Nick Walker: Inside the Mind of The Vandal
Nick Walker is one of the worlds best known graffiti artists. Born in 1969, he emerged from the infamous and ground-breaking Bristol graffiti scene of the early 80’s that has spawned Banksy, Ben Eine, Robert Del Naja (3D), Sickboy and more over the years. As a forerunner of the British graffiti phenomenon, Nick’s work has become a blueprint for hundreds of emerging artist.
I met Nick on the corner of Spring and West Broadway. He had just recently moved into the neighborhood, and we decided to hang out at one of my favorite cappuccino haunts, Ground Support. Nothing’s better than a beautiful sunny day with a cup of Cap and talking art. We’re sitting on the bench out front and I noticed a digital watch on the seat. I pick it up and show Nick saying “it’s probably a bomb”. Nick laughs, cautiously, saying “Yeah right”. As we start the conversation I notice running up West Broadway this heavy set kid. I can tell he’s clearly not used to this sort of physical activity, yet still he’s determined to get to where I am as fast as possible. When he finally stops in front of us, he buckles over from the pain while just trying to catch his breath. You knew that was the most exercise this kids had in years, unless you count running down the cookie isle of the store. We knew what he was here for yet we just stared at him and waited for the wind to come back and ask for it. “The watch…did you see a watch?” huffing and puffing between words. I say “This, (holding it up by its strap) your lucky I saved it” . He then thanked me in between his gulping of air,like a fish out of water, when Nick finally says to the kid “Right, now lets see how fast you can run back?” We both start cracking up and it was then that I realized this was going to be a good read.
How does it feel to be credited with introducing stencil graffiti to your home town of Bristols and being a big influence on Banksy?
Alright firstly, I don’t think I should be credited to bringing stenciling to Bristol. Robert Del Naja aka 3D brought it to Bristols and showed me.
From Massive Attack. (Not only have I loved Roberts work as half of the Trip Hop sound know as Massive Attack for over 20 years but I think he is one of the most underrated artist out there… But hopefully I can tell that story later.)
Yea, he influenced me. When he brought the stenciling around I was like “what is fuckin’ that?” I didn’t quite understand it. I was too embroiled in the American graffiti scene at the time, you know tagging trains. We would watch some videos from the states about graffiti and that’s what we were into. When Robert brought stencils into the mix I really didn’t understand it, so you automatically dismiss what you don’t understand. But then I worked on a couple projects with him in Bristol and I saw the process, it was creative and inspirational. I latched onto it and I think that’s why I still do it today. So 3D introduced it to me. And I know, because Banksy has told me that 3D and I have influenced him. So it’s like those who come before influence the new…. But I really don’t dwell on it.
Plates Nick… Really. In your wildest of dreams did you ever get the image of plates in your head let only produced by The Royal Doulton. I counted 8 or 9 images. Most artist just get 2 or 3 images if that. Explain to me how the hell this happened? (If you didn’t know Royal Doulton is by Royal Appointment. They do everything for the Royal family.)
I think there are 6 special edition ones and they all sold out mad fast and then there’s the images of the cans, the mad splasher and smaller versions that will be limitless. It is quite crazy. They approached me out of the blue. I got an e-mail from the main art director and he tried to explain the whole concept to me but it really didn’t take me too long to decide that I wanted in. So it brings my art to a whole other level, a new demographic and more to the masses. As an artist nowadays it’s all about self promotion and if you have something kicking in the background like that, well that’s incredible. And they were great to work with.
So they gave you final approval?
Yeah definitely, always final approval and we’re going to be doing a figure soon.
Of the Vandal?
Yeah because their famous for their figurines but with me it’s sort of like a left turn.
Yea but its good that they try to stay edgy and fresh instead of old and dodgy.
They also did plates with Pure Evil and now we’re part of their design team. They call it…what do they call it? It’s a special name?
(Laughing) Yea yea “fucking crazy” that’s it.
You are definitely in that class of street artist who have produced an iconic figure. One that when you see it you know right away who that artist is. When did you come up with your trademark “Vandal” design (the man with the top hat and suite)?
I saw a kiddy smoking crack once under a massive umbrella in the middle of London. You couldn’t really see what he was doing but I’m pretty nosey so I kinda went in and peered underneath it and saw him. So it got me thinking that once the umbrella was up its kinda like a huge shield to hide behind. So I’m thinking, “what if we start to use that as a tool for when we do graffiti”. When it’s up and behind you, no one can see what the fuck your doing, anyone behind you would never know. Then the other element is that the Vandalist is dressed rather dapper, like a city gent. No one expects a graffiti artist to be dressed like that especially in the middle of London. Dressed like a city banker he’s the ultimate decoy.
Niiiice. What type of music did you listen to growing up ?
Before I was into rap and the whole hip-hop scene exploded I was into Blondie. There were great bands like The Clash, The Specials and Madness. That ska scene and punk was all about bringing black and white together. Then with hip-hop it was the same thing. Then in 81 or 82 Blondie with the tune “Rapture” had Fab Five Freddy and Lee Quioness in her video.
Actually Jean-Michel Basquiat was in that video also.
Right right right. That was one of my first insights into some of these people as characters. Then Malcolm McClaren came out with the intense video for “Buffalo Girls.”
Yeah Art and Music collide… Like I’ve always stressed. The best mash-up.
Yeah Yeah Yeah.. I get spinal peekage even when I think about it now. Even the hairs stand up on my head. And it was just like that twisted everything up for me.
Cool. What music are you listening to now?
Now… It’s a lot more eclectic as the years go on. I can listen to anything.
When I spoke with Ben Eine he was telling me how much he loved NYC. I know you do also. What’s it about the big apple that you love?
The creativity of this place. Things just seam to spawn from here. Real creative fungi, real energy. I mean this place is built on granite, right? (Speaking of energy, Nick’s passion is peaking right at this moment) People are always in a hurry to get somewhere. People are in the cabs and the horns are going “beep beep beep.” No body has any fucking time and literally it is the most serendipitous city that was ever, period, that was ever. The shit that fucking happens here, only fucking happens here, never anywhere else. Opportunities happen all the time. I love this place. It’s fucking mental which is why I spend so much time here and why I recently moved here.
Do you remember the first time you sold a piece of art and realized you could actually make a living at this art thing?
All I wanted to do was work on film sets growing up. The first time I sold my art was during my first show when I was like 24. I sold a bunch of stuff during that time and I kinda got the bug right after that.
Are you a night owl or an early bird when it comes to creating?
I can think straighter in the morning. I like to get up, get my coffee on, you know. I go swimming a lot, like a half hour solid so I don’t feel so bad if I’m sitting on my ass the rest of the day. But creativity comes at all times of the day. I mean I hate when people ask me “where do you get your ideas from?” My bloody head man..I mean where else do they come from?
(Laughing) I’ll make sure not to ask you that question now.
(Laughing.) Yeah yeah… Don’t ask that.
Ok Nick, if you were not able by the grace of God to enjoy making a living out of creating art what other occupation do you think you would be able to live with doing for the rest of your life?
Oceanographer. (And he didn’t even have to think about that question. He’s been waiting to tell people this.) Imagine, swimming to the depths of the sea to try to discover an unfound species, like the strangest glowing octopus or whatever the fuck is down there.
Well you do like the water a lot.
Yeah Yeah, I would do that.
Who inspired you growing up? And I’m sure you have numerous answers for this question. But what artist did you see out there that just made you stop an say “damn I want to do that.”
Comic book guys. I was a massive comic book freak. I spent a lot of time in holland and found these old comic books called “1984” very similar to your “Heavy Metal” or “Metal Huralnt” (French version).
I used to buy and collect Heavy Metal, it was like comic porn. Great realistic illustrations and sexy chicks.
Yeah classic images. Other artist I was into was Jean Giraud, who died recently, his painting work was insane. Jasper Johns, love his textures. Warhol, and many of my contemporaries. Friends of mine. They all inspire me.
That must of been quite an honor when “the” Stanley Kubrick asked you to recreate the graffiti’d streets of New York for his 1999 film, Eyes Wide Shut, I mean your from Bristols, England, there were plenty of graffiti artist right in his neighborhood that could have done that. How did this all come about?
Well he saw my work and asked the art department to get a hold of me. When I got the call I was like fuuuuuuuuuuuck, Absolutely! Yeah that was mad. He wanted me to create these graffiti onions, you know creating layers upon layers upon different styles and tags then pealing them back. Then throw on some silver and black paint. Then you fuck that up with a bunch of tags again. You just created this weathered effect over time and then age it and make it look like 1992. So the cool thing is I was asked to do the set like that, but that kind of way stuck with me and I bring that into my new shit the same way. I kinda go over and over it. Then I’ll leave important elements of say a letter or more two words that you can still see what it says even though I went on top of it. I owe a lot of my style to the early years of my film set career. The first one I did was Judge Dread and that was pretty nutty. They built this world of the future and I had to come up with graffiti names for that time period and gang names.
He was a head of the game.
Yeah yeah he still is. He’s a very cool guy.
How did you feel after your now famous “Moona Lisa” sold for 54,000 British Pounds? Almost 10 times its estimate.
It made me feel mad. That was an intense time. Right after I just had my LA show and it just sent the hedge fund people all over it. The entire show was sold out in a matter of hours. Next day… nothing available. Right before the auction I was on the cover of The Independent magazine, so the timing was perfect. It went 7 times its estimate. But with that there’s the double edge sword. When a piece goes that high at auction some people think everything should go up across the board. So everybody wants to try to sell their pieces at the same time to try to cash in and nobody has a leash on it. With Bonham’s, the auction house, they just had one piece. Then another auction house picks up on it and has 14 pieces on the block.
Thats a lot.
Right, it was a unnerving experience. I mean the bubble could have burst right then. It was all eyes on. Some people say its a nice worry to have….but it really isn’t.
Alright then this is a perfect time for this question. What’s the one thing that you hate about the art market?
When you become a commodity, man that’s so weird to even say.
Yeah especially as a street artist, that’s one aspect of the system that your fighting.
Yeah yeah but you can’t really control that now can you. The auctions can change the opinions of people’s expectations. Yeah I’m in the middle of all of that now.
But that’s not a bad thing.
Yes it is (laughing) because now you really have to care a lot more about what your putting out there. If that’s one good thing that comes out of that market is that you have to be a lot more conscientious and particular about what your making. Everything has to be 110% before it leaves the studio.
See No Evil, the week long graffiti event that claimed to be the largest street art event of its kind in the UK reaffirmed Bristol’s high position in the urban art movement. What was it like to be a part of that back in 2011? Your image was huge for that, something like 10 stories high, how long did that take to pull off?
Yeah crazy, that was 110ft. We closed down the road and worked only at night because it had to be projected from the building across the way. The first night we went in there and blocked it all out with the black color. 2nd and third night we would paint. “Bio” (a good friend and graffiti artist who was also making his own art at the festival ) helped finish it off with me. He jumped right in the cart with me with no questions asked. Actually the second night our driver fell asleep and the cart jerked on us… 95ft. In the air…scared the piss out of us. Fucking idiot.
If you could meet one artist living or passed who would that be?
Möebius, Jean Giraud. (a French artist, cartoonist and writer, 1938-2012)
What’s your first question you would ask him?
First question… definitely NOT where do you get your ideas from (laughing).
Yeah yeah yeah… I fucking got it.
But what I would ask him is “what inspired you or made you become what you are today?”
What are you working on now and what’s coming up in the future that you think my audience should know about?
I have a few different walls lined up in the city, just finalizing all the proper stuff for the Vandal Squad. More slaps, more hitting (slang for tags and murals).
Then you have a show coming up right?
Yeah, second week in October. Still looking for a venue, it’s a selfie, “pop up” only for a week. I’m deciding now what prints to release and I have a bunch of stuff that I’m making and finishing up. It was going to be in June but I’m done with doing a show just for a shows sake. I haven’t done one since 2010 so there’s no point in rushing this one. I want to make it exactly as I see in my head. I want to tell a story with this one.
Ok Nick, finally what’s the one question that no interviewer has ever asked you and you wish they did? And don’t forget that you have to answer it.
Right…(clearly thinking hard about it) One question… Ok – do you need any help paying your rent this month? Answer: Yes please…
I would like to thank the Vandal himself and my good friend and amazing curator Robert Aloia for introducing us. Nick is one of the most passionate story tellers I’ve spoken with and a gracious interviewee. Don’t miss him when he comes back around with his pop-up installation. And, as always, don’t forget to support the arts – get out to the museums to see some great stuff.
Ken Caruso is the ANTI Society’s in-house street art and photography expert. He is a decorative artist and owner and operator of Alternative Interiors in New Jersey as well as an avid collector and graffiti hunter. He also has his own radio show on Friday nights “Live…Without a net” on chestnutradio.com. Follow him on Instagram @djkcaruso.