London Art Spot: Tom Blackford

Tagging London’s walls with a spray can as a student bursting for creative freedom led Tom Blackford to where he is with his artwork today: freelancing as an illustrator, painter and muralist. With his debut solo show lined up, clients like EA Games and Magna Entertainment on his CV and plenty of new pieces in the works, Tom is one to keep an eye on. He’s painted on everything from the inside of the Barbican and outside of The Foundry to white office walls to surf boards and snowboards.

Tom has taken a few moments away from preparing for his show to talk to us about what he learned from being a graffiti artist, his passion for Japanese culture that seeps into his painting style and the mystery girl who keeps appearing in his latest work.  

LLO: How does living in London influence your creativity?
 To be honest I’m not sure. I’d say my subjects were pretty ‘other wordly’ and not directly influenced by the city itself or the people it inhabits. Growing up in London in the 90’s turned me on to graffiti and that’s become a big part of how I like to realise a certain proportion of my work. Other artists I’ve met and painted with have inspired me and helped clarify my goals as an artist but aesthetically I think my work represents a world in my head that’s pretty distant from the the place I physically reside in.

LLO: Tell us a bit about your artistic background.
I’ve drawn since I could hold a pen and never stopped. I studied art at school but found the formal teaching side of it boring and frustrating. I just wanted to express myself and never followed the briefs. Based on a portfolio of personal work I went to university to study illustration only to be completely disillusioned by the ‘commercially viable’ aspect of the work as I’d always been more interested in art for art’s sake, so I decided to focus on graffiti. Although risky at the time, looking back it was a great decision as where as I already knew how to draw, graffiti taught me a lot about colour theory, composition and ultimately how to paint.

LLO: Your debut solo show is coming up next month. What can we expect from that?
 Blood, sweat and tears! The show is through Upper Playground which is great as although I’ve been involved in many group shows, I wanted to wait for a name I could trust before getting excited about the prospect of a solo show. We’ll see what happens…right now I’m working on about 10-12 new paintings among other bits and pieces. I thought about the idea of a very strict theme for the show although my mind’s all over the place right now with different ideas and I guess the work will reflect that. Thees nothing like a looming show to really get you asking yourself a lot of questions about what it is that drives you. 

LLO: When did you create your first piece of graffiti?
I was tagging for years before I attempted to use a can to produce anything more substantial. I started painting a few letter based pieces in around 2004 and switched to focusing on characters the same year, realising very quickly that if anything, it was going to be figurative work that was going to work for me.

LLO: You’ve already worked for some big names like Marvel, Nike, MTV, Pixar, etc. Who is your dream client?
I don’t have a dream client but there are some musicians I’d love to do cover artwork for and galleries I’d like to exhibit at. I think that concept work for video games/movies would be interesting too. 

LLO: There is a girl who features regularly throughout your latest work. Who is she? Your muse?
I wish I knew! I actually reflected on my latest work recently and realised that she seems to have cropped up quite a bit. It’s not a conscious decision. I’ll start sketching a female character and no matter where I start out, something often leads me back to ‘her’. Some people say she looks like my girlfriend but the fictitious girl appeared first!

LLO: Your website bio says you have a “passion for Japanese history and pop culture”. Any advice on the best place to get a bit of Japanese culture in London?
I’ve always been obsessed with oriental culture but really got into it when Japanese animation and Manga hit the UK market in the early 90’s…a lot of the good stuff was hard to find then so it had this ‘cult appeal’, a lot like graffiti. Some of the things I watched and read back then had a massive impact on me and the imagery it contained is stuff I think I still feed off through memory to this day. It’s funny because I don’t consciously think about my work as having strong Asian sensibilities until I have a new viewer mention it…it’s something that I think will always be identifiable, something I can’t escape but don’t really want to. It’s something I’ve definitely embraced in the canvas work I’m producing right now.

Oriental City (formally known as Yohan Plaza) in Colindale used to be a great place to shop for Japanese food and books but I haven’t been there in years so couldn’t say whats happening there now. The Japan centre in Piccadilly is good for Manga and Orbital off Leicester Square would be the place to check out Japanese comics and toys. 

LLO: Which piece are you most proud of and why?
This changes all the time. There are pieces I’m proud of because of the circumstances that surround them and others because of the things I learnt whilst creating them. I just finished a new painting for my debut solo show that I think highlights where I’m at right now.

LLO: You’re currently a freelance painter, illustrator and muralist in and around London. Where’s the best place to go to find your work in the capital?
My paintings can regularly be found at White Cross gallery although with exhibitions looming most of my canvases are in storage right now. I recently painted the front of ‘The Foundry’ in East London and decorated the entrance to the Upper Playground store off Carnaby street. My graffiti work doesn’t tend to stick around too long unless commissioned by a specific property.

LLO: Favourite London-based artists?
That’s difficult…pretty much all of my favourite artists are from Japan and the States. I really like Jamie Hewlett’s work. I felt like I’d been waiting a long time to see someone do a really cool animated music video when Gorillaz came along.

Thanks Tom!

For more of Tom’s work, check out his website:

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