Home boy, Street artist Donk London
In a wall mural created by Donk London, a little boy stares longingly at the miniature model home he holds in his hands. Like the rest of its 8.6m inhabitants – the street artist is disturbed by London’s housing crisis.
Rough sleeping across England has doubled in the past five years. Rents in London by 7.7 per cent, compared to an average of 4.8 per cent across the UK. And three quarters of people in the UK worry that long term homes are out of reach.
Of his image titled Homeboy – “hopefully what comes out,” explains Donk, “is a sense of how important the home is and how we all universally need somewhere that we feel safe and can develop from.”
The catalyst for the artwork was a split from a previous partner. “After separating with my boy’s mum I moved into a shared flat for seven years,” reflects Donk. “It was what I could afford as a fairly low-income freelance photographer. That became something that frustrated me as a parent. It created a sense of anxiety in me because I felt I should be providing better for my son.”
A friend had also bought him a miniature build-your-own home model, during a bout of illness that had sat on his windowsill. “I just thought I didn’t want to be in this scenario forever but I didn’t know how I was going to get out of it because my income was never going to seemingly get any better as it’s hard to make an income in photography but at the same time photography was all I could do. So there were all these issues,” he explains.
Fast forward a year and things are much more upbeat but images of his son, family and friends still heavily feature in his creations.
Mixing photocopying, illustration and printmaking, his paste ups and murals are steeped in the time, place and city that evoked them. The street artist has been placing his work across the streets of London since 2008. “A big history of street art prior to its modern take has always been people out there writing slogans and trying to have a conversation,” he explains. “I like the fact that it is this need for people to communicate more directly with the place they live.”
He adds: “[Street art] started slightly as a kind of therapeutic thing and then the more I got into it, I then realized it could become a lot more.”
Initially interested in graffiti, Donk started out as a jobbing photographer. “I liked the process of taking pictures and that started to overtake my interest in graffiti,” he says, reflecting on his past working for record companies.
“I covered quite a lot of ground but I started to get a bit jaded around the 90s. So I just started to produce my own imagery and to produce work that was about seeing the world.”
“It’s nice to work with friends and family,” he explains, “I’ve shot my dad as well as my girlfriend and that’s something I’ve always done even before making street art.”
“I think it adds something to the imagery, the personal connection I have with the people,” reveals Donk.
Blue Canary features a girl, heavily tattooed, her face twisting in motion. “I had this idea of the setting being beautiful but a bit frightening. I got her to sit in this chair and shake her head around so you get a blur and I was thinking quite painterly so Francis Bacon and all that but the image that I liked was when she was swishing her head from side to side and it just made this kind of image where she looked like she had a hijab on or something eastern looking,” he explains.
“But then at the same time all her body is exposed but her face is hidden and that’s a theme that’s worked its way into my work, this [idea of] hiding your identity or hiding behind something. I like it because I think it’s interesting but I can see why people have a few problems with it.”
Asked what these problems are, he replies that “sometimes people are scared by complicated symbols and complicated images.”
He adds: “things that can evoke something in you but there is no explanation for why you are slightly troubled by [it]. Because there’s a woman, there’s a sense of vulnerability, or she could be mentally ill – there are all these things combining and there’s no explanation and that’s what disturbs people, there is no resolution.”
Describing his work as evocative and anachronistic, Donk says works have an element of devotional art. “I’m fascinated by religion mainly because it has quite a fantastic visual history – the images very much tap into things that inspired me which are images that possess a sense of the soul.”
Photography is the starting point for most images. “I will basically take pictures then edit and turn them into high graphic versions with limited tonal range and then reduce them back to half tones and add graphic embellishments to them for instance.”
He continues: “quite often I’ll translate them into screen-printing or xeroxed copy. If they are xeroxed or photocopied they’ll be hand colour washed and I’ll paint on them – try and take them somewhere else a little bit to give them a different aesthetic.”
Screen prints are done in his own studio. “I like to make my own mistakes,” he says “because some of the best stuff I’ve done have been accidental.”
Donk’s images are centred on referencing the past and the contemporary “to make playful connections between universal themes of human strength, vulnerability and the passage of time.”
He adds: “I’m hoping the images will resonate with people but on their own, so I sort of leave them open to interpretation. I just want to connect with people and hopefully they’ll connect in a positive way.”