Tag Archives: Hong Kong

How do street artists make money and who is this trendy DRB matchbox guy?

DRB (left) and Ben Oakley at the exhibition yesterday

DRB (obscured left) & Ben Oakley at the exhibition yesterday

Yesterday, I went to the Ben Oakley Gallery in Greenwich, to see the last day of artist DRB’s exhibition Firestarter – basically matchboxes custom-made by DRB.

But we are not talking normal matchboxes here, we are talking Art.

Some of DRB’s matchboxes are now in the Victoria & Albert Museum’s collection in London. The boxes are being displayed at a gallery in Hong Kong in about a week and DRB has a duck with hands for ears which is in Boston in the US at a liquid arts venue.

“When I trained as a printmaker,” DRB told me, “there were no computers – well, there WERE but they weren’t on my radar – and then, just as I graduated, computers basically made me redundant. All of my printmaking skills were irrelevant and I had to learn how to use computers.”

“And you do now?” I asked.

“Yeah. All of my creative career has been computers, so I’ve done websites, videos and all that. I had a creative career but, twenty years later, I’m doing printmaking again.”

“Though the world is different…” I prompted.

Ceci nest pas un Magritte - c'est un DRB

Ceci n’est pas un Magritte de Belge… C’est un DRB de Sarf Eest Londres.

“I trained to be a gallery artist,” DRB said. “I expected to be represented by a gallery and paid by a gallery. Whereas now a lot of my friends are street artists. They essentially represent themselves – on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook – and they don’t even show in galleries because their work is selling before it even hits a wall. Whereas I’m still a gallery artist. I do put things on the streets but, essentially, I think of whole shows whereas those guys will do just one piece and it sells before it hits the wall.”

“How does that street art thing work?” I asked.

“They have maybe 20,000 followers online,” explained DRB. “They have huge followings. They’re like rock stars compared to traditional painters. What they’re doing is they record every stage of the journey – their ideas, their sketches, their preliminary, everything – and people engage them on their social media.”

“So,” I asked, “I say I’m going to paint a giraffe on a wall next week and someone buys it before it hits the wall?”

DRB looks at a wall of his boxes

DRB looks at a wall of his boxes in Greenwich

“No,” explained DRB. “They call themselves street artists in the sense that they put something on the street first. So, if they make something, it has to go on the street first – that’s their own rule – and then they’ll make a print edition of it and sell it to people who liked it on the wall.”

“Do you do street art?” I asked.

“I put things on the street,” DRB replied, “but that’s just me being playful. I’m not really a street artist, I’m a gallery artist.

“I did study fine art, so I was a gallery artist for about four years, I had a residency in Norway for a year and there’s work of mine in Australia all up the west coast. I painted walls there when I was in my twenties in the 1990s and they’re still touching them up. Not graffiti. More like murals… They don’t know who I am.”

“So they maintain your artworks, but they don’t know you originated them?” I asked.

DRB’s publicity for the Ben Oakley exhibition

DRB’s publicity for the Ben Oakley exhibition

“There’s a town – Carnarvon in Western Australia,” said DRB, “where there’s a 20 foot wall with a mural. I was in the papers for that. I got run out of town by the police. I was about 20. I’ve had a creative career but, in terms of recognition it’s been this last year. I had my first solo show in Hoxton last summer and I’ve had about 20 shows since then.”

“Are DRB the initials of your real name?” I asked.

“No. It stands for Dirty Rotten Bleeder…It’s a play on words with the printing term ‘bleeding’ – printing that goes over the edge of another image or the edge of the displayed area. I call myself Dirty Rotten Bleeder like I could call myself a Messy Print Maker.”

DRB, the faceless artist at his Firerstarter yesterday

DRB at the last day of his Firerstarter yesterday

“Have you got a website?” I asked.

“I’m making one,” said DRB. “I find it hard to write. I have a blog, but what I tend to do is get really wrapped up in paradoxes and all of that and it doesn’t read in a way I would want someone to read it. “

“But you said you know how to design websites,” I said.

“Well” replied DRB, “there’s a difference between designing the look of something and populating it with content – actually putting words in there. And it’s harder to write words about yourself; I could probably write something about somebody else.”

“Tell me about it,” I said.

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John Lennon, Aristotle Onassis and the famous ballerina who was a gun runner

“There’s nowt as queer as folk,” is a saying which perhaps doesn’t translate too well into American. In British English, it means there’s nothing more strange nor more interesting than people.

So bear with me, dear reader, as I tell this meandering tale of less than six degrees of separation, a Wagnerian concentration camp, John Lennon and hand grenades in Cricklewood, north west London.

In my erstwhile youth, while I was a student, I lived in a Hampstead house of bedsits. One of the other inhabitants was the late Martin Lickert who, at the time, was John Lennon’s chauffeur. He lived in a bedsit because he was rarely home and only needed an occasional single bed to be unconscious in at night. Although, one night, I had to swap beds with him as I had a double bed and he had to entertain a girl called Juliet. He later went on to become a poacher-turned-gamekeeper. Long after I knew him, he trained as a barrister and specialised in prosecuting drug cases for HM Customs & Excise.

His relevance, as far as this blog is concerned, is that he accidentally appeared in the little-seen and staggeringly weird Frank Zappa movie 200 Motels.

In that film, shot at Pinewood Studios, the part of ‘Jeff ‘was originally going to be played by the Mothers of Invention’s bass player Jeff Simmons who quit before filming. He was replaced in the movie by Wilfred Brambell, star of BBC TV’s Steptoe and Son and The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night, who walked off set in a rage after a few days and Frank Zappa said: “The next person who comes through that door gets the part!”

The next person who came through the door was Martin Lickert, by then Ringo Starr’s chauffeur, who had gone to buy some tissues for his drumming employer who had a “permanent cold”.

The co-director with Frank Zappa of 200 Motels was Tony Palmer, famed director of documentaries on classical composers who, last night, was talking about his career in a Westminster library. I was there.

It was an absolutely riveting series of anecdotes which lasted 90 minutes but it seemed like 20 minutes, so fascinating were Tony Palmer’s stories.

He has, to say the least, had an odd career ranging from directing Richard Burton, Vanessa Redgrave and Frank Zappa in feature films to large-scale documentaries on heavyweight classical composers and from making documentaries on Liberace, Hugh Hefner and Peter Sellers to Swinging Britain TV rock shows like Colour Me Pop, How It Is and the extraordinary feature-length 1968 documentary All My Loving, suggested to him by John Lennon and so controversial at the time that it was shelved by David Attenborough (then Controller of BBC2) who said it would only be screened over his dead body – Attenborough denies using these words, but Palmer has the memo.

All My Loving was eventually screened on BBC TV after the channel had officially closed down for the night. I saw it when it was transmitted and, even now, it is an extraordinarily OTT piece of film-making.

Tony Palmer’s film-making career is much like the composing career of Igor Stravinsky (whom Palmer introduced to John Lennon when The Beatles were at their height). Stravinsky saw Tchaikovsky conduct in the 19th century and was still composing when he died in 1971, after The Beatles had broken up. So there are fewer than even six degrees of separation between Tchaikovsky and Martin Lickert.

Palmer – who is currently preparing a documentary project with Richard Dawkins – has had an extraordinarily wide range of encounters from which to draw autobiographical anecdotes.

He directed Michael Palin and Terry Jones in Twice a Fortnight, one of the important precursors of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and he directed the 17-hour, 12-part 1977 TV series All You Need Is Love tracing the development of popular music. Again, that project was suggested to him by John Lennon and he discovered that, though The Beatles had never tried to copyright the title All You Need Is Love, it had been registered by a Hong Kong manufacturer of sexy clothing and a brothel in Amsterdam.

Palmer also advised director Stanley Kubrick on music for his last movie Eyes Wide Shut and has apparently endless anecdotes on the great creative artists of the 20th century.

Who knew that the cellist Rostropovich used to get paid in cash, would put the cash inside the cello which he then went and played on stage and bought refrigerators in bulk in the UK so he could send them back to the USSR and sell them at a vast profit?

I, for one, had never heard that the German composer Richard Wagner, Hitler’s favourite composer and much admired by the Nazis, actually had a grandson who ran a concentration camp towards the end of World War II.

Nor that, in the 1950s, ballerina Margot Fonteyn got paid in cash which she then took to a Cricklewood arms dealer to buy guns and grenades which were channeled though France to Panama where her dodgy politician husband was planning a coup.

It’s amazing that, by now, someone has not made a documentary about Tony Palmer.

I suppose the problem is ironic: that the perfect person to have done this would have been Tony Palmer.

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Memories of Hanoi twenty two years ago – and the woman with the robin redbreast face

I received an e-mail today from a friend who is in Vietnam for business. She is staying at a 6 star resort near Hoi An, south of Da Nang.

“I did a double take in Hanoi,” she wrote, “when I saw the brand new, enormous and heavily branded Hanoi Hilton near the main square.”

Apparently the new Hanoi Hilton hotel is opposite the Opera House. I was in Hanoi in November 1989 and the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ I passed was the original one – the notorious Hoa Lo PrisonI recognised its crumbling colonial front from photos. I asked my guide: “What’s that building?”

“I don’t know,” he said, straight-faced, but with a twinkle in his eye which meant we both knew we were playing a game. I kept a diary when I was in Hanoi in 1989. This is an extract:

THURSDAY 30th NOVEMBER – HANOI

Out of my window, there’s the constant sounds of car and moped horns tooting intermingled with the sounds of cheap engines.

The hotel is a simultaneous mountaineering and orienteering expedition… along endless corridors, up endless stairs, through a darkened room with a hidden comedy step to trip the unwary and finally through a half-darkened fire escape landing. The room is small but just about OK (no wardrobe or drawers) and the shower room looks like it’s seen better days at Auschwitz. But I call it home and it’s interesting to see what East Germans consider an international hotel. (There is a big East German group here.)

Nightlife in Hanoi is quite something. Bright white lightbulbs and shops are open everywhere in what I think is the main shopping street. It’s a bit like a cross between Earls Court Road on a Saturday night and a 1950s American Graffiti street with cruising. I did see three little old wrinkled ladies curling up inside blankets in a shop doorway. One cafe was doing a roaring trade because it was showing Thai rock videos. And children were playing everywhere. Children of all sizes. This was at about 8.45pm.

Teenagers listen to American rock music everywhere. It must be strange for their fathers and grandfathers.

They fought the French in the 1940s and 1950s and defeated them.

They fought the Americans in the 1960s and 1970s and defeated them.

But they lost the peace.

Now their children listen to US rock music.

FRIDAY 1st DECEMBER – HANOI

I now have a new hotel room with television (my first in Vietnam). This is probably a result of changing money with the driver and an excessively expensive $50 trip to Halong Bay. The guide is now paranoid about me telling anyone:

“This is still a Socialist country – like Russia, da?”

He keeps absent-mindedly saying “da” instead of “yes”.

People are mostly ignoring me in the street. I think I have now worked out the economics. Beggars ask locals for money but don’t ask me. They think I am a Russian. Everyone thinks I am a Russian. The Vietnamese have no time for Russians because (a) they don’t smile and (b) they have no money. No-one wants roubles only dollars and, even if they did want roubles, the Russians don’t have spare cash.

The problem with using travellers cheques is the US economic embargo on Vietnam – US companies can’t trade with the Vietnamese. My Hanoi guide tells me credit cards are “many many years” away because there are very few computers in Vietnam.

When we passed the very flash Opera House, he told me it was intended for the people, but only the very rich can afford it. This implies there is a group of very rich (as opposed to just very privileged) people.

At lunchtime, I took a walk and met Hanoi’s equivalent of a bag lady in ragged-sleeved jacket. The bottom half of her face was entirely red. Her face looked like a robin redbreast. Brown top half. Red bottom half. I think she must have been knocking-back some particularly brutal local equivalent of meths. She muttered (and probably cursed) at me, then staggered away.

I missed a photo opportunity this afternoon: two Russians buying blue jeans in the Hanoi equivalent of Oxford Street/Petticoat Lane. Further on, another Russian was toying with the idea of buying a Sony Walkman, insisting the shopkeeper put a cassette in it to test the sound quality.

I’m getting obsessed by the Russians. One TV channel at teatime had three particularly dreary Russian cartoons followed by their equivalent of Tomorrow’s World – Programme 2 – The Wonderful World of Computers. The Vietnamese channel carried a programme about a factory.

I had dinner tonight with the two Hong Kong Brits I met in Da Nang plus a couple of Canadians. When he was in Da Nang, one of the Canadians had a T-shirt printed saying in Vietnamese:

I AM NOT A RUSSIAN

He lives in an apartment in Calgary with a one-metre long iguana which, he says, craps in a sandbox behind the television set. He feeds it on cat food and says it can sense when he is about to go away because it pines and goes off its food. The iguana has its own dead tree in the apartment, so it can climb occasionally. It normally sleeps on its own heated pad although once the Canadian found it curled inside his pillowcase. The only problem is it likes to climb up the Canadian’s leg and has sharp claws. In the same apartment block, a neighbour keeps a pet boa constrictor.

I must remember to avoid Calgary.

The Hong Kong Brit told me he used to keep a pet monkey in Lagos; one of their neighbours in Hong Kong keeps a baboon which has a habit of flushing his toilet in the middle of the night.

I think I am beginning to hallucinate.

All I want is to find someone who can juggle cooked spaghetti on television for one minute.

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Yesterday I met a man from Atlantis who speaks Japanese

For ages, I have thought there was mileage in a Real People chat show on TV – if you go to any bus queue in any town in Britain and choose any person at random then, with the right questions, that person will reveal the most extraordinary life story.

Life truly is stranger than fiction. Novels are very often watered-down versions of the truth and they have been watered-down simply to make them believable.

I was reminded of this when I was passing through the food department of Selfridges in Oxford Street yesterday and I was offered a free tea sample by a Greek-Bulgarian sales specialist working for the East India Company which was bought by an Indian entrepreneur in 2005 and which opened a shop in London’s West End last year. It turned out the tea-offerer was from the island of Santorini (claimed by some to be the origin of the legend of Atlantis). He told me he spoke six languages including Japanese and Scots Gaelic – which he then proceeded to do.

Speak Gaelic.

It is a tad odd to have a Greek-Bulgarian from Atlantis who works for the East India Company (given its charter by Queen Elizabeth I in 1600) speak Gaelic to you when you are passing through the food department of Selfridges department store.

To surprise me, it would have been enough for him, as a Greek-Bulgarian, just to work for the fabled East India Company because I hadn’t realised it had been re-born.

While being one of the most successful commercial companies ever to exist –  at its height, the company allegedly generated half of world trade and it established Singapore and Hong Kong as trading centres – it also effectively ruled India with its own army on behalf of the British government 1757-1858 and virtually built the British Empire by monopolising the Opium Trade – it was responsible both for the Opium Wars and the Indian Mutiny!

That Indian entrepreneur – Sanjiv Mehta – who bought the name in 2005 and re-started the company last year is a near genius. People are buying recognisable brand names for millions of pounds/dollars all over the world and the East India Company must be one of the most famous names worldwide – it has been around for 411 years – though I’m not sure trade with China will be easy!

So it would have been enough for the tea-offerer, as a Greek-Bulgarian, just to work for the fabled East India Company but, good heavens – perhaps you had to be there – a Greek-Bulgarian who works for the East India Company, comes from the original Atlantis and speaks Gaelic! What are the odds of that combination happening? If you wrote a novel with a character like that in it, people would laugh at how stupid you were for including such a literally incredible character…

What price a Real People chat show?

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