How I Manage My Money – Opake: Public-school graffiti artist who owed a crack dealer £30k

From boarding school to sleeping on a bench – as an addict, Ed Worley spent 10 years on the streets. Now clean, he’s better known as the artist Opake. Having risen to success via Instagram he’s collaborated with artists including The Prodigy’s Maxim.

Church Halls & Broken Biscuits, Worley’s collaboration with fellow addict-turned-artist DJ Fat Tony, is currently open to the public at the Quantus Gallery in Shoreditch, east London, where each piece of artwork carries a price tag of between £3,000 and £12,000.

Now 34, Worley lives in St. Albans, Hertfordshire, with his partner Roo and their two children.

What’s in your wallet?

Monzo and Barclays debit cards, an American Express credit card, and £50. That lasts me the week, getting a taxi home from the station to my house when it’s raining. Cash has become obsolete. If I go into shops with cash, people say: “No, we only take cards.” I find that bizarre.

Are you flashy or frugal?

When I had a habit, I’d get money and spend it. Now I’m cautious with money. I don’t want to spend it, so I save a lot.

I’m not a materialistic person. I’ve slept on a bench in the same clothes for weeks on end, so I don’t now think: “I need Louis Vuitton!” Designer clothes won’t bring me happiness – I wear Zara.

I buy a lot of art, but that’s because I love it, and I’ll buy art from people that no one knows about. The best thing I own is a drawing by Stik. He’s an artist who paints stick figures and his work sells for hundreds of thousands. We met when I was painting at Leake Street tunnel, under Waterloo.

I’d liked Stik’s work for years, and I had a little Moleskine book and a Sharpie pen, so I said: “Can you do something in my book?” He opened it, and in the bottom corner of a blank page, he drew a little stickman holding up the side of the page.

This was years ago, when I was still using, so I was a mess. I asked him to sign it and he said: “No, mate,” because he knew I would have sold it immediately for like £100 because I needed to use. I was like: “F***! I can’t sell it! I’ll just keep it.”

I kept the book at my mum and dad’s house, and went back off on my madness. Then when I moved to St. Albans, I still had the book.

It was one of those moments that was meant to be, because by him not signing it, I got to keep it, so I still have this wicked piece of art. I’ve framed it and it’s one of my most prized possessions. I love it and I’ll never sell it.

Do you own a property?

No, I never have. I rent a three-bedroom house with my partner because when we were looking for somewhere, renting was all we could do. I was working as an artist, trying to build something, and that doesn’t just happen, so we didn’t have the money for a deposit. Now things are different, I will buy a house very soon.

What was it like growing up?

My childhood was amazing. I grew up in Roydon, a village in Essex, and we lived in a beautiful, old, five-bedroom farmhouse. My parents bought it for not a lot, then did it up. It was lovely.

My mum and dad came from nothing. My family are Cockneys – they’re all East Enders. They’re good people with an amazing work ethic, and my mum and dad ended up owning nine art galleries. I’ve got one older sister and we’d go on wicked family holidays to France and Italy, and Disney World in Florida.

I went to Uppingham, which is a really good boarding school. My mum and dad grafted to put me through that school. The fees are ridiculous [£15K+ a term] but it’s an incredible school and I had an amazing education.

My family has always loved me, supported me, and tried to help me. They never turned their backs on me – but for a while, I turned my back on them.

Have you ever struggled financially?

Yes. As an addict, everything spirals out of control. I used cocaine and crack, then I’d down a litre of vodka and a bottle of wine to get to sleep.

I was on the streets, sleeping in freight yards and tube carriages. I didn’t have a job, I wasn’t on benefits – I had no money and I was desperate. It was all about getting my next fix.

I didn’t have any dignity or self-esteem because drugs had stripped that away, and when you’re that desperate, the moral line gets blurred. You do whatever you have to do. I stole alcohol, robbed drug dealers, and took out payday loans, using my parents’ address.

I’d fill in the forms online and type in how much I wanted to borrow. Then it’s: “Do you have a job?” Yes. “What is it?” Make it up. “How much do you earn?” 50 grand a year. You don’t have to speak to anyone, so how hard is it to say you’ve got a job?

The money goes into your account instantly – then it was gone in 10 minutes. I had no intention of paying it back.

I took out multiple loans, all the time. I owed thousands. Then you get hounded by debt collection agencies. It was an insane cycle of owing money, that became harder and harder to get out of. My dad bailed me out with the payday loan companies, but they weren’t the only ones I owed money to.

I owed a drug dealer 30 grand at one point. They see someone who’s incredibly vulnerable. And it’s: “I’ll give it to you. Yeah, take it. You just owe it to me.” I didn’t keep track, but they do. Then it’s: “You owe me money. How are you going to pay me back?”

At one point I was threatened with a gun: “If you don’t pay me. I’m gonna f***ing kill you.” As someone that’s using crack every day, the people around you are the dregs of society and if you owe them money, they want the money.

I lived like that for 10 years. I had a series of what I thought were rock-bottoms – then that floor would fall through and I’d have my next rock-bottom.

When I started taking drugs, it was fun. I was at Leeds uni, and the nightlife was insane. I lived in a houseshare with friends and we’d throw massive parties. I was living in a student bubble, and taking party drugs was normal.

But the friendships slipped away as I became more unmanageable, and as an addict, I wasn’t out dancing and having fun. I became completely insular. I’d do cocaine on my own in a pitch-black room, seeing things that weren’t there. I was a hallucinating, paranoid mess. I experienced psychosis and I couldn’t tell what was real and what wasn’t.

It culminated in self-harming, cutting myself with a breadknife when I was blackout drunk, and ripping my calf muscle open with a scalpel.

A drug dealer who’d gone through rehab saw me with all these cuts and said: “You need to go to NA [Narcotics Anonymous].” He was the first person to introduce me to what recovery was. I went to NA and AA meetings for a long time and it got me clean. I’ve now been clean for five years.

Ed Worley, AKA Opake Church Halls and Broken Biscuits exhibition at Quantus Gallery, London. Image via sally@bornemedia.co.uk
Worley at the Church Halls and Broken Biscuits exhibition at Quantus Gallery in London

What’s your most lucrative work?

I paint massive pictures that sell for £20,000 each. They’re 2m x 2m, or 1m x 3m. I do it because it’s a challenge, like: “Let’s go bigger! Let’s go more!” I sell a lot of those.

Do you invest in shares?

No, but I invested in crypto. In 2021 I did a big NFT collection with Maxim, the lead singer of The Prodigy, and the artist Dan Pearce, who’s one of my closest friends.

The collection was called Feel Good. We all put in our artwork, then a generative code mixed and matched all the elements – so background, foreground, character, and hidden “easter eggs” to create a generative collection of around 8,000 NFTs.

People bought them for, I think, $300 each, pre-reveal. Each NFT has a different rarity value and the rare ones are worth more money than the non-rare ones. At the reveal party, each person’s NFT was ranked for its rarity in the collection.

The three of us didn’t really know what we were doing and the company we worked with was all over the place, but the NFT market was huge, and we earnt really well out of it.

I did another NFT collection last year, with the same company. It did well and I would’ve earned a lot – only I didn’t get paid.

The day after we closed off the mint – the process where people buy the NFTs – the company called me and said their wallet had been hacked and all the money had been stolen. That happens a lot in crypto.

I don’t have time for legal battles and I knew the NFT boom might be a fad, so I just thought: “Now I have to move forward and carry on doing my artwork.”

I don’t think the NFT market will ever come back. There was so much fraud and bullshit involved and people started to see through it.

My payment for the first collection was in crypto, and I was like: “It’s just a number on a screen.” It wasn’t in my hands or in my bank account, so it didn’t seem real.

I thought I’d trade the crypto, but I lost shitloads of money because I didn’t know what I was doing. When the crypto market crashed last year, I sold my crypto back to Coinbase, to draw the money out, and I came out with not a lot, but it’s a learning curve.

What’s your best business decision?

During lockdown I did an online exhibition of my work, and it sold out. I’d started drawing during my recovery, and I’d moved back in with my mum and dad. My dad bought me 10 MDF bits of board and said: “Paint on them.” I painted animals, and my dad said: “Do something more you.” I started painting cartoon characters with graffiti across the background and my dad put them in his gallery.

A company wanted to work with me, but after the online lockdown exhibition, I decided not to work with any galleries anymore – I sold everything through Instagram. I did the whole process. So I’d do the work, video it, take photos of it, and put it on Instagram.

When people inquired, I’d sell them art – then I’d upsell them art. I packed it all up on our dining table, then sent it out. I did that for years and earnt well out of it, then I decided to work with galleries again. I did a massive exhibition here at Quantus Gallery in November, which sold out in a couple of days.

What’s you best investment?

Art supplies. I buy from Graff City, Jackson’s and Atlantis Art, which is a 10-minute walk from my studio in Hackney. They have everything, so I go there and buy shit I don’t need. I buy spray paint in every colour, or I’ll go off on tangents and buy shitloads of perspex. I spend thousands, but without being able to create, I can’t live as a person, so it’s not a waste of money.

What’s your money weakness?

I love beautiful books. I’ve got some amazing hardback books, like The Act of Graffiti which is photos of people writing graffiti. I love stuff like that. Some are £50, some are £200, and I’ve got a big book collection. If I had the money, I’d have a library, but I don’t know if I’ll ever have a house that big.

What’s your most extravagant purchase?

Roo’s engagement ring cost thousands. It’s a gold band with three diamonds, from Katz. They’re one of the oldest jewellers in Hatton Garden and they’re lovely people. I went there a couple of years ago with Roo’s younger sister. We figured it out together, and they made a ring for me.

What’s better for retirement, property or pension?

Property.

Do you have a pension?

No. I’m an artist! What the f*** are you talking about?!

Church Halls & Broken Biscuits, a collaboration between Opake and DJ Fat Tony, is on at the Quantus Gallery until 20th May www.quantusgallery.com

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