Illustrating The Argus: Brighton newspaper's billboards have inspired a new art exhibition

The billboards have long had a cult following. Jack Mills meets the man behind the top lines

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The Independent Online

"Bearded Woman Attacked At Crucifixion", "Lifeboat Called Out To Help Witch", "Cannibal Killer Wants Weight-loss Operation" . The sometimes dark, mostly hilarious, news billboards of Brighton newspaper The Argus are as famous in the seaside city as its molar-shattering rock candy or rusty arcades. Known for their sexed-up six-word soundbites, the A-boards seen outside local newsagents have been the subject of Buzzfeed listicles, short films, dedicated Facebook groups and now, thanks to the handiwork of one East Sussex illustrator, an art exhibition.

In a Brighton café in May, 29-year-old Will Blood will display his work for the first time. His marker-pen drawings are surreal fantasies based on some of the boards' more evocative headlines. "Beware the Death Brownie", for example, inspired a sketch showing a dessert the size of the West Pier wielding blood-soaked machetes. "I was walking home one day and saw a billboard that read 'Vomiting Bug Shuts Hospital'," the artist, who illustrates band T-shirts and album artwork for a living, says. "I straight away got an image in my head of a massive ladybird being sick over a hospital."

In the run-up to his show "Illustrating The Argus" at Bond St Coffee, Blood aims to have worked his way through a hundred interpretations. As it stands, the illustrator gets sent dozens of photos of the boards every week by friends. "They're famous in the area for being quite bizarre and out-there," he continues. "I only started back in February but who knows, I might even sell them one day." The drawings are posted on his Instagram page, which has a thousands-strong following.


Blood isn't the only one renowned for this obsession. In 2008, local resident Anna Carlson got into the habit of posting pictures of billboards on her Flickr page, The Argus Headlines – now probably the best-known of the paper's fan-sites. "Some of it is really inappropriate and hilarious and show a kind of small-town charm," says Carlson. "I don't think they know how interesting they are." She counts one that read "JOBS, JOBS, JOBS" on the day American Express's Brighton branch announced dozens of redundancies as symptomatic of a kind of a "lack of self-awareness", rather than anything cynical. A year after she started the page, the paper interviewed her about its growing popularity. "Come to think of it, I wish I'd asked who writes them," she muses. "I still don't know."

The head behind the headlines is Martin Cooper, who took over billboard duties in 2002. "The funny ones, the ones that became 'cult reading', those were down to Martin," claims former Argus staffer Kate Parkin. As junior sub editor, Cooper was lumped with what was regarded as the worst job in the building. But board-writing – the challenge of turning complex lead stories into razor-sharp news nuggets – soon became a creative release for him. "With newspapers, you've always got to stick to the rules. With this, I could get a bit avant-garde," explains Cooper, who in his twenties toured and wrote lyrics as part of comedy-punk group The Fish Brothers. "I have more freedom with the headlines. I get a kick out of it. You can read them in different ways – someone might think, 'what the hell is that about?' and end up buying it."

Cooper's proudest billboard to date is the result of a happy accident. After temporarily leaving the paper in 2010, Cooper dropped by the office and, noticing his replacement struggling with a headline, he lent a hand. An otherwise run-of-the-mill report about a counsellor-hiring scheme became "Council Calls In Counsellors To Counsel Councillors". "Quite often, you take the most boring story and make it an exciting bill," he beams. "That's what makes it special.

'Illustrating The Argus' runs for one night, from 7-10pm, at Bond St Coffee, Brighton, on Saturday 2 May