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Bridging Art and Place: an Interview with STEWY

Step into the world of STEWY, a stencil-based street artist whose work transcends traditional boundaries. Through life-size 'ghost' images strategically placed in significant locations, STEWY explores psycho-geography, connecting place, history, and shared memories. In this interview, we dive into their artistic process and the powerful impact of their inclusive and thought-provoking street art.

2023-09-20

Joana Alarcão

Can you begin by telling us your background and the steps you took to become the artist you are today?

I grew up in Harborne a Birmingham City suburb, UK’s second City. In the '70s and '80s Birmingham was a place of flux, dereliction and reinvention, concrete and cars with the promise of consumerism, best documented in Jonathan Meades' series ‘Heart Bypass’1998). My initiation into street art came after Brighton University, after studying a mix of design and sequential illustration throughout the 90’s. My approach to street art evolved through a combination of education and visual awareness of street art which was all around me in both Brighton and Hackney. In the early 90s’s Self-initiated projects at University, captured the mood of the time with a focus on British Identity and self-identity through popular culture. This was influenced by Blur’s ‘Modern Life is Rubbish’, Martin Parrs's photography ‘A to B’ and exhibitions like ‘The Cutting Edge’ at the Barbican in 1992.  

  

Can you elaborate on the concept of "psycho-geography" in your work?

My personal understanding of psycho-geography is the importance of people and places. I create frozen moments in time whilst life busily continues around them. In a recent BBC interview, when trying to recall early inspirations including the ‘Reader Digest AA Book of British towns, 1979’. I had dyslexia and the AA book offered an escape and was fascinated by the stories, maps and illustrations. 


My father also suffered from ‘introspective’ mental health issues through most of my childhood and I remember visiting him in old Victorian-style instructions surrounded by patients who had lost their way. In retrospect, I wanted to make visible what my father was frightened of - his growing paranoia felt like he was in hiding, anonymous and invisible. 

A consequence of living with his mental health gave me an understanding of patience for and a fascination of extrovert people. I seem to choose characters who weren’t afraid, rebellious and willing to experiment and take risks; this is highlighted in the choice of characters like the controversial Quentin Crisp stencils in Manchester in Chorlton Cum Hardy, where he died and opposite his apartment in New York. He represented an openly gay or transgender person at a time in history when it was dangerous to be so. He had people beating up on him on a daily basis, largely with the consent of the public.



Patti Smith - American singer, songwriter, poet, activist. (description: Stencil back door of CBGBS, NYC, USA 2019)

In your statement, you mention that you create "life-size 'ghost' images" of individuals using stencils. Can you deconstruct this statement for us?

My work is more comparable with French artists Ernest Pignon-Ernest and Blek le Rat, who influenced Banksy and his contemporaries. The term ‘ghost images’ came from an interview by Blek le Rat when commenting on the view of his stencils from a distance. Blek’s stencils are often still solitary figures in black, one colour, figures in key locations ‘time stopped’ allowing us to pause and reflect on the individual and the viewer. For example, as a child in the 70’s the first original painting I remember was a towering 15 ft high St. Peter with a fishing net over his shoulder in St. Peter’s Church, Harborne. A contemporary comparison can be made with the importance of religious iconography within a building and the transition of creating non-religious icons, as spirits, ‘accessible’, outside on the street and free to all. 

 

Could you share an example of a specific artwork where the choice of location was particularly significant to the subject's story? How do you decide on these site-specific connections?

Besides the animals which appear in random locations on the street where you’d expect to see them the icon's locations are more considered. The choice of the icon comes before the location and I spend time researching the individual’s connection with the place. I have designed over 70 icons most of which have been made into stencils some include:

My stencil of Nye Bevan is a good example of the connection between people and location. Bevan is stencilled in Tredegar, Wales on the first ‘Medical Aid building’ the blueprint for the NHS. The first stencil of Bevan was created for the 70th Anniversary of the NHS and again on the 75th in 2023 after renovations. I also donated prints of Bevan to the Library opposite to raise money for local charities in the deprived former mining town including a planned visit to several schools in Tredegar in September 2023 to talk about my work and the legacy of Bevan.  



Yoko Ono - Japanese multimedia artist, singer, songwriter, and peace activist. (description: Stencil on bedsheet in Central Park, NYC,USA 2023)

Can you elaborate on the technique you use to create artwork? What is your normal routine from an idea to the finished piece?

The stencils need to be recognisable. I use multiple photographs of an individual to avoid any copyright issues. My early work was all hand cut using collaged and enlarged photocopies, traced before cutting onto 3mm greyboard. The different components of a face, for example, are pulled together in Photoshop using a Wacom pen, redrawing the person including the ‘bridging’ elements which hold the final stencil together. The Photoshop files are then transferred to Illustrator to live trace, converting the jpeg into a vector file. The vector file is then scaled up and sent to the laser cutter. I was relucted to use an Iaser cutter at first, but it saved days of hand cutting, but added an extra financial cost and a more detailed image. I restrict myself to 3mm greyboard sheets at 600mm x 900mm for portability – a person is normally made using 2 sheets and to spray a person in 2 parts takes a minimum of 3 minutes.  


Your art focuses on dissenters, rebels, non-conformists, and outsiders from mainstream society. What draws you to these figures? Why did you choose to focus your artistic practice on highlighting such figures?

All the characters featured in my work are people I would have liked to spend time with, although most are past historical figures who challenged the norm, suffered injustice and were underappreciated. I admire their strength of character and willingness to risk criticism and humiliation. The animals are an ongoing A to Z of animals often seen reclaiming the inner-city foxes, horses, badgers, rabbits, cats, dogs, squirrels etc         



Vivienne Westwood - English fashion designer and activist. (description: Stencil on wall by shop SEX, London, UK2019)

How do you view the interaction between your art and the surrounding community? What kind of responses have you received from the public?

Communication and connections with a community are very important. Often as an outsider being invited into an established community must come with respect. Viewing a place from a distance can sometimes provide clarity and appreciation, but may have an assumed arrogance and suspicion. I created stencils post lockdown focusing on interesting living eccentric local characters known to me in Bristol (none celebrities) to show love and respect for them. Recent work in Bradford also involved a commission of a series of people associated with central Bradford. I worked with the community and organisers to finalise the chosen 4 people and remembered locals telling me stories of chance meetings they had with the people in the work. I was happy to have a visual reminder to share their memories.



Dr Richard Price - British moral philosopher, Nonconformist minister and mathematician. (description: Stencil opposite his home with politician Jeremy Corbyn in Newington Green, London, UK 2023)

Street art can have a complex reputation in the media. How do you see your work contributing to changing perceptions about street art and its potential positive impact on local communities?

My work isn’t dictated by popularity or financial gain, it's free from corruption and is a true collection of chosen icons by me alone. I chose the less iconic images over meaning and connection with place – for example, Patti Smith was on the rear door of CBGB’s in NYC when most people would have chosen Debbie Harry (Blondie). Patti performed the club's last very gig in 2006. I get permission wherever possible when looking for the placement of an image on a wall. Permission can be challenging and finding owners of properties and convincing people of an idea can be confusing for some. The quality of street art is subjective, but generally, it’s positive. Graffiti writers and taggers generally promote themselves regardless of the environment. Its accepted that former sites that were rundown industrial, central locations historically attracted graffiti and street artists in the 80’s, 90s and early 2000’s like Shoreditch, London - Custard Factory, Birmingham - Southville, Bristol - Brighton – Northern Quarter, Manchester and Lower Manhattan, NYC. Creatives, students and the disadvantaged often move into these areas that are affordable and rundown creating the perfect environment for self-expression and creativity before the next wave of prospectors arrive and push the creatives out. There is evidence to support a financial distinction between street art and tagging - where street art is visible can increase property prices and where you get tagging an increase in fire damage. In the last 20 years it seems the popularity of street art in popular culture and Art galleries has made street art acceptable throughout the UK, a tourist destination and valuable income revenue councils cannot ignore.


I moved from Brixton to Brighton for my MA in 1996/7 only to return to London in 2000. Whilst receiving regular illustration commissions for newspapers and magazines I also worked as a multimedia designer before moving to a studio with college friends ‘Neasden Control Centre’. The studio was on Pitfield St, Hackney in an old school with low rent and no heating, apparently in the same building in Banksy had a studio. Banksy’s rats would regularly appear fresh every morning on my way from Broadway Market to Shoreditch in 2002/3. The placement of Banksy’s rats had a big influence and would appear on buildings and street furniture frozen in time and combined with Ben Eine’s alphabets shutters and shows thorough POW (pictures on walls) created humour and beauty to the streets.    


Iain Sinclair’s book ‘Rose Red Empire ’2009 highlighted a strong factual narrative of ‘outsiders’ in Hackney, like the ‘Mole man of de Beauvoir’ and the term psycho-geography.  

‘Psycho-geography is the exploration of urban environments that emphasizes interpersonal connections to places and arbitrary routes. It was developed by members of the Letterist International and Situationist International, which were revolutionary groups influenced Marxism and anarchist theory as well as the attitudes and methods of Dadaists and Surrealists.’ I try to place individuals in a location or building where there’s a spiritual connection.



Yoko Ono - Japanese multimedia artist, singer, songwriter, and peace activist (description: Stencil on wall - Mason’s Yard, London, UK, 2018)

In your perspective, how can art be a tool to raise awareness about social and political issues of our time?

One of the most successful organisations in recent times has been the global environmental movement, Extinction Rebellion, which has grown from a handful of followers to a whole generation in a couple of years. I spent time with the founding members and his family before the rise of the organisation and the success and size of XR were unexpected. 

Social and political views can be expressed in all forms whether it is Vivienne Westwood Fashion; Peter Kennard’s CND Collages, Jan Svankmajer’s Animation, Ai WeiWei Art, XR (Extinction Rebellion) Street Protest, Ken Loach Film, Jeremy Corbyn’s Speeches or Hofesh Shechter’s Dance.


How do you intentionally make your practice and creative process more complex? Do you have any amusing or captivating anecdotes about changing your methods of creation?

The choice of popularising obscure icons in my work is complex. Avoiding established icons means getting less attention than those which have celebrity status. I put a lot of time and research into each image - especially the icon series. The majority of street art is meaningless, reliant on occasional technical skill and no content. Street art can be attractive and decorative and artists who repeat the same basic image widely for years are underwhelming. I rarely use my icon stencils twice. I am keen to move on and research a new project.   


I am interested in adding new levels of interaction and information to stencil art in the future using AI, and animation and by scaling up the artwork and collaboration like with my Alice in Wonderland piece with the artist ‘Voice of Joan’. With the use of a smartphone and tablets using apps and QR codes, you could view the stencils to help inform the view of the icon’s identity and reason for its location. I assume the majority of people are unfamiliar with my content and hope to make the street more interesting and informative on a local scale. Even with the lack of appetite for real political protest, all styles of public/street art/graffiti will always be present and invisible with the potential to shift products and occasionally minds. Banksy said ‘if graffiti changed anything it would be illegal’. I like to celebrate the beauty of the mundane and everyday, things we take for granted.  

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It's quite common for the living artist to stand next to the image of themselves I’ve created. Artists who’ve stood next to my work or have connected in some way include Tracey Emin, Tricky, Billy Bragg, Jonathan Meads, Joe Orton’s friends and family, Vivienne Westwood, Frank Sidebottom’s friends, Quentin Crisps friends, Tony Wilson’s family, Stephen Hough, Patti Smith, Hooky, Dr Richard Prices descendants and DJ Derek’s family. 


I revisited a stencil in Manchester some years ago which had been in the same location for 10 years. I decided to do a simple respray of it and tidy up when a man came running over with his baby upset that I was about to deface or remove the piece.


I have heard parents telling their children who the people in my work are with great emotion and nostalgia allowing them to revisit their youth.


I was with the wife of one of the people in the stencil and whose husband couldn’t attend the event with his wife and she kissed the stencil.

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Other artists have added to my work over the years; turning my horse into a unicorn and ridden by a naked lady by artist ‘saki and bitches’. I enjoy seeing my work in multiple cities which gives a sense of belonging. I also embrace the idea of deterioration and re-abortion of an image back into dirt and decay.  



Mary Wollstonecraft - British writer, philosopher, dissenter and advocate of women's rights. (description: Stencil on Unitarian Chapel, Newington Green, London, UK 2013)

What platforms, books, and artists could you recommend to our readers?

Books:

NEW STREET

BANKSY WALL AND PEACE

PLANET BANKSY

UNTITLED II

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UK based Artists*/Street Artists - Streetartists: Ben Eine, Banksy, 3D, Peter Kennard*, Stanley Donwood* (Radiohead), Jamie Hewlett* (Gorillaz), Phlegm, Paul Insect, Donk, Christiaan Nagel, STIK, Pablo Fiasco, WRDSmith, Rocket01, Insane51, Zoe Power, China Girl, Conor Harrington, The Burning Candy Crew (Sweet Toof, Rowdy, Cyclops, Mighty Mo, Dscreet), Filthy Luker, Cornelia Parker*, Matt Collishaw*, Gavin Turk*, George Shaw*, Jeremy Deller* Worldwide Street Artists: Blek le rat, Futura2000, ROA, Pablo Delgado, Ernest Pignon-Ernest, Vhils, Shadow man (Richard Hamilton), Pichiavo, C215, Stephen Powers, Zabou 

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https://www.instagram.com/streetartatlas/ 

https://www.instagram.com/streetartnyc/

https://www.instagram.com/bkstreetart/ 

https://stewy.uk



Cover Image:

Ken Loach - Film Director of social issues such as poverty, homelessness, and labour rights.

(description: Stencil on wall by Bath City FC, Bath, UK 2022)



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STEWY is a UK stencil based street-artist making site specific work, exploring the theme of psycho-geography. I feature life-size manifestations of people and animals, in locations relevant to their stories, connecting the spirit of place and history with shared memory working directly with communities in an honest, inclusive and accessible way. The portraits often share a connection of being rebels, non-conformists and outsiders from mainstream society to create a long-lasting dialogue within the community. They work span many aspects of culture, representing musicians, artists, local characters, politicians, and individuals on the fringes of society. 

Education:

Sep 95 – Feb 98: University of Brighton 
MA SEQUENTIAL ILLUSTRATION 

Sep 93 – Jul 95: Kent Institute of Art and Design at Maidstone
BA (Hons) VISUAL COMMUNICATION + Jan 94 - ERASMUS institut supérieur des arts de Toulouse beaux-arts, France.


Sep 91 – Jul 93:  Dunstable College
BTEC HND GRAPHIC DESIGN

Sep 89 – Jul 91: Sutton Coldfield College

BTEC ND GRAPHIC DESIGN

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