Talking Out Of My Art

The first time I met Mau Mau was around 25 years ago at a small music festival in his native Devon. I was drawn to his camp set-up, as there was loud reggae music blasting from some big-ass speakers. When I got there, I noticed that one of the first UK issues of this very magazine (lodown uk) was on his camping table and once we started talking, we immediately got on, and soon after we became good friends. Over the years I have witnessed how his unique style continuously developed, how he honed his skills and made a name for himself in London and how he then started exhibiting and gaining popularity around the world. His street art can be found on walls, boats, barns and other interesting places, but his work has also appeared on canvases, prints, record covers, magazines, clothing and in a couple of my music videos and documentaries.

Needless to say that I’m delighted that he is finally publishing his book ‘Talking Out Of My Art’ (Velocity Press), which is a chronological journey through his artwork and features his most-iconic pieces and an in-depth exploration of his life, influences and artistic journey.

Mark, it’s been a long journey, but your book ‘Talking Out Of My Art – The Artworks and Travels of Mau Mau’ has finally been published, so how excited are you?

“I’m super happy. It feels really great to finally have all that work in one place and to be able to see all the work together, you know, because it spans over such a long time. And it feels really nice to see works that I have done years ago and that still look good and have meaning today.”

You just had your book launch in Jamaica at the Kingston Dub Club. Why did you decide to launch the book over there first and how did it go?

“Jamaica always had a big influence on my work and it’s been a big part of my journey, so it made sense to start at the Kingston Dub Club, you know. It was great to be invited by my bredda Gabre Selassie and the launch was rammed as well because we had, Samury I, Mortimer and Tippy I Grade playing, so  the place was bubbling, and it was really good.
..…yeah, it was nice for my Jamaican friends to see it too, because a lot of the adventures have been there, you know.”

How much are you looking forward to the European launch this spring/summer?

“I'm so excited. It’s about time. I’ve got one in London and Colin from my publisher ‘Velocity Press’ has found a place in Tottenham Court Road and we can do a screening of the film you made as well. It’s going to be a proper big London launch with the movie and maybe we get the ‘WheelUp’ sound system for some reggae vibes as well.”

That sounds great. Now, let’s go back in time. How did it all start for you with your art?

“It all started with ‘Sewerside’, which was me and my bredren. We were shaping and painting boards and we were surfing a break, which was called the ‘Sewerpipe’ and was near to where we were living. Back in those days – before the UV treatment – it was real shit that was going out into the ocean where we used to surf. ‘Surfer’s Against Sewage’ was just starting up, trying to raise awareness and we were doing these boards called ‘Sewerpipe’ surf boards. I started doing T-shirt designs for ‘Surfers Against Sewage’ and then I made some more designs, which weren’t really suitable for them to use, like ‘Eat Shit And Die’ and one was with a toilet that said ‘Another Drop In The Ocean’. They were a bit too hardcore for them, so I started doing them on my own T-shirts, which was called ‘Sewerside’, as opposed to the Quiksilver kind of vibe that was also going on then. Those T-shirts sold really well and it all started from doing those designs on the T-shirts. I was also doing other graphic work and was still spray painting out on the street as well.”

Am I right to say that your work has always been about spreading the right sort of conscious messages and tackling certain political, environmental and social issues?

“Yeah, definitely. To start with I was just trying to raise awareness about what was going on with the pollution and the environment, you know putting the other side of the story across. That was really important to me, getting that message across because something needed to be done as a lot of it was constantly covered up.”

How did it all develop from making T-shirts and other ‘Sewerside’ clothing?

“T-shirts were a great way of putting a message across the same way painting on the street was – and still is. You can hit a big audience with that kind of work and that was a motivation and an inspiration. So we were doing the T-shirts and some other clothing and we had a crew of surfers and skaters. Then we built a mini ramp and organised some skate jams. We never really had any money but we kind of made something out of nothing, you know what I mean: we recycled, and upcycled. We had that mini ramp and then we started a sound system and doing festivals and trade shows as well with the mini ramp.”

How important was it for you to keep painting on the street throughout that period?

“Painting is a good way of reaching people that aren’t necessarily into it or going to see it otherwise. You can put a message across that wouldn’t reach the news or the media, because people are bombarded by ‘fake’ news in my opinion, you know by what they get told in the mainstream media. It’s covered up by big money and big business. Graffiti is a good way of putting something on the street that everyone can see – obviously depending a lot on where you put it.”

Right from the beginning, some of the key topics in your work have dealt with environmental crimes and the greed and power abuse of multinational corporations and governments. What has always drawn you to these topics?

“I like to do pieces that hold corporations and governments accountable, because a lot of the times people don’t realize who is actually accountable for these environmental disasters and appalling abuses of power. You know it’s one thing recycling your bottles, but it’s another thing if people are still trashing the ocean and things like fracking destroy our environment. These are the things that people need to hear about, because there are a lot of people that seem to be blind to this. So that’s always been driving my work.”

There were a couple of themes that really caught the imagination of a wider public. I remember the piece you did in London around the 2012 London Olympics…

“…yeah I did a piece for the Olympics in London and that was basically criticising the sponsorship from Mc Donalds, Coca Cola, Visa and all these other corporations. There was a real lockdown at the time and you weren’t even allowed to have anything sold that wasn’t from these companies. You weren’t allowed to have any other advertising in certain media outlets, so it was like a brand lockdown for the Olympics. Me and my mates, we saw the Olympic Torch relay come by the studio in Hackney Wick and we looked out of the window and were like ‘What’s going on?’. There was literally a Coca Cola bus coming through, just bare corporate madness everywhere. When it had all gone past, there were Coca Cola balloons all over the streets and plastic Olympic sponsored Mc Donalds rubbish and we were like ‘Bloodclod’. So I met the guys at THTC, the hemp T-Shirt company I’ve got a really good link with and which I do designs for, and they had a wall on the back of their warehouse in Ealing. I painted the ‘Olympic’ piece on there and the council came and basically buffed it off the side of their wall, which was a private wall. The council basically vandalized private property, just came in and buffed it, and then suddenly it was a news story and it was all over the place. It was in every newspaper, because Reuters picked it up and I had people phoning me from the New York Times going like ‘Is that Mau Mau? We want to know about that Olympic piece’, so yeah, it was good. It really worked in that way and it really backfired on the council: if they hadn’t buffed it, if they had just left it up, no-one would have talked about it.”

I guess that’s the ideal situation though, to spread the message as wide and far afield as possible, isn’t it?

“Yeah, definitely. And it was a simple message: I just did Ronald Mc Donald, really overweight, running with a torch, which was a Coca Cola torch. He was just branded up and had money falling out of his pocket. I mean these corporations are just so obvious. Sometimes it’s just too easy and a lot of people really want someone to say it, because no-one else is saying it in the general mainstream media. That’s why it is kind of my job to do it.”

Over the years you have developed your own, very distinctive style, and you are known for incorporating all sorts of animal characters, especially foxes, into your work. They have almost become like your messengers, so what drew you to these different animal characters?

“When I started painting, in Devon there is not so much of a graffiti scene and I didn’t really have a crew that I painted with and my motivation wasn’t really about putting out my name. It was more about putting out these anti-Babylon statements. That used to be my drive and I went out and painted a lot on my own, just trying to paint things that were reflective of the news – but showing the other side of the story. Then I got a studio in London and started painting with other people on the streets. A lot of them had like an icon or a logo – if it wasn’t a name, it was a character – that they hit up all the time. So when I first started painting in London a lot I always used to see foxes about late at night. I kind of related to them because they were always in these places where I would be, where you weren’t meant to be, just trespassing and stuff, you know. Some people see them as vermin, some people see them as beautiful – it depends on what side of the line you are, you know what I mean. And they are wild as well, which is kind of nice in a domestic environment. They come from the countryside like me, but then they are eating out of the bins, so they were making good with what they had. To me that was a perfect translation for a character and that opened loads of other doors, because then I could do quite strong messages that might be quite offensive to some people. But because it’s a fox and it’s a cartoon fox, I could do anything with him. I could still retain humour and get the message across without prejudice in the same way. It’s not like a man or a woman of a certain race, you know. Foxes are everywhere and it was ideal to get a message across without being offensive to anyone.”

It’s definitely a clever way to spread those messages, and soon Mau Mau’s Animal Kingdom started growing and other characters were born…

“Yeah, off course there are loads of other animals as well that I started using in my art. All sorts of different animals. There are the seagulls, off course the sheep, ‘sheeple’ - they are the ones that don’t work anything out for themselves. They just follow without questions.”

Exactly that can also be said about a lot of people in our society, which are so brainwashed that they follow politicians like Rishi Sunak or Donald Trump without really questioning their motives…a real threat to our democracy that you already reflected on years ago with your big London exhibition ‘Power To The Sheeple’…

“For the last proper general election in 2015 I had a show in London, which was about how people just follow the things they get told by the mainstream media and certain political parties. It was me expressing how I can’t relate to that ‘Babylon’ system, so instead of a polling station we had a rolling station and it was all based around ‘1984’ and mainly ‘Animal Farm’. We had the ‘sheeple’, the pigs and we filled the gallery with straw and the opening night was on election day and the exhibition was called ‘Power To The Sheeple’.”

The show was a real success and had a big impact, and was definitely one of the biggest shows you’ve ever had in London, wasn’t it?

“Yeah, it was an amazing building in Notting Hill and I had done a show there before, which was really fun. I got on really well with the guys that did the show and they invited me again and said ‘Do whatever you want’. So built things, painted the walls, filled it up with straw, just pushed the envelope a bit more than usually.”

It was funny as well, because some people actually did turn up and thought it’s a real polling station, didn’t they?

“Yeah, some poor old lady even dragged her wheelie bag all the way through the straw right to the ballot box, which had a chicken in it, hahaha.”

Other popular characters you paint are the three monkeys. Where did the idea for the monkeys come from?

“Yeah, I’ve got the three monkeys. They’re all about ‘See No Evil, Speak No Evil, Hear No Evil’ and I painted them the first time when I was in Thailand. And when I painted it on this big derelict building right by this junction, there were people selling street food there and everyone thought it was a thing about the police because the monkeys were brown and the police in Thailand wear brown uniforms. And they had the money, so they thought it’s about paying off the police and they loved it man. They absolutely loved it. They were bringing me snacks and drinks all day while I was painting and they were all just like ‘Yeah, that’s sick!’.”

There is also a special Donald Trump edition of the three monkeys. How did that come about?

“Yeah, Trump off course. You can’t avoid him unfortunately. When I did my show in Chicago there was a lot of Trump going on, so again I painted the ‘Three Monkeys’ piece but this time I just adapted it. He was denying climate change at the time – well he still is – but in the piece he had the newspaper with the climate change headlines with the monkey that could ‘See No Evil’ and then it had the middle monkey with the super hair on Twitter and one with the money coming out of his ears. It was good and it was opposite a bank as well, so it was a double strike in quite a prime spot and they were about 30 feet high and there for everyone to see, you know what I mean.”

In some ways the correlation between how easy it is for you to find topics and subjects for your pieces and how fucked up the state of the world is, is an interesting one, isn’t it?

“Yeah, that’s true. The world is so fucked up right now, that it’s definitely not difficult to find good topics. But then again someone like Trump is so fucked up, how do you fuck that shit up even more,  you know what I mean? Whatever you say, he’ll probably say something worse.”

Talking about Trump makes me think of one other farm animal that features a lot in your artwork: the good old pig.

“Pigs are the obvious ones and I use them in an ‘Animal Farm’ kind of Orwellian way to represent the establishment but also to represent the police force. And funnily enough it’s a very popular image of mine, hahaha. Painting pigs on the street is probably one of the scariest things I have done I reckon. I painted some pigs on the street outside Camden tube station in London, on the building just around the corner from that. It was an illegal piece but I painted during the day, just to make it look like it’s legal. It was when ‘Fabric’ was being shut down. I just made that door look like ‘Fabric’ and just put down some ‘Shut Down’ signs with some pigs outside. That was pretty scary and I thought I’d never do that again, but then I ended up doing it again in Chicago. That got buffed within 24 hours and the police actually came past while I was painting it. Luckily I hadn’t painted the pigs at the time. They thought it was a legal piece because it was during the day time, so they just drove off and obviously when they drove back round again there were some pigs on the wall and we were gone.”

In many ways painting on the street is about exactly that buzz though, isn’t it?

“Yeah, definitely. Painting without permission is a buzz, I enjoy that. It’s a buzz doing it but it’s also a really nice buzz once it’s done and then you see it the next day. For me that’s the best buzz. And sometimes it’s nice as well though, if you can get a big, legal wall, because it’s nice to have the time to put something up that has a message that hits home. It’s nice because you have time to paint that and you can really go in and paint three 30-foot monkeys. And sometimes when it’s illegal, you haven’t got the time or the spot to do that, so you have to change the piece to suit the time you’ve got.”

But you still sometimes like to target spots that are a bit risky, like the other night when I came out with you here in Bideford…

:…yeah, that was just a quick one, that was a stencil piece. That was by the local police station, so that was quite fun wasn’t it?”

What I find interesting with you doing pieces like this here in Devon, is that obviously everyone – most likely also the police – knows who did it and also who you are. But in some ways you won’t be touched down here, because you are part of some sort of artistic heritage here in Devon really, aren’t you?

“Yeah, some people know who I am, but people definitely know the work in Devon and quite a few people know it’s me now. (pauses and laughs) Definitely after this…”

But you’re also known across the borders of Devon and the UK. You’ve done street paintings in various countries around the world, and you’ve also had exhibitions in quite a few different countries. Spreading the word internationally is also important, isn’t it?

“Yes, definitely. I give thanks that I can do this and I see it as a blessing, so when I travel it’s always really nice to be able to paint wherever I go. I often try and do things that reflect what people want me to paint and wherever I am, I’ll do that. Even, if it’s painting on the side of a Thai taxi boat or an abandoned building, whatever. I try and reflect what’s going on in the surroundings I am and it’s really nice because I have met a lot of good people that way. It has also helped me travel more and I go back to places like Jamaica or Thailand. How those journeys started, was a real blessing and it all began from painting as well, and that’s how I make my links.”

The Jamaica link is obviously a special one, because as a proper Rasta, you really have a deep spiritual connection to that country, haven’t you?

“Obvioiusly Rastafari and reggae music are massive in my life and Jamaica is an important place for me to go to and I have really good friends there and everything just clicks into place when I go to Jamaica. The vibe is sweet there (grins), ya man.”

And you have done some great work in some amazing spots there as well, right?

“My journey over there has been amazing and I have painted King Jammy’s studio, I painted Gully Side. I painted downtown, Chancery Lane, Orange Street, Kingston dub club, which is like my home in Jamaica. I painted Ten and A Half, Jah Over Evil’s headquarters, yeah man, nuff places.”

Talk about Thailand. That’s another place you have a special connection with, mainly through ‘Souled Out Studios’ and your mate and fellow Devon artist Beejoir.

“Yes, I travel to Thailand quite a lot because I work really closely with ‘Souled Out Studios’ and Beejoir and I go out there at least once a year. So yeah, I’ve painted loads of pieces in Thailand and I have also got some good friends, who are Thai, who are Graffiti artists and street artists. I always get to paint over there, always out on the streets. And I always get to do some nice, commissioned work through ‘Souled Out Studios’ as well.”

You’ve done a couple of pretty political and outspoken street pieces out there as well. Tell us about those.

“Yeah, I’ve done a couple of political ones, like two or three or four. There was a piece related to the Burma uprising where the monks were being batoned by the military. Thailand is on the Burmese boarder and there are a lot of Burmese in Thailand, especially working on the islands, so I did this ‘Free Burma’ piece with Beejoir. We had all this orange paint for the ropes and we climbed up into this really edgy, broken down building with this tiny bit of wall and put this thing up with all this orange paint. We were with this Thai artist as well, another Graffiti artist out there and basically the police turned up and caught us. I was like ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about’ but didn’t realize that I had orange paint literally all over my face. I was like  ‘It’s not me mate, no idea what you’re on about’ (laughs)…but luckily the Thai guy talked our way out, so it was alright.”

Now away from those travels, your most prolific stomping ground is still down here in Devon, which has always been your home.

“Yes, Devon is my home. That’s where my family are. I’ve got my crew, all my close bredren, they are all here. I mean I’m from the Devon hills, South-West styles, so this is always going to be my main manor. I love it down here, there are some really good people, there is a lot of space. I like to be in the country side to be able to have space to get on with my thing, like a hide-out, you know what I mean,  And then go back into the city and do works, rather than  be in there all the time. I prefer to have that space and it’s good to be by the ocean to. It’s important to me to be by the ocean.”

Are you still surfing once in a while?

“Yeah man, I’m close to the ocean for the surf, it’s just good for meds as well.”

Coming back to your work, you have also done your fair share of ‘commercial’ work, not just canvases and prints but jobs for companies like Greenpeace and illustrations for newspaper supplements for the Guardian’ Do you enjoy doing those jobs as well?

“One of the hook-ups I got was with the Guardian ‘Environmental’ supplements, which has been a good hook-up. They use a lot of my pieces of the street as well and use them for their covers every time now. Because I have such a back catalogue of environmental artwork as it were, now people are starting to talk about them and they are using these images on their newspaper, which is great because its’ reaching a wide audience. It’s funny though because some of them go back 15 years, hahaha. Then I have also done some work with Greenpeace at Glastonbury. I paint up the artworks there on the Greenpeace field. I have also been working with THTC, two other links through activism and associated people and crews, which have been good. I’m happy that I have been able to do artworks for quiet a few different activist organisations.”

Now apart from all your street art, Graffiti and graphic work, you have also dabbled in some other fields, You have for example done some animations for music videos, amongst others for a couple of videos that I directed like our good friend Skitz’s ‘Domestic Science’ video many years ago…

“…yeah after ‘Sewerside’ we had the sounds and the music and we were doing parties and the skate ramps, so we got involved with a lot of people in the hip hop scene back then. I ended up doing art works for Skitz, Rodney P and Roots Manuva and I got involved in doing some videos, some animations for some of your videos. The first one I did was for Skitz for the video you did for ‘Domestic Science’ and that was Tempa, Estelle and Wildflower. Sick tune, sick video and that was the first animation thing I did. Things have changed since then, but we did a few more videos, some work for Rodney P, an animated video, also Herbaliser, which was so much drawing. I don’t know, I don’t really try and do so much animation anymore. I got scared to do it for a long time because it was so many drawings and when we did this Herbaliser video, there were so many loops, my eyes were literally bleeding by the end of that video. But things have changed since then and you can get programs now that will do most of that work for you, so I actually started delving into it a little bit more again.”

Another one where you did some animations for one of my projects was the Dizzee Rascal documentary ‘Bow Selector’ for Channel 4. That was a good one, because we literally had complete creative freedom and could go a bit leftfield with it all…

“…that was an interesting project and working with Dirtee Stank and XL Records was good because they did give us complete creative freedom, which is always good.”

Let’s talk about the music-side of things. You are obviously massively into reggae and dancehall music, you have been involved with sound systems for ages and your oldest son Joe is a successful rapper, so the music goes hand in hand with what you are doing as an artist, doesn’t it?

“Music is really close to my heart. I play tunes from when I wake up to when I go to sleep. That inspires me for my work. I listen to lyrics all the time and that’s what keeps me going because it’s often my story, you know what I mean. I can relate to it and it’s very important to me. I have my own little sound system and I love vinyl.”

And your boys are starting to make a name for themselves in the music world in the last couple of years as well. I mean they have always been part of it all since the ‘Sewerside’ days, but right now they are representing the family on the music tip.

“Yeah, for sure. My boys are a really important part of everything. They have been with me from the early days, through all my festivals and parties. They have grown up with this lifestyle, going all around and they have taken it up themselves. Now they are producers and rappers, Graffiti artists - they are an important part of my life.”

And they are proper Gooners as well?

“And they are proper Gooners, North-Devon Gooners.”

Now apart from working on your book off course, you also had an impressive gallery show called the ‘Art Of Trespass’ at the end of last summer in Margate. Tell us about that…

“The show was about the freedoms that we have lost for the rights to roam in this country. The fact that we're not even allowed to tread foot on something like 90% of the land in this country, and 95% of the waterways. It was about that really, just the regular trespassing. We love to trespass, you know. But yeah, it had been a while since I had done a show, so it was good to show some work again. I was really happy with the paintings that I had done for this show because I have been using a different technique with the spray paint and I’m really happy with this kind of Impressionism.”

You must be happy with the positive feedback you’ve had on that new ‘Imprssionism’ style?

“Yeah, it’s been nice. It's always nice to have people come and see the works and it was also good to go out and paint in Margate, you know. I did a piece on the toilets about the terrible housing situation here and in the country generally. So yeah, it’s good to keep painting and going out there and making people think and getting my message across.”

That really is what it is all about, getting that message across, right?
“My work is all about having humour but at the same time trying to be thought-provoking and giving people the other side of the story that you don’t necessarily get through the mainstream media. For me it’s important to do work that is thought-provoking and hopefully makes people think about the actions of us as a collective. Maybe we can start to try and change things, make things better and try to put out something positive in that negative environment we live in.””

Interview: Goetz Werner
Images: Mau Mau

Mau Mau’s book ‘Talking Out Of My Art’ is available on the Velocity Press website and the official London launch party will take place on Thursday, 13th June at the Flitcroft Street Gallery in 4 Flitcroft Street, London WC2 H8DJ



To accompany the release of his new book ‘Mau Mau – Talking Out of My Art’ we are delighted to showcase a short film about the life and work of this renegade artist. Directed and filmed by his long-time friend and creative collaborator Goetz Werner, the film gives an intimate insight into how Mau Mau’s Devon coast and country roots helped to shape his artistic vision and output. From a humble start running a skate clothing label and sound system to sold-out exhibitions in London, music videos and documentary collaborations with acts like DJ Skitz, Rodney P and Dizzee Rascal and travels to the street culture scenes of Bangkok, Chicago and Kingstown – Mau Mau really has been surfing the counterculture for the last 30 years. This film gives exclusive glimpses into this artistic journey, his inspirations and motivations and highlights Mau Mau's unwavering commitment to using art as a tool for expression and activism.

Genre: Documentary Director/Camera: Goetz Werner Editor: Andy Oates Additional footage: Jonas Schaul, Beejoir