Dan Birkbeck is a Manchester-based artist working in a number of different disciplines, including graphic illustration, graffiti and good old fashioned pen to paper sketches. Drawing together influences from all over the shop, from Japanese art to comics, Dan is a versatile yet humble artist with lots to say about his craft. Straight off the back of taking part in Brandalism, a project that aims to subvert corporate advertising by taking over billboards in five UK cities, we spoke to Dan about the work featured in this issue of Now Then and his motivations for being an artist.
What got you started as an artist?
I think the first thing that really got me into drawing was the comic 200AD, specifically the ABC Warriors. I would copy the characters from there. Seeing Akira for the first time in 1989 had a great effect on me. I knew that I wanted to draw pictures like that. The film Aliens also. I suppose it was about big guns and spaceships, and horror. It all captured my imagination and I had my own ideas of how things could be – cool robots and spaceships. By drawing them I could realise those ideas. It was exciting.
It’s the same for me today. Although subject matter is much different, it’s about realising the things from my imagination.
Can you describe the process of starting a new piece?
If I’m on a roll one piece naturally follows the last. I’m often thinking about what I’m going to do next while still working on something. There are recurring themes and elements in my work; the tentacles and hands for example, patterns and colour schemes. More are added as I go, so the more I do the more elements I have in my ‘kit’ to work with.
The King of Spades is the first of what will be a full deck of cards. This took a lot of planning and research into the traditions of card design. For pieces like this I will sketch ideas over and over again until I measure up, plan, make sure everything is in exactly the right place. I know each line before I draw it and exactly what order I’m going to do everything in.
What tools do you use regularly and which could you not do without?
Fine liners, Posca, pencils, markers, Adobe Illustrator, emulsion and spray paint. I’m always looking to work with new materials and add to the tools at my disposal. I started using Illustrator about six years ago, teaching myself (which takes time!), and spray paint about five years ago. You never stop learning but I’m aiming to become as fluent with these as I am with a pencil.
I couldn’t do without a pencil. It’s the basis of everything.
How is your average day spent?
My days consist of drawing, painting, reading, loud music, looking for work online, meetings, collecting prints and posting them out, daydreaming and thinking – trying to get an idea to fully form in my mind before I begin sketching. It’s not bad if you don’t mind being poor.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’ve just done a Mayan piece which has been very well received so I reckon I’m going to crack on with some more stuff in this vein. Much of the work I’ve been making over the past six months has been handdrawn and finished in Illustrator. While I like this effect and process I’m keen to get back to making purely handmade art for a while. I don’t like to get stuck on one thing for too long. You get complacent and work becomes stale. I only do it cos it’s fun.
I’m also exhibiting alongside some other great artists at the OneFiveEight exhibition on 9th February at Kraak Gallery in Manchester’s Northern Quarter.
Which of your most recent pieces have you enjoyed making the most?
I think the King of Spades, Ying Yang, and the Eyes & Tentacles. These are the ones I’ve hand-drawn and coloured and textured digitally. It was a new process for me and exciting to make that step. It really opened up doors and showed me the possibilities of combining handmade art with digital processes. That and my No Evil piece being used in the Brandalism project.
There are obviously lots of departure points for your work, but who or what are your biggest sources of inspiration?
There’s a great and varied mix – comics, tribal art, traditional Japanese art, graffiti, all kinds of music…
Vaughn BodÄ“’s work ethic and philosophy is a big inspiration: “My imaginary universe stimulated me to produce drawings, writings and records of what I ‘thought’ I saw and did. Drawing, organizing, and firming-up my projections on paper… And that is where it’s at. The paper world of the true artist is real, and you know it when you see it. Ain’t that a bitch.”
You were involved in getting permission for the big graffiti pieces in the underpasses linking Hulme with Manchester city centre back in 2011.
Yes, that was a good day. Live music and DJs and the tunnels getting painted up. There was something like 40 artists who came down to take part. It started life as a much smaller event but in the planning stages snowballed into something much bigger.
Do you think general opinions about graffiti are changing in this country?
I think it’s a case of ‘if it’s in the right place’, which is fair enough really. What Manchester lacks is more places to paint that are in the public eye. Most spots here are out of the way and often only seen by other people coming to paint. Many European cities have street art all over the place and it’s recognised by their councils as a growing tourist attraction. I think this country’s councils could learn from that attitude.
You’ve painted outdoors in ‘the right place’ recently for the Jelly Fish Rooms in Chorlton and for Northern Quarter’s Out House MCR. Where do these designs rate in your personal favourites? Do you tend to prefer large-scale murals or small-scale pieces designed for prints?
The Out House one was okay. I spent a while working on the design for that only to realise, a day or so before I was due to paint it, that it was rubbish so had to work on a new one quickly. It could have been much better. Not everything is going to be a success, and when it’s a public piece like that you have to get used to the fact that it’s on display whether you like it or not. The Jelly Fish piece I like. It still needs finishing but the weather this time of year is a factor.
I have no preference between murals and small scale stuff. It’s different and I get something different from each. Sometimes it’s good to be out painting with other people. Sometimes shutting myself away for a day or so in my little studio and getting involved in some ideas is great too.
What do you dislike in art?
Conceptual art. Stuff that needs a side of A4 beside it. Boring, selfindulgent stuff. I did a Fine Art degree (’98-’03). A guy on my course laminated three sheets of A1 paper and stuck it to a wall with some blurb about the possibilities blank paper offered. Piss off. Where’s the joy of creating something beautiful?
Good advice you wish you’d been told earlier?
I was probably given a lot of good advice earlier…