Bristol-based graffiti artist RichT has been painting walls and making art for 16 years now. Here he tells us how he finally made it to Bristol from the quiet graffiti-free streets of Devon; how he was supported and brought up by some of the graffiti greats; and how he ended up running Bristol’s best Halloween party-cum-art show for the past five years. Meet the funny and humble guy behind some of Bristol's most colourful walls.
Why did you come to Bristol in the fist place? Did you study here?
I went to Cheltenham originally because it was the closest I could get to Bristol through clearing. I've just always been like that, really last minute. I went there for a year, got thrown out. But I didn't really care as much as I should have done... I went back home for the summer as you do. Tried to go through clearing again to get to Bristol and I managed to get [here] but only to the City of Bristol College on an HND graphic design course. Anyway I got thrown out, but it didn't matter 'cause I was here. All I needed to do was get out of small-town Devon.
Why was being in Bristol so important?
Because so many people I looked up to painted here. Bristol's always been, just, the Graffiti capitol of the UK for me. The people that were painting when I moved here in early 2000... It was so close as well to where I'm from, but felt like a long long way away 'cause I had to go this crazy route of blagging my way into different universities.
When was the first time you really realised you were a creative person?
I think it was really early, at primary school, I always thought I wanted to but wasn't all that good. And I still don't think I'm all that good, I think that's important I think you need to be like that. If you think you're done then you're an idiot [laughs].
There was a point in primary school where there was a painting competition and you had to paint a vase of flowers. They were gunna be used for the opening of this shopping area. I won and I was so excited, and all I won was some book tokens - for the school! I didn't even get my painting back! I should have known then that that was the wrong choice [laughs].
I was listening to this podcast today (The Adam Buxton Podcast) and Brian Eno was saying that art is what adults do instead of play, because you're told to stop messing around, you're to stop wasting time and knuckle down and so instead anything that you do - doesn't have to be painting or drawing or singing or whatever, could be the way you dress or the way you style your hair - anything that requires excess amount of effort to get the job done, is art.
Your style is sometimes quite comic book-y. When did you realise you could make a living out of doing your style of illustration?
Still waiting on that! [Laughs]. So I left my course at Bristol and I just worked part-time jobs in trainer shops. But I was always drawing and painting but not really with a plan. I knew I was building towards something, I always wanted to work as an artist but I didn't know how to do it, how to get there.
So you do a lot of terrible shit things because you think it's gonna be amazing and it's gonna be huge and it never is.
What it does is it just make you the most cynical person; it beats the optimism out of you. Now you're supposed to self promote and rave and say how great you're doing and it's hard because one thing you learn from doing this for a long time is 'don't count your chickens'. The moment you start big-ing yourself up you can almost guarantee that you're setting yourself up for a failure.
Does living in Bristol influence your style in any way?
Yeah, because I was so desperate to get here, definitely... because where I'm from is very rural and if you're into graffiti and you're from North Devon it's like 'good luck' [laughs]. There's literally no inspiration for that. It's a beautiful place to live but it’s not gonna be inspiring you in that realm.
So what was the first thing you saw that turned you onto graffiti?
I don't think it ever really went like that. Sounds stupid but I don't really like looking at graffiti. I don't look at graffiti magazines and stuff but I was really into logos and graphics and surf logos and surf brands. Skateboarding was probably the biggest influence on me.
Also Hip Hop, Hip Hop is basically everything, that's how I learned about everything. If you're from North Devon and you grew up in the 80's and 90's... there's something about Hip Hop and America... it's so impossible to get your hands on that y'know? It's so impossible to see that stuff, you fiend for it and it's a real passion.
It's different now because you can just look on the internet, everything's immediate but back then, when the news agent gets, like, one shit Hip Hop magazine and on the back two pages there might have been a page of graffiti, which was just six walls taken panoramic and you're just like 'aww god' [in an excited tone]. So I like drawing, I like Hip Hop and then that combination of lines and boldness... but I was never out on the streets of Barnstaple bombing.
Is there anyone in Barnstaple doing that?
Yeah now there’s more people into it for sure. When I was 16, I went to go and visit this guy, he's still painting, still killing it - Mao Mao. He was living near me and he used to put on these nights called Sewerside. He had a skate brand and he did album artwork for people like Skitz and Rodney P - UK Hip Hop stuff, he did Dizee Rascals label artwork and loads of stuff. He lived ten minutes down the road from me and he was painting, he was the only person and somehow I got his number, like a weird little kid does.
I went to his studio and he got me really stoned. He was working on something and he'd just been sent a book, and it was from Banksy, I didn't know who Banksy was because it was, like, 1999. He said 'yeah my mate who's painting and lives in Bristol just sent me this'. I think that was around the time a few books came out like the Scrawl Collective books.. so Mr Jago, Will Barras, TCF crew, Sickboy.. everyone seemed to be in Bristol.
Why did they all gravitate here?
In the late 90's there was a big graffiti jam here called 'Walls on Fire'. Also John Nation and The Barton Hill youth club. That was huge and you had people like 3D from Massive Attack and Inkie and Cheo and people that were painting in Bristol since the early 80's. So it's basically just been the place for graffiti since then. They moved here for that in the same way that I moved here for that, except I was moving because of them and they were moving because of the generation before, and there's still people moving here now for the same reason.
So has London ever been an option just to make yourself more commercially 'out-there'?
Yeah I spent a lot of time in London trying to do that kind of thing in the early years but as the world got smaller with the internet and as everything changed, you get a bit more recognition and realise that you don't need to chase that so much. I've never been one to be like 'me, me, me', it puts me off. I think if you do the work it'll come to you, you don't need to be in London. I mean people are leaving London now. It was fun but it's never been a place I've wanted to spend a lot of time.
It's great if you can go with your wallet and your phone and you're in and out, but whenever we used to have to go we had to take our paint, stay on someone’s couch, take a sleeping bag, gotta take a rucksack... We can't just leave our bag at this bar, y'know it's just all these hassles and all this stress. Always 'oh the person you're staying with said you can't stay there anymore so you've gotta go stay at this person’s house'.
That was always the way, so I never really enjoyed going. I knew it was work but we weren't getting paid. We were going to break into places and paint walls in asbestos filled buildings.
It all came about through fotolog which was like a thing before Flickr, before Instagram. People that couldn't afford websites were on fotolog, and a lot of graffiti writers used it. So we all just knew each other through that.
Do you ever get paid for it now?
Yeah, but there's a difference between me going and painting with my mates and some beers and me going to work painting. I've just done a commission for a company in Birmingham where I painted corridors of their offices, but that's almost more like a graphic design job. They say 'ok we need this' and you have to be able to adopt that style for five days.
A different style? They don't hire you because they like what they've seen you do before?
Yeah I jump around a lot anyway between different styles if I can because I get a little bit fed up doing the same thing. I'm always worried that this isn't working, I should just try doing something else. But yeah, getting paid to paint is always tricky. I'd rather be paid to paint something that was completely removed from what I do because it keeps it easy, it's not ruining all your stuff for the future. So, say I had to do, I dunno, a letter piece and they say 'I really like this piece you did on the street', I would never give it to them for their office because they'd have notes, they'd want it to say something like 'synergy' or 'creativity' or something. I've painted six foot high letters that say 'creative' on a wall in an office for a load of people with stand-up desks. That happens a lot, and they're like 'yeah we like your stuff but can you make it say 'excellence.'' [laughs].
So you adapt your style to make it different in those circumstances?
Yeah so... that's quite commercial right? [points at a piece behind him of Spiderman in a more comic book-y style]. But within that style I could draw anything. There was a job I did recently with an engineering company, so lots of mechanical objects and I basically just took a load of photographs of mechanical objects and drew it in that style, but laid it out in that way [referencing the piece behind him] where it's all just pieced together and it all just looks hectic - that's quite commercial. Then years ago I was doing loads of flowery stuff and that was really commercial, so that was a conscious choice because that could get me paid. But if I was choosing to paint I'd write my name and I'd draw a stupid face on it [laughs] because it's fun.
Ok, so all this stuff [gesture towards all the stuff up in the studio around us]..
All this stuff, this is just me having fun, that's the personal work - studio stuff! Everything in here is mine - I did it for my own reasons. But yeah, if I'm doing a job I don't ever say no to a style or a concept, I'll usually be presented with an idea from a client and it's up to me to then show them the options.
So do you show them a range of options and then they pick one?
I would show them an option I wanted to do first, but if they'd already made a mood board or if they'd already said 'we like this stuff'... Occasionally they'll send over a photo realistic thing and I'll just say 'it's not really me but I know someone it is.' Y'know give it to a mate.
Has there ever been a point when you felt like you were losing your way and not finding success?
Yeah, always! Always! Luckily for me I've got a very supportive girlfriend, but it's hard. There's been years where I've made pittance - like no money. Working for yourself and being an artist is a difficult balance.
It's not easy being freelance in any realm, doesn't matter about painting or drawing, if you're a freelance writer, whatever... unless you've got people who are looking for work for you, unless you've got someone that's got your back, if you've not got an avenue to advertise yourself, you're really gonna struggle.
Especially with drawing and painting because you put so much of your time into actually doing that, when in reality it's actually 40% of the time you need to spend doing it. The rest of the time you need to be promoting yourself and you need to be selling yourself, and when you finish a job you need to be professional, you need to learn about invoicing, you need to learn about tax, you need to learn about business.
You need to have business cards, you need to have product, merchandise, things like that. You need to look like you're a business, when actually you're just a little twat in a room drawing stupid faces, it's so silly.
Better that though than doing something you absolutely don't want to spend your life doing...
Well that's the trade-off! Either do it properly and learn how to do a self assessment form or get a real job... I have an accountant and that blows my mind.
So what's the biggest air-punch moment that you've had in your career then?
So many... like all the time! It's mad to me that I get to do what I like every day. Last week I was sick and was on a job and I was being mopey. Then I was like 'what are you talking about, you're not doing anything difficult, you're doing what you wanna do.'
RPM (45RPM) who I started painting with when I first moved here - like my brother basically - is in China on a jolly, getting paid! So sometimes you need to remember that we're afforded so much in terms of getting to go places and be looked after just because you can draw something.
I don't ever listen to music unless it's on shuffle - I like the surprise of it. I don't listen to an album. This job is like living your stupid little life on shuffle because you might spend six weeks in here and get nothing, or you might get that one email that you don't recognise the name of and then you're going to China. That is a possibility that is always there and to say no and commit yourself to a proper job - even if it's in a good place, a design agency or something where you're needed - then you get that email, what are you going to do? You can't quit just for two weeks of jolly.
So you're all in or all out?
No plan B! Fuck a plan B. Fuck working for someone else. You're here for no time. Why would you spend that time working for someone else? If you can find a scheme-y scam-y way of getting round it then do it. There's such a minuscule amount of time to actually create stuff because you spend half your life asleep and you spend the rest of it convalescing when you're old, or being a baby when you can't do anything. There's this little gap in your life where you can do what you want to do, so you should probably do it!
So what's the biggest career or creative risk you've taken so far?
I don't know how risky I've been. I'm on a kids TV show! That's a stupid idea! We're going into our fourth series. My good friend Ricky, Ricky Martin - real name - he makes a TV show which is about his life but an exaggerated version. It's like a sit-com for kids, an art show sit-com. It's called Art Ninja and all of his friends are in it, but playing hyped up, weird versions of themselves.
What do you do on it?
Basically we provide someone for Ricky to talk to during an episode. Also we do the big 'makes' at the end, like they used to do on another famous kids TV show about art. I end up painting a load of walls because what I do is directly translatable to kids TV y'know? Big, bold. So the last series we cling-filmed between two trees and I painted a fox in the woods. Then before that we did a thing with neon tape where we painted a big wall black and then we neon taped a picture up and put black-lights on it. Kids love it.
I was gunna ask you about Trick or Treat, how did that come about?
Hangfire who have a gallery in Bedminster, they wanted me and 45RPM to do a show, and we didn't want to do it. We said yes if we could do a group show. So we did it with Sickboy who was around at the time and he said there's no point doing it in October if you don't do it on Halloween. We were like 'yeah that's a good point because everyone fucking loves Halloween.' We didn't want to do it in a gallery so we had to find a location - a weird location, and that's what snowballed it really. Finding somewhere weird was half the fun of it.
So the first year we did it in a converted garage in Clifton, which is the worst place to do a show, especially a Halloween show about graffiti. Literally right in Clifton village. We just basically used it as an excuse to invite the people that we liked to do what they were doing.
It was a wet Wednesday and tonnes of people turned out in fancy dress and we had an after party in a pub opposite, the lady that ran that pub kept it open till three in the morning for us because she was like 'this is the most money I've ever made.' That was five years ago and this year it was the Surrey Vaults and it was the most money they've ever made... Because people love Halloween!
So yeah we did that and we kind of had a lot of fun doing it, we had a lot of fun making it - I think that's the key to it, it's not really about the final product... especially for Trick or Treat because it's only open for five hours! There's no point opening it afterwards because it doesn't work in the daylight and it doesn't work on November the 1st because its not Halloween!
So all this stupid shit you've done is maybe two months worth of work for four or five hours of no one buying any artwork [Laughs]. We worked out after four years that no one's got their wallet on them because they're all bubble wrapped up and covered in cardboard. No one wants to carry a print. So everyone will be buying shit and saying 'can I pick it up next week?'
Have you had any mentors along the way?
Not a constant mentor but people who I've definitely looked up to and given me sound advice. So I said originally I moved here because of people like Jago, he was one of the first people to reach out to me, he didn't know me... I was a huge, huge fan - still am a huge fan and I was working a temp job, just y'know data entry and he sent me an email saying 'I like what you’re doing.' I was like 'fuck!'
He won’t remember this but I remember him saying 'do it for ten years, then you'll see reward, you'll see come-back from it.' It sounds like a long time but it's nothing if you're serious, it's nothing at all because you'd do it anyway. That stuck with me.
Mau Mau was a big influence on me from a young age. Amazing style.
There's so many people in this city that give you a helping hand, another one for me is Wainwright - Danny Wainwright. I knew who Danny was when I moved here because I skated but I didn’t know he also painted. He’s a good mate and we’ve done loads of shit together.
Will Barras as well - just incredibly talented and humble. For someone with so much raw talent you almost feel like your shit's not even worth talking about but he will engage you and talk to you about it. That really makes a big difference to someone that's trying to work in the come-up.
Everyone always goes on about having a good art teacher or something but I just had good fucking artists that were just humble, sound people.
How important is social media in your self promotion?
It's important to everyone, which is bull-shitty. It's important if you're an artist unless you've got representation. Ideally I'd be one of those guys that has no internet presence and then just pops up and sells out [laughs]. I drew that today [gestures to a picture on the wall] and sold it today through Instagram, that's a great outlet. People are there, you'd be foolish not to utilise that.
Would you class yourself as an introvert or an extrovert?
I don't know, it's really hard because doing what I do is quite showy, but I wouldn't say I was a very extroverted person in general. I'm not super showy if I'm not painting or drawing but then it's not even that showy when you are doing that because you're doing it in private.
When do you feel most creatively satisfied?
I'd say it's not through completion of artwork, ever. I'd say it's through the struggle. The fun of it for me is doing stuff with your mates, if you can collaborate on something, if you can make something between you. A really good example is Trick or Treat because it's hard fucking work to make it good. I know how much I want Halloween to be fucking banging. It can't just be an illustration show or an art show, there has to be more to it, there has to be levels. It has to be 'I saw this and then this happened then this happened', it has to be staggered.
But for that to happen you need lots of people and I think that is so satisfying when it pulls off. But it's not the kill it's the thrill of the chase. It's the doing of it, and you don't realise it when you're in it. You're making something.
I'm so proud of people that I've never met knowing what Trick or Treat is. I've heard people in the street saying 'I'm going to Trick or Treat', and people who I've just met have asked me if I'm going and it's so satisfying. It's really nice to build stuff with your mates, it's the satisfaction you have of sitting with your friends at the end of the night or mid-way through when it's kicking off and it's rammed. You're stood next to one of them and we're just having a cigarette or having a drink and we just...[gestures squeezing someone]. The best thing in the world is it's your stupid fucking idea and people like it and they're having a really good time.
Is there anything you wish you'd been told when you were starting out?
Nope. I don't think there's any point in that. Anything that's going to dissuade you from what you're doing is probably something you need to find out on your own. What's anyone gonna tell me? I think I heard everything everyone was gonna tell me, which was like, 'pff, don't do that mate!'
Especially with your parents, it's very difficult to convince them that what you're doing is worthwhile.
Are they supportive of that, generally?
100% now they are, because I've consistently - thank fuck - proven that I'm doing it, but it's not easy to prove that. I knew from 16 that that was what I was gonna do. My parents were - as I would be - like, 'don't put all your eggs in one basket...'
Check RichT out on Instagram here
Check out his merchandise here
Check out Spidermandem here