Mysterious Al | artist and illustrator

TF: This is probably a good opening point to get out of the way: you have never claimed that what you do is graffiti, whereas a lot of the people who’ve profited well from selling artwork over the past few years have labeled themselves that way. What are your own personal distinctions between true graffiti and the guys who are doing street art?

Al: Oh dude, Where do I start? Although I’ve always been massively interested in graffiti and draw a lot of my working process from its methods, I’m about as far away from a graffiti writer as you can get. Real graffiti artists are infinitely more hardcore than me and hold down crazy skill in intensely hot situations and spots. I occasionally paint walls and sometimes they’re illegal, but for me it’s all about the social aspect of this… Painting with friends, doing a good spot, then going for a beer… That’s what I like. I don’t see the point in street artists that aren’t up everywhere fronting like they’re hardcore. Everyone can see through that shit straight away and its embarrassing.

I totally agree with you – and I think that’s why your work has stood the test of time compared to lots of the fly-by-night guys who have made some quick money and then disappeared when people realised they weren’t what they were claiming to be.

What’s your current perspective on the street art scene in London at the moment? Is there anyone you think is doing something particularly exciting or different?

Everybody does things for their own reasons, and that’s fantastic. Personally though, street art in London bores me to tears. I’ve been almost completely out of the loop with what’s going on here since the wheat-paste invasion of 2006. It got so bad that I actually started seeing stencils on wheat-pasted posters on the street! I mean, what’s that all about? Really? What also confuses me is everybody trying to make witty jokes or have satirical remarks in their work. Stencils of children juggling grenades and all that shit… There’s one artist doing that style well enough for everybody, so I’m more interested in people creating art for art’s sake.

I feel that you were really one of the people who pioneered the street-level art scene. Back in 1999/2000 or so, when we first got in touch, your work and the things you were doing with your website really stood out to me. No-one else was doing that. Did you realise you were onto something new then?

I think what’s really worth bearing in mind is that when we all started that stuff, nobody had coined the phrase ‘Street Art’ yet. There were lots of amazing artists, illustrators and graff writers to draw influence from, but Street Art as we know it didn’t exist. I trained as a Fine Art painter (ridiculous, right?) but became more into drawing and creating stuff more spontaneous than ‘proper’ painting.

I was looking at American artists like Futura, Phil Frost, Barry McGee, Andy Howell and UK guys like Will Barras, Mr Jago and Kid Acne. For artists like myself, Chimp and D*Face, making work on the street just seemed like a logical progression from the work we were making at college or in our studios… We had no agenda, which made us very different from the kids who are doing this today.

To me, what you guys were doing back then was more akin to what Cost and Revs were doing in NYC in the early ’90s. As a genre of art, it certainly wasn’t as socially acceptable as it is now: because of the saturation, the general public don’t look twice at most things they pass in the street today. Which brings me onto another topic: Finders Keepers. Putting in time creating artwork and then having pop-up open-air events where people could grab their favourite pieces for free… For 2003, that was ahead of its time.

Finders Keepers was the brainchild of PMH, who discussed it with D*face and myself over one of our many, many nights of drinking. We’d all been doing bits and pieces on the streets at this time and a lot of other artists had started coming up, so PMH came up with an idea for an illegal street-art exhibition. Looking back on everything I’m amazed how far we got with absolutely no planning whatsoever. We invited a load of artists we knew by email to come meet us in a boozer in East London, then went on a mad drunken mission of scouring the streets looking for… Well, rubbish, basically. Old boxes, oil drums, broken computers, fridges… We collected all this shit, took it home, decorated it, then met up again a few days later to ‘exhibit’ it.

We’d emailed everyone we knew and got people to spread the word to their friends and colleagues. ‘Free Art show, location TBC’. That was on the Tuesday, or something. We really had no idea how this was gonna go down, but we found a suitable disused shop-front on a Paul St, a quiet street in east London. We mailed the artists and the public at the same time early Friday afternoon, and by 5pm people started appearing and climbing all over the place hanging work and partying. The emails must have spread like crazy because we must have had 300+ people at our first event. They bought booze, sound systems and we had an illegal street arty in the middle of Shoreditch. All the work was given away at the end. It was a massive success.

Over the next few summers we ended up doing several more of these events across Europe, and I still occasionally see some of the artworks doing the rounds on eBay for ridiculous money. How we managed to do this before Twitter or any social networking sites existed still amazes me.

How long did Finders Keepers run for?

I think we did events for two or three years, but really nothing for me ever came close to the first event. Its success was completely unexpected.

I feel that everything kinda blew up in terms of street art and people making a decent living from it around 2007, 2008… and slowly as more and more people started trying to do the same thing, it got over saturated. Maybe I should name names, but some of the absolute horseshit that was being priced for auctions was ridiculous. I’m sorry, but seeing a stencilled print selling for 50 times the price of an original Futura or Seen piece… that’s ludicrous to me. What are your feelings on that kinda thing happening?

The thing is, a lot of people who are into the work of the older masters of the scene aren’t the same people who actually BUY art. There really was a lot of stuff doing the rounds that didn’t really do it for me either. But I think that goes back to this agenda thing I mentioned earlier. I’m much happier to see artists making art that they’re passionate about rather than trying to tick boxes. That’s why I really like artists who show a real natural progression in their work and don’t just turn on their heels and paint a picture of the queen wearing a balaclava with a rocket up her ass.

How do you find it balancing your passion for creating artwork with the job of having to make money to survive? Do you find you have to compromise yourself much when you’re working for a client?

I’ve been very, very lucky to have worked on some amazing jobs with some really great brands. In that respect, I’d never put my name to something that I wasn’t happy with. As with all creative collaborations there will always be a little bit of compromise with things that can’t be done. Adidas wouldn’t allow me to put an inverted crucifix on my Superskates, and some of the original characters I did for a Yahoo! campaign were deemed unsuitable – But I never sign anything off until I’m 100% happy with it.

Like everybody else I have to earn a living. To me, ‘selling out’ is when you’re handing over your shit for a giant pay-cheque and losing control of it. Doing jobs that I like in my style and getting paid for it is amazing, but I also do soooooo many mundane ‘bread-and-butter’ graphics jobs that are completely separate from my character stuff… I just don’t tell anybody about them.

Are there any agencies or individuals who’ve really helped you out along the way? Any particularly fun projects?

Oh man, So many people and clients have hooked me up. Yourself and Russ at Spinemagazine for giving me my first job after University. You didn’t actually have a job for me to do so I sat on a bin drawing and essentially running a softcore porn site. That really gave me a chance to get on with my shit and I am so completely grateful to you both. The guys at POKE! agency really looked after me and hired me for some great illustration gigs whilst I was starting out as a freelancer, so I owe them a hell of a lot, too. My boy Tristan Eaton in NYC is always involving me in his incredible projects with THUNDERDOG and gives sound transatlantic advice when I freak out about shit, so big him up, also. And finally my family at Goodhood, Word to Mother, D*face and everybody around me that helps each other out on a daily basis.

It’s all about keeping good company and having people around that inspire and are reliable.

What made you want to make the neon sign? At that time, I hadn’t seen anything like that. I remember you going through hell trying to keep the thing working!

There’s a scene in Wong Kar-Wai’s ‘Chung King Express’ where one of the main characters girlfriend leaves him. He turns to drink and narrates: "After she left, I talked to the bottles". I always loved that scene and found such poetry in those words, so my bottles were directly influenced by them, the stark neon feel of Hong Kong, drinking and having girl problems.

Your work for Volvo was one of the few times I noticeably turned my head to see what had gone past when those ads were on the buses. Break down how that project went for you.

The Volvo campaign was one of those jobs that just snowballed. One of the directors of the commercial had seen my work and contacted me through Nelly Duff gallery, who acted as my agent. I got asked to go and spend three days painting a 210ft wall in Bilbao, and took Solo One and Matt Sewell along to help me. Solo is an unbelievable painter. So fast and ridiculously on point. He really held it down when we got hit with an unexpected colour change the day before we started!

The whole experience was great – we stayed in a stoosh hotel and everyone was into what we were doing and really looked after us. I really had no idea in what capacity the ad was going to be used, but the shot of my work became quite a focal point and was used everywhere. My mum got really excited and phoned me every time she saw it on a bus, which was great at first but got annoying after the third day.

Your project with adidas obviously received a lot of attention. How did that project come about – and what was it like working with the US design team there?

Well, to me a shoe is one of those seminal projects that really means you’re getting your shit straight, so it was an absolute honour to work with adidas on those.

I was working with ex-CT design-mogul C-Law, so it was very useful to have a friend on the inside. He hasn’t really spoken to me since the project though, so I think I annoyed him. Adidas were incredible and let me do some very cool things like glow-in-the-dark and all-over-print linings. I have a habit of trying to sneak inverted crucifixes into as much of my commercial work as possible, and one of them actually made it to the very last stage of production before somebody spotted it. I had to do the footbed graphics again which made C-Law pretty angry.

Your Eastpak bags also caught a lot of attention. I saw a lot of people with the backpacks.

I was approached by Eastpak many years ago to make all-over prints for their various rucksacks and apparel. Eastpak weren’t quite as open-minded as adidas were so there were A LOT of design changes. Towards the end I actually ended up losing it a bit with the colourways, so did the most disgusting orange / red / black design as some sort of defiant pisstake. I thought Eastpak were joking when they signed it off, but they clearly know what they’re doing as it turned out to be a massive success. I even spotted one on the O.C. which means that technically I’m in with that Mischa Barton.

I remember flicking through an issue of Sidewalk magazine and seeing your Enuff graphics – and thinking how well your artwork suited skate decks as a canvas. A lot of artists seem to have their existing work reappropriated for that platform, but your style really works on that dimension.

Enuff have been an absolutely amazing client – they literally let me do whatever I want. My first series with them had crazy fluro colours and the second glow in the dark! How cool is that? I’m currently working on my third set of decks with them and these ones are gonna be the best yet. The most super-hardcore time-consuming illustrations I’ve ever done. I almost regret starting them because drawing them makes my eyes hurt… You’ll see what I mean when they drop!

What are you working on at the moment? What are your plans for the rest of 2010 and beyond? Anything exciting on the horizon?

Man, this is already shaping up to be a big year. I’m involved in design and art direction for a couple of music acts and am working closely with them on artwork for their packaging and visuals for their live shows… I can’t mention them here but trust me, if you go to any festivals this year you won’t miss them.

This year I’m also preparing to give my artwork a BIG push. I’ve been quietly observing from the sidelines for a while, and am now working on a new body of work based around the Maesoamerican calendar and 2012 doomsday predictions! Expect a solo show towards the end of the year…

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  1. I was just about to write a comment when I noticed a giant fake palm tree outside my office window. It kinda looks like Al could have made it!

    Anyway. For such a lazy drunk pervert Al has sure turned out some great work. Big up ya bad self Alex!!!

    Chris – I was living in a castle lat week, and in my room was a copy of i-D from 1999 – there was a photo shoot and you were one of the models!

    I saw Eugene a month ago – Big Cheese has been launched here in Germany by an ex-neo nazi!!!!!

    Greetings from Berlin

    CHIMP

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