was a rite of passage. You need to step with a certain rhythm to walk the tracks in complete darkness without tripping over, and you can’t see the entrance or exit.
BLADEE: Sometimes there were people in there, sleeping.
ECCO2K: When you’d gone so far that you couldn’t see the opening behind you, just nothingness, then you would make the biggest fire. And because the tunnel was connected to the commuter train network, the whole train station would fill up with smoke, and they had to stop all the trains.
BLADEE: They could never figure out where it was coming from. [Laughs] They even wrote about it in the papers.
ECCO2K: There was this one room in the train tunnel—
BLADEE: With a huge hole, like a Bane hole.
ECCO2K: It was like a bottomless depth, but upward.
BLADEE: It went all the way up through the mountain.
ECCO2K: It was really a religious experience, like being in a church—so resonant, dark, wet, and dirty.
VARG2™: Speaking of the church, my first show was in the tunnels underneath Södersjukhuset. I DJ’ed and it was great in the beginning. It was so loud and it felt like we had our own place. Then, two plainclothes police came and asked if I was the one having the party and I dipped from behind the booth. I thought about that a lot after, how these places lose their charm when you invite a ton of people in. I’d just done my first show on home turf, in a subway tunnel, but it felt just like blasphemy. The holy feeling wasn’t there at all.
BLADEE: There’s something about these untouched places.
ECCO2K: That only you know.
BLADEE: That’s something I still think about all the time, that there are tunnels all over the place.
VARG2™: That’s what I love about being in New York. Last night, when we went to dinner after the opening, we walked over to that grate that covers the subway tunnels. Someone said it stressed them out, but I just felt like, “Wow, what a luxury.” In Stockholm we don’t have exposed openings like that, but in New York there’s stairs down into the tunnels. That smell gives me psychosis, I’m like, “Open that shit up and let me down now.”
ECCO2K: Even though we don’t do that kind of stuff anymore, you still get that feeling of “I want to know what’s going on down there.”
BLADEE: The tunnels here must be wild.
ECCO2K: Right? The tunnels in New York feel like an extension of the street. But in Stockholm the city is so pretty and clean that it feels like those places shouldn’t exist.
BLADEE: What happened with the key at the Stockholm Central Library? Do you know anyone who ever had that? They had gone and switched the locks at all these different places all over the city, and this key worked in all of them. And it had a map as well.
VARG2™: And they hid it at Stadsbiblioteket?
ECCO2K: Inside a book.
BLADEE: We never knew anyone who had it.
VARG2™: Neither did I.
ECCO2K: The people involved in that were way older than us. When we started getting into this stuff it was right at the tail-end of Nug and those guys’ generation, so a lot of it was just myths.
VARG2™: Word. I’ve done graf for so long, it took a long time for me to take myself out of that life. I’ve met all those legends, it’s so crazy to hear their stories. This guy [Redacted], he doesn’t live in Sweden anymore, and we were talking about that romantic feeling that comes with the smell of the mountains and tunnels in Stockholm. There is such a powerful romance in the light surface of the city and its dark underbelly. I spent a lot of time in the Vatican, going around at night. You’d think it would be overwhelmingly romantic, but it could never come close to the feeling of arriving at Kungsträdgården and hearing that busted click in the little grey speaker box and smelling that smell. It’s fucking magic.
ECCO2K: I remember when I started going to printmaking school in 2014. On the first day, everyone had to pick their workspace and there were only white cubicles, but one of them had skulls all over the walls. I was like, “I know that’s Jonas’ spot.” [Laughs] So I took that one.
VARG2™: It was really good for you because I stole so much shit and the desk was totally full. I remember I left a really nice silver paint.
ECCO2K: It was really nice. We didn’t really know each other then. But when I see your recent drawings you can tell it’s all been made by the same person. Thinking about the butterflies you’d draw, the graffiti on the walls of your workspace, the same idiom can be traced all the way back through these different periods.
VARG2™: It always has been.
ECCO2K: And then, Benjamin, I remember the first time I went to your house when we were kids, there was this painting hanging in the hall that was so sick. It never occurred to me until later that it could have been yours, but when I found out I was like, “Woah.” You were always drawing these different faces and I still see them now in your paintings. I’ve seen what both of you have done over 10-15 years, and not just your “work” but also when you doodle, how you passively develop your style when you’re bored. These paintings feel really beautiful because they look like an amalgamation of everything you’ve ever made.
BLADEE: Just more focused.
ECCO2K: When you sit and scribble, as a graffiti writer, you’re developing your style by doing a ton of iterations of the same motif until it develops into something that looks good enough to spray over someone’s storefront.
ECCO2K: In terms of this art shit, there’s this trope where your practice revolves around like one technique or motif that you refine over your entire career, painting the same thing over and over again, getting sharper and sharper, this is essentially the same thing.
VARG2™: That’s true. That’s what we’ve done this whole time.
ECCO2K: What’s so cool to me is that from a 10-15 year perspective I can see how both of your visual languages have refined over time, through all of your scribbling and experimenting, and now seeing these new paintings at your first big gallery opening, even though they look messy and fucked up, I know that none of it is accidental because I’ve seen you draw these things a thousand times, and that’s cool because even though it looks like shit, it’s actually not. [Laughs]
VARG2™: [Laughs] Big facts. So many people call our art—and especially my graffiti—”anti-style.” That’s just fucking stupid. To understand how to do something childishly or naively you have to understand beauty. I’m really happy with our paintings. Yesterday at the opening I felt very proud. To come from breaking into basements type shit to exhibiting paintings in gold frames, it’s almost like seeing a child grow up. All of those smells, all of those sounds, all of those terrible and great days are manifested into these canvases and it’s so beautiful.
ECCO2K: They’re drawing from all of this shit from that time we’ve just been talking about, but made with a perspective that has also lived and experienced something else.
VARG2™: Isn’t that what art is about? I decided I couldn’t call myself an artist because I’m not educated, I stopped going to school when I was 12. And Georgia said that an artist is a person who goes where other people don’t dare go, comes back, and shares that experience. You just have to continue being fucked for life. You have to take that path and just go into that fucking fog.
BLADEE: It is very personal in that way. It’s not like we set out to make something super personal, but when you go deep, it inevitably is.
VARG2™: There’s no formal process either, just a dialog between us, without words.
BLADEE: The studio experience is like the urban exploration experience.
VARG2™: You just go into the dark, kicking in the door.
Photography Assistant: Jimi Franklin