“I don’t think I actually deserve to be here” says my latest interviewee, Alexander Chappell, as he looks around the brick walls of London’s Stolen Space gallery. His work is hanging all around, pencil and ink portraits staring out, all incredibly detailed and all testament to the fact that he absolutely does deserve to be there.
The show, ‘Nobody, ‘ is his first solo show and it’s an ambitious undertaking. Featuring 12 portraits of graffiti writers, he first arranged for them to be photographed prior to recreating the image in painstaking fine detail using a combination of pencil and white marker. The final touch, once in their frames and ready to hang, being the tagging of the glass front of the frame by the artist depicted.
“There’s something strangely liberating” Chappell tells me, “about spending up to 30 to 40 hours creating an image, only to then hand it over for something to do anything they want with”. The resultant creation immediately becomes a collaborative effort, the tag ends up being prominent, emblazoned on the front of the work, immediately noticeable above all else and taking only seconds to produce.
The artists are all graffiti writers the artist has admired or known. Some he has known for a while from living around the area and having hung out in the same circles. Others meanwhile are friends of friends and others, contacts he has made in the development of the project. All, are people who have lived under an alias at some point, often known under a tag or an artist name whilst working, often illegally, on the street.
The difference between this group of artists going about their work and the image obsessed culture of today is a key theme behind the work. The artists featured have actually spent most of their careers out of the spotlight, a stark contrast with the image obsessed culture of today. “Here you’ve got this group of individuals who have assumed anonymity for most of their careers” he tells me. “They write their name everywhere but never show their faces”. It’s a far cry from today’s world of instagram and facebook where, for many, it’s about people knowing exactly who they are and creating a brand based on likes.
And this is where we were so taken with this particular show. The artists depicted are long time players on the scene. Many have honed their careers over years, from tagging and graffiti to graphic design and commissioned work. Their natural talent having developed through years on the street although those years will have often been anonymous ones, often operating under an alias and hidden from the view of the mainstream world.
Chappell has always lived around the area. He remembers the scene from when it was first starting to happen in the area. Then Shoreditch was a different place and he would hang out at the old Dragon Bar on Leonard Street at a time when Banksy was selling canvasses on the street for five hundred quid and when impromptu shows were curated by hanging art on the sides of abandoned pub walls.
His own foray into the world of the street was fleeting. Chappell would go by the name Twiy and might do the odd tag, character or paste up. He hung around the scene and got to know people but was never as involved as some of the more hard core characters. Now firmly a studio artist, he describes his time on the street as dipping his toe into the scene and certainly doesn’t choose to describe himself as either a street artist or graffiti writer, “I’ve got too much respect for them for that” he tells me.
Now Chappell combines his art with his business, as the founder of the London design agency Colt. Although these days that is very much his day job, I get the impression that the artist is still yearning to get out. Already he is talking about potential shows and indeed he talks about the difference between Alex the designer and Alex the artist. Each clearly needs an outlet into their own worlds of which this show is one.
The work on display as part of ‘Nobody’ takes us into the world of the street and the world of the graffiti writer. It reminds us of the public and hidden faces that many of these artists have had as they stare out from behind the tagged pane of glass. Here are artists who, in their own way, have helped to shape the scene as it is today.
Nobody by Alexander Chappell was visited on 3 November 2017 and Alex was interviewed on 11 November 2017. The show runs until 19 November 2017.
Alexander Chappell Gallery