Artful Dodger: An Urban Artist with a Penchant for Social Commentary

This week we meet urban artist Artful Dodger and learn about his illuminated writing style and the murals he has been painting all over London.

How did you get into painting?

Art is something which I've always done. I remember that I used to draw stuff in primary school and it was a way of getting friends and getting people interested in what I was about. In terms of painting and wanting to go for it as a career it would have had to be in primary school when I was eight. My headmaster he did a presentation of large prints from artists like Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Cézanne, Da Vinci and I was blown away by these paintings. I thought wow, that is what I want to do; I wanted to be what they were and do what they did.

Why did you go in the direction of street art?

I wouldn’t call it street art.

Graffiti?

I first got into writing", because of the history and development of it in New York and Philadelphia, the original proponents called themselves writers, because they wrote their names. It was the media that came along later and called the movement graffiti to make it seem like something derogatory, something to get rid of, as a form of vandalism. And because the media has such a wide reach the term stuck.

DeadSpace, 2008 | Spray-paint & acrylic on canvas | 109 x 109 cm | £2,300

Why writing?

I was always interested in the creative lettering side of art, at school I would spend ages with a ruler and pencil making sure to sketch out my letters properly. In secondary school our art teacher tried to get us into calligraphy, we had pens and ink and so everyone would be flicking ink at each other and using the nibs as darts, so he said no more to it. But at the end of the class I told him that I was keen and that I wanted to do more. He sceptically gave me a few alphabets and loaned me some inks and said see how you get on with those. I came back a week later with a load of work and he was impressed by my efforts.

I would go to the library and get books on calligraphy. I was drawn to illuminated letters and managed to get some from the middle ages and I would copy those. A couple of years later I read about what was happening on the trains in New York, so on a subconscious level I made the connection between scribes making these illuminated letters on parchment to these kids in new York to writing their names on trains. I was the right side of teenage rebellion to have a lightbulb moment and thought I am going to do this, this is what I was born to do. I began going out late at night and it kind of went on from there.

What helped me stand out was writing my name in a signature style, I wrote in a gothic calligraphic style which got me instant recognition. I was getting my name up in all the places where other writers were using their regular hand style.

Going forward to the murals you do now. Take us through your creative process.

It starts with an idea. I carry a notebook and pen with me, I’ll pick that up before I pick up my wallet and keys when leaving the house in the morning.

Boba Fett, 2015 | Spray-paint on canvas | 100 x 100 cm | £1,800

It can be the lyrics in a song or overhearing a conversation, I will write what inspires me down and do a little thumbnail sketch. When I come across a suitable wall, I will pick a design which suits, one that’s appropriate for that space. Not just in terms of scale, but also timeframe, because some walls are easier to paint than others.

Is that because some are in a more central location so you need to be quick?

Yes and also the fact that not everyone is going to appreciate what I am doing. I think before people were concerned with "is this going to be a tag, a dub, or ugly graffiti or is it going to be something nice?" Those were the concerns, whereas nowadays people aren’t interested in how good it is they are just thinking "how is it going to affect the property value or this building?"

Over the last ten years there are more and more murals across London, especially East London. It seems a lot more legit and there are a lot more people commissioning the murals. What do you think has caused this shift in attitude?

I think there has been a definite split with what I would call writers and those who want to be considered artists. Some have come from a writing background and have a purist thing of using a spray can and nothing else, they figure everything must be freehand and if you are using stencils or masking tape then you are cheating, that sort of thing.

What do you do?

When I do street pieces I do them freehand, but for me, it’s about whatever works.. If using stencils, masking tape, taking tiles and putting them on a wall works for you and that is your thing then go for it.

How do you choose your subject matter?

I see myself as an urban artist with a penchant for social commentary. That is what drives me. Yes, I like to do geeky stuff for myself like my star wars paintings and stuff like that, but at the same time I like to do stuff that makes people think. I did one which was around about the time of the whole ‘Do-One Cancer’ campaign, so I did one which  said ‘Do-One Cancervatives’, which lasted about 24 hours.

So are those politically motivated pieces gone over quickest?

Yes, especially in Brixton. It's funny because someone had drawn a penis next to it and written “fuck Off” and they had left that, but they covered mine over completely.

What would you say has been a pivotal moment in your art career?

Lots of things. Doing mural projects with young people all over the UK & Europe, Being invited to paint a huge Star Wars mural live at the international ‘Star Wars: Celebration Europe’ event, in front of 28,000 people. But now it’s more the street stuff that I do. There was one I did of Princess Leia in Peckham a couple of days after Carrie Fisher died last year and the public response was outstanding. Though at the same time, it was a little mixed because someone called the police as I was doing it.

Did you get caught?

No. One thing I say is learn the rules before you break them.

Who is your biggest inspiration in art?

I’d say when I first started writing, Lee, Dondi, Phase 2, Futura 2000, a few of the old-school New York train writers were a big inspiration. Before that, there was the Swiss surrealist HR Giger and also Salvador Dali.

What gives you the most satisfaction about being an artist?

Being a catalyst, even if that is only on a small scale. Getting people to see things differently, doing something which makes people smile, or think. I remember one of my pieces from back in the 80’s. I did a wall of a youth club with a guy I used to write with, called Plazz. It was about 12 ft high and 60 ft across. A few weeks after, I was speaking to a friend of mine and he said he was running past it for the first time once because he was late for work. But he said even though he was late, he stood there for half an hour just looking at it. That is one of the biggest compliments I’ve ever had.

Nowadays, when I see young kids of various cultural backgrounds with their parents passing me by on the street, they will say "Oh look at that man, he’s doing something really good.” Beyond that, they will think, “Look, there is a black guy that is doing something that isn’t rapping, being a comedian, sportsman, or robbing people”. It is another creative aspect of what we can do as a people, even though I see what I do as being something for everybody, regardless of race, gender, or whatever. I still feel like there is a certain level of responsibility to people of African & Carribean origin because of the stereotypes that are out there. Most of them are not positive. So I like to create something out there that is positive, and has creativity and intelligence behind it. And people from different cultures will see an African guy who is doing something inspirational which is outside what is perceived to be the norm, and that’s a good thing.

Artful Dodger will be exhibiting some of his spray paint works on canvas in our Winter Exhibition.

RSVP for the private view here.