For better or for worse, our surroundings are inspirational. The places where we are brought up can inspire us by their bleakness, their vibrancy or their insufferable blandness. It is partly the drab nothingness of home that stimulated the creativity in Kid Acne, an artist who escaped small town drudgery through sheer imagination and the occasional middle finger to conformity.
Although keen to downplay any tales of woe, Kid Acne admits that life in a small town in the East Midlands for his teenage self was either going to be a springboard or a trap. Catching up with the artist in his Sheffield studio, his formative years in an unremarkable, suburban backwater creep into conversation repeatedly. The respected illustrator, artist and musician bluntly says that “it was a typical small town where you either stay and take recreational drugs and get someone pregnant, or take the decision to get out and move on with something else.”
Fast forward the best part of two decades and, after taking what he describes as ‘the scenic route’ to success, Kid Acne is a creative force recognised across multiple disciplines. Last summer, after years of painting graffiti, recording, fanzine publishing and commissioned illustration work outdoors, indoors and in print, Kid Acne presented a landmark retrospective at Museums Sheffield’s Millennium Gallery. It was a masterstroke by the institution in recognising one of the city’s adopted sons, but also a visible sign of acceptance into both civic and art history by someone who has practiced purposely on the fringes of establishment whilst being occasionally invited in to share his creative vision.
He reflects on the opportunity, which has been followed by exhibitions in Vienna, Los Angeles and Beijing by saying: “It was never on my radar to do a show with Museums Sheffield, but when I got the offer I thought it was great. I guess it shows you can do whatever you do, regardless. You never know who is actually paying attention and taking note. It’s a nice surprise when someone emerges and says they’ve been checking you out and now they want you to come and work with them.”
What the Sheffield gallery show did afford him, alongside fans new and old, was the chance to scan through years of work to take stock of the journey that he had been on. The available evidence, and his own recollections, clearly shows that his early years were stimulated by modern Americana, specifically the sights and sounds that had emanated from New York in the preceding decades. Graffiti and hip hop guided Kid Acne and his peers into creativity, initially as a route of intellectual escape and eventually, a very real route to something more personal. Interests in drawing and beats quickly moved on to making work himself.
He recalls: “It was when I was fifteen that I got into comic books and fanzines, really through my brother who collected them and was in a punk band. So, I started doing posters and record sleeves for them. It was in the summer of 1995 that it really came together and I decided to leave behind making graffiti fanzines or trying to paint graffiti in the same way as someone else and started painting big characters and making more experimental fanzines instead. Then I put my first record out when I was 17. We would all work in factories, put the money in a pot, put out records and play gigs. I learnt how to screen print and did all the posters and record sleeves. Whether it was anarchic willpower or stupidity, we just got on and did it. Being in a small town there was no peer pressure to say ‘don’t do it’ so we just did it.”
Just ‘doing it’ in a time and place of limited opportunity, but equally limited moderation or regulation is a difficult habit to kick, and it’s been a guiding principle of Kid Acne’s work to date. Channelling teenage frustrations into artwork and music is a healthy distraction from unsavoury alternatives, but there came a time when he realised that he could forge an identity of his own in the domestic world of graffiti and hip hop. He explains: “I just thought that there was no point in trying to replicate what other kids were doing twenty, thirty years beforehand. Instead, I should try and do my own thing and it was the same with the music. We made music that was inspired by New York hip-hop, but we always tried to have our own regional take on it. If you are so fixated on someone else’s history, it’s almost like being in a re-enactment battle. You’re just going through the motions of trying to emulate them without actually doing it for yourself.”
An inherent independent streak, coupled by an awakening that the graffiti world could get very small, very quickly meant that developing a unique style was necessary in order to move forward. Meeting Futura, the legendary New York graffiti artist, at just sixteen reinforced this to the aspiring artist and encouraged him to press ahead by himself. Taking inspiration from his brother, renowned artists such as She One and Gas Face and the unfinished work of one his friends, Kid Acne started developing his own ways with spray cans and markers. New characters started to develop, such as Zebra Face and early incarnations of his mysterious Stabby Women.
“Graffiti artists have always painted characters, and by graffiti I mean the stuff I had seen in books from the late 70s and early 80s, the New York inspired stuff,” he recalls. “But all the comic characters they painted would be existing characters, whether that was Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse or The Flintstones or whatever. Through collecting fanzines I became familiar with people like Pete Fowler when he was doing Slouch Comics and I just thought I should go from using someone else’s characters to actually developing my own. It was at that time that I started doing Zebra Face.”
Zebra Face graced the pages of early Kid Acne zines, starred in a 2001 comic book and has even been made into a set of commemorative salt and pepper shakers to mark the ten year anniversary. The scatting, half animal, half person character is certainly unique, so where did he (it?) come from? Kid Acne recalls conception, saying: “My fanzine was based on Dictaphone recordings of my mates talking nonsense. One of my mates came up with what he thought was one of the shittest superheroes ever – A man who’s only special power was to have the face of a zebra. He wrote half the story and then couldn’t be bothered with it, so I picked it up and finished it. We ended up doing a few fanzines together and then went on to do the book. Everything I’ve done since, you can trace back to 1995, when I consciously started developing my style.”
The middle of the nineties is clearly the time that Kid Acne feels an awakening took place, but there’s no escaping the fact that the intervening years has seen him ditch the dead end jobs, leave a one horse town, become internationally feted and been approached to work with global brands. He stresses that, in terms of his methods and reasons for making work have never changed, but eventually, almost reluctantly, identifies his breakthrough. He says: “I suppose the turning point was when I was in the second year at university, doing my Fine Art degree. I was approached by Warp Records to do a record sleeve for Plaid. That was the first summer I didn’t have to work in a factory. I got paid for one album sleeve the equivalent of what I would have got paid for the whole summer working in a factory.”
He is quick to put a stop to any assumption that he needed third party validation, or the promise of a pay cheque to commit fully to his creative endeavours saying quite clearly that “there was never a time when I thought ‘right, I am going to do this properly now’, because I have always tried to do it properly. Regardless of whether I’m getting paid or not” There’s definitely a constant sense of understandable, and not uncommon pride in the way he discusses his work, but professionalism appears to have a refreshingly different definition in his eyes. Not only does he feel that nothing has changed from his early ‘just do it’ years (to the current ‘just do it’ years), but he is also out to essentially please one person: Kid Acne.
He explains: “It’s like with making music; we always thought that no matter how weird or obscure it might be, there must be other like-minded people out there into the same kind of thing. We were unapologetic in our approach and had the conviction to press our own albums. When someone in Germany or Japan or wherever bought a copy we’d be like ‘oh, wow someone else is into it. Wicked’. It was like extra validation, but as long as you’re happy with it – that’s the main thing. The worst thing you can do is to try and second-guess what you think other people want, when in actual fact they’re not bothered either way. You’ll just end up chasing your tail and everyone else will be indifferent. It’s much healthier to polarise opinion rather than try to appease everyone I think.”
In the course of conversation, it’s clear that the self-certifying approach is light years away from arrogance; it is just common sense for a creative to maintain a largely singular vision and to believe in themselves. Proving that his world is not an egotistical bubble, he is acutely aware that people will often contribute with helpful opinions. He says: “I am aware that people are checking out certain things, but it’s down to you to decide how much to take on board. If you get the chance to look at your work through their eyes, you can come back to things that you had once dismissed and perhaps change them for the better.”
Despite pasting his Stabby Women and painting property from Rio to Barcelona, being commissioned to illustrate for the world’s fashionista and having a beer brewed in his honour, he hints that he often goes back to basics with a can of spray paint and an unclaimed wall in the same ways he used to as a teenager. He has broken his own rule for only doing one exhibition a year by committing to three solo outings in 2012 alone and is clearly enjoying the experience of dealing with galleries and curators as much as he has always enjoyed drawing for his own ends. But, just when he and his fans are getting used to seeing his work on clean white walls, he warns us it could all change tomorrow.
Before leaving his studio with a warm farewell, he bluntly concludes by confirming his motivations are often to reject what people think they know him for, saying: “If I become aware that something is expected of me, then I tend to go in the opposite direction for a while – Just to keep it moving and to keep it interesting for myself.” Given that our expectations of him are now for exciting gallery shows and ever collectable publications, it might be best to catch an exhibition and grab one of his zines before it’s too late.
Exclusive photographs courtesy of Theo Simpson.
Info: Kid Acne lives and works in Sheffield, UK. He began painting graffiti at the age of twelve and went on to create underground fanzines and release limited run 7”s on his own Invisible Spies imprint. He has worked with the world’s leading brands as an illustrator, while continuing to paint outdoors and develop new work for print projects and gallery exhibitions.
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