In Bed With Street Artist Nick Walker
Renowned street artist Nick Walker talks about growing up in Bristol’s vibrant counterculture community, graffiti today, and his new art at Refinery.
Walking into Refinery’s lobby, you’ll notice a vibrant mural towards the back of the space. A suited man, wearing a bowler hat, is pouring bright red paint out of a can. Below, the trickle of red continues onto a metallic-painted cabinet, where it drips down the front. Both pieces—the wall art and the cabinet—are from Nick Walker, one of the world’s leading street artists.
Born and raised in Bristol, Walker grew up in a vibrant counterculture community, when the city’s music and art scenes were taking off. An early pioneer of stencil street art, he inspired countless other local artists—Banksy included.
Now based in NYC, Walker stopped by the Refinery to check out how guests were receiving his latest artwork.
Here, we get #InBedWith Nick Walker.
You’ve said your earliest inspiration came from movie posters. What sparked the the transition from looking at the posters to realizing you wanted to be an artist yourself?
I was just in awe of the artwork, from the early posters because it wasn’t just simple photography. It was actually done by an artist, you know? One that kind of springs to mind was The King of New York with Christopher Walken, and the poster was actually hand painted. I was like, “What? That’s amazing!” As a kid I used to go down to the video shop, and spend hours looking at the movie covers. And I’d eventually get the “could you leave now, please” from the shop owners! The artwork was just mad inspiring, so that made me want to be as good as an artist as what I was looking at.
Can you tell me a little bit about the art scene growing up in Bristol?
There was a handful of American documentaries and music videos that had come over to the UK that the BBC played. Like Blondie’s “Rapture,” and Malcolm Mclaren’s “Buffalo Gals,” and these all had kind of elements of hip-hop culture in them. It was pretty new at the time in New York City, and we’re getting it in just a slight second hand. And I saw the 1984 BBC special Beat This: A Hip History, and it was mind blowing. So the next day at school I was like, “Oh my god, did anyone see that?” And only handful of people had. And I was like, “How could you miss that one?” And I wanted to go right then into the garage and grab my old man’s spray can and see if I could do anything with it.
And from there it progressed to trying to get can control, and then doing a first painting—on the side of a kiosk near where I lived. And it just goes from that. And when you do your first illegal piece, it’s something else, and then you stop caring. You make up a name for yourself, and then you kind of become an outlaw, which was amazing. You were doing it, and you were getting away with it as well. You know?
There’s a technical distinction between graffiti and street art, with graffiti being mostly words-based. Sounds like you see yourself starting as graffiti. Is that a transition?
I was doing the generic elements of traditional graffiti, yes—stuff that was inspired by subway art. But then you get to that point where you think, “How many times can I write my own name? Well, what if I stop doing that?” And you go from that realization to trying more complex pieces of work, as opposed to just writing your name. And then it just goes to you trying to do better.
You’re one of the early pioneers for using stencils in graffiti. How did that evolution come about?
A friend of mine had started to use stencils in his work, and at first I was quite dismissive. It seemed like cheating. But then I saw the immediacy in the graphic—the perfection that you can get with stencil work. And I was like, “Wow, okay, maybe he’s onto something.” And I started to experiment more into that realm in ’92 to ’94, which is when I had my first show in London. I still introduce it with free-hand, so the juxtaposition of the free-hand and the stencil is something I’ve always kind of played with.
And when you grabbed your dad’s spray paint can after the BBC special…did you have this idea that at some point later in your life you’d being having an exhibition in London, where there would be people that are coming to see your art?
No, no it was all about going out there and doing, you know, illegal graffiti in the street. Or trying to find a train. There was no big train system in Bristol at the time, so we had to go out and find walls.
You said “we.” Tell us more about the community that was there in Bristol.
With other peers, eventually I became part of a crew, which we called Crime Inc.. One of us would do the character, the rest would do the letters. Or another one would do another character. It was like a strategic mission with military precision, you know?
We’d find the wall, we’d time, we’d know all the colors in the bag (since it was dark out) and then one person’s looking out.
And there’s always the chance that cars are going to drive by. So you had to do all this, and it needs to be a place where you can run and hide your paint.
A lot of that element is now gone. The underground culture has become an overground kind of phenomenon.
Switching gears a little bit, you’ve also worked in films, right? With Stanley Kubrick for Eyes Wide Shut?
Yeah, and before that I did the backlot for Judge Dredd. Production designer Nigel Phelps built Mega-City One out there, and it was incredible. And one day the art director I’d worked with, Colin Phipps, called me and said, “Oh, could you come up to Pinewood Studios? Stanley Kubrick wants to meet you. He’s seen the work you did on Judge Dredd with Sylvester Stallone, and he really liked it.” I was bugging out, because he was an amazing director making amazing films.
He was out in Sussex, England at the time. He didn’t fly anywhere, so he wanted to replicate Greenwich Village, to the exact millimeter, from photographs. So I had to reproduce the graffiti, based on the actual pieces. There was one, it looked like it had been done by a crackhead. It was just awful, but I had to do it on a pillar by a stoop. He came along and asked, “What’s that?” I told him it was from one of the photographs, and he goes, “Let me see it.”
So someone went to get the photograph, and he’s like, “Oh yeah, okay, alright I don’t like it, get rid of it.” So it was like, what else can I think. He was watching every single thing. If you could burp on cue, he’d absolutely love you absolutely.
And then so your “Vandal” character, is it true he came about after you saw somebody with a crack-pipe hidden under a huge umbrella?
Yeah, it was just some kid that was smoking crack underneath a golfing umbrella. And so I was thinking, wow, that’s a good slight. That’s a great cover! What else could you do underneath a golfing umbrella?
And it started playing in my head. He could be on the phone, he could be doing that…and he could use it to tag afterward. So you’ve got this massive umbrella, and then you’re just painting, and no one’s going to actually see you doing it.
So I thought of this tryptic idea, where in the first image, the “Vandal” is walking along with an umbrella. In the middle cell he has his back to the audience, and he’s behind the umbrella. Only the backs of his legs could be seen. And in the third cell he’s walking off the canvas, revealing the word “Vandal.” Which is what he was doing in the middle cell.
And then someone asked me, “Well, where did he go? Where did he go?” And I was like, “That’s a good question.”
Just that one question inspired me to do “The Morning After Series” where you have that one last look after you’ve done a graffiti piece before you go home. No one’s out, no one’s around, and then you go home, knowing that you got away with it.
Did you ever try the umbrella technique, where you were using it to shield yourself or?
No, I don’t think I ever did, no!
And so in your work, “Vandal” is wearing a bowler hat usually. Does he ever have an umbrella too?
Yeah, that’s just his decoy. Anyone can look like a city gent, who works in a bank in London or something like that. They all dress the same way as well. So, if you’re getting caught, if you’re going to get chased, then you can just run into a whole sea or people that look the same, so you’re going to get away with it.
And also, no one’s going to expect anyone to be dressed like that doing graffiti.
So can you talk a little bit about the two pieces here at Refinery?
It’s the “Vandal.” He’s pouring out his signature color paint. (When you normally see that character, he’s pouring paint down the side of a building, or a famous landmark, or something. Some people say the pouring paint looks like a heart, some people say it’s he’s just spreading his message.)
And at Refinery, it was nice, because there was the first painting of him pouring, and now with the new cabinet, there’s the idea of the paint running down the cabinet and to make it all fit it in. The cabinet before was just wood and glass and bits and mirrors. I got to funk it up.