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In Their Own Words: Rowdy

One of Bristol’s most acclaimed and well-respected street artists, Rowdy is holding an exhibition of his work from Friday to Sunday at Don Majors on Cheltenham Road.

It marks one decade of the shop and two decades of Rowdy’s trademark crocodile, the most famous of which stood for 12 years at the top of Westmoreland House on Stokes Croft before the building was demolished.

Rowdy’s standing in Bristol’s street art community is such that after a devastating fire at his studio in St Paul’s in 2010, Banksy was one of dozens of artists who donated work to raise funds.

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Rowdy’s show is taking place at Don Majors on Cheltenham Road from April 21-23 – photo: Martin Booth

“I use art as like an energy release”
“I had several tags before Rowdy. I got into several fights over about three weeks when I was 18. Punch-ups and stuff. I knew it wasn’t really a good idea but I had a lot of energy at the time. The name derived from that. I decided that it was quite rowdy behaviour and a few friends used it as a bit of a joke. It seemed quite apt. What I realised was that I could use that name as like an energy release. I would get rowdy on a wall, really go at it. It made a lot of sense so I stuck with it. You also need a name that’s not your own name, kind of obviously, although not so much nowadays.”

“With characters, I felt that I could be more individual”
“Initially, the stuff that I was doing in the late 80s and early 90s was relatively generic, like a lot of New York graffiti. As the 90s progressed, probably by around 94, I was working with a couple of other people, Warp and Vermin, we had a crew called Selves on Fire and we started doing much more trippy stuff. I became more character-based as well as doing the letterform. With the characters, I felt that I could be a bit more individual, I had found a better outlet to express myself and that was important going forward to establish myself as a character artist.”

Westmoreland House with Rowdy’s crocodile seen from Ninetree Hill in 2017 – photo: Martin Booth

“Since I started painting, I have never looked back”
“I came to Bristol for the music and the art, more places to paint, a better quality of scene. Back when I started in 87, you’d go and steal the paint. Go to a shop and steal a few cans while your friends distract the person on the till. Once that happened and I started using the paint, my life changed and I have never looked back. I’ve kept at it.”

“If I’m not painting for a few days, I get quite angsty”
“For a number of years in the 90s, I was a postman. I did some youth work as well. By 2000, that was it. That was the last time I had a proper job. I have drifted in and out of different relationships. When I have been single, nobody told me what to do. I had no responsibilities other than to myself. So I have taken advantage of times I’ve been single and also being with various partners has been really rewarding for my art. It’s like a no-compromise sort of situation. You’ve just got to go for it. I felt with with how much I was into graffiti and art, to make a dent you have to be pretty hardcore to have any impact so it felt, if I was going to get anywhere with this, it’s going to have to be full-time. And there’s an addiction element. If I’m not painting for a few days, I get quite angsty. I have to do it.”

“I got fed up of doing commissions”
“When I was cutting my teeth in the 90s, I would do more art commissions. But I got fed up of them. As time went by, even if I was really skint, I didn’t really care, I would just keep on making the art that I wanted to make or that friends of mine might want to see. Today, I still don’t do commissions very often unless it’s relevant to what I do. There are so many people to pick from in the city now. A lot of commissions might play it safe with people like Lucas Antics or Andy Council. I like their work too. I’m not an obvious choice now for a commission.”

“My first crocodile was painted in a quarry”
“I did a number of installations in quarries in Somerset where I was painting rocks or boulders, anywhere between a tonne or five-tonne apiece. I made little scenarios, little groupings of rocks. They were already placed there so I had to figure out how I could make a narrative. Was there anything in the rocks that I could turn into a character? The first couple of rocks I painted were this really paranoid character and a crocodile leaning on the paranoid character’s head. That was the first crocodile that I painted that would be similar to what you’re looking at now. Then I did several more, including one for Dutty Ken when he had the Star & Garter, more like a photorealistic mural on the side of it. I painted one in Easton with a friend, we did a piece called Easton-super-Mare with a Punch and Judy kind of thing. We did another one in Barcelona in 2003. I realised that there was something in this crocodile, and I started doing it as a street campaign thereafter.”

The Star & Garter in Montpelier was until recently covered in street art – photo: Martin Booth

“The police couldn’t come up and arrest us on the roof because of health and safety issues”
“I just wanted to try and do the largest things possible. At Westmoreland House, it wasn’t the sort of building you wanted to go into by night with the non-existent staircases. I had been making a few paintings of Westmoreland House on canvas. I had already painted the rooftop once, just with some lettering. Then I did an installation with Filthy Luker and a guy called Dan, just putting stuff on the windows. I had quite a fixation with the building. Then I started working with Cyclops and Sweet Toof, and on a Saturday in April 2007 they decided that they wanted to paint a big skull on there. I was doing a graffiti workshop in Wales that day so I went the day after to help finish it off. The police turned up. They had about 30 complaints. It was all in the Evening Post and on the telly. But they couldn’t come up and arrest us because of health and issues. It was too dangerous to come and get us. When we knew they had clocked us, we laid down on the roof for quite a while to make out we had left the building. After about half an hour, we got back up. We just thought, ‘Sod it, we’re gonna carry on painting.’ Even if we got nicked, we were so far into it, we might as well just keep going until they can actually apprehend you. As it happened, they didn’t in the end. We got away with it.”

“It was a bit like a death in the family”
“When Westmoreland House got demolished, it was sad. We had such prominence in the city. That was there for about 12 years. I could never afford to buy property but I could place my artwork on the side of these buildings in the city centre, no problem. Sweet Toof said it was a bit like a death in the family. It kind of was, but even if we got two years with that painting we would have been pretty stoked so to get 12 years was pretty decent. And if you’re of a certain age, you know it.”

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“Anonymity is still important to me”
“I’m slightly less bothered about anonymity now because I want to meet collectors and other artists. I want to get to situations where I can perhaps paint some more interesting stuff in the future. I can’t be completely clandestine about everything but at the same time, I think that it makes it interesting when you don’t know who this artist is. There are definitely artists who play on that. And that’s how I’ve learned to do it. Because I have been arrested for it, got in trouble for it. I don’t want that to happen again. Anonymity is important because even if you think you’re being careful, you still always end up having something bad happening to you.”

“I lost everything I had in the fire”
“I had been living in a couple of squats and then this place on Lemon Lane in St Paul’s came up. It was quite a ropey building but about 100 a month to have some studio space. There was a few of us who had a load of stuff in this massive room. I went out one afternoon and then got some calls saying that the building was on fire. We were told it was an electrical fault. There was water dripping down the stairwells. It was quite slum landlord kind of stuff. But still, you don’t expect it to go up in flames. I lost everything I had. All my paintings, computers, books, clothes. A couple of days later, I was walking around Bristol with just a couple of carrier bags. It was quite severe for me. I knew people would have my back to some extent but to have that recognition and that help was vital, and sort of humbling. I think it was good in the sense because I thought, ‘well, I must have done something right’. I used to sell a lot of spray paint and I was quite active in the community doing stuff back then, making stuff happen and trying to push the artform forward.”

Rowdy’s crocodile at the derelict petrol station on Redcliffe Way – photo: Martin Booth

“It’s vital that you still have the grassroots stuff”
“I am from a world of tagging and doing silver chrome dubs, throwing it up quite quickly if needs be. That’s still happening. There’s plenty of that still going on. A lot of people don’t like it but it’s the roots of why there is loads of good street art and graffiti in Bristol. It’s vital that you have that grassroots stuff. I think it’s good that it’s more accepted. People shouldn’t be criminalised for this sort of behaviour. People are getting mixed messages. Try and be an artist and it’s such a great way to get the exposure if you can paint on the street.”

“We need to be celebrating historic pieces, not painting over them”
“I did a bit of stuff with Upfest fairly recently. It’s not normally my bag. The aesthetics aren’t normally right for me. But I think they have been part of the growing acceptance in the city for the culture. You had things like See No Evil. The paintings are still up but that was ten years ago when that happened. Sometimes people think that a place might need a new painting. But it it’s a piece that is ten or 15 years old, that’s history. We need to be celebrating that, not always painting over it. I always try and break new spots if I can. What’s happened now is that people have got very lazy and just paint over each other a lot more. Because it’s so saturated. Possibly a victim of its own success these days.”

This largescale piece that remains on the side of Redpoint in Bedminster was painted for Upfest – photo: Martin Booth

“I’ve painted a lot in London and in Europe”
“I’ve painted a lot in London and in Europe. There was one I did on the Westway. It’s still up. You can see it just as you come into Paddington. It’s not one of my best crocs ever but it’s something like 40 foot up in the air. The Westway is iconic in its own right. It’s one of the meccas and the birthplace of British graffiti. To have something run along there. I can die a bit easier.”

“It’s quite important for me not to be just the croc guy”
“I’m reasonably well known for doing abstract cityscapes. For the poster for the show at Don Majors, there’s a cat on a lilo. It’s quite important for me not to be just the croc guy. I like to do other characters, not just the crocodile. I paint a few bats, a few mice. There are other characters in the repertoire. And I do like painting quite abstractly as well, such as the cityscapes. I’m certainly proud of the crocodile, but it’s not the be all and end all. Who knows, maybe I will knock it on the head soon and concentrate on some other stuff. But it’s a calling card.”

Rowdy painted his trademark crocodile on snow in Totterdown in January 2013 – photo: Martin Booth

“It’s always about doing something that’s a bit impossible to do”
“It’s always about doing something that’s a bit impossible to do. One day that building might not have anything on it and then the next day people wake up and see that someone was out here painting last night. I had been painting in quarries so was already quite into three-dimensional art. I was due to come into Bristol to do some art but got caught out by the snow. I was a bit gutted but still made the trip into Bristol. I suddenly got this idea into my head, why don’t I paint a snow crocodile. So I got a couple of mates involved and we went up to Totterdown. It had to be on the main road, not in a park where everyone was sledging. We had to make sure that everyone knew about it.”

“It’s really important to show the interior aspect of my work”
“The show isn’t necessarily going to be my most ambitious show. It’s going to be a fun, colourful blast really. The way the show came up was from painting the building anyway. I haven’t really had time to prepare for anything like a retrospective. it’s going to be quite a lot of current work, everything from 25 quid to 1,250 quid. The distinction people have to get to with people like me is that you can see the work on the street but it’s also really important to show the interior aspect, the gallery-related stuff. I can spend more time on it. I can do different things than I can on the street. But after doing a load of interior work for this show, I’ll be desperate to do some exterior work. It’s likely there’ll be more.”

“I do get a bit annoyed with a lot of the contrived stuff”
“Graffiti in Bristol feels like the norm now. It feels like it’s here to stay. Marvin Rees wanting to keep the Bearpit clean is a show of some defiance. But as soon as you have a place that’s clean and people aren’t allowed to do it, they’re going to do it. I can’t see it stopping. But I do get a bit annoyed with a lot of the contrived stuff. People see it as a root into the art world and they haven’t got their hands dirty. But it isn’t 87 or 97 or 2007, it’s 2023 now. Anyone can get out there and do stuff, and probably get away with it. In a way, it’s democratic in that sense.”

Main image: Revellers (detail) by Rowdy

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