Monty’s Bar, Brick Lane
September 19th – October 10th (extended)
In the politically fucked up dysfunctional times the UK finds itself in now, those days before the June 2016 Brexit Referendum seem like a period of almost benign stability. Well, apart from austerity, working family poverty, rising foodbank dependency, zero hours contracts, government collusion in corporate tax fraud, a refugee crisis and terminal environmental damage things may actually have been pretty kind of stable. Hell, even Trump hadn’t been elected. The Brexit referendum result shifted and shook everything, creating the landscape and motive for Subdude to let rip his street art on Shoreditch’s outdoor gallery.
We are sitting by the window at Monty’s Bar on Brick Lane, street characters are ranting outside; dibble pop in; we sip local craft beers and look back on how things got to this.
Subdude’s street art started to appear in Autumn 2016, characterised by colourful A2 paste ups, political cynicism and social media jests.
The catalyst for this adventure curiously came from a street art workshop up in the West End, a programme to stimulate creation “experiential” art which Subdude joined having had his curiosity piqued by the street art he was seeing around his office close to Shoreditch. Subdude describes this defining moment.
“The leader sat us down in the morning and she showed us all the stuff and at lunchtime she said “okay, go do something “. I was going “I don’t have anything, I don’t have any supplies, what am I going to do?” I had said I was interested in text and this woman from New Zealand came up and she said “oh I am interested in words and I am interested in text too, let’s figure something out”. We went out and we just bought some chalk from the local Cornershop and we went to Russell Square, somewhere around there and we wrote in a big chalk circle on the ground “The World would be a better place if….” And we just dumped a bunch of the chalk there and we just backed away.”
So Subdude’s first street intervention came from a chance connection. Confidence grew, they did it again and they found they would get immediate reactions, some good, some not so good like the angry girl having a row on her phone scrawling “LOVE DOES NOT EXIST in huge capitals.
Subdude’s background is in journalism and assisted by a natural Irish gift of the gab the words certainly flow. Combining a fascination with world politics from an early age and a flair for succinct wordplay with the experience gained from the chalk circles experiments resulted in the step into street art as we know it.
Subdude needed some imagery to go with his words, and in pursuit of simplicity came up with the character “Little Dude”.
“I came up with the Little Dude when I was depressed and down and I was thinking “what am I doing with my life and where is this going?” I had this little notebook and I think I drew this little figure 17 pages in a row and eventually the little dude emerged out of it. I showed it to one of my friends and he said “there is something wrong with you, you need to see somebody”.
An early manifestation of Little Dude built upon the interactive experience of the chalk circles. We used to see these wooden panels appearing around Shoreditch pleading with passers by to take them on their adventures.
“People would take them off and they would take them on journeys and they would send me emails explaining the journey they took and there were so many great stories. I got at least a thousand photos on my computer just from that project.”
Graffoto has a few too:
From there, the outright political paste ups emerged.
”My first political piece I think was Trump Tangerine Tyrant. I was a nerdy kid when I was 13 or 14 I would watch the nightly news and follow what was going on from all over the world, so I have always been a bit of a political junkie.”
“Only Little People Pay Taxes” was Subdude’s amusing response to the remarkable situation where the Irish government resisted EU rulings requiring them to claim back EUR13Bn of taxes it had not levied on Apple while the “Little People”, itself a reference to leprechauns, are routinely pursued and imprisoned for much much smaller tax misdeameanours.
Subdude’s work pulls no punches in its crunching political sentiments spun with a mocking humour. The individuals or groups targeted by Subdude’s political barbs have their own ardent supporters, on the streets his art provokes conspiracy theories and scrawled responses, online combatants go purple with rage and outright hostility. You may be surprised to recall that in May 2017, prior to the most poorly judged gamble in political history since June 2016, Theresa May v. Jeremy Corbyn was relevant
“There is always a fine balance between making a serious point and getting a bit of humour into it, but sometimes it is so depressing that there is no humour. I have been trying to do something on the guy in Syria but I can’t think of anything too humorous about him you know. Hence Syrial Killer”.
“Doing the politics is tough too, even here (Monty’s Bar) I told the Italian barmen I did Mus-salvini and I was showing it to them and they were like “Great! Great! You’ve got it spot on but you’re criticising somebody else’s politics from the outside.”
If there is one thing that defines Monty’s charm it has to be its wonkytonk idiosyncracy and Subdude has worked with that beautifully, check out the lamp shade – flag décor game going on here.
“In terms of reaction, the Chinese ones I have been putting up recently, people have been ripping them off the wall which to me is kind of good as you are provoking a response, but you can’t be sure if it is someone pro or anti the political subject or someone just engaging in local street art wars. I don’t think you know but you get a feel in terms of where you place them.”
“I guess the biggest one was the Israel one, that is one that gets ripped down everywhere, obviously someone is pro-zionist and determined that that is not going to appear anywhere.”
“I was doing the Islamic State one, there was four to begin with and they all had CALIPHofHATE, there was one about “we’re gonna party like it’s the 7th century”, “We hate cartoons”, “What if the virgins hate me as much as other women do?” and “fundamentalists get things fundamentally wrong”. I show them to my friend [London based street artist] Hello The Mushgroom especially if there is something around female art to see if people are going to get things the wrong way and I also I am very aware that we are in a big Muslim area and I am not going out of my way to offend the local population or whatever but at the same time I am not going to let that stop me. That’s why I designed the Israel one. I had the CALIPHofHATE ones on my computer for at least two or three months and I was thinking “Do I want to put these out or do I not want to put these out” so I designed the Israel one to get next to it and each time I put it up it was one here and one here right next to eachother so I am showing I am taking the piss out of both of them and I am not taking sides. I was really surprised that the Israel one was ripped off the wall every time but the CALIPH of HATE one got ripped a few times but got more support.”
Subdude’s debut solo exhibition which has been critically well received by family and friends alike is based entirely on new images not seen on the streets, though some emerged blinking into the last of the Summer sun over the term of the show.
Having a scribble board in an art gallery for comments is nothing new, think of the old fashioned “Comments Book” or the comments slips that exhibitionists stick to the wall at exhibitions. Subdude goes one step further using the feedback to identify the most popular image which will go out next on the street and also to invite people to propose soundbites for him to use in future street art. This echoes the way political commentators use biros and sharpies to add their views to his art on the streets.
“Of all the things in this show that is the thing that got the best reaction. That is borrowing from my first [chalk circles] and second [traveling art] projects.
There were at least 3 suggestions on there that were better than anything I would have come up with. Also I love that succinct 3 word, 4 word, 5 word thing”
True to his word, as this incoherent mess of a hugely delayed blog post finally plops out the Brexit with the most ticks has been sighted down Brick Lane
Subdude loves that idea of a dialogue through the art, about the art and indeed on the art.
“I had 70 Putin designs on my computer I put 3 of them out I think. It is one of those examples of where you hit your flow. I did 70 posters in 2 hours or something like that, cranking them out. Like the Brexit posters, I have done bits and pieces on Brexit but I feel I could have done loads loads more on that.”
“The social media one I did a lot of designs and they are all about different aspects of social media but they are not really nailing it on the head because it’s a very complex subject and its difficult to come up with a concept in 3 words and really nail it at the same time. So when you do that interactive thing hopefully my art makes people think and their responses make me think so it becomes a bit of an exchange.”
Subdude has developed a reputation for his sharp and critical political wit so it was a bit of a swerve from his normal acerbic tone earlier this year when New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arderne’s response to the Mosque killings in Christchurch lead to Subdude saying something positive about a political leader for the first time
“Everybody knows I am very cynical or sceptical, I hope sceptical and not too cynical. When I did the positive one it got a very good reaction, in the kind of times we are living in people like that. Jacinda was one of my favourite ones.”
Subdude has recently been creating outdoor collages of his street art on the street and some of the canvasses here reflect that new development.
“If you look back at my stuff it is words words words, That whole collage I was trying to blank out the words, you’ll see very few words that you can actually read. That collage is about destroying the words.”
The collages imitate the layers, the tears and the dripping paint that a process of decay, deterioration and augmentation brings to the art on the street.
To wrap up on the alignment of Subdude’s street art with the content of this first solo show, let’s just look at a couple of “interactions” with Subdude’s actual street art. Recently Subdude was asked to play cupid with a commissioned piece of street art in front of which Adam from Iowa proposed to Ian.
Adam proposes to Ian, commissioned backdrop by Subdude (photo: Subdude)
The Psycho series took their fair share of scribbled feedback but the best interaction was thought up by this amusing and imaginative Italian.
Finally, the “Why bother, what’s wrong with drawing apples on a plate?” question:
“This is where we get into the thin line between cynicism and scepticism, I don’t have any illusions about I am going to change the world but at a lower level if you make person think or make one person react you have made a tiny change. With my posters and art I’m not looking to make loads of money, I am just looking to pay my bills and pay my rent – I’m not looking to be the next Banksy. It’s not nice being a starving artist, it’s stressful.”
In a street art ecosystem where size matters, colour must dazzle for that insta social media hit, complexity is the skill signifier and international repping is everything, the small scale and the straightforward production of Subdude’s work and his dedication to constantly getting up has gone right out of fashion.
The Monty’s Bar show mapped (sorry – slow review) Subdude’s ascent from low-key modest beginnings and a steady growth resulting in an intense strong intelligent consistent and popular body of work. If he was a rock band, Subdude would be The Charlatans. What a dude!
Monty’s Bar Facebook
all photos: Dave Stuart except where noted