It was 12 years ago when Paul Insect landed on our pages, and a follow-up conversation was long overdue and much needed. Back in 2007, he was already a big name in the UK and a rising star worldwide, his graphic design work marking an era of a party and club scene in London, and his street works piloting the street art phenomenon that spread from Shoreditch throughout the globe. Around that time, he became one of the key figures at the legendary Pictures On Walls, the influential print house which shepherded a host of artists.
Within this decade-plus of time, Paul Insect has made a massive turn as a full-time painter, creating seminal works, garnering recognition and popularity with each new piece and exhibition. Aside from the studio practice, he is still up for a cheeky project on the side, most notable being the marionette-like puppets he has been creating from trash with his friend Bäst, as well as large sculptural installations for festivals and public events.
Finally meeting up with Paul at his London studio back in March, just ahead of a Paris solo show, we got to scratch the surface of his career while he elaborated on his current studio practice and life.
Sasha Bogojev: You probably don't remember, but you ended the 2007 interview by remarking how good you felt about what was happening, and your confidence about being in the right place at the right time. How does it feel to reflect on that, compared to what has happened in the meantime, and where you are now?
Paul Insect: A lot has happened in the last 11 years. I really wouldn't know where to start, as things have moved on since our last interview back then. I've aged a bit and now tend to focus on studio work, paintings, sculpture pieces and puppets, which, in turn, has meant less time to do things outside. I still do, but maybe in a different form to how it was back then.
Can you compare how you felt then about your work then and how you consider it now? You're now working with different images, different media, and different dynamics.
It's definitely moved forward and in slightly different directions, maybe because what I was making then is maybe now a bit of a cliche, that constant re-use of logorific images. And so, to continue that felt wrong. I took a lot of time off when I was working with other artists. And when I got myself back in the studio again, I had the opportunity to start re-working were I left off, kind of claim a visual voice back for myself again, which I felt I had lost a bit. I'm getting there, I think.
Yes, the newer works definitely have an almost iconic appearance now.
Thanks. I feel like I have now started to create a language that people would recognize as being me. That's the hardest part for an artist. To create your own voice.
Your work is becoming more eye-pleasing from those early images of skulls and dissected bodies.
My work was a bit darker back then. I was younger and running a bit wild. London was a more exciting and open place for me back then, I suppose. I used to help put on parties with my mates in warehouses back in the early 2000s. I remember spending a weekend digging out tons of rubble from the basement of an abandoned building on Old Street so we could put on a party. Ten years later, that building became Jamie Oliver's restaurant. I don't know, life was a bit less cluttered back then, with fewer commitments. And London was a much different place than it is now.
For a long time, London had the reputation as the capital of street art, where now it feels like graffiti is taking over again.
Things move and change. I feel that we experience life in ten-year segments, and London had its moment. Culture is the same, and I think, yes, graffiti was the dominant art form on the street up until street art, and now graffiti has taken its place back in London. There was a moment in street art when it seemed everyone was wanting to be rock-star-muralists, running up air miles. Miami Basel was the place for everyone to hang out. You don't have as many of those huge mural problems, I mean projects, happening as much these days. Freudian slip there. [laughs]
Do you still get to do any of the, let's say, more edgy, outdoor activities? Any “for the sake of old days” kinds of things that would feed the youngster in you?
Not as much as I would like these days. A lot of the people I used to paint with in London have moved away or are doing other things. And the places we use to paint have changed a lot. Hackney Wick is becoming an architect's manicured wet dream. I suppose, now with having kids and stuff, the last thing on my mind is creeping around the canal at 2:00 am and having a knife pulled on me—which has happened on a few occasions. So, studio work feels a little more appealing these days.
How did the beginnings of the new “studio painter” Paul Insect look like?
After having worked with other artists and POW for years, and working less with Lazarides Gallery, I had more time on my hands to focus on my own work. This was nine or so years ago, where I pretty much had to pull things back together, and it was like, "Shit, I got some work to do!"
I had a chance call from Opera Gallery, New York, and they were like, "What have you been doing for the last seven years?! We've loved your work for years. Where have you been?” That following year, I had my first solo show with them in New York. They have since become The Allouche Gallery, where I still show my original work.
How did these hand-painted raster dots happen? They are blowing my mind!
I've been painting the halftones since my solo show at Lazarides in 2007. Half of the paintings were like that, but not very well done. Over the years, I've worked on that. I used to try and paint like a photocopy; now, the dots are more of a painting in themselves. The work is developing with each painting. I've not had my Mattise deathbed moment, so I hope my best work is still to come. I like to feel, “If you keep thinking you can better each painting.” Then your work can only get better and not become stagnated.
It's definitely a great mindset to have, rather than going through creative blocks when you're out of ideas, confidence or motivation.
I still have the creative block days, and I get people saying, "You like to mix your styles around." But that's just me trying to push things in myself. It's the one thing that gives me drive to try something different. Make a stupid puppet out of rubbish one day, and paint a nice picture the next. I really appreciate that I'm in a position to do what I love in life, and hopefully, in turn, inspire others to do the same. Life is Art.
Maybe your images aren't as dark anymore, but I did read somewhere that you're working on a project with vinyl records made from the compressed ashes of dead people?
Yes, a friend of mine I used to do parties with in London is a DJ and record producer now, and he came up with the idea one night in a pub. He's been working on it for years. The hard thing is that hundreds of people have signed up for it, but they need to die first before he can make the record. So, as a business model, it's terrible, but as a concept, it's great! Maybe in 30 years time, that's when business will start to peak.
So, what is it? Because I didn't really understand.
Basically, it's called Andvinyly. The service is, you can have some of your ashes pressed into a clear vinyl record after you die. And the recording on the record would be predetermined by that person who will certainly die at some point. That person can choose the soundtrack to their life, or, if they wanted, could attach a message or recording of themselves or anything like that on the record. Six people have used the service so far. A French punk who had died requested 30 records to be pressed up with his favorite songs, which were then given out to his friends and family at his funeral. I think it's really poignant; you are left with the chosen soundtrack to that person's life. Rave to the Grave.
Speaking of crazy projects, the puppets are the best! They are unstoppable, it seems; such a long way since your bronze bunnies. Did you imagine when you and Bäst started making your puppet videos on Instagram that they could actually become something?
Not at all. We never thought they would end up in art shows, Beyond the Streets, or sought by Banksy to be in Dismaland. Especially when you start something for laughs. The puppets came from wanting to collaborate on something, other than making a screen print or painting together. To try something different, something we both had a passion about, but something we had not done before. We wanted to shake up the traditional puppetry scene...
Other than Bäst, are you collaborating with any other artists?
No, none that I can talk about.
Fair enough! You've mentioned earlier being involved with Pictures On Walls. Were you involved with Santa's Ghettos?
I helped out on various projects at POW, and yes, all of the Ghetto shows.
How do those days look now from today's perspective?
They were good times. I worked with a lot of artists back then. POW changed a lot of things. You don't think about it as much these days, but the whole visual style of wood, pallet walls, wonkily-hung pictures and some antlers stuck up became a theme for pubs, bars and gentrification the world over. POW changed lots of artists' lives.
And you also worked with Banksy on a couple of projects. How do you think that affected your career or the look of your work?
I'm not sure my work changed, but it's allowed me to be involved in some exciting and challenging projects, such as the Ghetto shows, and especially Santa's Ghetto in Palestine. This opened my eyes up to a whole part of the world and problems I had not really known much about before visiting the place.
How did meeting Banksy even happen?
I had made a record cover for a small band that came from Bristol. The manager knew Banksy, and we got the work via him. I never met Banksy at that time, but years later, after I had met Steve Lazarides, I learned about his work. They both came to a show we did called The Hills Have Eyes and both liked the work, so Steve suggested I make a print with POW. I met Banksy a few weeks later.
Since we've touched on the subject of politics, are the ever-intriguing politics in your home country affecting your work?
Yeah, I suppose Brexit could affect my work. I find the whole thing ridiculous, and try and avoid it. I hate hearing the word Brexit as much as I hate hearing the word Trump. I don't like using the T-word as I think every time you say it, it only perpetuates him even more. I made a T video thing for my Instagram. It was him made out of an orange, being squashed by a huge boot. It lasted for about 15 minutes before I felt like he was polluting my feed and I deleted it. I was just like, "Okay. I don't want to go anywhere near it.” I'm slightly avoiding the new world politics.
I was going to ask you whether you have any hope, or either good or bad predictions about Brexit?
Can we not go there... my head hurts.
Do you ever think of what would have happened if the whole Insect project hadn't taken off?
In my early twenties, I tried to move to New York, and I'm now 48. I left the job I had and applied for work in New York. I managed to get a job, but the green card fell through as I was just about to move out there, so I ended up staying in London. Insect started a few years later. I never liked working for people, so I think something like this would have happened no matter what.
Did you ever think of working under your real name since the whole Insect project is dead now for a while?
This is my real name! But yeah, a few times. I considered it when we stopped Insect, but I felt it was important to keep using it after spending 10 years using that word. It was never really about insects as in creepy crawlies... we were into the darker side of East London at that time. Jack The Ripper and all of that. So we felt we were more of a “Sect” than “In–sect.” But, without Insect, I wouldn't have met Pictures On Walls, and maybe my life path may have been slightly different than it has been.
When did you decide to go anonymous, to keep your face out of the camera range? Do you feel like there is a price that you're paying for that, or is there a scenario in which you would reveal your identity?
I don't know, it's kinda always been like that, maybe because of some of the people I know. Maybe one day I'll just post a picture and be like, OK, done. There are some out there. It would not bother me if people knew what I looked like, but I like the fact that I can sit on the tube or go to my own art opening and nobody really knows who I am. Plus, it still allows me to get away with stuff.
Like a reverse superhero.
Ha ha, no, well, maybe. Fame's never been a thing for me. It never was before social media. It's just been about being creative, having fun and making good work. I don't sell work from the studio. All original work is sold via a gallery. I work on my own and I don't use assistants. Hmm, maybe I should change that, I might be able to make more work. I just like being creative and I don't strive for much more. I don't want fast cars and all that crap.