Outside Edge: Dominic Cavendish on the 'bag man' Mick Artistic

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When night falls over Leeds, Mick Artistic gets into his car, a battered red Rover, drives to any pub that takes his fancy and goes inside to 'bag' people.

Not for Artistic the cold vigil of the street portraitist or the lonely corner of a craft fair. Artistic (born Mick Gallagher) does not wait for his models to come to him, he hunts them down with his biro. 'What I do is walk straight up to someone and say 'Excuse me, I'm Mick Artistic. I draw people on paper bags. Can I draw you?' ' He offers something that his fellow artists cannot - shopping bags individually tailored for his sitters. 'I had a vision of people walking round with their own bags instead of advertising Tesco or whatever. If someone picked up their bag by mistake they could say, 'That's my bag, it's got my face on it'.'

Artistic had this vision 10 years ago in a baker's in Ireland when he was an unemployed fine arts graduate - he has been scratching a living from bags ever since. Acceptance of the idea in Leeds has, however, been gradual - he only began 'bagging full-time' three years ago. Perhaps this is due to the fact that the A3-size brown paper bags ('the old-fashioned sort with the serrated edge on top') aren't ideal receptacles for high street purchases.

At 38, Artistic is more concerned these days with the risks he takes when approaching potential clients than whether or not they stump up the pounds 25 fee. 'It was never going to please the masses,' he asserts. Although he has 'bagged' people in offices, dry-cleaners and fire stations, he relishes the roughest areas of town. 'Sometimes I'll be frightened to death 'cos I'll go up to a big gang of skinheads and offer to do a bag just to see what happens. It gets the adrenalin going.' While drawing his subjects, which takes an average of 10 minutes, he also draws out their life stories. His finest hour was when he bagged a bag lady at King's Cross.

'She was terrorising the station. I spent three hours calming her down and drawing her. She had albino hair and an enormous fur coat. When I eventually showed her the bag, she tore it in half and screamed, 'That's not me.' '

Artistic is still unwavering in his belief that 'bagging' has the power to calm down the tensest situation, yet his artwork is becoming increasingly provocative. He has recently taken to doing abstract portraits, using felt tips, markers and chalks as well as biros. 'I give people purple hair, red eyes and blue lips. It's quite funny when you've got a 16-stone fellow sitting there saying, 'This had better be good this', and you give them a multicoloured jacket and no ears.'

To date he has not been 'bottled' for his cheeky likenesses. 'There's normally a big silence when they see the finished product. Then they sort of reach out. A lot of people say to me, 'I don't like your work but I admire you for what you've done'.'

In the last 18 months, Artistic's work has gained a degree of recognition with four local exhibitions, the most recent at Leeds City Art Gallery Library in December. But the artist has little time for galleries. 'I catch people in the wild,' he says. 'The sort who would never go into an art gallery, let alone have their portrait taken.' Bags, reckons Artistic, are as close as we'll ever get to a classless society. 'No matter how rich you are, you're going to end up on a paper bag,' he says cheerfully.

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