Sneaker chimpin’ ain’t easy, especially when you’re one of the original few that now finds it tough to sell out in a scene so obsessed with chasing paper. Dave The Chimp has been lurking in the dark alleys of Clerkenwell for nearly two decades throwing down his cartoon style characters on any solid surface he could find. A quick diagnosis of RSI led him to think ‘big’ and with that, it was hard not to notice his satirical comic artwork throughout the glum and grey surroundings of his UK hometown. A winning proposal to skate giants Vans has left the Chimp with a lot of explaining to do, with his contradictory efforts to stay loyal to his humble past yet keep himself cashed up enough not to have to succumb to a nine to five. We caught up with Dave for a hilarious chinwag and got the grit on the art known as ‘street’.
Hey Dave, let’s start off by how you got the name Dave The Chimp! Please explain!
Back in the mid to late ‘90s I used to party a lot with a group of friends. We used to call each other ‘chimp’ as a kind of affectionate put-down. When we went to parties we would always rock the dance floor, hence the reason why we used to get invited to a lot of them. Somehow people started referring to us as ‘the chimps’ – they’d say, ‘come to our club night, we’ll put you on the guest list, bring the other chimps’ - so I was ‘Dave, the chimp’. Around that time I was more down with the underground/counter-culture art scene, and a screen printer friend told me I needed an ‘artist name’, as my real name didn’t sound so hip. I’ve always been a big fan of chimps, so thought that would be a good name, but there was a famous Scottish skater from the late ‘80s called ‘Chimp’, so I went with ‘Dave the Chimp’. Kind of dumb, but not as dumb as some people's names!
You were doing your thing way before there was such a thing called the ‘street art' scene. How has it evolved from those days when you were just doing something to fulfill your artistic needs as apposed to now where you are making some cash from it?
I’ve never made a penny from my art in the street! I’ve been paying my way working as an illustrator since the age of 16, but I didn’t sell any paintings until, I think, 2001, and I’ve never been paid to paint in the street. But whatever, that’s not the question. Yeah, I just used to go paint. It was something to do. I had bad RSI and my doctor told me to quit painting small (well, he said ‘no drawing for a year and it will be fine’ but it’s hard to quit an addiction) so I decided to paint big. But I had nowhere to store, show, or sell the paintings, so I figured if I painted on the street the pieces would be on show, and I didn’t need to worry about storing or selling them. This was 1998. Then, in 2003, I was contacted to take part in a ‘street art’ show, and I became aware of all these other people doing stuff, and using other ways of working (like posters and stickers)
I started working with a crew for a while, but to be honest it got boring quick, as none of them could really draw, and I got sick of seeing the same old characters over and over. It was a good way to meet other artists and travel though, and we had some fun. Then Banksy, Shepard Fairey and Barry Mcgee started to make some money, and suddenly every fucker who wanted to be an artist would put stencils or posters in the streets for a few months, call themselves ‘street artists’ and start having gallery shows (and then stop working in the street).
For me, the whole ‘street art’ scene is bullshit, and I’m not interested in it. Like any kind of scene there’s only about 15% good quality stuff, with about 5% of that being really forward thinking, ground-breaking stuff. There is very little ‘art’ in this scene, mostly just advertising, people with one idea desperately trying to promote themselves. Who cares! I care as much about the latest person making stencils of faces in the street as I care about my toothpaste having a ‘new formula’. The only good thing (about street art hype) is it means there’s a bunch of galleries and a few brands that want to give us a chance to show work and in turn, pay our rent. It gives us a chance to try and make art without having to deal with art school or the gallery system.
Can you take us back to those days when you were roaming the streets at night in the backstreets of Clerkenwell?
Yeah. We’d sit around the studio smoking weed and drawing, making zines. Then at 2am, go out and paint until the sun came up. The next day we would take a photo with a disposable camera (because, unlike today, it didn’t matter. Now you have to take a film crew with you every time you paint! The Internet is the place most people experience ‘street art’, which kind of misses the point!) Just painting spots I liked the look of, not trying to get noticed, just painting whatever ideas came to mind, dealing with my personal shit through painting. I kind of miss that honesty and freedom.
Does street art have 'greater' meaning?
Sometimes I think art is bullshit and a waste of time and money. Sometimes I think it’s really important, and that if you can get it into people's lives it can make them think, or smile, or just stop for a minute and let their mind wander. I still want to make work that makes people think, makes them engage their minds. I’m ok with the idea that they buy a piece now though. I mean, they’re going to spend their money anyway, so I’d rather they help me pay the rent than buy a DVD of a movie starring a millionaire actor, or some other pointless crap! Maybe art can change the world. Maybe it’s all just a big con.
So when was the shift from giving away your pieces to making money off your work and capitalising on your name?
I’ve been earning money drawing since the age of 16 (I just turned 35) so there was never a shift. I’ve always pushed a pencil for cash, and I’ve always pushed it for free – making flyers for friends club nights, t-shirt graphics, zines. The only difference with being paid to do something is that you have less freedom. That’s why I’d rather make stuff just for the sake of it, and not to make money. I really don’t like to take commissions for paintings, as working on a commission doesn’t feel like I’m making ‘art’, so I feel like I’m conning the client! But hey, I gotta eat, and this game sure beats working in a factory!
Was it frustrating as an artist to have to deal with this ‘new scene’ that was emerging when it was something you had been doing for years before it cracked? What was your view on the ‘scene’ as it was coming to the forefront?
Yeah, it was. I saw a lot of people with way less talent than me, who’d dedicated far less time to the streets, getting lots of love and popularity, lots of opportunity. But I’m way more relaxed these days! A lot of people have already peaked, and now have nowhere to go but down. I figure I've got another 10 years work to do before I’m making real good art. If I can make real good art. I don’t know if I can, not sure if my brain is quite on the right frequency. But that’s ok, I’m happy to just draw dumb cartoons, paint murals for kids or teach some junior school art classes, do some fun things. I watched the movie ‘Downtown 81’ last night, and it really made me want to start a new band. The important thing is to do what you want to do for yourself, to enjoy your life. If you can make other people's lives a little better along the way then that’s great, but I’ll be fucked if I’m going to make myself old and miserable trying to be a star, trying to be famous, trying to be rich! So yeah, I use to have a right nark on about this ‘scene’, but now I don’t really give a fuck!
Tell us about your iconic style of imagery and the cartoon-like style that you throw up. What do they say about Dave The Chimp?
Iconic? Wow! Thanks! I think my style is simply cartoon style. I happen to think cartoons are probably the simplest and most direct way to communicate thoughts, feelings, and ideas. I really do love the medium. And it’s just how my thoughts come out, in simple drawings. Often I see really beautiful, elaborate, complicated art that looks great, but doesn’t communicate with me. Then I’ll see a simple black and white comic strip that communicates huge amounts of emotion. I think people often develop these technical or flashy ways of working to hide a lack of content. Content is everything! Well, depending on what you’re making, but for me – I like art that has things to say to me. I’m known for a real tight outline style, but that takes a long time to paint, and frankly I’ve gotten a little bored of taking so long to make one piece – the energy and fun of creation gets lost, and it just becomes a boring slog. Lately I’ve been working on making really expressive work with the minimum of work. I made 150 paintings for a show recently in less than five hours! And look at the characters on the shoes – so simple they barely exist! Just a rounded shape with two marks for eyes! I’m sure to communicate with less must require a huge amount of talent, but I’m far too modest to suggest that!
Let’s talk about the Vans collab and how the partnership all came about...
Every year, the European Marketing Managers at Vans have a meeting where they put forward ideas for collaborations. Usually it’s with brands like Carhartt. The UK MM knew my work, and suggested me as a possible collaborator. So I had to then pitch against two other UK brands (famous brands I won’t mention) so I knew I had to come correct. I studied graphic design and worked in advertising as well as being an artist, so I know how to put together a good presentation. I hand painted pictures of the shoes so the colours would be correct, had a concept behind the designs, and also showed ideas for additional stuff like box design and t-shirts. I did all this because I know most collaborations don’t go much further than the brand saying ‘we want this model shoe, in blue, and put our logo here’. I presented two ideas, one I thought too crazy for them to go with, using a shoe model that isn’t popular, and one ‘safe’ design. Somehow I won the commission, and at first they decided to make both designs, but ended up only making the ‘crazy’ shoe. I’m the first UK artist to have a Vans shoe. And I even got paid!! Stoked!
The shoe is very feminine in its colourings and imagery, but a crapload of blokes have been running (or should I say kick-pushing) to get their hands on a pair. How did you come up with the concept and what is the message of the toe-like creatures?
I like this question! Yeah, the shoe is totally gay! But somehow, it’s still totally not a girl’s shoe. It’s weird, I don’t feel at all effeminate wearing them, so I must have done something right! In a way I’m just trying to create a little more colour in men’s lives. Look at the huge variation in women’s clothing, all the different items, styles, cuts, colours, fabrics, prints, and accessories. Then look at what men have got – t-shirts, jeans, cords, cotton, denim, leather, shirts, jackets, brown, grey, black, boring, boring, boring. And then look at nature. In nature it’s always the male of the species that is elaborate and colourful, in every species except humans. I’m a chimp; I’m on the side of nature!!!
The concept is:
1. I liked this style of shoe as it was a similar shape to the Nike Blazer (I would never wear Nike, but I like the look of that shoe)
2. I like white shoes, always have, just seems right, adds a little strut to my step to wear white sneakers.
3. I try and challenge people with my work, make them look at things differently, open their eyes, and also to try and make them smile. I think this shoe does that.
It’s called the ‘Wake Up’ shoe as I think most people go through life asleep, and a life is a terrible thing to waste. I think the toe-like creatures, in this kind of repeat pattern, which is actually random, is how I see society, a fucking shit load of sleeping sheep. Like the fields of human batteries in The Matrix! There’s a photo from a skate photographer, I forget who. It’s black and white, and shows a huge crowd of people, all in dull colours, no one is smiling, and in the middle is a skater in a white t-shirt, with bleached blonde hair and a massive smile. That photo says so much to me, as an artist, as a skater of 20 years, as someone who tries to think and feel as much as possible. I guess the design on the side panel of this shoe is my version of that photo. Hmmm. I hadn’t thought about that til now. I completely stole that idea; I’m a total plagiarist!
Unfortunately for those peeping the shoe on Sneaker Freaker for the first time right now, the shoe has actually already been released. Where did people go to cop it and were there any special tie-ins with the drop?
It dropped in September 2008! In the UK, Size? were stocking them, as well as the Vans store in Berlin and London, and maybe Barcelona. And a friend saw them in Milano. But they were a strictly European release, as America couldn’t give a shit about the rest of the world! As well as the shoe there were two t-shirt designs, a free two-colour zine/poster, and Hessenmob Skateboards made a deck to go with the release (they are friends of mine, and I thought it might help get them some free promotion if we released a deck with the same graphic as the shoe!)
Has this sparked an interest in you collaborating more with footwear brands or apparel ranges to take full advantage of the booming street scene that has kept keeping on?
Nope. I had an email from Nike asking me to be their ‘artist in the UK’. I told them I can only work on a project with them for a minimum of £250,000. They thought I was joking, but no. Those cats have SO much money - if they want me, that’s what they’ve got to pay! Most kids would chop off a foot to work for Nike, but to me it’s just another corporate monster, another McDonalds or Shell or Marlboro. I just heard about a very talented European artist who recently worked for them, and from what I heard they were a bunch of arseholes to work with! That’s how it is with big corporations – they think that everyone wants to be part of their team, but the moment you sign up you realise that you are just another way for them to earn money, and it’s the money that is the important thing, not the human or the creativity. Fuck that shit!
I’m a supporter of Vans as I like their shoes, they work for me as a skateboarder, but it was often a total ass working with them, too much corporate bullshit, lawyers and all that crap, failures in communication, people a million miles away from the product making decisions. The individual people, they are all real nice, but once in the machine, it all becomes a hassle. Doing this project made my prices go up for the next client – not because I’ve got a big ego, but because I like a simple life, and if I have to have it complicated by a brand, filled full of stress by a client, then they gotta hook me up with big cash so I can take a month off once the work is done! Life’s too short for a heart attack at 50! I’d like to play with my grandchildren, and I don’t even have kids of my own yet! Fuck the stress of playing in the big leagues!
Where will Dave The Chimp be in the next five years?
Hopefully playing with my first kid! Maybe wearing the other pair of Vans I designed, the ‘Advice’ shoe – we got so much coverage off the ‘Wake Up’ shoe that they would be mad not to put out the other design! Hopefully I’m making some decent art and not this gay rainbow shit. Hopefully still fit enough to skate, and hopefully I’ve made it to Australia, y’all got some nice looking concrete there. Maybe I’ll have found the time to make a short film with my brother, and maybe I’ll get around to writing the screenplay for the two feature lengths I have had ideas for. Maybe I’ll have published the book I wrote. Maybe I will have an art book or two out. Who knows? There’s plenty to do. Rest assured I won’t be resting too much! Not unless Nike pay me that 250 grand! Then I’m taking a couple of years off! Hell yeah!