As a new series of paintings by street artist Stik appear at Dulwich Picture Gallery, we find out more about his difficult past and promising future, courtesy of our friends at Global Street Art.
Stik’s distinctive black and white stickmen can be seen throughout London (see our map, updated by the man himself). His recent solo show at West London’s Imitate Modern Gallery sold out in less than 90 seconds. So successful has the artist become that there’s now a six-month waiting list to buy a Stik canvas, and his collectors include the likes of Brian May, Tinie Tempah, Goldie, Chris Martin, Ed Sheeran and Bono.
“My work has a broad appeal because it’s very friendly,” says Stik. It might have commercial appeal, but the artist’s main drive is not to make cash. Instead, he remains focused on work that supports the wider community. Only two weeks after his solo show sold out, Stik was volunteering at a homeless shelter in Central London. He was living in one just 18 months ago.
The artist is 30ish (he won’t be more specific), with a slim build and short hair. He’ll let people take pictures, but dons cheap, over-sized sunglasses to mute his identity. Stik is extroverted when he talks about the present and future, but becomes introverted when talking about his identity and his past.
“My name is Stik. I don’t give out my name because I’m a graffiti artist. I still paint illegally,” he says. But there’s more to this evasive answer. Stik’s past has been difficult. Although he admits he became homeless some 10 years ago, he won’t talk about how. It’s clearly an unhappy story spanning a number of years. “Art totally took me out of homelessness,” he reflects. “It kept me focused and on the right track.”
The only item Stik would take with him as he moved around town was a huge box containing hundreds of sketchpads. “Well, I’ve always drawn stickmen, and on walls. That goes right back. When I became homeless I was really out of the system. There was no thought of being in galleries at all; art was just my way of communicating.”
He started painting larger pieces around East London, scavenging near-spent tins of white emulsion, left outside redecorated homes. When painting outside, passers-by would often ask him to paint the outside of their own houses. Stik says if you can see the wall from the street he’ll still paint it for free, although it’s hard to see how long this can continue thanks to the high demand.
“I don’t have a formal education. I learned from other graffiti and street artists like Doze, Zomby, Run and Roa. Street artists learn a lot from each other. There’s a mutual understanding between street artists who risk getting their work out there.”
Stik says he’s also learned from fine artists like Giacometti and Anthony Gormley. “I always visited art galleries,” he says. During a difficult period eight years ago Stik met Anthony Gormley in White Cube and gave him a book of his drawings. Stik had made a collection of some 50 drawings, photocopied them in a corner shop and stapled them into booklets. Gormley thanked him and said he also worked with lines, which meant a lot to Stik.
We ask the artist how many stickmen he’s drawn. “Millions,” he reckons, “but they’re not just stickmen, they’re people. People became stickmen. They’re shorthand for emotions. They reflect how I feel. The curve of the back, how tucked in the chest is, if the arse is sticking out, whether they are knock-kneed. There’s a lot in the bend of a knee or the shrug of a shoulder.” Stik gets lost for a moment doodling on our pad.
At one point he found a job cleaning the toilets at The Foundry, a now-condemned pub and arts venue that was the centre of east London’s alternative arts scene for a decade. Banksy had artworks at The Foundry and it also became the site for Stik’s first solo show.
In winter 2009, after a period of homelessness, Stik went to a drop-in centre, who found him a place at St Mungo’s in Hackney (one of his paintings still graces the back yard). Stik saw his time in the hostel as sink or swim. He was there for just over a year, which he says was his most productive time. “A lot changed when I moved into the hostel. It was a good space. I painted a lot of work in the streets.”
Inspired by his past, Stik started linking his art to local news stories and social issues, often depicting those who slip through the cracks. He was commissioned by the NHS to produce a series of murals around Hackney to depict the effects of various drugs (ketamine, LSD, ecstasy — see the image gallery) for an addiction education website.
In 2011, Stik moved out of the hostel into more stable accommodation in Hackney. He was then offered four solo shows: at the Subway Gallery (on Edgware Road), with the Lava Collective in Covent Garden, at KOP in Bristol and at Graffik Gallery in West London. All four sold out, just like his recent show.
Stik is now in a much better position, and he’s choosing to follow his social aims. In the summer of 2011, he was invited to Gdansk, Poland by the British Council to paint a large-scale street piece as part of the Brit Cult Festival alongside Gilbert and George at the Laznia Centre for Contemporary Art. That Christmas his posters were sold at a fundraiser for St Mungo’s.
Having just moved out of the hostel, Stik gave a talk on street art at the Hackney Wicked Festival. He was approached by a patron of the Dulwich Picture Gallery on behalf of the Dulwich Festival, who invited him to learn about their collection and rework some of their pieces as street art. Stik is now being coached about the masters, the stories and histories behind the paintings.
He’s embarked on a series of six large murals in Dulwich based on the gallery’s permanent collection, which includes works by Rubens and Gainsborough, blurring the line between street and gallery art. The first of these pieces was based on ‘The Linley Sisters‘ by Gainsborough. Jeane Trend-Hill was at the gallery as the interpretation was being painted. “It was amazing to watch the talented artist in action,” she says. The precision and detail that go in to his stick figures is absolutely amazing. He even let me paint a bit of the piece. I think my reply was “Are you serious?”. I couldn’t believe it, talk about an honour. He is one of the nicest guys I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting – and he made me a cup of tea!”
There will be an official tour of the murals at the Dulwich Festival in May. For Stik this exhibition has great significance; he has been accepted by the art establishment.
Stik feels good about his success “It’s opening up lots of opportunities for me. This is a new chapter in my life.” Clearly, a lot has changed very quickly and Stik is reassessing his life. People often take pictures when Stik steps outside his studio on Pitfield Street, a regular stop on street art tours.
For more information about Stik’s involvement at the Dulwich Festival, including Stik’s street art walk on 19 May, see here.
By Lee Bofkin — for more great pictures and interviews check out Global Street Art.