Pure Evil is not your archetypal graffiti artist. He listens to opera, he can trace his lineage back to Sir Thomas More and he even does interviews. In the shadowy world of street art, whose figurehead is the famously anonymous Banksy, such openness is unusual. But, as becomes clear, the man behind the Pure Evil moniker – Charley Uzzell Edwards – has no interest in following the pack.
He’s at his gallery in London’s Shoreditch to talk about 365streetart, a challenge he set himself to paint or leave a new piece of art on the street each day for a year. It’s day number,er, 382. Unwittingly, he’s overrun. “I think I’ll just keep on going into the second year: 365streetart2,” he says with a grin. “Street art is fun because it’s more vague than graffiti. Knitting, seed bombs, Sellotape shapes, impromptu sculpture… they all count. Being creative with dead animals can also be street art.” He’s only kidding about that last one. Possibly.
The past year has seen him take 365streetart around the world, though this hasn’t been without its problems.
“When I was in Hong Kong, I spent half my trip trying to find spray cans that didn’t seem like they were half-filled with wee,” he says. “I finally got in touch with a man who knew someone who knew someone, and they met me on a rooftop and gave me some delicious, thick paint. On my first day in Chile, I had to improvise with boot polish.”
Uzzell-Edwards’ art may appear in unexpected places worldwide, but east London is home. Ten years ago, the art appearing on the walls of pre-gentrified Hackney began being documented on the internet, pre-Tumblr and Instagram, then leaked into mainstream media.
Spearheaded by painters such as Uzzell- Edwards, Banksy, Ben Eine (whose profile was raised when David Cameron gave Barack Obama one of his works as a gift) and pioneering print house Pictures On Walls, the community was tight and suspicious of outsiders. Shoreditch was a no-go area, its HQ the Dragon Bar, a Wild West saloon-of-a-place dripping in original artwork, where street artists would scheme in dark corners. Pictures On Walls’ anarchic pop-up gallery/shop Santa’s Ghetto brought this subversive world to mainstream attention. Squatting in disused shops in Soho each December, it opened a window into this guarded community: people could view and buy original and affordable pieces. It gave artists a new kind of exposure, just as street art was becoming ultra-desirable.
It was at Santa’s Ghetto in 2005 that Uzzell-Edwards, back in London after 10 years in San Francisco, first broke into the burgeoning UK scene. As well as selling one of his canvases at the show, he was commissioned to stencil graffiti on the set of an MTV video.
“That night, I just went out on the streets, started creating and didn’t stop,” he says, his eyes lighting up. “It was such a buzz. Seeing pieces by the likes of Pablo Fiasco, Faile, Bast and Banksy around this area, it felt like you were in a time and place that was really significant, like Haight-Ashbury in the ’60s.”
Uzzell-Edwards is getting into Pure Evil mode, preparing to create his latest pieceof 365streetart: a stencil of Marlene Dietrich with a Dali moustache. The reality of making street art doesn’t conform to stereotype any more than the man. For one thing, he wears a Barbour jacket. And he’s not sneaking about in the early hours: it’s 1pm on a grey Wednesday. He walks to an alley covered in stickers, stencils, freestyles and, bizarrely, a life-sized cardboard snowboard complete with bindings. He’s had his eye on this spot for some time.
He calmly takes the waist-high stencil out of its cardboard cover, leans it on a metal door and fills it in with black spray paint. In a couple of minutes he’s done. He touches up his signature and moves away; the people murmuring on the other side of the door didn’t notice a thing. Chances are they won’t complain about Dietrich: they’re more likely toget her valued. Ever the pro, Pure Evil doesn’t hang about to find out.
“When I started, street art wasn’t the national pastime it is now,” shouts Uzzell-Edwards, 46, over the din of black-cab traffic and the lunching design types that fill present-day Shoreditch. “You’d have to go home, change your jacket, wash your hands, then come out and take a photo. Now, you just leave it there for 10 minutes and someone’s already photographed and uploaded it.”
”I like street art because it’s a dictatorship. There’s no focus group meeting, just a wall, some paint and maybe a vague idea swimming aroundin adrenalin. Every act of graffiti is political art, whether it’s an anti-war slogan painted under a bridge at night or a cartoon of a fuzzy character. It’s not meant to be there. That’s political.” Uzzell-Edwards’ life took a dramatic turn in 2008, when he was refused re-entry to the USA. With no way back to San Francisco, he found himself living in his parents’ garden shed in Wales. (His father John, who died in March last year, was an award-winning painter.) His work became darker; Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Bastards, an homage to the famous Beatles album cover artwork, was populated by some of the worst despots in history, including Pol Pot, Stalin and Hitler. He set the price at £666 and sold enough to kick-start his career in London. “When you return from San Francisco with £200 in your pocket, £666 for a print is serious money,” he says. “It just kind of snowballed from there.”
This is a modest description of his achievements. The Saatchi Gallery has exhibited his work, which sells to the rich and famous for five-figure sums, and his own gallery is buzzing. But even with this commercial success, Uzzell-Edwards remains a street artist; cut him and he’d bleed spray paint. He recalls the story of being chased down an alley one night by an undercover policewoman in heels and a miniskirt on a drugs bust. She told him to go home, but not before causing him to snap the pole he’d attached to his spray can so that he could paint up high. “I didn’t go out again that night,” he laughs, “but those kind of situations illustrate why you get hooked.”
Stepping above ground hasn’t made him any less a part of the street-art world, either. For starters, he’s one of the few people who would recognise Banksy. “I was out with my friend Nylon years ago and there was a guy sitting on a bench,” he says. “I just wanted to get on with spraying, but Nylon went to chat with this guy. When we left, he was like, ‘That was Banksy.’ I ran back, took off the Pure Evil T-shirt I was wearing, gave it to him and said, ‘You’re f–king awesome.’ It was nice to be able to give some respect.”
The street-art revolution that gave Pure Evil a leg up from the alley to the gallery has changed the wider world, too. “There’s the phenomenon of Banksy’s children now,” he says. “He has spawned all these people who want to be as famous as him. Being a street artist has become a viable career path. Most people in the past didn’t give a toss about how many people liked what they were doing; they were just doing it because the voices in their head told them to.”
On the surface, Pure Evil seems like a mass of contradictions, blending spray paint and Barbour jackets, graffiti and galleries. But beneath all that, for him, it’s simple. The value of street art has always been in scratching the itch of nonconformity. “It’s about the urge to go out to paint and be a vandal,” he says. “If you’re just doing it for the fame, you’re missing the whole point. Which is to create and paint because you need to.”
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