If you follow the street art scene in London or anywhere else in the world, you may be familiar with Garry’s book, Street Art: From Around the World with the ROA rat on the front cover. He’s just completed a second volume titled Urban Art: The World as a Canvas. Having spent many years as a photographer, on many different levels, Garry is now heavily involved in the street art scene, bridging artists in the UK with international opportunities and bringing artists from abroad to paint in the UK. He has his own studio space in Trinity Buoy Wharf which is exactly as he describes below (and I speak from experience) a wonderfully cluttered mess of art and memories, a cave of ephemera. In his interview, Garry tells us more about his connection to street art and how the scene has changed in recent years, the fascinating history of his family and connection to the Docklands and the story behind his own arts group, Fitzrovia Noir.
LLO: Tell us a bit about yourself and your background.
GH: I was born and raised in South Shields, a town that the Romans called Arbeia ‘Land of the Arabs’ as even when they arrived, the ferry across the River Tyne was run by boatmen from the Euphrates. This testament to the cosmopolitan outlook continued with settlement of Yemenese sailors in the 19th Century and when I was growing up my Egyptian neighbour, Mr Aziz used to drive Jimi Hendrix around during his early tours of the Newcastle area, his manager being the local former-Animal Chas Chandler. In the early 1970s the town had the largest settlement of Muslims in Western Europe, hence Muhammed Ali visiting the mosque to have his marriage blessed. I have a vivid memory of him standing only a few feet from me dressed in an immaculate white suit when he came to Gypsies Green stadium, now the finish line of the Great North Run.
My great uncle Bill cycled to St Albans in the 1930s and never came back, so my mother used to visit him regularly after the war. She got to know London well on day trips from there and used to regale me with stories of the bright lights of theatres and crowds of busy people, although I really just eventually ended up here without a real intention, like so many people.
My actual first published photograph was in 1982, when I sneaked into Rik Mayall’s soundcheck at The Jesmond Theatre in Newcastle. He not only shared his cans of Brown Ale with me and allowed me to take pictures, but introduced me to a very young Ben Elton and also Jools Holland who was then hosting the anarchic Tube music programme that was filmed in the city. They all said I should move to London, which five years later, I did. In the meantime I toured with rock bands and learnt why roadies wafted thermometers around on lighted stages prior to gigs; this was to balance the temperatures between stage and dressing room, so guitar strings did not expand and go out of tune. I can’t really talk about the more decadent side of the business that I experienced, as I wish to maintain the privacy of those people who became good friends of mine and gave me opportunities I had never even dreamed of.
The miner’s strike of 84/85 hit North East England badly, with my own father then working at a coal pit. As soon as it was over I left my job as an exhibition printer at a local photolab and moved to Suffolk to live at the haunted Claret Hall Farm that housed the Lodge Recording Studios in former barns. I had cut my teeth on ‘live’ rock photography and here honed my skills on more art directed conceptual image making for record sleeves and promos, dodging police raids on the management’s ever-relocating amphetamine factory.
I then hitch hiked to art college in Swansea, South Wales, sleeping under my portfolio on a partially shrubbed traffic island in Bristol. Two and a half years later I arrived in London a week after the big 1987 storm, squatting with a Clapham Old Town cadre of washed-up aristocrats, who had spent their inheritances on Class A drugs and still squandered their meagre dole money on designer trousers. I got a job with a right wing photographer in Soho, who almost put me off the business as he made portraits of Freemasons in aprons with (non designer) trouser legs rolled up. After then working at a ‘glamour’ studio in Hoxton and printing exhibitions for the National Portrait Gallery, I met by chance an Armenian who would become my mentor – photographer and raconteur Peter Mackertich, and we are still friends after 25 years, working together on fine art projects where he uses Speed Graphic plate cameras and ‘blaster’ flashbulbs.
LLO: You spend a lot of time in London’s Trinity Buoy Wharf, the “Docklands most exciting arts quarter”. Would would we discover if we paid you a visit?
GH: I discovered the Wharf quite by chance about twelve years ago and was immediately enchanted by this hidden gem, which once found must be revisited, or the ghost of former resident Michael Faraday may send you lightning bolts. I did a few exhibitions during Open House in then-vacant Container City spaces and then when Boiler House 1954 became available I remortgaged my flat to fund the initial projects I wanted to do there. I have since been supported by both the Trust and Urban Space who manage the site, allowing me to invite artists from France, Iraq, Luxembourg, Mexico, Morocco, New Zealand and Venezuela, as well as working there with UK practitioners such as Ben Wilson (AKA Chewing Gum Man) and William Alexander who makes vehicles from cardboard, reflecting the upcycling ethos of the wharf, where many studios are made from old shipping containers.
The most recent addition to our growing collection of permanent work is a piece by Irony that celebrates the natural beauty of an enigmatic non-celebrity, caught in the breeze that gives the Wharf its nickname of Windy Corner.
Over the weekend of 28/29 September, we are exhibiting work inspired by the tattoo genre in the historic Electricians Shop at the Wharf, built in 1835 when many sailors would be returning from the South Pacific with freshly inked skin. We have artists from Luxembourg, Spain, Italy, New Zealand, the UK, the US and Venezuela looking at interpreting ‘flashes’ (or tattoo designs) into other media and onto other surfaces. The gallery has just this week been refurbished with spotlighting and a brand new entrance from Orchard Place. I like the way the architect has kept the historical details but has opened out the extended area with large glass panels to maximise daylight.
My own studio next door has been described as anything from a man-cave to my deconstructed brain and I think it’s somewhere between, put most succinctly by Antarctic Expedition Ops Manager Tris Kaye as ‘all of this knowledge’. Many pieces are gifts from artists I’ve worked with, other bits that I’ve rescued from derelict buildings, amongst hundreds of books in a sea of ephemera. There are works in progress, others coming in from or going out to an exhibition and ideas sparked from serendipity.
LLO: Why are you attracted to the Docklands?
GH: I grew up by the foggy North Sea, where Tyne Dock nearly died in the early 80s, only to be revitalised by the constant Nissan transporters now coming out of the old airport site. Rather than sending coals to nearby Newcastle for export the area is now making cars to send to Europe.
My father was in the Merchant Navy from 1948-55 and sailed just about everywhere apart from the Panama Canal and Japan. These were the pre-container days when cargo ships were in ports for weeks, offloading, cleaning and loading, giving plenty time to explore New Orleans, Kingston, Odessa, Galveston, Caracas, Port Said, Adelaide and a hundred points between, so this sense of adventure was embedded in my psyche from an early age. On my mother’s side, her paternal grandfather was captain of the SS Effective, a Victorian steamship that he once navigated down to Genoa to have family portraits taken by renowned photographer Sciutto (pronounced ‘shoot-o’ perhaps part of the etymology of the word for a photo session?) I still have these original prints which I’ve here put on a maritime metal bollard cast in North East England and still at East India Dock, which in its heyday might well have secured the vessels that my ancestors traveled on from Durham.
(NB Sciutto made many famous images including this one of legendary Italian stage actress Eleonora Duse.)
My father would have visited East India Dock when it occupied a much larger area (the surviving nature reserve is only one of the smaller entrance docks) but was always more interested in smuggling paint ashore in Italy or dodging rogue traders in the Suez Canal. My first book Trip_Transporting Grain looked at these journeys, revisiting locations half a century later, the title referencing the Marshall Plan voyages that my father made from North America and the act of carrying grain within camera film.
LLO: International connections seem important to you in your work with artists. Talk a bit about how you’re bridging UK artists to other parts of the world and vice versa.
GH: I’ve established some great links with motivated people in Morocco, who are helping to bring artists from there here and UK artists out there. This has great potential, as do some other locations in Europe and Latin America, which I can’t talk about yet as they’re still in early stages of development.
LLO: As well as helping to give emerging artists a voice, you have a history as an artist yourself. Tell us about your work as a photographer. What stands out as one of your most memorable experiences? I worked in photography exclusively from 1980-2005 and went from originally wanting to be a documentary photographer, to getting breaks into the music business, onto abstract experimental studio work for massive corporations, then to public sector campaigns for the NHS, NESTA, the Film Council and creative documentation for galleries like Hauser+Wirth, Gagosian and Modern Art, which bridged me into fine art practice.
One of my most memorable assignments, six years ago was a UN mission into Niger to create imagery for an advocacy program on maternal health. After photographing at a hospital in the French colonial capital of Niamey, we drove across the Sahara to Zinder, an ancient crossroads where slaves were traded until relatively recently. We met with the Sultan who decreed that girls could no longer marry aged 12, and now had to be 16 adding that this would be raised to 20 ‘if they were a bit skinny.’ Fistula is however a serious problem and we met many young girls suffering from this avoidable condition but can only hope that their treatment is successful and others can be protected. I was so heavily bearded and suntanned after this extended period in the desert, that when trying to leave from the international airport, my passport was seized while officials checked my temporary resemblance to an Al Qaeda fugitive on their wanted list.
I lived in New York from 2004-07, exhibiting my first solo show Name, Rank and Serial Number picking up an award for the accompanying book and half a dozen others for my fine art work and abstract experimental advertising imagery for big corporations like Sony, Cable&Wireless and Pfizer. When I got back to London I felt I needed to move on and set up Fitzrovia Noir with Lucy Williams, a specialist in community arts outreach.
LLO: How has the advent of digital photography affected the art form as it is today?
GH: I used to love the alchemy of large format image making using cameras with extendable bellows and film formats measured in inches, pushing chemical technology beyond the norm. Whereas it often used to take me days to produce one finished image that had exposures of minutes using projectors and mixed lighting, now it’s instantaneous. I lost interest in photography that resembles a colouring-in book, where the process is concentrated in post-production.
I spent a month at BATSUB (British Army Training Support Unit Belize) in 2010 shortly before it closed due to MoD cuts. There I created ‘textographs’ which describe photographs not taken, that were then framed like prints for the Annuale Festival of Independent Practice during Edinburgh Festival. This was an experiment into whether a photograph is still worth anything like a thousand words, promoted by research I did on cognitive uses of the brain, facilitated by The Disconnected Mind project led by Professor Ian Deary at the University of Edinburgh.
On the positive side I have rediscovered documentary photography and this features strongly as a strand of my curatorial practice and in the books I write and illustrate.
LLO: In 2008, you set up Fitzrovia Noir arts group. Tell us about this group and why you chose the name.
GH: When the 250 year old Middlesex Hospital in Fitzrovia was sold and demolition began, I thought it was extremely important to celebrate this iconic teaching institution that had cared for so many Londoners from Prince Monolulu to Peter Sellers, hosting the laying in state of Rudyard Kipling and having treatments for a cholera epidemic supervised by one Florence Nightingale before she left for the Crimea.
I added Noir to the neighbourhood name to signal our interest in the darker side of life, whilst also referencing both of my grandmothers, one who had the maiden name of Black, the other who had a French side, with milliner cousins running a shop in Paris. The prefix ‘Fitz’ was used to denote a child conceived out of landed gentry wedlock and added in front of existing surnames in Ireland, so this also relates to a distant relative who I’m told was a baron, but I’m not sure if he was a real bastard…
We like places undergoing transition and exhibited our Responses to Conflict & Loss group show as site specific changing showcases that specifically responded to the three venues: St Pancras Crypt which was a WWII air raid shelter; Space2 Gallery in Peterborough, once used as a Cold War nuclear shelter and the University of Hertfordshire Galleries that had the de Havilland aircraft factory on its site. We have also exhibited in an old pithead on Tyneside, a former grammar school in Chelsea, an empty shop in Edinburgh and look forward to a 13th Century Château in the Ardèche next summer and possibly a French colonial abattoir in Casablanca in 2014 too.
LLO: You’re the author of Street Art: From Around the World with a follow up book out this month. What can we expect to see in the new volume?
GH: The last book was an introduction to the street art practices of stencil, paint, poster and 3D, citing notable artists. This new book goes under the skin, examining the concepts behind the work and looking at the pioneer artists of the 1960s and 70s including Kent Twitchell in Los Angeles and Ernest Pignon-Ernest in Naples, featuring previously unseen archive photography by Peter Mackertich and specially taken photographs by Doralba Picerno, Sheridan Orr and myself that look at urban artists’ work in countries lesser known for such activity including Canada, India, Korea, Morocco and South Africa.
LLO: How did you get involved with the street art community?
GH: I’d taken an interest in graffiti since an early age, being something of a practitioner myself and getting caned at school for misuse of a pen. My great friend Cathy Gibbons in New York opened my eyes to emerging practices, as did visits to Berlin and I got to know some artists very well as collaborators when I set up Fitzrovia Noir.
An ongoing project I first formulated in 2006 has finally broken through after much immersive research and changing hurdles imposed by funding authorities. The core idea is to look at the street names on the postwar council estate where I grew up, which honour writers like Ruskin who had a social conscience and deep interest in the visual arts. The next estate celebrates Ruskin’s friend Turner and many other famous painters such as Landseer and Rembrandt, so this really is a new look at ‘street art’ where I hope to engage current residents in a program of celebrating people from the area, who I feel have been neglected. I was six years old when my father took me for tea to meet Lord Blyton, a campaigner for miners’ rights who carried on living at his council house nearby and is still the most impressive Lord among the many I have since met. My concept is, I am happy to say, the central theme of a successful consortium bid called The Cultural Spring that will see a two million pound fund to promote the arts in areas of North East England that are much more in need of ‘street art’ than say, saturated Shoreditch. I have a strong desire to get Lord Blyton properly recognised locally, as well as many less famous people who make huge efforts to improve the lives of others.
LLO: How has street art evolved in the last decade and how do you feel about the changes?
GH: I think the main problem now is corporations want a very big slice of the pie and I was told only yesterday that ‘community volunteers’ from McDonalds in branded overalls were spotted painting over work on Sclater Street, in readiness for who knows what thinly veiled subliminal messages. Some blame does lie with the self appointed keepers of certain walls in Shoreditch, who speak of strategy and branding for their artists – this is public art now, without any real message apart from a big bold statement that says ‘I own this wall.’ There is hope though – watch this space.
LLO: What’s your favourite London discovery and why?
GH: To discover Fitzrovia in the late 80s was a revelation, an area right in Central London that few had heard of and had very affordable studio space after the property crash. I had three studios there over twenty years and lived there for most of that time. It’s been ruined now through overdevelopment and I’ve lived in Dalston for the last year, loving Ridley Market and especially the superb food that comes out of the tiny Kashmiri Kebabish at No 5. They’ve even cooked for a President of Pakistan.
Garry Hunter has a book signing for the newly published Urban Art : The World as a Canvas on the Opening Night of the Heroes and Villains panels on Thursday October 3rd from 5pm to 10pm, upstairs at The Bell, Middlesex Street E1. All welcome. Signed copies are also now available from Graffik Gallery, 284 Portobello Road W10 .