"It Comes Up, it's Beautiful, and it Dies" - King Adz

by Stephanie O'Brien

“I was born in South London, in Lewisham, to an unmarried teenage mother, and I was adopted out and moved out to a nice middle-class family in the northern ‘burbs. This movement had a great effect on me. I felt like an outcast in these suburbs because I wasn’t from there. That made me always look to self-satisfy and to distract myself with things that I thought were cool.”

“I discovered reggae on a transistor radio when I was eight. I liked things like fanzines. I liked anything that wasn’t the mainstream media, and there was a lot of that stuff. There was a market, Kensington Market, in South Kent that had a lot of independent fashion. I ended up at a cram school in South Kensington, which is where you go when you fail at every school, and you need to get some exams. It’s where the outcasts go and the rich, and the famous. I wasn’t rich, but I got to go there, and my crammers was really near Kensington Market. It had Hyper Hyper. It had Cuts, which is a famous hair salon. It had an arcade where people like Martin Amis used to hang around looking at all the youth playing video games. It was an interesting hub of proper subculture when it actually existed. It doesn’t exist anymore. But for me, I knew that there was something interesting happening there.

“That led me to go to clubs in Central London, I went to the Mud Club from about 15, and that was when I started understanding more about the music. It was Trouble Funk, Washington DC, and they started playing a bit of house, and then this thing called Rave started. This was everything. This was the stuff that I liked. I ended up studying graphic design and advertising at St Martin’s School of Art, and it was more about putting on a rave and doing something there and having an exhibition of our art and our work in nightclubs. This is when the thing started to merge, and we didn’t know what it was.

“It wasn’t street art. It was just this thing that started to consume me because, you know, it was fucking cool. My mother used to drag me to the Royal Academy when I was a kid, and it was the worst thing ever. I’d just have to get stoned to do it. It was dreadful. So that was my experience of art. Then streetwear happened, and I got into that, and then I travelled the world making ads. When I came back in the noughties, I was making a music video for someone very famous, and I needed to shoot some streets, so I went around Soho with a 35mm camera and shot a lot of stuff, and one of them was a Banksy. I’ve still got the photo, I’ve still got the print, and I think it was a moment where a door opened for me, and it was like, ‘This is fucking cool!’ But it wasn’t called street art. We didn’t know what it was.”

King Adz, to those of us with an appreciation for all things street culture, is one of the gods of the movement’s early days. For me personally, one of his many books, Street Knowledge, satiated a growing appetite to understand the nuance of the scene. It was the first street art book I owned that was more than pictures. King Adz saw into a culture, took it beyond its artistic aesthetic and dug deeper to find the stories behind the main story.

For King Adz, street culture was street food, street art, street fashion and street sounds. They collided together to tell greater stories of subcultures that were as yet untouched by the mainstream. They were of the people, for the people. Through his films and books, King Adz told these stories to the public.

This process of exploration began with Blek le Rat in the early 2000s.

“I was making a pilot for a company about street culture, and I needed someone in it. I thought Banksy was the obvious choice, but then I did what I was always doing, I looked behind Banksy so I’d see who inspired him to do full-length stencils, and it was this guy called Blek le Rat.

“I got in touch with him, and I was surprised at how quickly he said yes. I went to Paris, drove to his house and shot a short film about him. At that point, nobody knew who he was. He wasn’t making money from his art. He was still doing it, but he’d been arrested so many times that he was now only doing paste-ups. He couldn’t do stencils anymore. But I saw this body of work, and the Blek work is, you know, mid-eighties in French streets… when you see those 35mm photos of his art, his figures on the street with the French, Parisian life going on around it, that is probably the most iconic moment for me in my street art journey.

“We became friends, we spent a lot of time together, and I ended up shooting a while with him and made a feature documentary because no one knew him. And what happened was there was this thing called The Wooster Collective back then. The Wooster Collective was the centre of the street art world. It was a street art blog run out of New York by Sarah and Mark Schiller. If you got on there, you were made. I’m hyping it a bit, but The Wooster Collective was where it was at. Mark and Sarah liked Blek, so every time I did something with Blek, they put a link on there.

“The first short film got a lot of views. I mean, probably not compared to now, but this is 2004, 2005. He got a lot of views, and then that showed me 1) there was an appetite to make a longer film and 2) it also put Blek on the radar of lots of art dealers. He had his first solo show in London that sold out.

“I’d been having this conversation with Thames and Hudson. They published the first graffiti book. They did Spray Can Art, which was the first graffiti book on this side of the water. The Blek film got me a book deal. The Blek book and the Blek film, kind of, in a weird way, validated my citizenship in the street art world.”

“Culture is this big wheel, and only a little bit of it’s dipped into the mainstream at any one time.”

“I always liked that at the height of the street art community being active – and it did end. It was a finite length of time – you could be a reasonably well-known street artist. You could fly into Berlin or wherever and someone will pick you up and put you up. And then they take you to where you could do the best spots. And then you’d hang out in the bars and meet all the other street artists.

“That, for me, is great. And then that rolled over into the curation of the art. It wasn’t controlled by the galleries. It was controlled by people and Flickr. Flickr was what made street art happen. That was where everyone saw it because not everyone could see those pieces. They see it online.

“That was the difference. Graffiti in the eighties went into the galleries, and there was an opportunity there, but the big top to tail cars didn’t fit onto a canvas, and it didn’t look as good. Also, there wasn’t the internet. There wasn’t the internet, and there wasn’t Flickr.

“It was timing. You know, culture is this big wheel, and only a little bit of it’s dipped into the mainstream at any one time. The rest of the time, 99% of the wheel is underground, as it were or overground in this analogy. In 2000 that’s when it started happening. Around then, Banksy moved to London. It started appearing on the walls of Soho. And people started to see this thing that wasn’t graffiti.

“Street art was born out of graphic design.”

Shepard was a designer. Banksy did design. Hush was a designer. Photoshop had played a part, you know, these tools. When you look at it, that’s what sets it apart from graffiti. It was very design orientated.

“I hate to say it, but David Carson probably had a bit of an impact on street art just with what he did with Raygan and some of that stuff. You can definitely see it in WK Interact’s work. There are these cultural trails where you look. Jean-Paul Goude had an influence with his work which was all cutting, and you know he did Photoshop by hand with transparencies and then painting them. The iconic Grace Jones Citroen ad… these are all things that influenced the look and feel of street art. Warhol obviously had a massive impact, and Lichtenstein and all those half-tone guys. But the big reveal, as it were, was that street art was actually born out of the Holocaust.

“The first street artist is a guy called Czarad, whose family escaped from a camp and ended up as Polish refugees in Paris. Very early in the 60s, he started painting this figure called Ephemeral, and it was just a shadowy outline. He was the first modern artist to use the spray can as a brush and the street walls as a canvas. And it was Yves Klein that got him to do it. This was in the 60s, as well. It was before Cornbread. It was before everyone. The figures he was painting represented the figures of the Holocaust, but also the figures of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and I think it was the other two sites where they dropped the bombs in Japan.

“People always assume that street art came from America, but it didn’t.”

“It comes up, it’s beautiful, and it dies.”

“I don’t think anything about street art today. I’m desperate to see something that stops me like in the old days. I don’t think it’ll happen. People saw what happened with [street art], and they want to be Banksy, Blek, or Bayhush . They don’t want to do it to express themselves. It became something else, and then it became urban contemporary. All the big guys, like Swoon, Invader, Obey, Hush, and Blek, they’ve all become urban contemporary because the auction houses realised that they could sell these pieces for a lot of money. But they had to rename it because if they called it street art, it’s almost like they didn’t exist. They didn’t acknowledge its existence until they could make money out of it.

“There’s a great quote in one of my films where Steve Lazaridis says that there hasn’t been a big street art show in London because the art world has been controlled by the same cabal of aristocrats for the past 300 years, and they realised that they couldn’t control street art because at the beginning it was controlled by the fans, it was fan curated, it had Flickr… But it became this commodity, and people were hanging their Banksy next to their Basquits. It became this high thing, and people they want some of that money. They want some of that edge. So it became something other than what it should be.”

“I spend quite a lot of time today walking through Shoreditch, which is probably the street art capital of London, and it’s total shit. It really is. I’m not going to pretend anything other than that. I don’t care about it. There’s the odd paste-up screen print that is mildly interesting, but no. I don’t know how it ever can be. Even if somebody does quite good stencils, they just look like Banksy and Blek. There’s no message. There has to be a message. The thing about Banksy was there’s a headline, and there’s a payoff. It was advertising. It was advertising and art mashing together, which is something that I have a fondness for. I think that it’s moved… it hasn’t moved onto social media because those canvases are far too small. And it does get populated by the internet, but I don’t know. I don’t know where it’s going.

“2000 to 2010 was the street art decade. And then it imploded. That’s my opinion, and I’ll stick to that. I saw it die. There was a crash. You know, street art’s ephemeral. That’s the nature of the beast. It comes up, it’s beautiful, and it dies.”

This article is written from the Street Art Unearthed podcast episode with King Adz. Listen for the full conversation and check out his books and watch his feature film, The Iconoclast, about the world’s most notorious art smuggler.

Stephanie O’Brien is a writer and podcast host based in Melbourne, Australia. Fascinated by street art and constantly curious about what compels artists to take their art to the streets, she has been on an international mission to share street art and its stories with the world. Her podcast, Street Art Unearthed, boasts more than 100 episodes featuring interviews with some of the world’s biggest artists.