Donk is an artist who has intrigued me for a while. His work can be found all over the East End. Plastered across all the usual spots along the back streets of Brick Lane and Shoreditch, it often fights for attention with other paste ups yet it always seems to come to the fore.
Soon to be exhibiting as part of a group show, Phantasmagoria, at the Well Hung Gallery, it represents a new step forward for the artist who has been gaining a reputation for his works on the street and who has been doing so since 2008.
A photographer by day, Donk has chosen to walk a different path with his work on the street. Still centred around his photographic skills, he creates images borne, not only of his own imagination, but also that of his son. In fact, it’s his son which seems to be the biggest inspiration on his work, featuring as he does, in so many of his images.
“Having a kid was a big point for me” he tells me. “I just really enjoyed being a dad, straight away, I just took to it immediately it was a big change for me and made me see the world differently.” That change led to a re-evaluation of what it is he wanted to do having worked as as a commercial photographer for a number of years. “I needed another outlet creatively and having a kid just opened up so many things for me. Once I had my little boy I started to create imagery that was about being a little boy, growing up and just playing around with ideas.” Donk the street artist was born.
Meeting up for the interview we decided to take a wander round to see what works we could find. Often weathered, torn or doodled upon, the posters are a combination of photography, graffiti and screen printing each piece is unique with a different hue or colouring. Eventually they become part of the fabric of the wall, part of the backdrop to the rustic streets of the East End. Popping down the backstreets of Brick lane to the likes of Toynbee, Fashion, Hanbury and Grimsby streets, this is an area that Donk knows well, he grew up in the area, a Londoner all his life.
The fact that his posters remain and take on their own character gives Donk a sense of satisfaction. We come across ones with slight rips or doodles yet for him this is fine, it all adds to the work. A number of the posters contain splashes of paint, it looks to some extent like its been vandalised but it hasn’t, the marks are intentional, all part of the uniqueness. Add some screen printing techniques and the unique look and feel of the images are born.
In fact it’s screen printing where he’s been half the night. Agreeing to meet outside Montys Bar, Donk is a little late “it’s the best time to do it” he tells me. The Print Club in Dalston is often a little bit quieter in the early hours of the morning. All the more time to perfect his technique and it’s a technique he has been honing to good effect as he continues the transition towards his life as an artist, a life that will soon be displayed on the walls of the Well Hung Gallery.
Donk Street Gallery
The image which has become one of the artists most recognisable is actually his son wearing pyjamas and a fancy dress native american headdress. “He just got up one morning and put it on so I took a few pictures and it evolved out of that. There was one image where he had just blinked, it wasn’t planned it was just one of those moments. I think what people like about it is the vulnerability theres a kind of nostalgia to it.”
Photography mash up featuring warriors on horseman and in medieval armour. Look carefully and you’ll see Donk’s son laying on the floor asleep in the foreground. “It’s a battle for an uncertain future” explains Donk. “I love the whole idea that we are just passing through.. once there will have been a big field where we are now”. The pink graffiti tags on the image also represent transience yet in an altogether more urban setting.
A man lying in a bottle, holding a bottle which also contains a man, a play on the repetitive nature of the British drinking culture. As we wandered, this was by far the biggest image we found, still attached to the wooden gates leading into a derelict yard just off from Hanbury Street.
The image of a seated tattooed woman was one of those opportunities that arose by sheer chance “I just met this girl and she had amazing tattoos including one of a boombox on her stomach and thought I just had to take pictures of her” says Donk. “I got her to hold onto the chair and swish her hair from side to side and there was this one image which was a slower exposure so that the hair covers her face.” In terms of all his images, this he feels is one that could be seen as the most potentially controversial. The hair covering the face which could be seen as a religious garment, the vulnerability of the pose and the fact that she is covered in tattoos. It’s an image that conjures up a lot of possibilities in terms of what might be happening. “It’s beautiful but there’s also something quite disturbing about it.”
Born out of Donks frustration with the housing situation in London and the fact that for many people getting onto the housing ladder is a real challenge. The house in the image is a model house assembled after falling ill and having to spend an extended period of time in bed. It is being painted by his son, “It’s a sentimental image but it’s about something important” he says. “A lot of us live in pre-war conditions sharing houses and things. It’s a difficult situation and it makes me wonder about how things are going to be for him when he’s older.”
A bit more playful, Westminster abbey has been turned into a spaceship. “I’m a big sci-fi fan” Donk explains. “One of the most amazing things that the church has ever done is to make these gothic cathedrals which to me look like spaceships, it seems crazy not to turn it into one. I like the fact that in some respects these structures were built to inspire you and to terrify you and they still have that power.”
The eyes of Donks girlfriend “it was a romantic gesture” he laughs. Paying homage to her Portuguese nationality, the image has been overlaid with a Portuguese tile pattern, known as it is for it’s production of tiles. Even the shape of the poster is in the shape of a tile.
A double exposure featuring a butterfly from the butterfly house at the Natural History Museum and Braithwaite Street in the East End of London “you wouldn’t believe how difficult it is to get a good shot of a butterfly” laughs Donk. The wings of are outstretched with the graffiti stained walls providing it’s pattern and the colour slowly fading out into a drip leading to the bottom of the image. Combined the picture represents mortality “it’s the idea of a limited lifespan” explains Donk. “Graffiti has a limited lifespan and the butterfly lives for about a month and I just thought it was an interesting parallel to explore between the butterfly and the existence of graffiti.”
The Humble Magnificent, Ghost Wizard and Ghoul
Although much of Donk’s work includes his son, the series of images that perhaps represents expresses this more than most is the series which shows him in magisterial poses wearing a variety of mystical costumes. Born from the dress up box of a young boy the costumes come directly from the child’s imagination. The names too, such as ‘The Humble Magnificent’, ‘Ghost Wizard’ and ‘Ghoul’ all originating from the mind of the young boy. “I totally rediscovered the art of playing and not worrying about things so much and just enjoying his really amazing imagination”.
Yet when taking the images Donk wanted to try and fuse the adult world with the child “I wanted to photograph them as if I was photographing something quite serious” says Donk. His technique, set up a light in the living room and put cbeebies on in the background “that was the only way I could get him to look at one point” laughs Donk. “I’ve got millions of pictures of him jumping around in these outfits but the ones I really wanted were these fixed quite serious ones.”