Charming Baker interviews London street artist Stik: My tipping point

"When I was homeless," Stik tells guest editor Charming Baker, "I lived with punks, activists, freaks, queers, gays and lesbians. The interesting side of life."

In his archway workspace off Old Street in East London, Stik – a long-time friend of The Big Issue, formerly homeless and now an artist whose work sells for tens of thousands – meets Charming Baker properly for the first time (they’d once met briefly at a show). For Stik, art proved a tipping point, taking him off the streets. The two artists immediately dive in to talk about their art and their formative influences, finding vast acres of common ground. Hopping from the etymology of their pseudonyms to homeless and queer politics by way of the sacrifices wrapped up in being an artist, they gel instantly.

Charming Baker: How long have you been doing these recognisable stick figures?

Stik: I started painting around 2001. I was on and off homeless around about London for a while and I was drawing a lot. I had carrier bags filled with drawings but when you get evicted from a squat or you get moved on from somewhere, you just lose loads of stuff. For me, painting on the streets was the safest place to keep my art.

CB: What influence did that time have on you?

S: I think my homeless period informs my art – definitely. I was squatting out of necessity but I met a lot of anarchists and people who were hardcore activists there. That became my education. I didn’t go to art school. I had a breakdown and then I kind of styled it out in punk squats. They were cool. They allowed me to be mentally ill. They allowed me to be broken. As a human being, I was commercially untenable. I spent many years just existing, really. Just living off the street and getting food from skips.

I didn’t go to art school. I had a breakdown and then I kind of styled it out in punk squats

CB: In your political statements, there is something really human. I think you use [the figures] as a way to make political statements. Would that be fair?

S: They are personal and it’s about the micro and macro; the within and the without. I guess it’s small-p political.

CB: You can tell what they are feeling – even with limited lines.

S: It’s always six lines and two dots. It’s about limitations – like a haiku. When I was 19, I lived in Japan for a year and learned about the calligraphy there. I met somebody there and we’d communicate through drawings. Her drawing style was very simplistic. We used to communicate through figures a bit like this.

CB: Where do you live now?

S: I’ve been in Hackney for almost 20 years. I love this place. It’s the longest I’ve ever lived anywhere.

hackney-pride

CB: It’s home?

S: I feel like Hackney’s home. When I was homeless, I was living with the punks, the activists, the freaks, the queers, the gays and the lesbians. The interesting side of life! I got my sex education from radical feminists. I made a banner for Hackney Pride 2010 (above) and we paraded it from Hackney Town Hall down to Shoreditch.

CB: Did you do one every year for them?

S: Not every year. But that banner went missing from a gallery. They know who they are! We made a banner for the Pride march last year in collaboration with flag-makers who make flags for the Queen – not that I approve of royalty. But they are very good flag-makers. That banner is rich cotton. I went and sat in on the factory and watched them make it. It was incredible.

I got my sex education from radical feminists.

CB: Could you see them getting stuff wrong?

S: Yeah. This is the third version. The other two were destroyed. I am a ball-breaker. This was the perfect version. The banner went on the march last year and got paraded around the West End. It has been displayed in Hackney Museum since then. It is on loan to them and now it is being taken to Christie’s where it is going to be part of an auction in April. The council put out a tender for any LGBTQ group in Hackney to apply for the funding [from the money the auction raises]. We went through them and chose one in the end called Project Indigo. It’s an outreach for people who need a helping hand to get involved in being productive.

DID YOU KNOW…

Since 1991 The Big Issue has sold more than 200,000,000 copies – helping the most vulnerable in society earn more than £115 million.

CB: You also did a poster for The Big Issue a few years ago.

S: I want to set the record straight here as there were a couple of misreported things that went around at the time. I first approached The Big Issue and suggested we do a poster. They told me the printing costs for lithographs, the folding and the insertion was going to cost £10,000. So that was that dream over. About a year later, I had just had a big exhibition and a large telecommunications company – who will remain nameless – used my work in an advert without my permission. I sent them a strongly worded letter asking them to stop using it. Which they did. They offered a settlement of about £10,000 and I told them to give it to The Big Issue Foundation. So that’s how the posters happened. Ironically the piece they had used was called Art Thief!

A big exhibition and a large telecommunications company – who will remain nameless – used my work in an advert without my permission

CB: That’s a nice story.

S: That was just a bit of karmic kung fu. That poster went into hostels and I went around the country signing copies of the Issue. It was amazing.

CB: Who has influenced you?

S: A really important thing for me was having a mentor. Around 10 years ago, I met a remarkable woman called Sheila Chandra, who had been a singer and was in the charts in the 1980s [Ever So Lonely by Monsoon]. I met her at a party and we just clicked. She taught me how to look after my inner artist, respect my creativity and refine myself. I had a bunch of projects going on. I was a dancer, I was a musician, I was making stuff, I was doing a bit of art, I was doing some cabaret. She told me to choose just one. It broke my heart to let those things go. I wrote the foreword for her new book, Organizing for Creative People, which is coming out in May.

CB: Do you still see her?

S: Yes, we are the best of friends. If anyone is serious about being an artist, they need to read this. It just cuts the crap. If you want to be an artist, you have to make a lot of sacrifices. This is how to do it.

The iconic banner that Stik created for Hackney for the Pride in London 2016 parade is going up for auction through Christie’s, to raise funds for Project Indigo, a charity that supports young, vulnerable people from the LGBTQ+ community