Interview with Street Artist ATM talking Birds, Acton and a Show at the Ben Oakley Gallery
We are sitting in Mary’s Cafe! It’s the sort of place that Alan Sugar would be proud. The sort of place where the losing team on the Apprentice goes to lick their wounds and contemplate what to say when they go back into the boardroom. It’s a good old honest greasy spoon and I’m sitting here chatting with street art sensation ATM over a plate of sausage, egg and chips having spent the afternoon wandering around the estates of Acton looking at art.
ATM is not your average street artist, he paints with a palette and brush and not a spray can in sight. He says that it gives him freedom “the pressure of working on the street is different” he says. The restrictions on time, the weather and any other limitations all play a part in ensuring that when he works on the street it’s quick… if you can call two to three days for each piece quick!
He paints birds! Big birds! It’s been something that he’s been doing for the past few years, expanding a passion that would normally be more at home in the studio on canvas. Now a lot of his work can be found on big walls on the street, not least in Acton where he lives. A quick tour around the area reveals no less than five impressive pieces, a Goldfinch and Jay in the grounds of a local school and a Grey Partridge, Barn Owl and Snipe on the walls of a local estate.
Working in conjunction with Acton Community Forum ATM explains “they’d just opened the W3 Gallery and wanted to have art on the walls of the estates they represented and that’s when I started painting the birds there.” The W3 as Actons only gallery was an important moment in the artistic development of the area and on the street it’s no longer just ATM that can be found. Works from Zabou, Weardoe, Carrie Reichardt and Sr.X can all be found nearby with World renowned street artist Stik currently in the process of painting the entire side of Charles Hocking House, a 70’s apartment block. When it’s done it promises to be one of the most impressive pieces of street art in the capital, not just in Acton.
Originally from Rochdale, he moved down to art school in Cheltenham prior to discovering that the sort of things they wanted to paint were at odds with what he himself wanted to do “it was very middle of the road painting inspired by French impressionism or whatever and I didn’t want to paint like that.” He left and finished his schooling in Sheffield before eventually finding himself in London forming a collective with a number of other artist in the early nineties called the ‘Anarchist Trouble Makers’.
It’s the initials of those three words that have stuck into what is now ATM, the tag with which he now announces himself even though the collective is no more as a cohesive group. “We wanted to have a social impact, you know art with a meaning, art that was connected to what was happening in the real world.” he says reflecting back. “We wanted art that was an antidote to the ironic, dis-passionate art. We wanted art that wasn’t ashamed to be emotional or committed to an idea or a purpose.”
Sitting here in Mary’s Cafe I find myself wondering what that time would have been like and I have to admit to being thrown, here is a man who paints birds, he doesn’t seem like the sort of man who would have at one point been part of an artist group calling themselves the Anarchist Trouble Makers. “We saw it as been a bit like the punk rebellion against stadium rock. There was this over inflated self regarding stadium rock and the punk thing was just a few people talking about real life.” His analogy is of course about the art of the time and not the music with topics including a show with Carrie Reichardt called 402 about inmates on death row as well as art against the Iraq War and environmental issues such as the wanton felling of trees by local councils.
It was from this time that ATM’s love of painting birds was born “they came out of my concern for the environment and my desire to make political changes, to raise awareness and to try and inspire people to really affect change so things are done differently.” In the present day that is never better expressed than on the council estate in Acton where a number of these birds can be found. It’s not that the birds make the place look better, they most certainly succeed on that account it’s in the fact that nature is being re-introduced to an urban space albeit through the paintbrush.
The birds on the street are not there without reason, the Goldfinch and Jay in the grounds of Berrymede School are there because they are local to the area and the fact that they are in a school is no co-incidence. “They are birds that can still be seen around the area and the paintings can help foster an interest and make children aware, the more kids are aware of things the more likely positive changes can happen in the future.”
Mostly though the birds he portrays are extinct or in danger. A barn owl on the side of Charles Hocking House and the Grey Partridge a few metres away in Hardy Court have seen their numbers plummet in the last 40 years on account of their habitats being displaced and pesticides and toxins being introduced into their food chain. “These were birds that not so long ago could have lived around here, when it wasn’t so built up” ATM told me. “They can live close to human habitation but they need fields and hedgerows so when Acton was little more than a village on the outskirts of London and more rural those birds would have been around.”
Further along around the corner on a pink background is a painting of a Snipe, with it’s long beak it is another indigenous bird no longer to be found. “It likes boggy meadows often near towns and villages, anywhere near rivers that haven’t been embanked or built over or drained. That’s happened a lot, it’s just a reduction in their natural habitat which is the main problem.” Acton of course would have been perfect as prior as to the encroach of the city it would have been known as a marshy area with what would have been the bubbling Bollo Brook snaking through. The brook is little more than a place name now having long since been covered over like so many of London’s former watercourses.
“People are just unbelievably positive and appreciative” says ATM when I ask him how people have taken to the street art around the area “They say thank you for doing it” . One chap remarked that he found it incredibly unlikely that his son would get into trouble if he was standing next to a big painting of a Snipe. “It creates a different atmosphere, if you’ve got pictures of birds it’s going to create a different ambience and it seems to have a positive effect on the way people think.”
“I’m doing what I can really” when I ask him if he thinks what he does is making a difference. “I’m doing paintings to help people think about these things. I am trying to make people aware that it’s a huge crisis we’re in, it’s a World wide crisis as well but it’s often much better to do something locally than to kind of get depressed about what you can’t do a long way away.”
ATM was interviewed in Acton on 9 November 2014 having taken me on a tour of the street art supported by the Acton Community Forum. His show ‘Love Birds’ took place at the Ben Oakley Gallery in Greenwich from 20 November 2014. For a more up to date feature on the work of ATM check out his mural on Coppermill lane in Walthamstow
Other Street Art in Acton