David Shrigley on His Funny Way of Making Art

David Shrigley on His Funny Way of Making Art
The artist David Shrigley

An artist whose shrewdly absurd and laugh-out-loud funny drawings have made him famous around the world, David Shrigleyhas become an important figure in contemporary art almost as if by sneak attack—an unexpected but well-deserved fact attested to by his nomination for both this year's Turner Prize and Trafalgar Square's Fourth Plinth commission, Britain's two highest-profile art accolades. To understand the brainy subversion beneath Shrigley's hilarious work, we spoke to him about his approach to art, his unglamorous role in Trainspotting, and what he really thinks of the fans he tattoos.

As an artist who has worked in sculpture, editorial cartoons, music, film, and even the occasional novelty item, you’re known for taking on a tremendously varied range of pursuits. How did you first come to be interested in art?

I think I always wanted to be an artist, apart from when I was a little kid and I wanted to be an astronaut or a professional soccer player. Once I realized those dreams were not really attainable, the only thing I’ve ever wanted to be was an artist. I don’t think I ever knew that being an artist could be a real job, so my earliest career plan in that regard was to design record covers. I was really into music as a young teenager, like maybe 12 or 13, and I figured I could be the guy who designed record covers for the bands that I liked, like Pandemonium. So it was really something I always wanted to do, even before I knew being an artist was a viable career path. Even after going to art school [at the Glasgow School of Art], I wasn’t really aware that one could be a fine artist and make a living selling your work. I’m not really good at it, you know. [laughs] 

Where you mainly inspired by album covers and other pieces of pop culture, or did you also go to museums to see artworks?

I was really into record covers to start with, but I guess that was because my family wasn’t really into art at all—I hadn’t been to an art museum until I was probably about 14 and my father took me to what is now Tate Britain. It was the early ’80s and I saw an exhibition of Jean Tinguely, the Swiss kinetic sculptor. I think from that moment on, I wanted to be an artist. I realized that was what art was, and that you could make things and put them in a gallery and people would come look at them—and I realized that was what I wanted to do. 

Strangely, I was never really a comic-book nerd and interested in things like that, even though I was into reading as a kid, and illustration. I really liked stories and ideas. Lately, though, I’ve developed an affection for certain comic-book artists, graphic-novel artists, usually as a result of being compared to them or having people ask if I like certain them. Most of the time I’ve never heard of them, and I check them out and I find I really like them.

Did you always doodle as a kid? When was it that you began to take your drawings seriously?

Ever since I was a very young child I’ve been into drawing pictures and making sculpture, like carving supermarket boxes when I was four or five years old. My earliest memories are of making art, and I was always the one who was good at art at school. But then time went by and I went from being the best artist in my class when I was six to being the worst at art when I was at art school—the worst at drawing, I should say. My objective drawing skills, relatively speaking, were not that hot compared to other art students. But I think drawing formally from life was just sort of a blip for me; I did that for a while because you have to do it when you study art, but I never quite figured out how I could express myself that way in terms of making what I wanted to make. So then I just went back to drawing the same way that I’ve always drawn ever since I was a little kid, albeit the subject matter changed over the years.

It’s that naïve quality of your line that makes it so accessible and immediately engaging—it’s very approachable. It’s lumpy and it’s loose, and it gets the viewer right into a kind of conversational relationship the work. Did you think of them as cartoons in the beginning?

When I was about to leave art school, I did decide I wanted to be some sort of cartoonist, even though I didn’t know a lot about the world of being a cartoonist. I actually got a book out of the library about how to be a cartoonist because I knew so little about it, even though I was about to graduate with a degree in fine arts. But I realized I could say everything I wanted to say in a cartoon format—and that I could do it in my shared apartment without having a studio, as opposed to the objects and photographs and other things I had been doing in art school that had been quite a bit fancier. In a way, it was a practical measure, I suppose. 

So I started drawing, and the first two drawings I published—and they were self-published—were quite different in style from the way I draw now, much more formalized. They weren’t really very nice drawings, but I used Letratone on them, which was a mode of pre-digital image making—you could buy this stuff that was made by Letraset, and you would cut it out, and it would give it a half-tone effect, like a dot matrix, that would provide tone to black-and-white drawings. That was my concession to graphic sophistication, but it didn’t last very long. My roommates said, “Well, you don’t really need to use all this stuff. The original drawings are much better in a more polished way.” So I took his advice, and that’s when I guess I became the artist I’m known for being now. My work just reverted back to what it’s always been, a kind of formal, diaristic doodling.

And you never turned back.

Well, I’ve done life drawing periodically over the years, just out of some lingering interest. It doesn’t really have much to do with what I do as an artist, it’s just some sort of odd inner activity that I do for my own amusement. There’s something funny about doing a portrait of somebody and objectively rendering them on the page. I think it’s the potential to offend the sitter that I enjoy—I just like the fact that you draw this beautiful naked young woman and she looks really ugly in my drawing with a really big head and small hands. But the other funny thing is that I’m a famous artist, because people who don’t know anything about art say, “How can you be a famous artist if you can’t draw?” 

I suppose maybe I’m hamming it up a little bit. I can probably draw a bit better than I do—there’s a certain amusement value to it. But, effectively, what I’m doing is a process of reduction, or of some form of notation, in my drawings. I don’t draw anything well— everything just looks good enough. There’s the minimum level of graphic sophistication needed to convey whatever message I wanted to convey.

When did you begin to realize that people really liked your work?

I guess I was in my late 20’s at that point. I knew that I was quite excited to be drawing in the way I was, and the possibilities of it were starting to open up to me; I was starting to understand what I was interested in, graphically and in terms of art as a whole. I suddenly felt very fulfilled making drawings in this way, and with it being the center of my artistic practice, as it were. Suddenly, I became an inadvertent commercial success and famous artist, but it was really very much by accident, because I was just happy doing it. There wasn’t a strategy I had used to get to that point. I had been holding odd jobs to pay the rent, like playing the guitar, working in an art gallery (as many artists do), working as an art handler, and being a gallery guide. I worked at a place called the Center for Contemporary Arts in Glasgow for what seemed like many years, though I guess it wasn’t really long, from maybe ’92 to ’96. I also did some very basic construction things, and I was an extra in movies.

Really? Like what?

I was an extra in Trainspotting—that’s probably the only one you would’ve heard of.  But then, strangely, everybody I know was an extra in Trainspotting. It was very much my group of friends. Somebody’s brother was the producer, so basically we were all a bunch of poor twentysomethings and getting paid 50 quid for a day’s work seemed really great money back in those days. But I was just an extra. I was in a couple of scenes, but you never actually saw my face. I was in one scene in the hospital after Ewan McGregor has an overdose, but all you see is my legs. All my bigger scenes were cut from the film, and it just got so disappointing. But there were many other people, the great and the good of the Glasgow cultural scene, who were in that movie. I could reel off many names. It’s definitely an interesting footnote.

Even though you predominantly work with cartoons, you have obviously been embraced as a very talented and conceptually insightful fine artist. This has come very much to the fore with your Turner Prize nomination, an honor that has been extended to many of the U.K.’s most significant artistic figures. How do you feel the cartoon-esque work you make squares with the idea of the “serious” artist?

It’s a discussion I’ve had quite a lot recently, because people always say, “Oh, you weren’t nominated in the past because your work isn’t seen as being serious.” But it’s not something I really recognized, or something I’m really upset about either. I can’t complain about my work not being taken seriously, because I do fancy exhibitions and I make a living from the sale of my artwork. I’m very much an art insider. I guess you can’t really have everyone take your work or you seriously, but everybody’s at least got to have a reason to dislike what you do, so I’ll ask them if they have a reason for it, and a lot of times that reason is because my work is very comic, and a lot of it functions as jokes.

I think perhaps misunderstand the nature of serious art versus comic art, as if they’re opposites, which they’re not. I’m a serious artist because I’ve spent my entire life on this artistic endeavor, which is a rather serious thing to do, if the opposite of seriousness is being a dilettante or being someone whose heart isn’t in what they’re doing. I’m very committed to my work. So I don’t really get that reasoning, and I don’t feel I’m alone in fighting a cause for comic art, if you know what I mean. There has been a great deal of comedy in art over the years.

When I first became interested in the history of art, I was looking at Marcel Duchamp and Dada. I’m very inspired by the Dada era and by artists like Andy Warhol. I’m a big fan of conceptual art—as a museumgoer or gallery-goer, I like to see shows of that nature. Dada is comedy, it’s anarchy, and it’s funny a lot of the time. In a way, that’s where I come from, rather than being an aficionado of cartoons or of comedy. Although I do like comedy—I go to see comedy shows.

Your work certainly engages with the themes of indisputably “serious” art, like death, anxiety, and mortality. What makes the viewer laugh when looking at your work is the disjuncture between what’s being discussed and the way it’s presented—it’s a laugh of nervous recognition, kind of like when you look at Goya’s Caprichos and they’re kind of funny on one level but incredibly morbid and devastating critiques of his society at the same time. 

As an aspiration, I’d like to be that kind of artist, where I could say something very profound that related to a specific incident or phenomenon, but I think the way my work comes about is much more intuitive, unconscious, and slightly random. It’s very much the residue of a process, and it’s very heavily edited. A lot what I’m interested in is slippage of meaning and of the way language and images work together. It is quite difficult to make overt political statements in that way. 

But, in fact, you designed a very popular and effective T-shirt in protest of Russia’s treatment of Pussy Riot, the avant-garde agit-prop artists.

I did, and as a matter of fact, I’m wearing it right now. A little while ago I was taking my dog for a walk in the park, and I was wishing I wasn’t wearing this T-shirt actually.  People always look at it and ask you who Pussy Riot are. It’s kind of painful for me that people don’t know who they are. But I’ve done quite a few political cartoons, actually. I did a regular political cartoon for the New Statesman, which is quite a historically significant current-affairs magazine in the U.K. I did that for maybe 18 months, but I don’t really see what I did then as fitting alongside what I’m known for as an artist. It was really a time-sensitive thing, when I was given a deadline to create caricatures of politicians and made political statements, so I’d be given a break at lunchtime and then I’d have to make a cartoon in four hours or something. I really enjoyed doing the exercise, but it’s not something I’m hugely proud of. 

Interestingly, you often take this critical eye and apply it to the art world around you. For instance, I remember seeing a sign of yours stationed outside a booth at Frieze New York that read, “It’s going very badly. It’s a terrible disaster.” That was funny. What is it that draws you to turning your work to critique the art world at the same time you are existing within it?

I think it’s really more a comment on my own practice, or on the nature of being an artist.  Being an artist is a lonely thing to do in a way, and very much one where your ego comes to the fore and you’re making statements for people to consume, suggesting that these statements you’re making are really important, or that these things you’re making are really important. In a way, there’s a certain pomposity to that and a certain arrogance that needs to be satirized to some extent, in my mind. But then obviously, I’m the person who’s making art as well, so I am one of the characters in my drawings, I suppose.

There’s a certain, I don’t know, meta-art thing going on there in the sense that I’m making art that comments on itself or comments upon its production. I’m an art insider, but I don’t feel like I’m making an in-joke. I’m making a joke about the making of art, which is something I’d like to be a universal statement, albeit a little ambiguous as well.  I’m not really interested in critiquing the art world as a whole because the art world, you know… it’s nice that it exists. The fact that there is this Frieze New York et cetera means that I don’t have to have a proper job to pay my mortgage. So I’m less critiquing the art business than critiquing myself, as in, isn’t it kind of weird to be an artist when not that many people in society get to make a living farting about in the studio all day, making drawings of stuff.

I was reading your Wikipedia entry, which is a very nicely written one actually, and it kind of turned my head a bit that it likens your work to outsider art. What do you make of that comparison? Is it something you’ve heard before or thought about?

Yeah, it’s something I’ve discussed before. Aesthetically, my work looks like outsider art. I suppose I have the same graphic sensibility or very real ambivalence towards craft that outsider artists have, whereby it’s really just not that important for me to make sophisticated-looking drawings because that’s not what I’m interested in. They’re not really childish, but they have a very crude element to them, and I feel that’s quite important. It’s very similar, I suppose, to what somebody makes in a mental hospital who feels that they’re touched by God or whatever and they’re trying to tell the world about it—in a way, it’s very similar to the mindset I have. But I’m not in a mental hospital, and I’m using the language of an artist. Superficially it’s the same activity in a lot of ways, but it’s not to be confused with outsider art because I’m not an outsider. It just looks like that. 

What do you think it says about the climate of the art world, or the way that contemporary art is moving, that you were nominated for the Turner Prize this year?

I don’t know. It’s difficult to comment upon without sounding very jaded about it, but  maybe they’re scraping the barrel. [laughs] There are only so many artists in the U.K., and quite a number of artists who are nominated these days aren’t even from the U.K. originally, they’ve just been living in London. I actually have a U.K. passport, unlike I think maybe two of the other people who don’t have U.K. passports. Not that it makes my position on the shortlist any more valid. The point that I’m making is that maybe they just thought, “Well, we’ve got to nominate him at some point.” 

I think the thing is that I did this big show at the Hayward Gallery last year, and that was a big deal for me as an artist. That felt like real recognition, and it was really significant for me. I think the fact that I’ve had a solo show at the Hayward Gallery, it forced their hand a little bit. If they had not nominated me this year, it would’ve been like, “All right, you’re never getting nominated. It doesn’t matter. That’s it. Forget about it.” I felt like they didn’t really have any choice because I’ve done this huge show. 

But, in any case, the Turner Prize is not something that troubles me at all. In a way, it’s a bit of a distraction—it’s an uncomfortable feeling to be in competition with other artists, where it’s like some sporting event and people take bets on who’s going to win. I’m just not really interested in that kind of thing. I’m interested in making art, and if I’m in a group exhibition with other artists, I’m interested in their success as well so that the show can be a success. So, yeah, it’s a bit of a distraction.

To this day, you still love to make album covers, which seems to be a kind of release for you. How frequently do you do that?

I just got a big box of albums that I designed the cover for, so, yeah, I do a lot of that stuff. I DJ, and I do tons of record covers, and I’ve designed a poster every couple of months for a music show in Glasgow. It’s something that I really enjoy doing. I also do my own music projects. Worried Noodles [a 2007 album where the artist’s lyrics were set to music by David Byrne and indie bands like Grizzly Bear and Islands] was the most high-profile thing that I’ve done. I wouldn’t really do anything like that again, just because I’ve already done it. At the moment, though, I’m making a spoken-word record—in fact I’m making two spoken-word records simultaneously with two different music friends. It’s very much ongoing, but perhaps a lot of the stuff I do is a bit lower-profile than doing that record with David Byrne on it.

You’ve also directed videos for Blur and Bonnie Prince Billy. Is video an area that you’re interested in experimenting at all from an artistic standpoint?

Yeah, I want to make a live-action film. I’ve been writing a script with a friend of mine for a half hour, a pitch for a TV thing. We’re coming pretty close to finishing this half-hour script. I’m not really interested in doing it as a fine artwork—I’m interested in doing it as a half-hour TV slot, a black comedy, basically. 

What’s the storyline?

Well, it will probably never see the light of day, but it’s a very weird comedy about some mushroom farmers who are visited by this weird alien-like thing that comes out of a hole by a riverbank and helps them grow mushrooms. They have some kind of transformative experience, and they have a lot of success as mushroom farmers. That’s a very brief synopsis. It would be CGI. But as I said, you may never hear about it.  

One other unusual area that you have been working in recently has been tattoos, and on your website you have photos of people with your cartoons inked on their body. How did this come about?

Well, somebody sent me an image of mine that they tattooed on them, and I put it on the website, and it sort of snowballed from there. People started to think that I was doing tattoos as some sort of service, which I kind of do—I did this publicity event for one of my books where I drew tattoos on people with a sterile pen and then they went next door to the tattoo parlor to have it done. The interesting thing is I spend zero time thinking about them. I just ask, “Where do you want the tattoo?” Or sometimes I don’t really ask. They have a ten-minute session with me, and the tattoo gets done there and then.

It’s sort of the antithesis of the way you’re supposed to think about getting a tattoo. You’re supposed to think long and hard, and the tattoo artist is supposed to be more competent than I am, and more thoughtful in the way they go about doing it. I’m starting to tire of doing it now, I have to say. I don’t have any interest in tattoos, and I don’t have any tattoos, and I don’t particularly like tattoos either. I think it’s just ridiculous. Young women want it done as well, which I find quite something. Like, “I just think you’re going to regret this in years to come.”

Maybe your devoted fans think that the tattoos will go up in value.

Well, I don’t think they have a value, to be honest. At least not a material value. But really, that kind of devotion I can do without, to be honest. 

To bring things to a close, is there anything you collect yourself? You clearly have such a wide range of interests.

Yeah, I collect art. If I had more disposable income, I would collect more. My wife and I like to buy stuff from younger artists who are from Glasgow, so we do that a lot, buying stuff from exhibitions by twentysomethings. It’s kind of a nice thing to do. My wife seems to have a policy where she’ll go out for an evening and go to an art opening and have a few drinks and then buy something. So we have this weird art collection where she’ll come home a bit tipsy with some dreadful painting, and she’ll be like, “I bought this for 200 pounds.” And I’m like, “What is it? That’s really… yeah, okay.” “Do you like it?” “Yeah, I like it.” And then it ends up that she doesn’t like it at all in the morning.

So I have all these weird paintings and artworks in my studio. She buys from exhibitions of outsider artists as well, so there’s all these weird pictures by them too, which you’d think I’d really like. But you see, I’m really more interested in the fact that we have this collection, which, for all intents and purposes, has been bought under the influence of alcohol. I think that’s quite interesting. Myself, I buy things when I’m more sober and can make an objective decision about them. Maybe in the future, if I win the Turner Prize, I’ll spend the money on art. But the smart money’s not on me—Tino Sehgal is going to win, apparently.


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