Past Times: Upfest returned to Bristol last July transforming Bedminster into a blank canvas for some of the world’s most talented graffiti and street artists. Jenny Hayes met up with a few of the guys involved.
MY DOG SIGHS, STREET ARTIST
What attracted you to being a street artist?
I tried and failed as an artist in my 20s, so kind of gave up on the whole painting scene, got a proper job, got married and had kids. And then I stumbled across a couple of Banksy pieces, and it was that idea that there was somebody interacting with the public without some curator telling them how to work and what to produce that I really liked. I also liked that it gave people the chance to interact with art ouside the white cube of a gallery, which can be really off-putting. This art is completely open to everybody, and they can like it, or they can hate it. That sentiment runs through your Free Art Friday work.
How did that start?
I’ve been doing that for about 12 years now. I’d seen the street art, but at that stage I wasn’t a scruffy teenager wanting to mark my territory, so it would have been hypocritical of me to start going out and having a go at other people’s property illegally. My way round that was to produce my work at home – in my nice, warm, cosy studio – and then take it out and leave it on the street. Then, when you’d walk back past that spot at the end of the day and it would be gone, you’ve got in your head this fantastic story of a person walking along the street, stumbling across the piece and experiencing some confusion – what is it? Why is it here? Can I take it? – I like the idea of that little internal struggle. And there’s also something quite cathartic about working really, really hard on something and then having to say goodbye. Those pieces – the can men – give a different perspective to the term street art, which generally conjures up thoughts of big murals on walls. Definitely. It’s a very one-to-one experience. There aren’t a huge number of people who’ll see my work because it isn’t there for very long, and so there is that nice interaction between the work and that one person. I think that’s why my pieces have developed with these melancholic faces – I try to ingrain in them something that will tug a heartstring on the person walking past. I give them all the ammunition they need in order to capture someone’s attention to take them away. There’s very much a parallel with walking past someone who’s homeless, who’s not making eye-contact with you. With a little bit of love, a little bit of attention, those people would have the opportunity to be valued in society, just like the old tin cans I paint can become something people want again.
Since you were running Free Art Friday in isolation of the street art scene, how did you get involved with Upfest?
By coincidence, I started to talk to street artists the year of the first Upfest. They were guys that were using cans to spray walls – the usual kind of street art – and they said ‘you’re doing street art too, you’re just doing it differently. Why don’t you come down to the festival and paint a wall?’ So I did, and that’s how I kind of fell into that wall painting scene, and my focus of the eyes on the cans turned into the eyes on my murals. The eyes that are the branding for this year’s Upfest… Yes, and the red spray tag behind the eyes is the festival logo. So, what is it that appeals to you about painting eyes? It’s the reflection of the eyes that are the thing that really fascinates me, so I try to make them site specific, or use them as a narrative in the story. For example, you can just see the Clifton Suspension Bridge in the Upfest eyes. You have to make a conscious effort to look to see it, but I like the idea that the reflection tells a part of the story. That’s what’s great about artwork on many levels. You see it once and see it one way, and then you either spend a bit more time looking at it, or listen to people talking about it, and you start to discover these other elements. It’s the onion thing, isn’t it? You start to uncover the layers that, as artists, we spend hours and hours and hours beating ourselves up about to figure out how to create them. But that’s our job!
What is it about Upfest that makes it such an important festival?
What’s unique about Upfest is that it provides a real opportunity for people who are in the early stages of being street artists to produce work in the public domain. I’ve been painting for a long, long time, but I like having a wander round and bumping into these new people. It’s really nice to see other people getting started at Upfest like I did in those first few years. Since us artists usually follow a fairly high maintenance, hibernating routine – huddled over our sketchbook with our pens, in our studio – it’s also great to get to meet up and have a few beers. And there’s nothing better than stepping back from your wall at the end of a really intense day and just thinking, ‘yes, I’ve nailed it’. It doesn’t always happen, but when it does it’s the ultimate buzz.
Upfest supports local charity NACOA (National Association of Children of Acoholics). As well as providing a number of services to children across the UK, they operate a free helpline, tel: 0800 358 3456. For more information about Upfest visit: www.upfest.co.uk