Marking Your Territory

Nick Carson meets an artist bringing graffiti into the mainstream in Britain, and finds that everything he sprays turns to gold.

Graffiti: writing or pictures scribbled, scratched, or sprayed illicitly on a wall or other surface in a public place. The dictionary barely disguises its contempt for what is now gaining recognition as a remarkably creative art form: one that is struggling to keep afloat on a sea of distrust in the legitimate art world.

Street graffiti defacing public property remains justifiably illegal, but its unique style and exploration of an often-neglected medium – the humble aerosol can – is just beginning to scratch its fair share of respect. No small thanks are due to the phenomenal success of Arron Bird, a.k.a. Temper: the first British graffiti artist ever to be granted a solo exhibition, he has whipped up a storm in the contemporary art business.

Picture an eleven-year-old balancing on milk crates in the dead of night, adding the final touches to his first illegal masterpiece on the streets of Wolverhampton. Twenty-two years later, that very same individual has celebrities falling over themselves to get their hands on his work and has been well paid to spray his mark onto the likes of Saatchi & Saatchi and Coca-Cola.

Life’s too short

Chiselling a professional niche for such a frowned-upon activity seems challenging enough, but Arron also had to pull at the restraints of a working-class background, which continually threw up yet more hurdles. On the plus side, such social pressures have bred a pragmatism that has kept his feet firmly on the ground throughout his dizzying ascent to recognition: “It’s always hard to make a decent living from art, and graffiti is still not viewed as an art form. Naturally it was a hard decision to make to go into it professionally.” Conscious that all fame is fleeting, he still funnels all of his profits into a trust fund for his children.

Having been a gravedigger and a forklift truck driver, it seems a colossal task to have started painting for a living with no formal training whatsoever. Nevertheless natural talent seemed irrepressible even in the warehouse: Arron spent most of his time drawing on the boxes. “Too many people were telling me I should do something with my art,” he recalls, “but I never believed I was as good as people said.” Ironically it took a tragedy to jump-start his ambition: “Nine members of my family died in the same year. It all came at once, but it made me realise that life’s too short to be doing something you don’t want to do.”

Shades of perfectionism

This philosophy is brought home in Temper’s collection ‘The Good Die Young’, a series of portraits capturing twenty-seven iconic figures that, in his view, had a premature end to their sparkling careers. Sprayed freehand with a standard aerosol can – as with all of his work – the pieces demonstrate an incredible attention to detail that bears testament to the dedication, tenacity and unshakable pride in his work that have been at the root of the artist’s success in a previously non-existent market.

Even as an eleven-year-old experimenting with aerosols on buses and derelict buildings, the perfectionism that has made the industry prick up their ears and take notice shone through. “I’ve always put a lot of shading into my work, even in the eighties when flat colours were everywhere. I wasn’t satisfied with cartoon-style graphics: I wanted realism.”

Soaking up life

Artistic inspiration often comes from the most unexpected of sources, and graffiti art is no exception. “Something as mad as a door handle might inspire a different kind of letter form. You have to absorb life,” Temper elaborates, and when inspiration strikes its sense of urgency is unmistakable: “I feel it in my chest like a punch, then I have to paint it.”

Keen to keep his work fresh, original and from the heart, he steers well clear of extensive, self-conscious research into historical movements and great artists of the past. “I haven’t been trained in a certain style and I don’t want all of my paintings to look the same; it would stifle my creativity. If other people’s work goes in, develops and comes out in a different format five years down the line then that’s great, but you should never be too influenced by other artists. You need to do your own thing.”

Raw human instinct

Graffiti is widely equated with vandalism, but Arron turns a blind eye to such accusations. “At the end of the day the biggest company in the world [Coca-Cola] employed a graffiti artist to re-design their brand. Everyone’s got a comment about something they don’t understand. I haven’t always been as responsible as I am today but I was never out to upset or threaten people: I just wanted to paint pictures.”

Humans have been scratching marks on walls since the Stone Age, and Temper – while wary of condoning mindless defacement – links the urban art’s huge popularity with a deep human urge to express oneself. “Put a piece of paper and a crayon in front of a toddler and what’s the first thing he’ll do? Go and draw on the wall. With today’s laws things become more complicated, but people need to understand that it’s a natural instinct. I wouldn’t be here if I had never painted buses and walls in the middle of the night.” Some graffitists, Arron acknowledges, will intentionally vandalise public places. But tarring with the same brush allows no room for diversity: as he puts it, “graffiti isn’t an artistic movement, it’s a part of street culture. We don’t all think alike.”

Breaking into the market

So, the trail is blazing: what will it take for others to follow in Temper’s footsteps? Firstly, it’s not as easy as he’s made it look. “Kids are getting into it now because they see my success and think, ‘I can do that.’ Graffiti is as natural as drinking water to me, but I’ve spent ten years making a gap in the market for myself. I don’t think many people realise the amount of time and commitment I’ve put in.”

Only given time, it seems, can the niche swell to accommodate more talented youngsters in the future. “There’s no market for widespread graffiti art yet: it’s a very specialised thing, and one artist can’t make a market. I’ve never questioned the culture behind it, but it’ll take a good ten or fifteen years before it’s publicly understood. Hopefully I’ll still be around then to make sure it all goes smoothly.”

© Nick Carson 2003. First published on Channel 4’s IDEASFACTORY West Midlands

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