ABOVE: DEAN STOCKTON, AKA D*FACE
Queen Elizabeth with a nose ring, skeletal Marilyn busts, and Basquiat blowing raspberries: London artist D*Face has always had his tongue firmly wedged in cheek. One of the best-known figures to rise from the British street-art boom of the early aughts, Dean Stockton has slowly been inching away from Pop-saturated celebrity portrayals ever since unintentionally becoming one himself. Inaugurating his career on the streets over 15 years ago by hand-drawing stickers and slapping them around London alleys, he has become notorious for his witty, glossy-veenered cultural critiques that conceal more malicious undertones.
New World Disorder marks his ninth solo show but also the final bow for Stolenspace, his gallery in the historically significant graffiti hub of Brick Lane. As the building has sadly succumbed to the bureaucracy it once revolted against and is being torn down, this will be the last hurrah at its current locale, with D*Face opening up his private conjoined studio for a concluding treat to the public.
Amidst the flurry of preparing to say cheerio to an era, Dean Stockton found a little time to reflect on his past, dwell on the present state of the art world, and speculate on what the ever-capricious future may hold.
GEORGIA FRANCES KING: A lot of your work centers around American culture and ideals, but you’re a born and bred Brit. What was it about the so-called American Dream that fascinated you growing up in London?
DEAN “D*FACE” STOCKTON: America was the dream. I wanted it, but growing up in a hard-working family who couldn’t afford to take us there, I couldn’t have it. And because it was unattainable, it made me desire it even more. I looked to America with rose-tinted glasses. As a kid, I watched Back To The Future and it changed my life; I wanted to grow up as a little Michael J. Fox! Then the older kids at school gave me [’80s skate culture magazine] Thrasher, and it pulled me into thinking California was this holy grail. Because I was not very well educated; I thought America was the same size as England and just had skate parks on every corner! It wasn’t until I became a whole lot older that I realised the American Dream is a refuge. Don’t get me wrong: I love America and would move there tomorrow—I just see it through slightly broken rose-tinted glasses now.
KING: A lot has changed since the ’80s, too. We don’t have hoverboards, but we do have the Internet, and the street art movement, for want of a better term, has been the first that’s flourished in this era. How do you think the presence of technology has affected your work and the scene?
STOCKTON: In many respects, street artists—and I hate that term, too—were the first group of artists who used the Internet to disseminate our work. It helped it spread globally, whereas it would have been a much bigger struggle to do so otherwise. But the danger with the Internet is that it removes the need to go and see things physically. You’ll never be able to replace the feeling of physically seeing a painting by seeing it in a feed, I think.
KING: What about the aspect of accidentally being influenced by other artists when you’re overexposed to so many images daily? You often reference folk like Lichtenstein in your works—what do you see the difference being between homage and biting someone else’s style?
STOCKTON: It’s a difficult one. If you’re trying to claim ownership on something that’s clearly been referenced by someone else, then that’s commonly called “biting.” But if you’re homage-ing something—taking it and adding your twist to it—then that’s a different thing altogether. The problem with any scene is that once it becomes established, then everyone starts looking inwardly instead of looking externally for inspiration. That’s when you start to get a million Banksys. So I think it’s important that people keep looking outside graffiti for their inspiration instead of looking at it.
KING: It’s also hard to look reflectively at a movement while we’re still within it. The last bastion of a global, unified art movement was when Abstract Expressionism died out in the mid-’70s, and then we somewhat fell into this overarching banner of “contemporary art” for 40 years. So how do you think the street art movement is going to be viewed in 10, 50 or 100 years?
STOCKTON: That’s a great question to ask and a hard one to answer. I really don’t know, but I hope it’s remembered for more than the sum of a few parts, those parts being Shepard Fairey and Banksy. It’ll be known predominantly know for wheatpaste posters, the stencil, and the sticker: that’s the backbone of it. Personally, I want to leave a legacy for my kids to be proud of. Because for an artist, the question is, “What am I doing it all for, anyway?” History often sidesteps certain people and is rewritten by those who can create the most publicity.
KING: In that case, here’s to hoping that history isn’t written by the artists with the most Instagram followers…
STOCKTON: [laughs] Exactly! I really hope not!
KING: Onto New World Disorder, what are the main concepts that have pervaded this new body of work at Stolenspace?
STOCKTON: There’s this idea that’s been in the back of my mind for about five years; it’s based on military exercise and ball sports. As activities, both are very tribal, one playing for a team and one playing essentially for your country under the banners of flags. Then I found out about a film called The Tillman Story: it’s a documentary about an American footballer who gave up a career to go fight for the American soldiers and died under friendly fire, and then they tried to cover it up. It summarized everything I was thinking for the past while. I’m fascinated by the duality. So a vast part of the show are these 13 army helmets and oversized baseball bats. They’re a refuge of a post-apocalyptic world where there is no context of value, worth, religion, or brands: everything is treated in the same disrespectful way. A crucifix is the same as a McDonald’s logo. It sounds dark, but it’s not really—that’s the underlying plot, but if you choose not to go beneath the surface, they’re still pretty cool to look at.
KING: They’re unfortunately knocking down the building your gallery and studio space is in, so I hear you’re also opening up that private wonderland for a one-off peek before it’s demolished. Are you going to clean up the empty beer cans and cigarette butts then?
STOCKTON: [laughs] Well, a fire safety officer came in and told me I couldn’t have it in quite the state it was in, but I want to keep it real. I need to tidy up a certain amount, but I don’t want to manufacture it. I’ve been really guarded about my studio, but maybe by opening it up, you’ll get a little bit more of an insight into my process and who I am.
KING: For you, how odd is it having your old work and ephemera displayed alongside your new creations and ideas? What common threads tie your work together?
STOCKTON: Digging out some of these old pieces has been really interesting. Some of the work I didn’t even know I had, like I found three of the “Pop Tart” Marilyn [Monroe] canvases rolled up on the window ledge. They would’ve been up there for five years! And I’d forgotten I’d even done those. We’re working pretty hard to get the studio space and exhibition ready, but I’ve got to remember that I have two kids I have at home that barely see me. They see me for an hour in the morning and must think, “Who’s that guy who keeps turning up in the mornings?” It’s been a bit like that for the last couple of months. I can always generate more ideas and more things, but you need to realize when enough is enough. And this is more than enough for people to take in one show!
KING: How did becoming a dad change the way you thought about your work?
STOCKTON: When you’re working as an artist, you live a really independent life, especially the stuff illegally on the street—that’s a selfish act. But when you have kids, it completely changes everything. It’s no longer just about you—it’s about them too. They don’t care who you are or if people care who you are, whether you’ve been out all night, how tired I am, how hungover I am… It doesn’t matter. They’re still going to want to wake you up at five o’clock in the morning and play with their toys. For me, it was the really grounding and fundamental change in my life.
KING: What life lessons have you learned from your time decorating the streets that you want to teach your kids?
STOCKTON: I’ve met a lot of really amazing, open-minded people, and that’s taught me more about the way I want to bring my children up. My parents brought me up saying, “Don’t skateboard, don’t do graffiti, don’t smoke, don’t have a mohawk,” and the more they steered me away from it, the more it made me want to do it. So in my approach I’ll be more open-minded and let them find happiness in what they do.
KING: What does your mom think of what you do?
STOCKTON: My mom doesn’t understand what I do, at all! [laughs] She’s very traditional in her values, so she would have liked me to be a lawyer or a doctor or something that was tangible and she could explain to her friends. But she’s proud.
KING: Who is D*Face verses Dean Stockton? Are they a split personality? Up until only a few years ago, you hadn’t even revealed your face or real name.
STOCKTON: D*Face is the guy that does stuff in the street illegally, and then Dean Stockton is the guy who does gallery work. Until recently, I was really closed off to who I was and what I was doing. As I’ve got older, I feel it’s important to justify what I’m doing in this scene and why I’m doing it. And I can’t do that hiding in the murky shadows. You can validate it better when you can speak about it and you’re able to represent your work. But I’m also not the same person in my studio as I am in my home.
KING: What do you think of the popular media dichotomy that graffiti is the mouthpiece of the underprivileged hoodlum youth and that street art is an indulgence of the middle class?
STOCKTON: [laughs] Someone once said that street art and graffiti are like rugby and football: they’re played on the same pitch, but they’re very different games. The public is warming to street art because of the way that it’s been reported in the press. You can’t put a value on graffiti, but when they see people like Banksy selling works for millions of pounds, unfortunately the public sit up and pay attention to that. It’s a driving factor.
KING: Within this balancing act between the two worlds, can you have both street cred and institutional cred? Do you think the two can exist in harmony, or do they cannibalize each other?
STOCKTON: When you become more high-profile, then people start turning off that have been following you from the underground up. Like I remember being a massive Nirvana fan, and then I saw them on [UK music program] Top Of The Pops and I was absolutely disgusted. Did it change their music? No, not at all. In fact, it made it more empowering as it appealed to more people. But did I find it less interesting now that more people liked it? Yes, I definitely did. It was ruining “my” thing or my discovery, and I think there’s a little bit of that in everyone.
KING: Does a piece’s meaning change depending on whether it’s illegal or not?
STOCKTON: There’s this big movement towards painting massive murals at the moment, but for me, you still can’t replace walking around a corner and seeing something you know shouldn’t be there. It instantly fathers something within you and gets you in your gut. And in some way, that can be more interesting and much more inspiring than a six-story building that’s been painted legally with cherry pickers.
KING: What about context, then? If the same piece is on a white gallery wall, or a roller door in high-profile street, or in an abandoned warehouse that only a handful of people will see, does that change its meaning?
STOCKTON: When you put it in the street, it’s a political statement because you’re questioning the act of ownership and you’re subverting the space around it by making people question their relationship to it. But when you walk into a gallery, you’ve lost those basic fundamentals and principles. And if you take a picture of the roller door and then put that on Instagram, you could have 5,000 likes, but you may not change anyone’s life. Graffiti is about that ability to change someone’s day through the smallest of acts.