Spray it loud

The Artful Dodger, a sought-after London aerosol artist, is now very much legit. Julian May reports
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
when hip hop hit Britain and the walls and tube stations of London first blazed with stylised signatures, there was one tag that stood out: the Artful Dodger always made his mark in neat Gothic script. This had two dangers. It was slow, and anyone could read it. But it demonstrated a commitment and a talent for calligraphy and design that, as well as winning the respect of his peers, was admired by the public.

"Once I was tagging a wall," says A Dee, "and a London Transport worker came along and I was worried he was going to arrest me. `Carry on,' he said, `I don't think much of the rest but I like yours.'" But the bosses were less enthralled. London Regional Transport kept a list of wanted scribes and soon the Artful Dodger was No 2 on it. Fifteen years on he is still a wanted man, though now it is art directors and stockbrokers who proffer commissions, and his work has moved from outside to inside walls with his first solo exhibition at the Brixton Art Gallery.

By 1983 Dee was no longer a bomber, bent simply on getting his name all over town, but a writer (so called because lettering was still central) designing large colourful works. "Doing a piece late at night - it was like having sex in public - there was always the possibility of being caught," he says. "It had to be very precise too, because you only had one shot at it. I used to watch people's reactions next morning... It did bring smiles to their faces."

The bolder he became, the more time he had to work: "One was on the side of a house right by the main road in Dulwich. I did that in broad daylight so people thought I must have permission. Even the police came by, said it looked really good and drove on."

After he did a youth-club wall in Peckham an article appeared in a local paper, giving his telephone number. Certain he was going to be traced, Dee denied all knowledge of the Artful Dodger... until an advertising agency with the Weetabix account called. But he doesn't consider the piece, familiar from 4,000 hoardings around the country, his best.

"The first version was in a chrome style, the letters had hard edges and angular sides. I spent days getting the fades between colours exactly right. But they said it looked as if I'd used air brushes instead of spray cans. It was all spray cans, though... So I did another with bold round letters and less subtle colours, the kind of thing Joe Public thinks is aerosol art... They wanted something that looked authentic, but that meant it wasn't."

By now he had stopped working outside - one friend had been sent down for six months, another fined £2,000, and a tagger being chased by the police had slipped and been electrocuted.

In 1986 he produced a pivotal work: "It isn't readable because of the complexity of colour but it says 2ROC. Sections of colour break out of letters and into others. I'm expressing myself through colour itself, not so much the words or letters." This would seem to have its roots in Cubism and Constructivism rather than graffiti. Dee denies this (and balks at the G-word, insisting on aerosol art). He abstains from almost all visual art but his own because of a suspicion of the fine-art establishment and a fear of sullying his own vision.

The Artful Dodger has come a long way, but his work is still informed by the processes of music. He refers to his work since 2ROC as visual music. Indeed, the influence of music is powerfully underscored in his most ambitious work, a portrait of Miles Davis (left).

He points out a photo of an Escort he transformed in the old days. "Now, I'd like to do something bigger. Like a tank." The Tate should buy him a clapped-out Chieftain immediately.

Brixton Art Gallery, 35 Brixton Rd, SW9 (071-733 6957); 11 Feb-9 Mar