In the summer of 2009, we contacted Bill Drummond in the hope of securing an interview for our Booting off the Doors issue. We heard nothing back from Bill, the issue came out in due course and we consigned the piece to the ‘might have been’ fragments of memory. Just over a month ago, Bill got in touch with us with a proposition. Always a man of pattern and concept, he was now shaping the endless onslaught of interview requests in his own image through the 100 Questions project. 25 media, ranging from mass circulation dailies to radio programmes dedicated to the social and cultural contexts of map making were invited to ask 4 questions each – no more – no less, each reflecting a sphere of Bills’ interest or his creative spectrum. The questions we sent are answered with deeply personal dedication below and the link to the other 96 questions and answers follows at the end of the piece, and as we were limited in the scope of our questions, we have gone for a longer introduction than normal.
Mercurial and mysterious – at least through the prism of the media, Bill Drummond has always slipped through the all too tempting net of characterisation we cast as a society. Once an A&R man and always a musician, Bill began his creative journey as set designer for the first 12 hour stage production of the Illuminatus trilogy – an epic of pure conspiratorial psychedelia which would later infuse KLF philosophy and symbolism both in name – The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu – and in blurring the ever elusive line between visionary truth and a complete piss take. Tearing a mischievous current through the Acid House revolution and the heady consumerism of the 80’s, taking pop to its most absurdist extreme, and helping fuel the electronic explosion, Bill and Jimmy Cauty found themselves lionised by a music establishment who had no idea what the fuck they were on about, but labelled them avant garde pop pranksters and invited them to take their place on the pedestal of sterile blandness.
The destruct button beckoned, both as a mirror to the absurdities of the sweeping fashions of modern culture and as a bid to retain their core identities, and the KLF mockingly sabotaged all the trappings of fame and success, coughing up a dead sheep with the biblical words ‘I died for ewe – bon appetit’ to celebrate their being voted Best British Group at the 1992 Brits, before moving swiftly into a raucously announced retirement, and perhaps the one unforgivable sin in the eyes of even the most ‘underground’ of artists. The deletion of their entire back catalogue.
With the KLF a smouldering shadow, Bill and Jimmy formed the K Foundation and promptly did a huge favour to anyone who has ever actually liked art rather than quantified it and spilled drivelling champagne cocktails over it. The first K Foundation art award for the worst British artist was unceremoniously presented to Rachel Whiteread on the day she claimed the dubious accolade of the Turner Prize. Call it a stunt – many did, but the fact that the K Foundation award came with double the amount of cold hard cash than the Turner, both persuaded good old Rachel to accept it before it went up in flames and turned a bleak spotlight on the firesale of artistic truth. And a year later….well….they ritually burnt a million quid. We won’t go into the controversy here, but needless to say, the sight of rapaciously selfish bourgeois wealth suddenly invoking starving Africans and waste was an irony not lost on any of us. Every single middle class mouthpiece sang outrage from the rooftops, and while on a personal level, we could sit here and lyricise about the true Bonfire of the Vanities and the conceptual surrender of monetised individualism – we don’t wholly understand it – best to admit it really.
Bill resumed his writing career – hot on the heels of his and Jimmy’s smash hit, The Manual (How to Have a Number One the Easy Way) and began diversifying his individual journey away from K related activities and further and further away from accepted notions of normality in ‘culture’. And then came No Music Day – apparent lunacy for a seasoned recording artist, but he had recognised that music, and indeed all art is at its purest and most archetypal, a fleeting, transient moment of connection that draws artist and those who experience the art into a circle of primal emotion. Experience that penetrates the intangible levels of consciousness is both unrepeatable and unrecordable – it is in its very essence – not open to capture or to analysis. The technological revolution that brought about the possibilities of recording and sampling intrinsically neutralised the experience of music that has woven its way through the DNA of human history and commodified it, packaged it and irreversibly altered it. From the gramophone to the MP3, recorded music has had its soul sold from under it and with the removal of even a price tag with downloading, the last apparent reference point of value had vanished. Laptop studios releasing in abysmal quality, endless copying and sampling – it was all moving exponentially to a point where music was as disposable as toilet paper. And so Bill launched No Music Day on the 21 November, the day before the feast of St Cecilia, the patron saint of music to throw the inevitable result of the current commercialisation into sharp relief and open it for uncomfortable debate
Naturally, the analogy crosses beautifully into graffiti and street art. Transience and impermanence defying the conventional notions of value as being permanent . And Bill has always been a graffiti artist. Throughout his life he has used paint and walls to hurl out to the world a stark uncompromising message, consciously devoid of any prettiness but subverting public space as a pirate media. His choir, the 17 which has no songs, no harmonies, no rhythms and no permanent members –is rather a nomadic entity of its own both in artistic terms and physically. Crossing the world with 17 new members every time they perform, whether they be 17 fireman, 17 builders or 17 farmers, thousands have left a floating whisper of their soul on the 17. And as they travel the world, Bill has been painting the same words in the local language on walls in 40 global locations….’Imagine waking up tomorrow and all music has disappeared’. Piercing enough as it is, but in Haiti, the devastating earthquake followed shortly after these words were painted in huge letters, and suddenly they took on a whole new, fluid, unimaginable meaning. Was this the prophecy of their cataclysmic despair?
Graffiti has always been an integral outlet in Bills’ myriad projects. From the KLF graffiti to the 5 km circles in Beijing and Northampton with 100 17s’ stencilled at 50 m intervals to the mysterious Nov 21s’ that reared their heads on bare walls wherever the focus of No Music Day was. He prefaced his hundred questions invite with the words ‘I would be honoured to answer them in as full as way as possible’ He has and we thank him deeply for it
What does graffiti mean to you as self-expression, a wider medium and a social force?
January and February 1968 were dark months, but March, April and May were even darker. I was 14 going on 15. Reinhardt Alders had come around to mine, with the jar of chloroform that he had nicked from the Biology laboratory at school, a week or so ago. I hadn’t tried it yet but Pete, Donald and Gary all had and said that it was good. None of us had even come close to trying real drugs yet. Real drugs were exotic. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones took real drugs not ordinary kids like us who lived on the estates in Corby.
In my bedroom Reinhardt removed the lid of the jam jar he had the chloroform in, pored some of the liquid onto his hanky and then some onto mine. Reinhardt explained that I should now lie down on my bed with the hanky over my face and he would do the same lying on the floor. Soon the walls started to throb and after a while time seemed to slow down. This was good.
The next thing that I can remember was being in the back of an ambulance and the blue lights flashing. By the time we were in the Accident & Emergency at Kettering General I was coming around proper, and was soon discharged. They kept Reinhardt in over night.
Next morning in school assembly, words were spoken. Mr Bradley, the headmaster, explained how two boys (un-named) in the fourth form, had seriously endangered their lives by inhaling a substance stolen from the Biology Lab. One of the boys was still in hospital. I expected the school to come down heavy on us, but no action was taken.
A few days later I was sitting in the Maths class, Miss Bevin the deputy head, was our maths teacher. I was not listening; instead I was using a drill bit that I kept in my pocket, to drill a hole through the top of the desk. I hated Miss Bevin and she hated me. I never did any work in her lessons even though I both liked and was good at maths.
Later in the day I was called to Miss Bevin’s office, she asked me to empty my pockets and put the contents on her desk. This I did, the contents included my knife, a snotty hanky, some fish hooks, and my drill bit. She asked me if I had been responsible for the hole that had been drilled in the desk where I had been sitting this morning during her maths lesson. I said yes. She told me that I did not deserve to be at this school and that she was going to punish me as severely as she could. I expected the chloroform incident to be mentioned but it wasn’t, it was as if it had never happened.
Mr Tuffin was called in, I liked Mr Tuffin, he was our metalwork teacher and had also been our maths teacher the year before. Miss Bevin asked him if this drill bit on her table might have been stolen from the metalwork shop. He said it could have been as there were ones that size missing. I had not stolen the drill bit, it was mine, bought with my own money. I liked drill bits, I liked drilling, still do.
That evening there was a knock at our door. It was Mr Tuffin and my form master. They asked my parents for permission to search my bedroom. They were interested to see if I had a stash of all the other tools that had been going missing from the metalwork shop. I had numerous tools in my bedroom; chisels, hammers, saws and drills. I liked tools; I liked banging and sawing, still do. But none of these tools had been stolen from the metalwork shop and Mr Tuffin knew this.
The next morning I was called back into Miss Bevin’s study, and accused by her of stealing not only a drill bit but also numerous other tools from the metalwork shop. This was not the first time I had been accused of doing things that I had not done, nor the last. I was put on detention for the rest of the term.
Some evenings later I was watching the TV news. French students were rioting in the streets of Paris. They were upturning cars and setting fire to them. They were pulling up the cobblestones from the boulevard and hurling them at the massed ranks of Gendarmes. I had no idea what they were rioting about, but it looked good to me. But there was something else that they were doing that really caught my imagination – they were getting pots of paint and large brushes and daubing words and slogans on walls and shop windows. I knew sod all French, but this looked like a very great thing to be doing.
In bed that night I hatched a plan. Our school had a central block, four stories high. On the north side of the block was four large rectangles of brickwork, one above the other. So the plan was, I would get a big pot of white paint and paintbrush and on each of these rectangles of brickwork I would paint a huge letter. Once I had got all four letters done, they would make a word and this word would be seen, not only by all the school kids and the teachers coming in the next morning, but everybody driving up Gainsborough Road out of Corby, heading towards Great Oakley and Kettering. I mean this would be hundreds of people, maybe thousands. And they would all see what I had written and nobody would know it was me. The four letters that I planned to paint, starting from the top floor were, F, U, C and K.
By the next night, I had the paint and the brush and under the cover of darkness I went up to the school. Remember this is decades before CCTV. But what I had not taken into account in my detailed planning was how I was going to do this painting right down the outside of a four story building. This chronic lack of foresight on my part did not quash my ardour. Instead I went down to the school next door (across the playing fields), Pope John the 23rd. Here I was able to clamber up onto a first floor roof, via a fire escape ladder. Here I was hidden from the road and I got to work. Instead of the letters that I originally planned to daub down the side of my school, I painted the slogan MISS BEVAN IS A CUNT. This felt good. Very good indeed. It did not matter to me that what I painted, could not be seen by all the kids or teachers on their way to school, the next morning or by anybody driving up Gainsborough Road.
That night I lay in bed, with a big smile on my face. The dark months were over. A job well done!
That story above is my answer to first of these four questions; interpret it, as you will.
Where is the line between art and vandalism if any, and does anyone have the right to draw that line?
A year and a couple of months later, Ian Fordyce and I get the train down to London. It is Saturday 5th July 1969. We are off to see the Rolling Stones in Hyde Park. I had missed both The Doors at the Roundhouse the previous September and Blind Faith, also in the park, a few weeks earlier (6 June 1969). Ian was in my class but had not been caught up in the chloroform-sniffing fad.
We got the tube from St Pancras to Oxford Circus and then walked along Oxford Street towards Hyde Park. It was down in the tube station at Oxford Circus that I saw the first one. Then walking along Oxford Street I saw a couple daubed onto doors between the shops. Then there was one daubed onto the back of a lad’s donkey jacket. All had been done in white paint and all were made up of the same three words – CLAPTON IS GOD. Now anybody of my generation knew the Clapton in question was Eric. Back in ’69, Eric Clapton, late of the The Blues Breakers and Cream and currently of Blind Faith, was not the safe middle of the road singer songwriter he was to become, but he was our original guitar hero. Most of us would not have doubted his God like genius, but what would motivate somebody to want to go and get a pot of paint and paint brush and paint this statement on a wall?
I bet, whatever those French students in Paris were daubing on the walls of their city, was a lot more important and exciting than proclaiming Clapton was God in London. I should have asked the lad with it on his donkey jacket, but we were already running late.
Four years later when I was coming to my end at art school (Liverpool) and becoming disillusioned by everything that was being done within art schools and even more disillusioned with what I had been doing there – I started to feel the urge to get a tin of household paint and a broad brush and head out into the streets and make my mark. I have written about this at length elsewhere, so for the sake of this answer I will keep it short. The urge was to paint on doors and walls and any place else across the streets of Liverpool just two words – I HATE. I did not know what I hated or why I should hate it so much. The trouble is I never acted on this impulse, just left the urge repressed and festering. Instead I got some planks of wood out of a skip and nailed them together. On this I painted the words IS CLAPTON STILL GOD? This was the only work that I put in the end of year show. Fuck knows why I needed to ask the question, but if it needed to be asked I should have done it in huge letters along the wall of the Mersey Tunnel and not in some pathetic little art student exhibition.
Over the summer of ’75, I had done a lot of hitching around the country looking for something, and everywhere I went there seemed to be the same crudely painted words on walls and bridges – GEORGE DAVIS IS INNOCENT. This George Davis was some East End gangster who had got banged up for a crime he had not supposedly committed and a mate of his had taken it upon himself to go around the country painting this slogan wherever he thought appropriate. Now I couldn’t have given a sod if this George Davis was innocent or not, but I loved the fact that whoever had done this graffiti had gone to the effort of going all around the country doing it, to the point that it had entered the general public’s imagination. It had become a legend.
Back then felt tip pens were not yet on the market and aerosol spray paint cans were not comparatively cheap. Thus the easy to purchase and use tools to make your mark on urban walls were not readily to hand. To carry a pot of paint and paintbrush was a lot more of an investment of time and energy and you stood a good chance of getting your clothes splattered if not ruined. Thus our walls were as yet not covered in graffiti. Thus when you saw some it had a far greater impact than it could ever do now.
Late in ’75, I was back in Liverpool, working at the Everyman Theatre building the stage sets. The artistic director at the at the Everyman decided to turn Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest into a stage play. This was before the film starring Jack Nicholson was out. I had loved this book in my late teens. Another book I loved from the same cannon of the new American Literature was Fear & Loathing by Hunter S. Thompson. It was as much for the scrawled and splattered cartoons that appeared throughout Fear & Loathing as the actual text. These cartoons were done by a Ralph Steadman. Thus I was more than pleasantly surprised to learn that the artistic director of the Everyman had invited Steadman to do the stage designs for the play.
Steadman and I spent an evening together, he had given me a stack of his splatter like cartoons that we were somehow to interpret and turn into working drawings to build a stage set from. This was all a welcome challenge, but the greatest thing that I got from the evening I spent with Steadman was his stories of what he and Hunter S. Thompson had got up to. The story that stuck in my head above all the others was the one of when the pair of them were in New York. It so happened that the Pope was making a Papal visit to the city. They, Steadman & Thompson and not the Pope, got a small boat, and under the cover of darkness, rowed out into the harbour beside a well chosen ship and painted FUCK THE POPE down its side, using paint rollers on telescopic handles. The next morning the Mayor of New York City was doing some big welcome to the Pope occasion in the open air, a live on prime time TV event – a sweeping view of the River Hudson as the backdrop, the Statue of Liberty on the horizon, all adding to the grandeur of the occasion. Then one particular ship sails down the Hudson, behind the Mayor and the Pope and across the nations TV screens. Now I have nothing personally against the Pope or the mayor of New York, but as a fuck you to authority and everything that tries to control us and keep us down and make us feel rubbish, this seemed to the then 22 year old me to have been a great and liberating thing to have done.
There was something else that I started to notice in Liverpool. The bus I took to the Everyman Theatre each day would go down Princess Avenue. This was a wide tree lined boulevard about half a mile long. At one end was a statue. On the plinth of the statue someone had daubed the words NEVER WORK. I would see this on the way to work in the morning. On my way back from work in the evening I would pass another statue at the other end of Princess Avenue, on that one the same hand had daubed DRIFT AROUND. I had no real idea what was meant by these two statements or why somebody would have been motivated to do them, but for some reason they cast a spell on me. To paint MISS BEVIN IS A CUNT or GEORGE DAVIS IS INNOCENT or even FUCK THE POPE made sense but NEVER WORK and DRIFT AROUND seemed more oblique, even mysterious. I liked this. Every morning and every evening, I looked forward to seeing them and turning the words around in my head. Sitting on the top deck of a bus is one of the best ways to view graffiti.
If you had asked me then, where the line between art and vandalism lay? I would have not been able to answer you. To make that judgement, you would first have been able to define what vandalism was and what art is. I could not have made neither of those judgements. As to the 56 year old me that is attempting to answer these questions in 2010, I can still not make those sort of judgements. You might think I am trying to side step the question, but… The trouble is I have always been drawn to the more visceral kind of ART, the sort of art that you have to get out there and do. The sort of art that does not exist in galleries or that can not be bought and sold and owned and discussed properly and understood and valued and does not even know it is art and does not give a sod anyway. That is my favourite sort of ART. But there again if somebody came along and painted a giant toaster on the side of my flat I would be totally pissed off. So what does that say about me?
Post Script: I have never seen or heard of the FUCK THE POPE graffiti done by Steadman & Thompson since. I have just done a check on Google and nothing came up. Thus I have no proof it ever happened. This lack of proof has not stopped it from being a hugely inspirational event for me, ever since Ralph Steadman told me about it in 1975. But somehow, not as inspiring as the NEVER WORK and DRIFT AROUND ones.
Why do you consciously sidestep aesthetics in your work? Does a sentence speak a thousand pictures?
This urge to make your mark on a wall or door, out in a public space, comes from somewhere very deep and primal. For me it is not about wanting to make something that is pleasing to the eye, or to impress the passer by, or even as a career move. And definitely not something to brighten up the neighborhood. I do not even want to make something that is obviously understandable.
It is far darker than that. In the story of the Passover in the book of Exodus, God says to Moses – ‘Go tell the Children of Israel that each family is to slaughter a male lamb and to take the blood of that lamb and daub the side posts and the lintel of the door of their houses and in that way the Angel of Death will know to fly over that house and not take the first born boy.’ Or something like that. And that is what happened.
When I first saw Ralph Steadman’s splatterings across the pages of Fear & Loathing, it reminded me of that lambs blood daubed on the doorposts and lintels in the story from Exodus. Don’t ask me to qualify the connection. But both had the same sort of urgency that need to make your mark or die.
In a lot of my work, be it posters, paintings, pamphlets or books, I try to make everything as simple, clean and direct as possible. I keep everything down to two typefaces, ones with as little character as a typeface can have. I want things to look as non-designed as possible, thus no illustrations or graphics. This I hope gives the words far more room to do their job. That said Cally and I have worked long and hard at attempting to achieve this affect. Cally being the designer I have worked with over the past 12 years.
Thus when I end up finding myself on a dark winter’s night, with the pot of paint in one hand and brush in the other, the last thing I want to be doing is making something aesthetically pleasing to the eye of the passer by. Our urban streets are full of cars that I hate the look of, all around us are billboard advertisements that reek of everything I loathe in society, and 99% of the buildings going up are as equally offensive to my eye. And all are trying to seduce us with design. They are all desperately seeking our approval. Doing everything they can to get in our knickers or taking whatever is left in our wallets. And they do this at the same time as lying to us at some very deep level. It is rape masquerading as seduction. And we just accept it. We lie down and take those adverts, because it is the way that it has always been through our lives. We can even think we like it at times. I mean this is the free world where we can choose what we want. I understand the logic. I too have put my X in the box. I know that I am just as much part of this system as whoever I may be pointing my finger at. Give me your hand and I will bite it now, just to prove this point. But this does not stop me seething inside and wanting to rip the whole lot down. Pass me a tin of paraffin and let me be the first to strike the match.
A picture can grab our attention but it is words that can start a revolution. Not that I have ever set out to start a revolution. But you know what I mean?
Looking back at the 30 years you have been involved in graffiti, how do you view its evolution and increased commercialisation?
Some looking back first then I will try and focus in on the question.
1987 – 1992:
When Jimmy Cauty and I started to work together in early 1987, we found we both had had this similar need to make marks on walls. Thus it was only natural for it to become part of the other things we were doing together. Thus the lift shaft block on the top of numerous high rise flats across South London, began to have The JAMS or 1987: What The Fuck Is Going On? painted on them in large white letters. They could be seen for miles. Then we did the north side of the fly tower of the National Theatre on the Southbank, with a massive 1987 and to the side a small The JAMS. We used paint rollers with telescopic handles just like Ralph Steadman and Hunter S. Thompson. When we went back the next morning we were disappointed with how small it looked from the other side of the Thames. We promised ourselves we would come back in ten years and do it again but bigger. We did do it in 1997, it was on the night of our Fuck The Millennium performance at the Barbican Theatre, but it too seemed a bit pathetic, as if we were doing it by numbers or as performing monkeys. We always planned to do it properly in 2007, but by then (post 9/11) the security on public buildings like the National Theatre made it impossible. But back in ’87 we also started to deface billboard advertisements. Some of these got picked up by the press others didn’t. The best one we did was on a billboard for the New Statesman. In the advertisement they had used that photograph from the Vietnam War of the terrified naked girl running towards the camera to escape a napalm attack. This was maybe the most iconic photograph taken during that war. We painted a crude speech bubble coming out of her mouth, with the words ‘Merry Xmas from The JAMS.’ You would have been hard pushed to do something more crass than that. I was perfect.
We some how justified what we were doing as promotion for the records we were putting out. But we knew in ourselves that the graffiti was about something else altogether and equally as important as anything else we were doing.
After we stopped making records and my practice as an artist became a lot less definable, there yet again was no good justifiable excuse for doing the graffiti. I was by now a grown man in my 40s with numerous family responsibilities. But for the first time in my life, I had my own transport, a Land Rover. It was not long before I had a 10 litre tub of white emulsion and a sic inch brush in the back of the Land Rover with me at all times, just incase. I mean what was the harm? And anyway I had it basically under control. There was never anything that big or too blatant. I made sure very little of what I did was documented.
But then it all came to a head in the year 2000 when the police knocked on my door. Standing before them was this mild looking middle aged man, thus they started by apologizing for disturbing me, as they assumed there must be some mistake, but it was their duty to follow up the leads they were given. Basically the number of my Land Rover had been taken down while a man in Liverpool had painted the words DEAD WHITE MAN in large letters on the outside of a casino in broad day light. I told them I was the man they were looking for and that I would come quietly. So I was up infront of the beak without any sort of defence that I could articulate. The chairman of the magistrates made some remarks about me being an otherwise upstanding member of the community and had obviously only had a momentarily lapse of reason, and as it was a first time offence he only gave me a fine of a few hundred pounds plus costs. This amounted to a bit more than a £1,000 all told. After this, for the sake of my family, I tried to keep things under control. Well as much as I could.
Sometime in the early 2000s I read a biography of the French Situationist, Guy Debord. It dealt with his influence on the rioting students in Paris ’68. The ones I had admired on TV as they splattered slogans on the walls and doors of their city. In the book there were photos of their graffiti, there was also translations of what these slogans were. One was NEVER WORK and another was DRIFT AROUND.
I was in Derby doing a massed version of The17, involving 1,700 of the citizens of the city. This was something that I had been commissioned to do to celebrate the opening of a multi-million pound arts centre. This was high profile establishment stuff. It had taken months of putting it together. And it had all gone well. The people in power and who wrote the cheques were pleased with the results. But then I had to go and spoil it all (like Frank & Nancy). Close to Derby city centre underneath a bridge over the River Derwent, that I regularly walked under, there was this spot that was a natural for graffiti. There was already a few generations of tagging on a grand scale there, but nothing too fresh. In my head I could see the job that needed to be done. I chose a night when it was pissing down, thus there was nobody about. Under the bridge it was dry and I could get on with the work. It only took just over two hours. Each of the letters were a couple of metres high and all told the graffiti was about 30 metres long. It read: IMAGINE WAKING UP TOMORROW & ALL MUSIC HAD DISAPEARED. The next morning I came back, it looked brilliant. The words referenced something that I was doing with The17, too long for me to go into here. And anyway, like most of the graffiti that I have done over the decades it makes no direct sense, I am more interested in people wondering what the sod was meant by the words and it some how playing on their minds for sometime, as opposed to it being an obvious one line type statement or joke thing.
And because I judged this graffiti in Derby to be a grand success I made the decision that I would repeat the same graffiti in every location around the world that The17 performed on their world tour. And in each country I would have the line translated into the local language. And if the language uses a different alphabet or characters then I use the local ones. This world tour goes on until 2013, thus there is a lot more to get done. It also means that my habit is under control and reasonably well focused. Doing it in China last autumn was the first time out of Europe. Using Chinese characters was very exciting. Then I was in Port-au-Prince in Haiti the week before Christmas (2009). There I did in Haitian Kreyòl. The earthquake happened three weeks after my return. The wall that my graffiti was on was one of the only walls left standing in that part of the city. I have been in almost daily contact with some friends and colleagues in Haiti since the earthquake. What I have learnt from them is that a myth has built up around the graffiti that I did. The myth being that my graffiti was a prophesy about the earthquake. That I had somehow, foretold the act of God to come. In the aftermath of the earthquake there was no music in the city. And since learning this I have lost all desire and compulsion to make graffiti. This I know will not last. It never does.
So onto the evolution and increased commercialisation part of the question:
Over the past 30 years I have been daubing paint on walls and doors, I have seen graffiti that has been done all over the world. And I still see stuff that excites me. Stuff that makes me think, that is why we make these marks in the night, why we risk climbing over gates and fences and up fire escapes and across roofs, dodging the CCTV cameras and the security guards.
It is usually in the most unlikely places, way out in the middle of nowhere or maybe can only be seen from the window of a plane. I love the ones that you get in railway tunnels that can only be seen from the light of the window as the train speeds by. And it is always great to see them on the outside of bridges high above motorways or rivers or rail lines. I like to feel the urgency, that desperate need, with no obvious reward or return for the effort put in.
When I was driving through the former Eastern Germany and Poland just a few years after the collapse of communism, there was all this graffiti on the side of crumbling factories in the remotest of regions. It was the same when I was working in Siberia a couple of years ago. Whoever is doing these graffiti is not thinking about careers as artists, exhibiting in galleries and selling works for thousand and thousand. They are making their mark ’cause they have to, and there is no other way that they can. And for me it is still potent. Still makes me go – you soddin’ show them. I would have no interest meeting those that have done these graffiti, it is more than enough to know that they are out there doing it.
I was in Sao Paulo in Brazil, doing No Music Day back in November 2008; there was some great graffiti there, mainly under the flyovers and along the side of the freeways. This was colourful stuff, very creative in a way that I am not usually bothered about. But there was a wildness to it that redeemed any of its artiness in my judgement.
I have never been interested in the ‘street art’ that is sponsored by local councils to try and make their borough seem more inclusive. Or for that matter special places designated by local councils for teenagers to go with their spray cans and stencils. Once something like graffiti is validated by the art world or patronising local councils, its like it has had its bollocks cut off. It no longer does the job it is supposed to be doing.
As for the stuff you see around Shoreditch and Hoxton nowadays. This on the whole does not excite me. It seems too self-aware. Too trying to be part of a career path. It lacks that dark and primal thing. I know it is obvious for someone like me to have a go at any of the post BANKSY generations of wannabees. But to me, what they are doing is the complete opposite of what excited me about graffiti in the first place. To me they are the ones that I was wanting to have nothing to do with, when I was back in art school in 1973. It’s as if they are part of that ‘creatives’ world, part of the world that designs cars and billboard advertisement and all the other shit that is clambering for our attention. That said I still wholeheartedly go along with the sentiment of taking art out of the galleries and onto the street where it can be for everyone and does not have to have price tags or be written about in ‘art speak’ ways. Just don’t put an email address at the bottom of it. And now that brands of vodka are using graffiti to try and hip themselves up you know it is time to move on.
For most people that do graffiti it is just a phase they pass through. Maybe an intense phase, but a phase all the same. I realise with myself it is here for the long haul. It will be something that I will never grow out of. It is not like I do it to define who I am, being a ‘street artist’ is the last thing I am or have ever aspired to be. I never feel I should go and do some graffiti ’cause I have not done any this month. Sometimes I get through a couple of years without doing any. Then some words will come into my head, words that might not make any obvious sense, even to myself and they will start to gnaw away at my resistance. And it always ends in the same way with me going off into the night with the paint pot and brush. Afterwards I still get that sense of release sweeping over me. I guess it is more of an illness than a form of self-expression. The trouble is I am getting no younger, the arthritis in my left knee is beginning to get to me, but even in my old age I sense it will be an urge that I will have to deal with and let it find its outlet.
With thanks to Tracey Moberly for the fishing portraits