In the lesser-known Brothers Grimm fairy tale ‘Iron Hans’, a young Prince is told to steal a golden key from beneath his mother’s pillow in order to set Iron Hans, an imprisoned Neanderthal man free. The Prince refuses on many occasions until one day, his courage builds and his curiosity can hold him back no longer. He quietly creeps into the Queen’s bedroom and takes the golden key from the very place that his mother dreams of him becoming a nobleman. This part of the Iron Hans story symbolises betrayal; the betrayal of the mother at a stage in a young mans life where he sees no other choice but to show her in no uncertain terms that she is no longer needed as his sole guardian in life and that from now on, he is in charge of his own destiny. Using his own knife, he has cut the proverbial apron strings.
200 years on from the first publication of ‘Iron Hans’, I read with intrigue the hidden metaphors and meanings embedded within the story rediscovered by American poet Robert Bly in his book ‘Iron John’. The trials and tribulations faced by a man on his pathway through life appear to be the same irrelevant of what time we live in – the coming of age folk tale that is Iron Hans looks to be as relevant today as it ever has been.
At this point in the story the Prince is a young teenager, roughly the same age as I was when I discovered graffiti, spray cans and Subway Art(1). From the first time I held a can and made that scrawly, drippy line on a garage wall in the lane behind my childhood house, I knew I was hooked. Bus rides to Brislington warehouse hall of fame, Dean Lane skate park and Barton Hill youth club fuelled my new found passion and soon I began to pick up the skills of the trade; sketching outlines, sourcing spray paint, mixing colours, and making my letters bounce of the wall – the initiation of becoming a graffiti artist had begun.
The graffiti scene is a notoriously difficult world to infiltrate but once accepted, a part of you will stay indefinitely. It becomes impossible to step onto a train without imagining it covered in bright interwoven colours that spell out your name. You can’t walk past tags on the High Street without decoding who it was that left their mark, just for you. Those Sparvar fumes will forever linger.
For a subculture that on the surface appears to concern itself primarily with freedom of expression and anti-authoritarianism, the graffiti subculture harbours an implausible amount of politics. Internal hierarchies, tuff wars, snobbery, angst and jealousy blight the scene and force its members to subscribe to a strict set of rules akin to the 10 commandments. For years I believed our way was the only way, that art history began in 1960’s New York (or perhaps even earlier in Philadelphia), that stencils were cheating and ‘Keeping it Real’ was paramount.
18 years after I made my first marks with a spray can the excitement of painting graffiti has faded. I question the rationale of writing the same set of letters, with the same spray paint, on the same walls, time and time and time again. The urge to create however remains as strong as it ever was. The problem is that simply changing my palette and trying out a slightly different style is no longer enough to keep me painting graffiti in the traditional sense.
Three years ago I became a father to my own son and with parenthood comes less free time. This is a fact. My graffiti painting days had become numbered and I found myself returning to my other, less time absorbing passion, photography. Once wife and child were sound asleep I would steal an hour or two from the night and venture out with camera, tripod and timer to capture traces of the city’s low-level light. But all too soon I missed the process of painting and so began to use these photographs as a new source of inspiration for works that I could produce at home; a new sort of work based on canvas. These paintings gained attention from a new audience, perhaps more attention than my street based graffiti had and in time I found innovative ways to sell these pieces to people who, much to my surprise and delight, were happy to part with a couple of hundred pounds for an original artwork that they could hang on their wall…
… and then it struck me. I had broken one of graffiti’s most important self-imposed commandments; ‘Thou Shalt Not Sell Out!’
Graffiti is like an over protective, jealous parent. It rears its young, teaches them hard love, dresses them up in its uniform and ensures its children have lots of friends to play with. But the minute a child decides that it is his time to move out, the parent will suddenly turn on him and will stop at nothing to strike the traitor down! It will call you names - ‘Black Sheep’, ‘Art Fag’, ‘Sell Out’, and will laugh out loud when your post-graffiti work is out on display.
Iron Hans, the Neanderthal man in the Brothers Grimm fairy tale told the young Prince that he must steal the golden key from under his mother’s pillow so that he can use it to set the wild man free. But this is my story and the time has come to release my own wild man and accompany him into a new place, a big place I am unfamiliar with; an enchanted forest of my own. The time is right for me to betray my own jealous parent.
‘Where is Iron John?’ is my first solo show in London and opens on 11th October 2012 in the Apricot Gallery, 16-18 Heneage Street, Brick Lane, E1 5LJ