During the height of the pandemic, rolling lockdowns left many people feeling isolated and alone, taking solace in the occasional socially-distanced walk around the block. Meanwhile, Ricky Kuruppu was continuing his practice of leaving thought-provoking messages around Hawthorn, bringing happiness to those who came across his street art. Ricky joins us to talk about his own mental health journey and how self-care is an essential component of wellbeing.

I’m joined today by Ricky Kuruppu, also known as Boy Under The Bridge. Ricky’s made not only a name for himself, but a difference in many people’s lives by leaving positive and uplifting messages all around Hawthorn and the south-eastern suburbs of Victoria. Ricky, thanks so much for taking the time.

Ricky: You’re welcome. Pleasure to be here.

A big question right out of the gate; why the focus on mental health and personal development?

I was presented with the problem, which then encouraged me to go seek the solution. I had to apply the same mindset and approach to everything else in my life.

I wouldn’t say they were topics of interest growing up, but I found my way to them, specifically out of the need to apply them to my own life. When I was 21, going through what I described as my ‘dark night of the soul’, following a breakup, graduating Uni, not being able to find work, it’s also the GFC (Global Financial Crisis) at the time. And, just trying to find myself in the world. A lot of damage was done to my self-esteem in a quick time, and I started to fall down this cycle of depression and was looking for the antidote to that. I was presented with the problem, which then encouraged me to go seek the solution. And then I remember stumbling. I was already involved in fitness at the time. I used to be active on the bodybuilding.com message boards, and there was a lot of people who just talked about a whole array of topics. So that was really, I guess, my gateway into personal development. And me realising, I had this mindset around fitness, of taking things on, I had to apply the same mindset and approach to everything else in my life.

Making those early connections online, focusing on solutions, was that formative to your eventual journey into becoming Boy Under The Bridge?

Yeah, I started with my own work, then I was encouraged by one of my housemates. I like journaling, it’s such a great tool, in terms of self-development. One of my housemates said, you should open a blog and share what you write with other people. And the name (Boy Under The Bridge) just kind of rolled off the tongue.

So how did you make that step from working on yourself, journaling and blogging, to sharing that with a wider audience?

I got to a stage where, as I was going through these stages on my own life and becoming more interested in personal development, mental health, I would begin to play a supportive role to people in my life. And that was just through colleagues and friends and everything like that. I was a strong communicator, as well, so it came even easier in that sense. Then when I opened the blog, I started to tell other people, friends, and being online created the opportunity for other people to find me as well.

It came at a stage where I learnt a lot and where I was ready to provide. There’s a quote about, you know, the best way to really learn something is to also teach it. But I was just paying back the favour because a lot of people supported me and were willing to share. So, I think that’s one thing we do as people, we create meaning out of the circumstances in our lives by then turning around and forming it into something positive. I went through all this stuff, but I’ve learned from it and gave it a positive twist. I’m now in a position to help others.

You’re able to use your own life experiences to help benefit those around you?

Absolutely. And I’ve since worked in the (mental health) sector for Beyond Blue and another company, Reach Out, which is a youth focused organisation and they do the same thing. They are focused on peer support, and a lot of people that come to the programmes say exactly that. 

Tracing your path, going from your purely online presence through social media and your blog, what was the next logical step? How did you transition out of the virtual space and begin posting physical notes around town?

That wasn’t as much part of the initial M.O. I just started blogging and then when I moved from Brisbane to Sydney in 2015, it was very different. Sydney, like Melbourne, has a lot of street art. It really caught my attention and I started to try doing my own; cut outs, paste ups and drawings. I wasn’t exactly the best illustrator but I had this idea, well, I’m a writer, maybe there’s a way that I can use that? And then it just dawned on me, why don’t I just literally get a typewriter and type up these messages, and stick them up? So that’s pretty much how it started.

And of all the poetry, the messages that you’ve been able to put up, have you got one that’s, your favourite? One that is particularly special to you that you’d like to share?

Endings aren’t everything. The point of some stories is that they’re still going.

One that I type a lot is, “endings aren’t everything, the point of some stories is that they’re still going.” Yeah, I love that. I think it’s a very widely applicable, because it encourages people to think, rather than ‘I’m not there yet, I’m not there yet’, to look at the fact that they’re still going, still in movement. It’s a twist on the whole, ‘it’s not the destination, it’s the journey’ kind of thing.

That’s beautifully said. A lot of people, especially the last few years with the pandemic, were looking toward the end of that particular journey. I can imagine how seeing that message must have helped carry them through those times, especially with the constant lock downs and inability to socialise.

Yeah, definitely. And I think like, in terms of getting in the (news) paper, and everything, having that real increase in people noticing me, it was during the pandemic. I’d always been doing the street art, but during the pandemic people were spending a lot more time outside, walking around, and they started to notice my writing more. Then in response to that I then went ahead and created a scavenger hunt out of them. I started deliberately hiding them and using Strava, which is a GPS running app, to create maps and visual clues. That really brought a lot of novelty and joy to people’s days.

People were indeed limited, especially in Melbourne. As you know, we had one of the strictest and longest lockdowns in the world. For a time, you could only walk a certain number of kilometres in a set radius from your home.

Five kilometres.

That’s right. Did you have any interesting stories regarding people finding your artwork during that time?

The biggest one was being featured in the newspaper. They were looking for people who were doing things in the community, because the whole pandemic really brought out people’s community spirit, they were really aware of like, ‘this is what I’m going through but what about people who are in a worse off position?’. People found meaning through their ability to help others, and that was my contribution. It was really getting a lot more attention and people responding in positive ways. People would find them and tagged me on Instagram and they were generally in my area, so I’ve made connections, one of my good friends is now someone that I found through that.

As we record this, it’s Mental Health Awareness Week, and this year the theme is ‘loneliness’. The work that you do is a great force for good and has a positive impact on people, helping to foster that sense of social connectedness, especially during the time of lockdowns and social isolation. How did the lockdowns affect you personally?

I think the one of the biggest things for me was that I, you know, I enjoy social connectedness. I enjoy going being able to go to the gym and exercise and just spend time in nature, getting out and doing things. Those were all taken away. But also the job that I had, they had to restructure and then I was dealing with redundancy. Just that unpredictability was probably the biggest part. Luckily, I had my partner as well, I lived with a housemate who’s great as well. During that time, it took away the things that were good for my mental health, my general wellness, they were all taken away.

It was very tough indeed. A lot of people were in a similar position to yourself, but through it all you maintained your writing and your artwork. Was that a north star for you during those times?

I’m in this constant state of trying to deepen my relationship with my creativity, because in this world of analytics, and social media, it can kind of distort your connection.

Yeah, it was. I think when I had everything else taken away, I was really feeling a lot and as a writer, one thing I do is pay attention to what people experience collectively, and put those things into words. There were a lot of, I guess, you could say, themes in the air, things to delve into. I did that. And even still, I’m in this constant state of trying to deepen my relationship with my creativity, because in this world of analytics, and social media, it can kind of distort your connection. Sometimes you can lose a bit of enthusiasm for it as well. So, I’m trying to remind myself that, hey, this is something I do, predominantly for me and, for other people, but I need to pay attention to my relationship with it, versus just doing it for the likes, and those kind of validation things.

Staying on mission is definitely a good focus to have. And now you’ve grown into being an author as well, with your recently published book, Living In Cream. What was the story behind that?

That goes back to 2014. I started the blog in 2013, but the original, was that ‘dark night of the soul’ in 2010. It’s funny, because I was actually due to go to Tonga for a year, which is a little island in the South Pacific. I got a volunteer programme offer there, so I was going to do that. And at the time, I was very into my fitness and I was aware that going there would mean I wouldn’t be able to train and eat the same way. I would physically change, so I wanted to commemorate everything I’d accomplished by getting some photos done. Then I met with this photographer who actually was like, you know, I don’t want to just take photos, I want to know who you are, the photos are a great chance to really express yourself and your personality. And I was like, oh, okay, I thought, I oil up and flex that’s it. So it got me thinking about everything I do, with Boy Under The Bridge, and then maybe I could kind of link the two. So I came up with the idea of maybe I’ll do a whole bunch of photos which showcase things about me and things that keep me mentally well and in a good headspace. And then also write about those things. So yeah, it kind of kick started a project. That became the book, Living In Cream, a metaphorically messy guide to a sweeter life. It’s like having my own little, you know, baby, when I hold it. And even now, I like to read it and revisit a lot of things I learned, like I cover in the book, essentially my journey and things I’ve learned. I need to keep revisiting it as a reminder. I do plan to do a follow up, and that’s titled ‘Home’, which, I’m not sure when I’ll get around to it, but I’ve lived a lot of things since 2014! There’s no shortage of content to write about.

It sounds like the process of writing your book was a good touchstone of mental wellbeing, and I can’t wait to read your next work. But writing is only part of your story isn’t it? Aside from the messages you write and being involved in workshops, there is more to you as an artist, and I even hear there is an exhibition coming up.

Yeah, the writing workshops have stemmed from the recent publicity and people being aware. A few people have got in touch with me and I’ve spoken at schools and run through little workshops with younger audiences, which I find really fulfilling. They wowed at the fact that I was in the newspaper and on TV. I did one, maybe three weekends ago at a local library, which was really enjoyable. I’m always on the lookout for like other opportunities because as a counsellor as well, I would like to combine everything together with art therapy, as a way for especially young people to really work through their emotions. Then the gallery exhibition, came about because of everything I did in Hawthorn. They have a community exhibition held every year, and I applied and got in, notably because of everything I’ve done in the area. I just went in yesterday and submitted all my typewritten pieces and I think 21 of them will be featured.

That’s a great achievement, to be featured at the centre of the community you’ve helped. Speaking of help, tell me more about your role as a counsellor.

I completed a Graduate Diploma in counselling in 2019. Prior to that I had worked for Beyond Blue and Reach Out, but in more marketing-based roles. Then I had this desire to have something a bit more hands on, and given everything I’ve done it kind of made sense as well. The Graduate Diploma in counselling started in 2019 and I continued through the pandemic, then finished last year. I started leveraging my platform as Boy Under The Bridge as a way to offer my services to people. The private practice still is very, very much in its infancy stages as I also work full time. It’s good to have something that I can do on the side. Having started working with people has been, really, really rewarding. Being in charge of your own approach and everything like that, and really incorporate the style that helped me throughout my time and helped me get to where I am today.

Taking a step back for a moment, central to almost everything you’ve mentioned is this theme of being open and having that dialogue, whether it’s with yourself or with others, to discuss mental health and wellbeing. Should we be doing more to overcome the stigma of mental health and have these discussions more openly?

I think for me, one of the harder things at the time was really carrying around the mask, of really trying to be this funny, cheerful guy that I am, but also having all these things that I didn’t want to exhibit because I was worried people wouldn’t be able to handle it, or for it to just be overwhelming for them. And that just tired me out even more, so I think having the blog and everything like that was me really owning my experiences and tackling the stigma that I felt as well. It’s also enabled other people to be like, okay, he’s talking about this, and then they feel more comfortable with what their experiences are.

Being able to be role model to help reduce the stigma with regard to discussing mental health issues?

Yeah, and Brené Brown has done a lot of research around shame. And I think when people are willing to speak to things and own things, the effect that they have kind of dissipates a little bit as well.

Ricky I’d love to get your insight on a question we traditionally ask all our guests. With everything that’s happening in the world, all the issues big and small, what would you say is a modern remedy to the challenges that we face in our everyday lives?

People really need to focus on putting themselves first. Be attuned to our biological needs rather than subscribing to certain etiologies.

I think people really need to focus on putting themselves first. To step away from the hustle and bustle, the very goal oriented, western capitalistic viewpoint of our sole purpose being to make money and produce and consume. We need to look back and remember that we are living organisms. I’m biologically wired to enjoy connectivity, to find purpose in my relationships with others. I’m not wired to work 12-hour days on minimal sleep. Eating well also serves my mental health, really just bringing it back to the roots and actually being like, what do I need? Be attuned to our biological needs rather than subscribing to certain etiologies.

So if I was to sum up your answer, would it be fair to say that people need to focus more on self-care?

Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. Nice.

And how can people get in touch with you and find out more about the work you do?

Just go to my website. From there, they’ll find links to my book, which is a free download, links to all my social medias. I’m probably the most active on Instagram, and they’ll find links to my YouTube where I do a little vloging and stuff like that as well. And then, of course, on my blog, I have longer-form content versus on social media where it’s shorter. They can travel back and read through a couple of years and just see the journey as it has progressed.

Thank you so much for your time Ricky, it was a pleasure to meet you and learn more about your story. I’ll be on the lookout for your street art next time I’m in Hawthorn.

Likewise, no worries. ■

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