Tom: Hi James, I wanted to start by going back to school and your trained painting roots. You attended Coventry University and the Royal College of Art, and now have BA Hons and MA degrees to your name, how do you believe this teaching developed you as an artist?
James: That’s a good first question, and answering it will make a huge interview just by itself, as history, obsession and dedication to a subculture all mean a lot to me.
My actual trained painting roots began, not in art school as a student, but back in the old school, by English standards use of that word, in the first UK wave of the Hip Hop era. Way back in 1985 I was hearing Chuck Chill out live giving the New York City latest live on Capital FM and this is where it all began.
Then on Friday 18th April 1986 I was given Subway Art for my 12th birthday. From that point, every day, I would make at least one A4 transcription drawing, paper pieces or outlines whatever you want to call them, coloured in felt tips taken directly from its pages. I still have most of the drawings. For the whole of 1987 as a thirteen year old I continued this practice, during school lunch break and all evening whilst at home listening to Eric B and KRS 1.
In the summer of ’87 Henry Chafant and James Prigoff’s Spray Can Art came out. This was like the new testament. From then I drew from that to the sounds of Public Enemy. That same year I met Robbo, Dozez WRH, Set3, Fura and Up2, and got their hits in my black book and these tags became my tag style blue prints.
When I turned 14 I was still on it, drawing every day, shaping letters and forming pieces spelling different words in different styles with mixed mediums. I also did my first solo trackside in racked car paint. Before that, I’d only worked as an apprentice for my older friend Mark Cheesman, filling in, and looking out. In the summer of 1988 I got obsessed with street skateboarding and slowed down with the graffiti daily paper pieces.
But a year later, in 1989 I would tag up whenever I got the opportunity whilst skating, in Milton Keynes, Harrow in London, and places like that, it was Jessop on tour. I know for a fact I was the first tagger in Milton Keynes. I’d be rolling then pull out my Posca, Pentel or my 30mm with meltonium shoe dye, I’d hit those marble subways then skate off again. Pure rebellious energy to the max. I remember some skaters telling me not to tag but they then later became taggers themselves. Back then in the late 1980’s we called it tagging and would say ‘have you seen my new tag’ or my ‘tag style’. Back then we never said ‘hand style’.
In 1990, when I turned 16, I was accepted on a full-time two year B-Tec general art and design course in Luton. I had to take two buses to college, and two home. I hit them all. Art all day, bombing on the way home, street skating every evening, living the life. It was then I read Keith Haring’s authorised biography and saw how he used the street art to inspire his gallery shows, and from then I specialised in painting on canvas.
During my B-Tec in 1992 I was accepted to and study at Coventry University BA in Fine Art. I started by degree at the age of 18 at which point I’d already been developing as an artist for 6 years. Going to Coventry was amazing as I no longer had to live with my parents, who wouldn’t let me keep spray paint in the house or go out all hours. Now it was on, any time any hour. Being an art student was great cover for being a full-time graffiti writer outside of college hours. I was the new Coventry King bombing prolifically and street skateboarding most nights, simply jamming out .
In my the first year at Coventry I finally saw Style Wars, which I’d never managed to catch before. The library also had the 1983 catalogue Graffiti Kings from Rotterdam, so I took all this in, I carefully cut out the full page advert for a show at Kladfled Perry Gallery, New York, from Art Forum. The show featured New York subway masters; Lee, Futura 2000, Daze, Lady Pink and Crash doing paintings on canvas and this gave me my biggest inspiration and hope.
In the second year of my degree I started to keep a closer eye on current painters in the UK gallery scene, such as Fiona Rae and Peter Doig, whose work I saw when the college took us all up to Liverpool and to London when Doig was up for the Turner prize. Being at art school was starting to have a big influence in my direction by exposing my eyes to these artists, who otherwise I would have over looked. Fiona Rae had the boogie down Bronx energy in her paintings back then, even though she was a London Gold Smiths college graduate. I was very influenced by her early 90’s abstracts and this inspired me to paint my own on a large scale. In my third year I applied to the Royal College of Art but didn’t get an interview. My degree final show was 5 large bright abstract canvases, very bold and bright with tagging rhythms in areas.
After graduating in 1995 I moved straight in to a open plan studio in Coventry City Centre and carried on painting. My goal and dream was to get into the Royal College of Art to study an MA in Painting. In 1997, after a second interview, they offered me a place and I moved to York Way in London. I would get the tube in from Caledonian Road daily, on the Piccadilly line to Gloucester Road, then skateboard up to the College. At this time Zonk DDS was the most prolific all city train and street writer with great style as well.
The Royal college was amazing. In the first year you would have Chris Ofili and Peter Doig coming round hanging out, talking about your work and their own. In the second year Ofili won the 1998 Turner prize, the first painter since 1986, and I only saw him once after that, but Doig became my personal tutor and remained a huge influence throughout my career.
Your website makes mention of artists such as Peter Paul Rubens, Vincent Van Gogh, and Tal R. Were these the calibre of artists you studied whilst completing your degrees? And how have they influenced you, is it one of content, technique or something more?
In 1996 I first chose to make paintings using the structure and layout of Peter Paul Rubens, this was my own project and obsession. Whilst at the RCA I continued this pursuit in my first year. In the second year I visited New York for the first time and after that I made paintings influenced by Picasso, and Gorky, mixed with Nema TPG letter forms and colour schemes, and Bronx roll down gates by bombers like Fore who was very up at the time.
In 1999 I graduated and moved into my East London studio where I still paint today. Vincent Van Gogh didn’t become an influence until around 2001, until I started studying his drawing ‘Canal with washer woman’. And I first saw Tal R ‘s amazing huge canvas of Motor bikes on a perspective horizon at Victoria Miro Gallery in 2002 and have been a fan ever since.
Some of my favourite examples of your painting can be found within your Subway Fiction series. I know the early graffiti scene was a massive influence on you when you were growing up, but what made you start re-appropriating Martha Cooper’s photos of New York?
I always use subway train paintings (mainly 70’s 80’s New York) as inspiration in one way or another in every piece I paint on canvas, no matter how subtle it maybe. The first painting I did from Martha’s was with Stella Vine in 2005, we did the ‘Dream’ on the East River, shot with Shy 147, Lady Pink, Doze, Crash, Duro, etc jumping off the ledge. After that I painted from her shot of ‘MIDG’ over St Ann St taken in1983, adding my own fictional fantasy window down whole car ‘Hell Express’. It’s a form of nostalgia and an expression of my lifelong love of Martha Cooper’s photos in ‘Subway Art’.
Were there any artists from this period that stand out to you as ones you admired?
Seen UA, his Hand of Doom (1980) always drove me crazy. Tack FBA the Sab Kaze car and Noc 167’s in Style Wars (1982) also made a huge impact.
What was it like getting to head over to New York for the filming of Bomb Chaser, part of the larger Dots franchise, in particular how did you enjoy the opportunity to spend some time with Martha Cooper?
Going to New York for Dots was immense. It made my life feel complete. The most exciting day of Dots filming was meeting Blade then Martha Cooper in the same hour and touring the Bronx, going on the roof near where she shot Seen’s United Artists back in the 80’s. I never thought I’d see that view for real with my own eyes let alone with Martha the legend there.
Have you got any plans to extend this series with new works? And if so, are there any photos in particular you would like to paint?
So far there are five large canvases painted from Martha Cooper’s Subway Art photographs and one from the photo she took for me at St Ann Street whilst filming Dots in November 2010. It features a clean train, no vandalism in sight. I’m sure I’ll return to do another painting at some point, maybe next year. This year I’ve got other plans working with a different photographer.
Alongside these graffiti influenced pieces, much of your work has a comic book and horror film feel with King Kong cropping up on numerous occasions. Are there any books, films or other influences, like your love of music and DJing, that you think are particularly important to the development of this style?
My style is inspired from comics themselves and I often sketch up directly from them, plus my style is in the spirit of Cliff 159’s Silver Surfer and the Thing etc. I have collected original 1970s comics for years and I use them, I don’t use represses or online pictures from the net. Geeks often complain, sending me images from represses, moaning I swipe. I draw by eye like in a subway yard, scaling up from hard copies, like Cliff 159 my hero. I have used these comics so much that they are all falling to bits, proper brown, old, and rotten copies.
The majority of your work tends to be on huge canvas’s. Why paint on such a large scale and how big does your studio need to be to fit them all in?
The subway cars that inspired me were large and panoramic, and graffiti is big and bold so my canvases are like that. My London studio is about 400 sq feet in size with a high ceiling and when I was in Sweden between 2007 and 2009 I had a disused church hall that was huge.
How long does it take you to paint on of these huge pieces and do you paint one at a time or do you work on a few pieces simultaneously?
I always paint one at a time. The most detailed one took me about 4 or 5 hours a day, painting for about 20 days of actually working. I layer most of the painting twice and some areas three times. All the Subway Fiction paintings took me about a month each taking into account days off etc.
I vaguely know the story about Charles Saatchi buying some of your work. Can you tell me a little more about what happened?
Charles brought was my huge 500 cm long ‘Horrific’ painted in 2002 for ‘Horrific Paintings’, my first solo show. But he brought it two years later in 2004 when he saw it at ‘Born Eat Shit Fuck Die’ at Rockwell in East London. The next week it was hanging in the Saatchi Gallery. After that he came to my studio and brought ‘Torso in The Attic’ 2004. In 2005 he brought ‘Side Street’ and that was that.
Whilst on the subject of fame and fortune, what led to your appearance on The Apprentice?
They just rang me up one day, asking me if I would be interested, I said yes, so they came and interviewed me at my studio, and I got chosen for the final 5 artists.
Did you enjoy the experience? And would you do it again if invited?
Yes it was great fun, but I’d rather it was me on there repping the real deal, than some new fake fairy flyers taking all the parts in the show.
How do you feel it affected street art’s perception in the public eye? Do you think it is now seen more favourably despite the bumbling efforts of the two teams to hold a gallery show?
No not massively. I don’t think it changed many people’s minds. Street/urban arts have generally always been popular.
I don’t suppose Sir Alan followed Saatchi and bought any of your work?
No, Sir Alan didn’t buy.
Finally, what are your plans for the future?
I am going to be painting from some of Keith Baugh’s Early New York Subway Graffiti photographs (1973-1975) from his book of the same name. Keith and I are both two English guys crazy about New York subway graffiti from back in the day. It’s a two-artist show that will feature new works from both of us.
Photos by Tim Hans