Mike Ballard, perhaps better known to graffiti and street art fans as Cept, is one of the UK’s most fascinating artists or graffiti writers. His artistic output includes oil paintings, video art, sculptures, screenprints, graffiti, murals and highly conceptual installation projects. Tim Hans met Ballard at his London studio earlier this year for our continuing series of photo-portraits of artists by Tim, and I asked Mike a few questions over email.
RJ: What are you working on at the moment?
Ballard: I’m working on a new series of paintings in oil, a new future primitive series, darkly psychedelic baroque hip hop with cosmic nomad overtones. They will form part of a new installation with video and sound, hoping to show it next year, as there is a lot of work to do.
RJ: What is the separation between Mike Ballard and Cept?
Ballard: The work I make under Mike is more patient and considered, it’s the opposite end of the scale from the work as Cept. The work on the street is instant, mostly made up on the spot and executed within a couple of hours, I’ve painted so many pieces, it’s like I’m on auto pilot most of the time, I rarely think about what colours i’m using, unless doing characters, I let the letter pieces flow and see what happens, I rarely draw outlines these days and have started to go straight in with the final outline first. Cept is very impatient, get it done, let’s go to the pub and look at the photos, whereas with my studio work I’m in for the long haul, using brushes and oils, mixing colours, it’s a world away from graffiti, the work on canvas is a lot more considered, it’s a new world to me painting with oils, so I’m learning all the time, new techniques, different pigments, it’s like getting into graffiti again, I’m super buzzing about it, want to know everything. The studio work allows me to expand my artistic ideas beyond graffiti, but maintaining a sensibility that comes from my years of painting on the street.
RJ: In mainstream contemporary art, there seems to be this idea that the writers who get into highly conceptual art leave graffiti behind and “graduate” from writing, but artists like Barry McGee and yourself keep a foot in both worlds. What continues to appeal to you about your work as Cept that you don’t get from your work as Mike Ballard and vice versa? Is it a false dichotomy to position writing and conceptual painting, video, sculpture and installation art as different things?
Ballard: Once you’re really into graffiti, I feel there is no stopping, serious writers don’t give up, it goes in waves, sometimes I’m painting a lot outside and sometimes not, but never falling out the game, I’ve been painting for too long to ever stop or turn away from graffiti, what I’ve seen of late in London is a lot of people claiming to be street, coz they done a couple of roller pieces in the wick, painted on the street for 2 minutes then claim to be making some big transition from street to gallery, these are just people who make money not art, and have no integrity in what they do, it’s simply to be famous and get some money, they don’t graduate from writing, they use it as some kind of badge to make them seem cool, and have no presence on the street anymore.
Graffiti is a massive part of me, it is who I am , how I grew up and the friends I have made, I get a lot of satisfaction painting graffiti, it’s instant, in your face, burners all over the place, the whole action of painting a huge piece, it can’t be beat, it’s a feeling like nothing else, where as completing a painting on canvas is a different feeling, it’s again one of satisfaction and challenge, but more personal, a bit more shy and reserved, a whole different context of making stuff, bipolar.
I think it’s how you pull these things together and again in what context you experience them, I incorporate all these elements into my installations, it’s not that they are different things, divisions but whether they have the artist’s style and ideas running throughout the different mediums, to form one big piece of work from many elements.
RJ: What is the riskiest artwork you’ve ever made?
Ballard: Riskiest in terms of shocking? or riskiest as in most crapping myself? If it’s the latter, probably doing a back jump on the New York subway.
RJ: What’s the strangest dream you’ve had recently?
Ballard: I always have strange dreams, but telling them to people is like looking through someone else’s holiday photos, a bit boring, you can’t convey the feeling of the experience…
Photos by Tim Hans and courtesy of Mike Ballard