Guerrilla artist Deadboy brings his graffiti to the gallery
By Bianca Puorto
Shadowy graffiti artist Deadboy, seen here at last years Street Art Festival, is holding his first gallery exhibition (Image: Flickr; Gary J. Wood)
Toronto street artist Deadboy is stepping out of the shadows for his first-ever art show and sale, which opens at Ossington's Don't Tell Mama Gallery today. In recent months, the artist, who wears a skull mask to conceal his identity from the media, has become known for his comic stencils of Mayor Rob Ford, who he recently painted as Humpty Dumpty about to fall off the wall. We caught up with Deadboy to talk about Banksy, copping flak from the graffiti community and why he counts the Toronto police among his fans.
Your show is called “Under the Influence.” What are you under the influence of?
After the year I’ve had, it’s been pretty awesome having my work on blogs and a recent documentary. It’s attracted a lot of attention, but some of it has been negative. People have said, “Oh, he’s doing Banksy” or “Oh, he’s doing this,” but no, I’m just doing. It just so happens that I use stencils and that I’m a fan of Bansky, but he’s not the only one doing stencils. There are lots of people doing stencils out there around the world and they’re all kind of unique and that’s the challenge, finding your own kind of look.
How does a graffiti artist get his work in a gallery? Did they come to you?
Anything that has happened to me in terms of media or documentaries has come to me. I haven’t really reached out because I’m just concerned about my work right now and developing. The gallery approached me and when I heard that Spud [another Toronto street artist] was having his show there — I’m a huge Spud fan — I was so happy. That the same gallery approached me and to have to next show, right after him, I feel so privileged.
What’s going to be in the show? Are they new pieces or works brought in from the street?
I have 26 pieces in the show. A few are remixes of stuff I’ve done on the street or of previous collections, but the majority of the images I have in the show are new. “Under the Influence” doesn't just mean booze or anything like that, it’s about my influences over the past year, that have gotten me to where I am, I believe. There are a lot of shout-outs to classical artists and also a lot of social political stuff that I had to get off my chest. All my Ford work is going to be in the show — to be honest I’m kind of excited to see all of it up on one wall. There are one or two that might be controversial. I just want to see if anyone reacts badly.
You’re known for wearing a skull mask around the media. Do you paint in it, too?
No, I’ve had three or four encounters with people who have been like “Oh, are you Deadboy?” and I’m just like, “Yeah, you caught me.” It becomes a really cool interaction.
Being the “stencil artist of Toronto” with some media notoriety, my stuff gets covered up pretty quickly.
I’m a melancholy kind of guy, I can’t deny that. Everyone else has names that are really flashy and I needed a name that captured me a little bit more personally. I find it catches people of guard a little bit because of the use of “dead,” and I like that too.
I'm not graffiti artist, but aren’t stencils disapproved of in the graffiti community? Do you get any flak for using them?
People are so focused on keeping things pure, but art evolves. Every master that I’ve been influenced by, from Michelangelo to Andy Warhol, have all broken away from the norm, and they were all called crazy. So the fact that I get a lot of harsh replies from the old schoolers, or that I don’t get too much respect right now, I understand that, it’s cool. But I’m not trying to do what they’re doing.
What makes a wall eligible to be given the Deadboy treatment?
There are parts of town that are meant for street art. I like hitting those places because that’s where people tend to gravitate with their cameras. I’m a fan too, so if I’m bored I’ll go walk around and see what’s new and document it. Everyone’s doing that right now. I think that’s where the city is missing the point. They have to see that there’s a demographic that’s doing this. There’s a whole bunch of independent tours doing the alleys and contacting me for information.
Graffiti Alley (Image: Flickr; Josh McConnell)
Have you ever painted in Graffiti Alley?
I have a few pieces there, but being the “stencil artist of Toronto” with some media notoriety, my stuff gets covered up pretty quickly. I did a Ford piece right before Christmas and it lasted maybe four hours. I just keep putting my stuff higher so it’s harder to get to.
Have you ever been caught or booked for vandalism?
Nope. I’ve had one bad incident but the rest have been positive. I even had a cop say he liked my work when I was doing something illegal.
Is there a moral code when it comes to graffiti art?
Yeah, I mean, I have some stuff in the show that’s going to be thought of as controversial, but I didn’t put this stuff in the street because I realize it’s a public place and there are sensitive topics. I’m kind of democratic about my imagery when I put it out there. I want people to appreciate it. I want to beautify the ugliness that I pass by on a daily basis that the city doesn’t care about. So that’s my objective, beautification.
Is there a time of day that you go out making your art?
Going out in the middle of the day is best for me because people don’t expect you to be out then.
All I want to do is get to Europe. That’s what this is really about. I just want to be doing this bigger and bigger. To take this beyond Toronto. The free art movement has really taken off in France and Germany, and Bristol, of course, because of Banksy. Out there, they’re a lot more open to mixed-media street art. A lot of my idols, like [graphic designer] Shepard Fairey, they’ve travelled the world and just produced art. That’s the dream for me.
Will we see you at your show?
I’m not sure yet. I’ve worked a lot of shows and I’ve seen all the hobnobbing and the schmoozing. I’m a bit of a loner. Crowds tend to make me nervous. This show is really important to me so I might come and say that to the people who turn up. If I do, the mask will be there. Or I may just pop in and people wouldn’t know, which is awesome.
Don’t Tell Mama Gallery, 108 Ossington St. To April 30.