Choka Bloc catches up with street artist, Pure Evil in his self-titled Old Street gallery. We put the kettle on and chat police scrapes, how to set up a gallery without chicken-ing out and how street art influences the housing market.
CB: Would you like to start by telling me how you got the gallery started up?
PE: I finished college, went to live in California, noticed a lot of the graffiti out there. I started to miss London so I came back to Shoreditch to hang out with friends. I noticed a lot of stencil stuff in this area, so I started doing stencils myself, going out at night and doing them and getting excited about scrapes with the police and not getting caught; kind of getting away with it. I started doing a few stencils on canvas. I put one into a show that Banksy was doing; he bought one of my canvases. I then put a print out of an image that he did. I started going back and forth between California and London. When I went back to sign the prints on the way to America, I got stopped and had my visa revoked so I was no longer allowed to go back to California. So I had to get to work seriously and this idea that art will set you free was in my head. I put all of my energy into creating prints and canvasses and artwork. I put out a few prints that sold, did a solo show, which generated enough money where I could start to think about doing another similar show, and I found out about this space. I emailed a bunch of my friends, saying, “Does anyone know of a space that I could use in this area for a couple of weeks?” That was years ago; I haven’t left since.
So I’ve turned this space into a street art gallery, which features my own work and other street artists as well. The balance is working now because I’ve got a lot of collectors who buy my work and my prints, so that’s a solid base to work on, and then I can do shows with other artists in the gallery.
CB: Is running a gallery a particularly profitable business, or is it more for the love of art?
PE: I wouldn’t say a gallery is that profitable, really. I would say being your own artist is profitable if you’re successful. If you’re not successful and you’re an artist, it can be very expensive. If I was just running the gallery and I wasn’t actually producing my own work, the gallery probably wouldn’t exist. You have some months where, maybe, you sell £3000 worth of art in a show with a Venezuelan stencil art collective, so once you’ve paid them their seventy five per cent commission and you’ve deducted VAT, you’re left with probably about £750. So, with a gallery that is in this area, you’re looking at paying quite a lot of rent. You have to be able to cover a certain amount of rent, business rates, phone bill, electricity and all of this stuff.
The best way to open up something like this is to do it completely backwards, not to think about all the expenses that are going to put you off. Just get into it and then work out all the rest of it afterwards. I had a great piece of advice from a gallery owner. He opened up a gallery in New York called the Alleged Gallery. His name was Aaron Rose, and he said, “All you need is the space. Just paint the walls, pay the electricity bill, get some friends, do a show, and then you’ve got a gallery.” The rest of it is just the technicalities. If you had to go and write a business plan about doing all of it, or if you went to Amazon and bought a book, like How to Start and Run a Contemporary Art Gallery, you’d be so scared off, because they’d say “You need £100,000 to re-model your gallery, and you need this and you need that…” It can be quite daunting, so the best thing is not to think about all that stuff. Just do it and worry about all of that stuff afterwards.
CB: So it can be quite do-able and straightforward to run a gallery?
PE: Yeah, it can be do-able. But you have to work very hard. I work seven days a week and I’m constantly waking up in the middle of the night, thinking about things that need doing. You’ve got to be able to work with screen-printers, work with artists. There’s a certain element of artist development that goes on as well, getting a relationship going with an artist, getting a discussion going with them, seeing their work, seeing what they’re doing. But in the past, if you look at, say, the sixties, you’d have pop-up galleries and the owner of the gallery would have to do studio-visits. We don’t really need to do studio-visits. We just go for a walk in the street and have a look around and see what’s going on. The studio is pretty much out there, so you could be looking at great new artists on the way to work. We did one show with an artist called Pablo Delgado. He’s a guy from Mexico who came here a few years ago and started putting up great work and got noticed. I started seeing some of it and going online, doing a bit of research, trying to find out about his work from various angles, through people with Flikr pages, Tumblr or whatever.
CB: Is Pablo Delgado relatively up and coming?
PE: Yeah, he’s definitely up and coming. He’s entered that transition of going from doing art work on the streets to doing great gallery shows and being able to come up with fresh ideas that are different. He’s not just trying to reproduce what he’s done on the street. He’s not just doing little five inch high prostitutes with little shadows just like he does on the streets. He’s doing installations and thinking about mirrors, about different angles and about creating a certain atmosphere when you come into a room. Something like downstairs in the gallery; it’s sort of like a hybrid between a gallery space and a street. You can imagine the pieces downstairs functioning quite well outside. It’s not a sterile white space. We’ve tried cleaning it, but it’s not very effective.
CB: If you could buy any one piece by him, what would it be?
PE: I don’t know. I’m not really that interested in owning the pieces, I’m more interested in presenting them in front of people. I don’t really collect a lot of artwork. I kind of accumulate it. I’ve got a whole gallery full of it, so I live with it day to day. So there aren’t really pieces that make me go “wow, I really want that!” I’m more in tune with selling it than buying it. If I wasn’t, I’d probably spend too much money on buying art and I’d go out of business.
CB: Does the average person come here looking to buy art for the love of it or to collect it?
PE: You get some people who are definitely interested in the value of it, but also people who buy it because they love it. It’s also of consideration that it’s nice for them to know that it has gone up in value if they’ve bought a piece that they really like. Like a Roa; he does lovely animal pieces. I’m sure if someone had bought a Roa piece, they’d be glad to know that other people loved it and that they’d like to own it as well.
I’ve got one friend who bought a Roa piece from a show that we did. He actually commissioned the piece and he owns it. A couple of people call up and say, “Hey, I’d like to buy that piece” and he’d say, “Yeah, sure you can buy it. It’s £20,000.” He bought it for about £1,500. He’s not being greedy, but he doesn’t want to sell it, so that’s what it would be worth to give it to someone else. I mean, when people call up and ask him about this, they’re quite flabbergasted. He thinks it’s quite funny. It’s not the going rate for it, but that’s his rate. He owns that piece so he can charge what he likes for it. He probably won’t sell it for £20,000, but he doesn’t care.
CB: What would you say to the rather negative “sell out” stigma attached to street artists who start selling their work in galleries?
PE: I think a lot of people have thought to themselves, “I’m going to do a Banksy,” and they’ve kind of become ruthless careerists. You see it a lot with people. They’ll go out and do a couple of pieces, they’ll do prints and they’ll do canvases because they want to be as successful and as rich as Shepard Fairey or Banksy. I think they’re kind of doing it for the wrong reasons. I think people’s attitudes have definitely changed. It’s a bit like skateboarding. If you had said to your father twenty years ago, “I want to do skateboarding,” he probably would have thought differently from now because there’s this whole industry behind skateboarding and it’s seen as a career and there are people talking about it potentially going into the Olympics, so it has grown from the underground into the mainstream.
It’s the same thing that’s happened with street art. There are definitely people who take a purist approach, saying, “I would never do an exhibition, all I want to do is purely street art.” There are graffiti artists who really want to paint trains and they don’t want to do exhibitions. That’s their choice. That’s totally cool. I think sometimes people see someone who’s got a gallery and a successful business and is a successful artist who travels around and is generally liked for their work…obviously there are people who are going to be jealous, it’s just natural. But I appreciate it when people are just dedicated to their art and to their work and getting better and better at what they do. I think that’s fine.
CB: Speaking of the Olympics, when they were “cleaning up” East London, the general view was that street art needed to be cleaned up as well. What would you say to that?
PE: It is a funny thing, but that’s just their job. They were told that they had to do it, so they put a certain amount of money into making the streets look nice. Nowadays, you’ve got estate agents using pictures of graffiti street art on the front of their catalogues. If, say for example, you’re watching a film like Robocop or Batman and you see graffiti, you know that that’s a bad area. It’s comical because you’re watching these films and suddenly a hero goes into an area and there’s graffiti on the walls and you’re like “Uh-oh, something bad is going to happen…” But now, when you see street art, on the brochure of an estate agent, that estate agent is saying, “This is an up and coming area because there’s street art and there are street art tours. This is a justification of why we’re charging £500,000 for a one-bedroomed converted warehouse.”
It’s really funny that you’ve got councils who are cleaning up street art and trying to say, “Street art is bad, let’s clean it up and make the walls really plain”, but then you’ve got estate agents who are probably more in tune with what’s going on in an area. Obviously, they’re commercially minded. I had a guy come in, saying he wanted to do a street art blog for his estate agent’s website. He was saying, “I’m not doing it to make any money out of it.” But he’s obviously trying to position himself in with street art that’s sort of urban and edgy and cool. And the funny thing is we were working on doing some graffiti for the Olympics. We were asked to submit images to be used for the urban house they had in the opening ceremony. There was supposed to be graffiti characters going up and down on the whole thing. But someone in some office said, “We need to paint over as much of this as we can.” They probably had a budget allowance of so much towards cleaning it up.
I wouldn’t like someone to come up and spray paint anything on the window of my gallery. Although I run a graffiti gallery, I’ve got a can of graffiti buster downstairs, which is a specific spray designed to clean graffiti off. So it’s that kind of conflict of loving graffiti and hating tags. Not everyone wants to see it everywhere, all over the place. I was joking with a friend of mine that there’s a piece of graffiti right opposite here that I really hate, but I have to see it every day. And it’s that kind of conflict of, “I like graffiti, but not in my back yard. I like graffiti, but I don’t want it sitting right outside on my window, unless it’s the kind that I like.” Then you get into the whole thing of who decides what’s good graffiti and who decides what’s bad graffiti?
CB: How would you identify the difference between graffiti and vandalism?
PE: I just go around with a gold star and anything that doesn’t get a gold star they can just clean it off… But the nice thing is, if you are doing graffiti, it’s not about a committee or focus group meeting saying, “Right, we’re going to commission a few urban street artists to go out tagging tonight. Who should be allowed to do stuff?”
CB: I like that it’s not regimented.
PE: It’s not regimented. You decide to grab a spray can and you decide to go out and do it. Your judgement might be clouded by the fact that you’d had too much to drink the night before and you might go out and write some really ridiculous stuff and feel really bad the next day. I know, because I’ve done that before. But the nice thing about it is that it is not a democracy. And it’s nice that there is this kind of conflict going on. There isn’t any kind of right or wrong about the whole situation. There are artists who are going to prison for painting and colouring in things because they happen to prefer colouring in trains to a shiny billboard on the side of a new business development.
CB: Would you say that street art influences how someone interacts with a space? Is there a difference between displaying it in a private gallery and on the side of a public building?
PE: It’s a lot more exciting when you see it out on the street. I always use the analogy of moon rocks. When you see a rock on the moon, it’s amazing because it’s a rock on the moon. Once you take that rock off the moon and put it on a shelf in a gallery, it doesn’t have the same impact, you’re sort of lessening the impact. It’s a different kettle of fish, really. If you’re just going to take pieces that someone’s done out on the street and stick it in a gallery, it’s a boring. It’s more fun when you see what someone’s doing out on the street and how they’re sort of translating it to doing something different inside.
CB: Do you think it’s necessary for London street art to reflect social change? Or can it be purely for aesthetics?
PE: I think it can be purely for aesthetics, but even if you painted a big pink bunny rabbit on the street, it’s still a political act, just as much if you were writing “Remember G20”. I think if you can, then why not say something? Make a statement. Rather than just writing your name all the time, write something that you’re passionate about on the street. That said, there are people who just go out and do stick men. They’re more interested in brand than getting their image out there to people, which is fine as well, butI think it’s quite handy to be able to mix certain images or certain statements or certain sentiments with the images that you’re putting up on the street.
CB: How do you decide which pieces you put in your gallery and which artists you use?
PE: Usually it’s based on whenever I get a feeling of euphoria or excitement from their work. Sometimes, I get people who really want to do an exhibition in the gallery, and their stuff isn’t at all based around street art or graffiti, so they’re out. Or you’ll get people who do street art work, but I don’t really like it that much. It’s based on a judgement of whether I think it’s really great or exciting and innovative, or just a bit boring. I want a person who walks in here to get excited by the gallery when they see the work, and not go, “I’ve seen this all a million times before.”
There’s a movement in street art which is called Banksy’s Children; people who are doing stuff that looks a lot like Banksy’s work. They may not even be aware that their work is so close to his, but it just looks really derivative and really boring. So if people are coming up with new ideas and being really generous in their work whether it’s colour, whether it’s texture, whether it’s idea, whether it’s humour whether it’s communicating…Because it’s my gallery, a lot of the time it’s my decision as to what I show. If people have a problem with that, they should open up their own gallery and do their own thing. But if people have work to show that I think is good enough and graffiti based, then I’m happy to go ahead with it.
CB: Is it easy to curate street art?
PE: I think there’s a new culture now, where it’s very fashionable to be a curator. It’s very fashionable to curate a mixtape, curate a festival or curate a sandwich. In street art, it’s not as important as it might be in contemporary art. As graffiti artists, we can communicate and get together and work out a plan for a warehouse jam or for a collective exhibition. We don’t really need that other person who’s going to come in and go, “Right, this is all going to be about Norwegian death metal. I’m going to hang a piece of glass in the middle of the room…” It works better in a conceptual field, but in street art, it’s more getting a load of work and putting it up to look great. It’s more a visceral thing rather than having to be something long and conceptual.
CB: Would you be able to talk about any lesser-known artists that you’re considering exhibiting in the coming future?
PE: A lot of it is being online and looking at people’s stuff and going, “Wow, they’re cool, I’d like to work with them.” So if I find someone who I like the work of, I sort of just put them into this artists list. I think it’s quite interesting, rather than someone who’s like, “Hi! I’d like to do an exhibition in your gallery next week! I’ve got twelve pieces, ready to go!” Sometimes it’s nicer to draw people out, who aren’t quite so desperate to do an exhibition, just to see how their work would sit in the environment. It’s like the movement of Outsider Art or Naive Art. They weren’t thinking about exhibitions, they were just a bit potty. It might be in a home, where they would do the most amazing pieces. You might find a lady who’s spent thirty years in a mental hospital, just drawing and making the most amazing artwork. That wasn’t because she was getting ready to do a show; it’s just something that poured out of her. Creativity was something that helped her to survive and helped her to make sense of who she was. Sometimes that’s the most amazing artwork.
Image Credits: Pure Evil image by Bixentro (above) and Pure Evil image by Karla Borg (featured image).