Darren Cullen is a satirical artist, illustrator and writer based in London. Using the language of advertising and marketing, his work comments on 9-to-5 life, consumerism and military recruitment, among many other topics.
Despite drawing criticism from the usual publications, Darren’s work about the realities of life in the military has received widespread support from veterans, including Veterans for Peace UK. We first became aware of his work through the Pocket Money Loans project, which created pop-up shops offering bouncy castle mortgages and other spoof financial products to children.
What’s your background as an artist and have you always wanted your work to carry a ‘message’ of some kind?
I was born in Leeds to Irish parents who were fairly left-leaning politically, but I was corrupted by reading the red-top tabloids on my paper round and I became a bit of a right-wing British nationalist through my teens.
The tutors wouldn’t let me into the final year of my degree because my work had become increasingly “uncommercial and offensive”. By that stage, I was already having pretty severe doubts about the ethics of advertising and the merits of nationalism and I was lucky enough for the Fine Art department to take me on.
When it comes to messages, not all of my work has one. Some of it’s just supposed to be funny and a bit daft. But in general, I find being able to get ideas across in this way incredibly cathartic and it’s become a way of articulating the sometimes imprecise and formless anger I feel about these issues.
Does doing overtly political work make it hard to make a living from your art?
Well, I think advertising is a pollutant that debases culture, degrades language and poisons our thoughts, so it’s not really an option for me to use my work in any way that adds to that corporate onslaught of weaponised imagery.
It’s so depressing to see artists, and especially rich, established artists, increasingly allowing their work to be used like that. Not just because it guts their independence and makes them complicit in the exploitation and deception of consumers – those people we used to refer to as ‘citizens’ – but it also sets a really shitty example to young artists and justifies the next generation in selling out even more. Corporate collusion should be a death sentence for an artist’s career, but it isn’t, and that’s a sign that we’re losing.
What’s your favourite reaction you’ve had to your work?
Being called a “Britain-hating anarchist who knows the value of nothing” by the Tory MP Johnny Mercer has to be the highlight. But I’ve also had a lot of great reactions from veterans about my anti-military work. When I was making my Join the Army comic, I never expected so many ex-soldiers to actually like it, or to find it funny or interesting. It’s also what led to me working closely with Veterans for Peace UK, especially on the fake toy advert we made about child recruitment in the British army, which was based on my Action Man: Battlefield Casualties toys.
What else do you have planned for the rest of 2017?
I’m currently half-way through a giant illustration of hell, in which all the business people have taken over and started running the place for profit. I’m also planning on completing Scalextric: Daily Commute, a working toy diorama of dozens of Scalextric cars endlessly edging around a grim, looping traffic jam between home and work. And I’ve been writing a couple of short films I hope to make with Price James, the director of the Action Man: Battlefield Casualties toy adverts, including a full-length episode of Thomas the Tank.