“It’s kind of creepy,” joked British street artist Nick Walker, 45, looking at a remarkably detailed figurine made in his likeness. The sculpture had just arrived yesterday at the Manhattan gallery space where his first exhibit in four years, “All I Ever Wanted Was My Name On Fire,” opens tonight. (Click the gallery above for a preview.)
It depicts Walker as a giant, towering over Westminster and pouring paint all over Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. Quite irreverent, considering it was created in collaboration with Royal Doulton, a renowned English company who has made tableware for several generations of the Royal family.
Walker came out of the same Bristol art scene as Massive Attack’s 3D, INKIE and Banksy. “I used to write EGO,” he said. “It was the one thing you had to control.” In 1992, he says he “started to properly experiment” with stencils and not just “paint for paint’s sake.”
He credits 3D for turning him onto the technique. The two were enamored with the stuff inside Subway Art, Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant’s seminal book on New York graffiti, or “the bible” as Walker calls it. And despite this admiration, they broke from the freehand tradition practiced by NYC’s subway painting graffiti writers. “When 3D started fucking around with stencils, a lot of us, were like, what are you doing? You’re cheating,” he remembers. “Later on, I was like, he’s got something here… His colors were great.” 3D is colorblind.
When Walker started doing stencils in the street, he had the perfect British disguise — an umbrella, to shade his illicit activity, a bowler hat, and a pinstripe suit. No one suspects a pinstripe suit. This ironic representation became known as his “Vandal” character, a motif which reappears in many works in the show.
“It’s just a bunch ideas I want to get out of my head,” Walker said about his new show, which appears to be an act of self-exorcism.
“I learned from my mistakes,” Walker recalled. Throughout his career, he’s been on a variety of artistic endeavors, even creating the tags for the sets of Eyes Wide Shut (1999) and Judge Dredd (1995). His Moona Lisa was a bittersweet milestone — part fortune, part curse.
Her birth had quite an interesting backstory. One day, Walker, Banksy and artist Paul Insect were talking in Paul’s studio. “Banksy said, ‘I don’t reckon anything else can be done with the Mona Lisa,'” recalled Walker. “He brings out this picture. It’s this fat, fat Mona Lisa eating a donut. Nah, it’s already been done. He brings out another. Nah, it’s already been done. Ya see? Nothing more can be done. I kept thinking, nah, he’s gotta be wrong!” Weeks later, it hit him. “Add one more O, and she becomes a mooner. Moona Lisa. She’s a mooner! The reason why she’s smiling is because she’s just about to turn around and show her ass. So, that’s how that came about.”
That challenge by Banksy was the catalyst. The street version of the piece was done in 2006 and made it to Bonham’s first urban art sale in 2008, as a canvas. With the mystery of her smile lifted along with her dress, Moona Lisa sold for ten times its estimate — just over $100,000.
The sale set the market. The press made a big deal. Walker later learned that the work was acquired by big time collector Jose Mugrabi, who invited him to his place and offered him some advice. “He had a high rise full of Warhols. Thirteen Marilyns. A Duchamp bowl,” Walker recalled. “It was the tits!” There, Mugrabi told Walker to make nothing for two or three years because the market was bound to crash. It did.
“The auction result was so far flung and kinda mad,” Walker sighed. “It was crazy, because no one really knew me as an artist… It was a double-edged sword. It was great because it took me to the next level, but it was bad because everyone who had bought a painting from the last shows decided to put the work on the secondary market… I produced too much work. There should have been no additions, just all individual pieces.”
There was another unpleasantry that came with the sale — Banksy comparisons in the press. “It doesn’t help me,” Walker said, shaking his head. “It just causes unnecessary weirdness… There were rumors at one point that I was him and he was me. I was like, how did that even begin?”
I asked him why the media only has focus for Banksy. “It’s purely because people are blinkered to any other artist. No matter what, anything, if it is done with a stencil — ah it must be Banksy,” he said, comically elevating his voice. “We were all super connected. I mean, I know him pretty well. At one point I got asked, because he was really busy, whether I would cut his stencils for him [for his LA show.] I kind of declined. I was mad busy doing my own stuff.”
Years later, Walker has stayed busy in New York, where he now lives with his girlfriend. In April, he was hitting the Lower East Side. In August, he painted the graffiti hall of fame at 106th and Park with CRASH, TATS CRU, QUEEN ANDREA and others.
Earlier, when Walker was prepping for the show at the Bronx studios of legendary graffiti pioneers CRASH and DAZE, I asked him if he considers himself a graffiti writer or a street artist. “A street artist,” he said, emphatically. “You’re giving the city a painting for people to enjoy or not.” For him, legal vs. illegal is irrelevant. It’s all about putting your art out in the street.
“It’s my favorite city in the world,” he smiles. “I love it when I’m here. It’s massively serendipitous. You think things and they happen. People pop out of the woodwork when you least expect it. We used to have a laugh. That’s what it’s all about. Ya know. Just having a crack.”
“All I Ever Wanted Was My Name On Fire,” Nick Walker, Oct 16 – Oct 22, 345 Broome Street, Manhattan, Opening reception Oct 16 6pm-9pm
(Photos: Aymann Ismail/ANIMALNewYork)