I Am Here. I Am Not Alone.

Today I have the massive honour of presenting you with a letter sent to me by graff writer delete in response to my article I Am Here. Am I Alone? I could say a lot about how big a deal this is to me but really you should just read the letter. It has the unmistakable air of someone who is walking his talk.

delete – tag

It’s certainly true that few writers would express themselves like you have in the article – as with many working class activities (like football for instance) there’s a strong streak of anti-intellectualism in graff that cries bullshit whenever long words are used. At the same time, much of what you’ve written is right on the nail and there are plenty of writers who will silently agree with the concept if not the language (and even some who will have the bottle to say it out loud!). Where I might add some comments are from omission – or perhaps to develop the argument – rather than because you got anything wrong.

I suppose the obvious place to start is the old “is it art?” question. I think there’s probably some mileage in a counter-point that if you won’t accept graffiti as art then it’s certainly craft, but generally speaking the choice seems to be limited to “is it art or is it vandalism”. To which I think the answer is it’s both. Whether it’s art or not is a question which honestly doesn’t matter to many writers, they are well aware that what they’re doing is a criminal activity (the “beautiful crime” as it’s sometimes known). There’s a strong current of opinion that legally painted graffiti is never as good as illegal work, but I think even the most hardcore bomber will give the occasional spectacular legal piece a respectful nod. However, you should not forget – must not forget according to some writers – that graffiti is a criminal culture, even if individual pieces are done on legal walls, they are always within that wider context and history. The whole dynamic of the movement is and always will be fed by the illegal side. If writers themselves are going to make distinctions about graffiti it is not generally on the basis whether it’s art/vandalism or legal/illegal, it’s on the basis of skill, style, flow, risk, coverage. Most important of all, are you UP.

For all of those who strive to make every one of their pieces a burner, there are still plenty of writers out there who just want to get their name up and to wreck everything they can. They’re not the slightest bit interested in artistic merit or style, an attitude summed up by the writer Sub, “I don’t claim to be an amazing artist, I am an out and out bomber, a pure vandal”. Someone like Tox does not give a monkey’s about what other people think. His individual pieces have no real style, but his style comes from getting up over and over and over, all city for a decade – beyond arrest and imprisonment to the point of addiction. Another writer Steas acknowledged that “Tox has forced writers into loving his tag, for the values and passion it represents to them”. In the end you’re not supposed to like it or to appreciate it as art, but you are supposed to see it wherever you go. Very much along the lines of your “I AM HERE”. There are other famous names, some of who have recently been given long prison sentences for criminal damage, who would admit that they don’t have the skills to do great big Wild Style pieces – but they are still enormously respected because their simple dubs and throws have great style and they put in an incredible amount of work to walk the tracks (and climb the rooftops) night after night after night to cover our city from end to end.

Although you mention very amiable and friendly interactions with writers (which I can echo), there is a rivalry within the culture which has been described as the toughest peer-review system of any cultural project. Although the haters might not see it, this is a form of quality control that encourages the highest standards of technique and creativity. If other writers don’t like your stuff they won’t write a polite critique. They will dog it, line it or just go right over it and show you how it should be done!  This rigorous elitism can also extend to what writers think of “the public”. It is a deliberately suspicious, closed and secretive world (only in part because of the criminal risk) with many writers intentionally making their tag or letters illegible to those who don’t understand the code. Yet the contradiction is that it’s out there on the street, in your face – and if you want to put in the time you will break the encryption and the meaning will be revealed to you. This is that ephemeral joy of coming across some amazing new piece, even a choice tag in the right place, that makes your day – somehow left there in the street for everyone to see by some magic spell.

London is a different city at 2-3-4 in the morning when all the normal people are asleep. You get to go in places that are impossible in daylight. I’ve been in some of the most amazing spots to write or take pictures, non-places that ordinary people don’t even see or don’t think about – sometimes in the middle of a busy, bustling road junction, district or station you can find yourself in a calm and peaceful spot, in solitude and contemplation whilst the mayhem goes on all around you unaware of your existence. Of course writers enjoy the thrill of the risk and the triumph of success but part of the buzz is also the freedom to explore our city in this unrestricted way, where No Entry is an empty plea. I think that it’s important to live your life, not just exist – and part of that is the ability to connect with and properly inhabit our space rather than just pass through it. I think writers get to know a city like no-one else can.

Another crucial aspect (at least to provide some understanding of where many writers are coming from) is that graffiti is one of the “four pillars” of hip hop culture. As well as the continuity of hip hop graffiti styles from the early 80’s onwards, the anti-materialist do-it-yourself ethos of early hip hop and punk still informs the vicarious lifestyle of a writer. Graffiti attracts (or possibly creates) a certain mind set which effectively is the art, it is life lived out through the medium. The same hatred of rules and restrictions that feeds the urge to defy authority also stretches to hatred of commercial culture and the hypocrisy of the advertising billboards that fill zero-tolerance graffiti zones. The anti-materialist streak is also the root of the dislike that many writers have for street art, which is seen as a commercial attempt by generally middle class artists to cash in on a working class graffiti culture and history. I’ve specifically heard people talk about how unskilled street artists have made quick money off the backs of talented writers who have spent years risking jail and death to establish a graffiti culture.

So for me graffiti is a direct and visible challenge to fundamental questions about property and society – who owns our streets? Who says we have to live surrounded by bare concrete and grey walls (broken only by adverts). You only have to travel on the train or tube network in London right now to have the difference dramatically shoved in your face – miles and miles of joyous trackside burners have been buffed brown all across the city in an Olympian effort to persuade the world that we are all under control. The same question always comes up “would you like it if someone did that on your front door?”. Leaving aside the fact that hardly anyone ever tags anyone’s front door, I think it opens a metaphorical door to start thinking about property relations and their destructive impact on humanity. As you say, this is a protest from someone who knows considerably more about social inequality first hand. Where I would disagree with your article is that I don’t see graffiti as “jealously destructive”, more that it’s contemptuously destructive. We don’t want to be rich, we want to get rid of the rich!

Blogging at: http://deletism.tumblr.com/
Posting flicks at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/delete08/
Photo diary: http://www.blipfoto.com/deleted
Boom And Bust Magazine: http://issuu.com/deletism

delete – upfest, Bristol

All images are protected by a Creative Commons license.
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I Am Here. Am I Alone?

Loitering With Intent

This article is an amalgam of my thoughts posted to blipfoto in recent days and an answer to a question posed by Micah Purnell drawing on my observations from photographing graffiti in London over the last 10 years. So if in reading this you get the feeling it’s a re-spray job to disguise two insurance write offs welded together and lifting the bonnet will reveal that the serial number has been filed off, it’s because it is and it has.

It is also punctuation in the story of my life. A life I enjoy all the more for what I have come to see in graffiti.

To the ‘Drive By’ Art Critics

Let’s start with claims that Graffiti isn’t really art. I’m not going to tell you it is or it isn’t but what I am going to do is discourage prejudice and encourage informed judgement.

All art is life lived out through a variety of mediums; it is therefore about humanity and the human experience. Those who recognise this enjoy looking for the statements and questions raised by artists in their work. No-one who claims to be genuinely interested in art is satisfied with viewing a single piece. Even exposure to an artist’s full catalogue of work isn’t evidence of real engagement. The desire to connect with the personal journey of the artist is what separates those who appreciate art from those who are looking for expensive home decor or sound financial investment.

Now a lot of people judge the graf they see on its complexity, discriminating against less elaborate and colourful styles. I just don’t get that at all and graf writers certainly don’t make this distinction, they don’t think their stuff is only valid if it’s big and pretty. As a graf writer recently commented on one of my blips:

“There isn’t a single graffiti artist who didn’t start out with tagging; it’s a vital part of the process of learning to write. Nothing beats a good tag!”

 – delete

(I hinted at my stance on tagging in the article ‘Signature Analysis’ so I won’t touch on that here)

My point is this: if you don’t make any effort to understand where the artist is coming from can you say you’re a fair judge of the art?

Stop and Search – Getting Graffiti To Turn Out Its Pockets

So it’s in trying to look more deeply into all the various forms of graffiti that I have come to realise some quite startling ‘givens’ shared by those who practice the various disciplines. To illustrate my thoughts I want to address the question: what is graffiti about and what can we discern from it which sets the real protagonists apart from casual vandals? I’ll begin with a rather basic and clinical observation:

It seems to me that authentic graffiti is about the core human need to be known. It is comprised of the two component needs for a secure positive identity and permanent intimate relationships. The messages contained in true graffiti in their simplest irreducible forms are:

1) ‘I am here’

2) ‘Am I alone?’

The subject matter of graffiti also communicates both the aspirations of the artist in relation to these two needs and sometimes the reality of their success or failure to achieve them.

1) I am here and my identity is secure/positive – insecure/negative

2) I am alone/not alone

These messages are far easier to discern in (what is referred to as) street art as opposed to the more traditional form of graffiti which first flourished in the 1970’s but they are present in both. It’s easier to discern in street art because there are significantly fewer conventions or rules giving the artist greater latitude to communicate. Perhaps the most important aspect of this is the deliberate discarding of the requirement to broadcast a complete and confident message allowing the artists to be more honest and sometimes vulnerable. Although both disciplines can be cryptic ‘traditional’ graffiti rarely (if ever) indulges in concepts like self doubt or disillusionment.

All graffiti that conforms to this understanding I find inspirational.

That may sound a bit over academic but in truth it’s this basic understanding (conscious or unconscious) that enables anyone to spot Trojan horses; things that mimic graffiti forms but actually conceal aggressive commercial, political or religious (in an enslaving sense) agendas.

This doesn’t preclude commentary on commerce, politics or religion from an ‘I am here and this is my identity’ approach but it’s this understanding that makes it easy to separate graffiti messages rooted in genuine personal conviction from those trying to dupe the gullible or influence the naive.

Strip Search – A Deliberately Invasive Examination

I originally got turned on to the newer forms of graf back in 2002 when I saw a piece by The London Police just east of the city. I was so gob smacked by its freshness that I immediately went in search of a disposable camera and I’ve never looked back.

The London Police with D*Face – Clerkenwell 2002

For a long time I preferred the newer forms epitomised by the likes of Invader, Sheppard Fairey, D*Face and Banksy, dismissing trad styles as old hat, reactionary and rather boring. But it was only the process of looking into those older pioneering styles that precipitated my present day appreciation and respect for the artists themselves.

What I have seen in graffiti and those who dedicate themselves to it has inspired me to a deeper commitment to my own creative practice. And this in no small part due to how accessible graffiti is in contrast to many other art forms.

So what is there to admire in graffiti and graffiti artists? What are the startling ‘givens’ shared by those who practice the various disciplines?

The standard virtues of any creative discipline apply, for example the craft demands dedication and artists spend years developing and evolving their technique. Does this one look a bit plain to you? Look closer, it’s plain because it’s familiar and it’s classic but it hasn’t been borrowed of the front of a global brand cereal box or candy wrapper. Any font freak will tell you how influential this field of creative expression has been on modern type face. Then there’s the adept use of the can, those lines are as crisp as fresh frost, no gaps, no overspray. And then there’s the overall proportion, it’s pristine, most of us couldn’t even draw this free hand on A4 but these guys work outside the physical limits of their field of vision as standard.

But there are things Graffiti accomplishes that no other art form either does or does as well: it invites curiosity and provokes questions on the street. It’s not the only form of creative expression that seeks to give poignant emphasis to the socially crippling effect of some aspects of modern culture. But it’s the only one that does it in the open air, for free. The combination of accessibility and lack of commercial agenda gives graffiti the power to connect passersby with their everyday environment. Often in direct contrast to all the other street signs that say ‘buy this crap’ or ‘don’t do that’.

The cost of this accomplishment is higher than most of us would be prepared to pay. There is the standard cost of time, thought and materials (there’s no chance of lottery funding here) but over and above that; the risk to many aspects of personal liberty. For their efforts the artists are classed as law breakers, displaying work publicly risks prosecution, prison and a criminal record.

There are only two ways to go with that:

One – write off a relatively small but by no means insignificant subculture of society as irresponsible fools for whom we need to bring back National Service.

Two – try and understand what motivates them. The fact that they do what they do without wanting help or permission from anyone is evidence of strong belief in something. Especially when in contrast the people tasked with removing all such images never put in quite the same effort yet in many cases they represent authority, draw a wage and are protected by the law.

Are they really criminals? Time for my favourite quote (again):

“When explaining yourself to the Police it’s worth being as reasonable as possible. Graffiti writers are not real villains. Real villains consider the idea of breaking in some place, not stealing anything and then leaving behind a painting of your name in four foot high letters the most retarded thing they ever heard of.”

– Banksy

I Only Stole His Shoes So I Could Walk A Mile In Them Officer.

Earlier I stated that there is a difference between the real protagonists and the casual vandals. Whilst my focus is on the former I feel it is important to comment on what could be construed as destructive examples of graffiti. There is such a thing as mindless vandalism but there is also such a thing as social inequality.

There is an open challenge to consider that a tagger brought up in a fractured community with little in terms of wealth, education and prospects scratching his name on the side of your BMW or spray painting it down the side of your suburban semi, is more than an act of mindless destruction. From another perspective it’s protest from someone who knows considerably more about social inequality first hand. My guess is we’re not supposed to like it. The choice then is the same, take the offence that’s offered or choose humility and look for understanding. I’m not saying don’t judge, I’m saying pursue right judgement.

Our emphasis on the right to individual freedom has cost us dearly in terms of functioning community. Individual freedom is important but there is no community where the counter-balancing necessity of interdependence is neither acknowledged nor cultivated. The proof that this need is being ignored en mass is when the complicit ‘haves’ pretend innocence while jealously destructive acts are done by the ‘have nots’. Instead of community we have a disparate proximity of people who have to forcibly take because nothing is freely given, conduct which is identical at both ends of the economic scale. As philosophy professor Jason Read famously pointed out recently:

“People who dismiss the unemployed and dependent as ‘parasites’ fail to understand economics and parasitism. A successful parasite is one that is not recognized by its host, one that can make its host work for it without appearing as a burden. Such is the ruling class in a capitalist society.”

Some of the most monstrous and large scale acts of vandalism in the world are being conducted by those who have more money than anyone could even use in one lifetime, people who are protected by the law.

But anyone making the mistake of thinking I’m entirely pro won’t find anything in this article saying I think graf is right or wrong, good or bad. I’m trying to understand it from the foundation of belief in common humanity and what I have understood about it that is positive has had a fantastically positive effect on me personally.

Release Without Charge

Is my house vandalised on a weekly basis? No. Do I live in a ‘deprived’ neighbourhood? No. Am I a graffiti artist? No. I’m sure plenty of people will think me unqualified to talk about all this so why risk criticisms I cannot possibly defend myself against to discuss it openly? Because I’ve been wandering London (amongst other places) for the last decade and the graffiti I have encountered has lead me on a long and enormously beneficial exploration of the inside of my own heart and head; a fantastically positive effect.

The most surface benefit to me has simply been its accessibility; that it exists at all. One of the most persistent insecurities I suffer from relates to my own creativity and it’s this ever present metamorphosing gallery of the streets that ultimately put me on the path to conquering it. Whilst I had a creative habit for years I was petrified of producing my own work. After a few years of gathering graffiti as source material the river simply burst its banks.

The Creative Process – illustrated in conversation by Ann Piker circa 1996

On the few occasions I’ve had actual contact within the world of graf I’ve often been impacted by the kindness of those I’ve met. Flying Fortress brushed aside my marker pen and took time out from preparing an exhibition (Visual Rock Stars at the old Stolen Space venue near Edgeware Road back in 2006) to hand paint his tag on my Jim Philips ‘Flying Hand Remix’ hoody.

Flying Fortress’ remix of the Jim Phillips ‘Screaming Hand’

The Black Rat Press (a pioneering gallery in Shoreditch championing ‘Interventionist Art’) ran a family day in 2011 where my own kids (and me) got to produce work under the tutelage of Matt Small and Best Ever.

Black Rat Press Family Day 2011

Then there are the guys I’ve met under the Westway doing big pieces. They always stop and chat even though I’m always unavoidably sucked into a slight hero worship vortex and probably sound like a total freak.

And these are just a few in a list of growing examples. Even the older graffiti crews who like to paint themselves as bad boys of the scene seem very happy to run creative workshops with kids with the goal of inspiring both strong positive identity and building good relationships.

Then there’s the practical side because there’s a curious parallel in their world and mine. We both seem to have very small windows of time in which to work; for them it’s because of the legality, for me it’s because I’m raising a young family. The borrowing of techniques used by graffiti artists is what has enabled me to be as productive as I have.

But ultimately its best influence has gone beyond creative inspiration and challenge, it has been instrumental in changing my own prejudicial attitudes. If this article isn’t illustration enough this aspect of my journey is more fully elucidated in the aforementioned discussion ‘Signature Analysis’.

Signature Analysis

This article is going to talk about Banksy and tagging but it’s not about either of those things.  It’s about the root motives that nourish the tree of my values whose fruit attracts the birds of opinion into its branches.  It’s not about changing the world, it’s about allowing a shift in my world view. That changes the little bit of the world occupied by me.

Tagger Scum – by Jez Green

A Wooden Analogy

Let me spend a moment on the tree metaphor so you don’t dismiss me out of hand as a demented hippy.

There is a relationship between my motives and the opinions I form.  If I find my own motives difficult to discern at times (and I do), then they will be just as hard to detect by others.  They are far reaching as well as hidden, just like the roots of a tree.

by Rory Clark

My values are easier to divine much like a tree because I live them out or at the very least talk about them.  However I’ve discovered that I will sometimes dress up a poor motive with reasonable-sounding values, consciously or otherwise. My values may be the application of my motives but reverse engineering them isn’t so straightforward.

My motives do reach out through my values though, just like the roots feed the fruit.  Our world is full of ideas and the ones I like tend to match my motives like birds coming to rest in a tree attracted by what grows there. Those ideas form opinions in conjunction with my values.

Banksy

One way I can discern the motive behind a value is to reverse engineer my opinions.  In this way it is possible to discern the source of a value and it isn’t always good.  The artist Banksy has been key in helping me figure all this out. I’m not going to say I relate to all of his work but my reactions to his art fell into a cycle of behaviour.  After two or three times around the block (ok, four or five times, I’m a doofus) I realised something important: sometimes the motives which feed the opinions I form really suck.

Banksy – Clerkenwell Circa 2004

The pattern of events was this: Banksy would produce a new idea and for a time I would be in complete awe of his creative genius.  I’m not using the word in a watered down sense, he is a genius.  Subsequent pieces of work would be on a similar level though and I would gradually reach a point where I felt he had nothing new to offer and my attention would roam elsewhere.

I dressed up my attitude with value statements like ‘it’s important to keep looking for input that challenges and stimulates’ which is impossible to critique from a value perspective but the opinions I formed were superior and arrogant. I wasn’t just moving on because my interests had changed innocently;  the popular notions I gravitated to (children of that old familiar accusation ‘sell out’) revealed to me my motives.  My desire was to understand in order to dismiss him, to no longer feel dwarfed by the brilliance of his ideas, to rid myself of insecure feelings when faced with another man’s unique quality.  To rubbish someone else in order to blot out the disquieting feelings of inadequacy. My motive was to deny another man’s value because I was afraid I had none of my own.  Man did I suck.

Banksy – Holborn circa 2006

Of course I was confident, eloquent and convincing in how I expressed my values so without deeper examination I probably looked clever and genuine enough to casual observers.  The tree looked pretty good but the roots feed the fruit and the opinions I assumed were akin to that bitter fruit.

Banksy – Paddington 2005

Mercifully Banksy would often come back with an idea so astonishing to me in it’s simplicity and clarity that I would be jerked back to that place of awe and after a few revolutions I could no longer ignore my shabby attitudes.  He said one or two things that helped ease the pain too:

“Every time I think I’ve painted something slightly original, I find out that Blek Le Rat has done it as well, only twenty years earlier.” – Banksy

(Blek Le Rat – seminal French graf writer/artist).

A little more about those birds.

by Rory Clark

Why have I used birds as a metaphor for opinions as if they have a life of their own?  The answer is in the question.  Some opinions are like jokes, not because they’re funny (far from it sometimes) but because their origin is unknown and they simply get repeated by everyone, passed around because they sound good. There might be a little embellishment here and there but the original thought may often go unchallenged.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this; we all do it to cope with the onslaught of stimuli in modern life.  No one is capable of responding to everything around them with real consideration and on a vast range of subjects this is of no consequence.

However I know from experience that I don’t always clock when it’s important to work out my own conclusions rather than simply accept someone else’s and I’m quite sure this isn’t a problem that’s unique to me.  Let me give an example that has recently come to my notice.

Tagger Scum

Ever since the discovery arising from my Banksy experience I have started to systematically seek out useless or marginalised things.  I look and I look until I am able to see through my accumulated opinions and start to form my own conception of what is in front of me.

Sometimes they are trivial like weeds (called thugs by gardeners with very fertile imaginations) or discarded wood which I use in my own art practice but sometimes they have had a little more import.  I spend a lot of time walking around London’s Westway, photographing to help me develop this way of seeing the world, and I found that tagging started to feature in the images I gather.

Detail of ‘Tagger Scum’ by Jez Green

Many times as I have reviewed the resulting images different people have looked over my shoulder and recited almost identical words:

“I like graffiti if it’s artistic but I don’t see the point in tagging”

Consider this to be an expression of value if you will – I value this, I don’t value that.  Impossible to draw any suspect conclusions but some people add the following phrase, again identical each time:

“I bet you wouldn’t like it if they came round and did it to your house”

There’s more than just a value here, it’s an accusation and an unjust one. It has been assumed that because I took the photograph I’m in favour of tagging.

Further more I’m accused of hypocrisy because my attitude would change in a second if my own home was vandalised.  I’m happy for it to happen elsewhere but in reality I’m a NIMBY.

Let’s not forget that there’s a section of society being thrown away here too: tagger scum.  A destructive criminal fraternity with which I’m accused of having a naïve sympathy.

Would you say all those who took footage of the 9/11 atrocity are in favour of terrorism?  Clearly the above saying is learned rather than a thoughtful conclusion.  One more conclusive piece of evidence: the last person to say this to me happens to be a work colleague and friend who wasn’t intending to accuse or offend me.  Ironic considering the statement clearly is both accusatory and offensive.

by Micah Purnell

So apart from encouraging myself and others to pay a little more attention to what’s nesting in our branches I would like to take the opportunity to gently challenge this learned saying that’s being passed around like flu on the London underground at Christmas, to make an example of it.

It’s in the admission of our common humanity that society’s problems will be healed;  taggers are not uniformly scum and if some of them are they’re just signing their names.  Their real names?  No but who has a problem with Mark Twain, John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe or Engelbert Humperdinck?  OK so Engelbert Humperdinck is a bad example but you do get my point.  Taggers assume pseudonyms for the same vain reasons and their signatures display the same flourishes and flair as yours or mine.

You have to be afraid to begin with before a simple signature can scare you.  How much of what we think is our own opinion actually started on some grubby page of that fear-monger the Daily Mail?

by Micah Purnell

These days there are a different set of birds attracted to the fruit of my motives, and in consequence a better time is being had by all.  My enjoyment of creativity is increased considerably as is the effectiveness of my encouragement to others. You may even have been on the receiving end of such encouragement so you may know very well what I mean.  How did that happen?  How did I come to recognise and believe in my own unique value? Simple I looked to the one who made me, his reasons for doing so, how he has demonstrated his regard for me.  I listen for those things in the words people say to me.  Not only do I suck considerably less, so does my life.

Epilogue

Forget for a minute that these signatures are on a wall instead of a birthday card or a cheque and take a look at the slide show >here<

Images used by kind permission

Micah Purnell – An Interview

A portrait of Micah by Al Waller

How do I introduce Micah Purnell? Perhaps it’s enough to say I would like to eat all his vital organs to absorb his power.  He recently expressed an interest in a painting of mine and offered a great deal of his work in exchange suggesting I sell it on to make the trade worth my while.  I joked that I would have carried the painting to Manchester on foot just for the privilege of having one of my pieces hanging in his house.

Instead I got a lift with Sam Piker and we decided to make the most of our meeting and interview Micah.  We’re not professional journalists or experienced at conducting interviews, so it’s rambling, badly structured and rewritten at the sad expense of individual idiom.  The one thing we do know is that to get the gold out of the subject he/she has to be on the back foot which is a cruel thing to have to do to someone you love or admire.  As soon as Micah started sheepishly apologising for giving sprawling and unpolished answers we knew we were on the right track.  So please be generous with your time and make all our gratuitous prodding and poking worthwhile.  Go and boil the kettle, make a brew and give this article the time it deserves.

The clever thing to do these days is to embed links to other relevant internet pages at relevant points in the text.  Whilst we do want to further inform you about the subjects being discussed we don’t want you jumping onto someone else’s blog or summat before we’re good and finished so instead there’s a list of relevant links at the end of the article.

Representing Creature and conducting the interrogation were:

Sam Piker (aged 31)
Jez Green (aged 37)
Rory Clark (aged 39)
& Joseph Green (aged 8)
Edited by Rory and Hayley Clark

Bored of Lies by Micah Purnell – circa 2005

Micah: I didn’t know you were using a voice recorder for this, is that so you can rewrite it?

Rory: More or less it’s for the fun of reading the instructions because it came from Hong Kong, they’re very amusing.  Didn’t really help us figure out how it works though, we’re hoping it’s now actually recording our voices.

Jez: Yes, we’re hoping it’s in the right “mood”.

Rory: We just wanted to share our enjoyment of who you are and how that’s represented in your work by asking you some questions and putting it on the Creature Forum.  We didn’t think we’d need too many questions but the first one of course is brown or red sauce?

Micah: Red. Every time.

Rory: Every time? So you never have to think about that, it’s not a dilemma you face?

Micah: No.

Sam: Even on a bacon butty?

Jez: Even on Sausages?

Rory: The context of the question is of course in a bacon sandwich, how did you not get that?  Anyway, we need to ask some simple questions first so who are you?

Micah: Micah.

Rory: And what do you do?

Micah: That’s not a simple question.  Did you say simple? You did say simple.

Rory: Help! Sam, can you turn that into a simple question?

Sam: OK, you’re at one of those awful parties and someone says ‘so what do you do then?’, what would be your favourite answer?

Micah: My original and long standing answer would be I’m a waiter but conversations can change so it’ll move on to street artist. That’s a little bit grand really though, perhaps graphic designer. They always come together, I am both.

Rory: Why is it you usually say waiter first?

Micah: I suppose because I’ve had the impression that people think your job is where your worth is so I’ll be grateful for my job and proud of where I work and say that first.  If people want to define me by it that’s their choice, I don’t feel I need to say I do something cool to change their illusion of me.  I’ve had people come up to me and say ‘Micah, why are you working as a waiter?’ it’s my job, simple.  But I’m moving more towards both, I spend as much time at each now.

Rory: How old are you?

Micah: 35

Rory: And where do you live?

Micah: Manchester.  Can I say that? We’re in Oldham but you can see Manchester from here.  Where you turned left by the park to get to my road, that’s Manchester.  I spend all my time in Manchester although I live in Oldham which is a borough of Manchester. I live closer to Manchester, I work in Manchester, can I say Manchester enough?

Rory: We’ll find out. Some of our questions are about Manchester as well as bacon.

Micah: That’s handy.

Sam: So the block of flats on the left in the painting?

Manchester icons featuring Naylor Court (far left) by Alison Purnell

Micah: That’s in Manchester.

Sam: Is that where you grew up?

Micah: I grew up on Newton Heath and I’ve lived this side of town my whole life.  I spent a little bit of time on Shrewsbury street in Old Trafford but most of my life in Newton Heath, Collyhurst, Miles Platting.  An hour walking distance from Manchester or five minutes depending on when I lived where.

Rory: And you’re married with children?

Micah: Married with two, Rosie 4 Solomon 2.

Rory: So if it turns out that Solomon doesn’t actually like Star Wars will you involve the police and social services or would you keep that sort of issue in the family?

Micah: I wouldn’t be that fussed really. It’s good but come on.

Sam: When did you decide you wanted to do street art?

Micah: I’ll take you through my progression.  Straight out of school I studied graphic design, national diploma followed by higher national diploma at Salford Uni, then a two year BA course in Visual Art and Culture.  During that time, about 19ish, I started knocking about Manchester city centre bars and clubs getting to know the people that lived in the city.  City dwellers that just drink, go to gigs, go home, come back, do the same again, living their lives in a kind of community.  There were certain places I ended up going to by chance where people could hang around, a range of bars where you would always see the same faces.  I was just enjoying life and watching it happening.

About that time I met this lady called Carol Batton. I don’t know how to describe her but she’s a poet.  She’s still producing work and I know she had a book published.  I think some of it’s bonkers but much of it is inspired.  A lot of it’s spiritual but I don’t know what she believes.  She’d just hand out poems left right and centre.  She had a shabby old bag and she’d just give out poems and I think she’d even give ones that she felt were appropriate.  In fact she did a poem for me.  It’s an interesting piece and I keep it on the wall in my studio.  I don’t know why, there’s just something about it I like.

Somewhere along the line I decided to become her biggest rival.  I started producing business card sized cards and I’d give them to people and drop them in bars.  Very small quantities, fifty maybe, you’d not even call that a run would you? One of the earliest was the ‘God is difficult to see in our city…’ piece. I suppose that’s what I still do now but that’s how it began.

By Micah Purnell

I didn’t think my work was particularly profound or graphically amazing.  I just thought it was important to be productive and I still stand by that.  Quotes are quotes, you can find them anywhere.  Some of them are mine, a lot of them are not.  For the design I was using common type faces that were easily accessible. Putting the two together was maybe something that people appreciated because the quotes would encourage them or give them a little hope.  Maybe people appreciated them because they were different to the normal stuff you’d find around the place, I’m not sure.

Jez: In terms of what you’re pursuing with your work would you say there are certain things or influences that you’ve deliberately pursued and others that you’ve deliberately avoided?

Micah: urrm…I dunno, can you try and rephrase it, ask a different question that’ll get the same result?

Sam: Have you felt yourself pulled in any particular direction in your artistic life and have you ever decided ‘no, I don’t want to go down that route’?

Micah: Do you mean in its artistic style?

Sam: Style or method.

Micah: I’ve followed whatever’s on the street in people’s faces so my work looks relevant in those terms.  I’ve used advertising methods keeping myself within popular style, subculture popular at least.  Do you know the band Underworld? They’re also a design studio called Tomato.  When I was doing some design work for Elbow I went down to the V2 offices to see the graphic designers who would work with what we provided.  They showed me work that Tomato had done for Underworld and their name was really tiny on the whole piece which is what they wanted it to look like but the V2 marketing team just went ‘No.  We’re putting you out, you can’t have your name that small, it’s got to be big because we need more people to see it.’  So I learnt to do my work with a marketing head on as well as a designer head and asking ‘Is this going to be seen?’ I suppose I’ve tried to share to as many people as possible.

Rory: So you’re using a marketing approach but you’re not trying to generate wealth by selling a product?

Micah: I’m not trying to get anything back.  There’s no links or tags or owt when it comes to my poster work so it’s less likely to get ignored or missed or forgotten.  I’ve tried to make it so it can be seen from across the street but it doesn’t look like a sales pitch.

Rory: That’s definitely relevant to me. I was photographing street art for a number of years largely because a lot of it was incomplete messages which fascinated me.  No real conventions meant great diversity so it was very stimulating to follow but after a while advertisers started using the same techniques to promote products. It got to the point where I would see a piece of work and if it had a web or email address on it I wouldn’t photograph it, no matter how good it was.  Commercial motives made even great work seem uninteresting, only non-commercial artists using the street to talk but not necessarily with a complete message engaged me.

Micah: My stuff has been criticised as being complete messages which is hard to argue with when they’re rounded and in eight words or something, it’s pushed me in to considering ‘Can I create dialogue?’

Jez: Advertising constantly makes statements rather than talking points. I suppose in that sense I didn’t really understand the criticism that was being leveled at you in that particular conversation.

Micah: Do you remember the one? It was the first time I’d been on a public stage and had criticism.  At the time I found it quite difficult but I’ve actually found it useful to hone what I’m doing so I’m glad he criticised me.  I’ve always thought it’s better to put stuff out and accept whatever criticism comes but people assume you’re saying the work’s good by putting it out on the street so they don’t really say anything.  Like I’ve said I’ve always thought it’s better to be productive and learn to get each piece to a point and stop because you can try and finish a piece and it can take forever.  I want to learn to give good criticism to other artists and say to them maybe you can do what you’re doing better.

Rory: It’s easy to feel personally attacked when you’re work is criticised because it’s an expression of your identity.  Criticism is important but hard to hear because what’s being attacked is essentially part of you. What was that particular piece that was criticised?

Micah: Hot Air Balloons essentially [a 20 page booklet containing an argument for the redemption of advertising space], by a guy who came to my exhibition last year.  There were a couple of things in there like I’d referred to people as ‘sheeple’ and he didn’t like that.  Understandably because if you’re going to be in the public space you can’t really say stuff like that.  He argued that I was treating people as ‘sheeple’ myself by copying advertising and making people a sap to my message as much as advertisers were.  He’d rather I teach people the reasons why they’re ‘sheeple’ and how you can overcome that, that gave me a new way to look at how I’m doing what I’m doing.

Micah’s studio – by Sam Piker

Rory: I chose this voice recorder because of the colour y’know.  I like a bit of pink, I’m taking it back for straight guys.  It doesn’t mean what people think it means, it’s just pink, I mean come on.

Micah: That’s magenta, what was the question?  I’d love it if you pared down the whole interview to questions about red sauce and colour choices.

Rory: Interesting you should say that because I would like to ask you, and this is a tricky one, don’t expect these questions to be easy, how many rashers is too many for one sandwich and at the same time enough to justify two sandwiches?

Sam: Where’s the tipping point?

Micah: Four will make two sandwiches but I’d rather have three.

Rory: Four will make two sandwiches! Are we in the third world?

Jez: You’re in the North.

Rory: Surely it’s five! Five is three in one and two in the other, it means the second sandwich isn’t going to be as good but five is too much for one sandwich.

Micah: I’m putting three in one, potentially four.  Two slices of bread and three rashers is ample.  Four would be too many, you asked how many would be too many.

Rory: So if you had four rashers you would make two sandwiches?

Micah: If I had four slices of bread four rashers is a little bit shy.

Rory: I think four rashers is one sandwich, four might be a bit too much but you can always add a third slice of bread.

Sam: With an option of folding a piece of bread in half.

Micah: I don’t tend to have it on it’s own it has to be with egg. I can have a bacon sandwich and I’ll like it but it’s got to come with egg.  If it doesn’t I’d probably…..yeah I can turn away from it, I can turn away from just a bacon butty.

Jez: That’s the ultimate answer, it has to have egg.

Rory: He’s muddied the waters.

Sam: We were talking about some criticism encountered when you did your show connected with Hot Air Balloons and that’s obviously made you think a bit. Where do you see your work going from there? Are there any new directions?

Micah: Not yet.  It may be nice to put some incomplete messages out.  That’s an incomplete message [refers to the image just below this paragraph].  I showed it to a friend, she was like ‘What? What is it? A powerful vision of what?’.  I can’t remember what the missing word is now, just that it’s a great word, you can put your own in. So I might offer more work that leaves stuff open.  I might even do stuff that’s anti what I believe to see if it’s an appropriate tool to encourage dialogue and raise debate.  If I can create work that encourages dialogue rather than finished pieces it might be more fruitful. It’s nice that people get something from my work, a bit of heart or a bit of hope or something but it does kind of stop there. If you have to grapple with something it gives it life, it lasts a bit longer in the mind.  I’ll definitely encourage criticism though, come and slag me off. But tell me why and don’t be nasty about it.

By Micah Purnell – featuring a quotation from ‘The Practice of the Presence of God’ a text compilation of the wisdom and teachings of Brother Lawrence, a 17th century Carmelite monk.

Rory: Can you talk about your influences?

Micah: David Carson, he was a graphic designer, a surfer from America. His stuff got used corporately with N**e but he was quite graphically edgy.  You can definitely see his work in mine I think.

Rory: We don’t use that word in our family.

Micah: What word? N**e?

Rory: Yeah, we use the ‘F’ word or the ‘C’ word instead because we think it’s more acceptable. So don’t be surprised if on the blog it doesn’t say ‘that word’, if you read the interview and you think ‘I didn’t say that?’ just remember ‘ah, right….N**e.’

Micah: Fair enough. Also Vaughn Oliver who did all of 4AD’s stuff, Pixies and all that so there’s lots of lifey macro stuff.  Don’t know if that’s in my work so much these days, maybe there’s a hint of it.  Those two were influences when I was studying.

Rory: You’ve mentioned Walter Bruggeman in your written work and it seems to me that a lot of your material is in-keeping with the things that he’s trying to highlight.  Namely about the power of creative arts to challenge the dominant culture.  Where did you first hear about him?

Micah: I don’t know, I think it was by chance and when I read his work I was like ‘wow, how relevant is that!.’  It confirmed stuff but it wasn’t new to me.  It gave me a bit of a lift and I thought there’s stuff here I can use to explain where I’m coming from.  His work was a real encouragement, I should probably read it again.

Rory: So if it wasn’t new to you where do you think your desire to challenge the dominant culture came from?

Micah: Disbelief in it from studying advertising basically.  A hope for a better world as described by my understanding of Biblical literature.  It’s too simple to say that all advertising is wrong, maybe it’s the saturation, I’m still working my thoughts through.

For example I don’t really like saying ‘consumerism’ too much because you’re just attacking everybody that lives in the West because we’re all part of it.  So the problem is probably much more subtle.

When I was studying I spotted that people would use all sorts of methods to sell products because the product wouldn’t really sell itself.  I think that’s the defining line, advertisers will sell a product in one country that will make you pale where dark skinned people live because to be pale shows wealth, that you work indoors.  Then on the other side of the world they’ll sell you stuff that’ll make your skin dark.  It seems that they don’t really believe anything, they just tell you whatever works to make you believe and shell out.  I thinks that’s what I spotted, not necessarily that that product is bad in itself but the manipulative methods they use to channel your understanding of what you’re buying.

Joseph: How many years have you been doing art for?

Micah: Better ask my dad when I first started drawing.  GCSE to now so what does that work out as? Twenty two years? Anywhere between 35 and 22 years.

Rory: One of your pieces has the Manchester city crest on it and I got the idea that you were also using fonts that Peter Saville..

Micah: ..designed.

Rory: Is that right?

Micah: Yes, but in two different pieces.

By Micah Purnell – featuring the Manchester City crest

Rory: I’m giving you an opportunity to say Manchester some more.

Jez: Talk about what it is about Manchester that you love.

Micah: It stems from when I was knocking about in those bars around ’97/’98, dj-ing drinking and smoking, watching bands and enjoying the live music.  That’s the bit I like, the community spirit and the acceptance of all kinds of creative people including me.

Jez: You’ve clearly not felt a desire to move away or anything.

Micah: No. It’s the creative live music side of Manchester, there are loads of places to find different kinds of non corporate stuff.  On the corporate side I’m a little bit worried, like about Man City doing well.  Even though I’m a Man City fan it’s worrying if you’ve got two teams doing well and I’m not such a Man City fan that I’m anti United.  I’m a Manchester fan so I’m not really bothered if United keep doing well but I’d quite like them to take turns every other season.  You know, Manchester, Manchester, Manchester, Manchester, Manchester, Manchester, Manchester.  I’m worried because if that happens we’re going to become really really arrogant.  I was going to do a book on Manchester and all it’s creativity featuring people from Manchester from those just starting to those that have gone on to big things.  Like Mark Farrow from around the Hacienda days, he’s in London doing music industry stuff for major labels.  I was going to give the book the title ‘We Are Arrogant But We Are Your Friends’.  I guess I like a bit of a swagger in people but friendly too.

Sam: You’ve done album art for a few different bands?

Micah: Yeah, I first did it for Elbow and then some other smaller stuff.  A music label called Massive UK.  One or two, not loads, but I‘ve always fancied designing for music, it seems a little bit easier to advertise than it does a car.  If I could do that for a living I’d probably snap someone’s hand off. Creating work for records and listening to music to find out what it is and how to represent it.

Sam: Do you think you’d still want to wait tables?

Micah: I don’t know, it’s hard sitting down all day. You get cold really easily, your eyes start to bleed after about four hours looking at a screen. I don’t really envisage that as being a great job but if you get a studio and you’re given the freedom, time and money to be creative away from a computer….but that’s highly unlikely, you’d probably have to snap stuff up in no time on the computer so maybe I’d still do a couple of shifts in the restaurant. I like to think I would but who knows.

Jez: What’s your favourite part of being a waiter?

Micah: Being active, it’s quite sociable. When you’re in there you’re chatting with your friends, your manager your colleagues.  There’s space to do that and to get on with your job, you help each other out and obviously you’re chatting with customers.  Where I work in Manchester city centre you get to meet people from all over the shop, I’m usually a bit nosey about where they’re from.  You get so many United fans from Northern Europe, Irish fans as well, that just come to watch the football.  It’s incredible how many people just come for a football game.  I get loads of people from the Middle East, Americans, Spanish, loads of students then I’m working with people with multi-cultural origins.  Is that the way you say that?

Rory: It’s more likely that the red sauce/brown sauce question divided the audience right at the beginning of the interview so anything offensive we say doesn’t matter.  People will already have dug in and decided weather to like you or not like you way before now.  Enough of exposing our purposes which is to offend the mind to reveal what’s in the heart.  Can you name and talk about one or two landmark pieces you’ve done that are particularly meaningful?

Micah: No.

Rory: Alright.

Micah: None come to mind, I’d have to trawl through stuff and go ‘oh yeah, I remember that, that was really good’.  The Carol Batton poem must be, I don’t know what it is about it that I need to have it visible. I just thought it was really good what she’d put even though it is a bit bonkers in parts, “beer pleases beer”, I clearly liked a drink, I still like a beer.  The Cornerhouse has given me a commission, it’s almost like she’d prophesied something.

Jez: Would you describe yourself as a prophet?

Micah: I don’t know, one who speaks out against the dominant culture.. or offers blessings? You feel like you’re saying something arrogant if you do.  I’ve been told some of my work has got that about it.  I don’t really concentrate on stuff like that although some would argue that if you’re aware of it you can encourage and hone it.  I don’t necessarily agree, if you’re trying to be in the right place it doesn’t matter.  I try to keep it simple.

By Micah Purnell – featuring a quotation by Mark Twain.

Rory: That’s a very difficult thing to do.

Micah: Keep it simple?

Rory: Yes. In any kind of creative practice.  By that I mean your life lived out on pieces of paper.  My point being that simplicity is easy to spot but hard to do consistently, if at all.  It’s apparent that there’s something in your approach or your influences or where you’ve come from that’s made you able to maintain a high level of simplicity in what you’re doing.

And that’s where our interview with Micah ended just before we ate him. He leaves behind a wife, two children a city called Manchester that is considerably worse off without him.  It’s very sad really.

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Addendum

With reference to the block of flats in Miles Platting Micah had this to say about the painting in which it features:

From left: my old block in Miles Platting (yes, that is a place name but I’d prefer to live in a place with a name like ‘Wheel Jane’ or ‘Come to Good’ as you can find in Cornwall).  I lived there just before I got married, so just over 8 years ago. I lived on the 11th floor – second from the top – facing the then ‘Commonwealth stadium’, now The Etihad (Man City) where the ‘B of the Bang’ stood – until it dangerously fell apart It was the highest sculpture in England.

I’ll start again,

From left: my block. Naylor Court – rough as it comes, people shooting up on the stairwells cars getting robbed in front of you, but my floor was an oasis of calm due to the huge doorman like dj smoker, took no shit and so every one kept clear of floor 11 – blessed :0)

I’ll start again,

From left:

My old bachelor pad,
The Manchester Wheel (ripping off London with no shame – gutted – no originality!),
The Manchester Cathedral – smallest in England – maybe UK. It was built as a church not a Cathedral but was given the title to make Manchester a City.
B of the Bang
The Betham tower – tallest apartment block in England or UK – bit like marmite here – people love it and hate it.
The Central Library – RIP, the building is still there and is lovely you can walk around the whole thing – perfectly round.  Think it’s getting turned into offices so o chance to see it’s inside beauty any more.
The Urbis RIP was contemporary art gallery now National Football Museum – good for tourism – I am a waiter! The spire on top of the urbis was a comment on what is the god of the times as it did not point up but towards the shopping complexes across the city.
Below – The River Irwell dividing Manchester and Salford.

This piece is a hand painted original replica (if that makes sense) by Alison Purnell.  The original also by Alison Purnell was created as a community piece and had people at the bottom with words representing a range of emotions experienced by other people who worked on the piece and those of the city. It sold and the money went to the Mustard Tree.

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Links

Micah’s Website
Interview with Micah by the Aesthetic Trust
What Is Normal?

Carol Batton – An interview
Carol Batton  – Official Poet of the Socialist Health Association
(Carol Batton also published a book in June 2009 called ‘Page Fright’.  At the time of writing you can pick up a second hand copy for about £80)

The Mustard Tree

Al Waller (Title Photograph)

All images used by permission.