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Art or Science? SHOK-1 reveals all

Interviewed by Lucy A.Edwards

British artist SHOK-1 has had quite the long and varied career and there have been numerous key styles that he's invented, dabbled in and/or made his own but we would say his X-ray style is what most people would associate him with today. So...I'm just going to dive straight in with the obvious - and ask him about X-rays...

What is it about them? Do they fascinate you? How did they become the subject of your works and eventually become your aesthetic signature?

Thank you! Yes, it’s been a long journey - coming up to 40 years soon. I’ve periodically killed my work and started over. But I think this time around, I’ve found something that will go the distance. How I arrived at the X-rays is a complex question. So far, I found it in my black-books as early as the 90s but I had the basic techniques back in the 80’s. Looking back I can see foreshadowings of it in various pieces. But really it is a coming together of two different sides of my life. My passion for art, of course, but also my passion for science.

I’m a self-taught artist, my formal education is actually in the sciences. For the longest time I kept the two separate. Well, mostly … I was always fascinated with the technical side of spray paint right from the very start, thinking of it as a scientific object and considering the physics in trying to master it as a kid back in the day, struggling to improvise with the mostly terrible paint we were able to get hold of back then. There’s also been a fascination with transparency which is something I explored in different styles regularly over the years - always wanting to be able to see inside and understand.

"A frustration with the opacity of people’s behaviour, with all the game-playing going on in society."

Where did you get your artist name from? And do people actually refer to you as "SHOK" in conversation?

People do call me SHOK. Or my first name. Both are my ‘real’ names to me … it depends who it is; I might be more comfortable with one or the other. I took the name back in the mid Eighties. Back then I was all about tagging and classical graffiti, where the name was the subject matter. I chose it based on the shapes of the letters and the sound of it. But it’s stood the test of time in a way that surprises me. How it connotes to electricity and technology, and the sense I always have of wanting to try to surprise people - surprise myself - with unexpected ideas and directions. So I wonder if I made a deeper choice subconsciously somehow …

As I say this, I suddenly remember that early on, I used the B-boy name Dynamo as a dancer for a little while. Awful! But again, this idea of power …

Tell us a little more about your background and your incredible technique (without giving too much away, of course!) its absolutely fascinating, we just can't get our heads around how you manage to manipulate paint in such a way that it looks undeniably digital - our minds are BLOWN:

Thanks. To be pedantic, what I’m after is actually the look of traditional X-ray films on a light box, which is actually an analogue technique rather than digital!

I’m not really interested in photorealism though. I’d find it pretty boring if I was doing it for the sake of it. I think a better description of what I’m after is verisimilitude … a sort of truth to materials in a conceptual sense. The whole thing is an extended metaphor and I feel like it starts to fall apart if I don’t strive for accuracy. But I’m not an illustrator. There aren’t really any tricks to it. It just comes from spending a really long time trying to master the medium. We refer to it as can control in my movement and it’s something unique that graffiti culture contributed to creativity.

You've created your artworks in your "x-ray style" based on human bones, animal bones, spray cans, marker pens, vape sticks - is there an object you haven't used yet but think would be interesting to? And why would it be of interest to you?

Of course, tons. I’ve already got books with more ideas than I will ever have time to paint. I also keep an ideas file that I add new concepts to at least once a day. But no spoilers! I usually choose subjects for their symbolism, that I can use to say something about the world, or people.

How accurate are your skeleton artworks, anatomically? Are they replications of actual X-rays? Have you ever produced a piece based on one of your own X-rays or anyone close to you? (inhales deeply!)

I try to make them as accurate as I can. It’s really bloody difficult stuff to paint, even to see what it is that you’re trying to paint. I do use real X-rays for reference. I started using medical equipment to shoot my own, as it goes.I have a lot of interesting people who follow my work - as well as art fans, also surgeons, radiologists, doctors etc. I learned years ago that If I make a mistake in the anatomy then they aren’t shy about calling me out for it! So I feel a lot of pressure there. It’s especially challenging because X-rays are fractal objects, they essentially have infinite detail so I have to decide where to stop … and I have a fixation on detail so sometimes that’s quite difficult for me.

Whats the meaning behind the x-ray? What do you hope your work conveys to your collectors and viewers alike?

There’s a lot to it … To look inside. To know. Depth … part of it is a frustration with superficiality. The conflict of logic and belief. And a feeling since I was a kid that something is broken about the world and a nagging, futile desire to cure it, somehow.

On that note, do you have a favourite all time mural of yours?

Whatever the last thing I painted was, I think. I don’t tend to look back at it very much, I find that quite uncomfortable at times. I much prefer to be looking forward at what is coming next…

So yes : the thing I haven’t painted yet is the answer.

And a favourite all time mural of a contemporary of yours?

I can’t think of anything off the top of my head. Umm. I’d always enjoy looking at something by Twist or Futura. Or Classic TCA pieces from when I was a kid.

Something about you that we found very interesting is that you hold a degree in Applied Chemistry? So how did your path take you down the art route?

Well I was in the enviable - but nevertheless - difficult position of being adept in a number of fields, which made it quite hard to choose a direction. My school held the arts in little regard - I think this was probably quite common in Thatcherite Britain. We can certainly see the current infection of Tories doing their best to strangle creativity in the same way as we speak.

So I had zero encouragement to pursue art - in fact I was actually banned from doing Art O Level although I was easily the best in my school. Then I was in all kinds of trouble with graffiti. The police were round our house constantly and my mum was going nuts threatening to kick me out of the house every other day. So I took the opportunity of a grant to escape and study science - I was one of the last generations to be given one. Then I was doing graffiti alongside that anyway, which I guess is pretty odd … I started going out to New York and hanging around in the projects getting up to no good at the same time too. One year I went out to Brooklyn for 2 months with $10 and just sort of survived and lived the life… both sides were formative for me.

I had a really good job offer waiting when I graduated but I decided then that I wanted to make a commitment to the other side and went down the starving artist route instead. It wasn’t until my son was going to be born that I started to take money more seriously, which led me to my show with Pictures On Walls and onwards and upwards from there. Thanks to Banksy for that.

Have you got anything exciting happening in the SHOK-1 camp for 2022?

Most definitely! Things might’ve seemed fairly quiet during the pandemic but I’ve actually been working like crazy formulating plans, new ideas and techniques, some of which are starting to release now. I’m looking forward to getting back to the walls especially.

Again, no spoilers, but I can tell you a few teasers. I have a new silkscreen print release coming soon - my best yet for sure. I’m working on a new Stateside partnership which I hope will have me over there a lot more often. I’ve also been invited to do a series of covers for one of the the main X-ray publications worldwide ... Such a strange place for someone from my background to end up.

I love being where I’m not supposed to be. Old habits die hard.

Thanks for the interview.

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