Renowned British street art maven D*Face knows a thing or two about the value of local skateboard roots and international opportunities. The globe-trotting artist was recently in New York City for the unveiling of an NBC Sports-commissioned soccer billboard in the Times Square area. But don’t tell him and his fellow countrymen on the other side of the pond that, they strictly know it as football. How about that?
Synchronicity, on the other hand, a term both American and British language sensibilities can agree on, also made it possible for our protagonist to be in town for a very special Wooster Collective anniversary show that opened to the public last week. It included art and installations from the likes of other renowned street artists such as Shepard Fairey, Buff Monster, Invader, and WK, among countless famous others.
Mass Appeal’s On The Grind caught up with the busy chap to discuss all of these endeavors and more, including the move of his StolenSpace Gallery in London, gentrification, and how it was skateboarding, not soccer, that really propelled him into individuality and art.
Can you tell us a bit about who you are and what brings you to New York City?
I Am D*Face. I’ve come over for this NBC Premiere League Football billboard in Times Square, which is kind of a crazy project. And that coincides with, just fortunately, being here for the Wooster Collective 10 year anniversary, which I have some work in. Everything just tied in real nice. It wasn’t planned that way. It just happened to be that way, so it was really sweet.
What’s behind the Wooster Collective show and why is it such a benchmark for you and the group?
The Wooster show is 10 years of the Wooster Collective. Wooster is quite an early day blog that used to document street stuff really. I guess more outside of graffiti, like posters, stickers, stencils. And they started featuring a few bits of my pieces which were in the U.K. at the time. I hadn’t really stretched out to the U.S. at that time and it was kind of like one of the first windows into that world that was documenting it globally and online. So that was pretty exciting and they’ve curated a show that’s based around the 60 people that have been around for the 10 years that they’ve been around. It’s kind of an honorable thing to be part of.
How did the whole NBC Sports football/soccer billboard opportunity initially come about?
When [NBC Sports] came to me they were like, “We’d like you to represent English football in America and we want an English artist to do it.” In truth, even though I’m not a big soccer fan or football fan, it was an honor to be asked to do that. They were like, “We just want you to do your thing, there’s no brief and we’ve got pretty little time to do it, so you’ve got to get a quick jump on it.” So I did a graphic for it and they were like, “Yea, we love it!” They loved the saying as well. It’s called soccer here [in America] and everyone’s going to call it soccer, but we know it’s football, so don’t call it soccer! And they were like, “Do you want to come and paint the billboard in Times Square as part of it?” It’s not what I normally do, because normally I just paint my stuff for me, for no other reason. But how many opportunities will I get to paint in Times Square? That’s never going to happen in my life again. I can’t imagine it happening again, at least. So I was like, “Hell yea, I’ll come over and do that!” So there you go. That was it, really.
We know that skateboarding has been a huge influence on your individual and artistic journey. How so?
In a way, psychologically, [skateboarding] was almost like getting back at football. At school I was always the last guy to get picked for the team. There were always two kids waiting to get picked at the end and I was always one of those kids. So I always looked for my own thing, which I guess was an isolated and individual activity. And that led me into graffiti and skateboarding, primarily skateboarding. And that was an activity that was seen as being outcast and I guess I felt myself as being that, as not being part of that team mentality. So skateboarding had a profound influence on my life. I guess as profound an influence on my life as football has on other people.
Now that you’ve been commissioned to work with it, do you see or have you considered any similarities between football and skateboarding?
I guess the physicality of it for sure. When I was a kid you didn’t have to be that good to be [considered] good at skateboarding. Now, you have to be a true athlete. You have to really be on top of your game. You have to take it dead seriously to be at the highest level if that’s where you wish to go with it. What I like about skateboarding is that it can appeal to every kid from any background, from any generation. And it’s raceless. It’s ageless. It’s classless. It’s sexless. And that’s like football [with regard] to the same things. A kid that comes from the ghetto can pick up a ball and go and play in the park. Equally, the kid that comes from a really well-to-do background has a football and goes and kicks it in his backyard. It’s the same thing. The same with skateboarding, you need very little. All you need is commitment and time and the physicality to it. I guess [it’s true] with football being the multimillion dollar business now more than it ever has been, and now skateboarding kind of heading that way. Skateboarding is one of the biggest growing sports now. In the consumerist view, people want to dress like skaters even though they don’t skate and that’s kind of ironic. Just like people that wear football kits that don’t actually play football and just support a team.
Can you tell us about the recent move of your StolenSpace Gallery and how the forced change is similar to what the skateboarders at the Southbank (London) are facing with the possible loss of that space?
With StolenSpace what became really apparent really quickly, was that we had been there for seven years and in those seven years, we had been in somewhat of an isolated bubble with the rent we had agreed to pay at the time that we did. Everything else around us had changed. The rent had changed. Obviously we had seen change, and to a large degree, we had part in that. But what we hadn’t really foreseen was that the rent was going to sky rocket in the area, and there was no way we were going to be able to get back in that. So it suddenly became a stark reality that maybe we couldn’t be in East London anymore. Maybe the very place that we had been so much a part of had superseded us and become different to what it was originally.
It was quite a worry. It was very much like what they’re trying to do with the Southbank, trying to regenerate it. When I skated there in the ’80s there was nothing there. There was no reason to go there. The Hayward Gallery [above] has always been an upper-middle class place to go see art. Then the Southbank underneath was like its dirty, grimy kid brother and for me that was the place you would go. There was nothing else there. More often than not, you would get mugged if you went there. If you go there now it’s like a completely different place. There’s a bunch of restaurants, there’s a bunch of street traders, there’s a bunch of tourists down there. And that’s what they’re trying to harness. To me, it’s like the homogenization of an area. It purveys the clearing away of the very things that have made it what it is.
The undercroft of Southbank is so important to skateboarding. It’s so important to skate culture in London. It’s just been blindsided. Those people [in favor of tearing down Southbank] have not seen how important it is because they don’t understand that value. They don’t understand that culture. And there’s a similarity between that and street artists, and the artists in London suddenly being priced out of the very area they’ve made. You could have live and work spaces for next to nothing because no one wanted to be there, it was grimy. You start having that, you start having a couple of cool bars where the people are hanging out and then, suddenly, it becomes the area where the people want to be and before very long you’re priced out of the exact area that you’ve kind of been part of creating. That is just what happens. That is just the way it is. It’s just a little bit painful when it hits you smack in the face that the thing you’ve been a part of you can’t be part of anymore because it’s outgrown you or become the commercial value of what you’ve become.
What were some of your earliest memories of skateboarding at the Southbank?
It was always the place during the weekend that you’d go to check first to know who was there. Baring in mind that we had no mobile phones yet, your home telephone was all you had. So we’d be like, “We’ll meet you at the Southbank at 11 o’clock.” And you could skate the Southbank whether it was wet or dry [outside]. In the U.K. it’s generally just pissing with rain. Even in the best of the summer you’re going to get rain. The Southbank was one of the few places that guaranteed you could skate even in respect to the weather.
I always remember, just before we’d get to the Southbank we’d get all of our valuables, our wallets, [and] we’d take our money out of them, our travel cards. We’d hide that in our inside pockets. Because, for the most part, you were going to get mugged. It’s one of those things [that] if you’re hanging around a spot, you look like some sort of skater kid to some older guys that are looking to rob you. You were kind of like a sitting target. The Southbank was always that place where you’d either hear of people getting mugged or fear getting mugged yourself. But it was always like the community hub. You’d start off there and if it was dry day you’d go down to Rumsfeld or skate down to Brixton.
The strongest memory of it was when they threatened to close it down in ’87. That was like everyone getting together and saying, “You can’t take this away from us!” And at the time they didn’t have a reason for why they were going to close it down. They were just like, “We don’t want you to skate here, so we’re going to break it all up and that’s that!” And everyone just got together. It’s just that thing of people pulling together a spirit and we said, “No, we’ll do a thing called Smell Of Death Jam,” and we got a bunch of skaters to come down and rip it up. To me that was really memorable. A bunch of cool guys, a couple of pro-ish English guys, [and] a couple of companies had a product and sticker toss and everyone got crazy for it. And equally, when you’d get the American riders out there they’d always hit Southbank. How progressive they were compared to the best of our English skaters was always awesome to see because they would just push it to that next notch. Then you could see that influence on our skaters. I think that’s always been really important for the U.K.
London isn’t a natural habitat for skateboarding. It isn’t like California, where it’s like the perfect place to skate, wide concrete pavement slabs, loads of open space, beautiful sunshine, you know. London’s not that place. It’s wet, it’s cobbled, it’s broken pavement slabs, it’s small streets, it’s a tough environment. I think that makes the skaters in London, or in the U.K. for that matter, a certain breed of skater. Not dissimilar to a New York skater, I’m sure.
New York has always been similar to London, but it’s interesting now to see skate companies from London like Palace actually influence New York.
The U.K. skate brands have always suffered in light of such powerful U.S. skate brands. Death Box, when I was a kid, was one of the few U.K. skate companies. It just didn’t have the pull that you’d have from an American company. Also, the product was expensive and wasn’t as good because it wasn’t being produced in the same volumes. I think it’s really fantastic to see that Palace is really blowing up and spreading outside of the U.K. and looking like it can actually really harness that market to support itself and thus support the U.K. community of skateboarders, because that’s really what it lies in.
Do you have a favorite skateboard or skate graphic from your past?
My favorite board of all time was the first board that I saw when I went into a skate shop in ’84 and bought my first wide wood board. I went to Sorry Skateboards with my mom for my 10th birthday after hassling her about me having to have a wooden skateboard. I went to Sorry Skateboards and it was like the holy grail for me. I was like, “Wow!” It was a massive eye-opener. It was a Santa Cruz “Ray Meyers” freestyle board, which, to be honest with you, I didn’t really understand. I just really liked the graphics on there. It was a graphic that I didn’t really know at the time. It took me many years later to find out about Jim Phillips. It’s that board that stuck with me. It was a comic strip of a business man that wakes up and skates to work. It took me about 15 years to track down the board. Two came up for sale on eBay at the same time. And I was like, “I don’t care what the price is, those are my boards, I’m buying both f*cking boards!” And I did and I got them both. I took me probably about 20 years to get those boards. So for me it was those Santa Cruz graphics. I was also into Powell boards. Johnson. Those were a big influence. And the Tony Hawk, Mike McGill. Love those graphics. But yea, Jim Phillips was a huge influence on me graphically, illustratively. The use of black thick outlines, you know. Even today I look at his work and say, “This is so dope!”
Were there any skaters whose actual style was a big influence on you?
I’ve always liked Lance Mountain. And then it was really Mark Gonzales from that street point of view. Up to that point there hadn’t really been anyone that [I looked up to]. I wasn’t really a ramp skater so I didn’t really get the Tony Hawk thing. Even when I was a kid. Or the Steve Caballero thing. It wasn’t those guys. And then it was when Gonz came through just ripping up the streets in a really strange, freestyle-y way. To me that was like, “Yea, that’s where it’s at!”
Any last words from Britain’s new ambassador of football and skateboarding?
Thanks for the interview, man. Big shout out to Mass Appeal, I’ve been a big, longtime follower and fan!