What Is Pure Evil?

UPDATE: I had an error in this article. Pure Evil tells me that Lister bought a comic or two featuring The Joker right before hearing of Ledger’s death. Not a tabloid magazine. The photo that Lister used for his painting was found at a different time.

Bunny Fingers by Pure Evil at Saints and Sinners. Photo by RJ
Bunny Fingers by Pure Evil at Saints and Sinners. Photo by RJ

Here’s the second of my artist profiles based on the Saints and Sinners show at the St. Martin’s Lane Hotel.

Walking around Shoreditch and Hackney, Pure Evil’s work is almost impossible to ignore. He is undoubtedly one of London’s most prolific street artists, both in how much of his work is on the streets, and how varied the work can be.

PE’s work stems from a fear that something is just going wrong is the world. “I just kinda have this sense of a shit-storm coming, you know, all the time,” he said. In part due to this sense of impending doom, he spends much time researching its potential causes: from the power of multi-national corporations to Milton Friedman’s economic theories and groups like the Illuminati. When his reactions to his research emerge in his work, PE says they often get mixed up and come out as a sort of hodgepodge of fears.

Much of PE’s work parodies or plays on pop culture gone wrong. “I’m trying to summon the dark side of popular culture,” he said.

The PE persona comes from some of his early childhood experiences. When he was young, he would spend time with his cousins in the countryside. PE’s cousins had a lot of guns, and he used to walk around the countryside with guns strapped to his body. One day, his cousins gave him a shotgun and let him go out hunting for small game. While he was out, he “saw some rabbits and shot them,” said PE. “I didn’t think anything of it and then walked over and there was actually a rabbit that had been shot, and it’s that kind of thing where you go ‘what does that actually gain?’” Killing the rabbit made PE realize that death is real and that it can come so easily from something as simple as a gun. “[The Pure Evil tag is] the idea that this rabbit that I killed is now sort of undead and coming back to haunt me.”

Pure Evil's zombie bunny tag. Photo by RJ
Pure Evil

Years later, in the 90’s, PE ended up in San Francisco as a designer. Although he was more into skateboard culture at the time, he started seeing work on the street, particularly character graffiti, by artists like Twist and Reminisce. Their work inspired him at the time, but it wasn’t until after he was back in London and saw Banksy’s show at Cargo in 2001 that he started doing his own street art.

Pure Evil's Heath Ledger tribute. Photo by Pure Evil
Pure Evil's tribute to Heath Ledger. Photo by Pure Evil

A good example of both of these sides of PE is his Heath Ledger painting from Black Rat Press’ Big Issue Show. The painting, which measures 7 x 5 feet, depicts Ledger as The Joker in The Dark Knight. The painting came about as a result of a series of odd coincidences beginning with Anthony Lister’s painting of Ledger. According to PE, Lister was working at Elms Lesters when he learned Ledger had overdosed. Lister went down to the corner store, picked up a magazine featuring a photograph of Ledger comic featuring The Joker, and when he came back to the gallery, he was told that Ledger had died. Then, Lister painted his Ledger painting. Later, PE learned that his friend, a paparazzi, had taken the photo of Ledger in the magazine that Lister bought and used as a model for his painting. For PE, it was this series of odd coincidences that got him thinking about Ledger, and it shocked him that Ledger would put himself in that kind of a situation. Ledger wasn’t trying to kill himself, but it looked like he wasn’t exactly trying to stay alive either. From there, it was only natural that PE would make a painting, which many have said is his best piece to date.

PE is probably best known for his zombie bunny tag. In a few weeks, he’ll be doing a show in Australia, and the canvases there will be based on his tag. The inspiration for the images came from thinking of what he might paint on shutters: he wanted something both simple and varied. His sketches for that idea ultimately evolved into these new and different variations on his trademark tag.

Of course, PE is working on a lot of new work. He’s interested in “doing things that look like they could be from the 1860s” and work that is both beautiful and gruesome. He mentioned an old style of painting in Wales that made a beautiful pink color out of pigs’ blood as an example.

Besides PE’s own artwork, he also runs his own art gallery. The Pure Evil Gallery has work from PE, his friends, and any artists that he just happens to enjoy. Unlike most other art galleries, The Pure Evil Gallery is not all about the commercial aspect of having a gallery. It was inspired in part by The Alleged Gallery in New York, which closed in 2001. PE says that although his accountant would probably rather have him fill the gallery entirely with his own pieces, PE prefers it the way it is. Some of the shows might not sell anything, but they are work that he likes, and that’s what’s important.

Take the object that’s currently in the basement of the gallery. It’s a bit like a giant kaleidoscope of a televised image. How did the idea come about? According to PE, “there’s this guy that I’ve always known from the pub, who came in and he had like four pieces of mirror, he put his laptop face down, and said ‘look at this laptop through these four pieces of mirror,’ and it just looks amazing. So I said, ‘okay why don’t we do a bigger version of it?’”

Now, it has become something that PE plans to keep permanently in the gallery with changing images displayed inside it, including some psychedelic art in the near future.

The Pure Evil Gallery is at 108 Leonard Street in London. Saints and Sinners is at The St. Martin’s Lane Hotel until the 21st of November. Pure Evil’s show in Australia is at the Urban Uprising gallery starting December 3rd.