As a late winter storm pounds London, the artist known as Stik leaves his studio and heads for Brick Lane, the East London street that has become a mecca for graffiti art. He stops in front of his piece, A Couple Hold Hands in the Street, which shows a woman in a niqab holding hands with a second stick figure.
Stik executed the work in 2010, days after an attempted attack on a Swedish cartoonist who depicted the Prophet Mohammad as a dog. ‘As a street artist you have to find a way to walk right on the parameters of freedom, and that’s what I was doing here,’ he later told The Telegraph.
Seven years later, A Couple Hold Hands in the Street had been embraced by the local Muslim community and become something of a national treasure — in a 2017 Guardian poll, it was voted the UK’s 17th-favourite artwork.
As Stik spraypaints over the tags that have accumulated on the body of the woman and her companion, a group of Danish students on a street-art tour gathers around him. ‘This is Stik!’ crows their guide, who can’t believe his luck.
In fact, Stik spends a lot of time maintaining his works in Shoreditch and beyond. ‘I'm one of the few street artists who still does that around here,’ he says with a laugh. The piece restored, the Danish youngsters wave goodbye and move on.
Born in 1979, Stik is famously guarded with even the most basic details of his biography. But he is warm and open as he invites me into his studio, beckoning me in from the snow and putting on the kettle.
‘I started drawing stick people when I was old enough to pick up a pencil, and I just never really stopped,’ Stik says by way of introduction. ‘I've always drawn in a very simplistic style. I never went to art school but I did work as an artist’s life model for many years, which gave me a good grounding in composition and anatomy. I started painting in the street in my early twenties, and that became an education in itself. I learned from my contemporaries.’
In the early 2000s, the London street-art scene was mostly centred in the East London borough of Hackney. ‘We were all aware of each other’s work, even if we never met. And our styles developed alongside each other,’ he says.
Although it would take time for Stik to perfect the six-line, two-dot figures for which he is now known, they are loosely based on the Japanese calligraphic characters known as kanji. ‘I lived in Japan for almost a year in my late teens and picked up this style of drawing, which is closely connected to writing as a shorthand for conveying emotion. It developed from there,’ he says. In the early part of this century, his figures — by turns innocent, frightened, forlorn, defiant or accusatory — began popping up around East London.
‘I was unfortunate enough to be homeless for a period,’ explains the artist, who lived for a time at St Mungo’s Hostel, a Hackney shelter. ‘It was the Hackney community that helped me get back on my feet. It was squatting and eventually social housing which enabled me to gain a foothold and get back to a decent standard of life. Street art was my way of giving back to the people who helped me,’ Stik says.
The artist is keen to stress that, for him, this community relationship is central to the whole enterprise of making street art — whether in London or farther-flung environs such as New York City; Berlin; Osaka; Utsira, Norway or Amman, Jordan, where his work can now be found. ‘When I make street pieces, I’m very conscious of not just taking over a surface. I would never march straight in and paint on someone’s wall. I think it's really rude to do that, even if you have “official” permission [from local authorities]. I always get the endorsement of the people who actually live there. That’s the most important thing.’
In 2008, Stik’s work was exhibited at The Foundry, a legendary East London music and art space, which closed just a couple of years later. ‘That was a very important venue to me because I used to clean the toilets there,’ says the artist whose work now hangs in the homes of Bono, Elton John and the Duke of Kent — among other high-profile names.
If being exhibited at The Foundry was the start of what Stik describes as ‘me being an artist’, it was the NO: ID gallery, a squatted art space in Shoreditch — also since shuttered — that gave him his first solo show. ‘I was still figuring out who I was as an artist, still working out my mediums,’ Stik explains. ‘I was pretty broke and painted on found materials, pulling things out of rubbish bins.’
In 2014 Stik painted the mural Little Big Mother, on the Charles Hocking House council estate in West London. The council tower block had been condemned before he began the 125-foot image of a mother and child — the tallest mural in Britain, which fills the entire side of the Acton estate.
‘The experience of making the mural was overwhelming — it took over nine months of planning,’ he explains. ‘I did everything by hand; there was no painting assistance whatsoever. I was using an airless compressor which applied broad brushstrokes of paint to the concrete. It was the only way to cover such a large surface. But it took a toll on my body. It was a monster project; you don’t do many of these in a lifetime.’
With Big Mother, Stik sought to address the issue of uprooted communities. ‘The mother is looking out to the horizon, wondering where she’ll go once the building is demolished, while the child’s eyes are fixed on the luxury apartments being built opposite this social housing block. Obviously the child is not going to be living in those apartments — the final destination is unknown. But I also wanted to convey some sort of hope. I think that hope is probably one of the most melancholy of emotions. I tried to convey that in this piece more than most,’ the artist says.
‘For my street pieces, I'll start on paper and then make a 3D-maquette so I can really get the feeling of the building. Then I’ll get up on the building itself. When I create a street piece, it has to relate not just to the community, but also the structure it’s painted on,’ he continues. ‘The street is your medium: you have to work with the building and the street, so it becomes a real collaboration with the city. If you're just slapping your image on a surface, you’re not really engaging.’
In his work, Stik tries to ‘articulate the persistence of community, but also its frailty. I think that comes across in a lot of my pieces: the persistence of the vulnerable, and the melancholy of hope and tenacity.’ Ultimately, though, Stik says his art is about ‘helping to give voice to marginalised communities. To draw attention to people saying, ‘‘We are still here. We’ve not gone yet. We’re hanging on.’’’