The London Police | Interview
The London Police are universally acknowledged as two of the most pivotal voices in the history of street art. Founded a decade ago by best friends Chaz and Bob, the collective is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year with a series of major shows around the world. Their Hollywood exhibition, Brothers in Arms, opens at Carmichael Gallery on Thursday, September 10th. SlamxHype sat down with Chaz for a pre-show chat.
SXH: Before we start talking about The London Police and how far you guys have come in the past ten years, let’s go back to the very beginning. How did you and Bob meet?
Chaz: I met Bob when he was an emerging youngster in our hometown scene. At the time, I was part of a group of friends who were basically into music, mostly bands, stuff like that. When I first met him, his mum and dad had gone away to live in America, and someone said to me, “Let’s go round this guy Bob’s house for a little party. His mum and dad are away.” And I said, “Oh cool, how long are his mum and dad away for?” And he said, “Four years.” He was like eighteen and his brother was like twenty, twenty-one, and as they had the house on their own, it became a party house. Bob also had a lot of his artwork around his house. At that time, he was making sculptures, out of cardboard and stuff like that, and I recognized quickly that he was really talented artistically. And he was fun to hang around with.
SXH: How did the formation of The London Police come about? Where does the name come from?
Chaz: We started going up to London, trying to do different things from the things people did in our home town, which was generally go down to pubs, get fucked up, nothing basically. We didn’t know quite what we wanted to do in the beginning, but we knew we wanted to start some kind of group or crew or artistic collective. The main inspiration for starting what would become The London Police was really these trips. We lived thirty minutes outside the city so we’d just jump on the train, neck a couple of beers, and mess around when we got there – wander around, get lost, jump on buses, see where we ended up, talk to people.
We were both captivated and inspired by the size of the city. Our home town had very much a small-minded culture, small mentality: “Don’t be different”, you know, quite a lot of violence. London was “Anything goes, look how you want, dress how you want”, open-minded, flexible, and we fell in love with that. It’s why we chose The London Police as the name for the crew; we had the idea that we were going to artistically police London.
SXH: What were you guys doing before you started working together?
Chaz: I was doing photography at the time, taking photos of bands up in London, showing people my portfolio and trying to get work. Bob was just finishing fine art school; he was doing sculpture. Our initial idea was to go and take photos of people with a wide angle/fish-eye, print them into posters and make galleries in the street, then post it online. We never ended up doing that, unfortunately, because we were a bit young and naïve, although we did get a couple of photo shows in London in a café called Bar Vinyl, over in Camdentown. So the first London Police show was in September, 1998, but that was all photography.
SXH: You both moved to Amsterdam soon after, right? Why Amsterdam?
Chaz: Our idea was to travel the world as much as possible and take our artwork with us wherever we went. Amsterdam seemed a fine, liberal place to go – it’s artistic and there didn’t seem to be many rules about what you could and couldn’t do. So with the money that we earned from our London show, we got a portfolio together and jumped on a boat over to Holland to set up two shows there. It was an amazing feeling; we were sitting on the deck of the boat at midnight as we pulled away from England, which was disappearing in the mist. We had a massive, exciting feeling about what we had achieved and what we were going to do. The adventures began there, really. Then after the show went up in Amsterdam, Bob had to go back home for his last year at art school. I stayed on. It was a case of going there with the idea to stay for a few months, then staying for eleven years.
SXH: What is the history of the LADS then? When did you start drawing them?
Chaz: I remember at the time of the first London show we sent out invites to people, and that’s when I started to draw the characters in a very primitive way – single line, head, body, smiley face, stickman legs. We got really enchanted by them and would sit around Bob’s kitchen table in his parentless house with pads of paper and draw the characters again and again and laugh at how something so simple could be so different every time. These were the characters that would became the heart and soul of The London Police.
Later on, when I was working at a music venue in Amsterdam, one of the guys there (Anne, a tall Dutch guy with a seemingly girl’s name), who was a graffiti artist, saw my drawings and encouraged me to put them everywhere in the city. With the little money I had I got some pens and I would walk around the street, town, drawing them on all the posters. In Amsterdam there are these poster walls where they put the advertising, big, round turrets or electricity boxes, and they would have white paper next to them, which was kind of to stop the graffiti. If somebody tagged them, they would just cover it with more white paper. This provided me with the perfect canvas to start drawing my characters. Bob moved back to Amsterdam a year later and by that point we had forgotten the photography and were only drawing the characters, who became known as the LADS. A key moment occurred when our friend Sylvia from our first Amsterdam photography show said, “Look, there are loads of good photographers out there, but only you guys are doing these characters. You should concentrate on that.” It clicked. The next year I worked a few jobs and spent all my free time out on the street drawing and trying to conquer the city.
SXH: Who or what would you cite as influences in these early days of your career?
Chaz: I was definitely influenced in the early days by spray can art and the whole graffiti scene – people like Mode2 and early Doze Green characters for the Rock Steady crew. I liked the whole b boy scene; that’s where the characters’ big shoes come from. Mode2 was my favorite. I loved his characters and that was what made me want to do characters over letters. It was funny because at that time I was just coming out of the music industry and I didn’t really know what was going on in the art world. I’d never heard of other people doing art on the street until about a year into doing it. I remember this show happened in Rotterdam; it was organized by these guys who came out of Germany called Back Jumps. They were doing a lot of cool stuff at the time and they found us and wanted to talk to us and were interested in what we were doing. Then we appeared in the first Scrawl Collective book without really about knowing it and we were pretty excited about that. After that, I saw this show of work by Space Invader, and then I read an article on this guy, Shepard Fairey, who went round the world putting up his posters and I thought, “Man, there are other people out there who are doing the same thing. They have their logo, their image, and they go around putting it up.” I was amazed and intrigued, then the internet burst open. Wooster Collective started, we started our website, and suddenly there were emails coming in from all over the world. “We love your stuff; do you want to come here? Do you want to have a show in Tokyo? LA?” I mean, it just all took off.
SXH: It’s interesting to think about how different the scene was at that time.
Chaz: It was great days back then. I realized that in every city I went there was this whole group of people doing something slightly off from the classic graffiti scene, from stickers to posters, and we were doing our hand-drawn pen thing, which not many people were doing. I definitely feel fortunate that I was part of all that. We certainly didn’t do it for any other reason than that we enjoyed it. We had no idea in the start there was a whole scene to be part of; we were just doing it. It’s been a decade of my life now and the LADS have basically taken me around the world, paid my dinners, bought my wife clothes – been my life blood, really. I’m just happy to be here still. I’m really enjoying it.
SXH: Can you talk a bit about the period leading up to the ten year mark of The London Police?
Chaz: Well, for a while there was this golden period of the three of us (an American friend of ours, Garrett, joined up with us) traveling the world, working together, bombing streets, doing shows, meeting artists. Unfortunately, like everything in life, things change and come to an end and as we got bigger and more successful, it became more difficult to continue in harmony. Bob left and Garrett the year afterwards and I carried on on my own for almost four years. I felt like I needed to try and get a grip back on what it was that I initially tried to start and so over the next few years I concentrated more on traveling with the character as opposed to staying in the studio and evolving my art. That’s one of the main things that makes this year so different; now that Bob and I have teamed back up, The London Police is really developing and moving in new directions.
Anyway, by 2008, Bob had started doing his drawings, his architectural drawings, and around the time of the New York show, I said to him, “Look, why don’t I draw a couple of characters and you put some of your buildings and backgrounds around it, and we’ll put them in the show.” And so last year we did three of those, just little 50 x 60 cms, and it was really great. I said to Bob, “If you ever want to join in The London Police again, you know, you’re welcome,” so around about November, December 2008 he came to me and said, “You know, I’m ready to go for it, I’m ready to join up with you again and do this show in London next year and let’s see how it goes.”
Because of the paintings we’d done in New York, we got a commission from a friend there, so we both flew out in January and created this big piece, like 7 ft by 3 ½. Initially, it was going to be my giant character in the front, you know, with either side a perspective view of a New York street, but as we were drawing we just started to realize that we could interact within his buildings, we could have my characters coming out of his buildings, and have things happening, and we suddenly got that bug again, that same bug we had when we left on the ferry. We thought, “Wow, we’re back, we’re together.” It was all happening again.
SXH: What makes your Hollywood show “Brothers in Arms” and the work you have created for it particularly special?
Chaz: We’re excited to be here in LA and make the show we’ve been making this year. We worked really hard on mixing the ideas; it’s all Hollywood, the iconography of LA, the films, stars on the street, bits from our favorite movies like the characters from Star Wars and the Delorean in Back To The Future – we’ve got a picture of us two in the Delorean, different crazy stuff like that.
We wanted to call the show “Brothers in Arms” for a few reasons: because of the way Bob and I have come back together, the fact that in an obvious way we’re using our arms to make this work – it’s all very much about hand drawing – and because we’re really good friends. Also for this show, as it’s in Hollywood, we wanted to do something extra, so we’re making a couple of movies. We’ve decided to handcuff ourselves together for as long as possible, twenty four hours a day, for like four or five days, and make a film about it. We’ll see what happens. We’re going to go to the places that are in the paintings and try to tie everything in together. It’s also just a bit of fun, a social experiment to test the friendship and see how the lack of personal space affects you as a person, the fact that you can’t think for yourself anymore, there’s always someone else, and you’ve always got to be on a level with that every time you want to move or eat your food or wash up, so that’s going to be interesting. It was important for us to have a concept that would capture the imagination of anyone coming into the gallery. When people come to a London Police show I want them to see more just what they can click on and see on their computers. I want them to have a really special experience there and see something that you can’t see on the web.