Many people are familiar with graffiti, the strong splashes of colour against the grey of the urban sprawl, but few people know much about street art.
My Dog Sighs is an internationally renowned street artist who has been creating urban artwork for more than a decade around the streets of Portsmouth.
‘Graffiti is a very different movement from street art,’ he says. ‘Street artists might be using some of the same materials such as spray paint, but the whole ethos and philosophy behind graffiti is very different.
‘There are strict unwritten rules in graffiti – it’s not looking to embrace the public, it comes from an ’80s hip-hop background where you’re trying to get your name up in as many places as possible and gain respect from your peers, whereas street art comes from a more fine art background and is more about interacting with the wider public.
‘People use street art in so many different ways – it’s like music – there are so many different directions people take and reasons that people create it. Some people use it as territorial markings, some have a political message they want to put out there and others just want to make people smile.’
The Southsea artist, real name Paul Stone, first discovered street art through the internet and in order to pursue his passion he created a project encouraging artists to make pieces of art and leave them on the street for members of the public to enjoy and even take home.
‘I stumbled across a street art website and I loved the look of what was going on, but I also loved the place that I live so I didn’t want to start damaging property.
‘I started up a project called Free Art Friday and now I produce a piece of art every week and put it out on the street for people to find.
‘I couldn’t afford to start buying canvasses to leave out for people to discover so I just had to use materials that I could find around me. Bits of cardboard are great surfaces to work on so I would use those and bits of wood. I was concerned that I might be accused of littering, so rather than putting things out that are littering the streets I try to find things that are already discarded like baked bean tins that have been left out from the recycling bin.
‘I’ve done a couple of oil drums recently, they were good fun though I didn’t find those on the street, they were given to me as part of an exhibition. I’m also working on the flattened bottle tops you find on the streets. They’re quite nice surfaces but incredibly small to work with and I like old book pages too. Floorboards, paint pots, anything that catches my eye can become a canvas to paint on.
‘My theory is that I’m not actually adding any litter to the environment that I’m working in. I’m going out to find litter, picking it up, painting it and putting it back on the streets.
‘I see what I do as improving things in some way and it also helps out the environmental message as well. We discard so much, we’re so wasteful as a society, whereas if you think outside the box a little bit even something as useless as a baked bean tin can become something very valuable and coveted with a little bit of creative thought and love.’
This unique approach has led to an international following and gallery shows for My Dog Sighs’s work.
‘When I was younger I wanted to be an artist and tried to follow the gallery route but it was a complete and utter disaster. Nobody was interested in showing my work so I think the idea of working with the street was a way of bypassing that. Everybody had the opportunity to see my work within an urban environment and there wasn’t anybody curating it which meant that I could decide what I was going to paint so it was a way of running the show myself instead of relying on someone else.
‘The funny thing is now that I’ve ended up becoming immersed in the gallery system through what I’ve done in street art and it means I can work full time as an artist and make a living from it.
‘I’ve done some shows locally and I now do an awful lot of work in the states so I’m going to Philadelphia in August to run a project. I’ve also got a big solo show in Chicago in September and I’m painting in a big street art festival called Art Basel in Miami in December.’
My Dog Sighs’s international reputation has led to his involvement in the Portsmouth Street Games, a celebration of street culture which is taking place today in Guildhall Square.
‘I’ve been able to pull together some local and national artists for the Street Games. It’s wonderful for me because I get to cherry-pick my favourite people and spend a weekend watching artists that I really like and admire painting in Portsmouth.
‘I think there are 14 artists planned all together. We’ve got two artists, a national painter called Snub23 and an emerging local artist called Morf, working on a full-sized replica of a subway train, which is a real coup for Portsmouth. I think it’s going to be one of those real wow factors when you walk into Guildhall Square and see this beautiful, shiny aluminium New York train which over a couple of days is going to be transformed into something a bit special.’
With a legal graffiti wall in Fratton Park and increasing acceptance from the public, My Dog Sighs is optimistic for the future of street art in Portsmouth.
‘There’s a fantastic street art scene in Portsmouth. I remember when I started out I was struggling to find people but now there’s a really strong network of artists communicating with each other and painting together and we’ve got some really nice places to paint.
‘The feedback we’ve got from people when we are painting is always really positive because we’re brightening up a dull, dead space with something creative. There are always people out with cameras asking to see the plan of the piece you’re doing and saying how much it brightens the environment.
‘I remember starting out and finding it difficult trying to persuade the council to let us paint. Now I’m in the position that local councils realise that street art’s not something that’s alarming to people, it’s something that people are embracing. Now councils are coming to artists like me and saying “please come and paint!”.
‘Street art completely changes your life. There are quite a few Free Art Friday artists in the Portsmouth area and if you keep your eyes open and spot these tiny beautiful pieces it makes the walk to work a little bit more interesting.
‘I just hope that there are plenty of creative people out there that see the street as a fantastic open canvas to express themselves and that because of that we, as people walking around the street, have our environment brightened and cheered up.’