Interview: D*FACE Talks the Early Days of Street Art and How He Builds His Exhibitions

We interviewed the London-based artist D*FACE about his art and involvement in the Shepard Fairey-curated exhibition, "The Provocateurs."

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Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

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Welcome to Art Provocateurs Week, in collaboration with Art Alliance, where we interview artists who are a part of the Shepard Fairey-curated "The Provocateurs" exhibition during Lollapalooza. Enter our contest for a chance to win free tickets to the exhibition or buy them here. The exhibition runs from July 31 to August 4 at Block 37 in Chicago.​​

D*FACE grew up in London admiring the work of Shepard Fairey, who all these years later, has asked him to be a part of his "The Provocateurs" exhibition in Chicago. When he was just starting out, D*FACE drew dysfunctional characters, soon replacing his pencil with a marker pen and replacing the paper with cheap vinyl for stickers and posters. Then, they went onto the street—lamp posts, electrical boxes, and walls.

As D*FACE's characters evolved, so did he. The characters became satirical, critiquing nationalism and subverting the media, and he started to become very successful in the gallery space. He sold out his very first show, "Death & Glory," at the gallery he owns, StolenSpace, in 2006. After that, the bar was set high, and he went on to do the same at galleries around the world before returning to London and StolenSpace for an exhibition titled "New World Disorder" in 2013.

We talked to D*FACE about the retrospective book he released last year, showing art critiquing the American Dream in America, and what makes an art piece provocative.

I was bitten, the seed sewn. I stole my dad's car paint and 'tried' to paint graffiti.

You credit your early interest in graffiti with Henry Chalfant’s photographs in Spraycan Art and Subway Art and Shepard Fairey’s “Obey Giant” campaign. What struck you about these photographs and Shepard’s campaign, in retrospect?

Those early books to a child growing up in London were like eye candy to a visually starving kid. When my mum bought them for me, I had no idea what they meant. She had no idea about the context or the illegal aspect of painting graffiti. I'm pretty sure if she had stopped to think about it, she wouldn't have bought them!

When I looked through those books, it was a catalyst. It connected all the things I was into as a kid—bright colors, cartoons, and wild-looking letters that looked like they came from the future. The names of the artists sounded like superheroes to me. I was in the UK, and these books featured predominantly American artists; it seemed so far away and so alluring. I was bitten, the seed sewn.

I stole my dad's car paint and "tried" to paint graffiti...calling it graffiti would be a long stretch of the word and one's imagination. It was far from good and not even good from afar. Nonetheless, my interest in graffiti and the excitement of doing it illegally led me to hang with the older kids at school who were better at it. We also skateboarded and generally made nuisances of ourselves, something I've lived by ever since!

Years later and having just finished studying illustration, animation, and design, I was bored at work and looking for a means of escape. I started to look for creative freedom, something that connected all of my interests but didn't apply itself in the same way graffiti had. I stumbled upon this weird sticker that promised propaganda but delivered absurdity. This weird sticker of a wrestler's face staring at me turned out to be made by Shepard Fairey. His design sensibilities appealed to me. I was then (and still am) a fan and supporter of Shepard's work; he showed that you didn't need to apply the same strict rules that graffiti had and instead you could do whatever you liked to get "UP." I was in.


All these years later, are you excited to be invited by Shepard to show work in "The Provocateurs” exhibition in conjunction with Lollapalooza?

Yeah I'm honored to be part of it. I count Shepard as a good friend. I've known him for 15 years, we've ran in the streets together, and I've hosted both of his London shows with my gallery StolenSpace. Moreover, we share very similar interests and get on well. He's a friend first.

That said, if he hadn't asked me to be in the show, I'd be knocking on his door! I'm 6'2", not quiet Andre the Giant stature, but nonetheless, I wouldn't want me knocking at my door!? [Laughs] But yeah, I'm stoked to part of "The Provocateurs" show. I'm only sorry I can't make it over and leave my mark in Chicago. I'm hoping this is not the only year, and I get invited back over next time.

Let's face it—life can be pretty tough, even in the best of times. Art should be, or at least it can be, a release or break from it all.

You explore a lot about what’s problematic in contemporary American culture and "the American dream" in your work. How do you feel about showing the work in America itself?

Firstly, I love America. I spent my entire childhood and teenage years looking at American culture through rose-tinted glasses...well, maybe more like dark-tinted Ray Bans. [Laughs] I always dreamt of living Stateside or even going to the US on holiday. Having a humble, basic upbringing made it an impossibility.

When I finally got older and wiser, I got to travel with my work and saw America firsthand. I started paying attention to the refuge of the American Dream, and then I realized its flaws, maybe more so than if I HAD grown up there. Because I held everything that came out of America in such high regard, and its influence on me had been so profound, it felt only right as an artist who works publicly to explore these thoughts and feelings visually. I try to do this with a tongue-in-cheek approach or at least an aesthetic that is digestible on the surface (and can be at first only read by its surface aesthetic). When examined and digested, the work has a backstory.

Let's face it—life can be pretty tough, even in the best of times. Art should be, or at least it can be, a release or break from it all. The first time I showed in America, in fact in L.A. specifically, I was actually concerned that my work would be interpreted wrongly. I was happy that the opposite was the case, and that Americans also understood the underlying tone and thinking behind my work. And don't worry, I take the same critical approach to British culture; just look at Her Royal Hideous that I produced for the Queens 80th Birthday.


There was a real buzz and air of excitement about this genre and being part of a movement that was about to explode. It was like riding a wave that was about to break.

What work are you bringing to the exhibition and how does it fit into the “provocateur” theme?

Actually, I'm looking forward to seeing what other artists exhibit as "provocative," because my pieces definitely fit the title! With that as the title of the show, it's obviously directly asking for the artists' works to challenge the viewer. I'm showing the largest painting I've produced to date, a large homage to Wham by Roy Lichtenstein but much more provocative. I'm also showing a painting of the Grim Reaper holding an American Flag, which echoes the shape of a sickle.

Your very first exhibition at StolenSpace gallery sold out. Did you feel a lot of pressure at that point? What was the takeaway from those early days?

To be honest, I was in total shock. I'd put pretty much everything I owned on the line with that show in hopes that it would work out. Before the show opened, I literally couldn't tell you if I was going to sell one piece or not. The show itself for me had been a long time coming, and I'd held off showing my own work, since it was my gallery. It felt too narcissistic.

So when I finally decided it was time, I tried to bring all my thinking to a point—almost like a chapter in a book. At that point, other than the financial pressure, I felt no pressure as an artist. It was my first major solo show, and there was no gauge or precedent. That really comes after a history of successful shows. It's hard to constantly up your game. Those early days were incredibly exciting. There was a real buzz and air of excitement about this genre and being part of a movement that was about to explode. It was like riding a wave that was about to break.


I asked only one person to write a foreword, that person being Shepard. He understood, inspired, and followed my work from the very early days, so he was really the only person I wanted text from in my book.

Returning to StolenSpace for “New World Disorder” last year, where was your head at? Why did you decide to open up your studio for it? Looking back, how do you think that changed its reception?

It had been a much anticipated "return to London" show. I had many successful shows around the world, and I knew the pressure to up the ante from my last show in London was on. That pressure is as much about my own personal goals and aims as it is about anyone else's.

It was really difficult deciding where that show should be. When I got the news that the Truman Brewery was knocking down the building my studio and gallery had been housed in for seven years, it felt like the end of an era. It was perfectly fitting to open up the Aladdin's cave of my studios, giving the public an insight into my working space, where everything I'd exhibited had been produced—you know, the real space, not a re-creation for a museum.

Personally, I've always loved seeing photos of artist's studios, getting to see how they work, the materials they use, and the environment they work in. So to open up my studio was like laying it all out for the public to explore and discover. The opening was rammed, and we had issues with capacity, but I was very pleased with the show. It was a double-edged sword; I was excited that the show was open but sad that it was the last show in that space. The closing of that studio was the end of that era.

You also released The Art of D*Face: One Man and His Dog last year. What was your goal with the book?

The goal with my book was very simple—to chart the history and development of my work over the past 15 years, to link the early days to the first show, and to link the first show to the second, so that as a viewer you could understand and follow my thinking in chapters. I wanted to show how one idea germinates and grows into a body of work for a show. I wanted to show how those early stickers and posters developed into ways and means to disseminate my work in the public domain, stretching creatively from 2D to 3D, from printing to painting to sculpture.

I also wanted to keep it a strictly personal account, which is why I wrote a long introduction about how I had gotten to that point in my career. I asked only one person to write a foreword, that person being Shepard. He understood, inspired, and followed my work from the very early days, so he was really the only person I wanted text from in my book.


In the book you say, “I'd rather people hate my work than find it nice. Nice implies mediocrity and a lack of tenacity.” When you make work, do you judge it by these extremes also? Do you have to love your work in order to show it, or do you ever settle at an in-between point?

That's a very good question. I judge my work by a gut feeling. If a thought or idea bugs me, sticks with me, or keeps me awake, then I know I've got to execute it. Equally, if I have an idea that wakes me up in the night, and I think, "Damn, that could really rock the boat," I share that idea with people close to me. If it's met with, "Ohhh, I'm not sure you can do that," then I know it's a good idea. But once I've executed that idea, I'm onto the next one. I'm always a step or two ahead of my most recent piece, so at the time it's really hard for me to judge it. I generally see only the faults and areas where it could be improved. I'm really critical of my own work, and it's only months later that I can judge it fairly. There are always pieces where I think to myself, "That's on point," but often it's the pieces I'm unsure about at the time, the slow burners, that I look at a few months later, and they seem more effective.

Do you have any collaborations underway? I heard that you are possibly collaborating with fellow "The Provocateurs" artist CYRCLE. soon.

I have an ongoing collaboration with the makers of cool stuff, like Medicom in Japan. Yeah, I've spoken to CYRCLE. about a collaboration. I really like the Dougs a lot. They dress like they shop in Zara mixed with some new wave '90s flex and wear Nikes made from spaghetti. But that aside, I really like what they're doing in the street and the gallery. They're ambitious, and I enjoy hanging out with them. What the collaboration is, I can't talk about. I'm sworn to "the order of the Doug."

If you had unlimited money or resources, what kind of projects would you execute?

Damn, my mind would explode if I had unlimited money and resources. For sure I'd set up a charity to help young, up-and-coming artists, like an academy of sorts. But I'd also produce some of the most mind-bending public sculptures and public art, stuff to challenge the likes of the Statue of Liberty, Big Ben, and the Eiffel Tower. I'd also build some next level motorbikes!

What’s next for you this year and beyond?

I have a solo show in L.A. opening at the end of September, which I'm buzzing about. Then I have a few public mural projects. Leading up to June 2015, I'll be focusing on my upcoming museum show at CAC Malaga, which I'm very excited about.


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