Graffiti often gets a bad press and fair enough because when kids scribble on your house they never draw anything nice! But what if they did? We asked Dave The Chimp, London’s resident international street-decorator, about how graffiti can be positive…
“I’m just the vessel the environment uses to communicate its dreams with the public” - Dave The Chimp
Graffiti is often associated with run-down areas but good street art can really improve a place. How do you decide where to put your work and do you try to put your work in the place where it will be most effective?
A lot of my work is site-specific. If I see a spot that is calling out for a piece (and an idea usually comes straight away) then I’ll do it. In those cases it’s the environment that dictates the piece, maybe I’m just the vessel the environment uses to communicate its dreams with the public? Or maybe, as a skateboarder since the 1980’s, I’m used to seeing the environment of towns and cities in a different way to those envisioned by the architects and town planners, and I am solely responsible for what I paint? Who knows.
I work mainly in run-down areas as that is where I live. London is a run down area in general, but large parts of the east end are particularly shit. Unfortunately, most people don’t do anything to improve the area they live in, due to feeling like they have no control, due to a lack of intelligence, manners, self-respect, respect for others, and many other reasons. I have no choice but to live in poorer areas due to the price of rent, and the work I make is for my community and my neighbours. If I can put a smile on one of my neighbours’ faces, or encourage a member of my community to use their brain a little more, then I indirectly reap the reward from this.
I’m talking about tiny little efforts on my part making miniscule positive changes to my world, but every positive thing is a positive thing, simple as that.
How do you define what is good as opposed to bad graffiti?
I’m trying not to involve myself in what’s “good” and what’s “bad”. I’m trying to not even believe in that concept, it’s things like that that cause problems.
Art is like beauty in that it’s “in the eye of the beholder”. There are “artists” that are my contemporaries making a lot of money from work that I don’t consider art, more like poorly thought-out graphic design. The people buying it consider it art though, so good for them. It’s their money and their life. Different strokes for different folks.
As far as graffiti goes, I don’t really like to see work that is purely made out of anger, or that is intended to damage or upset. Expressions of negativity breed negativity. And as someone who’s been beaten up a few times in the streets, I’d rather there was less negativity in the world!! I have been responsible for my fair share of hateful street art though, so I’m just as bad as the others!
The nature of graffiti means that you will be putting your work out in public. Do you think that this means artists have a responsibility (to the public) when they put out their work?
No. If you start concerning yourself with the myriad feelings of others you wouldn’t even pick up a pencil for fear of offending, let alone paint in the street. Everyone is responsible for what offends them. If I see two elephants fucking on TV and choose to be offended by it, I am the one who should take responsibility for the feeling of being offended. Why should a TV scheduler or programme maker not show something that is a natural fact of life (elephants have sex) for fear of offending one person? Think of all the people who could learn from that image, or might be brought joy by that image – is it really your place to prevent the joy and education of others?
The human race has a problem. We all think we are the most important person alive, and the rest of the universe should bend to our will, like everything that exists is just here for our pleasure, and if it doesn’t give us pleasure it is “bad” and should be wiped out of existence, destroyed. None of us will ever be happy until we accept that things are the way they are because that’s the way they are. That doesn’t mean you can’t work to make your life better, but it does mean that you’re wasting time trying to rid the world of things that offend you personally. Just chill out – seeing elephants fucking on TV isn’t going to kill you!
I don’t generally set out to offend people. Generally ;-)
Do you think artists should think responsibly about what they put out there?
I think people should do what they want, but bare in mind that they could cause offence. For example, stencilling images of Myra Hindly next to a school is liable to offend, and the feelings of anger and disgust would probably block out whatever message you were trying to communicate by creating that image (unless offending was your aim, then job done!)
But what you choose to put out in the world is your choice. If you choose negativity it’s liable to come back and bite you in the ass though…
How do you keep things positive if you are angry about a certain issue that you want to put out there?
I used to be a very angry young man, but I’ve learnt that shouting your opinions in peoples faces not only fails to make them agree with your point of view, it actually makes them stop listening to your point of view.
The best you can hope for is to engage someone, engage their brain and make them think. Getting someone to
is a huge job. Actually shaping their thoughts or opinions, getting them on your side, damn, I wouldn’t even know where to start. And if I did I’d probably be a politician, not an artist!
Your Local Elections ‘campaign’ was political activism but not in a propaganda-ish way. You kept it open for people to interpret.
With those posters, I just wanted people to consider the fact that, just because they chose not to vote for who was in control of their daily lives, it doesn’t mean that others will give up that power so easily. And those that don’t give up that power are often the people with the strongest, and most hateful, views.
I was reading some local election material, and was shocked to see my local councillor at the time had won with 2,000 votes. Not by a majority of 2,000 – but by only having 2,000 people vote for him. That’s not many people, and I don’t see it as being that hard to convince 2,000 people to vote for you.
So I figured that, with so few people voting, it would be easy for people like the BNP to get in power, and I don’t want racists in control of my country, just like I don’t want religious fundamentalists trying to blow me up, so I had to say something, put something out there, which would just say “you have a right to who rules over you, you have a say, and if you don’t use it you’re letting racists, fascists, bigots, and ass-holes in general decide how this country is run. Don’t lose that opportunity through apathy”. I tried to say it in a fun and non-offensive, yet slightly sinister, way, with the hope that the message would get through without me having to bully people.
That poster seems to have struck a nerve, a lot of people noticed it, even though I only made about 10, each hand painted as I needed to get them up quick, and didn’t have access to screen printing equipment. Now Rockaway Art have produced it as a limited edition of 50, available from them, Extrabold in Luxembourg, and hopefully Nelly Duff on Columbia Road (just as soon as I find a minute to go drop some off!)
Also the NHS non-smoking poster. It’s a jibe at chavs but you were trying to get ideas through to people. Did you think the poster wasn’t working very well at informing people? So you improved it?
It wasn’t a jibe at chavs – that’s how pregnant teenage girls in Bethnal Green dress! It’s pointless trying to communicate with someone without making it clear “I’m talking to YOU!”
Those posters read “If you smoke, I smoke”. The clever advertising creative is trying to make a poster that communicates the message that if a mother smokes, her child smokes passively, through the use of child-like handwriting. What that creative has failed to recognise is that, in an area where many kids leave school and enter the world of adulthood unable to read or write, the idea that a child has written that message is lost. I was simply strengthening the message, while adding the extra detail that whatever a mother puts into her body goes into the baby too.
I think my work is often quite cute and appealing at first glance, but there’s a distinct dark undercurrent lurking there. And making a baby smoke is a very dark thing to do!
Do you think that your work can have an effect on people’s lives?
Advertising has an effect on people’s lives, so why not art in the street? Maybe a mother gave her pregnant 16 year old daughter a slap in the head for smoking after seeing my poster addition, maybe nobody even saw it, who knows.
I guess my actual answer to the question is “I hope so”.
Have you ever met anyone who you have affected with your work. You have taught school kids in the past…
People often come and talk to me when I’m painting, and I enjoy the interaction (except when they’re drunk, then it can just be plain annoying), it is interesting to see how what you create affects people. I’ve painted pieces and then, weeks later, seen that the whole rest of the wall has been painted too. Friends have told me they’ve seen a whole family looking at one of my pieces, the mother and father pointing parts out, maybe discussing it with their children or telling them a story with my piece as the basis. I’ve seen a painting I made on a piece of wood found lying in the trash hung above the fireplace of a flat in Clerkenwell, and a recent piece made on plastic bags hung in a gallery and discussed on the web (with someone trying to sell one as a Banksy piece!)
So, I know my work is having some impact, but how much, and in what way, I can’t really say.
And yeah, I’ve taught a couple of school classes, one with teenagers, one with seven year olds. I prefer the young kids, as they’re more open to different ideas, and have the most insane ideas themselves. Young kids are really inspiring. I wish I had the freedom to draw without restraint like a child!
You recently did a big mural in Berlin for Backjumps. How long did that take you? How much damn paint!? How did you decide on what to put up for that? Is it a purely aesthetic design or is there a meaning behind it?
A week, with a few people helping to fill in colour. Not sure how many litres of paint, but we bought about 1,500 euros worth (and used two thirds of that – I gave most of the leftovers to local bomber JUST as I was super impressed with his dedication to getting up!)
As for the design, I was trying to make the building disappear, and I also wanted to draw reference to the children’s farm next to the wall. As is often the case with my work, it is a little deeper than the “cute” image that I paint. In this case, I painted a huge blue character who was only a slightly different shade to the rest of the sky. This was, as I said before, to try and make the building disappear (by creating lots of blue sky) but it was also a reference to “God”. In this piece he is there (he has a tongue, hair and moustache) but also isn’t there, as he has no outline and his hair is just clouds in the sky. So the idea is to pose a question – is there a God? I don’t give you an answer. Some people will see him, some won’t.
As well as this slightly deeper idea, I also wanted to create something fun for the kids, with bunnies playing hide and seek, a cow smoking a pipe (maybe a reference to my father, who smokes a pipe and recently retired?) a bear in a cave, who becomes the tongue of a character which is actually a hill, a sun that is also a lollypop… things that are obvious, things to discover, the start of a story for the kids to create the next chapter of. Seven characters in total, as seven is a lucky number. I think sometimes I’m trying to create magic or cast spells with my work…
And I hope the ivy grows up the wall again, and becomes part of the painting. I’m hoping the human race dies out within the next thousand years and the plants and animals take this place back again truth be told, but that has nothing to do with the piece…
The ‘I Love You’ piece that you did on Christmas Day was a bold statement. You talked on your blog about suffering from a member of the public because of it. Do you ever think “it’s not worth putting this up”? Screw the public?
The suffering of that guy had nothing to do with my piece, it was only half completed when he arrived on the scene. His suffering was to do with drugs and alcohol and feelings of worthlessness – nothing to do with me! Only he (or his psychiatrist) could tell you what his problem is. He was in a bad way, and got some love from me, which he tried to turn into a sexual thing. That guy was damaged goods, and my theory is he’d been abused as a kid. I’m not here to solve the world’s problems, I got enough of my own!
That piece was weird. The pink dicks were painted in Boris and Freaklubs studio in Barcelona a few years ago, but I didn’t have time to put them up. A while later I painted the letters, and intended to put the piece up for my girlfriend at the time, but the spot disappeared before I had the chance. I was having a clear out in my studio around Christmas, and decided to put the posters up. I was single at the time, so the message was for no one and everyone.
That piece more than any other seemed to cause offence – people tried to rip it down pretty quick. Whether that’s because they thought it was a message to an individual and took offence as they were heartbroken at the time, or because they hate the idea of love, or are scared of expressions of deep emotion, who knows.
I guess that says something interesting about society though, that a positive message could cause so much offence.
It seems like you have generally good feedback from the public though…
Seems that way. Now I just need them to start giving me some cash!
When the local council remove the graffiti on a wall but leave your piece alone, how do you feel? Do you no longer feel ‘radical’ once your work has been condoned?
There ain’t nothing radical about painting a wall, though getting away with it is pretty rad, so if you get away with it AND avoid the buff, then that’s even better. When the council clean up a wall and leave my piece I feel like I’ve got one over, but also feel like there are people who think for themselves, and that makes me happy.
But also you know you’re doing something right?
Like I said, right and wrong is a concept I’m trying not to have in my life! I guess I know I’m not hurting anyone, and maybe they even like it, but I’m the wrong person to ask!
Your ‘peace worms’ got removed even though the locals liked them. Do you do surveys after you put up a work and try to find out what people like or don’t like about your work?
“Peace Worms” ? Ha! I like that more than “Spunk Worms”, which is what a friend called them!
While painting them a local woman, up at 6am, came and talked to me, and liked what I was doing. Don’t know about the rest of the locals. And no, I don’t carry out surveys!!!
For me, the important thing is the experience of making something. What happens to it after it’s made I’m not too bothered with. A lot of the work I’m making these days I hope WON’T last. Artwork that lasts a long time just becomes a commodity for other folk to get rich from, and I believe in working – I don’t want some guy getting rich off my blood sweat and tears, just because he sold something at the right time. Do some work and earn your own money, slag!!
I have a show coming up in Belgium with Nomad, and at the moment the concept is that we’ll cook dinner for everyone, have a dinner party, and the “art” part will be the experience of meeting new people, preparing food, the experience of tasting, of texture. The only thing they get to take away is a memory, and the only artefact will be the shit they leave in the pan the next morning! Try selling THAT on ebay!
I see it that my job as an artist is to give people a different view of life, a different experience to what they’re used to, to expand their experience of living, of being alive. Make their life richer. My job isn’t to leave evidence of my existence or to try and live forever – all that stuff is about the future, and it’s dwelling in the past and constantly dreaming of the future that gets in the way of living right now, in the moment. And right now is really the only important time in our lives.
So, to get back to the question – I don’t try and find out what people do and don’t like about my work, I try and just do what I like. Not a good way to make money, but then, I’m an artist – not a businessman!
Your piece at ‘Ganja Hills’ was awesome - you saw a problem with the area and decided to fix it with a mural. Is the piece still there? Did it work as you hoped?
Yup, still there, four years later. It’s got a few tags on it, but nothing major.
Did it work as I hoped? Well, I have seen kids playing there. Not often, because there’s nothing there for them (and another, much better park, 1 minute away). I assume it makes the journey of the kids who walk through the park a little brighter, but whether it’s helped to push away the drug dealers I have no idea as I no longer live on the street. But it brightens up the area, and that’s got to be a positive thing. And the council didn’t paint over it, so it can’t have caused any offence.
It would be nice if people took it upon themselves to try and make their neighbourhoods better places. Imagine if everyone gave an hour or two of their time every week to do things like running a youth club, picking up litter, coaching a kids’ soccer team, shit like that. Kids only cause trouble because they’re bored. And they’re bored because they have nothing to do. Playgrounds and clubs get closed because parents sue when kids get hurt playing, or because the media has us scared that every other guy is a paedophile, or because no one will work for free. Kids don’t want to be home with their parents because the parents are tired from working so hard to pay the rent, and so are boring and grouchy. So we end up with kids roaming the streets, bored, and causing trouble to generate some excitement in their lives. Add to that a culture of instant gratification, where everyone wants to be entertained RIGHT NOW and we end up in a mess. And I really believe that the solution is just a little love and effort from everyone, in whichever area they think they can help. I paint in the streets to try and make the city a little less grey, Jamie Oliver opens a restaurant to get a few kids off the street and away from trouble and into a job, Bob next door runs the local Scout group. Just do something, anything. It’s your world, it’s down to you.
Are there any other pieces that you’d like to mention?
Uhhh. I kinda feel like I should stop talking now before everyone gets bored! Plus, like I say, once something is done I pretty much want to move on to the next thing, so I think I’ll politely decline the offer to go over any more of my past ;-)
What are you doing next? On your blog it looks like you are making a shoe?
Yeah, two pairs in fact. But I can’t really talk about that, other than to say they’ll be out in Spring 2008. I’ve done my best to make the most of these shoes, so not only choosing the colours for materials and supplying the artwork for prints on the outside, but adding embroidery and changing tags and designing soles and insoles, creating artwork for the boxes inside and out, plus there will be a free Chimp zine and stickers, and hopefully a big-ass launch party! Like I said, I’m trying to create experiences rather than objects. I want people to feel a certain way in these shoes, rather than them just buy them because they’re the “so and so” artist model.
Oh, and something I’ve been doing lately on the experience front is to dress as a robot and dance on stage with the band Robots In Disguise. Me and my friend Crazy Neil are like their “Bez”!! It’s crazy stupid fun, all in the moment action, never to be repeated, can’t be bought or held on to, you experience it or you don’t. I love it!
Right now I’m directing a TV commercial for the latest Led Zeppelin album ‘Mothership’, all based on Shepard Fairey’s cover art. It’s really flippin’ difficult working so much in the computer, and with humans, rather than building everything out of cardboard boxes and using puppets!
And it’s almost time for our Halloween party, another “experience” piece. Last year I built various “sets” and Neil and me performed a piece of humourous theatre. Haven’t had so much time this year, built some pieces to turn our studio into a space ship, mainly pieces that work with light, plus we’ve got a band and DJ’s, but no performance. My costume will have an element of performance though! And after all the work I’ve been doing lately, I need a night off to have fun!
Who else can people check out for ‘intelligent’ graffiti?
I have to say, and I’m sure it’s controversial, but Banksy. I looked at his book at a friend’s house, and there’s so much good stuff, so many ideas. I don’t have much time for his gallery work, but his street stuff, and especially actions like getting monkeys in the zoo holding signs or sticking up paintings in museums, that stuff is just great. That’s what makes Banksy an artist worth paying attention to, not the fact he can sell a stencil on a canvas for £50,000 to a millionaire movie star with more money than sense and a house with too much wall space.
Blu is creating incredible pieces. I love Ekta’s work. Product Two does great stuff, I just don’t see enough. PMH doesn’t really work the streets any more, but he puts out great zines and his photos of life are amazing, as are his collages and sketches. Stefan Marx continues to amaze me, and BFREE is also doing great stuff. Nomad is great, Joska is great, Ayako is great, Nuria is great, Maya Hayuk is great, DEM is great, Microbo, Will Barras, Jago, I freakin’ LOVE the Sweet Toof boys going big all over… there’s lots of quality out there, though doesn’t seem to be as much happening in the streets as a few years ago. Which is good and bad – good as in there was a lot of generic shit for a while, and it was dull, and bad as in it’s a little boring out there these days. I don’t have the time I once had to paint in the streets, which is sad. But I’m planning to quit the day job in the spring, so let’s see what happens when that time rolls around…
Big ups to Dave the Chimp!