“I’m the Artist Taxi Driver and this, my friends, is Sarah Morrison,” Mark McGowan says directly into the iPhone camera that is hanging from his taxi’s windshield. I should have guessed this was going to happen. The provocative performance artist – perhaps best known for pushing a monkey nut for seven miles right up to the door of No 10 Downing Street, using only his nose – has undergone a YouTube-shaped reincarnation.
Equipped with only black sunglasses, a 12-year-old car and a mobile phone, the “Artist Taxi Driver” can now be found powerfully ranting about pretty much everything: from Egypt and the privatisation of the NHS to the evils of fracking and the absurdity of the Royal Family. He uploads videos three times a day, all for public consumption. This interview, he insists, will also be available online.
He has interviewed the likes of the comedian Frankie Boyle, politicians Caroline Lucas, Paul Flynn and George Galloway, as well as the rapper Akala and the paralympian Baroness Tanni Grey Thompson, all from inside his car.
Almost 30,000 people subscribe to his YouTube channel; more than 220,000 people have viewed one of his most popular videos, while thousands of Facebook fans think he should be Britain’s next Prime Minister.
But who is the gruff polemicist when he is at home? Flashing a smile to the camera, Mr McGowan jumps straight into role. “She wants Mark McGowan. She doesn’t want the Artist Taxi Driver,” he says, as if having somehow caught me out.
But once I have assured the 37-ish Mr McGowan (he has given the same age in newspapers for almost a decade) that I do not want to “brand” him, he begins, grudgingly, to open up. When asked if he can distinguish between himself and the role that has garnered so much traction, he is resolute. “I don’t think you can separate the two,” he says. “Even though I become the Artist Taxi Driver, I play myself. This is not a game. There are so many serious issues.”
What follows is a torrent of proclamations about politics, none of which are up for debate. What draws them all together is his single conviction that the Government “through ideological austerity” is pulling off a “big scam” or a “massive robbery”. Its “primary agenda”, he says, is “moving public money into private pockets”. He is even making a film on the matter, of which he has crowd-sourced £11,000. He will call it: This is not a recession; this is a robbery.
And he is more than happy not to pull his punches. “We’ve got a corrupt Government; we’ve got corrupt police; we’ve got corrupt media,” he says. Boris Johnson is a “peg”, the House of Lords is “like the House of Pigs,” the bankers are a “joke”, the Queen has “got hairy legs” the Government is “about corporations” and the Tories are interested only in “dismantling the welfare system”. He is angry, but resolved to spread his message.
Mr McGowan was diagnosed with bowel cancer two years ago and while he is now on treatment, he is incensed about the privatisation of the NHS. “We all should be worried. They’re pigs on the trough of public money,” he says, when describing those who supported the latest Bill. In June, he pushed a squeaky pig by his nose (again) from King’s College Hospital to Downing Street and then the Bank of England. Why? “I don’t know what else to do,” he says. More than 150 people came to support him over the eight hours.
But these stunts are not new. His past performances have involved: eating a dead corgi to protest over Prince Philip’s alleged mistreatment of animals; attempting to leave a tap running for 12 months to highlight water wastage; crawling around the floor dressed as George Bush and inviting New Yorkers to “kick my ass”; and walking for 11 miles with a 27lb turkey on his head – as a nod to the obesity pandemic.
“I was interested in the role of the village idiot,” he says. “I was quite attached to shame; I have done a lot of bad things in life.” Here, I see Mr McGowan start to shine through. He tells me about the Peckham estate where he grew up, saying “it isn’t that bad; even though Damilola Taylor was killed on that estate… I still enjoyed being brought up there.” He talks about his once “hedonistic” lifestyle, where he simply “wanted to go and get really off my head” and the “trouble” he then got into. Glossing over the particulars, he explains that at one point, he didn’t “want to live any more”, became depressed and then homeless, before finally enrolling in art school.
He first studied at Camberwell College of Art, and went on to complete an MA at Goldsmiths. Now he says he works in a variety of jobs: as a private taxi driver, cleaner, gardener and part-time arts teacher in Chelsea College of Art and Design. He lives with his partner, his 11-year-old son and daughter of two-and-a-half; although he promises that he does not “shout and swear at the kids”. (His oldest even interviewed Caroline Lucas; just out of shot of his dad’s camera.)
And his motivations? “Art is my primary purpose,” he says. He thinks that “the art world is sick” and art “is on its arse” due largely to the corporate sponsorship of so many of the galleries, but he adds that he has “found a voice” as the Artist Taxi Driver. “I can be an advocate,” he says, almost proudly. “This is new media; I’m blurring lines. We need to become a voice and through the Artist Taxi Driver, I’ve found that.”
Sensing a glimmer of positivity, I ask if he will ever appease his fans and run for prime minister? It appears that his stance, however angry, seems to have struck a chord. No chance. “I’m not interested in going into politics; I’ve never voted in my life,” he says. “There’s nobody out there and you look at the Opposition; it’s appalling. They’re allowing discrimination; the selling of the public sector; allowing sackings; allowing workfare programmes. It’s outrageous. The best thing the LabourParty can do is die… and reform.”
But one thing we can count on, the Artist Taxi Driver is not going anywhere. He breaks into a smile as he recalls someone telling him the attention wouldn’t last. “I’m only just warming up,” he says. “I’ve only just... got here. This is just the beginning.”