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Social Justice

How graffiti artist Opake overcame addiction and homelessness and is now changing lives

“It is hard to be vulnerable or just let people know that you need help and you need somebody to talk to. As soon as you speak, that’s f*****g power”

Ed Worley, known better by his artist’s name Opake, was nine when he got drunk for the first time. He loved it. He stole bottles of wine and vodka, and then he found drugs and crack. He was psychotic for much of his twenties. He spent years on sofas and sleeping rough on the Piccadilly Line.

Opake is now a hugely successful artist, with hundreds of thousands of online followers and a new exhibition in London’s East End. He never escaped addiction, but he has channelled it into his art. He paints brightly-coloured, almost garish, pictures of cartoon characters over and over. They fold into each other, squashing each other, until there is no space left on the canvas. It epitomises the psychotic mind. 

The Big Issue meets Opake on the day his exhibition opens, at the Quantus Gallery in Shoreditch. The small white space isn’t filled with journalists or art connoisseurs. Instead, Opake has invited young people with experience of homelessness to see his work, with the hope of inspiring them towards a better future.

“I felt hopeless for a long time,” Opake says. “I never talked. I would sit down with my mum and dad for hours and they’d been trying to get to the bottom of it. And instead of just saying: ‘I need fucking help here’, I would just sit in silence. It perpetuated it. It is hard to be vulnerable or just let people know that you need help and you need somebody to talk to. As soon as you speak, that’s fucking power. That’s golden.”

The artist, now 34 with a stable family life as a father of two, admits that he is anxious talking to the young people sitting in front of him. It takes them and him a little while to open up, but they are soon bouncing back and forth with questions and bringing their own creativity to the conversation. Each has been supported by charity Centrepoint. 

Priscilla says she was 19 when she first experienced homelessness. She was street homeless for two weeks before she walked into the Centrepoint office, and they put her on a scheme called Nightstop. She was with a different family every day for a couple of weeks, and then she was put in a YMCA hostel. 

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Opake
Opake speaking to the young people with lived experience of homelessness. Image: Eliza Pitkin/ The Big Issue

Jamie moved out when she was 16 and lived in a Centrepoint hostel until she was 22. And Noor experienced homelessness when she was 21 after a lot of instability in her life. Centrepoint supported her with her mental health, and they were the one stability through the most difficult time in her life. 

Each young woman gushes about the event and they seem inspired. “It’s a reminder that you’re not alone,” Priscilla says. “In my homelessness journey, I feel very much alone aside from the support I got from Centrepoint and other charities. It’s nice to hear from other people that have experienced the same and see them in much better spaces. We’ve all gone through that tough time but come out the other side.”

Opake agrees, adding that he is still learning and trying to grow himself. “All those people sitting there in that room have a voice,” he says. “They started to open up and then the next thing you know there’s a really great conversation. They’re going to leave here laughing.”

Opake
Opake struggled with addiction and homelessness throughout his 20s, but he is now a hugely successful artist. Image: Eliza Pitkin/ Big Issue

For Opake, it was speaking to his therapist and channelling his addiction into art that finally got him out of a vicious cycle of drugs, alcohol and self-harming. “Art can give us hope. 100 per cent,” he says. “It saved my life. No fucking bullshit, it saved my life. It’s not just art, it’s being creative in every way.”

There is a lot of bleakness in the world at the moment as the cost of living crisis takes its hold. Centrepoint found that almost half of 16- to 25-year-olds had gone to bed hungry in the 12 months up to July. More than one in three (35 per cent) of young people had gone a whole day without food.

“The cost of living crisis is having a devastating impact on the young people that we support,” Balbir Chatrik, head of policy at Centrepoint, says. “They tell us they have to survive on one meal a day because all their benefit gets taken up on going to college or buying school books.”

Centrepoint is calling on the government to uprate benefits at least in line with inflation, and to change the system so young people get paid equally to adults. The benefit system assumes that young people are living with their parents, but that’s just not the case for the majority of those supported by Centrepoint. 

Opake
Opake and the young people had a very positive conversation – and are looking to work together again in the future. Image: Eliza Pitkin/ Opake

“Everyone’s method and everyone’s life is so different,” Noor says as the young women reflect on Opake’s journey and their own. He managed to find his way out of homelessness, and they have too. “It’s inspirational. It’s shown me that success can truly look very different for everyone.”

Each young woman is inspired to use creativity – in their own unique way – to change their lives. Priscilla loves cooking and the culinary arts, Jamie is a dancer, and newly qualified social worker Noor hopes to use creativity in her work to help other young people.

“It just reinforced the truth that I already know to perfect my craft,” Jamie says. “Opake switched his addiction from drugs and alcohol to art and painting and drawing. I think I could definitely do that myself. It inspired me.”

The exhibition is on at the Quantus Gallery, 11-29 Fashion Street, until November 5.

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