In the history of NAVA, no one has rolled up to an interview smoother than street artist Nathan Bowen: cruising round the corner on his BMX, he stops, sparks a joint, and flashes us a wide smile before casting an eye over one of his latest works, “Bloody taggers. I’ll need to buff this one up again soon.”
London for me is a playground. This is my back garden.
His identity is given away by an Adidas jacket and cap customised with his trademark scrawl, which is echoed on the decrepit black hoarding behind us, a piece created in conjunction with friend and collaborator Blackmore. The dynamic doodle-esque nature of Bowen’s work makes it instantly recognisable. If you see it once, you’ll start seeing it everywhere – great for impressing/irritating friends while walking round London (“See that? That’s another Nathan Bowen piece!”)
London is very much his canvas and his muse; “London for me is a playground. I’m originally from here, I was born in Greenwich. I’m original. This is my back garden.”
With a cheekiness – and twang that only a born and bred south Londoner can get away with – Bowen’s road to legendary status had very simple origins: a piece of scrap paper and a biro;
“I was on holiday chilling by the pool, and I had a piece of paper and a biro pen, and I just started sketching. I liked the looseness of it. As I was drawing this character a lot of people were walking past and saying, ‘Mate, this is dope, I love this, this is cool!’”
That simple doodle caused a eureka moment. Impressing his tutors at Central St. Martin, where he was studying art, he asked how he might expand and evolve the style. When it was suggested he could look into creating larger wall murals by using a projector and then re-sketching (“if I want to do it on the street that’s not going to work, I’m not going to have a plug!”), he instead picked up a thick marker pen and decided to use old scrap boards he found on the streets – his first experience of being a true street artist; “I was sort of starting off low and easy. Then over a year or two I decided, ‘Yo, I’m going to take this to the streets; I’m going to hit the hoardings.’”
“I’ve always believed that your artwork reflects your environment, and my style was raw and dynamic, yet over the years my style hasn’t evolved, but my characters have.” These characters – also known as demons – provide another way to recognise a work by Bowen. His first series of demons took on the form of the humble builder (“I used to be a builder myself”), reflecting his choice of using old hoardings at building sites as a canvas.
Over the years my style hasn’t evolved, but my characters have.
We couldn’t help but wonder whether the demons are a part of his personality. “They’re from a comic that I’m working on called ‘After Lives’. I haven’t released it yet, it’s an ongoing project, and I think I’m only on page 20!” His inspiration behind these Demons does have a slightly darker side, however, being a fan of 15th century Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch, who famously painted hugely disturbing visions of Hell.
“I don’t want to draw demons in the street and have people on the way to work and think, ‘Oh, I just saw one of Nathan Bowen’s demons, that’s put me in a bad mood.’ I want to make people laugh; I want to make you smile. So why not make these demons positive, put a good spin on it?”
Not just a comic, After Lives is also a movement, “Giving walls an artistic reincarnation, giving them an afterlife, my main motivation behind street art being to give old walls a positive new aesthetic.” As much as a location affects the type of demon Bowen creates, inspiration also comes from whoever he is collaborating with at the time; “If, like with this piece, I’m collabing with someone like Blackmore, he’s into painting planets, so I’ve made a demon that’s an astronaut.”
As much as Soho and Shoreditch are the favourite haunts of many street artists – Soho being one of Bowen’s favourite spots (“It’s got the energy, the nightlife, it’s always buzzing down there”) – it is surprising to hear that the growing gentrification of London hasn’t driven them out. In fact, Bowen reckons it brings the artists in. “I guess it just brings positivity”. Compared to Berlin, where Bowen was most recently spreading his mark, London is much cleaner, with less “graff” desecrating the walls and more space for street art to decorate them.
“It’s really rustic out [in Berlin], but saturated. There’s tons of graff though, they just graff everywhere. No offence to Berlin but they’re just a bunch of vandals out there! In England, we paint over graffiti, we buff it out, but in Berlin they don’t paint over it. Everywhere you walk it’s covered in graff!”
Authentically London, Bowen is a true master of his art and of his city. Somewhat of an art vigilante, when asked where his dream wall would be to paint, he replied, “The side of a massive, 40-storey block of flats. Or the Shard!”