Art

Artist and poet Chris Bird: My art is an attempt to create hope and beauty in the everyday

The Big Issue contributor introduces Transmissions, his first collection of poetry and artwork

Self portrait by Chris Bird

Self portrait by Chris Bird

Chris Bird has experienced mental health, homelessness and addiction issues before discovering art as an outlet. We have run a few of his pieces in our magazine, and now he has published his own book of artwork and poetry, Transmissions. Here, in his own words and pictures, he takes us on his journey

I grew up in London, and after school had a series of menial short-term jobs such as warehouse packer, sales assistant and on building sites. As a result of mental illness I left home and felt compelled to live in a park that was very familiar to me. I had compulsive urges that I couldn’t resist related to place names and numbers. I experienced auditory hallucinations in the form of ‘voices’ since my 20s.

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Life overwhelmed me and workplace bullying played a part in a nervous breakdown. In street life I met several people, usually heroin addicts or alcoholics. A young Scottish couple befriended me and introduced me to heroin.

Street Signs

Polluted air billowed around me
As I cut across the road. 
Hoardings advertised long-gone movies. 
Darth Vader looking out through grime
Reminded me of an interstellar Satan 
Beside an open iron gate 
Bins were overflowing. 
Under some crude graffiti,
I noticed a discarded syringe: 
A street sign. 
I was in the right place 

Jim was both a protector and an enslaver. He taught me Rangers were the best team not just in Glasgow but the world. (His world was basically Glasgow anyway.) Jim was an astute thief and hard man who in a different life could have been a leader of men. Jim was a ramshackle, tracksuited general of the streets. The heroin seemed to soothe and reduce my symptoms of mental health challenges. 

Life in shabby tents taking drugs and begging became a new routine. A Hindu charity gave us curry and pita bread in the park most evenings.(It was always, and I mean always, lentils).

Illustration by Chris Bird
Illustration by Chris Bird, depicting the many people he met on the streets over the years

Community

Much of the time I felt lonely, 
Confused and anxious. 
I yearned to fit in. 
So, 
I took the risk of buying smack in Kings Cross
For Jim and Sal. 
For a time, 
I belonged.  

This nightmarish period came to an end when I saw my mum walking her dog in the park. With great compassion my mum, struggling herself in low-paid work, took me home. I slept on a sofa bed that after sleeping bags felt like five-star hotel comfort. The next day a kindly local GP diagnosed me with schizophrenia and I was sectioned under the Mental Health Act.

After hospital I stayed with Mum and we helped each other. Olanzapine and sertraline medication replaced opiates and I gradually recovered, although I still experience some symptoms.

I attend a charity that helps people with disabilities to produce artwork. The Big Issue has been kind enough to publish several of my drawings in the Street Art section. Big Issue has been a consistent support to me over recent years. It inspires and assists people who suffer from poverty, are experiencing homelessness or mental health issues. 

Illustration by Chris Bird
Self portrait by Chris Bird

Loose Change

I begged outside the Catholic Church
Close to the park where we had our tents. 
“Any loose change please” my mantra. 
Jim scrawled on a ragged bit of cardboard 
With a run-out marker,
“Money for Hostel.” 
The spelling so bad
It might as well have been Martian. 
The money was not for a hostel. 
Smack shocked my undiagnosed schizophrenia 
Back into hiding. 
Unsettling voices receded. 
I still heard old London ghosts
Who watched and waited for me to make an error.
I begged to feed my thirst.   

My book Transmissions includes poems, stories and drawings to depict the heroin scene in London. It was published by Write London, funded in part by the Arts Council. The title of Transmissions is a nod to Joy Division and my auditory hallucinations. It is available at Housmans book shop in King’s Cross, Central London.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue or give a gift subscription. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play

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