Just before New Year 2019 I was invited down to the BBC Studios in London to create a piece of art for their tech based science show, Click Live. What I didn’t realise, was that I would also be making history! I wont go into too much detail, as much of the information about the project is contained within the program itself, but that day I would become the first person in the world to paint using synthetic DNA that contained stored data.
Massive Attack had commissioned a series of cans of spray paint containing this unique paint as part of their anniversary celebrations. My role within the show was to produce a piece of art using the DNA paint to help demonstrate potential uses for the technology in front of a live studio audience. I wanted to stay true to the initial concept artwork featuring the beetle, but with some simple details, like a helix, some DNA sequencing and a cracked microscope slide to add a graffiti stylisation in keeping with the theme of the piece. In total I only had about 3 hours to work on the painting, but thankfully it came together without too much drama.
Following on from the live show, I was interviewed in my studio space as part of a TV special that would further explore this incredible technology. Below are links to both the live show, and the special feature:
I’ve covered a fair amount of my background in my first couple of posts, but it’s over the last 8 months or so that both my production and style have really kicked off. I think the first noticeable leap forward came when I was asked to get involved with Street Art Birmingham again to paint at the pilot of their City Of Colours Street Art Festival last summer. It was shaping up to be something really positive for the city, so I jumped at the opportunity to get involved. I don’t really know what I was thinking, I’d never tried anything like this before. I’d hardly painted anything in 10 years, let alone in front of an audience at what ended up being one of the biggest paint jams in the country that year. I was initially asked to paint at the festival, but also volunteered to produce a series of maps to be used to direct people to the huge array of activities, venues and artist locations for the event.
I’m really proud of these maps, they broke my mind with the hours I spent on them! Again, I had never done anything like this before. I’m ashamed to say, that after 15 years using Photoshop, I hadn’t really bothered with the pen tool. So, I painstakingly mapped a good portion of the city centre and the Digbeth area, plus a floor plan of the Custard Factory complex that was acting as a base from which to explore the festival. It was incredibly difficult deciding which roads to keep or omit and what were the quickest and simplest routes from the city centres transport facilities. I’ve mastered using the pen tool now!
An affordable art market was planned, so I started a few images with a view to getting them printed and sold on the day. Work on the maps took much longer than I had planned, so I focused on finishing the print I was going to use as a template for what I would eventually paint. I’d had success with a few mech samurai designs and it was a theme I wanted to explore more, but I’d never produced one digitally. The result shocked me. I had, in my mind, never produced anything near this quality. I was now really excited about the festival, if not slightly terrified of the prospect of trying to recreate this live.
A plan was needed, fast. I decided that the best thing to do would be blocking out the odd key area of colour, some with pre-created stencils, some by masking areas off with tape, and the rest hand drawn with acrylic pens or painted freehand. I figured if I applied the same processes I use in Photoshop to the painting, I should be fine. I had no idea how long this was going to take, I’d only finished the print I intended to paint two days before the festival and I had a ton of prep to do. I had no time for a test run as the festival was fast approaching. I was exhausted, having spent much of the two weeks leading up to the festival working to the point of virtual collapse.
A last minute rush of adrenaline saw me arrive at the festival bright and early and a series of triple espressos helped me navigate the process of obtaining my paint. My home for the day was in the car park of The Old Crown, the oldest secular building in Birmingham. Beer was on tap, my mates from Brum Town and Jam Hott were arriving to provide the music, the sun was shining, I was high on caffeine and sleep deprivation, this was going to be a laugh!
Schoolboy error, not the best start. I’d decided to fill in the background using sprays, but faced with the size of the space I had to paint [8 x 8 feet], I realised I didn’t have enough and I had no cash to buy more. Mild panic ensued. Some of the other artists were arriving and thankfully I managed to blag some spare black acrylic and a roller from a very generous Miss Wah who was painting opposite me. I figured so long as I painted the face really well, I could abstract the rest of the body and it would still look ok. Whatever time I had left could be spent adding as many details as I could fit in.
I’d chosen a great spot right next to the beer garden and after being consumed by painting for a couple of hours, I looked up and the venue was heaving. People were enquiring about my painting and I received some great feedback. I had a few pints kindly brought for me and soaked up the atmosphere. I was loving this! I probably did a little more chatting than I should have, but it was impossible not to get wrapped up in proceedings.
A couple of no more than 10 year olds took over the decks with a stack of their own vinyl in tow. They absolutely smashed it in front of an astonished crowd, myself included. It’s moments like this that really made the event stand out for me, it was incredibly inclusive. There were three generations of families milling about happily, no matter their colour, creed, or roots.
The light was fading and I had to be at work imminently. It would be 12 more hours before I had any hope of sleep! I was working at a venue right next to the festival, which was really handy! I finished at 7am and headed back to the site to check out my work having not really had any time to take it all in, plus the light towards the end had made it difficult to see properly. At first I hated it. A typical reaction to something I have just created. I took some photographs and proceeded to head back to my studio to die. The next day I had the terrors, but I was still buzzing and thankful that a few people had captured some better snaps than me.
Something I have learned for the future is to try to stay more focused on throwing the painting up early with the live stuff so that by the time people arrive, I’m just filling in details, and there wont be so much pressure to finish. I wish I’d had more time to include the hand holding the sword, but generally speaking, I’m really pleased with how this turned out! It wasn’t perfect, but it was certainly unique! It was my first painting for a decade, so I wasn’t about to destroy myself over it, and I now had the paint bug back! From this project onward I began to find it much easier to translate my ideas to an end product that I’m happy with. I am much more confident because of this experience, and it was one of the best events I’ve been to, or been part of. I’ve felt for a very long time that Birmingham was under-rated and had more to offer than just curries, canals, and faceless chain store shopping experiences. Birmingham represented in full force that day, so respect to the team behind it, all the artists, and of course everyone who made it down to be part of a phenomena I hope continues long in to the future.
I’d set the bench pretty high for myself now and I felt compelled to do more artwork. I wrote a list of images I wanted to tackle and projects I wanted to get started on, but they can wait, for now.
If you’d like to see more, I managed to get a cheeky mention in this article for the Huffington Post which is a great write up of the broader event. Else, don’t forget to check out the City Of Colours website for news about their plans for 2015.
My earliest finished pieces were graffiti. I have no pictures really, other than a bunch of outlines and a couple of mech inspired sketches. I would love to see my early work again, though I probably overestimate it’s quality in hindsight. However, it was these early experiments with graffiti that set the foundation for all my later work.
It has been a long standing practice to get an image to the outline stage, then photocopy it for inking and colouring. It’s a confidence thing, it gives me a chance to experiment a little and I can always ‘undo’, something I have become accustom to as a safety net from my digital work. As a side note, I often find myself internally commanding undo in real life instances, if only. So, I had a bunch of photocopies of my graff outlines. I was bored at work one day and began to cut up my copies into small pieces of mech. I began to glue them together to form these strange shapes, Tetsuo was born.
I called the work Tetsuo because as the robot blob evolved, it reminded me of one of my favourite manga films, Akira. In particular, the end scene where Tetsuo becomes Akira, looses control and goes nuclear. As Tetsuo attempted to regenerate his failing body, he mutates and his form is suddenly thrown into chaos. I was studying philosophy at the time, specialising in philosophy of science, and was fascinated by the principles of chaos theory. Put simply, chaos theory holds that even in the most simple circumstances, under which we know every detail of how a system will behave, such a system still has the capacity to behave unpredictably. This principle is encapsulated in the Mandlebrot Set, or fractal patterns. In a fractal, even very simple patterns, when repeated to infinity, create an emergent complexity. So, I took my simple pieces of mech graffiti and repeated them many times to give rise to an emergent complex mechanical form. A form from which I drew parallels with the mutating globules of flesh that Tetsuo became before his ultimate demise.
I liked where this was all going, and I began to make more bespoke pieces of mech to incorporate into the chaos. Tetsuo Vs The Nebulae became my first commissioned piece, and I now had a system of templates that enabled me to quickly knock out images, aesthetically pleasing to the eye, yet still looking raw, with plenty of splattered paint for good measure! The photocopies got larger and larger, and so did the pieces, so I took my work back to the street for some wheat pasting. Yes, that is my can of Red Stripe.
It’s interesting, because the strides forward I have made over the last few years aren’t wholly down to me, per se. I feel more a victim of circumstantial happenstance than anything. I travelled to India, not to find myself, just by invitation, but I did discover something about myself on the beaches of Goa and the temples at Hampi. Seeing the gap between such abject poverty and opulent wealth living side by side in Mumbai was shocking, but the more I travelled, the more I saw that many of the people I met, who had absolutely nothing, were still seemingly happy. After a week or so, my hyperactive inclination to always have to be doing something subsided. So, on a beach in India, I watched the dolphins and sat and I sketched, for hours. I rediscovered that I really didn’t need much more than my creativity to be happy, and that my creativity was one of the few things in my life that had true value. Something that has stuck with me to this day.
Upon my return I set up Beta Birmingham. A record label and media outlet I conceived to “diffuse twisted barrages of nefarious bass glitches and stuttered syncopation from the Midlands elite electronic producers”. I wasn’t happy back home, but rather than sit and moan about what was lacking in my home town, I wanted to be proactive in being part of the solution. It’s no good moaning about something that’s missing, if you aren’t prepared to do something about it!
I was getting much better at my digital work and releases on the label forced me to meet deadlines, something I had always struggled to do. It was at this point that I began to experiment with creating more obvious forms such as my Binary Mechanoid Chaos piece, meant to represent the duality of nature, chaos, the Yin Yang. I don’t think I have, as yet, fully explored this style, but for now I needed to switch things up. I was fully back on the artwork, with renewed vigour, and I felt that just copying and pasting my old work together, whilst creating something new, was not very progressive.
My album artwork was getting some attention before long and I was asked to take part in an exhibition for Street Art Birmingham, at which, all the artists worked with broken and used skateboards. I had only ever exhibited my work once before! This time out I was going for characters, for some reason I decided on Samurai.
By no means prolific, samurai mechs became my thing. I still wince away from looking at many of these images, as they feel really dated. In samurai I became fascinated by the concept of honour, but that’s another story. It gets much more interesting from here …