Many people will recognise the unique work of street artist A.CE, which can be seen pasted up all over London. In an extended interview ahead of his first solo exhibition, which opens tonight, we asked the man himself about his art, his influences and his plans for the future.
Your paste-ups stand out among London’s street art and are instantly recognisable. Why did you decide to use paste ups/screen prints as street art?
I’ve pretty much played around with all mediums over the years; paint, pens, stencils, stickers. I was inspired in the 90’s by the big paste ups of Shep, Kinsey, Kaws, Buff Monster, and later The London Police. I like the opportunity for scale the most. It was an obvious progression from the smaller stickers I was printing or hand drawing at the time. Plus if you find a photocopier somewhere at your disposal then you can just run off as many copies as you want until you get caught!
The medium of paste ups, either screen prints, photocopied large-scale or laser prints lends itself to the style of work that I like to do. It’s probably the best opportunity for quick reproduction of an image, and there’s usually a fair bit of detail in them too, which wouldn’t really come out in any other way. Saying that I do like to hand paint my paste-ups from time to time.
I like the punky D.I.Y aesthetic of the paste-up, and I like the links that the commercial screen printing technique has with the pop art movement and also skateboard graphics which were executed in that way. I was massively inspired by skateboard graphics growing up.
Your work often centres around recognisable images such as brand logos and well-known cartoon characters. What issues or themes do you address in your work?
My work is more of a visual remix of sampled imagery - pop imagery I suppose, which will have some relevance to me, my generation, or the wider public. I try to focus solely on working with ambiguous found images, and/or established graphics, like cartoons, that I can appropriate and rebel against.
Established imagery tends to have more of a fixed meaning or association which acts as a reliable platform from which to take a more psychedelic / fucked up direction. I like the idea of sampling in music, and it works in collage based art too. I don’t like to be too specific with any messages I’m portraying within my work. In fact I think they’d have to be pretty subconscious if there were any. I like the vague approach, and the opportunity for mixed reactions to the work.
I guess that’s where the aspect of phenomenology can creep in, which Shepard Fairey also subscribes to. My work is throwaway - if you can get a second’s pleasure from just looking at it then that’s good. If an aspect of the piece resonates with you then that’s a plus, and if you can see and take something positive from it then that’s a bonus! I guess elements of nostalgia, and consumerism feature heavily in my work. Brands and logos have an established personality and associated connotations too, which can also work as anchors to steer the work, or add a dimension to the work. I like the sentiment in Ashley Bickerton’s tormented self portrait - when I saw this piece last year at the Tate I think I realised my work had something in common with the idea of using brands and logos to represent, in his case, the life of the individual.
All my works could maybe be self portraits - I’m sure I could argue one piece at a time that they were! I think ultimately I just like to make works that I like the look of, punchy images, and at the end of the day it’s all just getting up isn’t it - an A.CE tag or a detailed A.CE paste up have the same agenda for me.
Can you explain the process behind creating a print? How long does it take to create a piece, from the initial idea to its final outcome?
I try to play around with things with a kind of ‘Ready Steady Cook’ approach with a bunch of tears or whatever that I’ve collected up and think will wind up looking good together. Usually from the outset I’m not entirely sure how the piece is going to end up looking, or if it will work at all, but I see the potential in the bits I’ve found so sort of know how I’d like it to look. I scrap far more attempts than I keep though. Also sometimes I’ll go back and work into images to take it all a step further. In this sense pieces can take as little as a couple of hours or as long as months or years if it’s still a work in progress. I’ll collage found or photocopied enlarged elements together, and scan them in, then bring in other scanned bits, writing, tags or whatever, and just play about with it. I’m not totally comfortable with using the computer too much, I prefer to limit it to just doing the job of moving bits about, doing the job of my hands, with the benefit of being able to enlarge sections to the right size to bring a bit of cohesion to the piece. I’m very conscious of getting into generic graphic design territory when I use the PC, so I do like to leave the mark of the human hand where I can. There are more options open to you with a computer that you could ever get by limiting yourself to a straight-up collage, it’s all just slicker production techniques at your disposal.
When I’m happy with an image I’ll print it out - photocopy it up and either put it straight out there, or use it to generate a screen from. I like to maximise the number of processes involved to take the finished arrangement as far as possible from its original source. For a long time I just kept everything black and white, and I was happy to do that, but right now I’m playing around a lot more with colour. Colour theory is something I’ve naturally found myself considering a lot more than I ever did. Sometimes I’ll specifically reference a particular colour combination that relates to some other inspiring image, other times I’ll just limit myself to whatever colours I have lying around which adds a degree of spontaneity to the work. Choice can be overwhelming in anything, so forced limitations are sometimes good! I like to work into my prints if I’m in the mood. It can be a real cathartic part of the process. Sometimes just words, things I hear on the radio, or drunken streams of consciousness.
Which artists inspire you and your work? Are you inspired by 'conventional' artists more than street artists?
I think as my art knowledge and interest has broadened so too have my sources of inspiration. I’m just as inspired by graphic designers and illustrators as I am by artists, both contemporary and conventional. Sometimes it can just be a small aspect, or an idea that I pick up on. Sometimes a technique will be enough to get me hyped to go back to the studio and play. Warhol, Harland Miller, Emin, Cy Twombly or Basquiat actually feature in this respect a lot. Pop art as a movement has definitely been the biggest influence for ideas and subject -Warhol, Johns, Rauschenberg, Rotella, Lichenstein and more recently Peter Blake.
Skateboard graphics were definitely my first source of inspiration through growing up, and that runs deep inside me to this day. Skateboarding defined me. That goes back to the mid to late 80’s - I didn’t know who they were at the time but it was works by the likes of Vernon Courtland Johnson, Jim Philips, and Mark Gonzales. Next came graffiti, which I didn’t initially understand but liked. I used to go home and copy the tags that I saw in the playgrounds and parks growing up. I’d just do a scribble because I didn’t realise they were actually words!
It was definitely graffiti artists that I first started to emulate with the work that I put out there. I’ve turned my back on that a bit, but I will still carry a pen with me most times. As much as I have an unquestionable appreciation and respect for what writers do I was personally becoming a bit desensitised to it and alternative street art mediums resonated with me much more. I saw more opportunity to get more influences out in my work that way much more than I did with graff.
Many street artists are criticised for exhibiting their work 'indoors' yet it could be argued that your artwork is just as suited to a gallery as to the street.
I don’t really believe in street art - it doesn’t mean much to me as a term; it is just art in a street environment, so in that respect the art that I produce - like a lot of artists - could probably work in either/or. Scale and medium obviously play a part when you’re tailoring your piece to its chosen destination though. I don’t really subscribe to this belief that street art should stay on the street. It might look slightly different in a new context, but it doesn’t mean a piece of work can’t work in a gallery or inside on a wall. I think it often has a lot to do with where the art is first encountered. I might love a reclaimed piece in a show, that I never had the chance to see in its original environment, and the guy that enjoyed it on the street might not be able to get the image of that original encounter out of his head when he sees it on the wall in the show. It’s like music - do you prefer the live version of the song or the one on the album? Quite often it’s whichever you heard first. Energy is lost when the illegality and surprise elements are removed I agree, but that’s only when you limit yourself to viewing gallery art through street art glasses, and by doing that you deny the artist the chance to embrace both. I don’t like the fact that galleries are tempting a lot of great writers and artists away from the streets, but it’s all swings and roundabouts and shows often give ‘street artists’ a chance to develop and grow. I think as long as you’re hitting the streets as much as the galleries then you’re alright in my book.
Many graffiti and street artists have diversified into other areas. Following on from your first exhibition, how do you see your artwork progressing in the future?
I think at the very least you’ve got to keep pushing yourself and challenging yourself. I’ll continue to enjoy the process of making my work that I enjoy now, and I’ll progress as and when I find new ideas and influences. I’ve no idea what path I’ll be going down in the next few months or years, I could stay 2D, I could go all 3D, who knows? But I still want to be hitting the streets. I enjoy that too much. No briefs, no limitations. I’ll take shows in my stride if any more opportunities come up, but one thing is worth saying; show’s still count as getting up for me - it’s just that someone gave me permission to do it!
Ace Beats King is at the Eastpak Gallery, 1 Carnaby Street, London W1F 9QF until 6th July. If you’d like to attend the private launch from 7.00pm tonight (Thursday 6th May) RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org