It seems more the rule than the exception that at some point in time working artists will be pressed into questioning the wider impact of their work. In a field where the separation between relative obscurity and commercial success sometimes seems more about luck than skill, it’s natural to wonder if the years of hard work and perseverance will amount to something more.
Fortunately for Whistler painter, sculptor, muralist and tattoo artist Dave “Pepe” Petko, the past year has helped him definitively answer this very question. Between the continued popularity of his Function Junction tattoo shop (Black Ohm), landing a mural from the municipality this summer at Olympic Plaza, being named Champion of the Arts at the 2021 Whistler Excellence Awards, and now launching his first solo exhibit in nearly 20 years, called Starry Nights, you could say it’s been a banner year for the 52-year-old.
“I think I was blessed. The universe just gave me a bunch of creative energy and good weather. A lot of good things have been falling in my lap for 2021,” Petko says. “I felt for years and years that no one really knew who I was or knew my work, but this year, just from the things that happened, it was like, ‘Wow, people do recognize me for the artist I am’—and it feels really good.”
Now, defining Petko as an artist sort of depends on the day you ask. Over the years, his style has evolved from abstract expressionism to what he calls “a pop surrealism, kind of low-brow style,” to more traditional subject matter like animals and nature that reflect his deep appreciation for Whistler. His artistic exploration doesn’t stop at the canvas either; with a background in screen-printing, Petko is a consummate tinkerer, constantly experimenting in new mediums and forms, whether it be sculpture, large-scale art installations, or, of course, ink on skin.
“One medium helps spawn on the next medium and the next,” he explains. “Every time I switch to a different medium, I kind of go back to the medium before it, and they all work in a circular, inspirational way.”
Petko’s latest Arts Whistler exhibit, running from Jan. 11 to March 6 at the Maury Young Arts Centre, is the culmination of more than two years of work and features 29 pieces showcasing illuminated night forests and “synthetic landscapes” all containing a phosphorescent pigment that transforms each work once the lights go out. Petko has been creating his own glow-in-the-dark pigments for years, but it wasn’t until his partner suggested creating an entire body of work that incorporated the radiant pigment that the concept for Starry Nights came into view.
“I have a piece I did here at home from 2009 where I created my own pigments using phosphorescent pigments and fluorescent pigments. I was showing it to my girlfriend, Tanya Kong, and she’s like, ‘Yeah, it’s a nice piece,’” Petko recalls.
Then he got her to look at it under black light, which gave the piece an entirely new dimension, before asking her to cut the lights completely. “So she shut it off and you could see the foreground, background and all the other depth [elements] to it all glowing at a different intensity, creating even more depth in the piece,” he noted.
“The natural landscapes look really cool once you shut the light off because they get an eerie glow to them and then just slowly fade away.”
Petko’s prolific output last year doesn’t look to be slowing down now that the calendar has flipped. After landing his long-overdue Whistler show, he is now turning his sights to the bigger pond of Vancouver, where he has another solo exhibit slated to launch in March at Beaumont Studios’ B1 Gallery. Featuring 14 entirely new works, the show ties in to Starry Nights, stylistically speaking.
“But it’s going to evolve even more,” he adds.
The exhibit is free to attend. Learn more at artswhistler.com and check out Petko’s work at davepetko.com.