From Skateboarding To Wu-Tang: London-Based Artist Darren John Talks Hip Hop, Subculture And Breaking Boundaries
Cast your mind back to the end of January for a moment. The world had just witnessed Trump’s inauguration, and the mood was tense. If any story has ever divided a nation it was his running for president. Newspapers were writing about it (and still are), Twitter went into meltdown and vast protests took place. And from a tiny art space in East London, an exhibition called Good Day took place which seemed to totally re-frame our understanding of the moment.
As you may recall, Sumit and I attended that very exhibition and wrote up a piece. Never in a million years did we think that an Ice Cube song could be paired with such an important chapter in America’s history, but that’s just the power of creativity, I guess. It was there that we came into contact with the work of an artist whose love of hip hop was born out of a fascination for all things rebellious.
Darren John is a London-based artist with a mission to make tangible a “sense of unchained creative freedom”, as he describes it. This he achieves through a mixture of drawings, paintings and graffiti, the vast majority of which are bright and playful on the eye. His basketball piece showcased at the exhibition makes reference to a section of Cube’s song, It Was a Good Day, where the rapper recalls shooting a triple double on a basketball court.
In an exclusive interview with Highlight Nation, Darren let us in on the man behind the canvas:
What got you into art?
Without a doubt, my creative approach to life has stemmed from skateboarding. Growing up, I went from religiously taking part in two very structured and rule-focused sports (Karate and Football) to discovering skateboarding on a demo disk of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater that came free with a magazine. What a discovery!
Fortunately for me, a friend who lived a few squares up from my house had a fantastic curb outside his house and he showed me the ropes and taught me the basics to get going with skateboarding. Creativity is inherent in skateboarding and this extends far beyond being exposed to wild and wonderful deck graphics. For me, skateboarding re-taught me how to see. Mundane architecture, car parks and benches all of a sudden become opportunities for play and discovery – it’s in this re-learning of how to see, in piecing routines together for no other reason than self satisfaction and of course within the infinite freedoms that I find myself interested in art.
I didn’t study Art at school and I don’t have any relatives who are artistically inclined (that I know of) and so I owe a huge debt of gratitude to skateboarding for putting me on the path I’m currently on.
What was the first piece of art you shared publicly?
Depending how you choose to look at it, skateboarding in the streets is indeed a kind of performative art – but my first memory of sharing tangible painted works would have been through graffiti. The inquisitive nature in skateboarding and excitement of finding new spots and playgrounds has many parallels to graffiti and it’s no surprise that those who took part in one also took part in the other. I wish I could recall what the first piece was, but I’m sure I’m actually doing myself a favour by not knowing.
What is your artistic mission?
My primary concern as an artist is the value of creative imagination and it’s suppression in everyday life. There is a sense of awe and wonder innate to childhood that persists in life despite a tendency for this spirit to be curtailed in adulthood. For the child that has not learnt where the boundaries are supposed to lie, the imagination remains limitless.
My mission is to make tangible this sense of unchained creative freedom.
How would you best describe your style of art?
Process driven paintings that invite viewers to engage with the colours and forms on their own terms, and, in doing so, find themselves within their own limitless and unbound imagination.
To what end has hip hop influenced your work?
The rebellious nature will have certainly been an influence to my art over the years. Positivity, unity and inclusivity are also important elements that I like to think have come from participating in subcultures that, in my mind, are at parallels with one another: skateboarding/ hip hop/graffiti/art.
Which other hip hop songs do you feel would offer another great exhibition?
The Good Day Exhibition you visited was a really good one – it coincided perfectly with the actual anniversary day of the song’s origin, but also, what better time to celebrate diversity, positivity and ultimately having a good day!
Full props to Gemma White for being the master arranger with the show – she previously curated a large scale Wu-Tang show in 2014, and I know she’s got future plans for more hip hop themed exhibits!!
In your ‘about me’ section (on your website) you talk about the suppression of creativity in everyday life. What do you mean by that?
It’s no secret that as we grow up, generally we begin to become less creative. I think this really kicks off when we start the school system: the rules, the structured learning and rehearsing of ‘the book’ all act as contributing factors to our creative spirits being curtailed from an early age. The seeds of creativity live within us all and our imaginations give us the power to change both our own lives and also our world for the better.
What future projects can we look forward to from you?
I’ve a couple of really nice artist collaborations lined up which I’m looking forward to getting immersed in for this year. If I’m totally honest though, the process of creating commissions for individuals, their children or loved ones is just so rewarding, I can’t wait to share more of them with everyone!
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