My Dog Sighs: 'The power of art is it makes people look at the world in a different way'
The street art star has become a global sensation thanks to his egalitarian and environmental approach to art. As part of his Big Issue guest edit, he explores the ways in which we can transform objects, places and people through art
My Dogs Sighs has installed spectacular large-scale murals across the world, including this one in Jackson, Michigan (2020). Photo: supplied
For two decades, street artist My Dog Sighs has been stalking the streets, cleaning up lost and discarded objects, turning them into eye-catching street art. It began in the early 2000s, with a mild-mannered teacher from Portsmouth.
He was inspired by an accidental interaction with one of street artist Banksy’s stencilled rats in a London subway. But how (and why) does a picture of respectability with a mortgage and young family go about creating an artistic alter-ego with an egalitarian and environmental mission? And how does he then conquer the art world?
First came the big idea. Rather than trying to cash in on his early artistic creations, the newly named My Dog Sighs created Free Art Fridays. All the while he continued working Monday-Friday as a primary school teacher.
Each week, he would create something with found objects, transform them with his painting and sculpting prowess, and deposit them on his Friday commute. An everyday superhero. An undercover artist. Cleaning up and adding a bit of magic to the streets, while perfectly disguised in a shirt and tie.
He would then take a picture, post it online – this was the early 00s, he used the Flickr picture site – and one lucky passer-by would have their life improved by something unique, created and found on their doorstep.
“The power of art is that it just makes people look at the world in a slightly different way,” says My Dog Sighs. “As a street artist, what I find really powerful is the idea that it’s not just people looking for art that are seeing it. Every demographic walks down the street and can stumble across a piece of street art.
“And what’s more special than stumbling across a piece of treasure when you’re wandering around?”
The hype built. Since then, My Dog Sighs has hidden free art in 20 countries across the world. This is true outsider art. My Dog Sighs was not part of a scene. Joining the graffiti artists on their solo beats around Portsmouth was not an option. He might get the sack from his teaching job. But a scene did grow. Street artists collaborating and advising each other, meeting regularly to share ideas and talk about their passions.
A decade in, My Dog Sighs and his Free Art Fridays were featured on BBC Two’s The Culture Show. A London gallery contacted him and persuaded him to monetise some of his works (My Dog Sighs continues to produce Free Art Fridays works alongside increasingly large commissions and shows).
Free Art Fridays have become a global phenomenon. Artists across the world giving their work away. The reward? Creating beauty, highlighting environmental challenges by reusing and recycling discarded items, building community, spreading kindness.
My Dog Sighs has produced squashed tin can pieces since day one. Creating faces and figures out of discarded baked bean tins. These have become one of his signature motifs – and are increasingly collectable.
“The first time anybody offered to buy a painted baked beans tin from me, I thought they were absolute lunatics,” he says. “It’s a baked bean tin with a bit of paint on it! But that was before I realised that the power of the connection between a person and an art.”
The tin can people were, he says, also inspired by street homeless people he would encounter on Albert Road in Portsmouth. The concept is powerful. Take something (or someone) once considered useful but currently discarded, ignored or even considered a menace. Revive it, lavish attention on it, listen to it, offer love and effort, see its value.
“As a skint artist, it was initially a great free material,” he says. “But the more I worked on these things, the more I realised that they echoed what I was seeing on the streets around me. I’m looking at these tin cans that once contained baked beans or tinned tomatoes and were a useful thing within a household. Once that use was finished with, they’re discarded.
“And I was looking at people on the street and thinking there’s such an echo. Because these are people’s daughters, sons, nieces or nephews. At one point, they were probably a valued member of a family. Something happened along the way.
“Just as I realised that with a with a bit of time and effort, I can turn a dented can into something valued, if we put some time, some effort in with people, we can do the same thing.”
My Dog Sighs began spray painting walls in his hometown. Brightening up rundown shopfronts on the walk to his kids’ school – work increasingly seen as a social good, as artists create more inspiring public spaces.
He has now created murals in cities across the world. From a hospital in Rome decorated with 540 eyes – each containing a portrait of someone who was born or died in the hospital – to one in his hometown celebrating Portsmouth FC’s 1939 FA Cup win, plus acclaimed works in China, Australia, South Korea, USA and Israel.
His latest eye painting graces the cover of The Big Issue. It forms part of a limited-edition series of prints and exhibition at The Jealous Gallery, which will raise funds for Big Issue. The exhibition has grown out of his most impressive work to date.
In 2021, the artist transformed a huge disused building in Portsmouth with his art. My Dog Sighs’ INSIDE project grew into a sprawling new world during lockdown. There were paintings, murals, sculptures created with found objects and the creation of an entirely new alphabet and language.
The characters My Dog Sighs created conversed in his new language. They told tales of love and loss, found safe spaces and shelter and joy and a home inside the absorbing, labyrinthine, otherworldly immersive installation.
Here was a building with a leaking roof, that had been abandoned and begun to decay. But look closer and it might just have been a utopian vision.
In April 2023, by now an artist of global significance, My Dog Sighs marked 20 years since Free Art Fridays began by scaling it up into a massive treasure hunt. Hand-painted pebbles, beer mats, My Dog Sighs coins, painted cans and limited-edition prints were hidden around Portsmouth across Easter Weekend. Even as his artistic impact extends further and wider, he continues to give back to the streets on which he launched his career two decades ago.
For this special edition of The Big Issue, My Dog Sighs has chosen the theme Reclaiming The Lost. Why?
“There are scary statistics, that for every homeless person there are 10 empty houses. That blows my mind,” he says. “So it builds on this idea of being aware of how we can look at lost materials, lost spaces, lost people – and how can we think about them in a different way.
“How can we use our creativity to look at the world in a different way? It is up to us to save these lost spaces. But it is our role to help people as well, isn’t it?”
Not all superheroes wear capes. This off-kilter creative thinker and global art world figure wore a shirt and tie when he began his journey. He has transformed, but more importantly, his work continues to transform, spaces and places.
And the creativity, the community building, the beautification of city spaces, the belief and joy that My Dog Sighs inspires in people and places? Now that is a true wonder.
This article is part of an art special edition of The Big Issue, curated by My Dog Sighs and featuring his exclusive artwork on the cover. It is on the streets from 10 July. Find your local vendor here. Throughout the week we will be sharing more stories from creatives, explorers and activists who are reclaiming the lost. Read those stories here.
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!