On Saturday, I had the pleasure of meeting the prolific street artist Paul “DON” Smith who has been painting on the streets for 27 years. You’ve seen his work everywhere in London from Brick Lane to the South Bank skate park down to Richmond. We met with Garry Hunter who is running DON’s exhibition this week at The Electrician’s Room in Trinity Buoy Wharf.
DON arrived carrying a rucksack, wearing a tee-shirt and wooly jumper beneath a paint-splattered winter coat, a pair of rugged jeans and his prized DON belt buckle. He was talkative, full of enthusiasm for his art. We sat at a table in the industrial space where his work is displayed, eating chocolate biscuits between questions. Meanwhile, Garry was setting up for the launch of the show, so he was testing out some eerie music in the background, placing tea light candles around and arranging DON’s Porta-Fello wardrobe full of ties, tee-shirts, an old graffiti book from DON’s teenage years, a small clock and an assortment of ephemera.
Read on to see what Paul “DON” Smith is all about.
LLO: Tell us a bit about your background.
DON: I was born here, but lived in Borneo for about four years, aged 8-12. It was quite an important time of my life really. I came back to this country and it felt so much more confined. In Borneo, there were new horizons, open spaces, the beach, the new world. Here, it’s very busy.
Lately, I’ve been in a bit of a dark place. It’s been quite traumatic. The dynamics of my life have changed. I found myself sleeping rough for about six days just before Christmas, on Portobello Road and Richmond. I was gutted, couldn’t really speak to anyone. I found I could survive though. There are alcoves, the 99p shops where you can get a torch, you know?
The last couple of months, things have been a bit shifty in my life. I’ve been here, there, everywhere. The nature of my work has been rucksack and art materials, travelling to neighboring towns, seeing what I can do and how I can promote myself like a travelling market.
LLO: What are some of the positive things going on in your life recently?
DON: I was recently in Morocco. Marrakesh was quite interesting. It tapped into that Bali and Borneo experience. You get so worried about money here in London, but being in villages and seeing people make things because they have to turn their art into cash is inspiring. It’s about surviving.
Garry linked me up with street artist Morran in Morocco. I was very cautious. Marrakesh is a whole new ball game. I didn’t really speak the language and didn’t want to get into trouble, so I just did little paste-ups which I don’t usually do.
I’m developing a tee shirt fashion range, aftershave and everything. It’s early days though.
I had a couple of group shows and brought this wardrobe I have called the Porta-Fello. I’m so inspired by bed knobs and broomsticks and all of that stuff. It has bits and bobs inside – textiles, moldings, wallpaper, iron lion’s feet, a big locking nut running through the middle and it chops in half so it fits in a car. It’s a touring shop. It can handle curves in the marketplace. I’ll probably be buried in there one day! There’s a collection of things inside like my Casablanca to Marrakech rail ticket from Morocco.
The street art market has just opened up lately like a beautiful rose. You can interact with proprietors of shops, hustle, work the space. I call myself the new boy on the block in Brick Lane. I’m quite new to it all. There’s a piece of art there and there and then it opens up. The area’s been entertaining it. Asking to paint something on the side of a wall isn’t the biggest, weirdest question that’s being asked anymore. I’m doing some Valentine’s pieces now.
LLO: What are your hobbies when you’re not painting?
DON: I’ve always loved graphics and art. That’s what kept me interested in school. There’s the wonderful hip hop movement that picked a lot of us up. There was music, dance and art – creativity for people who needed to do something. It goes back to New York. You have loads of kids, some a little upset and they found themselves through this incredible movement. Writing music, poetry, dancing… how much energy is being vented? It’s just saved so many people. I think graffiti is the darker side of all of this. You had to go into places you shouldn’t be. It was all quite rock and roll, drink and drugs coming a bit hand in hand with it.
Graffiti has been a hobby for me for the last 27 years. If I see another guy or girl who has the same tag somewhere else in the world, it’s beautiful. There’s an instant connection.
Otherwise, it’s all about my family. That’s what the engine is oiled on. I work to support my children, my partner. I think that’s natural, what most people do. That’s always been my focus.
I was also involved in the film industry for 12 years – TV, features, commercials, short films. That’s why a lot of my work is music and there’s some film poster influence. I’m really wrapped up in that.
LLO: How come you use both Paul “DON” Smith and just “DON”? What significance do the different signatures have to your work?
DON: Paul “DON” Smith is the commercial side. I’m becoming more proud of the fact that I’m a commercial artist. I like to paint things that people like to see. I wouldn’t say sellout. I’m entertaining lots of different markets. It interests me and doesn’t cause harm to anyone.
“DON” is the graffiti artist. This is where I can do what I like and I have to draw the line between the two. It’s my stuff, my own thing. I’ve been doing that for years. You tag so much you get a bit better with the spray can and start drawing a picture. It’s all about the confidence of turning to letterform, characters, developing your style, building up the confidence, reputation and seeing your tag all over the place.
LLO: Where was your first tag?
DON: Barnes. It was inspired by Beat Street. I was the new kid on the block then. I’m always the new kid on the block. There’s a big iron bridge there. It’s like a Bronx or Manhattan bridge. I remember just scaling it and doing some sort of hip hop piece in bubble letters in ’85. I reclined on these big metal arches. Almost in the middle of the Thames, I started thinking, this is reckless, why am I climbing? I was all about being edgy, adrenaline, risk. I could have killed myself. There were a couple of us taggers there.
LLO: To you, what is the difference between the world of street art and graffiti?
DON: I think graffiti is at one end, the beginning. Street art is where we are now. If it’s a stencil or painting but in an illegal space, it’s graffiti. Street art is where it’s painted legally. If I’ve asked somebody and they’ve said yes, it’s street art. The Leake Street tunnel in Waterloo? It’s all legal so whether it’s tags or stencils, it’s street art. Once they step out of that legal space and go to the trackside with the same image, it’s graffiti. Painting where you’re not supposed to paint is criminal damage. You may as well be smashing up telephone boxes.
LLO: As an artist on the streets for the past 27 years, what changes have you seen in the street art world?
DON: It’s grown from strength to strength and entered into the economy. It’s why I can kind of make some sort of work out of it. I can survive. It’s entered the marketplace. I love painting and being an artist. It’s great when you can earn a living with something you like doing, but when your hobby becomes your job, it’s not really a hobby anymore. Graffiti is my hobby and street art is my vocation.
Also, it’s a common communicator. I can meet someone new like Morran in Morocco. I didn’t know him, don’t know his background, but we could meet up and do some work together. We can’t communicate with language that well but we can get by with our art, a smile and being polite.
LLO: You paint a lot of portraits of iconic figures. How do you decide who to paint?
DON: I want to get through everyone, so it’s just a priority list! The latest one I’m doing is called “Page and Plant”. You’d like it because of the whole writing aspect. It’s going to be cool. Then I have “Swallow Your Pride”, another big piece right now.
LLO: Where are some of your trickier piece to find?
DON: Have you seen my new London Bridge one? The little tap guy between two electrical boxes. Only one person’s found it that I know of.
Also, go down Brick Lane. You have to look up for one called Bird of Pray. It’s a stencil about 25-30 feet high, near a round window. It’s the highest little stencil on Brick Lane. It’s halfway down. Have you seen my card shuffling guy? Look up on the other side of the street and there’s a silhouette of a bird there.
Oh! If you want to find some interesting artwork, go to Tito’s, the little Peruvian restaurant in London bridge. I’ve done all the artwork in there.
The best diner I’ve been to in London is Lucky Sevens, Tom Conran’s little place in Westbourne Park. Have you been downstairs? I painted Mexico at night at the bottom. Ask Tony if you can go down to see it. I made a spaceship out of the extractor fan, stuck loads of things on the side. It’s very Avatar, space ship coming in, like Star Wars. It’s very LSD orientated, tequila, LED lights. You have to go there as soon as possible. You will love it down there! Tom brings over this Mexican tequila called Chamucos. One side is showcasing the tequila.
LLO: Your famous black silhouette banker image is very different from your colourful portrait-style work. Tell us a bit about this and what it means.
DON: I’ve had to break the stencil down to its simplest form. I challenged myself. You know Banksy has the rat and Blek Le Rat and other artists have got some little image. It was a challenge to see if I could entertain that world.
The banker? It has all slowly come together more than I realized. Banks invest in water companies, civilizations go to pot…the shape of those lovely Victorian taps. The tap goes into the hat and the tap is in the shape of a guy sitting down. If it’s a tap, where does the water come out? It comes out of his feet. The water is running through the body and it’s coming out of his feet. Is it money going down the drain? No, I don’t really think that. It’s more to do with the shape and control of money. Every year it’s been re-jigged and re-thought, the treasury, where money is going, certain factors, society, tax… It’s on and off. More tax this year, less tax the next. On, off. Hot, cold, as in it’s getting pretty dangerous in how much tax or it’s cooling off and we’re paying less. Pressure’s on, pressure’s off. It’s all about valves. Oil. It’s black, like crude oil, a raw property coming through, black, black. There’s so much in there. He’s cool, sitting down, contemplating, looking forward. The silhouette is quite awkward. His toes are up and feet are down. It’s quite sly. The trouser hem is coming out.
I want to make a big bronze sculpture of it, life-size, with water coming out of his feet. I just need to get commissioned because it’s quite a big project. It’s all about the female banker version of this as well. I’m going to do a lady version.
LLO: What’s your opinion on the influx of street art tours in London?
DON: Fucking amazing! They are amazing. I just can’t tell you what a great thing it is. Tourism. People are looking at art. The Jack Ripper thing is educational, but street art tours beat that macabre shit. There’s nothing wrong with those, but street art tours fuel everything. It fuels the art economy.
Someone got in contact with me through going on a street art tour, a beautiful guy and his family. I painted a portrait and they sent me a lovely Christmas card, bought pieces of work from me and kept me going.
These tours are one great big engine. They’re on the back of graffiti artists which go into street art. They’ve been heavily documented by photographers and this goes hand in hand. It’s a beautiful marriage. If anyone wants to take my picture, I have no problem. Shoot away. It needs to be documented.
One thing about street art is you’re against all the elements. Is it going to rain? You’ve got wind. Things are flapping about. Tape’s not sticking. Did you have a few drinks the night before? Have you fed yourself? Have you watered yourself? Is it the first time you’re doing an image? If so, you’re doing a test spray in front of everybody. Sometimes someone will ask you for change. Then I stop and check my pockets to see if I have anything, give something, then get back on to it.
Street art tours are a wonderful idea. It brings artist, photographer and client together.
LLO: Why is your work important to both yourself and to the community?
DON: I jumped onto some real safe ones recently with the Olympics and the Jubilee, two amazing gigs I managed to hone into. It was really current. When will we win the next gold? I was doing a portrait a day or event two. I couldn’t keep up. It was quite obvious I was going to crash but I got the main ones. Then we had the Paralympics and I couldn’t keep up with that so I felt I started something I didn’t finish. Maybe I’ll do a great big wall one day with everyone on there. It was fun though. People enjoyed it. Jessica Ennis won. I did that one on South Bank. There’s still one in Richmond and one in Hanbury Street.
See more of DON’s work on his website. Stop by The Electrician’s Shop in Trinity Buoy Wharf Wednesday February 6 and Thursday February 7 from 12 noon – 5pm with a closing party on Thursday from 5pm -8pm. DON will be around both days exhibiting his work. He is also doing some permanent pieces on the back of Boiler House 1954 opposite the Electrician’s Shop in a workshop with pupils from the Faraday School on Wednesday afternoon.