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John Bulley: The ‘mediocre’ painter who created an icon

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If you’ve ever been to Camden Lock in North London, you’ve almost certainly seen John Bulley’s most famous painting. There’s a good chance that you may even have a picture of yourself standing in front of it. It’s the signage painted on Camden Lock Railway Bridge, which towers over the market.

In the late ’80s, after being thrown out of art college, John was living in Peterborough, working as a designer for Bike magazine. Fed up with that, he decided to move down to London to join some friends who were painting signs for Oddbins wine shops.

‘I started working as a signwriter, painting signs and hoardings all around London, and it was brilliant,’ John remembers. ‘Anyway, someone from Camden must have seen my work because a bloke called Eric Reynolds contacted me and said, I like what you’re doing. Can you do some signs for us?’

John Bulley: London Zoo
John Bulley: London Zoo

The Camden Market redevelopment was surrounded by hoardings at that time, so John painted those, including a massive piece for London Zoo. He also worked on Dingwalls, a music venue, and painted a satirical mural for the Jongleurs comedy club.

‘That was good fun – no holds barred,’ says John. ‘Basically, I took the piss out of royalty, every government bigwig at the time, and the rich and famous. It was pretty radical and they loved it!’

 

John Bulley: mural Jongleurs
John Bulley: Jongleurs mural

One day, among all the other jobs that he was doing around the market, Eric Reynolds asked John if he could come up with an idea for a design for the railway bridge, which was about to be refurbished and repainted by British Rail.

‘It was that simple,’ John recalls. ‘No biggie. British Rail had their scaffolding up. It was just a job on a bridge that needed doing, so I did it.’

After a couple of days, John came up with a design.

‘I wanted to do something a bit different, with a bit of humour in it, that would stand out from a distance,’ he explains. ‘I invented a big fat typeface and chose colours that I thought suited the Camden feel and that would look good against the green background. And I came up with the idea of making it look as if there were two blokes up there painting it, like it would never be finished, and those blokes would always be up there painting away.’

The painters immortalised on the bridge were modelled by John’s mates, Tim and Frankie.

‘I got them to hang off bits of string in the art department where we worked, so I could pose them,’ John remembers. ‘Neither of them was athletic and they were horrified at having to hang around on bits of string. But there they are, up there forever.’

 

And the rest is history. John’s painting has become one of the most photographed in London.

‘It’s become bloody iconic, it’s weird!’ he says. ‘But I suppose it makes sense. If you’re a tourist and you want to show everybody that you’ve been to Camden Lock, you take a photograph of yourself in front of a big fuck off bridge that says Camden Lock on it. And every time they do a bit of promo on Camden Lock, there it is again’.

Over the years, Camden has been approached by advertisers offering huge sums of money to advertise on the bridge but all their advances have been rejected.

‘The bridge is the bridge and it stays that way,’ says John.

Camden Lock Bridge has been repainted once since John’s original job in 1989.

‘A few years ago Camden got in touch with me wanting to know the spec for the colours I’d used,’ he explains. ‘They were going to repaint the bridge exactly as it was. It needed it. It was looking very sad.’

John’s first reaction was indignation.

‘I said, fuck off, it’s my bridge, I’ll paint it,’ he laughs. ‘But they wanted to do it themselves, so in the end I gave them the colours they needed and they repainted it. And they did a pretty good job, I have to admit.’

‘I like to pretend the bridge is no big deal, just another bit of work I did ages ago but in reality I love it to death,’ John admits. ‘I love walking under there knowing it’s all my own work. And I love the kudos it brings me with street artists when I casually drop into conversation “Oh yeah, Camden Lock Bridge, I did that”‘.

John’s creative relationship with Camden has continued over the years. He’s painted other exteriors, and in 2017 he painted murals for Cuban restaurant Gabeto https://www.gabeto.co.uk/. Recently, he was contacted by Camden Town Brewery. They wanted him recreate his original design, to ‘bring a bit of Camden’ into their new brewery in Enfield. John, who owns the copyright for the bridge design, agreed.

‘I used the Brewery’s colours, but kept the Camden Lock lettering and the pictures of the two mates who I’d originally put up there,’ he explains. ‘It looks really nice.’

John Bulley: Oh Piss Off!
John Bulley: Oh piss off!

John now lives in Southend-On-Sea, in Essex, where he pursues his own art. He also accepts commissions and takes other paid jobs. Among other things, he worked on two of the Harry Potter films and the movie Memphis Belle.

Memphis Belle was a dream job for me cos I’m an aeroplane freak,’ John says.

After the film came out, Biggin Hill contacted John to ask if he would repaint the nose art on the Sally B, the original B17 Flying Fortress used in the film.

‘So she’s flying around right now with my artwork on her, which is pretty cool!’ he enthuses. http://www.sallyb.org.uk/ 

Despite his success and his portfolio of work, which often features characters from film or television, John insists that he is not an artist.

‘I hate everything about the art game,’ he says. ‘I loathe the way galleries are like cathedrals with their white walls and there’s all this sacred stuff in them, which you’re not allowed to touch because it is so precious. And I hate arty people standing around clutching their Prosecco pretending to read the art bollocks while sneakily eyeing each other up. Pretentious tossers.’

John Bulley Begbie Trainspotting still
John Bulley: Begbie from Trainspotting

‘I’m the opposite of that. I’m a painter, I mess about with paints,’ he continues. ‘I paint pictures. I copy photographs and I paint bridges. I’m an artisan, not a fine artist.’

John’s disdain of the commercial art world has prompted him to take his art into the community and his paintings are now a familiar sight around Southend.

‘Southend council funds an “official” arts organisation called Metal Culture which controls who can be artists, which leaves nothing for those of us that don’t fit in with their agenda,’ says John. ‘The people at Metal got fed up with me banging on about them getting all the money and called me “mediocre” so I got a tee shirt made with it on and I wear it with pride!’

John Bulley wears his 'mediocre' tee shirt with prideJohn has some sympathy for their opinion of his work.

‘Some of what I do is pretty mediocre,’ he reflects. ‘I’m not making any great claims for it. I paint what I like.’

‘Anyway, I got really fed up with the Arts situation in Southend, so I found an old derelict building and I thought I’d paint that and see if I could get away with it,’ he continues. ‘First, I painted Michael Caine from the film Get Carter and people really liked that, so I though I’d do a gangster theme. I painted the Kray twins, but I did them in their mum’s house set against pink wallpaper having a cup of tea from dainty teacups, and I did Bob Hoskins in Lassiter.’

John Bulley: Derelict gallery
John Bulley: Derelict Gallery

The ‘derelict gallery’ has been knocked down now, but for John that’s just an natural part of the process. ‘Nothing lasts forever and I love the fact that it is temporary’, he says. ‘It gives the work the kind of respect it deserves. And anyway, once you’ve taken a photograph and shared it on Facebook and Instagram and all that, you’ve reached as many people as you’re going to reach. If things get pulled down or painted over don’t be precious about it, do another one.’

‘One day the bridge will come down too,’ he reflects, ‘but for now I’m happy still to be able to wander up the road from the tube station and see it gradually appear over the canal.’

John Bulley: Italian job
John paints on large hoardings around Southend

Now John paints large (8ft x10ft) works and pastes them up on hoardings around Southend.

His work is topical and subtly subversive. ‘I did one of Megan and Harry called One day my prince will come – playing on the idea that a woman needs a handsome prince to be happy – and another one of the Royal Family called Land of Hope and Glory, which of course it isn’t,’ he comments.

John Bulley: One day my prince will come
One day my prince will come

‘I’m quite careful about what I put up around the town. I try to make sure it doesn’t offend. Although I did put up a picture of a homeless person just before Christmas and it was taken down the same day. It’s ironic that people were offended by a picture of a homeless person but not so much by homelessness itself.’

John is a champion of community art. Ten years ago he was one of the founders of  the annual Estuary Fringe Festival https://www.facebook.com/estuaryfringe/ an initiative aimed at giving art back to the community.

 

 

‘Me and my mate were in this cafe one day and I was moaning on as usual about the state of the arts in Southend,’ he recalls. ‘And he said, stop moaning John, and do something about it. So we set up the Festival. The first one was organised in just seven weeks and with no money, which just proves you don’t need hundreds of thousands of pounds to put on a good festival.’

The Festival features musicians, poets and artists. ‘Basically, we just want to be as anarchic as possible,’ John explains, ‘which we can be of course, because we’re not beholden to anybody.’

And what is John planning for the future?  Well he has some ideas but he’s keeping them under his hat.

‘For now, I’m just chipping away. Trying my best to be a thorn in the side of the powers that be,’ he says. ‘And my bridge is looking a bit sad again now. That could probably do with another coat.’

You can see more of John’s paintings or contact him here: http://www.johnbulley.com/ or on Instagram https://www.instagram.com/theartistjohnbulley/

 

 

 

 

 

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Ben Wilson: Chewing Gum Man

Artis Ben Wilson aka Chewing Gum Man on the Millenium Bridge

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Crossing London’s Millenium Bridge always involves negotiating a crowd. There are Londoners with their gaze fixed straight ahead, or on their phones, trying to get from A to B, and tourists taking in the stunning views down the Thames on their way to St Paul’s Cathedral or to see the international art collection at the Tate Modern.

But the bridge hosts a secret art collection. An art collection that you will only see if you look down. An art collection painted on the spat-out chewing gum left on the bridge and its surrounding walkways.

My sister Annie was out around London last week filming and taking photographs for a travel guide project she’s doing. She was taking pictures of the minature artworks on the bridge when she (almost literally) stumbled across the Chewing Gum Man himself – artist, Ben Wilson – lying on the ground, surrounded by a small crowd, adding the finishing touches to his latest mini-masterpiece.  She stopped to take some pictures and he was happy to be photographed and to chat about his work.

Ben is a professional artist with a background in painting, wood-carving and sculpture. He has exhibited all over the world. Check out his listing on Wikipedia to find out more https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ben_Wilson_(artist)

Driven by his dislike of waste and a desire to improve the urban environment, in the late nineties, Ben started experimenting with occasional chewing-gum paintings. Has now created thousands of them across London (particularly in Muswell Hill where he lives) but also around the UK and in Europe. He says he loves the idea of taking something that has been thrown away and transforming it into something amazing.

Each transformation takes between a couple of hours and three days to complete, using a special technique that involves heating the gum with a small blow torch, then coating it with three layers of acrylic enamel, before painting it with special acrylic paints and sealing it with clear lacquer. With the public ‘donating’ an endless supply of canvasses, Ben needs constant inspiration for his creations. His subjects include requests from the public, portraits, mini-landscapes and strange creatures from his imagination. The shape of each painting is determined by where the gum spitting has taken place. On the bridge, where it is squashed into the metal, the images are made up of slightly disconnected oblongs. On the ramps down from the bridge to the river banks, they tend to be round.

Britain spends about £150 million each year cleaning chewing gum from pavement and although Ben’s work does get eroded when the bridge is cleaned, there is no deliberate effort to remove it. In 2009, he was arrested in Trafalgar Square but, he explains that, technically, what he does does not count as criminal damage, because he is painting the gum, not the pavement.

There is a serious intent behind Ben’s chewing gum art. He sees it as a small way of helping people reconnect with their environment. In an Observer article some years ago he said, ‘Kids are not allowed to feel any connection with where they live … They can’t play in the streets because they are likely to get run over; then you have the national curriculum, and all this testing at school, and no opportunity to play or to make things, and everything you do outside is recorded on surveillance cameras. The only imagery that children see around them are billboards and TV; every part of their environment is out of bounds or sold off. That’s why they don’t care about their streets. This is a small way of connecting people.’

At the moment, Ben is using Kickstarter to try to raise funds to produce a book featuring a picture trail of his chewing gum art from St. Pauls, across the Millennium Bridge and into the Tate Modern. He hasn’t reached the Tate Modern yet – he is nearly there – but with only 19 fundraising days to go (ends midday 13th September) he has only raised just over £3000 of the £8000 he needs for publication. You can find out more about the project and, if you want to support him, pledge a donation, here https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/studiomoe/ben-wilson-the-chewing-gum-man-the-millennium-bridge-gum. With Kickstarter projects you only pay if the project reaches its target amount. Ben is offering free paperback copies of the book in return for donations.

If you want to see more of Ben’s fascinating work, follow him on Instagram @benwilsonchewinggumman https://instagram.com/benwilsonchewinggumman?igshid=5jm87/ijcs264

And next time you’re in London and you cross the Millenium Bridge, just remember to look down as well as up, if you want to appreciate all the cultural richness the area has to offer.