Print is power!! But print will only get you so far, when you're creating a publication. A strong team, with a vast amount of passion and dedication will certainly help. We caught up with George Macdonald and Greg Beer the heads of Street Art magazine Very Nearly Almost, and supporters of the project, to find out more about their ever growing zine.
I've been an avid fan of the magazine, since moving down to London 6 years ago. It has been the staple guide to what was appearing on the streets around the world. For those unfamiliar with the magazine can you explain how the magazine started? Who make up VNA Magazine?
Greg: VNA started back in 2006, George had been out shooting street art and graffiti around various parts of London (mostly east London) and decided that he needed to share his library of images with the world... and VNA was born.
George: Yeah, it was a creative release for me at the time. I always loved graffiti but what I saw happening in East London with the street art scene was just something else. I became slightly obsessed with finding new pieces by Banksy, D*face, The London Police, Insa etc. At that time I was still shooting roughly 50% of the photographs on film, so I had a ton of negatives doing nothing; then it came to me in a dream and so I hand-printed the first issue of VNA in September 2006. I left them in galleries, handed them out at exhibitions and to friends and family.
Greg: From a black and white photocopied A5 zine it developed to having a colour cover, full colour internal pages, perfect bound and eventually several steps to the size and spec it is today. I came on board after George had made 6 issues, at the time he had run his first interview and was building on simple beginnings. I had just arrived in the country and met G at a gallery and told him I was keen to help make it into a proper magazine, that was 2007. It was Issue 7 that was my first crack at designing the mag, sadly it came out printed too dark (we learnt quickly to work on uncoated stock). We have grown the size, the number of pages and ultimately the brand to our latest issue, 34! Also along the way the team has grown. Ben, my house mate at the time came on board to help with the website, then Pete on social and digital, Zang, Geoff and Gin on copy and Roly for additional words and now as managing editor running almost everything. I am still cranking out the design and creative directorial side of things while George stays in as much as he can.
George: Greg came on board at a time when I was keen to turn the magazine from the DIY zine which everyone loved, into a more commercial project. The timing was perfect because I could not do the layout for shit and Greg gave the magazine that professional look.
You probably get asked this a lot? What gave you the idea for the name of the magazine?
George: It's not a very interesting story, the original name for the zine was ‘The Money Shot’, but I settled on 'Very Nearly Almost' because I was constantly starting little projects and never really seeing them through. I had previously run a clothing company and various other projects, but my mind would always wander onto something else. I would very nearly almost commit to projects and at the time the zine just looked like another project I would probably never see through, I guess I was wrong.
Were you surprised by how much of a following you'd gathered of like-minded individuals?
George: Before VNA, I was already part of the street art community, so being part of the online Banksy Forum and being a fan of all these artists and collecting art and communicating with other street art fans meant I could spread the word quickly and that helped massively. At that time the scene was crying out for a UK Street Art magazine because London was such an active environment for street art, it just sort of worked out.
Greg: I think we we've been lucky to be in the right place, doing something people fell in love with, at the right time. We don't pay ourselves a wage or anything for that matter, so any money we've made over the years has been used to make the brand/magazine as solid and well crafted as possible. We work hard to make the mag and content different to anything else on the market.
What other magazines (Not necessarily art based) inspire you with both content and from an aesthetic point of view?
Greg: Years ago I fell in love with RUGGED by Carhartt, Monster Children and Juxtapoz of course. I loved the diversity of RUGGEDs content, it had skate, art, culture, toys and it all worked together. I think I have ever issue they ever released. Monster Children was, and is rad. I love how those guys both got credit cards, maxed them out on the first issue, and have built that mag and brand into something pretty rad!
I love Juxtapoz for the art. I’ll be honest, I have been disappointed by the length of some of their features (1 page, really?) from time to time, but they have always had such great access to artists, and a really nice diversity to boot. At the moment, I love SMITH Journal from OZ. Great writing, interesting stories and well designed.
George: My point of reference and overall inspiration before and during VNA was Berlin’s Lodown Magazine. The content, the photography, the rough graphic layouts, I loved it and still do. Juxtapoz will always be a publication I admire and look up to. To create a magazine with that quality content every month is seriously impressive.
From such a primitive cut and paste beginning, when did it become apparent that this publication could evolve into the magazine it is today?
George: When I started charging for the zine I knew I had to keep stepping up the content to keep everyone interested. By adding an interview with UK based artist A.CE in issue 6 I had taken the initial steps to turn VNA into a magazine. Greg had the knowledge and design background to make this a reality and the timing was right to create a magazine version of Very Nearly Almost. As with the early zines it has always been our intention ever since to keep upping our game both in content, photography and layout.
You both work full time and the magazine is a side venture? What do you do for a living? How do you manage to fit in families, work and the magazine? It must be quite a juggling act?
Greg: I work as an art director/designer in advertising during the days. At night, after the kids are asleep, i’ve had dinner with the lady, possibly cooked some meals, and done some cleaning I start work on the magazine of freelance... basically after 10pm any time until 2am? Sleep tends to suffer.
George: I work full time in photography, graphic design and 3D design. Then like Greg I go home to the wife and kids and when I can, get down to some VNA business.
How healthy do you think the street art scene is in London right now? Do you think the gentrification of parts of London, that were once hotbeds for artist to thrive, will have a negative diluting impact?
George: It's ok, but I think you have partly answered the question already. The gentrification of these creative areas is taking the soul out of the scene. It's not the first time and it won’t be the last. When I first started photographing street art in 2004,5 and 6, I spent all my weekends in Clerkenwell and Old street, now there is barely any street art there. It shifted to Shoreditch and Brick Lane at its peak in 2010-ish then onto Hackney Wick since then but even that is changing now. Where next? Who knows, the scene really started to change when large legal murals became the in thing. It started in a really exciting fashion with artists outdoing each other in scale and detail but now all the large walls are run by businesses and are mostly used for advertising. Its kind of sad but street art and graffiti are big business these days.
In the time you've been documenting art on the streets, what pieces stand out in your mind?
George: When Roa came onto the scene with these huge slightly disturbing anatomical pieces, that was so exciting, I still love his work. C215’s early street work blew me away, it was so soft and subtle. Wrinkly old mens faces on rough concrete… It was just perfect street art for me. It terms of graffiti, I would say that it was Sweet Toof and the rest of the guys from Burning Candy crew who took raw graffiti and brought it to a street art aesthetic… In London at least. Also when Kid Acne turned up with his hundreds and hundreds of intricate ‘Stabby Women’ on doorways across East London, I fell in love with his work too. It was so addictive finding them, I would stay out all day and night trying to find them, and bumping into other street art photographers such as Dave ‘NoLionsInEngland’ and Sam ‘Howaboutno’ doing the same thing. Those were the days before Instagram, when it was who could put the images up on Flickr first got the credit. I have fond memories of that time.
We started this article with the line "Print is power!" Your magazine oozes quality in its build and content, from the fresh printed aroma, to the feel of the unturned pages. Have you ever flirted with going digital? Is it a project of passion to deliver such quality each issue? What do you think the future looks like for printed media, especially from an independent viewpoint?
Greg: We’re a print magazine, we’ve been asked a handful of times to go digital or do a digital version, but thats not what its about for us. We love the texture, the feel and smell of print. I can’t see VNA ever going digital. It just wouldn't feel right!? Print has changed, there are loads of small indie mags and zines out there that are killing it. I think the big difference these days is that mags are all super niche and really well designed (well a lot are - maybe not all of them).
George: I'm with Greg, we have our social media platforms and our website which still offers blog like stories, but other than that we just want to keep it print format only.
Which issues are you most proud of?
Greg: I love the Mike Giant cover on issue 28 (?), also the Lister cover was rad. I think the Cyrcle cover was a big move for us, doing something totally conceptual for the cover and then the feature was a brave thing for the mag and team to take on but was amazing. I think issue 31 was one of my favourite mags front to back (+ the Limiteds were rad too).
George: Every single one of them! I am particularly proud of issues 1 and 2 because it was all done for fun and the scene was so exciting back then. When we got the uncoated paper and colours right we dropped the Kid Acne cover for issue 8, and it's one of my favourites to this date. Since then the Obey cover and feature was a step up for us in terms of imagery, and layout and then when we went bigger for issue 20, with Retna on the cover… That was a great issue and that cover is very strong. The Mike Giant cover is also a very strong image with no street art or graffiti in sight but it holds itself well.
Who was the most difficult person to feature within the covers of the magazine?
George: Hahahah I can’t answer that. We have had our moments with artists. Most have been amazing over the years, and I’m so grateful for being able to work and collaborate with some of my artistic idols. Artists are also busy people, so it has been challenging at times but that's the nature of the business.
Is there a VNA artist wish list? Who would be the dream feature? Or have you ticked those boxes already? How do you decide who will feature and where's the furthest you've had to travel to do an interview?
Greg: Barry Mcgee, I have his email. I’ve met him, I can't see it ever happening though. We have a wish list which we turn to every now and then, but ultimately it's a very democratic approach to content with our team. We all make suggestions and work out what's best for diversity in the issue, and go from there. In terms of distance travelled for interviews, it's not that far. The internet and Skype make global communication pretty easy these days.
George: Yes, we are all keen on Barry Mcgee. I have met him a few times, such a lovely bloke, but he is just such a busy guy. I'm keeping my fingers crossed, Banksy has been very supporting of the magazine over the years but the timing has never been quite right to make it happen, again maybe one day. Flying to L.A to interview Shepard Fairey is probably the furthest we have gone. Three of us flew there to interview him, photograph him and do a short film with him; we were in L.A for 4 days waiting for our moment to meet with him, and the interview came in on the last day just before we flew back to London. I was so hungover when we finally interviewed him, but it turned out well.
You've launched in the USA and Australia. Was there always a vision to take it globally? Do you have feature writers overseas? Do you offer a subscription if people want to follow you overseas?
Greg: Going global! We have a pretty solid network of contributors all over the world, but we are particularly strong for writers down under. I don't know that this was ever the plan, but more of a natural progression for us to get the mag to a wider audience around the world. It has its highs and lows. Shipping more mags because they get lost in post is frustrating, but on the flip side it's always exciting to see that someone in Mongolia reads the mag. Our subscription system is currently getting overhauled, but hopefully sometime soon we’ll be back up and running and able to offer subs to local and international fans.
With the ever evolving ways of capturing and documenting art in the streets ie: Radio Controlled Drones, Go-Pro Cameras, time lapsed photography, do you think that documenting the art has become as creative and artistic as the art itself, and that the two have forged a relationship that will keep pushing the boundaries?
George: Video is very important these days, documenting the creation of street art is probably more important than the final piece! We focused on video for a long time and we still like to do the odd video project when we collaborate with artists but it's hard to keep up with the ways people are documenting graffiti and street art. The drone stuff is pretty amazing, it is in art form in itself.
There have been other publications that have fallen by the wayside. What do you think has been the key to success for VNA staying in the game? What makes your magazine unique?
Greg: I think ultimately, we’ve not run VNA as a very good business. It's been more of a challenge for me to see how far we could push it. How big we could make it, how many super artists we could convince to be on our pages. We’re passionate about our mag and I think that shows. From the years of over styling to the simple, classic modern style that it is today. We work hard to make the best product we can... Are we unique?
George: I think what Greg is trying to say is we’ve not focussed on the business side of VNA. We have been lucky in that we have treated the magazine as a passion project alongside our separate careers, so we have not had to rely on VNA to turn over huge amounts of cash. All the money we have made through VNA has been put back into the magazine to improve it over the years, so as Greg said the rewards are not in cash but more in watching the magazine grow. If we were relying on getting paid we would of gone bankrupt years ago.
Each quarter you have a cover artist, who creates a limited edition cover, and sometimes other limited edition items. Can you tell us more about this gift to the loyal readers, and who has been your personal favourite cover artist and why?
George: When we agreed the D*Face special edition I knew we were onto something. I spent hours printing those covers with D’s team, it was a lot of hard work, but when I arrived at the launch event at StolenSpace and I saw the queue, and learnt we had sold out in 30 minutes it was such a proud moment. The Shepard Fairey Limited edition was incredible and to have that opportunity to work with Shepard, but also the team at Obey Clothing to produce a collaborative t-shirt was a dream come true. We had to top that issue with something special and we did when we did the screen printed cover with Invader. He is such a great guy and he was so up for giving back to the fans, he had no problem hand signing each copy. So those two are probably my favourites but having said that we did pretty well to get a screen print out of Roa, and also Faile, Eine, Sickboy and Conor Harrington.
What impact does having recognised brands advertising in your magazine?
It's very important. Of course financially because we need to cover our costs but also it's so important to have well respected brands advertising in our magazine because it shows we are doing our job and creating something that these brands understand and want to be a part of. Its amazing to have brands such as Vans and DC or Montana Cans and Molotow supporting what we do and we hope it will long continue.
Thanks guys, we look forward to reading many more great copies in the future, and look forward to seeing VNA evolve further.