Interview with Rugman as he Prepares for Iconink his latest show at the Ben Oakley Gallery in Greenwich
“I was just really hairy” laughs Rugman when I ask him where he got his artist name from “seriously, seriously hairy”. Hence Rugman and growing up in Glasgow he still uses his childhood nickname even now although he tells me he’s starting to use his real name, Anthony McEwan, a bit more.
It is however as Rugman that McEwans next solo show, his first in four years, will be promoted. IconInk is Rugman at his best, heavily influenced by the world of graphics, tattoos and comic books his work often pays homage to all three. The body of work he has created and which will exhibit at the Ben Oakley Gallery in Greenwich from 20th June 2014 features iconic celebrity images quite literally ‘inked’.
“There’s just so much I could do with this” Rugman tells me as he explains the series. The shape of the celebrity is recognisable, he has used images that are already well known, but the features have disappeared into a tattoo inspired inkfest. The lines are bold and black, clean like a comic and then in the background a bright splash of colour on which the image dominates. In his studio on the top floor of the gallery he has already created canvasses featuring the Queen, Jim Morrison, David Bowie, Audrey Hepburn and Madonna all in his unique style.
We talk a lot about tattoos, Rugman likes them and in his art they are an important feature. In the canvasses I can see he has used a lot of tattoo symbolism to “disfigure them in some way” often referencing what he describes as the “sailor jerry-esque tattoos from the 50’s”. Look carefully on each canvas and you might see the dice, or the lucky 13 or the Anchor, staples of the tattoo parlour back in the day. He’s even added tattoo symbolism to each of the individuals that are unique to them so his Audrey Hepburn piece has a ‘breakfast at tiffanys’ tattoo and his Queen image feature the words ‘God Save’ on it.
His interest in tattoos harks back to those days growing up in Glasgow when getting a tattoo was the rebellious thing to do, although now he says “it’s all gone a bit mainstream”. He cites the likes of David Beckham and other celebrities as evidence of the way that tattoos have become a lot more “accepted in society” but that’s just the way things are now he says. “I got into tattoos when I was younger because it was just the opposite, it was a sort of Fuck You attitude.”
Rugman tells me that growing up in the early 80’s, skateboarding, graphics and comic books were big influences on him. “I was a big collector of comics, 2000AD and Marvel, I was a massive collector. I collected them for about 10 years until they got thrown out when I left home”. Ouch I say, “Ouch indeed” he sighs. Comics for him were important “I’m dyslexic so in terms of buying comics I was buying them more for the visual content” he tells me. It’s that bold black line again that seems to pre-dominate, the sort often to be found in comic books.
He cites Andy Warhol and Lichenstein as artists who have also made a big impression as well as more modern day artists such as Mike Giant, Dave Kinsey and Ed Templeton. “I do appreciate art from the West Coast of America” he tells me. But at high school it was Warhol who had a particular impact, “I loved Warhol for the reproduction, I like silk screen printing and I think that’s where a lot of the stencil based stuff comes in, I remember cutting stencils from a very early age.” Looking at the body of work created so far for the show, it’s clear that stencil is still an important facet of his work.
McEwan moved to London 16 years ago, his Glaswegian accent is still there, recognisable but mellow and softly spoken. He came to study Textile Design at Chelsea Art School having initially studied Graphic Design in Glasgow and never left. Since graduating he has worked as a graphic designer in the textile industry and three years ago set up his own brand called ‘Rum Knuckles‘. “The name actually comes from my great uncle” he tells me. “He was a boxer in the navy who liked to drink and who liked to fight and actually did a lot of prizefighting, his nickname was Rum Knuckles.”
He seems excited about this upcoming show and eager to be in the Ben Oakley gallery, above which he has a small studio “I love it because it’s not sterile” he says of the space “you feel like you’re in an old warehouse and it brings the artwork out more”. He is also full of praise for the gallery owner “I’ve known him a long time and he’s always supported my work” he says of Ben Oakley himself.
In addition to showcasing his latest body of work he tells me that he also intends to paint outside a bit more, having taken quite a hiatus from the medium as he focused on Rum Knuckles his clothing brand. It would be a nice return to form as his pedigree is high, he contributed to both of Banksys infamous CANS festivals.
After the interview the next time we meet is indeed on the street, he is painting a shutter just off Brick Lane where a large crowd has gathered. His piece, a variation of the Queen portrait from his show is certainly attracting attention. He has blocked out the shutter with different multi-coloured backgrounds and applied his iconic image of the Queen to each one, complete with tattoos. It looks good and I wonder if he might just be getting the excitement back.
Rugman was interviewed on Monday 2 June 2014 at the Ben Oakley Gallery in Greenwich and then on Saturday 7 June 2014 painting on Grimsby Street near Brick Lane in Shoreditch. IconInks will be showing at the Ben Oakley Gallery in Greenwich from 20 June 2014.