Vancouver Mural Festival: David Shillinglaw thrives on graffiti's outsider status
After adding more than 40 artworks to city walls last year, the Vancouver Mural Festival is upping the ante for its second celebration, Monday to Saturday (August 7 to 12). A full 60 murals will brighten up Strathcona and Mount Pleasant this year, culminating in a big daytime street party on August 12. In this series of profiles, we introduce you to a few of the artists.
Life has become nomadic for in-demand U.K. artist David Shillinglaw. Fresh off the plane from Italy, the painter is touching down for a few days in Vancouver to tackle two murals, before jetting off for Zurich. He’s moved out of his London studio, and is, in his own words, “temporarily homeless”—dedicating his days to his art.
“It’s a bit crazy-making,” he tells the Straight on the line from outside a Vancouver coffee shop, with a laugh. “I feel like I’m in a Woody Allen movie—like I’m this weird artist who travels around the world spouting nonsense on the telephone to people he hasn’t met.”
A graduate of London’s prestigious Central Saint Martins university, Shillinglaw didn’t intially embrace mural painting during his degree studies. While artists like Banksy were picking up international recognition, the painter was always conscious of street art, but more keenly aware that his university looked down on it. It was an accident that he started putting paint on walls.
“Somewhere along the line when I was making installations, I started thinking about using the other parts of the space as well as the canvas,” he recalls. “Then I began to realize that doing murals was something different from just trying to sell a painting. If it’s a wall, you can’t really sell it, so it removes the commercial part of art and makes it more of a performance or experience. I really revelled in the superherolike quality of people going out in the night and painting graffiti, and art that was outside started to really compel me.”
The power of Shillinglaw’s work is in its ability to represent, as he puts it, the “human experience”. Many of his murals incorporate faces—but never recognizable people. Rather, his bright paintings depict generic characters: neither male nor female, old nor young, black nor white. Eyes, too, are a common motif—a theme Shillinglaw enjoys for its personifying aspect. “If you put eyes on a wall painting,” he says, “they think, ‘Ah, that building now has a personality’.” Often mixing randomly chosen words with his images, the artist creates a collection of universal symbols and ideas.
“I enjoy all kinds of art,” he says. “Sometimes it’s just a word in a nice typography, sometimes it’s a pattern, sometimes it’s a figure. I see my work as a huge cauldron of different movements and influences—it mixes abstraction, surrealism, impressionism, fauvism, graphic design, illustration, and a whole lot of other isms. I steal ideas from the past, remix them, and make them mine. I think style is the mistakes that people make when they copy.”