Wednesday, 20 June 2012

My Jealous Parent

In the lesser-known Brothers Grimm fairy tale ‘Iron Hans’, a young Prince is told to steal a golden key from beneath his mother’s pillow in order to set Iron Hans, an imprisoned Neanderthal man free. The Prince refuses on many occasions until one day, his courage builds and his curiosity can hold him back no longer. He quietly creeps into the Queen’s bedroom and takes the golden key from the very place that his mother dreams of him becoming a nobleman. This part of the Iron Hans story symbolises betrayal; the betrayal of the mother at a stage in a young mans life where he sees no other choice but to show her in no uncertain terms that she is no longer needed as his sole guardian in life and that from now on, he is in charge of his own destiny. Using his own knife, he has cut the proverbial apron strings.

200 years on from the first publication of ‘Iron Hans’, I read with intrigue the hidden metaphors and meanings embedded within the story rediscovered by American poet Robert Bly in his book ‘Iron John’. The trials and tribulations faced by a man on his pathway through life appear to be the same irrelevant of what time we live in – the coming of age folk tale that is Iron Hans looks to be as relevant today as it ever has been.

At this point in the story the Prince is a young teenager, roughly the same age as I was when I discovered graffiti, spray cans and Subway Art. From the first time I held a can and made that scrawly, drippy line on a garage wall in the lane behind my childhood house, I knew I was hooked. Bus rides to Brislington warehouse hall of fame, Dean Lane skate park and Barton Hill youth club fuelled my new found passion and soon I began to pick up the skills of the trade; sketching outlines, sourcing spray paint, mixing colours, and making my letters bounce of the wall – the initiation of becoming a graffiti artist had begun.
The graffiti scene is a notoriously difficult world to infiltrate but once accepted, a part of you will stay indefinitely. It becomes impossible to step onto a train without imagining it covered in bright interwoven colours that spell out your name. You can’t walk past tags on the High Street without decoding who it was that left their mark, just for you. Those Sparvar fumes will forever linger.

For a subculture that on the surface appears to concern itself primarily with freedom of expression and anti-authoritarianism, the graffiti subculture harbours an implausible amount of politics. Internal hierarchies, tuff wars, snobbery, angst and jealousy blight the scene and force its members to subscribe to a strict set of rules akin to the 10 commandments. For years I believed our way was the only way, that art history began in 1960’s New York (or perhaps even earlier in Philadelphia), that stencils were cheating and ‘Keeping it Real’ was paramount.

18 years after I made my first marks with a spray can the excitement of painting graffiti has faded. I question the rationale of writing the same set of letters, with the same spray paint, on the same walls, time and time and time again. The urge to create however remains as strong as it ever was. The problem is that simply changing my palette and trying out a slightly different style is no longer enough to keep me painting graffiti in the traditional sense.
Three years ago I became a father to my own son and with parenthood comes less free time. This is a fact. My graffiti painting days had become numbered and I found myself returning to my other, less time absorbing passion, photography. Once wife and child were sound asleep I would steal an hour or two from the night and venture out with camera, tripod and timer to capture traces of the city’s low-level light. But all too soon I missed the process of painting and so began to use these photographs as a new source of inspiration for works that I could produce at home; a new sort of work based on canvas. These paintings gained attention from a new audience, perhaps more attention than my street based graffiti had and in time I found innovative ways to sell these pieces to people who, much to my surprise and delight, were happy to part with a couple of hundred pounds for an original artwork that they could hang on their wall…
… and then it struck me. I had broken one of graffiti’s most important self-imposed commandments; ‘Thou Shalt Not Sell Out!’

Graffiti is like an over protective, jealous parent. It rears its young, teaches them hard love, dresses them up in its uniform and ensures its children have lots of friends to play with. But the minute a child decides that it is his time to move out, the parent will suddenly turn on him and will stop at nothing to strike the traitor down! It will call you names - ‘Black Sheep’, ‘Art Fag’, ‘Sell Out’, and will laugh out loud when your post-graffiti work is out on display.

Iron Hans, the Neanderthal man in the Brothers Grimm fairy tale told the young Prince that he must steal the golden key from under his mother’s pillow so that he can use it to set the wild man free. But this is my story and the time has come to release my own wild man and accompany him into a new place, a big place I am unfamiliar with; an enchanted forest of my own. The time is right for me to betray my own jealous parent.

‘Where is Iron John?’ is my first solo show in London and opens on 11th October 2012 in the Apricot Gallery, 16-18 Heneage Street, Brick Lane, E1 5LJ

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Music - Emotion - Youth

An early observation of the effects of music on a young man

In 2004 I began working for a youth inclusion programme called Education Unlimited at the City of Bristol college. This was a time when there were many short engagement projects being hosted for young people who were considered to be out of education, employment and training (often referred to as NEET) and a large proportion of my job was spent recruiting NEET young people from across the city and accompany them to these sessions, acting in a mentors role. One afternoon on returning from an outdoor survival day in the Mendips, I was sat in a minibus next to a 16 year old young man called Jim who was taking the chance to relax from the physically challenging day. Jim was a friendly and likable lad from a dysfunctional family on a hard estate in north Bristol; his mother was alcohol dependant and living with an abusive partner, his sister had recently moved out to a flat of her own and Jim did not have contact with his father. He had a physical disability resulting from cerebral palsy, but he was a resilient character that appeared outwardly confident and determined not to let such issues hold him back. His attitude was very much ‘in for a penny, in for a pound’ and he gave his all to the opportunities that came his way.

As we were nearing our drop-off point, over the radio came a song of which Jim was fond and he lent forward and asked the driver to turn the volume up. The song was called ‘How Come?’ by a rap-band called D12 (the lead vocalist of whom is better known as Eminem) and almost immediately Jims eyes closed and I watched as he quietly rapped along to the lyrics of the song.

“How come we don't even talk no more
And you don't even call no more
We don't barely keep in touch at all
And I don't even feel the same love when we hug no more
And I heard it through the grape vine we even beefin now
After all the years we been down
ain't no way no how, this bullshit can be true
We family and ain't a damn thing changed, unless it's you.”
(How Come? – D12, 2004)

An event such as this could have easily passed me by and blended into the mayhem of the rest of the day, but after seven years this powerful memory of a young man reciting such evocative words is still very clear to me. When Jim spoke those lyrics he did so with a passion that lashed out viciously and I could see that through his clenched hand, tight lips and closed eyes, he meant every single word.

I recall this event as I am beginning to think about how I might use music to work with a specific client group evaluating health and social benefits. I am inspired to work with young men of a similar age to Jim and explore the connections that are made between music that is familiar to them and various emotional states.

*Names have been changed to retain anonymity